Saturday, November 15, 2008

We The Meeples

Chris is headed for BGGcon later this month (maybe I'll get out there next year), and was looking forward to playing his good friend Jim in a game of We the People, Mark Herman's seminal American Revolutionary War game, while he's there. I took a stab at playing in the Wargame Room online tournament, but with most of the players on the East Coast and all of the games timed (meaning I can't just stand up and take care of things around the house, like the dogs) I just couldn't keep up and finally stopped trying. Not my finest hour, but a quick glance at the standings show that I'm far from the only one who had to give it up.

Regardless, WtP is a fantastic game, not to mention the very first of what we now call the Card-Driven Game genre. There are lots of games driven by cards, but the CDG stands out by using the event/operations choice on each card to determine how the game moves along. Do you use an event on a card to change the game state, or do you go with the operations to activate units on the board to achieve your goals? The genre has evolved tremendously over the years, seeing mutations to maps with hexes rather than point-to-point systems, separate decks not only for each player but for different phases of the game, and a wide range of periods from the ancient world to WW2. 

WtP actually does *not* use the event/operations paradigm, instead cards are either events *or* Operations. This can be a bit on the disconcerting side as it is entirely possible for you to get a handful of cards that are completely useless to you. Hopefully, your opponent doesn't get great cards either, but I've seen games hinge on what hand you get at a given point in the game. Frankly, most close games of Hannibal: Rome vs Carthage tend to be determined by who gets the most revolt or Diplomacy cards in the ninth turn. 

What saves We the People is that you never really know when the game will end. There are a bunch of Lord North's Government Falls cards in the deck, each stopping the game between 1778 and 1783 (the last possible turn). You *must* play these cards as part of your turn if you got them, although whichever card is played *last* is the one that counts. If you have cards that end the game on that turn, you might hang onto them until the end if you are winning, or play them early and hope your opponent has a later card he has to play if not. As such, that crap hand you have may not matter much, or it may matter a great deal. If you can't handle chaos, perhaps this isn't a game for you, but if you like tension and a literary feel to the game, it's a blast.

My experience with playing several different players (and some very good players) gave me an appreciation of the different things you need to do in this game. If the British get shut out of ports early in an area, it can be very difficult for them to get back into the game as they have tremendous limitations in where their reinforcements enter. They also are constrained by how their PC markers (the determination of victory, other than the possible elimination of General Washington) may be placed. A very strong strategy is to roll up the British from the south. However, you can't just let the British get a line of PC markers coming out of Canada either, as once those markers form a solid group connecting to a port it's very difficult to get them out. 

In our game, I took the British and proceeded to get very weak hands for about three turns. The British have decent generals all in all, but they require the 3 OPS cards to activate. They have no 1 generals, so your 1 cards are mostly good for bringing in reinforcements or placing the lone PC marker from time to time. In my first three hands, each hand had one 3, one 2, two 1's, and three relatively useless events, either the American's or my own. I did have a second 3 in the second hand, but Chris played a card that forced me to discard it. As such, I was having a lot of trouble getting PCs down on the board, and Chris had every port south of Norfolk, VA, and a good number of them between Alexandria, VA, and Canada - in fact, for a good chunk of the game I only had Boston up there. 

I also made the mistake of bringing both 2 generals into Virginia, meaning I only had 3 generals up in New England and Canada. 

By the fourth or fifth turn I was getting a little nervous, but then I got a hand with four 3 cards and finally started working in earnest. I sewed up Pennsylvania, Maryland, stole Rhode Island, started to convert New York and Connecticut, and was doing well in Virginia as well. I'd more or less given up on the Carolinas south, although I did make Chris sweat for those near the end of the game. It was Chris' lack of familiarity with the geometry of the board, combined with some mediocre hands, that got him into some trouble. 

In 1779, things got interesting. The French had come in the turn before, and while Cornwallis had pushed them out of Baltimore, he was more or less pinned in place. Burgoyne got cornered in Norfolk, and was wiped out with a large army, removing my Regulars combat bonus. However, Chris used a card in battle when he already had an advantage, and probably should have held it for a pass later in the turn. I, on the other hand, didn't have a single 3 card in my hand, had a single 2, and the rest were 1's. Five of them. By then the board was pretty full up on PCs with the exception of down South, so I was using those cards to play down there as well as bring some units in to bolster Boston and Howe's force. 

The thing I did have was a Minor Campaign, the only campaign card I saw the entire game. I used mine (and my 2) for my final plays of the turn, as Chris was out of cards. I used Howe to run Green out of Rhode Island, keeping it loyal to the crown, and then ran Clinton up to Connecticut to take the second space in that colony as well. I planned to use my 2 to take Delaware from Rochambeau, although it was a bit of a gamble as Washington was nearby and might have intercepted. 

As fate would have it, Chris' last card play was to have North's Government Fall on that very turn, so my play to keep RI and take Connecticut got me the win with six colonies: Penn, NY, RI, Mass, Connecticut, and Maryland. As it turned out, Delaware was my safety colony and there was no need to fight that battle. The game turned largely on my excellent cards (although Chris had a fistful of 3's as well) in 1778, where I was able to take New York City and put the colony away. Being able to snatch up Maryland while I let Chris focus on Virginia for several card plays didn't hurt either. Sometimes it's very easy to focus on a single colony at the expense of two or three you lose. 

By the end, Chris had an excellent understanding of the rules, and a better understanding of the way the game plays. However, the really good players place single CUs in critical points on the map, mostly up near the Canadian border, and that game will be a schooling. Chris was also hampered by the Declaration of Independence never coming out - we had two cards that forced reshuffles on the second and fourth turns, so we didn't get far into the deck. The only game-changer card that came up was the French Alliance, and while it allowed him to kill Burgoyne, that battle turned out to be too little too late. Like in the real war, the victory went to those who could sway public opinion, and by game end only New Jersey had enough fervor for rebellion, at least north of Virginia. 

An excellent game, and Chris noted during our session that the GMT Games reprint, Washington's War, had reached it's preorder numbers and would be in the queue for 2009. That's good news, as the map certainly needs a refresh (too hard to note which spaces go with which colony for new players), and the game has long been out of print and is very hard to find. A smaller box will be nice too. 

Thanks to Chris for hosting, and I hope you and Jim have a great time playing in Dallas. Maybe I'll go out there with you next year.

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