Monday, November 27, 2006

Augsburg 1520, Gloria Mundi

Augsburg 1520: alea has been taking some hits for some of their recent games (Rum & Pirates, Fifth Avenue, Mammoth Hunters), but even though they haven't maintained their "every release a classic" run from Ra to Puerto Rico, I've still always found something to like in their games (it's helped that their line shows great range; their first 6 big-box games included bidding, bluffing, tactical, and negotiation games). Fifth Avenue, Mammoth Hunters, and Die Sieben Weisen are all games I liked for their solid execution of interesting ideas, even if they aren't all tremendously replayable. And Rum & Pirates was just fun (I've played a number of times since, and no, I haven't changed my mind on that). Only the so-so Wyatt Earp is out in the cold, but even that had an interesting twist on Rummy, with more incremental instead of all-or-nothing scoring. And of course the relatively recent San Juan is amongst the best games in their line.

Which leaves Augsburg 1520 as the first alea game to leave me more or less flat, with my desire to play again largely driven by confidence in the brand rather than any specific desire to see if it'll work out in the end.

Augsburg 1520 is a bidding game. It's of the traditional empire-building variety, where you have to acquire either stuff that generates more money, or actual victory points (Saint Petersburg is an exemplar of this sort of game). That choice between cash and VPs is OK, and has a few interesting twists – there are two choke-points, for example, where you have to buy a very expensive Church or Cathedral to proceed, but players who buy early pay a lot more than players who buy late – but it isn't anything we fundamentally haven't seen before. The bidding part is also OK. Each turn has 5 rewards on offer and 5 auctions. Players bid a quantity of money cards, which are color-coded to a specific auction (the last auction is wild; you can bid anything). The bidding is poker-style, with each player "calling" or "raising" the number of bid cards in turn, and after everyone drops or "calls" without raising we reveal our bids and the largest number of cards bid (the one with the single highest valued card in case of multiple high bids, which will usually be the case) wins. This has the great virtue of being comparatively quick (no endlessly circling the table), since there are a lot of auctions in each game.

The feedback between the bidding and the economic game is also interesting: each turn you're dealt a number of bidding cards. You then have to pay for the ones you want. Low-valued ones are cheap, while high-valued cards are expensive. The cards have cleverly printed their costs on the back, so you can verify everything without needing to see what exactly everyone is buying. This is interesting in that you have some choice of going for breadth or depth, or saving to buy a Church, but in practice it seems that most of the time you're going to buy almost all the cards you are dealt, so it doesn't seem to be as interesting as one might hope.

There are two major downsides.

The first is a bit of an endgame problem. Because some of the auctions are for victory point producing tiles that only a few players can have, and if you win it you get to steal it from somebody, you can see an endgame situation where a player in a distant third has to make a choice about who to steal victory points from that determines who wins, and that choice is ultimately arbitrary. It's not going to happen all the time, but it's always deflating when it does.

Secondly, don't even try to explain the theme of this game to people. It involves purchasing debt from German nobility and then canceling that debt in return for favors. When I bought the game from my local game shop, the clerk (who was unfamiliar with it) was reading the copy text on the back about various debt transactions and remarked "wow! the game almost sells itself!", albeit with a suspicious lack of enthusiasm. I muttered something about perhaps it being more meaningful if you're German. I notice that they haven't restocked since I bought their last copy. Let's just say, the theme is not terribly compelling, and neither does it make much sense in terms of the game-play.

Ultimately, I don't know. The initial impression is that the endgame has potential issues, and the game has interesting bits that don't quite seem to cohere or add up to more than the sum of the parts. And the theme is weak. On the other hand, this is an alea game, it is unusual for a bidding game, and some of those bits are interesting and clearly have some depth, it's not too long, and so I'll play it again for those reasons. But it's definitely not a game that grabbed me. Who knows; maybe in a few more plays I'll be raving about it, but it seems unlikely, and that endgame issue will likely remain a sore point.

