Monday, November 29, 2010

Doug Cooley's Civilization: The Out Of The Box Impression

Civilization. What a history this particular franchise has.

Originally a board game. Then an expansion or three. Then a computer game. Then another computer game. Then another. Then a board game based on the computer game. Then another computer game. Then *another* computer game. Then another board game based on the computer game based on the board game but not the crappy board game and also presumably not the crappy computer gamer, although there were some who liked that particular computer game and to be fair I guess a few who found the board game playable although the *first* board game could go on for a bit. Sort of like this sentence.

Wow. Suck on *that*, Settlers.

My first introduction to Civilization was the classic board game, the one that got picked up by Avalon Hill in the early 80's and was a smash hit. I was just finishing my sophomore year in college and was at my folks place in Wilsonville for the summer. Just like before, it was a long way from anything (although arguable further - the closest pizza and video stores were a 15 minute drive away), and even further from my college friends. My parents were touring Europe, my girlfriend was in Grant's Pass, and those who know what Grant's Pass is like know that there's really no point in going there if you don't have to, and in any event she was *bat*-sh*t crazy. Her coat used to come out of the closet and chase her. Really. And she was a little freaked whenever she saw, y'know, the junk.

My point is that I didn't have a lot to do other than rehearse with the band I was in and play this game I'd just bought, Civilization. I set it up on the living room floor, picked a number of civs to play, faked my way through the trading phase, and must have played something like 20 games in the six weeks before my parents got back. A little sad, but I loved playing that game. Amazingly, I've only played part of a game with actual live opponents, and then George was one of the civs right next to mine so you never knew what he was going to do, and it usually ended up being taking out the person pointing out who was winning, which seemed to always be me. That boy has some trust issues. ;-)

When I was in grad school ten years later, Sid Meier's Civilization, the PC adaptation of the board game (but oh so *much* more) came out in a Mac version. I am not lying when I say that this game, coupled with the ability to play it on an early Powerbook, was very nearly responsible for me not graduating, certainly responsible for me taking longer than planned. That and realizing you had to be *bat*-sh*t crazy to be a composer, so I settled for choir directing instead. Not that you don't have to be *bat*-sh*t crazy to do *that*.

I'm sure I had a point here somewhere. Oh, there it is.

I should also mention that my nephew, Bill, loved this game as much as I did. He lived with us on a few occasions, and there were a lot of nights that we'd come home from a performance or rehearsal and he'd be in the computer room playing while his girlfriend (not crazy, and amazingly now his wife of 15 years) was asleep in front of the TV. It was extremely addictive, and still is.

As version after version of the PC game would come out, I'd buy it but I never felt the game had the same relative elegance of the first iteration. Oh sure, figuring out how to work your Einsteins and Elvii was a bit of a trick, and the game was complex, but it was just right for someone like me. Making the tech tree the size of a Sequoia only hurt the game, and then the support for the Mac version just seemed to dry up. Civ IV *never* worked right on the Mac. I just started playing Civ V, and so far it feels a bit better, although the whole "race to the Monarchy" seems to be buried within a Culture system that I haven't quite got a grip on.

But I'm not here to talk about the computer game, at least other than in the sense that the one other time someone tried to create a version of the computer game for a board system it was done by the worst possible people - Eagle Games. It had none of the charm of the PC game - no gradual discovery, a lot of clumsy systems apparently put there to make the people who played the computer version happy but that didn't really help it feel like the computer version, and the usual Eagle "advanced" rules that should have been called "Rules That Seemed Like Maybe They Would Add Something But We Have No Idea Because We Never Tested Them More Than Once". Seriously, Eagle did this with *every* game they ever put out prior to going under (and then being bought by FRED).

Really, it was a terrible, terrible game.

To be honest, I didn't have much hope for the new game from Fantasy Flight. That changed when I started seeing pictures of the board, which looks remarkably like the first PC game in a lot of ways. Top down grid based movement, waves lapping on the shores, a randomized map that I'd be very surprised if we ended up with it looking the same no matter *how* many times you play the game.

So I got a copy. I'm weak. And I love me some discovery games.

Turns out there's quite a bit to like. I got in a couple of turns just to see how it all worked, and while there are some marked differences with the board game, the feel is all there. And some of the leaders are, ahem, pretty. Hot.

Here's a quick rundown of the sequence of play and how it maps to the computer version. I'll use the original two versions just because I'm most familiar with them, although I do have some clue about later versions. As a framework, I will introduce the board game's sequence of play, which is not too long.

Unlike my blog posts.

Start The Turn Already! - The first thing you notice is that in the PC game, you do things on a unit-by-unit basis. In the board game, you do things on a process-by-process basis. That's good, because it keeps everyone involved. I don't get the sense there's a huge amount of downtime in this game. We start by converting scouts (which are a combination of Scouts and Settlers from the computer game) into cities. In the board game, you start with your capital city in a square already built for your specific empire, and you only get two more cities, so pick where they can go carefully.

This is a good time to discuss cities and empires. Cities control the eight squares surrounding them, and they don't gradually expand into other territory like they do in the later PC versions. Actually, I like this. There are a few conditions for where you can place a city (not next to goodie huts, villages, or unknown terrain, and no overlap with existing cities), but there won't be a huge land grab to try to stake out your borders before doing a little in-fill. In fact, you want your cities close so that you get the benefit of defending them. In practice, since a tile in the board game is sixteen squares, you'll see one city per tile, so space is never an issue like it can be in the PC game if you have a couple of empires crowding you on an island. I should note that you don't place your final city until you have the Irrigation tech, which is no longer part of the computer game.

As for empires, there are six. Yeah, that seems little cheap to me too, but I figure this just gives more opportunity for expansions. The starter empires are America, Germany, Russia, China, Egypt, and Rome. Each has a special starting tech, some special starting benefit, and an ongoing special mutant power. I really can't say if one is better than the others, although clearly each empire is going to be better suited to meeting one of the four victory conditions. Yeah. Four different ways to win. My head hurts already.

