Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Eagles striking

My choice again, and for this week I proposed the recent Academy Games release, Strike of the Eagle. This covers the struggle between the Polish and the Soviets in 1920, although strictly speaking the term 'Soviet' didn't come into existence until 1922. I had played this recently with another gaming friend, and I thought that Eric would enjoy it.

SotE is, at heart, a block game in the Columbia tradition, played over a very good looking point-to-point mounted map, split into two fronts, north and south. The strengths (from 1-4 Strength Points - SPs) and types (Infantry, Cavalry or Leader) of the blocks are hidden, and they are rotated to reflect losses and/or additions. Unlike most block games, however, combat losses are not dictated by dice, but on a flat table, which dictates the losses inflicted for a particular attacking strength. All well and good, and pretty standard so far, but SotE adds 2 mechanisms.

The first is the orders mechanism used in A Game of Thrones. Each player has a number of order tokens that are used to command the armies, placing two orders per front. These include orders to move, defend, recover (steps), use rail, etc., and they are placed face-down, which provides an additional level to the fog-of-war aspect. You can see that orders have been placed on a group of blocks, but you have no idea whether they have been ordered to advance, defend, or fall back. Orders are revealed in a specific sequence, with the player with initiative deciding who plays first when revealing orders of a each type.

The second mechanism is the addition of cards, and it's a card supported game, rather than a card driven game (CDG). Each card has several potential uses, and as in most CDGs, can only be used for one of them. They can be used to increase the number of orders that can be placed on a front, in battle resolution as a combat modifier, to gain reinforcement points, or for the text on the card. This last can be either a historical event, a battle event, or a reaction card, which can be played at the times specified on the card for the defined effects (e.g. place additional orders, switching orders, prevent execution of enemy orders, etc.). Of course, the best cards are strong in all three options.

Each game turn has a card draw phase (draw 6, discard down to a maximum of 7), 5 Operations Phases (where the meat of the game is played), then a Reinforcement Phase. The Operations Phase is:
  • Initial Card Play: each player may play a card on each front, starting with the non-initiative player for the northern front, initiative player north, then the same for the southern front; in the same sequence any played cards are revealed and the player states how they are being used, either for the Historical Event (after which the card is removed), to increase the number of orders for that front; or for reinforcement cubes, to add SPs at the end of the turn
  • Order Placement: starting with the northern front again, the player with initiative declares who will place the first order, then they alternate until the full complement of order tokens determined from the previous step have been placed; then the same is done with the southern front
  • Order Execution: Order tokens are resolved in the following sequence, with the northern front again being done first, then the southern front:
    • Forced March: initiative player decides who goes first; blocks move one extra space, but fight at half strength (round down); orders are either 'To' or 'Out'; the former is placed on the target are, and any blocks within range may move to that area; the latter is placed on the area with the blocks to be moved, and they may be moved to different areas
    • Recon: initiative player decides who goes first; if this is placed on an enemy-occupied area then the blocks have to be shown
    • Move: initiative player decides who goes first; blocks move 1 space for infantry, or two spaces for cavalry; once again, there are 'To' and 'Out' orders
    • Withdraw: initiative player decides who goes first; units in a battle area may move out of the battle area, but lose 1SP; cavalry may ignore the loss if only attacked by infantry
    • Battles: battles are executed from smallest to largest, treating both fronts together; starting with the attacker each player may play a battle event card, then chooses whether to play a combat modifier card from hand, for a +1 value, or to draw from the deck; blocks and cards are revealed, each side calculates total strength and compares this to the loss chart to determine the number of SP losses caused; steps are lost, step by step from the strongest block at that moment, the loser determined, and retreats and advances performed; adjustments to the initiative and VP tracks are then made, and you continue to the next battle
    • Reorganize: initiative player decides who goes first; one block in the area marked with this order may gain 1SP
    • Rail Transport: initiative player decides who goes first; up to 4 blocks in the area may move up to 8 areas following rail lines; blocks may be moved to different areas
  • Supply: Blocks in areas that cannot trace a supply line to a Key City now lose 1SP per block; units that lose their last SP are removed, and 1VP is awarded to the opposing player; OoS blocks can only use Move Out, Withdraw, or Defend orders
  • Victory Points: the VP track is adjusted for changes of ownership of Key Cities
OK, I've glossed over a few bits of chrome, e.g. Fortifications and Garrisons, but that's about all you need to know to get started. SotE is that simple it's brilliant. A wonderful amalgam of mechanisms that leave you with deliciously angst-filled decisions to make. Fog-of-war on top of fog-of-war. What are those blocks in that area? A couple of weak brigades or are they full strength divisions? What order has been placed on them? Are they defending or planning to advance? What if they're cavalry and Force March, how far can they reach, especially knowing that there's a Reaction Event card that allows cavalry to move through enemy blocks? Should I use this card for the powerful Historical Event, or keep it for more orders? Or for the high combat modifier? Delicious, delicious, delicious. Eric and I played through the first 2 scenarios in one evening, then for our upcoming full day of gaming chose to play the full campaign, it excited us that much.

Now, if I could stop there, this would win game of the year, decade, and century, and could be my first '10' on BGG, it's that good. However, I can't because the rules are just plain goddamn awful. Atrocious. Ridiculously bad. More holes than a holey thing. SotE suffers from, to paraphrase Mr. Ballmer, "Development, Development, Development". Or, rather, the lack of it. This game is 2-3 months short in it's development, suffering from an obvious lack of play-testing, editing, and even rudimentary proof reading.

When I first looked at SotE, I got as far as the first actual rule, discounting the component descriptions, setup, and overviews, before I found that the example of play contradicted the actual rule. That gave me cause for concern, and it got worse. Confusing terminology; terms used to mean different things in different places; examples that don't agree with rules; play-aids that don't agree with rules; game situations that aren't covered. Not just in the rules, but in the cards as well. When I first played SotE we spent about half our afternoon wrangling over possible meanings of the rules, and what to do in situations that weren't covered. When I played Eric we found even more situations that had us scratching our heads. At least by this time a lot of questions had been answered on BGG and in the FAQ/Errata. However, on one BGG thread the Academy representative admitted that he hadn't decided what the rule should be yet. WTF? You've published the game and you still don't know what the rule should be?

Eric opined that the problem is that the rules were written to fit in the available 8 pages, but I'm not sure that I agree. In my view the biggest problem is that the verbiage is just plain bad, and a good editor would solve most of the issues by being consistent in term usage and clearer in the prose, and still fit within the 8 pages. The second big issue is that more (and better) play testing was required, especially blind play-testing, to find those areas that weren't covered adequately. (Heck, even I could see major rules omissions just from reading them, without even having to play it.) Again, judicious word choice and phrasing would have addressed the issues identified, without taking up copious amounts of extra space.

So, after SotE, and the preceding Conflict of Heroes farce (where the game rules had a major makeover from the first game to the second, substantially changing the game play), I now would not buy another game from Academy Games that hadn't hit at least a second edition. I'm done with buying games where I have to throw the rule book out and print a set of rules that could, and should, have been done right the first time. Chad Jensen, with his exemplary Combat Commander ruleset, has shown it can be done. It takes a commitment to doing it right, and not just pushing the product out the door.

The big question is whether these are the worst rules ever? We've excoriated Prussia's Defiant Stand from Worthington Games, Fury in the East from MMP, and The Devil's Cauldron, also from MMP, in the past, but in my view, SotE takes the prize. Mostly, however, that's because I really, really, like this game (just in case it wasn't clear by now), and it's frustrating as all get out to see it substantially reduced by a shoddy job in the final stretch to publication.

Overall verdict: go play this game; just don't buy it until the second edition hits the streets.

Oh, and in our game Eric's Poles resigned when it was clear after 4 turns that the Soviets were going to win an automatic win. But that's not important right now.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Block battle in Poland. Film at 11.

The last two times Mike and I have gotten together, it's been to go over the new block game from Academy Games, Strike of the Eagle (SotE). This game covers the Russian/Polish war that occurred just after World War 1.

Mike had been raving about this one, and he felt it would hit my sweet spot. So, bring it on.


SotE is a block game that incorporates mechanisms from a number of other games. It has the standard fog-of-war mechanisms you'd expect in a block game: rotating blocks for strength, and hidden unit information. The map is point-to-point instead of area, but that's a graphics detail. As with the Columbia family of block games you have a hand of cards refreshed at the beginning of each turn and optionally play one at the beginning of each round. The cards in SotE differ in that they can be used in multiple ways: Extra orders (more on that in a bit), an event, or for replacements. Cards also have events on them that can be used at other times.

Combat in SotE has far less wristage than in most block games. Instead of one die per strength point, multiple rounds, etc. you total your strength points, take into account any battle cards and tactical modifiers, play a card (in lieu of rolling a die), and consult a chart. It's still got some randomness, but there's a much smaller range of results. Also, combat is simultaneous. You then compare the amount of damage inflicted by either side to determine the combat winner. A much cleaner system than most block games.

The other primary part of the games is the order system. The map is separated onto two fronts, Northern and Southern. Each of these fronts gets, by default, two orders per round from the following set: (Force March To, Force March Out), (Recon), (Move To, Move Out), (Withdraw), Defend, (Reorganize), (Rail Transport). At the beginning of the round, you have the option to play a card on each front to trigger an event or add to the number of orders you can place. Of the two orders per front, one must be a Recon order. So, if you don't play a card on a front, you can only take one effective action. Given that you get either 6 (one front scenarios) or 12 (two front scenarios) cards on a turn for five rounds, and these cards can be used in many other ways, you're constantly making tough decisions on how to use your resources. You can never do everything you need to do, let alone want to do.

