Thursday, September 24, 2009

Unhappy King Chuck For People Who Are Used To Hunting George Washington

I'm a big fan of card-driven wargames in all of their various guises, but especially the sort that Mark Herman started with We The People and taken to such heights by luminaries such as Mark Simonitch and Ted Raicer among others. These games cast a new light on historical conflicts by incorporating the social and political facets of the times through events, and in general they increase your interest in the period because you find yourself wondering why Lloyd George has his own card in Paths of Glory. The genre has seen a lot of creativity, with the system expanding to hex-based systems as well as an increasing number of permutations and scales. Some work very well, some not so much.

So it was that I was very interested in playing Unhappy King Charles, designed by Charles Vasey and developed by Neil Randall, who seems to have developed every CDG that came out in 2009 so far. Literally. My good friend Mike was also interested, mostly because he's from the UK (assuming Scotland is still part of the UK, I can't keep track) and that period is of considerably interest to him. Me, I know little about it other than Oliver Cromwell ended up infamous and part of the backlash against him resulted in the Puritans coming to North America. Or something like that - like I say, it's not a period I'm terribly familiar with.

Our game was definitely of the "learning" stripe, being won by Mike with a couple of turns to go when I managed to commit ritual seppeku (and yes, I'm certain I've misspelt that word) by taking Charles on a whirlwind tour of Northern England so that he ended up losing his lone brigade during the Desertion Phase. Pro Tip: Pay Attention To Desertion. It Will F*ck You Up. Too bad, because the game was getting interesting and the outcome was in a certain amount of doubt on both sides.

I will instead focus on the game itself, and my impressions of it, or at least as much as I can muster for a single playthrough (plus a solo attempt when it was first published).

The game is the first to really harken back to the original We The People in terms of the deck. Various games have changed the original "ops or event" concept in WtP, which could leave you with nothing to do during your turn but discard your opponent's events, and it is very possible for that game to come down to luck of the draw in some cases.

UKC still leaves the deck with cards that either allow Ops xor Events (never both), but it uses a couple of extra ideas that leave the players some flexibility. First, you can use any card for reinforcements during a turn, although an Ops card gives you two brigades instead of one. Second, you can use your opponent's events (or yours, if you choose) as nominal 1 Ops cards, albeit not allowing for activation of armies. Finally, you are guaranteed to have one 1 and one 2 Ops card in your hand through "core" cards that you receive every turn. There are also a few cards that can be played by either side.

One thing WtP didn't use was a multi-period deck, where the composition changes as the game continues. In this case, UKC has three periods, novelly titles "Early," "Mid," and "Late". Creativity at it's finest, but hey, it's better than the "Apocalypse" era in 30 Years War. Not only does this give a better historical flow to events, but also allows the designer to tailor operational tempo by changing the mix of the various Ops cards. In fact, every card in this game, Core cards aside, is played exactly once, assuming the Parlimentarian player doesn't win a Major Victory and get to draw from the discard pile. Compare with WtP, where you could conceivably draw the same set of cards for both players every turn, although that would require a Deansian statistical outlier result.

UKC also takes the "play a card for reinforcements" concept used in WtP, but makes it both asymmetrical and more flexible. Each side has different rules for card-driven reinforcements, although both sides are limited to a single card play per turn (assuming you don't bring in, say, the Irish). The very nature of reinforcements is also a bit different, with the basic unit of play being the brigade, and these being divided up into regions of the map, militia vs veteran units, and some restrictions on whether these units return to play after leaving the map. Mike assures me it's all very historical, but it's certainly more complex than in WtP. In fact, I'd go so far as to suggest that this is not in any way a good introductory game to the system as there is a *lot* to consider as you play.

As in WtP, there is a single unit that must be protected at all costs (the titular King Chuck), and knowing the map and it's subtleties is critical to playing the game well. Like WtP, the early game features a lot of PC placement, which becomes harder and harder as the game progresses. It's also difficult to pin down areas as there are these pesky Local Notables, sort of like small town sheriffs, who never move but can flip PCs within a couple of spaces so long as the space is in the same region. It's a mixed blessing when the New Model Army shows up in the Late game because all of the Parlimentarian LNs turn into generals, so they can't flip PCs but they can move, which is often exactly the same thing.

I mentioned Desertion before, and it's a critical system to understand. In a nutshell, you have to lose a certain number of brigades to the general pool every turn, increasing as the game goes on. Consider that you are likely to bring on three or four brigades per turn, but by halfway through the game you are losing three per turn to desertion. As you can imagine, that requires a certain amount of advanced planning. Given that there's a five stage process for who has to lose units, and you can guarantee that your first game will not go as planned. Even though I learned this lesson the Very Hard Way, I am fairly certain that next time I will have to learn it again. And maybe once or twice after that.

Oh, and late in the game units will switch sides if you lose a battle badly enough.

In other words, if you liked that you could more or less button up areas in WtP, UKC will drive you batty. And control of spaces, both in total and in terms of regions, is the main way you win the game besides capturing Chucky.

