Sunday, April 11, 2010

A Most Entertaining (er, Dangerous) Time

I recently had to clean out my collection a bit because my game room was getting a little crowded. I posted some Gamer Porn pictures of it a year or two ago, and suffice it to say that my habit of buying pretty much every pre-orderable wargame took it from Gamer Porn to Organizational Guru Horror Porn in quick order. One thing I learned in the process was how hard it was for me to divest myself of even passable wargames, and it's clear that in 20 years when I'm living in a house where the only way to get from room to room is via goat paths, the walls will be made of wargame boxes. And loose ziplock bags.

One of the downsides of all these games is that I rarely get to play them. As soon as one game comes in, gets punched and clipped (sounds like animal husbandry, no?), and the rules read, the next game comes in. In fact, I have something like 12 games awaiting "The Treatment" as I speak, although many of them were acquired in the great Hawaiian Wargame Orgasm of 2009 (see earlier post, now that I have your attention). One of my goals this year has been to get some of these unplayed and in some cases even unset-up games on the table, although formally that applied to games that I got ten years ago or more.

However, there are many equally deserving games of more recent vintage. One that has fascinated me is A Most Dangerous Time, part of MMP's International Game Series (IGA), although to be fair it should almost certainly be called the JGA as every game that's come out of the series was originally published in Japan by Japanese designers, and only a couple of those at that. This particular game is particularly appropriate, as it covers the unification of Japan in the late 1500's. There's a word for that, and it has a lot of syllables, and I can never remember it, but there were a lot of battles and in the end Ieyesu Tokogawa ended up being Shogun of all of Japan and there were a lot of heads on poles. And later on, movies. And, of course, games. This is one that covers the whole shootin' match (and there was some shootin' in what was the first use of gunpowder in weaponry in this part of the world).

The game is, on it's face, a pretty standard strategic light wargame with a few interesting differences. You move units, you roll dice for those units in combat, and high numbers kill enemy units. When you take the enemy clan's Home Castle (or Castles, if your the Oda clan), you get their remaining units. There are leaders that make things easier for you of varying quality. There are buckets of dice. There is also a lot more that takes it from Risk to Fun, however, and that's what I'm going to focus on.

I should mention that I have yet to actually finish a game (even a short 10 turn game), and my comments are based on about eight turns of a solitaire effort in preparation for a face-to-face game at my group's annual WBC-West "nano-con" in mid-May. Mike and I will be playing this game, and I'm not completely sure that a game with a bucketful of dice in every combat, not to mention chit-pull activations, will be able to withstand the brutal and overwhelming phenomenon that is the Deansian Statistical Distortion Field, but I figure we'll just use the Good Fortune chit and apply beer liberally and hope for the best. As such, take my comments as you will.

First, I'll discuss the Order of Battle, which has several effects on gameplay. Each side takes a "Faction" which is either Oda (the eventual winner of the conflict) or Anti-Oda. Clearly, the Anti-Oda Faction is a little more, well factionalized. Think Republicans vs Democrats. The Republicans have a large and monolithic organization that tends to work in lock-step (or did, up until the Tea Party started), while the Democrats represent a variety of interests which don't always work together but can attack from a variety of positions and tend to have greater flexibility, if not always effectiveness. The Oda faction is the Republicans, the Anti-Oda faction is the Democrats. Take that as you will.

Each faction is made of a group of Alliances. In the case of the Oda faction, that means one Alliance. That might seem to be an advantage, but it is actually a bit of a problem for them for reasons that will be clear later. The Anti-Oda Faction has several Alliances, from the Anti-Oda Minors to the dangerous Takeda and Uesugi Alliances. Each of these Alliances has from one to six Clans, what we might think of as Mafiosi families. For example, the Takeda Alliance is made of of solely the Takeda Clan, while the Oda Alliance is made up of the Oda and Tokegawa clans as well as three other very small clans. These differentiations are very important to the game, even though they may seem a little silly as the Takeda Clan and Alliance are equivalent.

