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
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.