Monday, August 28, 2006

War of the Ring: Battles of the Third Age, Times Square

Unlike most people I suspect, what ultimately enabled me to pull the trigger on buying the new War of the Ring expansion was not to get at the new bits for the main War of the Ring game, but the new "operational" game they included using many of the same bits as the core game. Sure, I'm glad to have the upgrades for the core game, but since I wasn't a huge War of the Ring fan I figured the maximum upside for me was modest: it would get War of the Ring onto the table for a few more plays. If there was any way the expansion was going to justify its non-trivial price tag for me, it was with the operational game.

First, let me say that anyone out there who was hoping that Nexus might have learned from the many graphic design foul-ups in War of the Ring (indistinguishable sculpts, ridiculously tiny font sizes, indistinct icons) will be disappointed. The design here is every bit as breathtaking in its blithe disregard for functionality or reason. Icons are tinier, less illuminating, and even more indistinguishable. For reasons that defy all logic recruitment counters specific to good guys and bad guys are all the same color. Relevant terrain on the board is still indistinct. The rulebook manages to make a game of just modest complexity almost completely incoherent. It all really is an amazing sight to behold, especially since the actual look of the board and many of the illustrations is so well-done. All that can be said is that the board itself is much more useable than War of the Ring's, with spaces that are large enough for the units that will occupy them.

Anyway, enough with that already, how does the game play?

With possibly one big honking exception*, I rather like the core system of the Battles of the Third age game. In the main, the game plays very similarly to the core War of the Ring game (and for that reason if no other I think fans of the base game will find something to like here): you roll dice to see what actions are available to you (move, muster, draw cards, attack, etc.), combat involves rolling up to 5 dice with leader re-rolls, you've got some flavor provided by various dual-use event cards, you've got characters, armies, and so on. A number of complexities of the full game (Diplomacy, mainly) are gone, replaced by some more tactical concerns: the different types of units now have different flavors (finally!), damage in battle is more nuanced and can be repaired through rallying before units are actually lost, and the Shadow Player can select his "attitude", from build-up (which allows recruitment and slows the pace of the "fate" clock which times the game) to a neutral position through all-out-offensive (which enables more troop movement but accelerates the clock).

Sounds interesting, right? Sure! Unfortunately, in actual play, this mix of stuff turns out to be bewildering, because there is almost no way for you to get any intuitive sense of what you should be doing. Should I be building up? Attacking right away? Trying to mix recruitment and offense? Who is going to be more effective, the Isengarders, Dunlendings, or Mordor Orcs? What is going on here, exactly? So much of the landscape of the game is hidden by the decks of event and action cards, the mix in the muster chits, and the expected mix of die rolls and fate tile draws, that it's impossible to formulate a reasonable approach to the game without knowing the exact mix of cards and having a detailed knowledge of complex probabilities.

As a result, our games saw the Shadow Player soundly thrashed. These were not just garden-variety beatings, but total stuffings. Not just once, but back-to-back. Imagine ending a game of Settlers of Catan with 3 points, and that showing would feel more emotionally satisfying than what the Shadow Player has gone through in our games. The problem with a beating that bad is that it often leaves you with no comprehension of what has gone wrong, and that was the case here.

In the end, War of the Ring: Battles of the Third Age felt like a lot of American-style games: while there are lot of different options presented to the player, there is really only one way to play the game.** You need to figure out what that one way to play it is. Then it boils down to who can execute the pat strategies the most efficiently. The War of the Ring base game had similar issues, but it seemed less extreme: if you pursued some avenue other than what the game designer intended (or what the game design demanded) you would lose, but it at least it wouldn't be the humiliating experience we have here.

As a result, this is one of the most incomprehensible and opaque games I've played in some time. I don't think it's exactly a bad game – I find many of the individual elements interesting in and of themselves, and many of the tactical decisions have some tension when viewed in isolation – but when taken as a whole the game is simply far too confusing for what you're likely to get out of it. For what should be a fun roll-the-dice and mix-it-up game with obviously limited replayability, I don't want to have to spend my first 3 games (at 3 hours or so each) just figuring out what the heck is going on. To me, it's just not that interesting.

