Monday, September 28, 2009

Stalingrad is burning & the Kaiser has Pirates

Our most recent game club meeting was shortened due to another group that was supposedly going to meet in our shared space. My usual opponent brought shorter games to play and I'm glad he did. We played The Hell of Stalingrad which is a new offering from Clash of Arms. What we discovered was a very involved card game. I know, just the idea of a card game/wargame turns some people off. However, this complex card game did a wonderful job of simulating fighting from building to building.

The goal of the game is for the Germans to fight their way through a series of building and read the Volga river at four points. In order to accomplish this goal they may have to fight through a number of buildings at each point and these building are drawn randomly.

There are three decks for each player. A campaign deck, which applies affects that may be positive or negative to each player. (One campaign card is chosen per "round" for each player and its affects applied. The card might force the destruction of a unit, bring in a new leader, or offer reinforcements, etc.) Each player also has a deck of units and a deck of strategy cards. The German player decides which buildings he will be assaulting on this particular "round" (He might assault all four points, but it seemed best to me to concentrate on a couple at a time) and then assigns his attacking units. The defender then does the same. The German player determines in what order the assaults will be resolved. Then the assaults begin.

An initiative card is drawn from the "carnage" deck and it determines which side will have the initiative in the battle. Each building has an initiative result that benefits the player who wins initiative. They are all different. (By the way, the number of units that may be assigned to each building are all different as well) An initiative effect might increase the fire level of the building (which helps the Germans) or the bucket level (for the Russians of course) or it might provide an extra unit, a sniper shot, or some other action. Players then play their "vanguard" actions (based on the units in play) which might add units, kill opposing units, spread fire, etc. Then player alternate playing combat cards which are limited by their symbols. For example to play a combat card with a general symbol you must have a general in the battle. The same is true of infantry or armor combat cards.

At the beginning of the battle a carnage card also tells how long the battle will last. A battle lasts a particular number of "hold" actions. A hold action is not quite a "pass" because a player still gets to take some action, like a sniper shot, but does not play a card and the battle moves one step closer (usually 1-4) towards being resolved. Once the last "hold" action is used, players resolve the combat based on the number of counters that have been placed and survived the various card plays, the fire level of the building, etc. Dice are rolled. The player with the hightest rolled number wins. However, a tie may cause another round of dice to be rolled which may have a different number of dice. This randomness really added to the game. I was playing the Germans and thought several times I had lost a battle at a building only to get the right roll at the right time.

I don't feel that I have done a great job of describing this enjoyable game, but it was a blast and I can't wait to try it again. Oh, the Germans lost. I had to take one more building to win, but did not manage to do so.

We also played The Kaiser's Pirates, a newly released GMT product that has been described as Naval War on Steroids. There are no salvo cards, but there are a lot of neat features in this game which is a lot like Naval War. Players attack merchant ships belonging to the other players and attempt to identity raider ships or enemy warships. Each card is rated as to what type of dice it gets to use for battle. Once again, only the highest rolled die matters. Ships can be damaged (resulting in lower die modifiers) or sunk.

My opponent described it as pretty mindless, but there was definitely more meat provided than Naval War. Players could try to escape (and put their ships in their own reward pile) or plant mines. It was fun, even though my normal dice rolling ability failed me that afternoon.

Both games made for great filler games on a day when our normal 4-6 hour games could not be completed.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Reality Vs. Playability

Are historical outcomes more important than balance in historical wargames? This is one discussion taking place on the internet right now. Some historical wargames seem to feel that their games should provide a history lesson. Others want to have a game that gives their side a chance to win.

This is certainly a problem for designers. How can you teach history and create a game that is fun at the same time. I have heard players describe Brittania (published by Fantasy Flight) as being too scripted and controlled. I disagree with that assesment.

Obviously when Worthington Games created Blood of Noble Men, a block based game on the Alamo, there was never any intention for the Texicans to be able to break out of the Alamo and drive Santa Ana's forces back to Mexico. In order to provide both sides an opportunity for a win, the Texans earned points which could amount to victory based on the number of losses that they caused. They still get slaughtered in the end, though. Some players would have a game balanced so that the Texans could rout the Mexican army. I think that would completely ruin the game.

