Friday, March 30, 2007

Battle of Nebraska

Another game night over at Eric's - this week's selection was GMT's Command & Colors: Ancients (C&C:A), and Eric selected The Great Plains scenario (leading, once again, to the tongue-in-cheek title of my post), where Roman forces lead by Scipio Africanus (probably not yet called that) and Hannibal faced off towards the end of the Second Punic War between Rome and Carthage. We are, once again, in an historical epoch I'm not terribly knowledgeable about, so I won't say much about that side of things. About the game, though, I do have some thoughts, added to by the fact that I had just played BattleLore (what I call a "sibling" to C&C:A - both released in relatively close proximity to one another, as opposed to Battle Cry and Memoir '44, which I call "ancestors"). We played twice - switching sides after the first battle, and managed to get in both games in a bit under two hours, which was nice.

I really enjoyed C&C:A, somewhat more than I did BattleLore, which while a lot of fun, seemed much more chaotic. Here, there was definitely more of a feel of having a good idea of what the possible responses to one of my moves would be - no Lore wackiness. I thought that was a good thing - but I can see room for differing opinions here, as sometimes a lighter, wackier game may fit the bill more (even for me), but in general, I think given a choice between BattleLore and C&C:A, I'll normally go with C&C:A.

Major differences between the two, beyond the absence of the Lore element found in BattleLore (which, while pretty major, seems also pretty obvious):

Leaders are probably the major difference. Leaders are individual pieces in this game, and they have an appropriately significant effect on the game.
  • Leaders increase the odds of units they are attached to (share a space with), or any units adjacent to that space, of getting a hit. One of the sides of the C&C:A dice is a leader symbol (a plumed helm), and units with leaders attached score hits on the appropriate color, and leader symbols (and possibly another symbol, depending on the unit). So having a leader attached or adjacent ups the odds of a hit significantly. This element makes keeping leaders involved with attack - however, there is an element of risk, as well, as leaders count as victory banners in their own right, so if an attached united is defeated, AND the leader is killed (checked separately), there is the potential loss of TWO victory banners. This tension between wanting your leaders up front and wanting to keep them protected makes for some interesting decision angst during the course of a game.
  • Quite a few of the command cards have effects based on leaders or leadership - things like activating a leader and up to three units in a group adjacent to the leader, or that sort of thing. This tends to make you keep your units in cohesive groups, as that increases your options as far as moving and attacking with them
  • Leaders allow an attached unit to ignore one retreat flag rolled against them. This can be a big deal, as retreat is much harsher in C&C:A than in BattleLore
Battling Back is somewhat similar, but it's always an option as long as you are not eliminated (or forced to retreat), regardless of whether you are supported. Support (two adjacent units) does give you the ability to ignore retreats, however, which is a big deal in C&C:A, as retreats make the unit move one full MOVEMENT, rather than just a hex. This is especially important for cavalry, as they move quickly, but also retreat quickly when forced to.

Another element is the differences between units - there are roughly the same number of unit types in C&C:A as BattleLore, but the differences between units are greater. For instance, light infantry can attack in close combat with 2 dice (and attack ranged at a range of 2 hexes), while heavy infantry can attack with 5 dice (but only in close combat). Heavy infantry isn't very mobile, but they hit hard, and you think twice before attacking them, since they will likely Battle Back (unless you manage to make them retreat, or score enough hits to eliminate them). And note, the scenario I played didn't even use two of the types of units - I've yet to play with Elephants or Chariots, which are definitely quite a bit different still.

Finally, the command deck seriously emphasizes keeping units in line formation - quite a few command cards (separate from the leadership cards previously mention) allow a line of units all adjacent to advance and attack (if possible).

I wouldn't be surprised to see some of these elements incorporated into BattleLore in the future (especially more unit types), but some I think would be difficult to bring in - the primary effect of Leaders is tightly tied to the availability of command cards that use them. Also, the role of Leaders in C&C:Ancients seems entirely appropriate for the type of battles being fought - they would seem less so for the medieval battles of knights and archers that is the starting point for BattleLore.

In short, of all of the Commands & Colors games I've played (which, at this point, includes all of the published ones - although I've not played any of the Memoir '44 variants published as expansions), C&C:A is the one I find most interesting. I was initially a bit overwhelmed by all the different unit types, but I actually think the blocks as used by GMT are easier to tell apart than the figures used by Days of Wonder for BattleLore (although the flags/banners in BattleLore do simplify this considerably).

With that - I must be on my way. We won't be having a game next week, as I'll be out of town at the Gathering of Friends in Columbus next week. Many games will be played, but none of them with Eric, so I won't be blogging about them here.