The other thing you can do during the "Start of turn" phase (Really? That's the best you can do? How about "Civics" phase?) is to change your government. In the PC game, this needed to happen at the right time seeing as your civ would be in Anarchy for a few turns (lots of unhappy people and no income, really a bad idea if relations with your closest sabre-rattling neighbor weren't going well). In this game, if you get a tech that allows you to go to a different government type, you can do it for free in the following "Start of Turn" phase, or spend a turn in Anarchy if you wait.

So, this turn will go quickly, although exactly where you place your cities is obviously a fairly important decision, as is shifting your government type. Just like the PC game!

So I'll Give You Meat For Your Wood - Or Spice for your Iron. Whatever. This phase actually refers to Trade in two forms, the game mechanism and the act of trading stuff, a la Settlers. First you count up your Trade icons in the outskirts of your cities, a good reason to get those cities on the board as quickly as possible. Then you also can count any trade icons on spaces your Scouts are on (this allows these units to be useful later on, sort of like Workers, after you've built both extra cities). You add this value to your Trade total, which is a wheel on your Empire sheet. Trade is useful for a few things, but you need to use it carefully to keep up as you'll see later.

Then everyone gets to barter. There are lots of things to barter in this game - Trade points, Culture tokens, Resources, Culture cards, and of course you can promise that you'll do something at some point in the future (non-binding!). Unlike Settlers, I can see this being in heavy use throughout the game, even with people you are actively fighting. I should mention that there is no "War" mechanism in the game, so no specific state you enter because you ran over another army.

Somewhere Out On That Horizon, Out Beyond The Neon Sky - Next up is the City Management Phase, but really it should be the Let's Go Shopping! phase. You can do one of three things here per city- produce something, harvest a resource, or generate culture points. Note that you can do a different action with each city. We'll take each one in turn.

Producing something means a Figure, a Unit, a Building, or a Wonder. A Figure means an Army or a Scout. Armies are closest to Units in the computer game, except in this case they are fairly malleable conceptually. In fact, as you'll see there's a very good chance you won't know exactly what will be in your Army at any given time, and you may end up having the exact same units for your army in multiple battles spread out across the board. This is a huge difference from the computer version. You are limited to six armies and two scouts on the board at any given time. Every turn you decide to produce, you count up the production icons in your outskirts or that Scouts are on, and you don't get to save any. Production, as in the computer version, is done by *city*, unlike Trade.

Units are even stranger. As you produce tech, you get incrementally better units in the four categories of Infantry, Ranged, Mounted, and Air (which you clearly don't get until late in the game). The types have a Rock-Paper-Scissors relationship in that Infantry gets first shot at Mounted, who get first shot at Ranged, who get first shot at Infantry. Units are represented by cards that have one epoch's type per side of the card. Interestingly, the values from card to card vary to some degree - 1 to 3 for the first epoch, bumping up by one per epoch. When you fight, you *randomly* draw a number of cards and play them with varying levels of carnage ensuing, then after all is done you count up your values and whoever has the higher value wins. More on this later, but you need to understand that having a ton of unit cards is not a recipe for success, while having and retaining *good* units is, but it's a crapshoot and I suspect the weakest part of the game.

Buildings are essentially "mods" to your outskirt squares, as are Wonders. You have limits on where they can be placed based on type, and some types of buildings you can't build if another "starred" unique building is in your outskirts, where it replaces the iconography. You can remove buildings to put other buildings in their place as the game goes on, and in fact each building has a "senior" version waiting for you to get the tech that allows it, just like in the PC version. Almost every tech in this game allows you to build these buildings, but in the end the game effect is strictly on the iconography, whereas the tech itself gives you various exceptions and abilities. Got that? Tech gives abilities, Buildings give icons.

I didn't really get to Wonders (they are discouraged in your first game), but they look very similar to buildings.

And that's production. The thing tying it all together is that it's done by city, so you can build one per city, and you use Production icons which are not persistent throughout the game. If you're not feeling like being a busy beaver, there are two other choices: Culture and Resources.

Culture in the original game was, at best, a very vague concept. As the PC versions have come out, it's become a major subsystem in it's own right, but in the board version it's almost unrecognizable. If you decide to devote a city to the arts, you get one Culture point for the city and one per Culture icon in the outskirts or with a Scout. Note that you only get *one* point per icon, so you can't use that Scout's icon for every city! You may use these points to purchase an advance up the Culture track, which gets more expensive as the game goes on. Early on, you only spend culture, later you have to also spend trade and (IIRC) coinage.

Every time you advance up the track, you get either a Culture Card or a Great Person, depending on the space you advance into. Cards change as you move up the track to the next Epoch, but Great Persons are always from the same pool. GPs are also just like buildings - you place them in your outskirts. Culture cards you can save to use when the card says, but you have a hand limit (two cards in the early game) and you have to dump down any time you get over the limit. Like voting, you are encouraged to commit Culture early and often.

By the way, if you get up to 17 Culture spaces, you win. The Chinese in particular seem like they are good candidates for a Culture victory.

The last thing is Resources. These were very passive in the first computer versions, now they are fairly complex. In the board game, they are currency you use to enable use of a tech in many cases. There are only four types on the game board (silk, incense (!?), iron, and wheat), although you can get spies and uranium from goodie huts or villages. If you take a resource for a city, you only get one for that city, and it has to be in the outskirts. Just like the later computer games, having resources nearby is important, and later on the only way to get these is to trade for them once the board has been explored and the villages and goodie huts have been taken.

A lot of choices, but this is really the meat of the game. Typically this is done in player order, but shouldn't take *too* long as by now everyone should know what they plan to buy and the choices, especially early on, are fairly limited by your tech tree.

You Have To Go There To Get Back - Everybody polonaise! In player order, everyone can move their figures on the board. Movement is orthagonal and everyone moves the same amount, starting with two squares at a time. Water is verboten early, but like most things in Civ tech will improve your movement ability and where you can go. No MPs based on terrain, this should be fairly straightforward except that there's this little idea of combat. This is also where you can find goodie huts with your armies (scouts can't enter the spaces, and you can't build cities next to undiscovered huts or villages).

