Sunday, April 19, 2009

Halls of Montezuma - First Impressions

As part of my continuing efforts to prep for WBC West, I'm trying to learn a few of the newer short games that have come out recently in case they see play. So far, that's included Unhappy King Charles, Spartacus, and today The Halls of Montezuma (HoM). I also plan to give Texas Glory a whirl, which is a nice thematic tie-in with HoM, as well as the new SCS title Bastogne. Because my main goal is to not only get the rules in my head, but also to figure out where the rules holes are, I am not playing the game a) optimally or b) to completion. However, I do feel that with so many wargames under my belt I can get a good initial sense of a design from even just a few turns of play. Obviously, since there's a Crisis deck and a War deck, if I don't get to the War deck I can't get a good sense of what happens in that part of the game, but there are enough other elements that I feel I can at least give a general sense of whether or not this is a game for you.

First of all, HoM is simulating the whole of the Mexican-American War, fought from 1846 to 1848. It was arguably one of the land grabs that the US made in the 19th Century (see also the Spanish-American War as well as the annexation of Hawaii), which makes a lot of sense as we were already grabbing up a lot of territory under the rubric of Manifest Destiny anyway. The game is played at what feels like an operational level, similar to the scale of Wilderness War. The game is a CDG of the Hannibal stripe rather than Paths of Glory, which is to say that it's focused around leaders and the troops they command with fairly loose lines, as opposed to games where you can activate a certain number of stacks and your lines are important, sometimes critical. 

There are a dizzying array of unit types on both sides, all of which have some sort of game effect. Mexican artillery was obsolete and their powder manufacture was not the best, so there's an effect in battles there. Having combined arms (arty/cav/infantry) is helpful (a little) in combat. Certain units (specifically the regular troops) can be "committed" in battle to increase firepower. Guerillas (Mexican only) are particularly useful, but require a loss of operational flexibility to get them in place and then to use them. 

The map is very pretty, but the washed out sepia tones make it a little difficult to see clearly (especially map text) in poor lighting conditions. In particular, I have to really pay attention to distinguish rough transit passages in certain sections of the map. There are a lot of transit spaces, used in particular in Successors, especially in the Western part of the board, and they have a big effect on movement in that you risk taking attrition whenever you use them (and you will have to use them). In general the map is used well, although I would have preferred to see some of the holding boxes on the Turn Track (a separate sheet of paper) placed on the map instead, simply because it makes the game easier for me to store in a poster frame between sessions if I need the table. 

The player aid sheets (two identical sheets, 11"x17" folded) contain what you need for battle, and tracking Mexican Political Will (similar to the mechanism in For the People and Empire of the Sun), but most of the rest of the information is used sparingly. I would have liked to have seen a player aid with information on supply sources, replacement costs, and even a list of the various actions you can take (as these are much more extensive than in most CDGs). 

There has been a lot of complaining about the rules, which I think is in part because of a few poor choices in terms of organization, terminology (there are Mandatory Events associated with the turn, and Mandatory Event cards, for example), and also some strange choices in the index (Reinforcements, found in an early catch-all chapter, are located in the index under "Placement of Reinforcements"). All in all, however, a large portion of what you need can be found in the rules with a literal interpretation, which is what I prefer in a wargame ruleset anyway. There is also a "comprehensive example" in the rules which cover about a quarter of what can be done - it's mostly to demonstrate the rather involved battle process and demonstrate the Supply Check and Movement Attrition mechanisms. 

HoM borrows a lot of systems from various other CDGs:
  • Wilderness War - Raiding (both sides) and building fortifications
  • Empire of the Sun - The "efficiency" roll in battles
  • For the People - Political Will as a measure of success, naval system
  • Successors - Transit spaces
  • The Napoleonic Wars - Response cards (and their graphic design), as well as Must Play cards. 
  • Here I Stand - Mandatory game events (although without the "may be played earlier" card element - these are simply on the turn record track).
There are also a few new systems that I don't recall seeing in a CDG before, or that have been brought from other games that aren't CDGs:
  • Supply checks - While you want to be in supply to avoid movement attrition and combat penalties, you aren't dinged at a specific time in the turn, but instead when certain marked Event Cards are played. 
  • Attrition - You can take attrition from several sources when you move, and they're all cumulative. One is that you roll a d10 every time you move along transit points, and if you roll less than the number of TPs you moved along, you lose a step. Combined with tight supply lines, you can find your very large force simply melting away the further it gets into enemy territory (a bigger problem for the US than the Mexicans). 
  • Multiple Decks - There are other games with multiple decks based on side or period, but this is the first game where trying to get to that second phase is a major goal of one side and something the other side is trying to prevent. In this case, it's a declaration of War by the US. 
  • Variable Movement Points - Every time you activate a force or army you draw an Action Card to see how far you can move based on the initiative of the unit you're moving. The card you draw may also cause attrition. 
  • Zones - These are larger areas, often seen in Area Impulse games such as Breakout: Normandy or Monty's Gamble. Here, they create areas where it's very difficult for one side to bring the other to battle, essentially forcing the active player to intercept the target forces. 
  • Random Events - The Action Deck is also used at the start of every turn to create a set of random events, which include placing raid markers, drawing reinforcements, getting an extra card in your hand, etc. 
  • Replacements - Can be brought in by Event Card play once per turn, and only for a single force. US units can't be replaced until War breaks out, one of the primary reasons to attain that status.
  • Regroup Pools - Units and leaders are brought in more or less completely randomly, based on what units you have in each players Regroup Pool. For the Mexicans, it can just about anything, but the US pool is very limited until War breaks out.
  • Formation of Armies - These cost a card play to build, and they give a favorable DRM in battle and guarantee at least one MP when activated. On the down side, they get one less MP from the Action Card and can't be supplied by port.
  • Revolts - The Mexicans must constantly worry about their various states falling into and spreading revolts, forcing them to run around the board putting out fires. 
The battle system is perhaps the most novel part of the game, and while on the one hand it seems to be kind of a lot of work, on the other I think it forces players to act as their historical counterparts did by encouraging certain mixes of forces, not to mention the opportunity to improve your odds by sacrificing steps. There are various modifiers applied to your firepower as well, including one that dings you for moving before fighting based on MP remaining. Once you've computed your Firepower, you roll on an "Efficiency" table with more drms, which give you a combat result when cross-referenced with the firepower. The result is equivalent to a compressed CRT, with some elements shifting columns and some shifting rows. Each side will generate a numeric combat result which results in step losses to the other side. In big battles, this can be exacerbated if the differential between results is large. There are markers to keep track of your unit firepower, your total firepower (as well as states in revolt and states under US control), but strangely nowhere to track the information - the Political Will track works to a point but the spaces are smaller than the counters and it gets crowded quickly. This is a case of style trumping function. 

