Thursday, October 6, 2005

Clash for a Continent

Worthington Games' Victoria Cross was one of my top picks from 2004. It was a low-complexity game solidly in the style of Columbia's block games, but it introduced a fair number of interesting new details, and it's an interesting situation – ungamable, some have said; but ultimately I thought Victoria Cross was pretty good, and despite some minor glitches I think it's worth playing.

Their newest game is Clash for a Continent, which is a tactical-ish game of battles from the French and Indian and Revolutionary Wars in America. When I originally signed up for it, I was under the impression that it was going to be a tactical game in the mold of Victoria Cross, a Columbia-style block game. Somewhere along the line, though, it morphed, into basically a Battle Cry/Memoir '44 rip-off.

I use the term "rip-off" with some hesitation, and it may in fact be somewhat unfair. Unless you're Knizia, it seems that much of the creative process, especially in wargames, is knowing where to borrow stuff from (see Triumph of Chaos). But somewhere there is a line between the evolutionary process of borrowing and improving, or at least varying, and taking something and just changing it enough to avoid lawsuits. While Clash for a Continent does admittedly try to provide something a bit different from Battle Cry, most of what it adds seems to me unsuccessful, and a number of the changes just seem like change for change's sake.

So. Compare to Battle Cry: The movement rules are the same. Combat is resolved by rolling a fixed number of dice with a variable to-hit number Instead of rolling a variable number of dice with fixed to-hit numbers – which, in practice, ends up being the same, just slightly more fiddly. Units take losses in the same way, losing steps which don't affect firepower. The terrain effects are basically identical.

The one real area in which things have been altered is the command system, and things have not been improved. Gone are the flanks; you can move whatever units you want. Gone are the cards. Instead, you roll a d3; that, added to your base command (usually between one and three), is how many units you can move.

On paper, this sounds promising. An issue with Battle Cry was being hamstrung without the cards you needed to actually do anything. Now, you're more or less guaranteed a free flow of actions, and have great flexibility as to where you want to use them. In practice, however, this does not work so well. I think this is because, in truth, Battle Cry (and Memoir '44) are not that interesting as tactical games – almost everything is in the card management. Outflanking your enemy or otherwise gaining positional advantages rarely provide big wins in terms of attrition. Defensive positions are largely obvious. So, in Clash for a Continent, you end up with both players moving about the same number of units in the same area every turn. Without the uncertainty of the card play, without the need to manage cards, the game is greatly diminished. In Memoir '44, I have to decide if it's worth spending my lone 3-center card now, or trying to counterattack on some other flank in hopes of moving the action somewhere else, maybe somewhere where your ability to respond is limited. In Clash for a Continent, the opportunity for this sort of play has disappeared – we're just bashing each other and hoping to roll well come combat time.

Now, I've not exactly been unreserved in my praise for Memoir '44 in the past. While it's a big improvement on its predecessor Battle Cry, the game is certainly not without issues – primarily, severe scenario balance problems and the overwhelming strength of the artillery units; I was disheartened to see that the new expansions include rules for even more powerful "big guns", as if they weren't unreasonably powerful enough already. Regardless, though, playing Clash for a Continent really helped me to appreciate what the cards in Memoir '44 do right. It may be a very random game, and you can be hosed by the card draws more often than you might like, and the scenarios may have serious balance problems, but the core system does force you to make interesting choices and can create interesting situations. By contrast, Clash of a Continent was just boring to play; back and forth, roll some dice, back and forth, roll some more dice. Without the tension of a possible unanswered card play, or a bomber suddenly unhinging a defensive position, the game lacked soul. You could guarantee me that every one of the scenarios in Clash for a Continent is a model of play-balance, and I'd still easily prefer Memoir '44.

So all in all not a game I can recommend, especially given the price. After such a promising first game, I had hoped for better from Worthington Games. I'm still looking forward to their Alamo game, which should be a cousin to Victoria Cross. In the meantime, though, if I have a craving for this sort of game I'll stick with Memoir '44.

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