Combat is, as I've said, a little nuts, but I can see where the designers were going. You get a random hand of cards, usually three unless you are defending a city or have multiple armies in the same space, chosen randomly from your supply. Players place them down one at a time along a "front". You don't have to put a unit across from another unit, you can always just extend the front if you choose. If a unit gets put across from another unit, they inflict damage on each other immediately based on their combat value. If the damage exceeds or meets the combat value, the unit is out. If your unit type "wins" the RPS setup, it fires first, otherwise damage happens simultaneously. Once all cards are played and any final combat occurs, you count up the total value of each card, add in any bonuses for city defense or tech, and the high value wins and the other side loses that army (*not* the units unless their damage was high enough), and the winner also gets some spoils depending upon what was involved in the battle.

Pro Tip: If you lose your capital city, the victor wins the game. That's the second way to win. This is a rather elegant way of avoiding having people kicked out of the game with nothing else to do, if you ask me.

If you move an army into a village, one of your opponent draws random unit cards for each type and uses those. That makes village-clearing a risky business early in the game unless you have some sort of bonus.

I can see some really interesting elements of combat in this system wherein when you buy crap units you have to figure out ways to get them out of your hand while keeping the good units. Since you don't get to pick units, that's a bit of a problem. However, you very definitely want to have at least six cards in hand if you are defending a city, and multiple armies if you're going to attack one. Like in the more recent iterations of the PC game, taking a city is non-trivial early in the game.

At the same time, I can see this as being a little too random for some tastes. Draw three good units early? Awesome. Having to fight people just to burn out those crap units would be, I suppose, a bit of an ordeal. However, like many great games I suspect that we'll all just have to figure out how best to work within the system as we learn the game, so I'm reserving final judgement until I've got a few games under my belt.

Is That An iPhone In Your Pocket, Or Are You Just Glad To See Me? - Yeah, some jokes are good enough to use repeatedly. The last phase is the Tech phase, where you may choose to burn your remaining Trade to buy a tech card. I have to say, this is the most elegant solution I've seen to creating an easy-to-use tech tree in a board game. You can buy as many Level 1 techs as you like, lining them up next to each other. You can buy a higher level tech if there are two below an open space, placing the higher level in that space. Thusly, you need two Level 1 techs to buy and place a Level 2 tech. The end result looks like bricks in a wall. If you go for the Tech Victory, meaning you buy the Level 5 tech of spaceflight, you'll need a total of 15 techs (5 at Lvl 1, 4 at 2, 3 at 3, 2 at 4, and 1 at 5). There are no prerequisites, no discounts, no craziness.

What you *do* need is Trade, and you'll burn it all when you're done. On your Trade wheel, you'll see little icons every so often around the wheel. If your Trade is at that tech level (6 for Level 1, 12 for Level 2, etc) you can use all of your remaining trade for any tech at that level, assuming it will fit in your tree. You don't lose Trade from turn to turn, so that lets you build it up over time. Techs typically give you the ability to build certain buildings as well as a resource-triggered special ability. Some give you "gratis" abilities (such as improving your movement rate), and some upgrade your units, which happens immediately. Note that higher level units cost more in production, so it's better to get an army going and then let them upgrade as the game goes on.

If you manage to have any coins (again, based on tech abilities), you get to preserve one Trade point for each coin. While there are coin markers that are placed on techs (mostly because they top out after a bit), you also track them on your inner wheel on your empire sheet, so it's easy to remember how much Trade to save. Thus, if you have six coins, you are guaranteed to get one level 1 tech per turn for free. Oh, and if you get enough coins, you win.

That's about it.

There are a lot of changes from the PC version, which is good and proper as long as it's all done right. I think the military system certainly errs on the side of light bookkeeping, which is very good, and you don't clutter the board with a wide range of different unit types and factors. While the wargamer in me kind of wishes this were the case, it would no doubt add a huge amount of time to game play.

In fact, the game seems to mostly compress the Civ experience down to a manageable amount of time. You'll have the board explored in a few turns, the huts off in a few more, be placing level 2 techs in 5 turns or less, and be up to your max cities in around ten turns. As the game progresses, I get the sense that things move along pretty quickly, and some victory conditions will result in wins that will come out of nowhere (coins, for example).

Even with all of the differences from the PC version (and, really, there's almost nothing about any of the PC games that feels even a little like the original Civilization other than that you buy techs that give you special abilities), I think this is about as good a system as you could expect that won't require an all nighter to finish this off. There's no "person who builds out furthest wins" issue, although there will be times when the tiles that show up are less favorable than others, and no "whoever gets a battleship first wins" syndrome like in the PC game. Governments are still there, but part of the tech tree (unlike the PC game, which now has them in a Culture Tech Tree).

The meat of the game remains in city management and what you choose to build when. There's no waiting for units or buildings to build, you just do it because you have enough production. The combat system is very simple (if rather poorly explained in the rules, especially considering that it's nothing like the PC game's system), and while it seems a little random on the surface, it's still very difficult to take down another player's city if that player has made adequate preparations such as producing walls and getting enough units to defend it effectively, even if they're crap. I'm not saying it's a great system, but it is about as clean as you're going to get in this type of game, and frankly it's a pretty clever idea. I just hope it works.

Even the ability to win using a variety of criteria (coins, culture, tech, or stompage) means that you'll have to track a lot of things that your opponents are doing and think out a turn or four so that you can prevent them from winning. On the other hand, you're going to need to decide on a strategy *early* if you want to win this game. Starting with, say, a view to a Culture victory that changes over to an Economic victory is probably going to result in someone else getting a Military victory.

The game takes up to four people, as few as two, and claims to play in 2-4 hours. I think with experienced players, even just one or two games under your belt, this is very doable, perhaps as few as 2 if everyone plays briskly in a four-player game. The biggest time sink will be selecting techs, and everyone does this simultaneously (you play them face down, so people know your tech level but not the tech), so even it's not bad so long as one player doesn't take all day.

