Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Here I Stand

Before I start into Here I Stand, let me note a caveat: these games are hard to judge early. The card-driven games feature such a fundamentally fun system, with flavorful and interesting historical events and tough choices almost by default, that it's apparently hard to design a game of this type that isn't fun for at least one play. As a result, with Sword of Rome and Triumph of Chaos I've had to almost immediately back off of initially rather positive appraisals, and The Napoleonic Wars (which pre-dates this blog) had a rather steep, downwards vector. I'd like to think I've learned something from all this ... but bear it in mind.

I liked Here I Stand a lot. A lot more than I expected.

The core system for Here I Stand borrows heavily from The Napoleonic Wars, and anyone familiar with that game should have a big head start on Here I Stand (which, quite honestly, will be very helpful given the game's complexity. More on this later). But while The Napoleonic Wars always had troubling elements, elements that ultimately sunk it for me, Here I Stand seems a lot more promising.

Some of Here I Stand's obvious improvements: it's not a zero-sum game. In The Napoleonic Wars, if you wanted to get ahead, this was almost always done by taking someone else down. In Here I Stand, players can build up their positions by exploring the New World, building Saint Peter's, or (if you're playing Henry VIII), rolling on the Pregnancy Chart, so the players always have stuff to do and ways to get ahead without outright conflict – which helps a lot in keeping players focussed and encouraged to do things. If the Protestants don't know what else to do, they can always translate the Bible, which will not only generate VPs but have a cascading effect that will force a reaction from the Pope. The better-balanced and more-diverse player positions of Here I Stand, combined with the more interesting and flavorful deck of action cards, leads to more opportunities for real deal-making instead of the "I don't like you" / "I attacked you because I was bored/wanted to see what would happen" diplomacy of The Napoleonic Wars. The abstraction of the activation values on the event cards makes a lot more sense in this game where the players generally play the role of absolute monarchs with limited reach and attention spans (especially Henry VIII), where in The Napoleonic Wars it was always unclear to me why generals in Spain were glued to their chairs while operations were taking place in Russia; so for me, the historical flavor of Here I Stand is much stronger. And the "buckets of dice" combat system seems to work better for me with the more modest numbers of dice being rolled here (6-12 generally, although the conflicts between the Ottomans and Hapsburgs can get large) rather than with the 15 or 20+ that is more typical in The Napoleonic Wars.

The other big win is the wonderful historical flavor on a facinating period. Both The Napoleonic Wars and Sword of Rome made a good attempt at giving us an asymmetrical game, but Here I Stand seems to take it to the next level and succeed. All the powers have different ways of getting victory points. They also have very different capabilities: the Ottomans have primarily military goals, while the Protestants and the Papacy fight a religious conflict that has its own dimension that intersects with the military only somewhat, at least for a while. The Hapsburgs have to manage a far-flung empire, and balance holding off the Ottomans with exploring and colonizing the New World. The English have some interest in everything – they play some role on the Protestant side the religious conflict (at least until Bloody Mary comes on the scene), have some exploration assets, and have a decent military – but mostly Henry VIII wants a male heir. The French have a strong military and some exploration options but no interest in the religious war. This diversity of goals and approaches – as opposed to just beating each other with sticks over dirt – seems to make for a much more textured, interesting game. This is balanced by the two fairly intractable conflicts – Protestants vs. the Papacy and Hapsburgs vs. Ottomans – which serve to reasonably constrain things and drive the game in a productive way.

The big question for me going in to Here I Stand was whether the complexity was going to be manageable; after all, all these good things I've enumerated come at a cost in complexity. The game has a 40 page rulebook. And the truth is, it's a complicated game, but it's not as out of hand as the page count would indicate. In our game, I was the only one who had read the rules (although several players had played The Napoleonic Wars), but we were up and running pretty comfortably in a couple turns. We did screw stuff up, but it wasn't critical stuff, and that is a minor accomplishment, all things considered. While this rulebook is a major improvement in clarity and precision over some recent GMT efforts, it's still probably overly verbose, erring in favor of over-specification and over-explanation in too many places. The naval interception/retreat rules are one area of opacity, but once you figure out what he's trying to say they become clearer. The reformation/counter-reformation rules say too many things too many times; but at least everything is there. Need I mention that had an index been supplied, that would have helped a lot? Especially since the hard part is some of the nation-specific special rules, in particular Henry VIII's chrome-laden wife progression. Here I Stands is definitely complex, but it appears my fears of overbearing complexity were unfounded. Even though I did find the game objectively slightly more complicated than The Napoleonic Wars, Here I Stand's better rulebook, more streamlined and consistent processes, more segmented complexity (most positions don't use large chunks of the rules), and high-quality player aids may in fact make it more playable. I find that now that I've played once, I feel pretty comfortable with the game. Ultimately, I consider that a good sign, even though I would never call Here I Stand anything other than a fairly complex game.

There are still questions surrounding Here I Stand: is the complexity really under control? As I play more, will rules problems surface, or will the play become natural? Can the game be explained to new players in 30 minutes or less and can they then play comfortably? And can a satisfying version of the game that can be played in 5 hours be found? While I was very pleased with how well the game played once we got going, that is an experience that will need to be replicated before I'll really be convinced that things are reasonable. The "full" game is unworkably long (at a guess, all 9 turns will take 10 hours for experienced players, 12-15 hours for new players), so outside of cons a more managable but still satisfying version will be required. Fortunately, I think trying to play all 9 turns would just make the game long, and the rules offers some good advice on playing balanced, shorter games. Having attempted the full game the first time out, I strongly recommend taking the advice provided in the playbook for your first game – play 4 turns to the highest VPs. I think this is a very sensible plan.

Bottom line: I think there is a lot to like in Here I Stand. There are certainly questions about complexity and play time that remain to be fully answered for me, but they appear tractable, the fundamentals seem very solid, and I am anxious to play the game again. I've been thinking about it constantly since I played, bouncing around thoughts and ideas, and that doesn't happen to me very often for individual games.

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