Saturday, January 28, 2006

Age of Steam and Railroad Tycoon: The Boardgame

I've been on what (for me, anyway) counts as a bit of a game binge with Age of Steam. I've recently played Age of Steam on the Scandinavia, Ireland, Germany, and new France maps. And I also had a chance to try out Railroad Tycoon: The Boardgame.

Age of Steam has always been the ultimate "bubble game" for me. On the one hand, I like its money management elements – you are caught between needed big capital improvements and the debt required to finance them. On the other hand, the game lacks the polish we've come to expect from games these days. The sub-par graphics and rules are one element of this, but the main thing is the serious systemic imbalances: the fact that so many of the special actions are worthless or almost worthless in most circumstances; and the fact that the late-game bidding is so weird because money doesn't count for anything at game end (it isn't even a tie-breaker). And let's not forget the awkward victory conditions, which encourage all sorts of odd tile-laying so you can turn money you can't use into track you can't use – the track at least being worth points.

I do still sort of like Age of Steam, but I think with all the imbalances, it's now on a terminal downward slope for me after about 10 games. In the great German-style games, like El Grande, Settlers of Catan, or Puerto Rico the players have resources that they have to make tough choices about how to spend. Because many of the resource "sinks" in Age of Steam are so unbalanced, the choices are more about figuring out which options are viable at all. This just isn't all that entertaining, and misjudgments can have seriously debilitating effects. As a player of German-style games, I have come to trust the designer, in that if he or she puts something in the game, it is a viable choice. Such is not the case here, and it requires an attitude adjustment. Still, even with all this, I think Age of Steam is close to being pretty good. If the roles were re-developed, and the victory conditions re-thought, and the role of randomness reconsidered, some of these issues could be resolved, and the income vs. debt balance (the really good part of the game) could shine. As it is, though, it's just not there.

When Railroad Tycoon came out last year, I went over to BoardGameGeek and surfed people's comments and opinions, and read some online reviews. In general, I wasn't that optimistic, because most people seemed to think of it as a simplification of Age of Steam. At the end of the day, though, I was somewhat more impressed with Railroad Tycoon than I ended up being with Age of Steam.

The reason for this is simple: in Railroad Tycoon, the role selection is gone. Instead, you have three actions per turn to spend on a variety of ways of improving your corporate empire: building track, making deliveries, improving your trains, developing cities, and so on. This leads to consistently more interesting choices than you face in Age of Steam, where your options are a lot more constrained. Between the rich turn-to-turn choices (including a lot more ways to spend money) and the fact that Railroad Tycoon retains the interesting debt-or-development choices, I think it is the fundamentally superior game.

Railroad Tycoon still has some significant issues. It seems to have played a shell game with the imbalances of Age of Steam. It hasn't gotten rid of them, although it has moved them into areas where they do less damage. The game features a lot of special action cards. These can be of two types: cards with one-time or recurring powers available for draft, which you can take as one of your action choices; or cards which offer an income bonus to the first player able to fulfill their conditions (getting a 4-train, making a 3-length delivery, connecting Baltimore to Toledo, that sort of thing).

The first serious red flag are cards like the one that gives you a 20-income bonus for connecting New York to the West. After playing, I find it inconceivable that this could ever be done short of colossal debt that would be suicidal. The game is too short and the cost of making the Western connection too high. On further inspection, there are many cards in the deck that are too weak to even consider taking outside of very, very specialized circumstances.

Obviously, cards that are too weak aren't a critical problem. They aren't exactly desirable, but in this case you can ignore them and focus on the many other action choices. The more serious question is whether there are cards that are too strong. This, I am not sure of. There are a few cards (the first to make a 3-length delivery, the first to upgrade a train to level 4, and the first to deliver to certain cities) which offer potentially unbalancing payoffs when scored very early in the game. Normally, players are making one or two income points at a time until they've build out their network; these cards can give you easy 3-4 point income bumps, and getting one or two early can make a big difference to your chances.

So, I'm not generally enamored of the cards, and find it hard to believe that any effort at all was spent balancing them. But in general, I think they do a lot less damage than the unbalanced and constraining roles in Age of Steam, and I think by opening up the flow of the turn sequence to more player options, Railroad Tycoon presents a more interesting game. But like Age of Steam, this inability to get the balance right is what keeps game companies like Eagle, Warfrog, and Fantasy Flight from operating on the same level as the Germans.