In a couple of weeks (after my return), we'll be playing something, but I haven't made my selection yet - I'm thinking of trying another Combat Commander scenario, but I may have some other ideas in the intervening couple of weeks.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Back and forth we go...

First off, apologies for the delayed post. Family was in town over the weekend for our daughter's third birthday party and I ended up with a computer failure this morning before getting this post completed.

It's been a busy few days.

Anyway, Tim and I got together last week for BattleLore.

Tim had played Battle Cry a lot, and had played the Agincourt scenario in BL, so he knew the basics. I'd played the initial lore scenario (#5), so we decided to go with the simplest scenario that had a full War Council. That turns out to be #7 (Crisis in Avignon).

This scenario sees Sir Hugh Calverley attacking a bridge over a river (defended by Sire Arnoul d'Audrehem) in the SW corner of the map. The bridge is worth a victory point if the English can take and hold the bridge. Game is to 5 VPs for either side, and the forces are balanced. (5 medium and 2 heavy infantry each, 2 archers, 2 medium cavalry.) Each side also has an identical war council of level 6: a Lvl 2 Commander and Lvl 1 everywhere else.

A handful of hills dot the battlefield, and there's small copses of woods in the middle of either flank. Nothing really of note other than the river.

In the first game, Tim took the English, and I had the French. Early activity centered on the right flank with the medium cavalry taking the brunt of it. Tim counter attacked on his right. About mid-game, he pulled off the move of the day. He used the Sneak Attack Lore card to move his heavy infantry three hexes right onto the top of the bridge, taking that VP. A furious final charge on my part fell just short, but not after taking out a couple weakened units. Final score was 5-4 for the English (Tim) with one of the five being the bridge.

We swapped sides and gave it another go. This time, activity focused on the English left and center. I jumped out to a lead, but at the cost of bringing three or four units down to single figures. In the end, I ran out of cards I could use to pull these weak units out of Tim's reach, and he squished a number of them. Final score in this game was 5-4 for the French (Tim) without the English taking the bridge. (Tim parked one of his two heavy foot units on the bridge early on.)

Final score for the evening was 10-8 for Tim, and we were done in right about two hours total.

So... what did I learn about the game? The Lore cards really add a level of chaos that I'm not accustomed to in a wargame. You begin to plan for it after a while, but without being familiar with the Lore deck it's hard to know what kinds of things you might see. After having played the basic lore scenario a couple times I was partly prepared for the mental shift the Lore cards bring but there's still nothing like actually playing the game.

It's really hard to go into much detail here. The tactical part of the game is only slightly more complex than Memoir '44. The Lore cards, however, add a bit of chaos and wackiness that sometimes works, and sometimes doesn't. Maybe I just need to play it more. I'm not sure. I definitely like the game better than M'44 or Battle Cry, but I just see the Lore part of it dominating too much. There are some pretty powerful effects in those Lore cards.

Next time, we're going to be playing Command and Colors: Ancients. This is the most tactically complex of the entire series to date, and it will be a nice contrast to BattleLore. The comparisons will be interesting to see.

Two Crises in One Evening

Wednesday saw a game of Battlelore - and we managed to play the same scenario twice, switching sides such that we got to try it from both perspectives. I don't recall a lot of detail from the game, so I'm going to paint with a broad brush my impressions of the game - as background, I have previously played Battlelore's ancestors, Battle Cry and Memoir '44, but have yet to try it's sibling, Command & Colors: Ancients (but I believe that is our plan for this week, so I should be able to do a bit of compare and contrast at that point).

Given that both Eric and I were quite familiar with the basic mechanics of the games (having played previously, or played similar games at least), we started with a scenario (Crisis in Avignon, hence the post title) that involved quite a bit of lore - each player has a pre-set war-council consisting of a level 2 Commander, and level 1's of each of the other Loremasters (Rogue, Warrior, Wizard and Cleric). As a result, the deck of lore cards had a little bit of everything mixed into it, and gave us a good chance to experiment with several of the different types of lore. I put the Rogue cards to good use in both games, but also got a lot of mileage from the Wizard and Warrior cards - I didn't see many Cleric cards, so therefore didn't get a chance to play with those.