Now, War of the Ring: Battles of the Third Age may be incomprehensible and opaque, but designing such a game is child's play when you're willing to use 24+ pages of rules not written in the designer's first language, a hundred cards, and one metric ton of plastic. Designing an incomprehensible and opaque game with one page of rules, a small board, and a simple deck of cards with no text is the work of a true master.

I admit to having no idea of what's going on, game-wise, with Reiner Knizia's Times Square. The basic idea is that you have various figures on the board: Sue and her two Bodyguards, Hal, and Deb. The pieces all have a matching suit of cards which move them in different ways and with different restrictions and have various effects on the other pieces. You're trying to get them into your (sort of sleazy-looking) bar. You play through the deck twice, some stuff happens, and the game ends.

I can only imagine it's Reiner's further experiments in theories of game theme, as demonstrated dramatically by Beowulf. These characters actually have slightly more descriptive names, and they sort of behave in appropriate ways: Sauced, er, Saucy Sue staggers back and forth between the two bars, always surrounded by her bodyguards; Dancin' Deb flits back and forth and allows the player who's bar she is closest to to influence the motions of all the other pieces; and Handsome Hal moves in a more leisurely manner, and can attract other individual pieces to him. It all sort of makes sense in a thematic way that is sort of interesting, if still a little bit too abstract to be actually engaging.

The underlying game-play itself though is very strange, and I have yet to determine if there is any tension, any resource management, or any tactics. I've played about half-a-dozen times and I am suspicious that there is not – you just play whatever cards you've got and pick up some new ones. But, I say to myself, this is Reiner Knizia, not Michael Schacht. There must be something there. It's rated as a "12 and up" game, for heaven's sake!

As I say, bewildering.


* So what is that exception anyway? I've come to the conclusion that the real weak link in War of the Ring (and, by extension, the Battles of the Third Age expansion) is the action dice system itself. It is a fairly clever in concept, and I usually like dice, but when viewed in a holistic way I think they are ineffective here. They serve to constrain rather than enable. You have some idea of a strategy you want to pursue, but tactically you are too straightjacketed by what you end up rolling. Combinations of dice don't suddenly open up interesting options that weren't available before, although many combinations will prevent you from doing what you want. If they enabled uncertainty or excitement or an ability to bluff, that might be something – but they don't, all dice rolls are open and can be seen by both players, so your opponent knows exactly when you have a lousy roll and how to hammer you for it. The Fellowship knows how dangerous it is to move, and can calculate the odds exactly, which seems very, very wrong.

In a large part because of this core system, both War of the Ring and Battles of the Third Age end up feeling to me like you're wrestling with the game system, not with your opponent, which for me is not a good thing.

** For the record, the way to win as Saruman in the Rohan scenario appears to be the hyper-aggressive one. Use the "buildup" attitude for one turn, maybe two if you want to push things, then go all-out. locking into the "attack" attitude and never shifting. Any other approach appears to be dead on arrival, as we discovered.

*** Sorry for stealing your gimmick, Joe.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Tempus, Fury of Dracula

Tempus: For me personally, Martin Wallace's games seem to fall into two categories: games that basically work, and games that don't. Interestingly, I actually think that some of the games that don't represent some of his best work, in that the interesting and unusual gameplay overcomes the obvious problems: Age of Steam would be a prime example, as would Der Weisse Lotus and Empires of the Ancient World. On the other hand, his games that seem more polished, from a systems perspective, have usually completely failed to engage me: La Strada for example is a perfectly well-executed, but rather boring, game.

Tempus falls into the latter camp. It works, there is no equivalent of the dysfunctional draft in Liberté or the weird endgame of Age of Steam or the unbalanced scoring in Empires of the Ancient World or the defective endgame of Tyros. Everything is in order here; there are no pointy edges to Tempus, no game systems that are seriously out-of-kilter, and all that's good.

