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.

Thursday, March 9, 2006

Conquest of the Empire II, Friedrich, Twilight Struggle Update

Conquest of the Empire II is more or less the usual Risk-descended empire-building thing, which should be pretty familiar by now: build up your armies, beat on your neighbors, and whine a lot that you aren't winning. When this sort of game works for me, it tends to be because it does two things: it has very good thematic flavor, and it forces the players to take an active stance if they want to win (instead of just beating up whoever is winning at the time). The gold standard here for me is still Avalon Hill's Successors. It would be nice if that game were simpler, but still, the flavorful cards and armies, and the multifaceted victory conditions, make for a fun game with lots of action.

On the flavor front, Conquest of the Empire II is decidedly weird in a number of ways. Take army movement. One of our players was sitting in Greece, wanting to invade Egypt. Being a logical type, this involved looking up the amphibious assault rules and figuring them out. We realized, though, that it turned out to be a lot easier to go up the coast of the Adriatic, turn right at the Danube, follow the Black Sea through the Bosporus and Asia until you get to the mountains, hang a right down the Levant coast, and then cross the Nile into Egypt. Army movement in a turn is unlimited, you see. Once you've gotten there, however, the process of taking the place over becomes excruciating, with a turn spent forcing a battle, then a turn and $10 spent converting a control chip, another turn and another $10 spent on another chip, then another $10 and another turn (Egypt had a half-dozen control chips at this time)... it's a strange juxtaposition of the lightning-fast with the molasses-slow. And all the defender has to do to protect his control is kick in another lone infantry unit, which is not forced to attack you, but which you must spend a whole new action eliminating.

I must admit I was also a bit disappointed by the whole Alliance process, borrowed from Struggle of Empires. Each turn the players break themselves down into two alliances through a bidding process, and then can only attack the players in the other alliance. I was hoping that this would serve to help mix things up a bit, and force a little action. But in practice it doesn't, really. Combat in Conquest of the Empire is of the highly-attritional Risk style, where the number of losses you are going to inflict is fairly proportional to the number of guys you bring (which doesn't seem very appropriate to the time period in question). So it's the usual thing, two players beat on each other, they both take a lot of losses while realizing little upside (see above), and their neighbor comes in and cleans up the remainder. Nobody does anything because they're afraid of the ensuing casualties. In practice, the Alliance structure offers only minimal restraint on the bash-the-leader game, and no incentive for action whatsoever.

So, Conquest of the Empire II flunks the two critical tests for this sort of game, for me personally. There is stuff in here that is interesting – I like the action cards (although, as usual, they seem terribly unbalanced), I like the tax rules, I like the money pressure, and the plastic bits are pleasing. But for me, none of this stuff matters if the game can't get in the front door; in order to be worthwhile in this category, a game has to be at least as systemically sound as the chronically under-rated Risk, and in my opinion, Conquest of the Empire II is not.

After the disappointment with Conquest of the Empire, I decided to try to play Friedrich again. My experience this time was both better and worse than my previous play. The first two hours were great and highly enjoyable, even more than last time, even though I was playing Russia and not the obviously interesting Prussian position. Resources were tight, and everyone was under pressure, facing constant tough tactical decisions about when and where to strike (the use of the suits in the card deck is inspired), when to build up, and how to coordinate (for the Allies). If the game had ended somewhere in there, I could give the game 5 stars out of 5 without reserveration. But it didn't, and then the endgame dragged on ... and on ... and on. Well past its best-before date.

I think the issue here is not specifically that the game is too long, but the hugely-variable endgame event deck. Said deck has 18 cards. 12 of them are minor flavor-type events, ranging from "no effect" to fairly trivial benefits or annoyances for various players. The other 6 are huge, major, game-shaking events, which either knock entire nations out of the game, or seriously hammer them. The Prussian player is trying to hold on until these external political factors knock out enough of their opponents. The first game we played, we drew 9 minor cards without drawing a single major event (Prussia was crushed). Second time, we again drew about 9 cards before drawing a single major event; when we finally did, it was the one (of 6) that actually hammers Prussia (Prussia was again crushed). Neither game saw a single ally defect, so Prussia was still a long way from the goal line, and in both cases the ultimate result was fairly evident for several turns before the end.

I really want to like Friedrich; the early game generates quite considerable goodwill. But when the game goes long, I really don't think the endgame works – there are problems with the play-balance, problems retaining game tension, and mechanical problems (players accumulate huge piles of worthless cards late, as at least one suit is worthless to each Ally). Fortunately, I think the event deck just needs some Union Pacific-style deck-stacking to make the endgame more robust. My initial, simplistic thought is that when I play again, I'll suggest randomly removing 6 of the minor event cards from the deck before shuffling in the major events. Nobody that I've talked to has exactly been claiming that Prussia wins too often, so this should accelerate the game, making it more likley to see a decent number of interesting events and less likely to see Prussia on life support for too many turns.

Before we leave Friedrich entirely, another minor comment: it should be mentioned that this game is pretty worthless for competitive play. You really have to consider any "allied" victory as a basically a team win rather than individual victory; Prussia has all the control here, their play will almost always choose which of the allies wins if they aren't going to. I don't consider this a major problem, just something to bear in mind.

As for Twilight Struggle, it's interesting that my recent review brought out comments from both sides, some saying they were happy to see my positive review while others though I was being a bit negative. I told a few correspondants that if they were getting mixed messages, that seemed about right.

After playing again, I'm still on the fence, sort of. There is enough to like in the game. But there is a bit too much micro-management too – how easy is it to get really screwed because you forgot to fulfill the fairly arbitrary military ops requirement until it's too late? – and given the very large impact of luck on the game, the depth-to-time-investment ratio is not terrific. I like it, but as I've said about so many games, it's also not hard to wish it were better. Ultimately, like Wilderness War it's probably fun to play for a while but not a long-term keeper.