Sunday, July 20, 2008

Warriors of God

If I could use only three words to review all the entries in Multiman Publishing's International Game Series so far, I could do it: Too long.

Seriously, I think all of these games (Fire in the Sky, A Victory Lost, Red Star Rising) would be far more appealing if they could cut several hours off of their playing time (or, in the case of Red Star Rising, if it had some year- or campaign-length scenarios to go with the toys and monsters). All of these are clever, well designed games that just go on for way too long to ever get much, or indeed any, table time. So for me anyway, Warriors of God was as much about answering the question, “is this whole series doomed to excessive play time?”, as it was about finding out if the game itself was any good. Because if it carried on the series’ tradition in this respect, I could walk away from the whole IGS thing.

The short answer is, it isn't, and I can't. Warriors of God was pretty fun, and while it still is unquestionably a bit too long for the game that it is, the magnitude of the problem is far less than it has been in previous IGS games. Warriors of God runs about 3-4 hours when 2-3 would be more appropriate, given that it's chaotic and can become somewhat repetitive. Fire in the Sky ran like 10-12 hours but started getting tedious at around 6. Fire in the Sky’s length problem was a show-stopper. Warriors of God’s is not.

The basic idea of the game is that you play either the French or the English in the various wars in the 12th through 15th centuries. The main attraction is the Hundred Years War, but there is also a Lion in Winter covering the earlier period surrounding Richard the Lionheart. The tools you will use to win are the leaders the two nations have at their disposal, from the bad (a bunch of guys named some variation of John and/or Jean) to the legendary (Henry V, Joan of Arc, and Robin Hood, to pick a few). Leaders are rated for their rank, which limits how many troops they can command and who will be in charge when leaders fight together; the number of troops they can wield in battle, which limits the number of dice you can roll in combat; and how valorously they can lead them. The last is quite important as an advantage in valor gives a to-hit bonus to the possessing side, and since the basic hit number is a 6 on a 6-sided die, even just a +1 doubles the effectiveness of your troops.

The flow of the game is driven by the arrival and departure of these leaders. Every turn 6 show up (2 French, 2 English, and 2 neutrals, the last of which the players draft), and everyone who is already there checks to see if they croak. Basically, every leader in play rolls a die, and if the die roll plus that leader’s arrival turn is less than the current turn, that leader dies (or retires or whatever). Anyone who is left musters troops and campaigns against the enemy.

Really, that's about all you need to know about the game. There is some solid period chrome, from rules about longbows to gunners and sieges, but like Britannia, the real flavor of the game is in the flow of these leaders, good and bad. Sometimes you've got a great leader like Henry V and you need to make maximum use of him before he dies. Sometimes you've got nothing and you just need to hold out until someone competent shows up. This dynamic is fun, albeit fraught with chaos; some games Henry V will show up and promptly die, while some games you may get him for the full 6 turns. Obviously, being able to use the most awesome piece in the game for 6 turns vs. 1 is just a little bit game-altering. The uncertainty is obviously an important element of the game. But those leader death checks are some pretty high-stakes die rolls.

In general, the game doesn't make you pick up the die unless you're rolling for something really important. Sieges which decide the fates of armies are resolved on a single die roll, typically a 1:6 or 1:3 roll. The initiative die roll will dictate whether the turn has 3 or 8 impulses, and so how much time you have to utilize your just-received awesome leader. And you can only gain control of provinces at all on a 1:2 or 1:3 die roll.

This last thing actually is really the only thing that sort of bugged me about the game. Controlling provinces is the key both to winning, and to forming some sort of territorial coherency for your kingdom and therefore managing troop mustering and getting some sense of strategy beyond raw opportunism, and the difficulty of gaining control of provinces is kind of odd. You can only roll once per turn, which represents ten years, so it's possible to send a leader milling around somewhere for 30 or 40 years (assuming he lives) and never actually be able to control the region. For me personally, this was almost a die roll too far. I could live with the huge chaos involved in the leaders, battles, and sieges, because I felt like they added texture and the frustration they served up was at least in service of something historical and flavorful. But having to make further high-stakes die rolls every turn just to take control of provinces – even when the enemy was nowhere within a hundred miles – seemed gratuitous.

But the bottom line on Warriors of God was that I enjoyed it. I wish it were shorter; it's a very chaotic game, and although I think it's chaotic in a fun way, the buffeting winds of fate do tend to wear one out after a couple hours, and so I can't exactly see it getting a ton of table time. But it is flavorful, and fun, and unusual, and has that “epic sweep” flavor of Britannia as players enter and exit the stage. In sharp contrast to the route taken by most euros, a lot of the best wargames are about managing chaos, about looking for opportunities in apparently unpromising situations or rolling with the punches, and I felt Warriors of God managed to find a generally good spot there, giving you an unpredictable situation to deal with as well as the tools to try to cope with it. There aren't a lot of these low-end wargames that I like very much, and while it’s true Warriors of God didn’t exactly blow me away, I did enjoy it, and feel like it fills a niche in my collection for the time anyway.

Appendix I:

As a historical game, I feel Warriors of God does suffer a bit from being a “complete information” game, sort of like Fire in the Sky did. Everyone can see everything and know exactly how good the leaders are and how effective longbows are going to be, so some historical events just can't happen. Being fully aware of the power of the longbow, the effectiveness of Henry V, and the ineffectiveness of their own leaders, the French are just going to run away at Agincourt, which seems rather wrong. Obviously, all wargames suffer from this to some degree. But Warriors of God, in which leaders play such a crucial role, could benefit from uncertainty or asymmetrical information as to leaders’ capabilities. The game as it is is still a good game, but the way leaders come and go could be seen to have the dual properties of being both hugely chaotic (because of the death rolls) as well as highly scripted (because we all know when Henry V is going to get here and exactly how good he's going to be) in a way that is almost reinforcing, when usually a game introduces some scripting to reduce the chaos, or vice versa.

Appendix II:

Generally I cut MMP some slack on their rules-writing given that compared to their primary competition, GMT, they tend to have far less errata and more coherent rules in general. But recently I’ve been frustrated and annoyed with a number of their rules sets. Warriors of God isn't bad, but it isn't great either for such a simple game (the use of the term “contested area” is extremely non-standard and confusing, the rules for mustering units are confusing, the rules for placing leaders are easy to misplay, and there is already errata), and after struggling with the extremely problematic rules for Fire in the Sky and The Devil's Cauldron recently, I think maybe it's time for MMP to re-think their rules-writing process for their non-ASL games.

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