But on the other hand, there is also an almost complete lack of any tension, any interesting decisions, or any theme to drive the game. You push pieces around, not as much of what you're doing matters as you might expect, and at the end of the game you score. The game has action cards, which usually drive a game's theme, but here they are totally banal, with each game action having a matching set of action cards which basically give you a minor +1 enhancement – they could be deleted and it would cost the game almost nothing. They contain no surprises, no theme, no excitement, no impetus to plan or organize. Plus, of course, this is fundamentally a multi-player king-of-the-hill wargame, and as I've ranted time and time again, it really hasn't successfully solved the problems inherent in the genre (more). Because all players get a fixed number of actions, the "compound interest" thing isn't too bad, but since the only scoring you do is at the end, everyone has the opportunity to pick the winner on the last turn.

Before that last turn, though, the game is rather damped, with little real skill being applicable to the proceedings, so that even though the pace tends to be glacial (not because the game is long, but because so little is happening at any one time) the outcome will usually be decided by a) who got the better setup area, b) who people choose to attack, and c) the usual egregious last-turn free-for-all. It makes me cast my mind back to Nexus Ops. Nexus Ops wasn't a great game, but the nicely-done mission and event cards gave the game some drive, some focus, and some momentum. Tempus does play with less downtime than Nexus Ops, but on the other hand, since so much of what you do in Tempus is either obvious or doesn't really matter that much, it's a legitimate question as to whether that's an advantage.

Recall I did say that Tempus basically works, so that's something. That would have been enough for me 10 years ago, I suppose. Today, though, this joins Il Principe as a "blender" game: some game bits were thrown together in a perfunctory manner and pureed. What you end up with is a flavorless paste. It'll work if it's all you have, but it's not satisfying.

Now, I know they're fundamentally different games, but the stark contrast between the imaginative and flavorful Fury of Dracula and the generic and boring Tempus was impressive. Both games are fairly incremental (each turn is a comparatively small chunk of activity) and have a fair amount of process (once you've made some tactical choice, you have to go through a few steps to actually do it), but Fury of Dracula has, from a gameplay standpoint, two major advantages.

Firstly, the real choices you make in Fury of Dracula are more frequent, pay off quickly, and matter a lot more. Deciding where to run and how to use the limited special actions (Wolf Form, Hide, Feed) for Dracula, and how to manage your dragnet for the Hunters, really drives the development of the game, something that is entirely absent from Tempus. In Fury, the game goes through interesting and distinct phases (locate, concentrate, isolate, eliminate) based on the choices of all the players, while Tempus just wanders around a bit, and then you find out who won.

Secondly, like Tempus, Fury of Dracula has action cards. Unlike Tempus, Fury of Dracula's action cards are interesting. Instead of just being incidental modifiers to things you're already doing anyway, Fury's powerful cards open up new options, new directions, and fundamentally alter the flow of the game in interesting ways; but the power level of the cards seems consistent enough, and the players retain sufficient options and control, that it doesn't feel arbitrary.

I rather liked Fury of Dracula. It's not an every-week kind of a game, or even an every-month game, but it is a lot of fun in a lot of the same ways that Lord of the Rings + Suaron is, with reversed roles (the cooperative good guys are the hunters, the single bad guy is the hunted). It's clearly a game with a fair amount of luck, which Dracula has to cope with moreso than the Hunters – random rumors of his presence spreading at the wrong time can clearly spell doom for him – but the luck gives the game flavor and variety and interest, and is far from overbearing.

I'll end with just one tip for Dracula, since reports that have reached me have been of Dracula having a hard time in this game. Look, I know the games has Fury next to your name in the title. I know you've got cool combat cards you're dying to try out. I know that several of the hunters sound like wusses (how old is Van Helsing anyway?). But you should never, ever voluntarily engage them in combat personally. Even at night. Even if one looks isolated and vulnerable. Remember, for the hunters, nailing down your position is most of the battle. Slowing down even for a moment to fight them is the sort of thing that can come back to haunt you. Also remember, combat is just a competitive d6 roll, so no matter how cool your combat cards sound, you can still go down to bad dice. Now, a lot can happen in a game of Fury of Dracula, so I won't dispute that in the right set of circumstances, you might go for it. But I think you'd want to really, really know what you're doing and be absolutely convinced it's right. Instead, just send one of your minions after them.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Trying an alternate strategy in WWII: Barbarossa to Berlin

I finally broke out my totally tricked-out copy of WW2: Barbarossa to Berlin: the deluxe map, new cards, plus – and this is the cool part – my new C3i-supplied extra bonus Wermacht infantry corps that was accidentally not included in the base game but which nobody ever needs anyway. I like Barbarossa to Berlin a lot – more than Paths of Glory, actually – but the amount of errata had gotten seriously out of hand, especially card errata. It was to the point that the game was more or less unplayable, which is probably why I hadn't actually played it in a long time.