One way that UKC differs markedly from WtP is in the combat system, which was done through Battle Cards in the earlier game, but now comes down to a 2d6 roll. I know the Battle Card system was only used once more in Hannibal (and optionally in the recent Spartacus) and is largely abandoned partly because of the high cost of cards, but also because it takes a while to do compared to a simple die roll, but for anything before the modern era, say 1900, I actually find it to be a more satisfying system. For one thing, it makes every battle an event, and in games like this the battles are relatively rare. In fact, it's possible to have fewer battles in one game than combats in one turn of Paths of Glory. Making matters worse is that when you have so few battles, it amplifies the chaos factor of the dice. Get six bad results in a row, not unheard of for some of the people I game against, and it's over. On the other hand, it really makes you think about doing the fighty-fighty thing, and often you'll want to lure your opponent into attacking just so you get the statistical advantage of winning defensive battles (although often that's not all that much better because of the way the game handles battle results). The fact that you can just make your army go poof and disperse instead of facing your opponent on the field becomes a much more important decision point, but the fact is that the game can hinge on one crazy die roll, and if that roll comes against Charles it's a bad day for the Royalists.

That said, I didn't find any problems with the battle system in our game, although it will take getting used to so that you understand the implications of the various results (based on the differential of final combat strength, which the dice are part of). Also, given this game takes about six hours to play to completion, throwing in battle cards would add a good hour or two, so I guess it wasn't much of a decision at all. Time will tell if it's an issue or not, although I like this sort of craziness more in 90 minute games instead of six hour ones.

I will note that the "reprint" of WtP (long out of print), Washington's War, uses dice for combat resolution. I think this is a huge mistake, and I have to wonder if part of the reason why that game went back to the drawing board didn't have to do with that design decision. I have no special knowledge, or even really regular old knowledge, but it is a big part of why WtP has a special place in my collection.

All in all, the flow feels quite a bit like WtP, and even Hannibal. The game starts out with both sides spreading influence through PC markers, building up their armies, and trying to outmaneuver each other to take the all-important supply fortresses and isolate PCs. As the game goes on, there's a certain amount of thrust and parry, and some back and forth with LNs and armies taking various areas. By the end of the game, things are wide open and both sides are willing to take greater chances in order to preserve the status quo or snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. It's a nice story arc, aided by the three-tiered deck.

However, I do have one more quibble, one that I find to be a bit unnecessary. The game uses an "Alt-History" deck that contributes four cards to the game, two in the Mid and Late eras. These cards tend to be pretty powerful, and it's entirely possible that one side or the other will end up getting all of the events. To my mind, this should have been an optional rule, with an extra four cards in the regular deck to preserve timing. In our game, I saw exactly one of these cards, and it was an event for the other side, while Mike got one that threw a battle his way at a critical time (you can't save combat cards from turn to turn, so when you draw them is also important). In fact, I'd go so far as to say there are several events that are absolutely devastating for the opposing side. While there's a 50% chance that these cards will show up on one side or the other, and timing is everything, it still seems to me that this is a level of wackiness that I may not be able to stomach in a game that requires as much care and foresight to play as this one does. This coming from the guy who loves Warriors of God and it's chaos, and who also recognizes that this was a fairly chaotic era as well. Again, time will tell if I've accurately assessed the effect on balance that these cards will have.

However, I have to say that all in all this is an excellent CDG. While it's harder for me to get excited about the various events (the mere mention of nobility is enough to generate flashbacks of sophomore Social Studies lectures in high school, and the resulting narcolepsy), I have to admit that I'm starting to get a bit of interest in the period, especially as Mike wants to play the excellent Musket and Pike series which focuses on the individual battles of this timeframe, both 30YW and ECW. The chaos of the battle system and the alt-hist deck will flush out over time, although it wouldn't be that hard to modify the latter by adding specific alt-hist cards to each period for a more predictable effect, and I suppose you could always use the battle cards from Hannibal or WtP if you wanted to and kludge up a system for them.

Those quibbles aside, this strikes me as both a novel take on the original CDG as well as a clinic on what we've learned about the game in the meantime, being the first real effort to update that original game's concepts while staying true to their spirit. And, quite frankly, these are excellent rules, with few or no problems with terminology, good organization in general, and both concise and clear language. Plus decent examples. Vasey is to be complimented on this, as I've seen other rulesets that Neil Randall-developed games that aren't nearly as well done. A serious improvement over another Vasey game I own, Chariot Lords, where he was far too clever for his own good in listing the various ways you got points (In The East, hear the lamentations of the women!). Here, he does it right.

I also like the woodcuts used for the play and rulebook covers, which incorporate the titles and credits for the game in a very historical way. Very nicely done, and they show Vasey's sense of humor in a good light (I think of him as the UK version of Richard Berg in his online persona, although not as big a lightning rod).

All in all, a well done effort, and one that Mike and I will play again in the future. Recommended if you can get past the minor quibbles I've outlined above, but then it's highly recommended. And there's nothing else like it in the hobby for this period!

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