Friday, October 3, 2008

But it looks great on the table...

There are those that will fondly look back on the days of Avalon Hill as the “golden age of wargaming.” To me, it's “golden” only if you consider golden anniversaries as celebrating something that happened a long time ago.

The real “golden age” of wargaming is now. The games being produced today have better production (okay, so they're not mounted maps...), better design, and a much wider experience in gameplay. No individual game is printed in the numbers Avalon Hill used to crank out in the day, but it wouldn't surprise me if the total number of games being produced isn't somewhere within at least hailing distance of what was being printed 30 years ago.

Preorder systems instituted by most companies insure that, for the most part, only the games people want are the ones that are printed. This has had an interesting side effect. The quality bar is much higher than it was long ago. “Substandard” games frequently either don't make the cut and are never produced, or they languish back in the queue as more popular games keep bumping them back. Many companies publish their rules in advance so prospective buyers have a good idea of how games will function and whether it's a game for them.

This has had the effect of making “wasted”gaming time a rarity. People are nearly always playing games they like as they knew in advance what the experience would probably be and shied away from games not up their alley.

This week's post is about the exception that proves the rule.

A few months ago, I got Warriors of God from MMP. This is (again) part of their IGS line of games that have been so successful. Titles such as A Victory Lost, Storm over Stalingrad, and Fire in the Sky have received numerous accolades and awards. I was particularly looking forward to this title as I don't believe there has ever been a game that attempts to cover the entire Hundred Years War.

It's a gorgeous production, and might be Mark Mahaffey's best map to date. The tiles (no, I'm not calling them counters – they're big and thick, so they're tiles) are beautiful and look good on the map. The rules are also very attractive, though I have issues with the font choice and layout in the combat examples.

There are two scenarios in the game – The Hundred Years War (1337-1453), and The Lion in Winter which covers the 1135-1258 time frame. In the first you get Jeanne d'Arc, in the 2nd you get Robin Hood.

WoG is another area-impulse game. The catch with this one is that, due to the incredible length of time the game covers (12 turns over 100 years), your leaders will die during the game while others come of age to replace them. Also, the number of impulses in a turn is random – you roll a contested d6 for initiative, and the winner gets the loser's die roll (+ 2 more) in actions. The loser gets one less. Leaders are rated for rank, bravery, and command. You get points for controlling areas, and killing or capturing leaders. Hitting 20 points give you an auto-victory, and it's a zero-sum thing. (There's just one VP scale, not two.)

I think that's enough background. Let's look at the turn sequence. I'm going to go into this in a rather large amount of detail because it is within the turn sequence that my issues with the game mostly lie.

Each turn has 11 phases. They are:
  1. Determine initiative
  2. Action impulses
  3. Resolve battles
  4. Determine area control
  5. Raise troops
  6. Deploy unassigned troops
  7. Exchange captured leaders
  8. Determine leader survival
  9. Place incoming leaders
  10. Dispose of leaderless troops
  11. Adjust score
Initiative I've covered. There are modifiers for having your king in your home area, or not having a king. (Only a 3-rank leader may be king.)

Now, here's where things start to get odd.

Then you do your impulses. On an impulse, you move a number of leaders from one area to any adjacent area. Only one may cross obstructed boundaries, two over clear, and three over rivers. (Yes, you can move more troops over a river than across clear ground.) One may cross a naval boundary, except the British may move two this way in the HYW scenario. The exception to this is what they call the “flypaper” rule. It's basically pinned leaders in the same area as enemy, with the addition that a control marker counts as a leader for this purpose only. Number of troops controlled by the leaders in these contested areas is irrelevant for this rule. If you move into an area containing enemy troops, you become the aggressor unless there's already an aggressor in that area.

After impulses are over, you fight battles in areas containing both sides' troops. If one side controls the area, he may offer siege. (In other words, hide in his castle.) In this era, sieges weren't reduced to science, and in many cases it's actually harder to successfully siege than it is to win a battle.