Tuesday, January 3, 2006


I finally had the chance to play a couple games of Downtown: The Air War Over Hanoi, 1965 to 1972. You know what game it reminds me of? SPQR. Yeah, the game where you're commanding Roman legions.

That might require some explanation.

From movies like Spartacus, you might think of a Legionnaire as a guy with a pilum and a gladius. But the Roman legion (before Marius, anyway) was – according to SPQR, at least – a fairly complex piece of machinery. You had the velites, hastati, principes, and triarii, each with their own assigned function. The whole thing was designed to be the ultimate process-driven military machine, so that your average senator, with no military knowledge or experience but with an inbred confidence and sense of superiority, could command it and get results.

Downtown is the same deal, sort of, except that it's 2000 years more complex. And maybe that bit about the senators. In the average scenario of the game, you have a target, randomly determined from a short list. If you're the US, you're given some planes, each flight of which has a different, highly-specific role: fighters with heat-seeking missiles to clear the sky (combat air patrol, or CAP), bombers with radar-seeking missiles to take out SAMs and radar-directed anti-aircraft guns (SEAD, suppression of enemy aircraft defenses – the military does like their acronyms), electronic warfare planes to defend against enemy radars, bombers with dumb and/or precision munitions for taking out the target, and planes with cameras to make sure you've done it. Your goal in the game is to wield this sometimes-bewildering array of planes and armaments bearing an alphabet soup of acronyms to best effect. If you're the NVA, your job is to take the SAMs, AAA, and fighters that HQ gives you to protect the targets on the US player's list.

Downtown, like SPQR, is a highly tactical game. You have to plot routes to the target that you think will minimize your exposure. You have to decide which air defenses are worth suppressing and which to ignore (or, if you're the NVA, when to fire and when to stay hidden). You need to decide when the fighters need to stick to the bombers and when to chase down MiGs. This is all pretty cool, and it plays much more easily than the 30-odd pages of rules would lead you to believe.

What you aren't doing, though, is a bunch of interesting stuff including selecting raid package makeups or loadouts, chosing targets for their strategic or operational value, managing your order of battle as planes and pilots are lost or damaged, or (as the NVA) balancing the need for AAA vs SAMs vs MiGs. You don't need to decide how many planes to commit to actually doing the bombing vs. how many to protect the bombers; even in the campaign games, the system tells you how to configure your raids. I completely understand why the designer went this way: it would have greatly increased the complexity and made ensuring reasonable game-balance monstrously difficult. I think it was smart to do it the way he did. Nonetheless, it's still hard not to wish for a little bit more resource-management type control over the game.

As a tactical game, I enjoyed Downtown. It manages to generate quite a bit of tension, as the NVA has lots of hidden resources, and there are lots of high-stakes situations as the bombers have to weather the anti-aircraft fire or the SAM radars lock on. You have a fair amount of flexibility in accomplishing your missions. It's also cool in that it is almost completely asymmetric, with each side having access to an almost completely different arsenal. But given the constraints, the highly specialized tools and doctrine that the players have to work within and the limited scope of each scenario, I'm uncertain at this point if Downtown really has enough player flexibility to get sufficient mileage out of those 30-odd pages of rules.

I think that where this game is going to score for most people is in the realm of generating a historical feel for the operations over North Vietnam. I think it's possible from playing the game to get a real sense of how the battles were fought and how tactics evolved. The game gives the US player a sense of the risk and uncertainty of these missions, and the NVA player a feel for fighting a war in which they can't go toe-to-toe with the Americans.

I rather enjoyed playing Downtown, but judged purely as a game I admit some uncertainties as to its medium-term replayability. Looking at the whole package, though, I was pretty happy with it.

