Thursday, September 7, 2006

Britannia, Fury of Dracula

Britannia is one of those classics from the 80s that is still popular today in some circles, but which I am inclined to label a "cult" classic. It wasn't bad for its day, but how well could it hold up in 2006? It's pretty long, pretty repetitive, and play tends to be stereotyped – or such was my recollection. But with Fantasy Flight doing a remake, and with my interest in British history, I was good for a game (one of the nice things about reprints is that it gets interesting older games onto the table when they probably would not be played otherwise, at all).

The good news on Britannia is that it actually does a lot right. In my recent posts I've been ranting about the various underlying problems with these free-form multi-player wargames (compound interest, turtling, pick-on-the-leader) that modern games like Twilight Imperium or Antike don't even seem to acknowledge the existence of, let alone try to solve. These games have to try to find some sort of balance point: free-form enough so that players feel they have some control, yet not so free-form that everyone just always guns for the leader and the winner is decided on the last turn.

Britannia hasn't found a perfect spot, but overall it has done a rather good job. The different and fairly specific scoring conditions for the many different nations (each player will control 4 or 5 throughout the game) means that the players have tactical problems to solve, but they aren't given free rein to wail on whoever they want to. An honest player is going to have a hard time justifying randomly picking on people, since it will generally be very detrimental to their chances. On the other hand, somebody else is almost always going to be occupying the terrain you want to hold, so there is always incentive for action. Very few nations (maybe the Welsh and Caledonians) are going to be able to sit on their hands and rack up points; everyone is always going to be impelled to act if they want to win. There are going to be times when you have a few options about where to get your points, and it will come down to who you think is winning, and that is reasonable and expected, but in general the game feels constructive – you are pursuing your own fairly specific goals instead of just taking down your opponents. I think later games that have developed or borrowed from Britannia, from Vinci to History of the World to 7 Ages, have missed the point of the original. In Britannia, the scripted arrival and departure of nations, and their specific scoring conditions, serve to give the game a sense of balance and direction.

The downside, of course, is that you can feel railroaded. Players in Britannia have fairly few strategic options. The Danes aren't deciding whether the south or north of England looks more promising; their tactical objectives are etched in stone. You are, for the most part, just going with the flow and solving tactical problems. That would be fine – the tactical problems are modestly engaging – but Britannia's ultimate problem is, of course, the length. Our game took a bit over 6 hours, and it felt like that was about how long the game is realistically going to take under anything but the best of circumstances – we made good progress and didn't dawdle. At 6 hours, Britannia is easily 2 hours too long. If we had been done at the four hour mark, I would have been happy – the game is flavorful, and the ebb and flow of the empires make for a game with some interesting variability. The Roman period has a very different flavor from the Saxon period and the Norman endgame. But it's just not quite enough, in my opinion. Given the choice, I'd take Revolution: The Dutch Revolt, 5-player classic Civilization, or Dune any day; they are similar-length, comparable-complexity games, but in those cases the game-play itself – the range of activities and tactical problems – is much richer and more interesting, so those games seem to be less repetitive, to maintain more interest right to the end.

On balance, I did enjoy Britannia – I think there is a lot of stuff to like in there, the game has its own unique historical flavor, and you could do a lot worse with even many modern games of this sort. If it had been a four hour playing time, I'd be ready to play again sometime soon. But it wasn't, and it didn't seem likely to ever get there given infrequent play. So unless one of my friends suddenly becomes a huge fan, I'll probably play it again in a year or two, and I'll enjoy it again then for the history and for the flavor, but it's not something that's ever going to hit the table with anything approaching regularity.

Last comment: in general, I like the new Fantasy Flight production. The counter illustrations perhaps err a bit too much towards artistry and so are a bit murky at times, but the overall effect is nice. My only complaint is the yellow board. What's the deal with that? Green would have been a better choice. I can only assume that nobody of Anglo-Irish extraction was involved in that decision-making process.

Sorry, no clever segue this time ...

Since I last wrote about Fury of Dracula, I've played it like 4 more times. One game went 4+ hours, and that was too long; the game had gotten pretty tedious by the end. But the other games have weighed in at 2.5 to 3.5 hours, and that's quite comfortable. Dracula has been hammered once, and won in a walk once, and the other two were very close. The Hunters can afford a few mistakes; Dracula cannot. Even one apparently minor screw-up can have dire consequences.

So, to update my previous advice for Dracula:
  • I previously said that you should avoid attacking. I will now temper that advice. You want to be very careful, yes; but there are definitely situations when it's worthwhile, at least at night: when you can maul an individual hunter, or where you can use your Escape (Bat) to break out of an encircling ring. Just try not to bite anyone who is too early in the turn order. If the Hunters can Hypnotise Godalming, the rest of them can gang up on you before you get a chance to move.
  • Once the hunters are hot on your trail, it's frighteningly difficult to shake them. About the only way to throw them off is to go to sea. So use sea movement, but use it sparingly. If you're at sea for too long, it becomes more apparent where you are going to eventually land, generally, and it costs you more blood. Also, being at sea has an unfortunate consequence: it can dramatically lengthen the game, since time stops and the hunters can't catch you until you land. Since this is time when you are doing nothing, but the hunters are gearing up, it is to be avoided. And try to make sure that your departure is late in the day. You'll be very vulnerable when you first debark, so if you've got a few turns of night to make a break for it, that'll help a lot.
  • In general, the game seems to progress through an early stage of them looking for you, through to a hot pursuit. If you can mature a New Vampire in the early game and then make a clean escape from their first round of pursuit, you should be in an excellent position to win.
  • Avoid the peripheries of the board. Eastern Europe is cool, but it can be badly constrained by Heavenly Hosts and Hallowed Ground. If the Hunters catch you there, England is a deathtrap. Wherever you go, it's about keeping your options open. Don't voluntarily limit your options (by, say, going to Ireland) unless you really think it'll throw the Hunters. I've found that starting in a peripheral location the Hunters haven't adequately covered (Eastern Europe, Italy, England) and laying down a New Vampire, then working towards the middle of the board is a good way to go. But it all depends on what the Hunters do.
  • The right encounter chits make all the difference. With that in mind, use Dark Call earlier rather than later if you've got a lousy hand (don't forget it can be used during the day). And if you have breathing space, don't neglect the Feed card either. It's one less location in your trail, and an extra blood or two will come in handy.

Fury of Dracula has held up quite well to a bunch of play in a short time, and I think it'll turn out to be a long-term keeper. It's a touch too long to be a regular, and I can see it getting a bit samey if you played every week, but definitely a winner when you're looking for a change of pace.

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