All in all, I'm impressed and looking forward to a real game. I don't know that it will be Tuesday evening fare for more than, say, 3, but it does look like fun for Sunriver and weekends and cons.

At this extremely early stage, I recommend this if you loved the first iteration of the PC game, less so if you though that the micromanagement of Civ 3 was da bomb. Or maybe it was 4. I can't keep track...

Thursday, November 25, 2010

What I'm Thankful For

I am thankful for many things this year, for a healthy and curious 2 year old granddaughter, for a content and positive 88 year old mother, for a home I don't have to worry that I won't be able to afford next month or next year, for a family that loves to get together and do so largely without drama, for a band that gets along well and works in a way that I find very satisfying and *rocks* the frakkin' house every time we get on stage, and for so many other things.

I am also very thankful that for the last twelve plus years I have had the privilege of gaming with the best folks on the planet, the Rip City Gamers, and so many others in the Portland, OR metro area. This past Tuesday showed just how much fun these people are, not only to game with, but also just to hang with. This year showed me in no small measure how important the communities I work and play in are to me, and I'm so lucky to have stumbled into this particular group. RCG, you are the best, and I thank you all for just being you.

Happy Thanksgiving to everyone, even those of you for whom this was just another Thursday (or whatever they call it where you live).

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Is That A Minotaur In Your Labyrinth, Or Are You Just Glad To See Me?

In what we in the west term as "Greek" mythology, the Labyrinth was a maze in the dungeons of King Minos of Crete's palace. He sent prisoners there he wished to dispose of, as the Labyrinth was also the lair of the famous Minotaur, a bull-headed (literally) warrior of incredible strength and cunning who also liked an occasional meal of Hero on the Half Shell. The term has come to mean a situation where there is no clear way out and no sense of where one is in terms of progress toward that goal.

Labyrinth: The War On Terror 2001-? is in the late throes of being sent to preorders, and is probably available in stores and online as you read this. If there were ever an appropriate use of the term, it is applicable to the War On Terror, perhaps the most expensive and bungled national effort in the history of the world. The US alone will spend a trillion dollars in Iraq alone, a country that has never been tied to the events of Sept. 11, 2001, a country that had no effective nuclear development program, a country where, even seven and a half years later, we have been unable to find the fabled Weapons of Mass Destruction. A war that Colin Powell staked his reputation on when he presented such myths as fait accompli to the United Nations.

Now you can see if you can do better.

The entire gaming community seems to have had a massive wet dream over Twilight Struggle, which will mistakenly be claimed as an ancestor to Labyrinth. I was not one of those people - I felt that the way the cards fell out was far too important in determining who would win the game, and let's just pretend that the scoring card mechanism was never there. TS's claim to ancestry of Lab is, fortunately, restircted to heavily abstracted military conflicts and a focus on essentially being an area control game, but with some big differences. While it's a little early for me to start evaluating the game as a whole, I do have some thoughts on how successful it is and whether it will be the game that knocks TS off of it's perch as wargame/euro/strategy crossover king.

The game pits the US against the Jihadists, and the two sides are very different both in what their goals are, but also in how they get there. Like TS, the cards that drive the game have an OPs number and an event, and if you play a card for OPs but your opponent's event is on it they get to execute the event. There are also "unassociated" events that both sides can play for the event. However, how each side plays their OPs and what they play for are very different things, which I will explain after describing the various axes of victory that you have to contend with.

First off, the map. Like TS, the map consists of a variety of boxes representing various countries or groups of countries (Central Asia, the Gulf States, etc). These are divided into two subtypes - Muslim and Non-Muslim countries. Muslim countries have a varying Governance value which is not revealed (via a die roll) until something happens in that country - the US places troops there or the Jihadist travels cells there, or an event calls for a "test". Governance ranges from Good to Fair to Poor to Islamist Rule, and also has an axis of Ally (to the US), Neutral, or Adversary. Governance and Alignment determine operational flexibility in various ways, and is different for both sides. Muslim countries can also be either Sunni or Sunni-Shia Mixed. Iran, though a Muslim country in the real world, is enough of a power broker that it is classed as unique in game terms, and it has a set governance of Fair and no alignment track.

The Non-Muslim countries have Governance values, but they are set in stone for the game, and get no worse than Fair. However, they do have Posture that is either Hard or Soft. This is an unfortunate Freudian simile, and there will be frequent and loud exhortations and lamentations when a country initially goes Hard (or Soft) as I'm sure you're imagining right at this very moment. I'm not sure how else the designer/developer could have put this, but to be honest I'm not complaining. The main function of a country being Hard or Soft will have various effects on the US depending upon the differential between the two and whether or not it maps to the US being in the same condition. The US can attempt to change the Posture of both non-Muslim countries and itself, although to do the latter is very expensive.

There are three other game conditions that affect play. The first is US Prestige, which is a fickle mistress at best. The higher the US's Prestige, the easier it is to improve Governance. If it's low enough, the Jihadist can win just by having a lot of Muslim countries with very poor Governance. The second is Troop Deployment for the US. The more troops the US puts on the ground, the fewer cards they get. Up to five troops on the board, and you get nine cards, while six to ten gets you eight cards, and more than that gets you only seven cards drawn per turn. The third condition is Jihadist Funding, which is similar but works in the opposite direction. The higher the funding, the more cells you have available to put on the board, with a max of 9 down to 7 allowing all cells to be recruited, with 6-4 only allowing 10 cells, and 3-1 only allowing 5. Various factors will affect Prestige and Funding, but the US always has the choice of how many troops are on the board, at least most of the time.

Winning the game hinges on getting a certain number of Muslim countries to have Good governance (for the US) or Islamist (for the Jihadists). Islamist countries also have the benefit of automatically allowing the Jihadists to undertake any action using OPs for that country, and if they take over a country with WMDs the game gets much more difficult for the US, as launching a Plot that has WMDs in the US wins the game for the Jihadists immediately. The victory conditions are arguably the most convoluted part of the game, but if you remember the above concept (extremes of Governance are good for one side or the other) your path through the Labyrinth will be a lot clearer.