2011 Update: I actually played Augsburg 1520 recently, at BGG.con 2011, and it seems to come out once a year. I'm not going to say the game is underrated. But it's a clever and unusual bidding game, and good bidding games not by Reiner Knizia are rare. This writeup probably doesn't do it full justice. The endgame isn't as problematic as I worried. There is nuance to the acquisition of things on the various tracks, and timing is everything. The back-and-forth as people take titles from each other makes the game dynamic in a good way. Also, it helps to play the rule for the Master Builder correctly (it's confusing). The game is probably best with 4. Augsburg 1520 has been on the block a couple times for selling off – space for our game collection is tight – but we always play it first and it goes back on the shelf, even though my complete set of alea games has finally been broken up (Macao and Mammoth Hunters hit the road).

Gloria Mundi: Let's just say, my expectations for Gloria Mundi were low. Really low. Sometimes that's no bad thing.

This is another infrastructure vs. victory points game, this time in Rome. The Visigoths are coming, ripping up the landscape as they go, and you are trying to get to Carthage (where I guess the Vandals, despite their name, aren't as bad) before they get you. But you need to pay for your ticket out of town with gold, agricultural products, and, um, small rectangular white things.

Gloria Mundi's main selling point is the well-realized theme. Gloria Mundi is chaotic, but with the Visigoths closing in and everyone running away as fast as they can, what else would it be? The players are constantly fighting the frustration of seeing their good work destroyed by pillaging Visigoths, but hey, Rome is collapsing here, what do you expect? Low inflation and a buoyant stock market? I don't think so.

Obviously, the theme only goes so far, but it does help a lot. Underneath the theme, Gloria Mundi is a mixed bag. To start with the bad, the most obvious problem is that the iconography on the cards is really hideous: the same symbol can mean different things at different times, rules are not interpreted consistently across similar symbols, and in many cases the symbols themselves are not illuminating. The special powers on the cards are not complicated, but the way they are presented is often so completely opaque that you'll need a play-through just to figure everything out. This is really bad. I've always said that if you are only going to get a few plays out of a game, it's really important that the first one not be wasted. Also, the pillaging mechanic, where the Visigoths destroy players' holdings, is a bit arbitrary and is bound to leave people feeling gratuitously hosed at some point or another. And the mechanism for acquiring new cards is such that planning is almost impossible and if you are able to buy a card with a special power that gives you some good synergies, you should thank your lucky stars. Since Gloria Mundi is very much about the special powers of cards you acquire rather than raw production (unlike, say, Saint Petersburg), this can be an issue.

As for the good stuff, I like how the economic model works. Cards are divided up into farms, legions, and cities. Each turn you play a card from your hand and add it to your holdings, and that also indicated which types of holdings pay for everyone. So if I play a city card, I not only get a new city (which pays a gold), everyone activates all their cities. Each of these cards can then be augmented with power cards bought from the deck. This is kind of neat, and the frequent destruction makes things interesting and prevents any sort of runaway leader issue. And it's interesting that your supply of Farm cards, say, is fixed, so if you invest heavily in one area early you get a good payoff, but it can leave you badly constrained later on when all you have are City or Legion cards which benefit your opponents more than you.

So what does all this mean? I like the theme, I like the card-play, and the art is fantastic; that might be enough to get the game on the table for a bit. What ultimately kills Gloria Mundi for me, though, is the length. Our game was pushing two hours, although I'm not sure how much of that was spent bickering over what the heck the symbols were supposed to mean. At 45 minutes, an hour at the outside, I think Gloria Mundi would have been a neat, if rather chaotic and ultimately disposable, game experience. At the kind of length we saw, though, forget it. I'm sure more play would bring it down, but I just can't see it coming down enough.

I should mention too that while the box says the game goes up to 6 players, I expect four is the sweet spot. Chaos and downtime go up with each added player, and your ability to plan will asymptotically approach zero (although the game length won't go up too much). I might play Gloria Mundi again, but I would be leery of adding a fifth player and would play something else with 6.

Friday, November 3, 2006

Shifting Sands

I've been putting off doing this write-up, because I feel like my track record on these card games is sketchy. I'll play one of them a couple or a few times, the game will be fun, I'll do the write-up, and then the game promptly crashes and burns the very next time I play it. Such was the case for The Napoleonic Wars, Triumph of Chaos, and Sword of Rome, all of which hit the wall pretty hard (some harder than others, though). I'd probably be tougher on Twilight Struggle if I wrote my review today. Here I Stand, a game I do still like, nonetheless couldn't hold the enthusiasm generated by the first few games and it overall must be judged to have some significant issues.