What about a game depicting Custer's charge into the Native American encampment on the Little Big Horn? Would we want an actual chance for Custer to eliminate the Indian forces? Isn't it enough to give Custer a chance to escape with his scalp intact?

Once I managed to win a game of For the People as the Confederates. I managed to sneak around north and then move east in order to capture Washington, D.C. My opponent had miscounted the spaces and did not think I could get there. The South never invaded the North as I did. Did that mean the game was ruined because it violated historical probabilities?

I've rambled on and don't have much of an answer. I want to be able to win from either side, but I also want some level of historicity. I don't want to give Hitler the atomic bomb. I don't want machine guns at Saratoga. I want an outcome that COULD have happened, though, even if it was unlikely.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

It's a Small World After All

I had the privilige of playing a fairly simple Wargame Called Smallworld several months ago and was impressed with the way this multiplayer game (and the more the merrier would be my opinion works) fits together. This is one of those games where a player gains points for conquering territory. Combat is automatic (no dice or Combat Results Tables). Our game was fun and despite the fact we had five players the game lasted no more than 90 minutes.

The unique thing about the game is that it is based on a bit more complex game called Vinci that normally takes a bit longer. Each player will have a chance to play multiple races of fantasy types. There are trolls, orcs, wizards, halflings, vampires, amazons, etc. Each race obtains a special power as they come into play. Some can skip spaces, some have special benefits in certain terrain areas, some don't require as many "units" for battle. The special powers are randomly matched to the races at the beginning of the game. With a number of races and a number special powers some hilarious combos can come up. In ourgame we had beserker Halflings and we all laughed a lot about the damage these do.

The game plays something like History of the World, minus the dice, in that the players attempt to extend their empires and try to protect previous empires (to a small extent) so that they can continue to earn victory points. Players may obtain a second race by declaring that their current race is going into "decline" which means it stops being active.

For some, the game is nothing more than picking up chits and moving them around, rinse and repeat. If the combat was a bit more risky it might have a stronger appeal to those folks. However, I found the game to be a neat filler game with some fun flavors and laughter. It isn't your typical wargame, and I think after a dozen or so games it will tend to lose its appeal. However, I found it to be a lot of fun and a neat change of pace.

Days of Wonder has done an excellent job with the components and artwork with the exception of the annoying mountains {loose cut moveable terrain} that we did not understand the purpose of since the mountains were already printed on all of the boards (different boards are used depending on the number of players in a game). I won't rush out and buy this one, but if I'm waiting to play something and someone brings it out-- I'm in!

Finally, an optional rule probably ought to be instituted that any players who begins to hum the tune from Disneyland's "It's a Small World After All" ride will immediately be forced to leave the game, the table, and the gaming room.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Is Conan Really A Barbarian?

"Age of Conan" is an interesting hybrid of Eurogame and wargame. The game was more of a Euro-style game than a wargame, but I wasn't disappointed in the wargame elements. The game is published by Nexus and Fantasy Flight Games.

The game is divided into three "ages." Each epic age is divided into four adventures. These adventures vary in length but really serve as a static method of determining when a scoring round begins. There are four adventures and when the final adventure of an "age" is completed, a scoring round occurs. Players can see how close they are to that scoring round at all times. It may take more or less turns in order to complete an adventure. When a new adventure is placed a number of tiles based on the adventure card (usually 3-4 in our game) are placed on the board. The adventure is over when the last of those tiles is claimed.

Those tokens are divided into several different categories that have no real bearing on the game except players that collect the most tokens in a particular category earn bonus points at the conclusion of the game. There are several ways to claim these tokens. A player may take a fate die with the Conan emblem on it in order to gain a token. The player who controls Conan earns one of these tokens by moving Conan towards the destination revealed on the current adventure card.

One player will control Conan until the completion of an adventure. At that point, players have chits and cards in which they bid in order to control Conan. The highest bidder (card value + chit value) earns the privilege of controlling Conan. All bidders lose the cards and the chits that they used to bid with. When I say "lose" I mean that the cards return to the deck and the chits are removed from the game. However, there some really interesting factors to be applied. If a player bids using his 3 chit he may keep that chit. If a player bids using his zero chit, the other chits are placed back in the game and available for his use.