As you might expect, each Loremaster focuses on a different aspect of the game - the Rogue tends to be surprise effects, like Ambush, which lets a unit being attacked attack first, or Surprise Attack, which allows a unit to move significantly farther than normal, and still attack. I used the Surprise Attack with one of my Calvary, managing to take the bridge that was worth a victory banner from a distance that would not have been legal otherwise. The Warrior has cards that directly affect battle - there is one (whose name I forget) that allows a unit to ignore one banner color hit that turn (Eric used that one extensively), and another that shields ALL units in a similar fashion. The Wizard tended to be more broad effects, but the Wizard cards were also more expensive to trigger - I remember using Chain Lightning in our 2nd game (where I was the French defending the bridge) to eliminate one unit, and seriously damage 2 or 3 others, for example, but this cost all of my lore at the time (IIRC, it was 9, but I could be off by as much as 2 here). As I mentioned, I personally didn't see many Cleric cards, so I don't have a good feel for what the Cleric's powers are (although I would imagine they include healing, protection and some damage dealing).

The Lore element of BattleLore is the primary new addition to the game - there are non-human troops (dwarves and goblins), as well as creatures (giant spider, earth elemental and hill giant, so far) which I'm sure will add another layer, but the main difference between this game and it's predecessors is Lore. On the whole, I think it's an entertaining element, but I'm not entirely sure what I think about how it affects the game - there are definitely more wacky turns of fate in games involving lore, as the lore effects can fairly rapidly change the on-board situation. I think this makes the game a bit less predictable - whether that is good or bad will depend on what you are looking for out of a game like this.

Me - despite generally preferring games with a bit less Chaos (I'm a EuroGamer by background, if not strictly dogmatic in my adherence to those sorts of games), I have so far really enjoyed this series of games, and BattleLore seems like it has a bit more to it than the previous two I've played. It will be interesting to compare it to C&C: Ancients - I believe the base mechanisms are quite similar, but Ancients introduces leaders to the mix, and I'm interested to see how that works.

Given that our plan (as I understood it) is to give C&C: Ancients a try this Wednesday, I'll have a better idea what the difference between the two is afterwards - and you folks will certainly hear what my thoughts are!

Until next week!

Monday, March 19, 2007

Saracens Take Jerusalem (Crusade Declared a Success Regardless)

Thursday saw Eric and I facing off over the Holy Land in a game of Crusader Rex, a Columbia block-game set during the Crusades - the 3rd Crusade, to be exact - in the late 1100s (1187-1192). I'll state right up front that my knowledge of this historical period is sketchy at best, so I don't have much to say as to whether the game "accurately simulates" anything - but I can also say up front that our game Thursday was an enjoyable, and closely fought, match between Saracens and Franks (aka Crusaders).

It's probably important to note, as well, that we were playing with the 1.4 version of the rules (the latest, to the best of my knowledge) - I had played Crusader Rex early last year (with the rule set as initially released) and found it much less balanced, with the Franks having a very tough time of it. I lost again - this time playing the Saracens - but enjoyed the experience much more than last time, as it felt as though both of us were in the game up to the very last. If a single die-roll had gone differently (Eric's garrison in Egypt, doing winter attrition) on the last turn, I'd have won. In fact, after the game, Eric pointed out a move I could (probably should) have made and won the game outright (taking Acre with a small force from Damascus - it would have required a forced march, but Eric didn't have the forces he would needed drive me back out, and had left it un-garrisoned). Sadly, I didn't see this - I had forgotten that I could force march, and discounted that move as it was 4 stops away from Damascus, rather than the 3 my units could move normally. Ah well - the game was very tight, and tense throughout - as the Saracens, I never really felt as though I was at risk of losing my starting locations (other than Egypt), but I was constantly under pressure trying to react to Eric's attacks, especially on Jerusalem and Tripoli, and also had to see to the defenses of my home cities (which I did poorly for Egypt, but did fairly well for Aleppo and Damascus).

In our match, it became clear that the two sides were pushed to take very different approaches - Eric, as the Franks, tended to concentrate his forces into the few major locations, while the Saracens, under my command, also tended to form large forces (a side-effect of the typical Columbia rule allowing a group of units to be activated and moved en-masse), but Saracen units are more mobile than the Franks typically are (a movement of 3, compared to a typical movement of 2 for most of the Franks, with some exceptions).

The victory conditions of the game are whoever controls a majority of the 7 major cities - Antioch & Aleppo in the north, Tripoli, Damascus & Acre in the middle, and Jerusalem & Egypt in the south - win after the final turn in 1192, OR if either player ever controls all 7 of those cities they win immediately. I suspect the "sudden death" ending isn't terribly common, because it's quite tough to take a major city if it has any garrison to speak of!

As the Saracens, my forces started out in control of Aleppo, Damascus and Egypt, which puts the Saracens on the offensive in that they must take at least one of the other major cities in order to have a chance at victory. Fairly early in our match, I was able to take Tripoli, on the coast of Lebanon, as well as gathering a strong force in Tiberias, just west of Acre, but also close enough to Jerusalem to be a threat.