Second, the game is driven by chit-pull activations. Every Alliance has a chit in the game that enters the pool when the Alliance enters the pool. Some Alliances have leaders that have their own chits that also trigger that alliance. For example, Oda Alliance has both the Oda chit and the Nobunaga chit, both of which activate the entire Oda Alliance units. When you pull that chit, that Alliance activates and can do what Alliances do during their turn. As the game goes on, Alliance and Leader chits will come and go, especially leaders, who can be killed, wounded, or just get really really sick.

Making this all the more entertaining is the "End of Turn" chit. When this gets drawn, it's turn over, baby. Yep, that means that you might have up to a series of turns where all that really happens is a bit of regrouping, some reinforcements, and the side controlling Kyo getting card draws. In my game, I had two turns in a row of this. One side or the other can go for quite a while in theory without ever getting to do anything. There is a way to mitigate this to some extent, and clearly it's a fairly unusual situation, but it can (and does) happen. In many ways, this game is much like the designer's 100 Years War game, Warriors of God, in that you must hope for the best and plan for the worst. It does lend a nice degree of tension to the game, and I'm not a terribly competitive player anyway, so I don't mind it, but I can see many people finding it a huge turn-off.

Third, there are event cards that make things even more interesting. There are two mutually exclusive ways to get cards, which tends to drive behavior in the game. If you control the central space in the game, Kyo, then you will get one card at the end of every turn. Period. That may seem like a bum deal, but you get a guaranteed card even if there are no activations that turn. If you don't control Kyo, you get a card for your faction every time an Alliance takes a space controlled by the other Faction, unless the space you're taking is Kyo (you ostensibly get your card for that at the end of the turn). As you can imagine, this might lead to interesting situations where the Ikko-Ikki take Kyo early in a turn, only to see Takeda take three spaces (and potentially three cards) only to not get any because that faction has taken Kyo and only get the one card at turn end. Unless, as in my game, the Oda take Kyo back before the end of the turn and they get the card. Fun!

The cards do a wide variety of things, from affecting combat and movement to allowing players to force specific enemy leaders to betray to the other side. Note the word "specific". Talk about driving behavior! I get a card that will cause Samurai X to defect, so I will make some effort to go after him. Unless I don't and am just fooling my opponent into moving that Samurai out of an area *thinking* he'll betray so that another faction can swoop in and take the space more easily. I strongly suggest having a list of all of the leaders who are potential betrayers just to notch up the paranoia a bit. I'll also note that this creates a particularly large luck element in the game, as you may draw your own leaders' betrayal cards. However, I'll also note that this allows those leaders to act without fear. Ha!

Clearly, the cards make it much more difficult to play the game solitaire in a satisfactory way, but the activation chits mitigate that to some extent. There is no question that this is a game that will be much more fun played against an opponent, however.

Next, let's go a little further into Betrayal, and it's red-headed stepchild, negotiation. There are two points in the game turn where you can force an enemy leader to Betray his faction - First, during the negotiation phase before players move, and second during combat. You can force a leader to betray with his *clan's* units just by having your own leader of the active *Alliance* in an adjacent space during negotiation, *if* the Alliance has a Daimyo with a Diplomatic Ability dot in play, or a Samurai in an adjacent space that has said dot. During combat, no dot is necessary, but you have to be in combat with that specific Betraying leader. This can lead to situations where suddenly a small force is much larger and *still* attacking because the space had multiple clans in it. Wackiness ensues.

You can also attempt to Negotiate with individual soldier units (as opposed to leaders) during the Negotiation Phase, but you need a leader with Diplomatic Ability next to their space, and you have to make a die-roll based on that soldier's situation. For example, an enemy soldier with a friendly leader in a space can't be negotiated away unless that force is under siege, but you *can* negotiate with a *neutral* soldier in a space if they have a friendly leader with them. I strongly suggest you download the errata/clarifications, as they lay out the specific situations and target die rolls necessary, much easier to understand than the convoluted mess that was in the original rulebook.

The result is that each clan has it's own set of starting units which are only augmented by other units (which include both soldiers and leaders) that betray their original faction, and who will also lose units through either leader death or betrayal of their own units. It is very important to keep track of what clan controls which units for purposes of combat and regrouping, and the rules do not do a good job of explaining this basic concept. In a nutshell, make sure you know which clan each unit is associated with. Of course, once a Takeda clan unit defects to Tokugawa, for example, it could then betray to one of the Anti-Oda Minor clans - there is no "memory" of what clans a particular unit has belonged to. There is also no negative effect of having betrayed, although these units are given "stains of dishonor" on their counters to differentiate them from the set up units.