So how does each side get where they are going? Let's start with the Jihadists. They have the following tools to use: Recruiting, Travelling, Jihads, Plots, and of course Events (which don't use OPs, they use the Jihadist and Unassociated card events). All of these other than events generally require that the Jihadist roll dice to determine the success or failure of the operation based on the OPs number of the card played, so if a 3 OPs card is played the Jihadist would have three dice to roll for one activity. You can't use one die for Travelling and the others for Recruiting, they all have to be used on the same activity. If you roll the Governance value for the target country, you succeed, otherwise you fail. Good Governance requires a 1, Fair a 2 or less, Poor a 3 or less, and Islamist is an automatic success.

Recruiting is pretty simple - moving cells from the Funding Track to the map. Cells can either be Sleepers (harder to remove, better for the Jihadist) or Active. Whenever cells are recruited or travel, they become Sleepers. Recruiting in a country under Islamist rule or under Regime Change is automatic, and some non-Muslim countries have a higher REC value than the Governance (for example, Spain has Good Governance, but the Jihadists can recruit on a 2 or less rather than a 1). You can never recruit beyond the box that the Funding Track marker is in, so having your funding drop can be a real problem for the Jihadist. However, you are still allowed to place cells beyond this limit if they are placed by event. You can attempt to recruit one cell per OPs number.

Travelling gets the cells from one country to another and converts them from Active to Sleeper. You can travel to adjacent countries, which automatically succeeds, or you can try to get them to a more distant country, but if you fail the cell goes back to the Funding Track. Thus, trying to get a cell into the US is a risky proposition until you get them into the Philippines, Canada, the UK, or the "Shengen" countries, which is the European Union (which are all considered to be an amalgam of countries all in the same virtual location but with different boxes). You can also travel within a country simply to flip a cell to it's Sleeper side. A common opening for the Jihadist is to recruit in an Islamist country, then start to move the cells out to both adjacent and good target countries.

Plots are used to various effect depending upon the country involved, usually to change posture in non-Muslim countries, lower Prestige in countries with troops, and lower Governance values in Muslim countries. Once the Jihadists gain WMDs, their effect can become much more dangerous. Plots require either an Active cell per die rolled in that country, or a Sleeper cell flipped to Active, which makes them more vulnerable in some countries. Plots can be attempted anywhere. Plots are also a way for the Jihadist to "dump" a US event in their hand - the first card they play for a plot with a US event is placed in the "1st Plot" box and the event is ignored. Think of this as the equivalent of the Space Race in TS, and the only way the Jihadist has to dump a US event.

Jihads are the tool that allows for the creation of Islamist governments, but it's hard to do. First, there are two types of Jihad, Major and Minor. The best that a Minor Jihad can do is lower the Governance down to Poor. Once that's been accomplished, the Jihadist needs to have five more cells in the target country than there are troops, and then roll two successes in one roll. Failures remove cells to the funding track, so it can be a lot of work to get the numbers in place for a Major Jihad, but at the same time if you fail the attempt the first time the country becomes a Besieged Regime and will only require one success in the future. Converting countries to Islamist is the main goal of the Jihadist, and the main counter-effort of the US in this game. Jihads may only be attempted in Muslim countries except Iran.

You can see the general path of the Jihadist at this point. Raise funding to allow Recruitment of cells, Travel those cells to other countries where they can Plot or declare Jihad with the intent of making the US's job harder or hopefully creating Islamist governments.

The US side has a complimentary set of operations it engages in. In some ways, it's job is both easier and harder. The biggest hurdle for the US is that they can only play a card for OPs to do one thing - no spreading out of OPs over various countries. To play a card for OPs, the number must be as large as the Governance value, so to do something in a Poor country the US must play a 3 card. Fortunately, both sides can commit cards to Reserves, which essentially "bank" 1-2 OPs for a future card play that turn, so even if you get no 3 OPs cards you can still operate in Poor countries (although hobbled to some extent). The US has the following options: War of Ideas, Disrupt, Alert, and Deploy, as well as using it's own and unassociated events.

The War of Ideas is used to improve Governance/Alignment or Posture, and this is where the US has to roll for success rather than simply taking an action, unlike the Jihadist's operations. In order to be successful with a WoI roll, you want to have good US Prestige, and you want there to be as few countries as possible with the opposite Posture as the US, with the optimal number being an even split between Hard and Soft or in your favor. Getting a country from Fair to Good is difficult. I'm fairly sure that Alignment plays a role, but I don't have the game available at this particular time. If you just miss hitting the target number to improve the Governance, you instead place an Aid marker that will improve your odds for the next time, with a max of one per country at a given time. Aid will enable a lot of Jihadist events, however, so you don't want a bunch of them sitting on the table at any given time.

Disrupt operations simply flip Sleeper Cells to Active, or remove Active cells. This operation can be done in any non-Muslim country, in any country where you have troops (where it is more effective) or in a Muslim Allied country (which makes Alignment important). This is why it is so difficult for the Jihadist to get things going in a non-Muslim country, such as getting WMD plots going in the US, as any card will allow the US player to simply flip or remove cells with any OPs card play, combined with the difficulty of running OPs there for the Jihadist.

Alert requires a 3 card, but will remove an active Plot on the board and is essential for the US to use once the Jihadist gets a plot going in the US. Because WMDs are difficult for the Jihadists to get, finding these in the US before they go off is critical once WMDs hit the board.

Finally, you can deploy troops from the Troop track or on the board to an allied Muslim country, or you can use them to effect Regime Change if you play a 3 card and your posture is Hard. Once a country is in Regime Change, it becomes a breeding ground for more cells (auto Recruit in that country), and you cannot move troops out of the country unless you leave at least five more than the number of cells in that country. The net effect is to tie your troops down, and it's impractical to do this in more than one country at a time. To effect Regime change, you have to move six or more troops to the country, and you only have 15 to work with, and once you use more than ten you are down to drawing only seven cards a turn. The only way to get a country *out* of Regime Change is to convert it to Good Governance. That last task is about as hard as it is for the Jihadists to get a country to become Islamist, and is the main US goal. It is possible to withdraw troops from a Regime Change country, but it requires the US to have a Soft Posture and should only be undertaken in the most dire of situations (an Islamist government in Indonesia, for example, with no Patriot Act limiting the "adjacency" of the US to the Philippines would be a good example).