This brings to mind another interesting element of Crusader Rex - Winter, which is the last of six rounds in each year, are typically used to disperse your forces (making them harder to gather and use easily), as you are required to have forces winter in towns that have enough capacity to handle them. If you winter in a town friendly to your side, you can hold 3 times the normal capacity of a town you have captured from your opponent. This forces, at the end of each year, both players to disperse their units in order to avoid being eliminated by the harsh winters. The Saracens also have an added challenge - normally, in winter, units can use the value of the city they are quartered in to rebuild their strength. Saracen units, however, only get the full benefit of this if they are in their home city (stated on each block, and where they start) - otherwise, it costs them 2 town points to restore 1 point on a block away from home. I don't recall this rule from my initial playing, and it is the one that I think most successfully balances the Saracen mobility - Saracen units can travel very quickly across the board, but it doesn't do to get them TOO far from home, especially if they've seen battle, as they become difficult to restore to full strength when not in their home locales.

Most of the battles in our game were in cities initially controlled by the Franks - other than capturing Egypt with the French crusader blocks, due to my unwisely leaving Egypt ungarrisoned, the Franks never brought the battle to the Saracen home countries - which I suspect is accurate, given that the trigger of these crusades was, apparently, the Saracens taking Jerusalem. I am certain that, had I been more alert, I could have taken the game (I never really felt as though I had a chance at the "all seven cities" victory condition, but I probably should have been able to keep 5 of the seven).

Eric asked me if I had ever felt "threatened" as the Saracen - as I mentioned, I didn't feel as though my "home" territories were threatened, no, but I felt constantly under pressure from the Franks, especially as the English and French Crusaders entered the game (the Germans showed up so late as to not have any effect on the game, other than to secure Antioch). Those units are so dominating - especially given the ability to use the Knights Charge - doubling the number of dice rolled at the risk of some hits to your units - that they were definitely a focus of my defense. I suspect that is probably as it should be - the Saracens need to go on the offensive, and if they can keep the pressure up, they should. One of my failings was I didn't follow up a late year strong showing in a battle in Antioch, where I knew the Franks were weak, even with points to rebuild. I should have attacked Antioch again early the next year, as that would have given me the potential of eliminating more of the Frank defenders while they were weakened from the previous combat.

I really enjoyed our playing of Crusader Rex - much more so than my first playing, due in large part to the rules improvements, although it might also have had to do with being the Saracens as opposed to the Franks in my first playing. I need to give this game a try as the Franks, with the current rules, to fully form an opinion, but this was an entertaining evening, only lasting a bit longer than our aim of 3 hours (I think we wrapped up around 11:30 or so, after getting started around 8:15 or 8:20). I really like the "block games" in general - both the "fog of war" element, and the stepped losses, really make for an elegant system that wraps quite a bit of decisions into a simple implementation. The map and "history" in this particular version is definitely interested - especially given that a lot of these places are still in the news today (for similar reasons).

As to our next game, I am likely to select either BattleLore or C&C:Ancients - largely this will depend on whether Eric has BattleLore (if he does, that's my choice). Until next week, then!

Sunday, March 18, 2007

No need for a 4th Crusade. We're fine.

Game: Crusader Rex
Franks: Eric
Saracens: Tim

I decided to pull out Crusader Rex this week. This is Columbia Game's block game covering the 3rd Crusade. I had received it as a birthday present from my mother-in-law, and had been looking forward to trying this one long before that.

We randomly chose sides, and I ended up with the Franks.

I had never played before, and Tim had played under the original 1.0 version of the rules. In that version it was very hard for the Franks to win. The rules are up to version 1.4 now, and the balance seems to be coming close. Some would say the Franks are now favored, but it's apparently close enough to make a good game of it.

The Basics

The game is played on what is essentially a point-to-point map of the Levant. (the modern Middle East Mediterranean coastline) There are a number of cities on the map, but only seven of them really matter. (Aleppo, Antioch, Damascus, Tripoli, Acre, Jerusalem, Egypt. Yeah, I know Egypt's not a city.) The Franks start the game in possession of Antioch, Tripoli, Acre, and Jerusalem. Victory conditions are controlling the majority of the 7 key cities at the end of the game, or an auto-victory is possible if you control all seven simultaneously.

The game lasts 6 years (1187-1192). Each year has six turns, the last of which is a winter turn with limited actions available. At the beginning of each turn, each player is dealt 6 cards from a 25-card deck. The cards are numbered 1-3, with four event cards. The numbered cards determine a couple things. First, the Franks will go first each turn unless the Saracen card is numbered higher. Second, the card you play determines the number of actions you get. An action is (usually) either activating a city containing your blocks for movement, or activating a friendly city to act as a muster point to which all blocks in range can move.