So, I was not sure what to do with Shifting Sands. But, having now played three times, I've cracked and you get this.

Shifting Sands is a direct descendant of GMT and Ted Raicer's classic games Barbarossa to Berlin and Paths of Glory. The core game system is virtually identical. On your turn, you play a card from your hand, and choose between operations (movement and combat), replacements, strategic moves, or the military or political event. If you choose operations, you spend the number the card gives you to activate units around the board. While your infantry holds the line and provides mass, armor units form the critical core of your army, and drive a lot of the tactical interest by having the ability to shift the weight of an attack easily and rapidly, as well as to add the possibility of overrunning defending units.

From a historical perspective, the war in the Western Desert was not so much blitzkrieg in miniature as it was a series of set-piece battles interspersed with cavalry-style raids and flanking maneuvers, and the tactics of Shifting Sands capture elements of this. Because of the maneuverability of armored units, the overrun results, and possible armor attack bonuses, the offensive is very powerful when things are taking place in the open with insecure flanks. But once you hit a choke-point where flanks can be secured, or once the defender gets some terrain to take advantage of, things turn into a slugging match.

But, the tactical game – while certainly interesting – is not really Shifting Sands' major focus. As it was for Paths of Glory, Shifting Sands is about resource management. Limited cards and limited action points have to be split wisely between operations, replacements, and events. And operations have to be prioritized wisely amongst the game's several theaters.

Each player gets their own deck of cards, divided into three piles. The 1940 deck, like Paths of Glory's Mobilization deck, is small, and the players will go through it in a couple turns. 1941 gets a bit thicker, and then 1942 adds quite a few cards. The thing that makes Shifting Sands feel different, though, is the rapidly-escalating hand sizes. Your hand starts with the Paths of Glory-standard 7 cards, but grows to 10 cards by the end (although it can be temporarily suppressed by Malta-related activities). These large hand sizes make a big difference: the most noticeable is the enhancement in the value of combat cards, since playing them will vary rarely cost you an activation as they often do in Paths of Glory (playing a card's event to influence combat means that card can't be used in one of your 6 impulses to actually do stuff. So if there's a card you need to save for next turn for an important event, and a card you play as a combat card, with a 7 card hand that leaves you one short for your actual impulses). This, combined with combat cards that seem on average somewhat more powerful than the ones in Paths of Glory or Barbarossa to Berlin, is a very nice feature that makes combat a lot more uncertain and interesting, and the availability of combat cards can affect your planning in a way that the much more incidental cards in Barbarossa to Berlin usually don't.

Apart from the Western Desert, Shifting Sands also features two peripheral theaters, the Near East and East Africa. These are separate gameplay areas in which the Axis ultimately have little to no hope of accomplishing anything constructive, but which can be a drain on British resources. Juggling them ultimately feels like juggling the fronts in Paths of Glory – how can the Serbians be finished off most efficiently? – but the advantage Shifting Sands has is that these resource management tradeoffs make some actual thematic sense. In Paths of Glory, Germany is slowing down Schlieffen's right wing in order to allow Austria-Hungary to spend operations to battle Serbia, which makes absolutely no sense. In Shifting Sands, having the British choose between spending resources in East Africa or the Western Desert is at least not intuitively jarring.

The other thing is that the game contains many powerful and important event cards, and has a number of sequencing issues – the biggest being a whole series of cards revolving around the reinforcement, siege and possible Axis seizure of Malta. The larger hand sizes makes the management and cycling of cards and events more manageable (compare to the incredibly unwieldy and accident-prone Russian Capitulation Sequence in Paths of Glory).