The player who controls Conan gets to move the Conan figure at the beginning of each of his turns. If the player moves Conan towards the current adventure destination he obtains an adventure token. However, he may choose to move Conan to a destination that is away from that destination which discards the adventure token. He might wish to do this so that he can enlist Conan into one of his armies in order to earn a combat bonus. He might also be attempting to prevent his opponents from crowning Conan as King in the final age. He may also be attempting to move Conan into his home province so that he himself can crown Conan. An attempt to crown Conan may not succeed. In fact, if the player is unable to crown Conan (by having him in his home province and having the most adventure tokens in a particular category) then Conan slays the player and he is immediately eliminated from the game. Crowning Conan does not assure a victory, but the bonus points certainly do help.

All actions in the game are determined by a choice from the fate dice. Unlike some of the Euro style games that I strongly dislike where a player may be left with a choice that cannot help him in any shape form or fashion (Puerto Rico) every choice helps the player. Fate dice have symbols on them and players take turns choosing one of the fate dice (as rolled) until they are all used up and they are immediately rerolled. Players are limited in their choices by the icons that were rolled on the seven fate dice. The military icon allows a player to build a military unit, move armies, or attack with armies. The Intrigue icon allows a player to establish a diplomatic alliance with a neutral territory, or to send a diplomat to an opponent's territory and obtain gold. A court action allows a player to draw new cards either from his own deck or the common strategy deck.

Cards play an important part of this game. Adventure cards define the length and locations of a Conan adventure. Each player power has his own customized deck of cards which are built towards specific strengths of that power. Another set of cards provide extra objectives. (At the end of an adventure players check to see if they met any of those objectives and earn extra victory points.) Strategy cards may provide a bonus for a battle or an intrigue action, but also may be used in bidding for Conan at the beginning of an adventure.

However, the center point of the game is the conquering of territories via a campaign. Most areas have multiple areas of terrain. A Player must beat the enemy strength in the first terrain area before moving on to the next. Therefore, a player may need to take multiple turns to defeat a neutral territory. He may also choose to "force march" and continue a campaign by eliminating one of his army units and continuing the fight.

Our game did not see very much player attacking other players and perhaps we played a bit too conservatively. The game system rewards players who conquer enemy armies with Crom tokens (this is not the case in conquering neutral territories) and the player with the most of these tokens at the end of the game earns extra victory points.

Battles are fought using specialty dice created for the game. They have multiple icons that I won't take the time to explain except to state that at times player will play strategy cards which allow them to earn a "hit" result on icons that normally would count as misses. This made the game more interesting because we weren't just comparing numbers like one through six, but had to look carefully at each icon to determine whether it counted as a hit or not.

We took about four hours to play this game, but this included having rules explained to us. I can see the game being played easily in 2 or 2.5 hours. This also would have been easier if the rules and player reference cards were more in sync. Some steps in the rules were in a different order than on the player card. Also, we had difficulty with some of the cards which referred to moving into and attacking a friendly area. Why would a player want to attack an area that was friendly to himself? We finally decided that there has to be some sort of problem with translation, but this did cause several short delays.

I believe all four players enjoyed the game and are anxious to play it again. My buddy, Mark Kazmarek, stated that he was glad he had ordered the game because he really enjoyed it. There are lots of things to do in this game and multiple ways to win. I don't believe any player lacked the opportunity to win the game. There are lots of fiddly little components and plastic miniatures, towers, and cities. The game is chocked full of cards and thick cardboard chits and tokens. I believe it would be hard for an owner of this game to claim that he did not get his money's worth.

You don't have to read the Conan books to enjoy this game, but it probably might add to its flavor. If he were still around, Robert E. Howard would likely be more thrilled with this incarnation of Conan than any of Arnold's movies featuring the mighty warrior.

Friday, March 27, 2009

When is too much errata too much?

I recently accidentally started a bit of a flame war. Yes, it really was accidentally. Okay, it was very short and all the flames were directed at me. I discovered that I am a whiney little runt. I just asked a very simple question over on Consimworld in the folder established for discussion of Compass Games' "Spartacus." The header of the folder listed (at the time) ten items of errata or clarification and the game has only been in the public arena for a few weeks. My question was "Doesn't that seem like a lot of errata/clarifications for a brand new game?"

