Sunday, July 12, 2009

The Kaiser's Pirates - Solitaire Game Impressions

I buy a lot of games. Of those, I also preorder a lot of games. Consider it me helping to keep the game companies I like in business. Sometimes, things don't work out well and I don't really like the game, but in general I figure that I'm doing my part to help the cause.

Sometimes, I have to wonder if rethinking that policy is in order.

The Kaiser's Pirates came in the mail the other day from GMT Games. GMT is one of the good guys in the industry, although in the last several months they seem to have neglected to check the quality of games going out the door (Fields of Fire's rules are a prime example), but in general they are a very good company staffed by friendly and responsive people, and I rarely have an issue with them.

TKP, though, is another example of a game that wasn't quite ready for prime time for a wide variety of reasons. I find this surprising, as the game had been published by StrikeNet Games previously, and Jim Day was the designer for MBT and IDF, two 90's era modern battle games. In retrospect, I believe that this was a large part of the reason it got through the door as it did - it was more or less a finished product, only requiring some polish. In a computer version that would handle most of the solitaire AI chores (about 80% of the solitaire game IMHO) that played in 20 minutes, this would barely be worth my time. At 90 minutes, it should be banned by the Geneva Conventions.

We'll start with the game itself. There seems to be a prejudice in wargaming circles that Euros are light and fluffy to the point of utter randomness and not worth anyone's time. Clearly, that's a foolish attitude to anyone who has played many of the excellent games that the Euro market has produced, from Euphates and Tigris to more recent titles such as Dominion. Yes, they can be very fast playing and sometimes light, but I don't see that as a downside. I suspect the real issue for the grognard is that there is no actual historic tie-in, no actual conflict being simulated in your average Euro. That was one of the knocks against Manouevre (which I consider to be an excellent title), that it was too light for what it was. However, while a very simple wargame with more theme than simulation of a specific historical conflict, there are many decisions to be made and a good player will defeat a novice quite often. TKP feels like a crap shoot from start to finish.

TKP could be about almost anything. Wagon trains on the Oregon Trail, for example. Oh, sure, the various ships represented by cards have accurate art and flavor text that gives information about when they were sunk and by what ship, and the action cards reflect actual tactics and situations, but it wouldn't take long to rejigger the game to reflect types of Conestoga wagons, cavalry units, Amerind and outlaw attackers, and the tactics and situations inherent in travel on the frontier. In that respect, the theme of commerce raiding on the high seas during WWI is about as pasted on as it gets in wargaming. In fact, there is *no* spatial element in the game. None whatsoever. You play both sides, as does everyone else, and there's no sense that you're engaging in any sort of historical conflict, just rolling dice at each other after choosing what cards you'll play. Given that in a game you'll see 20 cards total per round assuming no wackiness, and nearly a third of those you start with, there aren't even many decisions to be made.

In fact, the game feels quite a bit to me in terms of weight and chaos factors like Atlantic Storm, one of Avalon Hill's last gasps before Hasborg assimilated them. That game has been called a Bridge variant, but I wouldn't be that generous. The outcome of the game hinged on whether you could put together a Fate combination of cards that were sunk by the actual sinking vessels, and it went on for far too long for what it was. However, it's popular with wargamers, mostly because of all of the historical flavor. As a game, however, especially compared with a good Euro card game, it's an embarrassment. TKP, sadly, is worse.

During the game, you start with six, count 'em, six action cards in your hand. You can use any or all of them as "intercept" cards, the rest you can use with the printed actions. During each turn, you'll draw one more at the end of your turn. That means twenty actions the entire round. That may not seem like a lot, but when you're constantly rolling dice to see how things turn out, it can take a long time. The designer claims 2-3 hours for a four player game, far too long for something this light. Because deciding what cards to play in what capacities and what ship you attack are the only decision points in the entire game! There are response cards that can be played, but they're a relatively small part of the deck (I'm guessing something like 20%), so when it isn't your turn all you do is roll dice and maybe choose to play a response card if you have one.

You do this until the action deck is depleted, then you do it again. And again. In a four player game, that means everyone will get ten actions, which is less than one hand of bridge. Imagine a hand of Bridge taking an hour. You get the picture.