Combat can either be done as a field battle or a siege. What I believe are standard block-game mechanics apply. (I've only played Hammer of the Scots, so I have a limited experience with block games.) Each block has three combat-related ratings: strength, combat quickness, and combat effectiveness. (The latter two are my terms – I don't recall what the official names for these ratings are.) Strength runs from 1 to 4 and determines the number of dice you roll. These are indicated by triangles around the edge of the stickers on the blocks, and you rotate your block whenever you take a hit (thus losing strength.) Combat Quickness is a rating from A to C. A's go before B's before C's. Combat effectiveness is a rating from 1 to 4. When you roll dice, every die showing a number equal to or less than your Combat Effectiveness is a hit. Hits must be applied to the strongest opposing block at that moment. If there's a tie, the block's owner chooses who takes the hit. Combat is not considered simultaneous – there is a definite and defined sequence to the events. Finally, the defending side in a battle goes before the attacking side, and the attackers must retreat if the battle reaches a 4th round with blocks still on the field from both sides.

Sieges change combat somewhat. If the defenders stay within the city, it takes two hits for them to lose a strength point. Also, the storming side is limited to twice the city rating in active blocks while the defender is limited to the city rating as a defense force. Defenders can sally out, but lose the double-hit advantage on defense. If the siege reaches 2nd and subsequent turns, defenders are subject to attrition, which is basically a 50/50 shot at losing a strength point at the end of each turn. Relief forces are also possible, turning the besiegers into defenders.

The winter turn is usually one where you try to position yourself so you don't lose any blocks due to attrition, and maximize your replenishment opportunities. Sieges can't be prosecuted over the winter except in the case where you play the Winter Campaign card in the final turn, and losses on the besieging side are likely.

At the end of every turn after the first year, each side draws a block from their replacement pool, placing it either directly on the map, or into one of three holding boxes in the case of Crusaders.

My attempt at creating a Permanent Crusader State

I wasn't really sure how to start off in my quest to conquer the Holy Land. The three cities I needed to take – Damascus, Aleppo, and Egypt, are all rather well fortified. Between, there are lots Saracens scattered hither and yon. I needed to try taking these cities while holding what I already possessed. Of course, merely holding on to what I started with would win the game for me. I decided to muster my scattered units into a handful of larger forces. My thoughts were it would be easier to move them in cases of a bad hand, and I could always split a force apart right before wintering if losses needed to be healed. So, I spent the first half of the first turn mustering troops together.

Meanwhile, Tim decided Jerusalem looked like a ripe target. I don't recall if it was in the first turn, or early second, but Jerusalem fell rather easily. I spent most of the first two or three turns feeling like I was in constant regrouping mode. In some ways, it felt very much like playing the Americans in Twilight Struggle. I was holding on against a Saracen onslaught trying to chip away while waiting for reinforcements (Crusaders) to arrive.

Between Jerusalem and a couple other sieges that were over quick, I was really beginning to wonder if it was a sane choice to retreat to the castle when given the opportunity. It seemed that the doubled resistance on defense was more than offset by double the number of attackers. It didn't help that the majority of the Saracens were A-rated, and the Franks only have two A-rated blocks in the entire army. This meant Tim was nearly always going first in combat whether he was attacking or not. It was becoming very difficult to pull off the slow attrition plan I had in mind.

Sometime around mid game Tripoli fell. I think it changed hands three times during the game.

The Crusaders slowly started trickling into the replacement pools. I actually got all three English before any French or Germans appeared, getting the English (the strongest Crusader force) to arrive in 1190. My first goal with the English was to retake Tripoli. It didn't go well. In fact, the English died to a man. The only thing that made it feel any better was that it was at the hands of Saladin himself. In the 1190 year, I think Tim went first every turn. He definitely took the initiative at that point. I was left with control of only Acre and Antioch, and was relatively weak. It wasn't looking good.

As 1191 arrived Tim was looking like he was preparing to go for the kill. He was amassing forces in Damascus and Aleppo, and was slowly trying to expand a wedge between my forces. At this point, the French arrived. And, at this point, Tim had left Egypt empty. After all, there wasn't much I could do in the south without abandoning Acre, and that meant Egypt should have been safe. Except for the fact that the French could land in any friendly port and Ascalon (two cities away from Egypt and behind Tim's lines) was a friendly port. So, the French landed in Ascalon and headed straight to Egypt. That put the score at 4-3 with one turn left.

Early in 1192, the Germans finally arrived and amassed in Antioch. That made it nearly impossible to take. So, I had two options left to pull off a victory – take Jerusalem or Tripoli. I had eight blocks within striking range of Tripoli, but one was north and the other south. It would take multiple activations to pull it off. I also had a force centered in Acre. It was too far away to support Egypt, and Tim had clearly abandoned any thought of taking Acre and was reinforcing Tripoli. So, I left Acre empty and trundled off to Jerusalem.

On the next-to-last turn of the year, Jerusalem finally fell into my hands. Meanwhile, Tim was besieging Egypt. I was leading at this point 4-3. On the final turn, the siege of Egypt left Tim and I down to one block each, both with a single strength point left. It came down to Winter Attrition in Egypt to decide the game. If I failed the roll, Tim won. If not, I did.

Fortunately, the roll went my way and the Franks held on for a 4-3 victory.

As this was my first playing, I know there was loads of sub-optimal play. Tim, to be sure, missed an opening in the final turn where he could have taken Acre by a forced march. (I had left a gap in my defense-in-depth. I had single units in Tiberias, Caesarea, and Sidon. If the latter had been in Tyre, I had all the approaches blocked. As it stood, he had an opening.)

That said, I enjoyed the experience quite a bit. I constantly felt like I was constantly on the verge of collapse, but still managed to hang on and eek out a victory. I think Tim certainly could have been more aggressive as he never really was threatened the entire game.

This one's definitely a keeper. The decisions are tense - at least in the fact that you have to consider the resulting board position of any particular move - and there seems to be a variety of feasible strategies. And, given we literally went down to the final die roll, it seems they've got the balance issues somewhat figured out.


Next week's game will be Tim's choice on Wednesday, and I haven't heard word one about what it'll be. Looks like we'll be on a regular schedule for a while with the exception of the first week of April as Tim's off to the Gathering.

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Suspended animation

Due to this coming weekend being the third in a row when I'm traveling, work deadlines, and yet another sick kid, I've got no time to game this week.

Tim and I will be returning next week with Crusader Rex on the table. Normalcy should ensue after that.

Monday, March 5, 2007

Twlight Struggle and Evoking the Cold War

I'm going to take a different tack today, and focus more on elements I like about Twilight Struggle rather than giving you a plain-vanilla session report, although I should probably get at least a cursory one of those out of the way, as it leads in to what I want to discuss . . .

Eric and I played another game of Twilight Struggle Thursday - I was the Russians, and other than entertaining tidbits such as winning the Korean war (and taking over South Korea), turning Israel into a Communist stronghold in the middle-east (off-set by the back-and-forth battle over Egypt), and dominating Europe for much of the game, I got my behind handed to me, in no uncertain terms (US automatic victory - +20 VP - on turn 8, IIRC). I also had at least two of the WORST CASE hands of nothing but events for my opponent, which resulted in a two-turn VP swing on the order of 26 points or so (from -13 to +13 in two turns). And yet, I still enjoyed the game - in fact, I enjoyed this iteration more than our last effort, where in absolute terms I did much better.

That leads me into what I want to discuss - what is it about Twilight Struggle that made me enjoy a thorough beating more than a respectable showing?

A few things occur to me as important here:
  • Our first game ended with an anti-climatic loss of control of Europe, despite having done relatively well on the rest of the board, and while I saw this coming, it felt like there was little I could do about it within the game
  • In the first game, I must admit to having little idea what I needed to do in order to do well in the game - what the different actions in the game would cause to happen were largely opaque to me (this likely aggravated my first point about feeling a lack of control)
  • The second game, I can definitely point to mistakes I made throughout the game that led to the result - this is mostly a factor of the game play and "arc" becoming less opaque, and my understanding what was going on better than last time (even if my responses and actions weren't as effective in this game)
  • Both games had a definite element of "story" or narrative to them - by that, I mean that there were events and occurrences in both games that allow my imagination to go to work, and imagine what might have been rather than what actually was (witness my notes above about interesting situations occurring in our game - not much in the way of rules detail, but a lot in the way of "flavor")
I'm still a long way off from having a good grasp of how to do well at this game - I handed Eric several points over the course of the game by forgetting that I could use coups in non-battleground countries without affecting the DefCon level, and I definitely didn't play the Middle East very well, despite the entertainment of having taken Israel fairly early and holding it for the rest of the game.

On the whole, though, Twilight Struggle has that elusive element of "fun" about it - it engages my imagination, but does so by evoking events and situations that ring true. This "ring of truth" is important - especially for games like Twilight Struggle - in that the arc of events needs to feel like it makes sense, at the very least internally to the game, and ideally they make sense in general. The game structure of Twilight Struggle, which immerses you in the cold-war belief system, including the domino theory of geopolitics and the general perspective of the world as bi-polar (between the United States on one pole, and the Soviet Union on the other), definitely works to evoke an internally consistent "story" that also happens to feel like it could have been the way things went in the real world but for a few changes in the course of history.

I find that the games I like (speaking generally, now) are, indeed, those that have some element of narrative to them - barring some abstract strategy games I enjoy, most of my favorite games have at least a veneer of this element to them, even some of my favorite, thinly-themed Eurogames, have some portion of the game that my imagination can grab onto and develop a narrative about the events that occur (even if only inside the dark recesses of my own mind).

In short - OK, too late ;) - Twilight Struggle definitely does a good job of engaging my imagination, and even in cases where my performance on the board is less than ideal (as was the case in our game Thursday), the experience of playing outweighs whatever the outcome of the game might be. That being said, I'm definitely going for the victory in these games (little point in playing if I'm not - especially a game like Twilight Struggle that relies on the tension of your opponents actions to evoke the cold-war) - but I'm must admit that the final outcome is less important than whether the game engages my imagination in the course of it's internal narrative.

I'm not sure what we're playing next week - Eric has hinted at either Crusader Rex or Commands & Colors: Ancients, either of which I'm fine with. So - I'll see you next week with my thoughts on whatever we end up playing!

Sunday, March 4, 2007

Reagan Bombs Libya, Soviet Union Crumbles

I'm posting this from a Mexican restaurant in the Las Vegas airport. Had a coed softball tournament this weekend, and we didn't do too badly. Went 2-2 and got knocked out in our last game by a 26-25 score by a team that was probably a level or two above us. Our only other loss was in extra innings, so we made a pretty good showing.

Twilight Struggle

USA: Eric
Ambiance: Family Guy and American Idol (courtesy of Jodie), and the XM Fine Tuning stream.

Tim and I played Twilight Struggle again this week, this time at his request. As he wasn't all that sure about it last time, he wanted to play again to see if he likes the game or not. He was a bit ambivalent last time.

We decided to log the hands we were dealt as the game progressed. I also tracked who had the China card, the score at the beginning of the turn, cards held from the prior turn, and what was played for the headline. Forgot to log the DEFCON status each turn, but I can remember some of them. I'll mark the Soviet events with asterisks so you can get a quick feel for the relative ugliness of a given hand.

Turn 1 – Score 0
*Socialist Governments
*Arab-Israeli war
*Korean War
*Fidel - Headline
Duck and Cover
Formosan Revolution
Asia scoring
Middle East Scoring

Yuck. Two scoring cards, and I don't have the China card to spend in Asia. Headlined Fidel as Central America scoring doesn't come up for a long time, and it gives me time to mitigate damage there. Tim's not going to be able to exploit Fidel for a while as there are more critical things to work on. I believe I Space Raced Korean War, and Socialist Governments was discarded when Tim played blockade. Not a good start, but it could have been a lot worse.

Turn 2 – China Card – Score -6
*Romanian Abdication
Truman Doctrine
Indo Pakistani War
Red Scare/Purge – headline
Olympic Games

No scoring cards in my hand here, and I know Europe is coming. Headlined Red Purge to keep Tims ops down for the turn. This is one very noticeable change in the 2nd edition. Making Red Scare/Purge a 4 Ops card really makes you think twice about how you use it. Used the China card, and held Containment and Decolonization. Space Raced De-Stalinization. Things fell my way a bit this turn, and I was feeling somewhat okay about where I'd be when the Mid War started.

Turn 3 – Score -3
Held – *Decolonization
Held – Containment
US/Japan Mutual Defense Pact
Truman Doctrine
Nuclear Test Ban – headline
Red Scare/Purge
Olympic Games

You have to like being in the Early War and not drawing any Soviet cards. I think I even poked my nose into positive scoring territory. However, Europe was not going my way and Tim stretched his lead. The good part about it was that I knew European Scoring was not going to come up again for a long time. Held Decolonization again, and I didn't Space Race anything.

Turn 4 – China Card – Score -10
Held – *Decolonization
*Flower Power
*Arab-Israeli War
*Brezhnev Doctrine
ABM Treaty
Grain Sales to Soviets
Marshall Plan
Ussuri River Skirmish – headline

As I held the China Card here, I headlined Ussuri River Skirmish to get the influence in Asia. Taiwan was starting to become a hotly contested space (I think it ended with 9 influence to 7 in Tim's favor). Space Raced Flower Power and held Brezhnev until my last play of the turn. Using the China Card allowed me to hold the other Soviet events off until next turn. I used a lot of Ops points this turn working on the Middle East, SE Asia, and South America in that order. Didn't do much for events. Tim inched the score his direction.

Turn 5 – Score -13
Held – *Arab-Israli War
Held – *Decolonization
'Ask Not What Your Country Can Do for You...'
*Cultural Revolution
*Liberation Theology
*Muslim Revolution
*South African Unrest
Middle East Scoring – headline
Alliance for Progress

This was ideal for me. The Middle East was in good shape so I scored it in the headline. Tim's first play was Lone Gunman. I showed him a hand full of Soviet events, and promptly discarded them on my first play with Ask Not...

*Arab-Israeli War
*South African Unrest
*Liberation Theology
*Cultural Revolution.

Puppet Governments
South America Scoring
Nuclear Subs

I think I space raced Quagmire. South America started falling away from me, so I scored it before it could get much worse. I was starting to dominate the equator (Asia, Middle East, Central America) and Tim had the rest, for the most part. Africa was a bit of a tossup at this point. Score was a wash this turn with South America and effects balancing out the Middle East. I'm just trying to hang on until the Late war at this point.

Turn 6 – China card – Score -13
Held – *Muslim Revolution
*U2 Incident
Cuban Missile Crisis
Camp David Accords – headline
Arms Race
Indo Pakistani War
Sadat Expels Soviets
Central America Scoring
Africa Scoring

Headlined Camp David for the VP and the influence. Also, I didn't want Arab-Israeli War to bite me again as I never controlled Israel the entire game. Tim did. Africa ended a point or two in my favor, and I scored big points with Central America and Asia (which was in Tim's hand. SE Asia was scored here as well, IIRC, for a couple points in my favor. At least that's how I remember it going.) I held Cuban Missile Crisis as the time wasn't quite right to play it that turn, and I space raced Muslim Revolution.

Turn 7 – China Card – Score 5
Held – Cuban Missile Crisis
Duck and Cover
UN Intervention
ABM Treaty – Headline
Indo Pakistani War
Middle East Scoring
Arms Race

Played ABM treaty as a headline for the ops in the Middle East, and played Middle East Scoring early on for big points. Got rid of Quagmire with UN Intervention, and Tim had a scoring card that went my way as well. The late Mid War was really decisive as the score went from -13 to 16 in two turns. I played Cuban Missile Crisis right away to keep Tim from coup attempts, and the Indo Pakistani War gave me the milops I needed to score a couple more points there. I held Duck and Cover to take advantage of it at the beginning of the next turn.

Turn 8 – Score 16
Held – Duck and Cover – Headline
*Brezhnev Doctrine
*Iranian Hostage Crisis
*De Gaulle Leads France
John Paul II Elected Pope
Iran-Iraq War

Duck and Cover got me 3 VPs, and my first card play of the turn could have won me the game had my space race play succeeded. It failed, however. Tim was unable to do much about the score, and I held Chernobyl for next turn, just in case my hand fell into a position where I needed to score a region for the win. Again, I played Brezhnev as my last card play. I actually look forward to drawing that card as I can completely neuter it nearly every time I get it.

Turn 9 – China Card – Score 19
Held – Chernobyl
Reagan Bombs Libya – Headline
Latin American Death Squads
Star Wars
Soviets Shoot Down KAL-007
*Marine Barracks Bombing
*Ortega Elected in Nicaragua
*Warsaw Pact Formed

I had two choices on my headline card to win the game, but went with Reagan Bombs Libya as there was no possible DEFCON mishap. The game was won in the headline phase as Tim had 2 influence in Libya, giving me the 1 VP I needed to hit 20.

This game was won for a couple reasons. I dominated the equator and had the good fortune to have scoring cards in those regions come up two straight turns. Also, the turn I had the ugliest hand of the game, I had a huge escape hatch in Ask Not. The 2nd worst hand I had was in turn 9, and it didn't matter as the game was over before they ever saw the light of day.

Tim said he enjoyed this playing a lot more than the previous one even though he was in bad shape the entire last half of the game. Probably because of the anti-climactic way in which the previous game ended, this one felt better to him, and improved markedly in his opinion. It's always a challenge to play the US, and I felt a lot better about how I managed my board position. I'm still trying to get a feel for how to play South America and Africa, though. Also, Tim's been killing me on the space race, constantly running out ahead. Got to work on that, too.


This week's game will also be on Wednesday. It's my turn to choose this week, and we're going to go with Crusader Rex. We'll be using the most recent revision of the rules (1.4) which apparently mitigates the balance issues that hampered prior versions.