Play will typically consist of a few different axes of contention. First is the Disputed Zone, the original Cassus Belli of the conflict, and it has a few special rules governing it. Second is the Texas/Mexico border, which will see incursions by both sides, especially if Santa Ana is elected Presidente early in the game and can bring his eight units up before the US can declare war to threaten Texas. Third is the ports along the coast, especially where the PW cities are on the Gulf side. Fourth is the Californias (Alta and Baja), zones that provide supply but also have victory implications. Finally, there's the raid/guerilla/revolt system, forcing both players to react to activities behind the lines. 

There are a large number of chaotic elements in the game, which may account for part of the reason it hasn't been gamed on this scale often (if at all). The random events, the uncertain number of movement points, surprisingly large swings of results in battle, the fact that you have to "find" enemy forces in some of the critical areas of the board, and the random aspect of raiding (although this affects both sides, unlike Wilderness War), all combine to give what some wargamers would consider to be a less than satisfying experience. Personally, this doesn't bother me as much, and I have high hopes for the game.

The critical factor will probably come down to how wide battle results can be, and how often battle is joined. One of the concerns I have about Unhappy King Charles is that there are relatively few battles, and thus the results can easily become statistically skewed with fewer rolls. If HoM ends up with relatively fewer battles, that could be a problem, but I'm just not sure yet. It seems like you have a better chance of setting yourself up for success by assembling your forces and armies with a good mix of units, but in two turns of play I saw exactly three small battles in zones where there were small losses on both sides. The fact that you draw random units for both replacements and reinforcements will also be an issue for some players, although I believe it's appropriate for the conflict. 

Compared to the last effort by these designers, The Thirty Years War (which had no ability to intercept, a huge number of special rules based on which of the 15 different factions a unit belonged to, and a subsystem that wasn't worth spending time on), this is a cleaner design with some clever ideas, if you can stomach the chaos level. The rules have some big issues, but they're manageable with some designer support (which has been a tich spotty on BGG this past week), and they're nowhere near as bad as the rules for Fields of Fire were. However, they will drive off euro and strategy gamers looking to dip their toes into wargaming. There is a Quick Start sheet, and it's of marginal use when you're getting used to the various actions, but the designer's mantra that new players should just work from it and reference the rules as needed is specious and inaccurate - I spent a good hour trying to figure out how battle was different in Zones, and found it under Reaction Movement In Zones which makes perfect sense once you've found the rule but no sense at all up to that time. 

Which points out two elements of wargaming - the difficulty of writing clear rules, and the increasing dependence of developers to rely on the writing skills of the designer. Ideally, the publisher should be checking all of these elements before the game goes out, but the truth is that rules changes are happening right up to the printing of components, and often the publisher is relying on the developer to have taken care of problems without review. Given that we're involved in a niche hobby, I expect that we'll have to rely on good developers who understand the importance of having rules blind-reviewed and edited and who have the authority to whip the rules into a logical flow and enforce consistent and comprehensive terminology. I fully expect things to get missed from time to time, but the current trend is to shove something out the door because of printing schedules and the games suffer as a result. Fields of Fire was a poster child for this problem, which was a shame because it's a great game like no other. The publisher, in this case, did a great job of trying to clean up the mess when many others would just say, "Bummer, dude," but wouldn't it be nice if there was no mess in the first place? 

Maybe I should start speaking with developers about exactly what their jobs consist of, how it varies from company to company, and how the art can be standardized and/or improved. Worth thinking about.

In a nutshell, HoM is a very promising game, provided you can handle chaos on the level of Warriors of God or Combat Commander and not run screaming from the room. Game time makes this playable in an evening (three hours or so, comparable to Hannibal), it's on a rarely gamed subject that should appeal to ACW fans, counter density is relatively low, and all in all the components are nicely done. There are even notes on what all of the events refer to, although some are of the "Gee, Tex, that's some pretty good ground for fightin' on!" variety (i.e.; less than useless). I give it a conditional recommendation for any CDG fans interested in the period, even if they don't like chaos - after all, that was a hallmark of the conflict. 

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