The developer, Neil Randall, responded that most errata and clarifications occur within the first few months after a game is released. Players are quick to discover rules that are not as clear as the design team felt they were. Rules Lawyers quickly discover loopholes large enough to drive an army through. Fortunately for "Spartacus" most of the eleven items (as this is being written, anyway) are actually just clarification statements, though there are a few actual rule changes.

I've never gone through the huge process of publishing a game and making certain that the rules make sense to all involved so one day I may delete my comments here, should I ever go through the pains of creating a game. However, it just seems that some design teams seem destined to design games that are so overwrought with errors, design flaws, and incomprehensible rules that they have to be completely rewritten. Design Teams are extremely defensive about such problems. Of course, the designer and developer and probably the majority of the playtest team understand the rules.

One example of such a mess was GMT's version of "Blackbeard", designed by Richard Berg and developed by Neil Randall. A discussion ensued in the GMT folder of Consimworld. Someone mentioned that the game was terrible and full of incomprehensible rules. Other players claimed that one mechanic seemed broken. Richard Berg chimed in that indeed that particular exploitation was problematic, but that it was being fixed in the new edition. I asked how much errata was there for the game and the designer Neil Randall immediately declared that there was absolutely no errata for "Blackbeard." This was very confusing because Mr. Berg was defending the game as playable while it seemed that a number of people who had actually played the game either agreed OR disagreed strongly. The major complaint that those who disagreed was over the huge volumns of errata and clarifications that had been made. Yet, here was the developer stating boldly that the game had absolutely no errata. Eventually, the muddy waters were cleared when we discovered that the game and its rules had been entirely rewritten and the latest version had yet to receive any errata. Come on-- if you have to rewrite a rules set based on a number of flubs, flaws, goofs, and lack of clarity it is not really 100% honest to state that a game has no errata.

Once again, though, should we throw stones at these guys? I have difficulty getting our church bulletin done without mistakes. I've had some embarrassing misprints, too. Listing wrong days or times for events causes confusion. I would prefer not to mention (but I will for your enjoyment) the times the bulletin called for us to sing hymns like "What a fiend we Have in Jesus" and "O For a Thousand Tongues to Sin." Documents which describe game mechanics, concepts, and ideas must be so much more difficult to put together.

However, then we tell ourselves, "but these guys are professionals, they should know how to do it correctly." Gamers either forget or don't understand that most designers are hobby gamers who have real life jobs. The designer of "1960: The making of the President" and "Twilight Struggle," (two very successful games with multiple printings) hasn't resigned from his day job as an aide to a Congressman. Most designers have to work at another job in order to support their hobby. Even the prolific Richard Berg mentioned that he was obtaining a "reverse mortgage" on his house. There is very little, if any, money to be earned from designing games. Should we pour our complaints onto these hobbyists turned designers?

Flip the coin over and examine the other side. You just shelled out $50-$60 for a new game and the rules are so difficult you put the game on the shelf and give up. It is a rotten feeling to buy a game that seems unplayable. The publishers owe it to the gamers to get the game right. Gamers will tolerate silly spelling errors on the map. They should not mind if a comma or two get misplaced in the rules. But the game should be playable out of the box because that what the $50 or $60 was for. If you buy a DVD player that doesn't play DVD's then there should be some sort of warranty. If a game is so badly written that the rules have to be completely rewritten then the publisher obviously did not fulfill his end of the contract-- providing the buyer with an actual game.

The old Avalon Hill was afflicted with the errata bug. Of course, this was before my time, but I've seen copies of "The General" that offered errata on games. I've heard of those who used to send their rules questions via snail mail and wait for weeks or months for a response. There are some who would argue that in today's internet entrenched world we should not worry about errata or clarifications too much because they are instantly provided. While I am grateful for the internet, I don't think it should become a crutch to prop up a poorly written set of rules. Developers, designers, and publishers have become lazy. They justify the publication of games that are not quite fully playtested because they can publish a fix for their errors very quickly on the internet.