I have to say, the new map (in either its Deluxe edition, or in the new second edition of the base game) is a huge improvement over the original, first-edition map. The river crossings are much clearer, and having the terrain symbols in circles outside the actual spaces (where they won't be covered by unit counters and you can actually see them) both enhance playability significantly, and there are a number of other more minor, but still useful, improvements.

Having not played Barbarossa to Berlin probably in a couple years, we were rusty. As we pulled out the counters to set up, we noticed the Swedes and Turks and commented about how these just seemed like wasted space on the countersheet. Who ever invades Sweden? Or Turkey? We mulled over scenarios. For Sweden, all we could come up with was going after the Ore. For Turkey ... nothing. We couldn't come up with a single plausible situation in which Turkey would be worth invading by either side.

Anyway, Matt kicked off the game with Von Paulus Pause, and pushed the offensive very hard in 1941 in Russia. He sacrificed all to ops, trying to surround Moscow. He even forwent playing PanzerArmee Afrika or making any effort at all in North Africa. This used to be a winning strategy (or so the internet says, anyway), but it seems like the new Yellow cards for the Allies (including the critical Industrial Evacuation) and the rules allowing the Allied player to fish for Soviet reinforcement cards make this a really tough row to hoe now. The Germans did well in terms of VPs, taking Leningrad and comfortably exceeding their Eastern Front objectives, but there were a lot of eliminated and depleted units, and Moscow was never seriously endangered. This made '42 a tough year, and one mostly of repairing the Wermacht.

In the meantime, I had cleared out North Africa. With only token Axis resistance, I realized I had no need to launch Torch. The American units were not needed in North Africa, and Vichy would ultimately switch side when Casablanca came out, even if the conference wouldn't really be in Casablanca. So I thought "sure, let's go for Sledgehammer instead. I've never done this, and Norway would be a lot more threatening than invading an already-liberated North Africa".

This theory is not quite as solid is it sounds. There is no supply source in Scandinavia, so you've got your Allied Beachhead locked down in perpetuity, which means you can only launch subsequent invasions that use separate British and Allied beachheads: that's Husky, Overlord, the always rather dicey Roundup, and that's it. The smaller but still threatening Shingle and Avalanche (given Italian weakness, and when combined with US Reinforcements) are ruled out, as is Anvil-Dragoon. This is a problem. A related issue is that all your serious battles are going to be fought from Limited Supply, making activating units up there incredibly expensive (you'll most likely need spend a 4 or 5 ops just to try to force the straights in Denmark).

Plus, you're pretty much forced to invade Sweden. There are two links from Scandinavia to Denmark, one through Norway (which is across a body of water that, for game purposes, is a river) and one through Sweden (which isn't). You're going to need that second approach. Which means invading Sweden.

(A small aside at this point on Sweden: I was operating under a misunderstanding about the Ore rules in Barbarossa to Berlin. The Swedes have an Ore space in this game. In every WWII game ever made with any detail, there is a rule about the now-famous Swedish Ore; usually, as long as the Germans can trace supply to Sweden, they get some production advantage. I was sure there was a similar rule here, but after scouring the rulebook, I believe there is not – the Ore space in Norway is the critical one. The Swedish Ore is just another space in another neutral country, and if the Germans want it, they need to invade. Which will happen about the same time that GMT decides to start including an index in their rulebooks so it doesn't take 20 minutes to figure these things out. So, invading Norway is enough to knock the Axis hand down to 6).

So anyway. I invaded Sweden. We got to use those two blue pieces. It wasn't that exciting. I had to destroy the Swedish units, which was annoying, and seemed unrealistic – I have a hard time seeing the Swedes taking up arms against the Allies in 1943, especially with several powerful armies hanging out next door in Norway.

