Sunday, November 01, 2009

Empires In America - First Impressions

Along with Nemo's War, I also picked up the fourth in the States of Siege series from VPG, Empires in America. Previous titles in this series are Israeli Independence, Soviet Dawn, and Zulus on the Ramparts. I've discussed the earlier two games, and have played Zulus but didn't blog about it. Suffice it to say that I liked the game and was happy to see Joe Miranda take on the system to take it in new directions, in this case by adding in historical personages who are placed on the map, as well as taking the game system down to the individual soldier scale.

In Empires In America (EIA, although I realize that's an acronym for another very popular game), you are the French trying to fight off the British in 1750's North America. In other words, what we in the States call the French and Indian War, which became a colonial offshoot of the Seven Years War. The subject is quite apropos for the States of Siege system, as the French never really had any chance of conquering the British colonies, which by this time were extremely well settled and established. Instead, what they needed to do was hold off the vastly more populated British colonies long enough for the war to end and them to preserve their holdings along the St. Lawrence River into the Great Lakes.

While many of the elements will be familiar to anyone who has played any of the previous games (with four to six "armies" advancing along various axes toward the critical position, in this case Montreal), there are a huge number of differences. For one thing, armies no longer advance if you pull their event card, but instead advance if there is a British leader in that theater driving the army forward. These leaders, in conjunction with Provincial Forces cards, will have not only a leadership value, but also a certain number of battalions with them, as well as Reputation in battle. The French also have leaders and Provincials that appear as the game progresses, and like the Brits their battalions and reputation will change as the game proceeds.

As with all States of Siege games, the core mechanism driving the game is a deck of event cards. In addition to the leaders and Provincial units that appear, you will also see World and British Events (which do various things, of course), as well as French Action cards. On some occasions, British Events will drive armies forward on the map even if they don't have leaders. Like earlier games, the idea of the game is for the player to survive until the event cards have all been drawn. One thing that is a *huge* difference from earlier games, however, is the use of "bottom" cards. And no, they don't have naked bottoms on them.

Here's how it works: At game start, the deck consists of 20 "blue" cards, but there are 24 more "red" cards that are placed underneath the blue cards, face up and pointing 90 degrees off to clearly delineate them. When leaders are "sacked" during the game, or certain provincial units meet certain criteria, they are also "bottomed" with the red cards. At some point, a World Event that triggers the Seven Years War is drawn, and at that point all bottomed cards are shuffled back into the draw pile at the end of each turn. This is somewhat similar to the Day/Night mechanism in Zulus, or the Twilight/Night/Dawn decks in Soviet Dawn. There is also a distinction between removing a card from the game (usually when leaders lose all of their battalions in battle, or World Events) and discarding cards. When there are no French or Brit leaders on the board, they come from the removed cards, and the player sometimes has the chance to draw from the discard pile to get cards back, but it's a huge crapshoot.

Battle is also very different, and happens when either the Brits move onto a French Fort or Fortress (which happens during the British phase) or if the French choose to attack them during their own phase. Regardless, each leader (other than Montcalm) is limited to one attack per turn, so managing those resources is important. Each side rolls a d6 to determine who has Initiative (a measure of leadership, whether or not each side has Light Troops capability or not, if anyone is assaulting a fortress, and occasionally other elements), which allows them to fire first. Fire is simply adding up the battalions in the leader's card, adding in any Provincials they choose to add in, and then counting the 5's and 6's and removing that many battalions from the opposing leader's card. It's a quick system, but I do wish they'd listed the Initiative DRMs on the board as well as the sequence of battle.

The way the event cards are pulled is also different. In most games, one card gets drawn and things happen. In this game, the French player draws *three* cards (four after the SYW breaks out), and implements them one at a time. As such, you can draw a French Provincial card, then have the very next card eliminate it through a British Event. It's a little crazy, but then this is a solitaire game and quite a bit depends upon what order the drawn cards come out in. If the French ever get to a point where there are no un-bottomed cards in the draw pile (which means you may have cards waiting to be shuffled back in), they win the game.