It is worth noting that you get to make a negotiation roll once for every leader in that Alliance with a DipAb dot next to a legal candidate. You may, however, use all the Betrayal cards you wish assuming they are legal plays. It is possible to change the Faction of half the units on the board with the right cards and leaders with DipAb capability, although very unlikely. I'll also note that Ikko-Ikki units never betray through either betrayal or negotiation, so the Anti-Oda folks have *that* going for them. They also have no leaders, however, other than one small clan within their Alliance.

A few other interesting mechanisms. Every time an Alliance is activated and after they've negotiated, you roll a die to see how many movement points you get. As such, just because an Alliance activates does not mean you can do with them as you will. The owner of Kyo gets to add 2 to this roll, and there are cards which can increase this number as well. One point lets you move eight units between two spaces connected by a road (two spaces if there are no enemy units in the way and you control both spaces), four if you are moving by trail, and one if you are moving by sea. You must stop in an enemy controlled space. More chaos to manage, although a much better situation if you take Kyo, of course.

Combat is both complex and elegant, and while it's a little tricky to explain, in practice it's very smooth. You basically roll to see if someone gets to be the exclusive attacker in a turn (devastating, as you can imagine), based on the leaders present, if the units are OOS, or if they choose to retreat before the initiative roll. Combat involves assigning soldiers to their clan leaders (there's that clan thing again - important to remember with both the Oda faction as well as the Anti-Oda minors), then trying to roll target numbers using various DRMs such as leaderhip or if the unit is Ikko-Ikki. Leaders play a very large roll in this process, both for gaining initiative and in causing damage. Being out of communication is particularly bad, as it halves your attack dice and doubles your loses. Avoid that particular bugaboo.

Conversely, if the non-phasing player is in a "space" (meaning not a waypoint or sea area), they can choose to have a certain number of units hide in the castle or temple in that space, based on the fort value of the space (two units for every one fort point). If the attackers decide to assault the castle/temple, the defender rolls first (field combat is simultaneous in comparison, assuming both sides roll), get the benefit of both their leadership and the fort value as DRMs, and the attackers will only hit on sixes regardless of all other factors. Besieged units are also never considered OOS, which is very important. There is also only one round of siege combat, as opposed to as many rounds as both sides are willing to stomach in field combat.

Finally, each Alliance gets to regroup, putting lost units back on the board based on an Alliance-specific value. Ikko-Ikki units are an exception, using a process that was used in the original Japanese edition. I can see why Adam took that out, it can take a little time to figure everything out for the Ikko-Ikki. I should note that the I-I are treated differently in a lot of cases because they were not a "clan" per se, but instead a popular uprising of peasants and monks, and I find this particular special rule to be appropriate as such.

There is quite a bit of special chrome in the game as well, from a "15th Samurai" that the Oda can exile in exchange for bringing in some of the meatier anti-Oda alliances earlier (he can also be converted to a Daimyo by the Anti-Oda faction, important because he is the only leader on their side with a DipAb dot until Takeda shows up at the end of turn 6). Some leaders have an illness roll at the end of every turn that can take them out of the game, and (of course) there are Ninjas in a couple of different capacities.

All in all the game is a bit of a balancing act. The Oda faction needs to take out as many opposing clans and alliances as it can as quickly as possible, as later on they end up with just two activation chits while everyone else could have as many as nine or ten, greatly lowering their operational flexibility. Conversely, the various Anti-Oda alliances tend to be fairly small and can't coordinate offensive operations, often forcing them into defensive roles. Takeda and later Uesugi tend to change this up a bit, but again the increased number of activation chits tends to make it less likely that they'll be there exactly when you want them. Like Warriors of God, there is considerable chaos management, although with a bit more of an asymmetry (and along different axes).

