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.

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