Wednesday, August 6, 2008


Toledo is Martin Wallace's latest game from Kosmos/Mayfair, and before I played, it was variously described to me as unlike other Martin Wallace games, or what you get when you give Martin Wallace a professional developer. I'm not generally a fan of his games, but a couple friends who are generally much pickier – and who like Wallace games less than I do – liked it, so it came out for a spin.

Toledo is well-put together and a decent game. It's light but fun. The two-phase game of setting up shops and then collecting materials and manufacturing swords is clever and ensures variety of play (the first phase is admittedly quite short). It feels more solid than a game from Warfrog and is certainly more attractive. But I think I finally figured out at least one big reason why Wallace has such a hard time selling me on his games; I figured this out because by chance I ended up playing Modern Art and Toledo back-to-back.

Themed games like this are about friendly competition, but if that's all we wanted we'd be playing Go or Bridge. Games are also about entertainment and story-telling, and as such require many of the same elements that other entertainment media require. One important thing is good management of tension, or pacing. We wouldn't be entertained by a James Bond flick where Bond whacks the henchman in the first 15 minutes, finishes off the big bad gun by the half hour mark, and then spends the remaining 90 minutes rolling up the lower levels of the criminal organization du jour. Or a romantic comedy where the couple gets married in half an hour and spends the rest of the film doing housework.

But this is essentially what Toledo asks us to watch. We're competing to build swords out of steel and pretty them up with some gems. There are a very small number of extremely high-valued swords that use a decent amount of steel and gems. Then there are a bunch of low-valued swords that use less of each (or are not enhanced with gems at all). The game is a mad scramble to build the couple big-point weapons right away, and then the rest of the game is spent building low-quality swords to fill out a few points. In our games, the players scored 75% or more of their points in the first half of the game.

This is not a reasonable way to manage tension. You want the stakes to increase as the game progresses for a ton of good dramatic and game-play reasons. I can see no good reason to justify stakes getting lower and lower as the game goes on. And yet, this is what many Martin Wallace games do. In Tinner's Trail, the big points are available on turn 1, not turn 4. In Age of Steam, the high-stakes decisions are made in the first few turns, not at the end where all reason says that they should be. Brass allows the tension to drain out of the game as late-game decisions become less and less relevant.

Compared to the skillfully-managed and escalating tension and pace of a game like Modern Art, the mid-game fall-off in Toledo seems particularly egregious. I actually kinda liked the systems of Toledo. I want to like the game. I even do, sort of. But I can't help but imagine a so much better game which is basically the same, but where the players start off as apprentices building simpler, lower-scoring swords and work their way up to the big points as they gain skill and experience, instead of doing their masterwork first and then inexplicably settling down to crank out schlock.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Warriors of God

If I could use only three words to review all the entries in Multiman Publishing's International Game Series so far, I could do it: Too long.

Seriously, I think all of these games (Fire in the Sky, A Victory Lost, Red Star Rising) would be far more appealing if they could cut several hours off of their playing time (or, in the case of Red Star Rising, if it had some year- or campaign-length scenarios to go with the toys and monsters). All of these are clever, well designed games that just go on for way too long to ever get much, or indeed any, table time. So for me anyway, Warriors of God was as much about answering the question, “is this whole series doomed to excessive play time?”, as it was about finding out if the game itself was any good. Because if it carried on the series’ tradition in this respect, I could walk away from the whole IGS thing.

The short answer is, it isn't, and I can't. Warriors of God was pretty fun, and while it still is unquestionably a bit too long for the game that it is, the magnitude of the problem is far less than it has been in previous IGS games. Warriors of God runs about 3-4 hours when 2-3 would be more appropriate, given that it's chaotic and can become somewhat repetitive. Fire in the Sky ran like 10-12 hours but started getting tedious at around 6. Fire in the Sky’s length problem was a show-stopper. Warriors of God’s is not.

The basic idea of the game is that you play either the French or the English in the various wars in the 12th through 15th centuries. The main attraction is the Hundred Years War, but there is also a Lion in Winter covering the earlier period surrounding Richard the Lionheart. The tools you will use to win are the leaders the two nations have at their disposal, from the bad (a bunch of guys named some variation of John and/or Jean) to the legendary (Henry V, Joan of Arc, and Robin Hood, to pick a few). Leaders are rated for their rank, which limits how many troops they can command and who will be in charge when leaders fight together; the number of troops they can wield in battle, which limits the number of dice you can roll in combat; and how valorously they can lead them. The last is quite important as an advantage in valor gives a to-hit bonus to the possessing side, and since the basic hit number is a 6 on a 6-sided die, even just a +1 doubles the effectiveness of your troops.

The flow of the game is driven by the arrival and departure of these leaders. Every turn 6 show up (2 French, 2 English, and 2 neutrals, the last of which the players draft), and everyone who is already there checks to see if they croak. Basically, every leader in play rolls a die, and if the die roll plus that leader’s arrival turn is less than the current turn, that leader dies (or retires or whatever). Anyone who is left musters troops and campaigns against the enemy.