In game terms, the US spent quite a bit of time with troops tied down in both Iraq and Afghanistan and became Overstretched. I think this is about as non-political a way of explaining the situation as I've seen, and the designer/developer are to be congratulated for their work in keeping this about history rather than ideology.

As such, the US game plan is to gain a Hard posture, raise US Prestige while changing the Posture of non-Muslim nations to the same position they are in through the War of Ideas, effect Regime Change in Islamist countries through Troop Deployment, use Disruption to remove cells around the world to prevent Governance from decaying, and use the War of Ideas to improve the governance of Muslim countries, eventually to Good.

One last note: each country has a Resource value, which helps determine how many countries the Jihadist needs to become Islamist to win, six points total. Oil rich countries like the Gulf States have a Resource value of 3, while Afghanistan has a Resource value of 1. I have to wonder if the recently released report that Afghanistan actually has quite a bit of valuable resources was incorporated into the game. Whether or not the Bush administration was aware of it's resource value at the time is a very good question, but I suppose most people are relatively unaware of this factor and it won't affect their enjoyment of the game regardless.

Here's the biggest twist in this game from TS: Each side plays *two* cards in a row, starting with the Jihadist. After both sides play cards, any unblocked plots on the board are executed, with the results based on the type of country the plot is in. This allows players to do a lot of things - play two cards in a row for WoI, for example, the first hoping for at least the placement of Aid. You could also play one card for it's Reserves value, then get a second card in to take it to a 3 OPs to allow for an Alert or Regime Change operation, in effect using two 1/2 OPs cards with a combined value of 3 or more as a single 3 OPs card. For the Jihadist, they could use Travel to get enough cells in a country to attempt a Major Jihad. And, because Plots take effect after the US card play, a Plot in the US can distract the US player to generate enough OPs to remove the Alert marker when they really needed to be doing something else. This is another clever evolution in CDG design that I really like, and it speeds up play.

Lab has no scoring cards. Yay! Too many games of TS went straight down the tubes with a hand of two or three scoring cards combined with your opponent playing Red Scare/Purge and effectively shutting you down for a turn. In fact, there is no turn track in the game. Instead, you and your partner decide how long you want to play based on getting through the deck a certain number of times. From my experience, I would imagine that each deck pass would last between 2-3 hours depending upon experience, possibly less but certainly more for your first play through. When there aren't enough cards to flush out the next hand and you've played through that many decks, the game is over.

I should also mention that the game will play very quickly online, as there are no response cards in the entire game. Your opponent does their thing, then you do yours. No waiting for the other player to tell you that they will or won't play a card in response. While I like that ability in other games, at the same time how nice to be able to know who is doing what, especially in a pbem game.

There's quite a lot to like in this game. The asymmetry of the two sides (which will require more of a learning curve, fortunately the game comes with a truly excellent tutorial/example of play from Joel Toppen), the components are mostly excellent and very beefy (the board is on ultra-heavy cardstock similar to Successors), and the rules and card text are crystal clear. I guess that's to be expected from Ruhnke and Winslow, who last brought us Wilderness War, perhaps the only CDG ever published without card errata and very little errata in the ruleset. I spoke with them just after WW came out (in fact, my copy was the first production copy Volko had seen when it was released at WBC), and Rob Winslow wasn't sure he'd ever develop a game again. I think I speak for the entire hobby when I say "Thank you, Rob, we're glad you're back!" And the same goes for Volko for having quite a bit of imagination when it comes to bringing new mechanisms and asymmetric play to CDGs.

Now for the nits.

First off, the event tokens are a bit of a pain to work with. Some have events on both sides, and unless you know which ones block which other ones, it can be hard to find the right chit side for a "marked" event. On top of that, there is no way to know what the event does unless you keep the card out on the table if it has a lasting effect (as opposed to a blocking effect, which is on the chit). You have to keep the card on the table to know, which is fine if the card is to be removed, but if it isn't then you just have to remember or note it on a piece of paper. For a game that can be played almost without reading the rules from the excellent play aids and the tutorial, this seems like a swing and a miss.

Second, the play aids are per side only. As such, the Jihadist has to ask to see the US play aid to know what their operation choices are. The cards are definitely large enough, being 11"x17" unfolded, but half of the aids are devoted to the flowcharts for the solitaire game. I would have preferred to have seen the tables on the board that are on both sheets (War of Ideas, the various Test tables for Governance, Posture, and Prestige) and replace them with the other side's Operations. Once these playaids go online, or by simply photocopying, you can get them, although then that's another piece of paper to deal with.

Third, the solitaire game seems very interesting, but there will be a very steep entrance cost as not only do you need to figure out what operation the Jihadist is going to do, but where they will do it, and often in multiple places. I spent about 40 minutes per turn trying to decipher this, as it's sometimes not as clear as I'd like (for example, each box in where a cell will travel to is used once then skipped in the future for that card play). There is a very good example of play for the solo game, but expect your first game or three to take a *very* long time. I would also have preferred that Joel had chosen a single deck game with no "advanced" nerfs for the US, which make it a poor choice for continuing on with play after finishing the first turn.