During a round, you first play a card (or not), then place orders, then execute the orders in the order listed by the parenthetical groups above. Where “Defend” is listed is where the combat phase happens. Combats are resolved from smallest to largest, determined by the number of blocks involved.

The first time Mike and I played SotE, we walked through the two training scenarios. I highly recommend doing this. The first only goes through the bulk of a single turn, while the second takes you through two full turns. Enough to see how the cards play out. We got through both of those in under three hours. I played the Russians in these scenarios. IIRC, they're pretty hard for the Poles. But, they're training scenarios so balance isn't a primary concern here.

As we were both off work, we took a full day over the holiday break to play the full campaign. In the rules, they recommend this as a 4-player game, and after playing it, I can see why. It's difficult to get your head around everything that's going on. The full game is six turns, but after three turns we called it. We were running around 2 hours per turn, and it was very clear Mike was going to win as the Russians by the end of turn 4. There wasn't anything left I could do to stop it. The campaign features very different situations on the two fronts – the Poles need to push hard in the south and survive in the north. And when I say push hard in the south, I mean recklessly hard. Russian reinforcements are coming, and you better get to Kiev before they do.

My reactions

I'm splitting my actions on this one into two categories. Pros and cons.


  • The mechanisms pulled together into this game work really well. The combination of orders and cards provides a great pacing system as well as constantly forcing you into tough decisions.
  • The large map provides a much larger scope of play than your typical block game. It feels grand tactical, bordering on strategic.
  • The combat system works. There's still some randomness (along with tough decisions – if you play a card as a combat die roll, it gets a +1 bonus. This is big when the cards run from 0 to 4) but it's contained within a small range.
  • The order system provides for a fair amount of bluffing. I haven't even gone into the initiative subsystem, but going first or last, having more orders, etc. makes placing orders a game unto itself.


  • The rules. It seems like we harp on this in half the games we play, but the rules writing in SotE is atrociously sloppy. And I'm being kind here. As an example, many times a VP award or some other action is determined by how much damage you “inflict” on an opponent. You would think this means the result you get from referring to the chart as I mentioned in the combat description. But it doesn't. It means the number of actual losses the other side took. If they reduced the damage you did through card play, Defend orders, or simply not being large enough to absorb all the damage, it's the number of losses they took that matters. As “inflict” is an outgoing verb, you wouldn't expect the result that's actually there. I won't even go into the amount of information missing from the retreat rules, or the inconsistent wording on the cards.

    Mike described these rules as the second worst he's ever seen after Prussia's Defiant Stand. I tend to agree. They (and the cards) need a complete once-over specifically looking for consistency and omissions. My belief is they locked in on a page count for the rules, and got over-enthusiastic in cutting down the text to fit. You can be too concise, and these rules prove it.

    Unfortunately a similar, though not as extreme, problem existed in Academy's other main game, Conflict of Heroes. (Let's not go into them completely changing how the game works from one volume of the game to the next.) So, this looks to be a pervasive problem in how Academy writes their rules.

  • The cards. Besides the wording issues I've mentioned, I have the feeling the game is pretty dependent on certain cards being used for events. Given the size of the deck, it's likely many of these events may never be seen during a particular game, and one side's fortunes may be completely drained as a result. Now, I've only played the campaign once, so this is just a gut-feel call, but I've got a feeling they could do more with the deck. Things like “The Poles get card #x in their hand during turn 2” sort of improvements. It's not at all unlikely for critical events to go by as combat card draws, never to be seen again.

Final feelings

This game rocks. Despite the horrendous ruleset, this game plays very well. You constantly feel like you're fighting uphill, even when things are going your way. The various design features mesh well. You're always thinking things could turn at any moment. To me, this is a sign of a good design. What they need to do is spend three months with blind playtesters fishing out all the inconsistencies and omissions, and they'll have a winning design. Bump the rulebook up by four pages to handle the omissions. (Example: it never says what directions you're forbidden to retreat. From the way the rules are written, you can retreat from an area in the same direction the other side entered the area. While this is not the case, you wouldn't know it from the rules.)

Mike toyed with calling this his game of the year for 2011. I don't recall if he finally settled on it or not. While it didn't win that award from me (that goes to Axis Empires: Totaler Krieg, not that I played a whole lot of games in 2011), it warranted consideration. Just expect you're going to be doing a lot of rules research while you play the first few times. At least until they fix the rules.