Really, that's about all you need to know about the game. There is some solid period chrome, from rules about longbows to gunners and sieges, but like Britannia, the real flavor of the game is in the flow of these leaders, good and bad. Sometimes you've got a great leader like Henry V and you need to make maximum use of him before he dies. Sometimes you've got nothing and you just need to hold out until someone competent shows up. This dynamic is fun, albeit fraught with chaos; some games Henry V will show up and promptly die, while some games you may get him for the full 6 turns. Obviously, being able to use the most awesome piece in the game for 6 turns vs. 1 is just a little bit game-altering. The uncertainty is obviously an important element of the game. But those leader death checks are some pretty high-stakes die rolls.

In general, the game doesn't make you pick up the die unless you're rolling for something really important. Sieges which decide the fates of armies are resolved on a single die roll, typically a 1:6 or 1:3 roll. The initiative die roll will dictate whether the turn has 3 or 8 impulses, and so how much time you have to utilize your just-received awesome leader. And you can only gain control of provinces at all on a 1:2 or 1:3 die roll.

This last thing actually is really the only thing that sort of bugged me about the game. Controlling provinces is the key both to winning, and to forming some sort of territorial coherency for your kingdom and therefore managing troop mustering and getting some sense of strategy beyond raw opportunism, and the difficulty of gaining control of provinces is kind of odd. You can only roll once per turn, which represents ten years, so it's possible to send a leader milling around somewhere for 30 or 40 years (assuming he lives) and never actually be able to control the region. For me personally, this was almost a die roll too far. I could live with the huge chaos involved in the leaders, battles, and sieges, because I felt like they added texture and the frustration they served up was at least in service of something historical and flavorful. But having to make further high-stakes die rolls every turn just to take control of provinces – even when the enemy was nowhere within a hundred miles – seemed gratuitous.

But the bottom line on Warriors of God was that I enjoyed it. I wish it were shorter; it's a very chaotic game, and although I think it's chaotic in a fun way, the buffeting winds of fate do tend to wear one out after a couple hours, and so I can't exactly see it getting a ton of table time. But it is flavorful, and fun, and unusual, and has that “epic sweep” flavor of Britannia as players enter and exit the stage. In sharp contrast to the route taken by most euros, a lot of the best wargames are about managing chaos, about looking for opportunities in apparently unpromising situations or rolling with the punches, and I felt Warriors of God managed to find a generally good spot there, giving you an unpredictable situation to deal with as well as the tools to try to cope with it. There aren't a lot of these low-end wargames that I like very much, and while it’s true Warriors of God didn’t exactly blow me away, I did enjoy it, and feel like it fills a niche in my collection for the time anyway.

Appendix I:

As a historical game, I feel Warriors of God does suffer a bit from being a “complete information” game, sort of like Fire in the Sky did. Everyone can see everything and know exactly how good the leaders are and how effective longbows are going to be, so some historical events just can't happen. Being fully aware of the power of the longbow, the effectiveness of Henry V, and the ineffectiveness of their own leaders, the French are just going to run away at Agincourt, which seems rather wrong. Obviously, all wargames suffer from this to some degree. But Warriors of God, in which leaders play such a crucial role, could benefit from uncertainty or asymmetrical information as to leaders’ capabilities. The game as it is is still a good game, but the way leaders come and go could be seen to have the dual properties of being both hugely chaotic (because of the death rolls) as well as highly scripted (because we all know when Henry V is going to get here and exactly how good he's going to be) in a way that is almost reinforcing, when usually a game introduces some scripting to reduce the chaos, or vice versa.

Appendix II:

Generally I cut MMP some slack on their rules-writing given that compared to their primary competition, GMT, they tend to have far less errata and more coherent rules in general. But recently I’ve been frustrated and annoyed with a number of their rules sets. Warriors of God isn't bad, but it isn't great either for such a simple game (the use of the term “contested area” is extremely non-standard and confusing, the rules for mustering units are confusing, the rules for placing leaders are easy to misplay, and there is already errata), and after struggling with the extremely problematic rules for Fire in the Sky and The Devil's Cauldron recently, I think maybe it's time for MMP to re-think their rules-writing process for their non-ASL games.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Around the Horn: Tribune, Wealth of Nations, Tinners’ Trail, Im Reich der ..., Wie Verhext!

A few quick takes on euros I've been playing recently ...

Tribune: A new game from Karl-Heinz Schmiel (designer of Die Macher). This is becoming my favorite of the recent burst of stuff. Not because it's awesome, which I don’t think it is, or because there is any single design element which is an obvious magnet, but because it feels so solid and professional and well balanced. You can choose which goals you want to try to achieve to win the game; the various scenarios set goals in terms of money, a tribune, favor of the gods, faction control, military influence, or laurels, and you need to fulfill 3-5 of them, depending on the number of players. All of the goals can generally be achieved in multiple ways, so you have choices about how to get there as well. But there is also enough randomness to both add texture and opportunism and force you to reevaluate your plans from time to time, but not so much that the game feels frustrating. I think it’s landed in a really good spot which, honestly, Die Macher didn’t find despite its other virtues (for example, the polls in that game feel too random and high-stakes to me). Tribune's different flavors and game lengths imparted by the different scenarios you can play are a nice touch too. The “short” game was good but felt a touch too short for my tastes, but the “medium” game was just right for me. Another bonus: Tribune seems to scale well through its range of 3-5 players. I wasn’t hugely optimistic about the 3-player version, but it worked quite well.