Designers defend themselves in Consimworld forums everyday. In the case of "Blackbeard" Richard Berg pointed out that many players purchased the first GMT edition, understood the game, enjoyed it, and recommended it to their friends. The fact that there was enough interest in a second GMT printing is evidence in itself that the game wasn't as bad as some folks felt. Some developers declare that a lot of the errata is really nothing more than clarifications and seem to feel as if clarifications don't count because no two people read a sentence the same way. Yet a number of players were disappointed in the game because of confusing rules and exploitable mechanics.

Sometimes, they are right. It is often very difficult to communicate via the written word. After all, you probably didn't understand very much of what I have written here, have you?

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Priority Mail Usually Works for Me

As a frequent buyer and seller of wargames on Ebay, etc. I usually prefer to use priority mail for most of my shipping. It is fairly simple to add tracking/delivery confirmation and therefore I can know where my package is whether I am sending or receiving.

Until now. This last week I experienced the first shortfall with priority mail. I purchased a copy of the classic "Hannibal at Bay" from a user on Consimworld. He shipped the package promptly and provided me with a tracking number. That was last Monday. This Monday, when the package still hadn't arrived I checked the tracking number only to be told that the package was delivered at 12:46 P.M. on Thursday, March 5. The sad thing is that this package was not delivered to our house.

This minor crisis (Hey, I'm about to be out $20.00- including the shipping) led me to call the United States Postal Service. Of course, such a call really accomplishes nothing. Then, yesterday, after receiving no response, I placed a call to the local post office. Once again, someone took my information and promised to return my call after 5 P.M. Of course, I never received that phone call and the package still hasn't shown up.

I can't blame the shipper. The post office says they made the delivery. So what do I do?

In the future, I can pay for postal insurance and I wouldn't be out my $20.00, but that isn't really the issue. So what is the issue? I want my game! So I guess I will cry like a baby to the post office again today. After that, I guess I'll just do all that I can to keep myself from going postal.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The Speed Round

We've all had those experiences with a gamer who experiences "analysis paralysis." You know what I mean, don't you? You have time to fall asleep when an opponent is taking his turn because he takes so much time thinking out his move. He repetitively reviews his position, his resources, and possible moves while you begin to snore. Just before your head hits the table and upsets the board he announces his move only to immediately decide that move isn't going to work for him and he needs to rethink the move. Back to square one.

We discovered a game that really punishes the player who attempts to over-think his game. The name of the game is Galaxy Trucker and it is a real hoot, though our slowpoke player really despises the game because it forces him to rush.

This is not a typical strategy game by any means, but it is a lot of fun. Each player has a placard that represents a spaceship. Tiles are placed face down on the table and players must pick up tiles and either place them (according to placement rules) on his ship. There are cargo compartments, alien life support systems, engines, lasers, shields, etc. At any point during this segment of the game another player can flip an hourglass making it a timed process. Players madly attempt to find the component that they need with the proper type of connnection, etc. before the time expires. When time expires, players check each other's ships for illegal configurations and those illegally placed items are removed and players are penalized during the scoring round for each one of these.

You can well imagine that the more thoughtful player doesn't enjoy being rushed in his building process. After the build, players venture forth on a trek. Along the way, they will encounter asteroids, have a chance to land and pick up cargo, fight pirates or slavers, etc. These events (represented by cards) all interact with the manner in which a player has built his ship. For example, a player may need a certain number of lasers to defeat pirates. A player may have parts of his ship destroyed by asteroids or he may have placed shields to protect him. Then, there is a scoring round. Players lose points for parts of their ships that are destroyed and gain points for delivering cargo, etc.

Players then flip their placards to a more advanced ship (holds more tiles) and go through the process over again. This time, more difficult event cards are randomly added and players have a little longer adventure. After the third round, the player with the most victory points wins.

The whole game can be played in about forty minutes or so and provides a great deal of laughter-from most of our group anyway. The slowest player still doesn't really enjoy it much. Galaxy Trucker isn't the most strategic of games, but it makes a good "filler" game. No deep thinking required here and Rio Grande offers a few expansions if the basic game becomes stale.

David "the preacher" Wilson