Finally, I'm not sure that I'm a big fan of the thick board. Not because I don't like the board, it's very nice and lays quite flat on the table. However, there are more than a few problems with it - it takes up half the box, so sleeved cards need four bags to get them all in the box; it can't be placed in a poster frame like a paper or even thick cardstock map, and it's more susceptible to warpage. There is no question in my mind that this choice was made because of the hue and cry coming from Eurogamers who picked up and enjoy TS about how the components were terrible. By wargame standards, of course, the components were pretty much par for the course, but Eurogamers want wooden blocks, mounted boards, and thick counters. These are all in the box for Labyrinth, and I'm sure it will sell well with Eurogamers, but it's a very different game and I'm not sure that it will see the same kind of acceptance as TS got. Lab is a much more involved game that will require a higher level of play than TS, and I hope that GMT isn't making a mistake by marketing it to a broader audience. However, given their success with Dominant Species (a *very* heavy Euro/strategy game that has sold out within a month of going out to *preorders*), who am I to tell them their business? Actually, if Lab does get accepted by a larger audience than GMT typically sells to, it could start to interest these gamers in other wargames, and as a player who doesn't discriminate based on the type of game (as, unfortunately, many wargamers seem to do) but rather on the quality of the game, I'm all for it.

At this point, I have the two tutorial games, a continuation of the solitaire game, and most of a one-deck two player game under my belt, not really enough for me to make more than a few blanket conclusions. I really can't say if the luck of the draw will be the downfall of this game as it can be in TS, despite no scoring cards to mess things up. I also can't say if the game can generate enough momentum for one side or the other such that the victor becomes deterministic too early in the game, assuming equal levels of experience on both sides of the board.

I will say that I'm very pleased with the design and the development of the game, that the learning tools to get you into the game are excellent, that the game itself is very engaging (and I assume that once the flowcharts are internalized that the solitaire game will do the same), and that it's nice to finally get to play a game on a truly contemporary topic that manages to avoid partisan leanings one way or the other while still acknowledging the history (the Axis of Evil speech, for example, although no Mission Accomplished card in this game either!)

I'll end by giving the caveat that this is not a trivial game to learn and play well. The Jihadist must stretch the US capacity to engage, and more than one Islamist government and/or regime change operation at a time will quickly show just how brittle the US capability is, as history has so aptly shown us. In game terms, Afghanistan is *still* in a Regime Change state nearly eight years after we began operations there, and despite the political rhetoric we are still doing it in Iraq. That we have not had to deal with another Islamist state to date is a very good thing in terms of US security, but it's not like the US has won this war - far from it.

My initial impression is that this is the two-player game that I hoped Twilight Struggle would be and wasn't. I only hope that those who would balk at playing the side of an active enemy of the US (see the kerfuffle over a Call of Duty game that allows you play Taliban fighers) can get past themselves and realize that more or less every wargame set in the 20th Century or later, and quite a few in earlier eras, means someone is playing the side of an enemy of the US. Heck, even ACW games will have Americans in all likelihood playing a side that they still hold a grudge against, and that conflict was 150 years ago. Much better to look at this as a historical study that allows you to get a better sense of at the very least the tactics that both sides use without too much concern for the reasons for the conflict. If nothing else, there's every chance that playing the Jihadists will give Americans more reason to try to see the conflict from both sides and understand not only Muslim mores but that there are as many different takes within the Muslim community toward their own culture as there are within America for our own culture. Neither are anywhere near as homogenous as they are made out to be by the pundits and masters of opinion, and breaking down that fallacy, were it all this game ever accomplished, would be a very worthy achievement.

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Barbarossa Campaign - Out Of The Box

As you can imagine, Sunriver took quite a bit out of me. I've done a bit of gaming over the past couple of weeks, but not a lot that was particularly new to me. However, I've gotten the chance to play a couple of new games very recently, and thought I'd share my opinions of them.

First up is the Victory Point Games title The Barbarossa Campaign, a reworking of a DTP solitaire game that's been around for a while.

Whenever I hear there's a new game on Barbarossa, the 1941 invasion of the Soviet Union (including a few recently appropriated countries or portions thereof) by Nazi Germany, I have to wonder what such a title will bring that's new to the hobby. Barbarossa is perhaps the most gamed subject occurring during World War II, with the only real competitors being D-Day and The Battle of the Bulge (and then mostly in the US). It was the largest war in history, with tens of millions of men involved. Some of the biggest battles in history took place during what the Russians call The Great Patriotic War, including the one that broke the back of the Germans at Stalingrad.

Of course, Barbarossa really only entails the initial operations by the Germans, as it was their code name for the invasion, so the game's name is a bit of a misnomer, but at the same time any wargamer or military historian will recognize that the game encompasses the entire war, running up through the Spring of 1945. TBC actually runs into Summer of 1945, presumably to allow the Germans to hold on long enough to eke out a moral victory of sorts.

For the record, I have gotten through about 80% of a campaign game, which lasts 17 turns if it goes the distance and is listed as taking about 2-3 hours in the game's printed materials. I've spent closer to 4 at this point, but then again I'm learning the game as I go, and while this is a fairly simple game it takes a much different tack than most games on the subject and thus requires a lot of study to keep things moving forward. I would expect future games to take much less time, although 2 hours seems to be based on the Germans winning or losing before Summer of 1945.

Victory Point Games has an unusual business model in that it is a DTP company that puts out fairly high quality components given it's humble operations. All printing is done in house with good printers, but the component quality still feels like a very well put together DTP game. Which, to be fair, it is. The counters are mounted and largely double-sided, which is in itself very impressive (and, which owner Alan Emerich says, is the most labor-intensive and error-prone part of the assembly process). The game is fairly expensive for such a beast, weighing in at $45 (IIRC) retail. For your money, you do get a lot of stuff - three counter sheets, a deck of cards, a map, three status record half-sheets, a sheet with special events, and a sixteen-page rule folio. The whole thing comes in a big ziplock bag, and the front and back packaging includes an extensive example of play. You won't need dice to play, but you will need three containers to draw chits from. The total game footprint is relatively small, around 50-70% of a standard one sheet map from most games.

As a solitaire game, your job is to either get the Germans to win by taking the trinity of Stalingrad/Leningrad/Moscow, or failing that to have enough success for enough turns to win through victory points. I think both of these goals will require a certain amount of luck to occur, frankly, although I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing in a solitaire game where the balance between luck and good play is the core design choice. If you can't get the love to pull off an AV situation, then the Germans get to see just how big a bitch payback is, although they can still pull some surprises out of their hat. Unlike most games covering the conflict, the retreat through Germany plays a vital role if you get that far, which I like.