In a normal battle, the highest ranking leader on both sides is commander, and you generally roll his command rating (or number of troops in the ares whichever is less) in dice, needing 6s to hit. The number of dice can be increased if you have longbowmen around, and the to-hit roll can be reduced if you have better bravery than your opposing ranking leader. Each hit reduces the other side by a like number of strength points. (Except knights can absorb two hits.) You keep going until one side either retreats or is completely eliminated. The exception here is that if the aggressor scores zero hits on three consecutive rounds of combat the defender may eject them from the area. When you're rolling, say, four dice needing 6s, that's not uncommon.

After all the battles are complete, there are no areas left containing troops from both sides. Now you determine area control. If the area is controlled by your opponent, you reduce it to uncontrolled. If it's uncontrolled and not the home area of a leader inside, you must roll his rank or less to control it. As most leaders have a rank of 1 or 2, this is not easy. If it is the leader's home area, you get it automatically unless there's mercenaries around.

After that's resolved, you raise troops in areas you control. You get troops equal to the area rating (1 to 3). They're simply placed in the area. After this, you deploy them. Unassigned troops can move across adjacent areas you control to any leader that still has the capacity to control them. (Leaders can control three times their rank in troop strength – though few can bring that strength to bear in a battle.)

After all troops are raised and deployed, any captured leaders have equal ranks exchanged and the remainder score VPs for the capturer. (or, you can ransom them should you have controlled spaces to spare.)

Following this you roll for leader death. Leaders have a number on their counter indicating the turn in which they arrive. Subtract this from the current turn number and roll higher to have the leader survive. (This is actually displayed on a large, unnecessary, chart in the middle of the map.)

After some of your leaders die, and they will, you get to place new leaders. You get two per turn, and there will be at least two neutral leaders available for entry as well. (It's also possible that routed neutral leaders will come back for your opposition in this step.) If you place the leader in his home area, he gets his rank in troops. If not, he may claim any unassigned troops in the area he's placed.

You now dispose of leaderless troops. Finally, score victory points.

In my opinion, Warriors of God (as currently written) is fundamentally broken as a strategic game. As it currently stands, it's little better than Chutes & Ladders. Before I go into why, let's look at the distribution of ranks for the leaders (in the HYW scenario only:
  • French: 10 1s, 8 2s, 6 3s.
  • English: 14 1s, 4 2s, 6 3s.
  • Neutral: 24 1s, 24 2s.
First these are the rules involved in the problem:
  1. You may not transfer troops between leaders. Ever.
  2. Controlling areas is random and difficult. (At best, you have a 50% chance of controlling an non-home area.)
  3. Troops may only deploy through areas you control.
When you determine control, in nearly all cases you must roll the leaders rank or less. That means, averaging out all leaders, that you'll successfully control an area about 26% of the time. So, if you fan out four leaders trying to control space in completely uncontrolled areas, you'll get one of them on average. So, it's hard to create chains of controlled territory, making troop deployment difficult at best.

Let's couple that with leader death. Leaders have a 1-in-6 shot of dying the turn after they arrive, and only 28% will survive beyond their third turn. (This isn't even looking at those killed in combat. This is simply attrition.) It's entirely possible for a bad run of luck to wipe out 2/3 or more of the leaders you have in play. Since troops have already deployed, you're likely to have a large number of unassigned troops hanging around. When you place your new leaders (likely only three) you have to decide whether to reclaim existing troops, or place them in their homes to get new ones.

The chaos that's caused by this sequence of events is something you cannot plan for. The resulting board situation you may end up could be nothing like you had at the end of the impulses. It is exactly like Chutes & Ladders with some illusion of choice. You try to put yourself into a “good” position, but if have a run of bad luck, it doesn't matter. You could fail to control any of the four connected areas you were going for, and lose four of the six leaders you have in play. You then try to scramble with your new leaders and save what you can of the situation.