At the end of the day, I think the deck is stacked against doing Sledgehammer instead of Torch. It's just too hard with so little supply, and it constrains your options too much by depriving you of the ability to reuse that Allied Beachhead and severely limiting your options in the Mediterranean. You just can't drain off enough German units, and it's too close to German replacement centers. Italy seems a much better way to go. Norway does knock the Germans down to 6 cards by depriving them of Ore, which is definitely something, but I just don't think it's enough given the risks to subsequent invasion possibilities. If you invade Norway, and then get Husky or Roundup or Overlord in a timely manner, maybe it's OK; but if an invasion of mainland Europe is delayed a turn or two because you couldn't do Shingle or Avalanche, I just don't know. I'd have to think really, really hard about doing it again. I think you would need not just to clear North Africa early, but also enter Total War as early as possible (Summer '42) in order to minimize your risk of not seeing a follow-up invasion in a timely manner. A Sledgehammer invasion will put you more at risk of a strange card distribution situation.

We haven't finished yet; we're to '44, but will need one more session to finish the game. After blunting the initial invasion of the Soviet Union, and clearing North Africa, I was feeling pretty good about my prospects; but I think the whole Scandinavian campaign has been too much of an expensive sideshow, and I fear I've lost ground. We'll see.

In the end, I really like this game. It's not perfect – I wish it had more latitude for different strategic approaches – but every game has to make trade-offs, and of this style of card driven games, I find Barbarossa to Berlin to be one of the most successful. The trade-offs between events and operations generally make sense, a (generally) good selection of events has been chosen, and the tactical game is rich but not too fiddly. I really like how the offensive power of armor drives events on the Eastern Front, with both players always having a strong incentive to attack, and it feels nicely historical. The complexity is quite manageable. The only real complaint is the game length, but it's not hard to record and re-set-up, so we usually play over a couple sessions.

I still don't have a plausible scenario in which Turkey would enter play though...

Wednesday, August 2, 2006

Cleopatra and the Society of Unwieldy Game Titles, Mykerinos, The Nacho Incident, Hey! That's My Fish!

So here we have another game (Cleopatra and the Society of Architects) which had horrible advance press – terribly overproduced, very random, and uninteresting.

But you know what, I liked the game a lot. I thought it was a wonderful game with layers of subtlety, interesting decisions, tension, and good player inter...

Hold on, wait, that's the wrong script. Hang on a sec ...

Seriously, while it's definitely no Beowulf, I did kinda like Cleopatra and the Society of Architects (and if you think I'm going to type in that whole game title again, you're mistaken). It's basically a drafting game a la Ticket to Ride. Each turn you either draft new cards, or use those cards in various combinations (in roughly descending order of frequency: Artisans, Stone, Marble, Wood, Lapis) to build a piece of Cleopatra's new palace. The catch is, the better cards (ones which have more resources pictured on them, or ones that convey special powers) give you corruption. The player(s) with the most corruption at the end of the game loses, and the player with the best score amongst the survivors wins.

For me, the whole corruption thing gave the game a nice edge, a tension, that is lacking in the similar but purely tactical Ticket to Ride, a game to which it otherwise bears more than a passing resemblance. Since players' corruption totals are hidden in an overproduced pyramid-like thing (everyone gets their own!), there is some real uncertainty about this critical game element.

Outside of the drafting and corruption elements, there are admittedly a bunch of issues with the scoring, which I'm sure will cut into the game's replayability. Ideally, you want some interconnectedness in the building and scoring elements: if I build an Obelisk instead of a Sphinx, we hope that changes the game state for future builds in interesting ways, as it does in say Tower of Babel or Blue Moon City. Or maybe building a Door piece has some future implication for me personally, like building a road in Settlers or acquiring a Monument in Ra. In Cleopatra, etc., these associations are too weak, in my opinion. The dynamic on the Sphinx for example (2 points for odd-numbered Sphinxes, 5 points for even-numbered ones) just means you're an idiot if you don't build them in pairs. There is some interaction between the Mosaics and the Columns, but in practice it seems little more than random noise since it's almost impossible to benefit from them yourself. Same with the interaction between the Walls and the Doors. In short, the process of building is usually little more than figuring out which one scores you the most points at this juncture. Because there is still some tension on what can be drafted from the available lots, and since the building costs on different items differ, it's not that bad. But it's still a missed opportunity. The sole exception are the Mosaics, which have a nice little mini-game associated with them: each mosaic is a tetris piece, and if you can build your mosaic so that it creates open parks, you can get rid of corruption.