There is also a way to add French forts to the map, which function as fortresses, as well as trading posts, which allow you to get replacements. When these units are "run over" by the Brits, however, they are gone for the rest of the game. Trading posts are also worth VP so that you can see how well (or not) you did to give a little more tension to the game. I should also note that the forts are on one side of the counters, and the trading posts on the other, so using them carefully is a big part of the game. Since the trading posts give replacements (and you'll need them all), you can't just sit on them and start popping them on the board near the end of the game. This is perhaps the most clever part of the design.

The French portion of the game is pretty straightforward. You get actions equal to the total leadership value of your leaders (1-3 points), with a max of 5 and a min of 1. Placing forts/trading posts costs two actions, while attacking an advancing army, taking one replacement point (each trading post can only do this once per turn, btw), or playing an action card costs one action point. Usually, it's pretty clear what you'll need to do, at least right up until the point where three or four armies are knocking on the door.

The component quality is pretty much what you get with VPG games, which is to say first-rate DTP level. There are a lot of cards, and really more counters than in any game other than Zulus, and they're nice enough. I do worry about the cards, as there is more shuffling in this game than in most VPG titles, and the cards are small and heavy stock, so not something you'll be able to sleeve easily. I found the rules to be very clear, except that clearly at some point the forts/trading posts were intended to return to the mix rather than be removed, and in both cases the rules contradict themselves. I played the way I felt was most historical, that being that the French had limited resources in the New World and the loss of a fort would be a problem for them.

My only game so far was a walkover, in part because the SYW started on the second or third turn, and then I drew Montcalm on the next turn, who is the most capable leader in the game (even slightly better than Wolfe on the British side). He can attack twice a turn, and so long as you keep his Reputation high by having him win, he won't ever get sacked. In fact, I never lost a single French leader in battle, although I did lose a few here and there. The worst it got with the Brits was four of the five leaders on the map, but not a single army advanced into the 1 box, and they never got past Louisbourg on the critical St. Lawrence River track (4th of 5 spaces). That was pretty amazing, as some leaders can advance armies two spaces per turn if they're good. Montcalm, however, pretty much always pushes them back. I also never lost a single fortress.

That may sound like a pretty dull game, and in retrospect I suppose it wasn't terribly exciting, but then I was busy learning the system so I wasn't bored. Note that it's also very unusual for Montcalm to come out by turn 4, and I was never in a situation where I needed to put a weaker army against a stronger British army. I consider this game a bit of an anomaly. However, this system does live or die on the order the cards come out on (I've lost Zulus within three turns in much the same way), so if you don't like that sort of thing, best to stay away. I would also go so far to say that the system is more prone to this sort of thing than, say, RAF or Omaha Beach, which have quite a bit going on and so can tolerate a certain amount of statistical wackiness.

To be honest, I think this is the best of the States of Siege system, at least based on the decisions that the player gets. Most of the others are great teaching tools (for the history, if nothing else), but in this game the action point system gives you a lot more choices and (I'm imagining) some of them will be tough. I could see a player throwing a fort down just to prevent a unit from advancing on Montreal, for example (which you *can* put a fort on, btw). Also, since you *know* which armies are going to advance in a given turn so long as they have leaders for their armies, it felt like there was more control than in the other titles.

Having played Wilderness War a couple of dozen times, I felt very familiar with the events, the leaders, and the overall situation. Considering how simple this game is, I think Miranda did an amazing job of fitting everything into a small and relatively simple game, but then event cards help you do that quite a bit.

If you like solitaire games, especially the States of Siege system, and especially quicker and smaller games that you can play in an hour or so in a relatively small space, this is definitely recommended. As I said about VPG titles, however, know that this one is particularly expensive, partly because of all the counters and cards (which drives their prices). We're talking $30+, which as I've said before will put some people off for a DTP game, even a very nice one. If you can get past that and fit the target demographic, it's a pretty cool little game.

Of course, there is an expansion that will involved at the very least replacement leaders, but that's about all I know.

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