Wealth of Nations: I've only played this once, so I'll just make a couple short comments. First, there has been some speculation on BGG that the loan system in the game – where the more loans you have the less money you get for the next one, but where you don't have to pay interest – doesn’t work. On reading the rules, I tended to agree. But having now played once, I think everything is OK in this respect, if not perfect. Regardless, this is another game with a punishing learning curve which, unfortunately, is coupled with a lengthy playing time (2-2.5 hours). You can make choices that are not obviously bad that will wipe you out of the game in the first 20 minutes or less with little to do for the remainder of the game other than struggle to keep your head above water. So, here are my tips, for what they are worth: industry tiles are more expensive than they look, and good returns more elusive than you think. The game needs to have a solid base of production for food, labor, and energy before higher-valued industries start to pay off. As in Container, you need to be risk-averse in the very early game while you wait to see how things are going to play out; if you're producing stuff you can't directly use, and for which there is too much supply and not enough demand, you're hosed. Everyone always needs Food, Labor, and Energy, and if you can’t sell those things, you can at least use them to grow your empire. Although Capital and Ore look tempting initially due to the high price of those goods, demand does not ramp up for a while, and if the early producers of Food and Labor are not given some competition, the prices on those commodities can become crippling for anyone not producing them. Wealth of Nations is clever, and I suspect a good and interesting game. But it may be too fragile in practice and possibly too punishing.

I will make one concrete criticism of Wealth of Nations, and that is of the game end conditions. This game does not end until you have been well and truly impaled on the fork: virtually all the industry tiles are played, the game board is used up, or one player is out of options. One of my cardinal rules, often stated (maybe I should make a page for them), is that games should end before they are over. Wealth of Nations could use a victory point or wealth target endgame trigger to go with the exhaustion of build options so that runaway winners don't have to spend resources to end the game just to put everyone else out of their misery.

Tinners’ Trail: This is Martin Wallace's first entry in his Tree Frog line. I enjoyed my one game of this, with some caveats, but I've come to distrust my initial impressions of Wallace games. Too much of his stuff has felt promising after one or two plays only to crash and burn, hard, because of out-of-whack game balance.

That having been said, Tinners’ Trail is a fairly straightforward, clean, well-paced and quick-playing game of mining for tin or copper in Cornwall. That’s all to the good. On the other hand, it's again on somewhat shaky thematic ground. The core issue here is that the cost for and opportunity to obtain infrastructure (ports, rails, adits, workers) plays out somewhat strangely – the supply of such improvements is extremely limited, and they have to be paid for with time (a là Thebes, vaguely) rather than money. The time cost is so negligible though that the decision is not whether to build an asset or not, but instead which of the starkly limited supply is the most underpriced and how to get good turn order so you can choose first and not get shut out. It is then doubly strange in that the one resource that is fairly plentiful and not likely to constrain you much – dirt in which to dig – is the one that is auctioned.

This is all a little strange, but in practice it does at least mechanically work reasonably well. But I think the thing that will ultimately undo Tinners’ Tail is the heavy-handed randomness in the market prices for tin and copper. You put a lot of thought into the game, but the uncontrolled swings on the commodity prices, which translate directly to victory points, make more difference than skilled play I think.

Regardless, I think Tinners' Trail does offer some entertainment and interesting decisions, does not outstay its welcome and is comparatively clean, and so I’ll be happy to play a couple times. But I can’t see it having any staying power. It also seems quite overpriced for what it is, which is a run-of-the-mill light-to-medium-weight German game. Oddly, the game it reminds me the most of is Guatemala Café. Both are abstract business games of development with pleasing production. I feel like I would have found both of them really clever if I had run into them 10-15 years ago. Today, not so much.

Im Reich der Jadegöttin and Im Reich der Wüstensöhne: These are two new games from Klaus Teuber, based on the old Entdecker game engine. By my count, these are something like his fourth and fifth attempts at getting it right (Entdecker, Entdecker: Discovering New Horizons, and Oceana having gone before), and in my opinion this is the first time he has nailed it and delivered the complete package. Part of this is improvements to the fundamental game engine; the ability to "store" tiles that won't fit for later play means blown exploration draws aren't as swingy, and the new movement rules, which allow you to get stuck in the middle of the wilderness if you press out too far on your own, make for interesting choices. I also think that thematically the archeology theme of Jadegöttin is more successful. Similar to what I found with El Capitan recently, Jadegöttin has an interesting cooperative-competitive dynamic: players benefit when others help them to explore areas of the map, but when push comes to shove, it's better for you to control the completed area than your opponents. The key in this sort of thing is getting the right balance of rewards for winning and for assisting, something which is not easy – Carcassonne, for example, doesn't capture as much of this as perhaps it should because its scoring rules are restrictive and punishing, making cooperation and therefore player interaction hard to justify. Jadegöttin (and Wüstensöhne) give points out much more generously to players with non-majority presences in areas, making the tension between helping others and striking out on your own much more interesting, and (in the case of Jadegöttin) more authentic for a game about archaeology. Anyway, I like both these games a lot. Jadegöttin is definitely the lighter and more chaotic of the two games, and more suitable for family or low-impact gaming, while Wüstensöhne is somewhat more sophisticated, with tighter resources and sharper decisions. Both ultimately weigh in towards the lighter end of things though.