The focus of the game is at the strategic level, and as a result there are a lot of game elements that might be unfamiliar to the player:

Units: Units play a much different role in this game than you'd expect. For one thing, no matter how much you stretch the lines, they won't break. In fact, the concept of a contiguous line on both sides of the conflict is critical. Punch a hole, and there are just more Russians to beat. While units are identified by corps/army, for all purposes the run of the mill "line" units are interchangeable and infinite. There are "special" units (panzer corps, Gross Deutschland, shock, guard, tank) that give you special effects and combat benefits, as well as Axis Allies that can create some problems for the German side, but for the most part the units do little more than define the front. My first reaction was that one of the things that distinguishes strategic Eastern Front games is that one side or the other is trying to push their opponent to the breaking point. In fact, it is the *map* itself that symbolizes this fact, combined with the mix of non-line units. As the Germans push more into the Russian motherland, they have relatively fewer special units to blitz with, while the few special units the Russians have tend to be diluted. As the game progresses and the Germans start to lose their special units while the Russians get more, and the front gets smaller as the Germans fall back, the opposite happens. As an abstraction, this works very well and would not have been obvious to me were I a designer.

Initiative: Every turn you will compute how well the Germans are doing, then use this to determine which side has the initiative. In the early game, the Germans will have it and thus can do Blitz combat, while the Russians will lose their Initiative step which essentially gives them "free" advances. As the initiative falls more and more to the Soviets, the Germans will eventually lose the ability to even attack. What is particularly cool is how the initiative is computed. Units which are surrounded and surrender (very easy in the first turn, much harder later on) contribute, as do advances in tank tech, Soviet industrial power, Lend Lease, strategic choices, and a certain randomized subset of captured cities. Even some combat results shift the initiative. Perhaps surprisingly, this computation is really pretty easy to do and is what I consider to be the most elegant part of the design.

Combat: This is a particularly interesting design choice. First of all, there are no dice. You draw from an ever-changing pool of combat chits in four colors to see how things go. In general, green is good for the Axis, red for the Soviets. Some chits with white X's across them are left out at the beginning, but can be added at a nerf to the German initiative computation in future turns. Black X's also come out and can be returned to the draw cup at a certain cost. There are also "splat" counters (*) that, along with X counters, have certain effects depending upon what combat phase it is. Of course, the types of units involved will have various effects as well, from column shifts to allowing different results. As mentioned above, some chits even have effects on initiative for the end of turn computation. For the most part it works very well, as you only return chits to the cup at the end of the turn. Thus, sometimes you want to pull chits just to hope that you'll get red results during the German turn in order to improve your odds of getting green chits during the counterattacks.

Strategic Focus: One particularly interesting idea is that as the German you decide where you put your emphasis at a strategic level. Depending upon who has the initiative, this will limit these choices to some extent. For example, if the Germans have initiative (or share it) they can put their efforts into tank production, or perhaps devastation (hampering industrial efforts). Later in the game, they are limited to putting up defensive works or putting their efforts into counterattacks. Many of these effects won't come into play unless specific event cards are drawn, so at times you may feel like you're just sending your wish list to Santa, but you want to be on the right focus when the card comes up. If you aren't a gambling person, you can always use the Logistics choice regardless of initiative and gain a point in your favor when you make the initiative computation.

Aside from a fairly wide range of possible events that make the game different every time (and fairly unpredictable), there are two other things that might turn people away from what is otherwise a very engaging title. The first is the difficulty in taking the three major cities in the game. If they're fortified, it requires considerable luck and a strong position, since you can't Blitz into them (and normal combat is once per unit). There are some players who say that they don't even bother because it's too much of a crap shoot and you're better off bypassing and surrounding, then trying to take the city. In my game, I was able to take and hold Moscow for a time, so it's definitely possible. I never got enough forces close to Leningrad to do this, although I did get one shot at Stalingrad.

The second problem is that the process by which you determine which Soviet Counterattack to do next is relatively cumbersome. You figure out which uncommitted German has the most Soviets next to it, then break ties based on which combat generates the best odds. In the mid game when there are a lot of units stretching across the board, this can get to be fairly painful. All I can say is that as you do it and internalize the column shift mods, it gets easier, but there's no question that the late game spends about half of play time managing this particular part of the AI. Which is a little strange as most of the scenarios that come with the game start at various points from 1943 on, meaning that you have a fairly limited set of choices compared to the early game. There are no scenarios for starting early and seeing how well you do, which I supposed can be justified by saying that this is what the AV conditions are meant to provide.

It's not that you don't have any choices near game end, you actually do because you make some choices in how Soviets advance and where, and you can create situations where the dreaded Guard Tank units end up being removed. This is intentional, but there's no question that getting your ass handed to you in the late game is nowhere near as fun as handing it to Stalin's boys early on.

In the end, TBC provides a certain amount of tradeoffs. To my knowledge, it's the only solitaire game covering the entire conflict. It plays relatively quickly, and most of the systems are very elegant. You get to make some strategic decisions that you just don't see in other games. The game also has a lot of very novel ways of doing things that might give you some new insight into the conflict.

On the down side, there's no question that the game is better suited to masochists in the late game. AI management can be a bit of a chore, especially later in the game. And, perhaps the most damning of all, this is a DTP component game with a professionally published game price. For some, getting past the components will be an issue, although I don't find them to be a real problem and I actually prefer to have games that take up less space on my shelves.

Again, the above is really more of a first impression than a hard review, so I urge you to use this as a data point rather than a strong recommendation. However, if you want a relatively small game that covers a lot of history in a short time and does it in a way you probably haven't seen before, and if you can adjust your expectations regarding component quality and price, there's a pretty cool little game here. While it won't take the place of the later States of Siege games from the same company in terms of how fast the game plays, at the same time I think you have a lot more say in how successful you are. And it's the whole freakin' Eastern Front, dude. Tell me what other game gets you from Brest-Litovsk to Stalingrad then back to Berlin in three hours.

Game on.