Friday, January 23, 2009

Freddy dies, Prussia wins

You know, sometimes I wonder why I bother to play these games, as the game experience is just atrocious, and this was another of those experiences. On the table was Prussia’s Defiant Stand (BGG entry), from Worthington Games, which I’d recently traded for. This is a combined block/CDG, very much in the line of some of the Columbia games. Decent game, good tension, nice presentation, but terrible rules.

Let’s start with the presentation. Nice looking box, well constructed. The map is mounted and is excellent. The blocks are, well, blocks. Mostly decent, without too many with obvious blemishes (which would allow identification of units/strengths), but many were significantly smaller than the others. Not a huge issue in and of itself, but those were smaller than the labels, which meant some trimming was required. Speaking of labels, functional, clean, but several had sticking issues, and are already coming away from the blocks. My biggest gripe is with the cards. While they’re printed on decent stock, they’re of a non-standard size, which make them a real pain in the butt for those who like to protect the cards with sleeves. Why not pick a card in a standard size?

Finally, we come to the rules. Whilst they have some nice graphics, they proved to be full of holes and unclear in places, especially around combat. Fortunately there is an updated set out on the web-site, and I would suggest that you not attempt to play the game without them. Whilst we’ve been critical of rules in other games, it’s even more heinous in this case as the game is pretty simple and straightforward, although it’s sometimes hard to tell from the rules. I’d hate to see Worthington try anything as complex as The Devil’s Cauldron.

Mechanisms are really very simple. The game is divided into years, with each year having 5 regular rounds and a wintering round. In each of the regular rounds players may choose a card from their hand of 7 for the year, which acts as their command card, allowing a certain number of operations/actions. These can be used to activate leaders (and their attached army units/blocks), individual units, recruit new units, or strengthen fortresses. Activated leaders can either move or marshal forces from nearby areas, acting like a magnet, attracting units to them. Cards also have events, and movement/battle effects on them, so often you have the choice to make on whether to use cards for operations or effects, possibly leaving yourself with having no command card to play in a round.

Wintering comes at the end of each year, and means that units have a strict stacking limit. (Effectively, it’s not really stacking.) A city by itself can support one block, a fortress 4 blocks, and a leader up to twice their current steps, with each location having the highest of the three, i.e. they are not additive. Any blocks in excess of this limit are removed, e.g. a city with a fortress and 5 blocks would have one block removed, as the limit is four blocks (for the fortress). Any cards remaining in hand at the end of the turn are discard, the deck is shuffled, and the next year starts.

So you move your armies from city to city, in a game of cat and mouse, until eventually opposing armies end up in the same city location, and a battle is fought. Units are split up into their different types, leaders, infantry, and cavalry, and placed on the battle board in their respective areas. Battle is fought in a series of rounds, with the defenders firing first in the first round. Leader units fire at opposing leader units, infantry at infantry, with the ‘to hit’ number on the block. (Mostly 5 for infantry, leaders range from 3 to 5.) If there are no units of the same type then they can fire at the other type, e.g. leaders at infantry. In subsequent rounds combat within a type is simultaneous, and losses are taken from the highest strength engaged opponent, regardless of type.

Cavalry is handled differently. They start the battle in a ‘Form up’ box, and may be committed against opposing cavalry, or against opposing infantry (for a +1 DR modifier) if you have more cavalry units in the battle than your opponent. In the subsequent round cavalry move forward to melee against their selected target, at the end of which they can choose to continue the melee or to move back to ‘Form up’ mode and start the process again.

When it comes to their turn to fire, each type may choose to retreat, leaving the battle, however, the opponent gets a final chance to fire. I felt this was a little too strong, for the level of the game, especially as there is also a cavalry pursuit rule. (If the victorious army has more cavalry units, they get to roll the difference, with '6's scoring further hits.) You’re going to take the same hits whether you fight or retreat, so you might as well stay and fight, and too often it meant the total obliteration of an army.

This may sound a little complex, but it’s really pretty simple in practice, and you get into the swing pretty quickly.

Fortresses and sieges are handled differently. Each fortress has a strength, and at the end of each round you perform bombardments, rolling 1d6, with a +1 modifier for each strength point below 4, requiring 7+ to capture the fortress, i.e. a 1 step fortress has a 50/50 chance of being captured. If the fortress is not captured then the besieging force loses a step. There is also the option to assault, but with an automatic step loss for each step of fortress strength, neither of us tried it.

Victory is measured in terms of VPs, which you gain by capturing your opponent’s cities, only some of which have fortresses, which need to be captured in order to claim the city. Gain lots of VPs and you may score an automatic victory, 10 required for the Allied player, 9 for Prussia. If no-one has scored an automatic victory by the end of 1763, the higher VPs wins.

There are a few additional rules to handle the bigger political scene. Prussia gets a VP in each of 1760 and 1762, if still in the war. If they are losing in terms of VPs at the start of the 1760 turn they receive 2 cards fewer per turn from then on, which reflects the loss of British support. For the Allied player, starting in 1761, a roll is made for the death of the Tsarina - a roll of 8+ on 2d6 means the Tsarina dies and Russia and Sweden are out of the game, although there are 2 cards in the deck that modify this roll by +2.

Pretty simple, huh? Some nice mechanisms, good chrome, all within a game that plays in around 4 hours. So I was looking forward to playing. Eric played Prussia, and opened by besieging Dresden with Frederick, following history. I marshaled some units and sent an army to attack him, attempting to raise the siege. And this is where my game started to go downhill. In the initial Leader Frederick rolled 4 hits on 4 dice (requiring 3+ to hit), killing my leader outright, and it got worse. I lost my entire army, losing 21 steps for against a loss of 12 for Eric.

In the next turn The French moved forward, Frederick tried to block and in the ensuing battle Frederick again rolled 4 hits from 4 dice, the French were annihilated, losing 26 steps against 13. However, this reduced Frederick’s force enough that I was able to follow up with an Austrian army under Loudoun and remove Frederick from the game. Another major battle lost in the same fashion meant that I had now lost 6 leaders to Eric’s two, and was barely able to command forces.

By 1760 the Russians had moved forward, and I was actually ahead in VPs, from using the Cossacks to threaten here and there, drawing forces away from his sieges allowing me to relieve them and sneak a point or two here and there. This meant that Eric’s hand was reduced to 5 cards. In the meantime I’d pushed him back from his incursion into Austria, besieging several fortresses, as well has having the Swedes push south. However, I proceeded to miss 9 out of 10 50/50 siege rolls in the turn, losing 9 steps in the process, and ending the year overstacked, so had to lose another 3 blocks.

At the start of 1761, I, of course, rolled 8 to remove Russia/Sweden from the game, the one time I needed the Tsarina card in hand was the one turn I didn’t get it dealt to me. With only 1 Austrian leader left on the board and little in the way of units left I resigned, as Eric would quite likely have scored an automatic win in that or the next turn.

Another decent game, made almost a farce by the dice. Whilst Eric had a little to do to score the win, mostly he just had to sit there and watch my forces implode. Even when I had a numerical superiority, I couldn’t get any results that mattered. Whilst Frederick is a tough nut to crack, scoring hits on 3+, in the first battle he scored on 9 out of 10 rolls, and twice rolled 4 hits from 4 dice to remove the opposing leader in one go at the start of the battle. Sigh. Still, the game itself is good, and I'm not going to hold this farce against it. Definitely goes on the 'Thumbs up' pile.

Oh well, never mind. I’ll be back next week for whatever Eric chooses

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