Wie Verhext!: The latest alea game, this is a light and clever game that has grown on me. It's a vaguely role-selection based game like San Juan or Citadelles or Race for the Galaxy, but not directly analogous to any of them. The game has 12 roles, some of which allow you to gather the ingredients to make potions, some of which let you raise or spend cash, and some that let you actually make the potions. Each turn, you choose 5 of the roles you want to do. The lead player then picks one of those roles, say the Witch, and plays the card (“I am the Witch!”). Each player in turn then who has also selected that role must choose to either usurp the role (“No! I am the Witch!”), or settle for the lesser power of the role (“So be it!”). The player who ends up as the Witch gets to take the full power of that role (use the appropriate ingredients to brew a potion for victory points). Any player who was usurped gets nothing. The player who wins the role must lead. Obviously, leading isn't great, because there is a high chance of being usurped and you can't “duck” by taking the lesser power when you know it's going to end badly for you. But if you want the strong powers, you have to usurp, which means you’ll end up leading.

This is a game that’s easy to dismiss as a light, chaotic game when you first look at it, and maybe that's right. But as I got into it, I found there was more scope for bluffing, guessing, and second-guessing than you might think. While everyone starts with the same set of roles, ingredients, and money, the fairly strong role powers guarantee that holdings will rapidly and strongly diverge, and so you can get a pretty good read on what people would prefer to do, what order they might like to do it in, and therefore what roles they might be taking and how they might come out. From this comes a neat little game of planning, anticipation, and evaluation, both when choosing which roles to play, and in how to play them. It's not hugely strategic, but it is quick-playing and simple and there is more here than meets the eye.

At first I was a little annoyed with myself because I got this direct from Germany shortly before the US version was (finally) officially announced. But now that the English version has been delayed again, I'm glad to have it and have enjoyed playing it.

Friday, June 20, 2008

El Capitán

I think it's the curse of being a game-buyer that you always end up with a few games that you like a lot but that nobody else in your game group(s) has any taste for. Some of my favorites that nobody around here likes much include Fifth Avenue, Mall World, Khronos, and perhaps to a lesser extent Candamir, Rum & Pirates, and Blue Moon. I remain a big fan of Settlers of Catan even though everyone else around here is burned out beyond return. And these days I wouldn't mind playing Monopoly a couple times a year, but after doing some arm-twisting to get in a few games last year, I don't foresee that happening again anytime soon.

For the most part, though, I'm sympathetic. I can see that Khronos and Mall World are a little weird, that Fifth Avenue is a little edgy, and I understand Catan burnout, even though I don't suffer from it. However, one recent game that I am a big fan of, and that has gone over like a lead balloon with most folks I've played it with, is El Capitán, and I'm not quite sure why. It seems like a game folks would like.

To me, El Capitán seems to have everything that a lot of popular economic games have, in a cleaner and tighter package: good cash and debt management, interesting route-building-like choices, and an interesting cooperative-competitive tension and dynamic. It's sort of a cross between Age of Steam and El Grande: you need to manage your cash and debt and plan your moves, while at the same time efficiently competing for markets which reward players both for cooperation and competition. To me, it's one of those endlessly fascinating games that manages to have fairly simple rules and systems that produce a game of some nuance and subtlety, unlike the much clunkier Age of Steam or Brass that have complex rules and systems that obscure fundamentally straightforward games.

But, it's been a more or less total bust with the folks I've played it with.

One complaint has been the graphic design. The game has a wonderful cover, but a number of the components have significant usability problems, the most serious of which is that the names of the cities on the board and on the cards are impossible to read due to the excessively florid script.

But the big thing seems to be theme, and I haven't come up with a great answer to that complaint. El Capitán does seem a little dry, and despite the significant role of cash in the game it does feel more like a compete-for-areas game than an economic game, and my sense is that compete-for-areas games aren't as gripping, in general, as economic games.

Anyway, this all comes around to an interesting interview I heard on NPR's Science Friday about eco-friendly cars. In the piece, one of the guests talked about how he welcomed competition from other car makers in the area of hybrid/fuel cell/electric cars, as they would help to grow and expand the market for everyone at this point. Which reminded me of El Capitán, and why I like it. If you think of each of the nine cities in the game as individual markets, in the early stages investors benefit from competition, as more investments mean a greater ultimate payoff: a player who comes in second in a contested market can do as well as a player who is the only investor in an uncontested market, while winning a contested market is much more lucrative than an uncontested one. But as time goes by, the dynamics change. Early investments are made obsolete by later developments, and payoffs go down as markets mature. It's actually an interesting, authentic cycle. Players who make early investments in markets are taking a risk, as returns will remain weak until there is some competition. But if you wait, you lose that first-mover advantage (in the game, the tie-breaker for figuring out payoffs). Once the early investments are made, players have to judge when and where to jump into developing markets that may be made more attractive by the aging infrastructure of the early adopters, or where cheap returns can be found for a second place because another player has already made heavy investments. And as everyone becomes flush with cash later in the game, cutthroat competition in many markets will see the return on investment drop dramatically.

To me, this is all clever and interestingly thematic. But, I guess if you didn't buy my argument for the theme in Lost Cities, this may be a tough sell also. And admittedly the mechanics of moving between the cities ("buying sea routes", in the games' unconvincing parlance – the old Tycoon’s jet-setting theme was marginally more convincing) is pretty abstract and not terribly evocative.

But taken as a whole, I rather like it.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

The Devil's Cauldron

I’ve had an on-again off-again relationship with “monster games”. One of my most enjoyable wargame experiences was playing a campaign game of Red Barricades, a monster game by any measure. I am a big fan of MMP’s Operational Combat Series. Then again, monster games are fraught with difficulties almost too numerous to list, not the least of which is the impossibility of seriously testing them for game balance, since they tend to run into the tens of hours to play, if not hundreds. For monster games to work for me, they also have to work as non-monsters – a great example is Avalon Hill’s and MMP’s Great Campaigns of the American Civil War, which is a tremendous game whether you are playing shorter scenarios or longer games, and even in that case the long games are not insane. I once played a full campaign of Grant Takes Command in a day.

So I spent a lot of time flip-flopping on whether to even try to mess with The Devil’s Cauldron. It’s billed as a playable monster, but everyone says that. It’s by a long-time gamer but first-time designer Adam Starkweather, and my general feeling is it might be a good idea to cut your teeth on something smaller your first time out. On the other hand, the whole Market-Garden campaign is an endlessly fascinating one, the grand tactical scale (units being companies) is intriguing, and the command system sounded interesting. A bunch of interesting-looking smaller scenarios were provided. So ultimately I cracked and have played a few times now, enough to pique my interest. Not quite enough, yet, to determine if it was money well spent.

The Devil's Cauldron is a chit-pull/activation-point based system; units in the game sit around until they are activated either by the draw of a chit, or through the spending of command points. Those units tend to be companies, which form up into either brigades, regiments, or Kampfgruppes, which are then parts of divisions. For example, the 82nd Airborne is made up of four Parachute Infantry Regiments, each of which has about twelve companies laid out as three battalions of four companies – but the battalion level of organization has no representation in the game. These four front-line regiments are supported by an artillery regiment and a "regiment" of division-level support assets, giving the 82nd six regiments in total. Each regiment has a chit, which can be added to an opaque cup at the beginning of a turn by spending the parent division's "dispatch" points, which accumulate slowly and somewhat randomly over time. When that chit is drawn, all the units of that regiment can perform actions – moving and attacking being popular options. Alternatively, the division also accumulates “command” points, which can be spent generically on a variety of things: allowing units to perform an additional action when activated normally, allowing units to activate when a "direct command" or divisional activation chit is drawn, and to automatically pass morale checks in some, but not all, circumstances (for things like forced marches or close combat assaults).

So, you've got two pools of activations points: dispatch points, which allow formations of units to activate as a group; and command points which allow individual units to perform a variety of activities including doing more when activated by a regimental activation, or doing anything when a higher-level activation chit (divisional or direct) is drawn.

Activation points are, from a game perspective, fundamentally a great concept. They introduce resource management, and force the player to make tough choices if need and scarcity are well-balanced. But The Devil's Cauldron is a sprawling wargame, not a concise euro, and so for me, the activation points have to make some sense in context and be at least somewhat representational and not just gratuitous micromanagement. We can tolerate a high degree of abstractness in euros because we can work through all the options pretty easily; but similarly, we don't just want, we need things to be more representational in big, complicated wargames because we can't play that way, we need to rely to some degree on our intuition based on knowledge of the subject matter or prior experience. For example, OCS's supply points are a good representation of the large supply requirements of serious offensive operations, so for me they work – we know armored divisions need fuel and artillery needs vast quantities of ammunition to be effective, and that's what OCS asks us to manage. On the other hand, the activation points you get through card play in Paths of Glory really are not representative of anything other than the designer's desire to have you make some tough choices. Paths of Glory works because the rest of the game is so good, and not hugely complex, but it would be nice if the activation points made some sense and it would be easier for players to figure out the techniques if they actually modeled something historical.

So with that long-winded intro out of the way, where does The Devil's Cauldron stand on this point?

The activation chits model the common theme of the difficulties in cross-command coordination, whether it be between divisions or regiments, and the vagaries of the decision cycle (you may want to attack, but the enemy's chit gets picked first, giving him some initiative). This is a tried and true technique which works pretty well for the most part (one might quibble somewhat with the difficulties of getting divisional assets like anti-tank guns to coordinate with lower-echelon units that they are assigned to and deployed with, but it's tough to get too exercised about it).

The dispatch points model command and communication difficulties, and the time required to put together plans. If you want Tucker and his 504th PIR to get his butt in gear and take Nijmegan bridge, you'll need to get on the phone, give him some specific instructions, spend some dispatch points, and get his activation chit in the cup so his units can move.

Well, sort of. This is where things start to get a little hazy. You actually have several ways to activate Tucker's units. By spending the dispatch points, you get his chit and can activate all his units when it's drawn, for free and without constraint; you can additionally then spend command points to activate those units a second time, albeit not for the same task (so they can move adjacent to some Panzergrenediers for free, then you could spend a command point to have them fire or assault; but if they started adjacent, they can't fire twice, although they could fire then assault).

However, each division also has a DivAct chit, which gets put in the cup every turn for free, without having to spend dispatch points. This chit allows units to activate for free if they are not engaged with the enemy and not doing combat activities, or you can spend command points to activate them without those restrictions. So, you could just wait for the 82nd's divisional chit to get pulled, then you can spend command points to activate any of the 82nd's units directly (including the 504th PIR).

There is also a direct activation chit that gets added each turn, also for free, which allows you to activate anyone you want, but you must spend command points.

So when looking at what these points represent about a division, I sort of think of the command points as the level of competence and initiative in the lower levels of leadership in the division. They'll allow you to execute your regimental-level activation chit more aggressively, or undertake actions even if the higher-ups don't have a plan (i.e., haven't spent dispatch points to put their chit in the cup). Dispatch points represent the quality of divisional leadership and staff work, how quickly the divisional leadership can plan and get those plans implemented.

For most of the game, this model seems to work and make sense. Most units in the game, like the 1st Airborne, the Guards Armored, etc., will accumulate a moderate number of dispatch points in a day (5-ish) and enough command points to do a few things, but not so many as to spend them frivolously. The lousy German units, like the Korps Feldt, get lousy command and lousy dispatch points, and those units feel appropriately sluggish and unresponsive.

The anomaly (on the Allied side) is the 82nd Airborne. They receive colossal numbers of command points – accumulating them at the fastest rate in the game – but a miserly quotient of dispatch points, ranking amongst the worst units in the game in this respect, as bad as some of the third-echelon German units they face. This is, on the face of it, odd. I'm not aware of any information suggesting General Gavin or his staff was out to lunch on this one, certainly not moreso than Urqhart of the 1st Airborne, who was caught behind enemy lines early in the operation (he still gets more dispatch points than Gavin).

At any rate, what this means is that the 82nd is run almost entirely off of their gargantuan pile of command points. They only get a little over two dispatch points in an entire day (on average), which means they put two regimental chits in the cup over a seven-turn period (there are some subtleties here that I'm glossing over). On the other hand, they get about ten command points each and every turn, almost enough to power an entire regiment.

This creates some issues, and makes the 82nd an extremely awkward and time-consuming formation to run. Unlike other units, which rely on dispatch points to make command-level decisions and then command points to supercharge those actions or take spur-of-the-moment stop-gap actions, every time the 82nd's divisional chit comes out of the cup, that commander has to sit down and micromanage the entire division. A division can't accumulate more than 19 command points, so the 10-ish that the 82nd gets every turn have to spent or they may be needlessly wasted. The decisions are not the command-level decisions of preparing or attacking, or picking objectives;  it’s more like figuring out how many command points you have to spend, looking at everyone in the division who is proximate to the enemy and figuring out whether they are worthy of having a command point spent on their behalf. It makes the 82nd very potent. If there is something that needs to be done, or something that comes up unexpectedly, they can react very quickly. They can run rings around their opponents in the Korps Feldt. The huge pile of command points more than makes up for their shortage of dispatch points. But it also makes running them an exercise in micromanagement that really does not seem thematic or appropriate.

I like the theory of dispatch vs. command points, and it seems like more standard divisions like the Guards Armored or 1st Airborne, with their less-generous command points but more reasonable dispatch points, would be more interesting to play. I have to admit that in the games I've played so far, the whole command point system has skirted dangerously close to feeling more like micromanaging abstract resource points than like playing a tactical combat game. But on balance, I’ve enjoyed the game the few times I’ve played short scenarios, even though the situations aren’t great and I wouldn’t necessarily play them again (Little Omaha has a lot for the Allies to do, but the defending Germans mainly get to hunker down and learn the Opportunity Fire rules, while in The Empire Strikes Back the hopelessly out-classed German attackers mostly hope not to blow a few amazingly crucial die rolls while praying to get lucky and roll a few dispatch points). So far, while the game has been fun, my hopes for decent small scenarios have been unfulfilled, but at least they do play quickly, and I’m looking forward to trying some of the games in the 1st Airborne sector, where both sides have quality units and where, I’m hopeful, the situation will find a better balance.

I can’t leave the topic of The Devil’s Cauldron without commenting briefly on its system for opportunity fire, which is unusual. I'm not sure how it got from point A to point B, but it's identical to the system used in another game I play. The general idea is that you don't get opportunity fire when somebody moves into your zone of fire, but rather when somebody performs a movement action in, or leaves, your fire zone. So an enemy company can move adjacent to you and fire at you for a couple hours, and this never triggers opportunity fire. You only get the shot when that enemy unit later leaves, or moves from one adjacent hex to another, or tries to entrench or something similar while adjacent to you. This is, strangely, exactly the system used by Dungeons & Dragons and the d20 roleplaying system, but not by any other hex-and-counter wargame I am aware of. In D&D, they're called Attacks of Opportunity, and they drive people absolutely nuts because of the anti-intuitive rules and some of the strange implications. They work better here.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Manoeuvre, Glory to Rome

I recently had a chance to play Manoeuvre, GMT's latest lightish, wargame/family game crossover attempt. In it, two armies of eight pieces each maneuver, chess-like, over a square grid and attempt to defeat each other. There are 8 different armies in the game, each from a different period and nation – Americans from the Revolution, British and French from the Napoleonic period, Ottomans, and so on. The nations have a different makeup for their eight units: the Ottomans have lots of cavalry while the Americans have none, for example. Each turn you must move one piece one square (two if cavalry), and then you may attack, if cards permit.

Those cards are the core of the game, with board positioning and whatnot being somewhat secondary. Each nation has its own unique deck. Most of the cards are unit cards which match the nation's playing pieces, and are primarily used to fight with those pieces – usually assaults, but also volleys and artillery, with different armies having different mixes (the Russians have lots of artillery, while the Brits are good at volleying). Also included are special actions like forced marches, supply, ambushes, and guerillas. These seemed to be a bit of a mixed bag; a lot of the events are generally useful, like the Supply Columns and leaders, while some sound cool, like Skirmish, but in practice seem to rarely come up. The game is fundamentally about managing these cards – cycling ones you don't need rapidly, looking for high-value combinations, and being willing to let go of a good card that you don't happen to need just now.

To the extent that these card management issues are interesting, Manoeuvre is clever and more subtle than it first appears. There are a fair number of factors that go into deciding the value of a card, when to play it, when to hold it, and when to cycle it. Maybe you have a leader card, which allows units to combine their attacks (among other things), so you have to balance playing it now for a modest attack vs. holding back to try to set up something really devastating vs. realizing you just can't set up that devastating attack anytime reasonably soon and just letting the card go or using it for a lesser effect just to clear it. Frequently you'll want to make lower-odds attacks just to do stir the pot and cycle cards and see what comes your way. On the other hand, since in this game you draw cards at the beginning of your turn, and since unit cards are valuable both on offense and defense, attacks which expend cards can leave you vulnerable to counter-attacks. Even if you're holding junk, just having 5 cards in hand will give your opponent some pause, while burning 4 in a coordinated assault will leave him more confident in his counter-strike.

All this is not bad, Manoeuvre is clever than it looks, and is an interesting little design.

There are three problems, unfortunately. And for me, one of them is a deal-killer.

The first problem is that clever card management and evaluation decisions are not terribly evocative of Napoleonic era tactics. Manoeuvre is basically abstract, moreso even than Memoir '44 and much moreso than Command & Colors: Ancients; I can't help but think of it as Advanced Checkers With Cards. It's not terrible, the nations are unique in ways that are somewhat representative, but even the Ottomans and British, historically armies at different extremes, just do not play that differently in the game. The game is constrained by random terrain, a constant and fixed number of units per army, a single meeting engagement style scenario, and the requirement for plausible game balance ... which just doesn't leave much wiggle room.

Secondly, Manoeuvre has something of a pacing problem, especially in the early game. The units start a fair distance away from each other and move only one space a turn. So the opening game of moving to contact just isn't all that interesting, as the cards don't really provide the same sort of tactical drive as the Command & Colors games. So you're moving guys one space at a time, maybe cycling cards, and the game takes a while for things to mix up and get to the interesting bits. The endgame can be a little protracted as well; since one victory condition is to destroy 5 units, you can get into a game of hunting down the last kill that isn't that compelling. Manoeuvre isn't a long game, fortunately, so this all isn't too bad, but the screws could have been tightened a bit here.

The deal-killer for me? Manoeuvre is a basically-abstract card management game. As such it's on a head-on collision course with a variety of games based on very similar card management and evaluation decisions: Blue Moon, Race for the Galaxy, and Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation, just to pick a few. It's a tough space with quite a few brilliant games, and one in which Manoeuvre just isn't that competitive. It's arguably neither as evocative nor anywhere near as compelling as any of these games, and neither is it simpler or shorter.

I think a much better approach was taken by Cambridge Game Factory's Glory to Rome; thanks to Brian over at the Tao of Gaming for putting me on to it. Glory to Rome is in the same family of games as San Juan and Race to the Galaxy: you're trying to build your little empire of buildings with special powers, and do it efficiently and quickly. Glory to Rome has taken the basic San Juan model and layered on some additional levels.

Each card is used for currency or for a building, but now the roles are on the card too, and if you want to either lead or follow a chosen role, you have to play a matching card. Plus, there are more roles. There are more buildings. And there is more process; if you have a Marble in hand and a Basilica you want to build, you can't just pay for it as you can in San Juan; you have to lay the foundation for the Basilica, perhaps using an Architect; you have to put the Marble into your storehouse first (maybe with a Laborer) and then add it to the building (perhaps with a Craftsman). Or maybe you'll decide that the Marble would be better embezzled and the proceeds put into your personal vault (using a Merchant). The Basilica requires 3 marble to finish, so the game becomes a lot about the process of building – which is good, because that's what Glory to Rome is about, rebuilding Rome after Nero's fire.

Where Glory to Rome wins is in the almost out-of-control special powers associated with the buildings. Building buildings in this game can be time-consuming, so you are rewarded with fairly significant advantages: the ability to draw and cycle lots of cards, put cards directly to your storehouse, use cards as other cards, get multiple activations out of individual cards, steal other players' cards or special powers, or immediately end the game. A lot of these powers allow you to take shortcuts in building future buildings (using some stray Rubble in that Sewer instead of Stone), which is also nice in terms of evoking the feeling of working in a corrupt environment of lax oversight.

And so Glory to Rome careens from power to power, with players erecting powerful buildings and trying to maximize their impact. It's a very edgy game. Unlike San Juan or Race for the Galaxy, you can mess with your fellow-players directly, stealing cards from their hands (using the Legionnaire) for example, and buildings can extend and expand that power. It's a very dynamic, fast-moving game, and one that you can often feel just one powerful card combination away from winning, or live in fear of the next building your opponent is going to finish. To be honest, I don't think for a moment that the building special abilities are all that well-balanced. The Colosseum, which flays your opponents clients and throws them to the lions, is extremely nasty. But it's this edginess, speed, and sharp interaction, combined with flavorful and appropriately cartoony artwork, which makes Glory to Rome appealing. Where Manoeuvre seems to have assiduously courted game balance to a degree that seems to have sucked most of the interest out of the game, Glory to Rome seems to have worried about it only enough to get close, and produced something fast, furious, and fun.

While I’ve found Glory to Rome to be a very fun game, I think it's better with smaller numbers of players – 3 or 4 seems to be a better game than 5. My experience was that early games felt like they ran long; maybe around 90 minutes, and I think the game wants to be 60. Once I had played a time or two, that’s where it ended up, but Glory to Rome does have a learning curve which has an unfortunate side-effect of potentially dragging out the game (Race for the Galaxy is much better in this respect; it has a significant learning curve as well, but not knowing what you’re doing won’t make the game longer). So I'd suggest making sure that your first game or two are played with a smaller player-count, then once the game-play has become second nature and you can easily explain it to others, you can add more players.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Games, Theme, Lord of the Rings, and Lost Cities

So, a hypothetical question:

Let's say you're a gamer, and you're trying to decide whether you like a game or not (I know, I know, how often does this really come up?). Let's also assume for the moment that games can be cleanly divided into two parts, theme and game-play. Which of these two halves is easier to get one's head around?

The answer I would have given, prior to last year anyway, was that theme is easier. You can easily tell if a game is evoking a certain feel just from playing it, right? What's so hard about that? It's almost not even worth thinking too much about. Most game discussions seem to me to spend far, far more ink on game-play than on theme.

Or is it really as obvious as all that?

If you step back a bit and think about it, it seems otherwise everywhere else. Literature, for example. Take the Lord of the Rings, a perennial favorite of mine and, it seems, of many gamers. It's easy to appreciate these books for their obvious craft: the use of language, the narrative flow, the easy and economical but exceptionally vivid characterization, the incredible attention to detail, the visceral struggle between good and evil. But to understand and appreciate the themes that run through the books requires digging deeper. What is the nature of the evil Tolkien is portraying? Is the Ring in itself a force of evil, or is it simply the power of it that corrupts even the stoutest of hearts? Tolkien uses the language of both, and that ambiguity in exploring the theme of good vs evil is what makes thinking about the book deeply rewarding, and gives the theme strength and subtlety beyond the Manichaeism traditional to fantasy. This is just one of the themes of the book that can be understood more fully only after appreciating the simple excitement of a well-told story.

And so it sometimes is with games, I've come to understand.

Take Reiner Knizia's classic Lost Cities. For the couple readers who may not have played this game, here is a game-play summary: Lost Cities is played with what is essentially a 5-suited but otherwise standard deck of cards. On your turn, you must play a card on your side of the table, onto one of five columns, one for each suit. You can only play cards in ascending order; once you've played the 6, you can't go back and play a 5. If you want to get that 5 out of your hand, you have to play it to the discard pile, but then your opponent can pick it up instead of drawing from the deck. At the end of the game your score is simply the sum of all the cards you've played in a column, minus 20. The face cards are not numeric, but are doublers: you have to play them before you play a numeric card, and they double your score for that suit (not always a good thing!).

Most players will be immediately struck by the constant, wrenching choices the game throws at you. There are rarely obvious plays; you might have a 2 to start an expedition with, but nothing to back it up, or a couple high cards and you have to decide whether to play them or hold them waiting to fill in some lower-valued cards. Figuring out where and what to play is never easy.

But is the game thematic? I think most players (including myself) would instinctively say no, it's just another basically-abstract Knizia game with a theme of pretty pictures and nice presentation. The game gives you no sense of exploration or adventure. You're just playing cards.

Well, maybe. But if you take a deeper look at the choices that drive the play of those cards, you discover that Lost Cities is a game of risk management. How risky is it to double an expedition given what you know about it so far, i.e., what cards you have in hand? Is it worth it to set out early and leave drawing the rest of the cards you need to chance, or do you want to wait and do more research, see what the draw deck gives you? Do you want to start an expedition which you know has a small risk of a negative score, but no chance of a big positive score, or do you take a risk on an expedition with a greater upside but also a greater downside?

Although I've never put together an expedition to a lost city personally, in my mind I imagine that it would be primarily an exercise in managing and mitigating risks – knowing when you've done all the preparation you can expect to do and it's time to get going, or when there are too many unknowns and more preparation is required. Knowing which expeditions have good prospects and which don't. And in the sense of getting right at that idea – of planning and managing risk – Lost Cities does, in fact, carry the theme wonderfully. And almost by definition this thematic success simply cannot be appreciated until you have fully grasped not just the rules, but all the subtle nuances of the game-play, and not just how to play but how to win.

So now I consider Lost Cities, along with a number of other Knizia games I hadn't fully appreciated before, thematically compelling. It's a different way of presenting a theme – not as visceral as being shot at in Battlestations or dodging incoming asteroids in Galaxy Trucker – but also in many ways arguably as successful.

This all came up recently because I played one of Knizia's latest releases, Keltis. This is basically Lost Cities with room for 3 or 4 players, and a few additional touches – there are now bonus points for reaching certain checkpoints in the expeditions before the other players, which introduces a race element and makes the game-play even more exciting and interesting. Alas, we've lost the theme of expedition, replaced with generic Celtic art and no plausible thematic tie-in that I can discern. The game-play is still there, maybe even more interesting than it used to be, but I don't see any theme to strengthen the story. Perhaps it'll take another 6 or 7 years for me to have the aha! insight that illuminates this one. For the moment, though, if such things matter to you, you might want to wait for Rio Grande's version of the game which will apparently stick with the original expedition theme.