Mark H. Walker's Lock 'n Load Band of Heroes

I was a fan of Mark Walker's previous Lock 'n Load game, Mark H. Walker's Lock 'n Load Forgotten Heroes: Vietnam, so I ultimately bought Band of Heroes, although I vacillated a bit. The price point was higher than I would have liked (especially given the component quality), and I'm a bit tired of hearing about the U.S. Paratroopers these days, sort of like I'm tired of hearing about how smart they are over at Google. I mean, I'm sure the Paras were brave and skilled, but weren't there some other units in the U.S. Army we could talk about sometime? Like maybe some of the units that weren't all-volunteer who fought with distinction in the Bulge or Huertgen Forest? Or maybe we could, just for yuks, acknowledge the contribution of British and Canadian forces on D-Day? I mean, all Saving Private Ryan had to say about the British and Canadians keeping the powerful and murderous SS armored divisions away from the Americans was Ted Danson calling Montgomery overrated.

With that rant out of the way, on to the game.

Although I have enjoyed playing Band of Heroes, as I've played the system more I've become a bit less enamored of it than I was of the previous game in the system, Forgotten Heroes: Vietnam. On the one hand, I do like a lot about the game system: I like the simple, chart-light combat resolution system, I like how it uses small back-and-forth impulses instead of regimented turns, and I like the spotting rules, whereby it's actually kind of hard to find stuff. I like that the scenarios play quickly.

But let's drill down a bit on one specific design challenge for interactive tactical games: how to solve the "human wave" problem.

The problem is this: units in defensive positions can fire on units that are rushing them, or trying to infiltrate their way through the front lines to victory locations. The general heuristic with these games is that units get to fire once, so the defender has to make choices about which encroaching units to shoot at. The problem with the everyone-shoots-once rule is that an attacker, who has a player's-eye-view of the board, can see which units have fired and which haven't, and once the defenders have exhausted their fire, he can run around the board with wild (and rather unrealistic) abandon.

This was a bit of a problem in Avalon Hill's 1977 classic Squad Leader. For those who remember that game, John Hill tried to solve the problem with defensive fire rules that ended up being totally unworkable in practice: the attacker had to move all his units, and as he did so the defender could mark "defensive fire opportunities", which he could then choose to take after everyone had moved; so he could theoretically ask the attacker to unwind every single move he had made to take the perfect defensive fire shots. This was clearly a bit out of hand; nobody I know played this way, they just took their shots as they came up – but this, obviously, lead to the above issue.

When Squad Leader became ASL, Avalon Hill took these problems by the horns and came up with solutions that are, in my opinion, brilliant, and the best elements of ASL (which is why most of them have made it into the Starter Kits). The rules for residual fire, rate of fire, fire lanes, and subsequent defensive fires made it very hard to predict how much defensive fire could be laid down, gave the option to the defender to put down more fire by taking chances with the equipment or with unit morale, and were overall far more realistic portrayals of how machine-guns could influence the battlefield – and all was achieved at a very low cost in terms of real complexity. It was still about drawing out the defenders' fire, but it was no longer such a stark, black-and-white situation, and this particular combination of making some elements more abstract (like machine-gun rates of fire) and some elements more concrete to reflect how the weapons were really used (fire lanes, residual fire), is a perfect mix.

Back to Band of Heroes ... compared to the ASL Starter Kits, I think this issue of how defensive fire is handled is the biggest gap in the Lock 'n Load games, both in terms of simulation and of making an interesting game. Because Lock 'n Load has gone back to a "one unit, one shot" model, it has become very much about drawing out all the defending units' fire capabilities, and then doing whatever you want with the rest of your guys. This is compounded a bit by the problem that attackers can force close combat at any time, which makes it much harder for defenders to pass up opportunities to fire on nearby units, and therefore easier to nail down the defenders.

In some scenarios, the effects of this will be worse than others, obviously. This issue hardly ever bugged me in Forgotten Heroes, but perhaps the higher unit morales and tougher terrain (stone buildings instead of bamboo huts), combined with longer sighting ranges and shorter unit fire ranges in Band of Heroes made it more obvious.

I'm not sure what all this means. I like Lock 'n Load. But at the end of the day, it is a bit "retro", a throwback to the days of Squad Leader and Panzerblitz. That definitely has a certain appeal, and I like that a design goal was to keep it simple and playable, which is a huge win – the ASL Starter Kits do appear to me to be a bit more complicated. But at least in its WWII incarnation, I think Lock 'n Load could have benefitted significantly from a bit more work on how to handle this particular issue.