This isn't a strategy game. It's a luck fest. The combination of deploying raised troops through controlled spaces before leader death rules kick in means you cannot plan from turn to turn. This sequence of luck has a larger effect on the game than your action impulses, making your choices simply illusion.

I've seen it suggested that if the luck runs against you, the game's over quickly enough that you can play again and it likely won't happen. Chutes & Ladders works about the same. And my four year old gets bored by that one.

My response is, why would you want to? There's 12 turns in the game. It's highly likely that your position will be destroyed at least twice during the game, and with the difficulty of controlling space and getting troops to new leaders, recovery is nearly impossible. It's no consolation to know that it will happen to your opponent, too. It actually makes the game LESS fun.

You might be able to fix the game. I'd start by trying two things: make it so troops can deploy through controlled spaces AND uncontrolled spaces you occupy. And I'd have troops deploy twice – once before leader death, then any orphaned troops can deploy again after. But I'm not spending the time figuring out if that will work. I've got far better ways to spend my time than fix someone else's design.

This game is getting great response on BGG, and is currently ranked as the #32 wargame, but I'm simply incredulous by this response. It's an utter luck fest that takes about 2 hours longer than it should. There's no way you can make any sort of long-term plan as you WILL be shut down by the system and will be lucky to recover. Age of Imperialism got destroyed by people when it came out for similar problems – why should Warriors of God get a good response? It's baffling.

I was predisposed to liking this game. It's a theme I enjoy, it's playable in an evening, it's gorgeous, and it's coming from a line of games that have been excellent to this point. But, simply put, Warriors of God is a horrible strategy game.

And, I'm not even going into the way the rulebook was written. Jon, I give you credit for warning me – if I didn't like the rulebook for Devil's Cauldron, I probably should avoid Warriors of God. At least TDC is a mostly good wargame. Warriors of God, however is decidedly not. Had MMP followed the GMT example and published the rules before release, I would have saved my money and angst. I've actually already sold my copy, so I've at least recovered part of that.

But I want those 2.5 hours back.


Dug said...

Wow. Talk about missing the boat on what a game is about. See my article on this game at for a different view of why this is a very different game than what Eric and Mike have portrayed here. WoG is about chaos management, knowing what forces are *coming* to you, and playing accordingly. And there *should* be a lot of chaos - this was an extremely chaotic time.

I certainly hope that other players aren't put off trying this game just because the two of you didn't get it. Reading these entries was like listening to someone say they don't like opera because the people sing funny. Very disappointing from seasoned gamers who understand that some games require more than one play to grok.

That's not to say that this game can't go pear-shaped quickly with a bad set of rolls. Still, everyone is playing on the same field - this isn't Agricola where the Minor Improvement deal can determine the winner, or Settlers where whoever gets to place their first town before everyone else is likely to lose. I'm unaware of *any* long game where this can't be a huge issue, especially if Mike is in the room and the Deansian Statistical Distortion Field is in overdrive. I am saying that there is considerably more to the game than you give it credit for and that surprises me.

Dug said...

One other thing you mentioned - similar problems with "Age of Imperialism". I suspect you meant "Age of Empires III", which did *not* have similar problems. The problem with AoE3 was that at least some players were *required* to gamble on the Discovery mechanism - the game simply couldn't move forward without it, but without going strong you were frequently punished for no gain. Even if you did discover something, other players who didn't spend their resources could swoop in without spending what was a very large number of units (essentially an entire turn's worth, early on). Thus, a discovery strategy was discouraged but necessary.

Making things worse was the endgame "external" discoveries, where you threw a bunch of your resources at a deck with wide ranging results. A single lucky draw at the end of that game could have meant winning or losing. Especially when often in the endgame that was your *only* choice of where to commit resources.

I say this because I was one of the people who denigrated AoE3 for including an unbalancing random element that, in my opinion, ruined a perfectly good design. In WoG, everyone has to roll to lose leaders, although the risk of taking non-home areas is definitely voluntary (and largely unwise).