This is a game that reminds me a lot of Shadows over Camelot: it's a game with one interesting idea (the Traitor in Shadows, Corruption here) surrounded by a fairly by-the-numbers design. The difference is, in Cleopatra, etc., the one idea works; in Shadows, it didn't. Cleopatra, etc., is no Blue Moon City, a game to which it has some (very superficial) similarities, but it's an interesting game, and the tension involved with the corruption for me gives it an edge that Ticket to Ride doesn't have. Not one I'll play a lot, but on the other hand I'll be happy to play again.

Mykerinos: When Ys first came out, I wasn't a huge fan, but it was a good shot from a first-time publisher I thought, I enjoyed it well enough, and looked forward to what Ystari might come out with next. If Caylus and Mykerinos is it, though, I think this is just not my brand. Mykerinos may in fact be the best of the three games, but the reality is that it's still dry as dust, pretty unoriginal, has a totally pasted-on theme, and is too long for its own good.

In fairness, previous Ystari games had some fairly obvious problems. In Ys, it was the fact that it was a blind-placement game with a head-banging level of calculation required, an awkward combination (since blind placement is a mechanism that has a pretty high level of inherent chaos). In Caylus, it was the obvious level of imbalance in the building costs and payoff and favor tracks. The good news is that Mykerinos appears, on first inspection, to be lacking these sorts of red flags. It is not too calculational, has a reasonably functional area-control thing going on (although it is overly tactical when it really doesn't need to be), and the obvious imbalance in the special powers is not terribly painful in this case, since the game is light. There is still awkwardness – Mykerinos wants to be light without giving up it's brand's "analytical" label, so you get both a slightly overwrought tactical game and a card deck that can totally hose you. But really, it's not that bad.

Still, it's definitely not a "buy" for me. A lack of theme and a slightly overlong playing time might just be issues in an otherwise very good game, but either alone will break a game that otherwise is unspectacular. As they do here.

The Nacho Incident: I have this vision of the design process for The Nacho Incident. It goes like this: someone at 8 Foot Llama says "Hey, I know; let's make a game about smuggling Mexican food into Canada! Canadian Mexican food really sucks." Possibly after a trip to Canada. This is then the last time the wisdom of this project is ever evaluated.

As things move on, the game loses sight of its original conception, and has some complexity overruns. It turns out that maybe the theme isn't as funny as hoped and isn't enough to support the game, and so we end up with an odd mix of abstract elements. Still fixated on the wacky concept, though, the project has a momentum of its own.

What we end up with is far from bad, but it's one of those games that even with only a couple pages of fairly simple rules, your eyes are still glazing over halfway through the explanation because of a serious theme–mechanisms disconnect. So you play it a couple turns, things start to come together, and it's OK. Not great, but OK; the major failing here is that it's just not that funny. I think this sort of game needs a better theme integration or to be a lot more streamlined and faster-playing (or, preferably, both) to really tap into the humor. As it is, it seems to combines a German-style theme with American-style design rigor. You could do a lot worse, and the game is short and cheap, so it's tough to come down on it too hard; and good-quality filler is hard to find. But for me anyway, this just doesn't manage to do it.

Hey! That's My Fish!: Phalanx' many travails left me completely unprepared for this wonderful little gem of a game. Fast-playing, simple, fun, and interesting, this is a great opener and/or closer and is surprisingly involving for a small-box, light game. The theme is wonderful, and the Phalanx production is great. Although mechanically totally dissimilar, the game does sort of remind me of G√ľnter Coronett's similarly engrossing Flaschenteufel - a compact, quick-playing game with a good theme with a lot of tension that really sucks you in.

This was a surprise hit, and I'm sorry I missed playing it last year when it came out in English, because it would have comfortably made my "best of 2005" list. As I say, good filler is hard to find, and Hey! That's My Fish! scores big.