Thursday, March 9, 2006

Conquest of the Empire II, Friedrich, Twilight Struggle Update

Conquest of the Empire II is more or less the usual Risk-descended empire-building thing, which should be pretty familiar by now: build up your armies, beat on your neighbors, and whine a lot that you aren't winning. When this sort of game works for me, it tends to be because it does two things: it has very good thematic flavor, and it forces the players to take an active stance if they want to win (instead of just beating up whoever is winning at the time). The gold standard here for me is still Avalon Hill's Successors. It would be nice if that game were simpler, but still, the flavorful cards and armies, and the multifaceted victory conditions, make for a fun game with lots of action.

On the flavor front, Conquest of the Empire II is decidedly weird in a number of ways. Take army movement. One of our players was sitting in Greece, wanting to invade Egypt. Being a logical type, this involved looking up the amphibious assault rules and figuring them out. We realized, though, that it turned out to be a lot easier to go up the coast of the Adriatic, turn right at the Danube, follow the Black Sea through the Bosporus and Asia until you get to the mountains, hang a right down the Levant coast, and then cross the Nile into Egypt. Army movement in a turn is unlimited, you see. Once you've gotten there, however, the process of taking the place over becomes excruciating, with a turn spent forcing a battle, then a turn and $10 spent converting a control chip, another turn and another $10 spent on another chip, then another $10 and another turn (Egypt had a half-dozen control chips at this time)... it's a strange juxtaposition of the lightning-fast with the molasses-slow. And all the defender has to do to protect his control is kick in another lone infantry unit, which is not forced to attack you, but which you must spend a whole new action eliminating.

I must admit I was also a bit disappointed by the whole Alliance process, borrowed from Struggle of Empires. Each turn the players break themselves down into two alliances through a bidding process, and then can only attack the players in the other alliance. I was hoping that this would serve to help mix things up a bit, and force a little action. But in practice it doesn't, really. Combat in Conquest of the Empire is of the highly-attritional Risk style, where the number of losses you are going to inflict is fairly proportional to the number of guys you bring (which doesn't seem very appropriate to the time period in question). So it's the usual thing, two players beat on each other, they both take a lot of losses while realizing little upside (see above), and their neighbor comes in and cleans up the remainder. Nobody does anything because they're afraid of the ensuing casualties. In practice, the Alliance structure offers only minimal restraint on the bash-the-leader game, and no incentive for action whatsoever.

So, Conquest of the Empire II flunks the two critical tests for this sort of game, for me personally. There is stuff in here that is interesting – I like the action cards (although, as usual, they seem terribly unbalanced), I like the tax rules, I like the money pressure, and the plastic bits are pleasing. But for me, none of this stuff matters if the game can't get in the front door; in order to be worthwhile in this category, a game has to be at least as systemically sound as the chronically under-rated Risk, and in my opinion, Conquest of the Empire II is not.

After the disappointment with Conquest of the Empire, I decided to try to play Friedrich again. My experience this time was both better and worse than my previous play. The first two hours were great and highly enjoyable, even more than last time, even though I was playing Russia and not the obviously interesting Prussian position. Resources were tight, and everyone was under pressure, facing constant tough tactical decisions about when and where to strike (the use of the suits in the card deck is inspired), when to build up, and how to coordinate (for the Allies). If the game had ended somewhere in there, I could give the game 5 stars out of 5 without reserveration. But it didn't, and then the endgame dragged on ... and on ... and on. Well past its best-before date.

I think the issue here is not specifically that the game is too long, but the hugely-variable endgame event deck. Said deck has 18 cards. 12 of them are minor flavor-type events, ranging from "no effect" to fairly trivial benefits or annoyances for various players. The other 6 are huge, major, game-shaking events, which either knock entire nations out of the game, or seriously hammer them. The Prussian player is trying to hold on until these external political factors knock out enough of their opponents. The first game we played, we drew 9 minor cards without drawing a single major event (Prussia was crushed). Second time, we again drew about 9 cards before drawing a single major event; when we finally did, it was the one (of 6) that actually hammers Prussia (Prussia was again crushed). Neither game saw a single ally defect, so Prussia was still a long way from the goal line, and in both cases the ultimate result was fairly evident for several turns before the end.

I really want to like Friedrich; the early game generates quite considerable goodwill. But when the game goes long, I really don't think the endgame works – there are problems with the play-balance, problems retaining game tension, and mechanical problems (players accumulate huge piles of worthless cards late, as at least one suit is worthless to each Ally). Fortunately, I think the event deck just needs some Union Pacific-style deck-stacking to make the endgame more robust. My initial, simplistic thought is that when I play again, I'll suggest randomly removing 6 of the minor event cards from the deck before shuffling in the major events. Nobody that I've talked to has exactly been claiming that Prussia wins too often, so this should accelerate the game, making it more likley to see a decent number of interesting events and less likely to see Prussia on life support for too many turns.

Before we leave Friedrich entirely, another minor comment: it should be mentioned that this game is pretty worthless for competitive play. You really have to consider any "allied" victory as a basically a team win rather than individual victory; Prussia has all the control here, their play will almost always choose which of the allies wins if they aren't going to. I don't consider this a major problem, just something to bear in mind.

As for Twilight Struggle, it's interesting that my recent review brought out comments from both sides, some saying they were happy to see my positive review while others though I was being a bit negative. I told a few correspondants that if they were getting mixed messages, that seemed about right.

After playing again, I'm still on the fence, sort of. There is enough to like in the game. But there is a bit too much micro-management too – how easy is it to get really screwed because you forgot to fulfill the fairly arbitrary military ops requirement until it's too late? – and given the very large impact of luck on the game, the depth-to-time-investment ratio is not terrific. I like it, but as I've said about so many games, it's also not hard to wish it were better. Ultimately, like Wilderness War it's probably fun to play for a while but not a long-term keeper.

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