There is a solitaire version, which actually uses a pretty clever mechanism to simulate the "phantom player" (it's essentially a two-player game in this mode). You never know how much damage the PP will be able to do, and when it's your turn they may have responses back atcha. Unfortunately, given the basic paradigm for the turn (roll dice, take random action, roll dice, take random action, pick cards to play for your turn, roll dice, take random defensive action), it's utterly wasted.

I got through six turns of the solitaire game, and was so uninterested in continuing that I swept the entire game into the box. I can only hope that with more people it's more interesting, but somehow I can't see it being *enough* more interesting. At least you don't have to drive the AI, but even then, there are hardly any decisions to be made at all.

Making things worse is what must be the most poorly written rulebook for this level of complexity I've seen since Titan: the Arena. In fact, the rules even *look* like the rules for T:tA in terms of formatting. There are several concepts that aren't discussed in the rules, assuming that the players have read the explanation for every Action card in the deck, and there are about 30 of those. There is no explanation given for when you'd use the attack dice listed on the ships vs that of the intercept portion of the attack cards, no explanation of what constitutes "British Forces" or why you should care (although it's mentioned twice), and the way the rules are presented has you wondering what the heck is going on in the game right up until you hit the example of play, which is extensive but doesn't bother to tell you *why* anything happens when it does. The use of the word "select" (as in "Player A selects a blue, green, and white die") used throughout the examples implies that the player has a choice to make, but there is none.

The cards themselves (all 200 of them) are of medium weight, and about what you'd expect from a game of this price point. No linen finish (a good thing when there's this much text), and the ship art is perfectly functional. The "coin" idea seems a little precious (all dice rolls are presented with tiny pictures of the dice in front of a coin), and the solitaire deck features pencil/charcoal drawings on the top half that manages to obscure part of the text much of the time, but otherwise things seem pretty clear for the most part. They clearly took the time to make the card text clear (with the exception of figuring out what the British ship icons are for, as well as having both Torpedo and Gun attack coins on the subs), so I have to wonder why the rules are so lacking.

There are extensive optional rules that bring the game more in line with the specific conflict, but I'm extremely unlikely to get that far with this game. If it's this uninteresting in solitaire play, I'm not going to be able to talk anyone else in my group into a multi-player session that lasts even two hours with this few decision points.

What really surprised me is that this game should have come out in a small box, a la T:tA. Instead, it's a heavy box the size and heft of Manouevre's. In my copy, the rules had been pretty smushed thanks to the 100 card Action deck sliding around in the box, something that I hope isn't a problem in general. I understand that I can print the rules out myself if I want to, but other consumers will want a new set of rules and that's going to be an issue for GMT if it's a widespread problem.

So what we have here is a game that is Euro in weight, wargamish in presentation, and junk in terms of interest. I will stress that I have had no multiplayer experience with the game, and didn't even make it through a round of solitaire play, but unless you are the kind of player that liked Atlantic Storm or the more recent Pacific Typhoon, you are almost certain to be disappointed by this game. At least those games cost less and require *some* thought. If this is a good simulation on commerce raiding, no one should ever do a game on it again.

I realize that the rules for GMT's games are posted so that I can read them and see if the game is really what I want to get, and with all of the action cards listed with *long* descriptions in the rules I could have gotten a very good idea of how the game worked. I may need to start doing that, as this is a game I don't even feel comfortable *giving* away. It would frustrate novice gamers, insult eurogamers, and in my circle the wargamers wouldn't be interested. At least Manoeuvre is a good *game* with lots of decisions and that requires a fair amount of skill to play well. TKP? Not even close. I find B-17: Queen of the Skies to have a more compelling narrative and more simulation value.

I don't usually give recommendations with so little time spent with the game, but in this case I see all I need to. If you're considering buying this for solitaire play, don't unless you want to work up software to automate the AI tedium. If you're considering this for group play, think carefully about how much you value decision making. Because this game is pretty close to the level of Monopoly. Almost certainly the worst game I've bought from GMT, and I bought those Prometheus Rising CCG clones from some years back. Sorry, but this is a dud.

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