I've mentioned that there's a bit of chaos in this game. Apparently the playtesters thought so to, and Adam added a "Good Fortune" rule that acts a bit like the Initiative counter in the area-impulse games like Breakout: Normandy. Basically, it gives you a mulligan, then passes to your opponent. However, the rules as written allow players to reorder the activation pool as one of these mulligans, which has the effect of making every other turn be all about you. Far better to allow a) the player to choose *one* activation chit, putting the rejected one back into the pool afterwards, and b) not allow the other player to use the GF chit until the next *turn* (there is no specification about when the chit is again usable in the printed rule). We'll use this modified rule when Mike and I play "for real" in May.

Components are, as with most IGS games, beautiful, from the map to the cards to the units. They are functional for the most part, although I have some trouble telling a few of the Mons of the various Anti-Oda minors apart (the clan symbols). I also recommend keeping your units oriented to your side of the board, as some become fairly ambiguous as the game goes on, such as some of the Neutral Minor clans that betray to one side or the other. As mentioned above, be very sure to know what clan betraying units have gone over to, using control markers if you must.

It would not be one of my reviews, however, if I didn't bemoan the rules. Adam Starkweather does a great service to the hobby by bringing these games to us at what is almost certainly a huge amount of effort for very little reward. That said, I continue to have issues with not only his rule-writing skills, but also in the way he answers questions. The rules have quite a bit of ambiguity in places, ambiguity that he resolves in forums but does not incorporate into the errata or clarifications. For example, it is very unclear if reinforcing units (those clans coming into the game for the first time) come in en masse, or per the regroup rules (it's en masse). Control of spaces, an elemental rule, is *never* defined. The significance of honor-stained units is also never clearly laid out other than to say it's not important (when it is, at least in terms of making sure the right clan's units are used).

The other part has to do with the way Adam answers questions online. I am the first to note that he appears to be logged on more or less constantly, answering questions quickly. However, he tends to use terminology like "sure, if the rules say that" which in one case the rules clearly *negate* the "sure" part of that sentence. I've also seen him answer a question by quoting the rule and avoid saying a simple Yes or No, making it unsure what the actual answer is without a very careful parsing of the rule, which was kind of obviating the point of the question. As I mentioned above, the answers never seem to get into the clarifications - the question about who controls spaces (which comes up in *every* game in the second turn, if not earlier, because of an unusual reinforcement) never got to the clarifications, and in fact another question gives the impression that the answer in the special case is different than it actually is.

I want to be clear that I am not questioning Adam's devotion or value to the hobby, nor suggesting that he is in any way indifferent to making sure that the game has clear-cut rules, as every wargame should have. I am suggesting that he goes about clarity (at times and certainly not most of the time, but enough) in a way that does anything but improve that quality in the ruleset. I do not know if the rules are blind-tested by tech writers, but they should be. Yes or no questions should be answered with a yes or no, and clarified appropriately.

I've made this my rallying cry in the hobby - wargame rules describe a very precise system and as such that system must be very clearly defined. Designers/developers who are too lazy to practice that level of precision need to find ways to make it a part of their product. I have stopped buying games from companies or specific developers or designers because I feel it's such a critical part of the process. I'll call out Decision Games on this - I *always* check out their rules carefully or play the game before buying because too many of their games require players to guess at designer intent rather than lay it out in a clear fashion. There are far too many good editors in the hobby who will do this work for a game credit for this to be anything other than a character flaw or the equivalent.

Adam, we love you, but *please* consider having your rules blind-tested by someone who will notice these things. I offer my services and I don't even care about the credit. As for the clarity in questions, it's just a matter of understanding that the asker wants a yes or no, not cleverness. Give them what they want, *then* be clever.

I also want to be very clear that the IGS series is perhaps my favorite in the gaming world. There is a variety and novelty (in a good way) and an elegance that is sorely lacking in many wargames, and I thank you from the bottom of my heart for bringing these games to the West. Now let's go the extra yard and give them the final polish to the ruleset they deserve.

AMDT is a great game, and if you can stomach the craziness that is, IMHO, an appropriate part of the period (as it is in Warriors of God), then there's a really cool system here. Again, despite my criticism of Adam's editorial skills, this is one worth learning and digging through ConSimWorld and BGG for all of the questions that haven't been answered *and* collected. There is a thread on BGG that does this, and it's worth looking up, although understand that there are a couple of rules that are answered in a way that suggests the wrong answer, such as when you draw cards and when you can use them (you get them at the end of your activation for that alliance, not during).

No comments: