Sunday, May 11, 2008

Manoeuvre, Glory to Rome

I recently had a chance to play Manoeuvre, GMT's latest lightish, wargame/family game crossover attempt. In it, two armies of eight pieces each maneuver, chess-like, over a square grid and attempt to defeat each other. There are 8 different armies in the game, each from a different period and nation – Americans from the Revolution, British and French from the Napoleonic period, Ottomans, and so on. The nations have a different makeup for their eight units: the Ottomans have lots of cavalry while the Americans have none, for example. Each turn you must move one piece one square (two if cavalry), and then you may attack, if cards permit.

Those cards are the core of the game, with board positioning and whatnot being somewhat secondary. Each nation has its own unique deck. Most of the cards are unit cards which match the nation's playing pieces, and are primarily used to fight with those pieces – usually assaults, but also volleys and artillery, with different armies having different mixes (the Russians have lots of artillery, while the Brits are good at volleying). Also included are special actions like forced marches, supply, ambushes, and guerillas. These seemed to be a bit of a mixed bag; a lot of the events are generally useful, like the Supply Columns and leaders, while some sound cool, like Skirmish, but in practice seem to rarely come up. The game is fundamentally about managing these cards – cycling ones you don't need rapidly, looking for high-value combinations, and being willing to let go of a good card that you don't happen to need just now.

To the extent that these card management issues are interesting, Manoeuvre is clever and more subtle than it first appears. There are a fair number of factors that go into deciding the value of a card, when to play it, when to hold it, and when to cycle it. Maybe you have a leader card, which allows units to combine their attacks (among other things), so you have to balance playing it now for a modest attack vs. holding back to try to set up something really devastating vs. realizing you just can't set up that devastating attack anytime reasonably soon and just letting the card go or using it for a lesser effect just to clear it. Frequently you'll want to make lower-odds attacks just to do stir the pot and cycle cards and see what comes your way. On the other hand, since in this game you draw cards at the beginning of your turn, and since unit cards are valuable both on offense and defense, attacks which expend cards can leave you vulnerable to counter-attacks. Even if you're holding junk, just having 5 cards in hand will give your opponent some pause, while burning 4 in a coordinated assault will leave him more confident in his counter-strike.

All this is not bad, Manoeuvre is clever than it looks, and is an interesting little design.

There are three problems, unfortunately. And for me, one of them is a deal-killer.

The first problem is that clever card management and evaluation decisions are not terribly evocative of Napoleonic era tactics. Manoeuvre is basically abstract, moreso even than Memoir '44 and much moreso than Command & Colors: Ancients; I can't help but think of it as Advanced Checkers With Cards. It's not terrible, the nations are unique in ways that are somewhat representative, but even the Ottomans and British, historically armies at different extremes, just do not play that differently in the game. The game is constrained by random terrain, a constant and fixed number of units per army, a single meeting engagement style scenario, and the requirement for plausible game balance ... which just doesn't leave much wiggle room.

Secondly, Manoeuvre has something of a pacing problem, especially in the early game. The units start a fair distance away from each other and move only one space a turn. So the opening game of moving to contact just isn't all that interesting, as the cards don't really provide the same sort of tactical drive as the Command & Colors games. So you're moving guys one space at a time, maybe cycling cards, and the game takes a while for things to mix up and get to the interesting bits. The endgame can be a little protracted as well; since one victory condition is to destroy 5 units, you can get into a game of hunting down the last kill that isn't that compelling. Manoeuvre isn't a long game, fortunately, so this all isn't too bad, but the screws could have been tightened a bit here.

The deal-killer for me? Manoeuvre is a basically-abstract card management game. As such it's on a head-on collision course with a variety of games based on very similar card management and evaluation decisions: Blue Moon, Race for the Galaxy, and Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation, just to pick a few. It's a tough space with quite a few brilliant games, and one in which Manoeuvre just isn't that competitive. It's arguably neither as evocative nor anywhere near as compelling as any of these games, and neither is it simpler or shorter.

I think a much better approach was taken by Cambridge Game Factory's Glory to Rome; thanks to Brian over at the Tao of Gaming for putting me on to it. Glory to Rome is in the same family of games as San Juan and Race to the Galaxy: you're trying to build your little empire of buildings with special powers, and do it efficiently and quickly. Glory to Rome has taken the basic San Juan model and layered on some additional levels.

Each card is used for currency or for a building, but now the roles are on the card too, and if you want to either lead or follow a chosen role, you have to play a matching card. Plus, there are more roles. There are more buildings. And there is more process; if you have a Marble in hand and a Basilica you want to build, you can't just pay for it as you can in San Juan; you have to lay the foundation for the Basilica, perhaps using an Architect; you have to put the Marble into your storehouse first (maybe with a Laborer) and then add it to the building (perhaps with a Craftsman). Or maybe you'll decide that the Marble would be better embezzled and the proceeds put into your personal vault (using a Merchant). The Basilica requires 3 marble to finish, so the game becomes a lot about the process of building – which is good, because that's what Glory to Rome is about, rebuilding Rome after Nero's fire.

Where Glory to Rome wins is in the almost out-of-control special powers associated with the buildings. Building buildings in this game can be time-consuming, so you are rewarded with fairly significant advantages: the ability to draw and cycle lots of cards, put cards directly to your storehouse, use cards as other cards, get multiple activations out of individual cards, steal other players' cards or special powers, or immediately end the game. A lot of these powers allow you to take shortcuts in building future buildings (using some stray Rubble in that Sewer instead of Stone), which is also nice in terms of evoking the feeling of working in a corrupt environment of lax oversight.

And so Glory to Rome careens from power to power, with players erecting powerful buildings and trying to maximize their impact. It's a very edgy game. Unlike San Juan or Race for the Galaxy, you can mess with your fellow-players directly, stealing cards from their hands (using the Legionnaire) for example, and buildings can extend and expand that power. It's a very dynamic, fast-moving game, and one that you can often feel just one powerful card combination away from winning, or live in fear of the next building your opponent is going to finish. To be honest, I don't think for a moment that the building special abilities are all that well-balanced. The Colosseum, which flays your opponents clients and throws them to the lions, is extremely nasty. But it's this edginess, speed, and sharp interaction, combined with flavorful and appropriately cartoony artwork, which makes Glory to Rome appealing. Where Manoeuvre seems to have assiduously courted game balance to a degree that seems to have sucked most of the interest out of the game, Glory to Rome seems to have worried about it only enough to get close, and produced something fast, furious, and fun.

While I’ve found Glory to Rome to be a very fun game, I think it's better with smaller numbers of players – 3 or 4 seems to be a better game than 5. My experience was that early games felt like they ran long; maybe around 90 minutes, and I think the game wants to be 60. Once I had played a time or two, that’s where it ended up, but Glory to Rome does have a learning curve which has an unfortunate side-effect of potentially dragging out the game (Race for the Galaxy is much better in this respect; it has a significant learning curve as well, but not knowing what you’re doing won’t make the game longer). So I'd suggest making sure that your first game or two are played with a smaller player-count, then once the game-play has become second nature and you can easily explain it to others, you can add more players.

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