As for my impressions? Shifting Sands initially get about the same reception as Michael Rinella's previous game, Monty's Gamble: Market Garden. I liked both games right away. But on the other hand, both games are so similar in feel to their predecessors (Paths of Glory and Breakout: Normandy), that they didn't get an initial "wow" the way the originals did when I first played them. But as I came to grips with the new games, I realized that the situations and feel and details are quite different, and interesting in their own right. I really like that both of his games have not just introduced added complexity and playing time, as is unfortunately traditional with spinoff games, but have been able to cleanly port the underlying system to new situations while arguably reducing the complexity and slimming down the playing time. Breakout: Normandy is a 6-hour game, which is just a bit uncomfortable, while Paths of Glory and Barbarossa to Berlin are both 10+ hours. On the other hand, Monty's Gamble is a great and very compact and comfortable 3 to 4 hour game, and Shifting Sands can be finished in 5. Monty's Gamble's length is perfect; Shifting Sands is probably a touch long – like in Barbarossa to Berlin, the endgame of mopping up the outnumbered, outgunned, and outclassed Axis is not the most compelling gaming experience ever devised – but on the scale of these things Shifting Sands is a dense game with lots of activity and I have no complaints. Unlike Here I Stand, which can feature significant periods of minimal activity and accomplishment, things are always happening in Shifting Sands.

I can no longer seriously talk about any of these games as "simulations", but from what I'll call a "thematic" standpoint, Shifting Sands does pretty well, better I think than many others in this category. The core card mechanism it uses was brilliant when it was originally perfected in Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage because it both introduced gameplay tension (having to balance military and political actions) and successfully conveyed a sense of the fog of war of the period. Later games have successfully used cards to achieve game tension, but in my opinion they haven't always modeled or evoked anything in particular thematically. Paths of Glory was a notable offender in this regard. Why am I trading off Russian vs. French activity? Weren't these two different nations, with two totally separate supply and command chains? Sure, coordination of offensives between the two nations was hard, but the game model is not coordination problems; the model is that there was a fixed amount of military activity that has to be divvied up amongst the French, British, and Russians, which was clearly just not how things worked. Similarly, presumably the drafting and training areas of the military-industrial complex were going to churn out soldiers regardless of whether or not higher-ups took a break to play a card as Replacement Points instead of happening to notice that someone seems to have sunk the Lusitania. The real limit on replacements was the available manpower pool, from everything I've read, something which Paths of Glory pays no attention to.

For me anyway, Shifting Sands is on sounder thematic footing, even though it uses the same system. The antagonists are each drawing from one resource pool, so the decisions about the Western Desert vs. East Africa vs. the Near East make more sense (at least until right at the very end, with the Torch landings, which has the Allies starting to make the same strange trade-offs – who will be active today, the Americans or British? – that you make in Paths of Glory). Supplies in the desert were notoriously variable, so the randomness of the cards feels more plausible. Even the replacement point system, while not great, can be rationalized much more easily here.

On the other hand, any time you repurpose an existing game system to the degree that is the case here, there is bound to be a limit on how much you can do thematically. For example, I think Rommel in the Desert does more with less – Rommel really seems to capture a fundamental tactical and operational feel for the desert campaign, while Shifting Sands takes more of a "storybook" approach, similar (obviously) to that of Paths of Glory: the story of the campaign is told through the event cards, and the players follow along. In Rommel in the Desert, players are making fundamentally authentic-feeling decisions; in Shifting Sands, the campaigns unfold before you. That makes it sound, bad, I know, which doesn't seem right; but for me personally, I prefer a game which can grasp a couple things fundamentally rather than doing a lot of things superficially. Thus, I think I find Rommel in the Desert the more convincing game, all the more so for having good scenarios playable in a couple of hours. But, by the same token, Shifting Sands does capture the sweep of the entire theatre while Rommel focusses solely on the Western Desert.

Does Shifting Sands succeed as a game? On that count, for me the answer is much more clear – I definitely enjoyed it all three times I played. The game isn't completely clean; there is some complexity to the interrelated nature of a bunch of the events in the deck that it'll be difficult to really understand until you've played a couple of times, and that complexity is probably a little overdone. The game is probably a touch too long, and the graphic designers over at MMP could have done significantly better in conveying information in the physical design. But these are my only complaints, and they are minor. The game plays more cleanly and with fewer special cases than either predecessor (Paths of Glory and Barbarossa to Berlin), it plays in reasonable time, presents the players with lots of interesting decisions, does it constantly with little slack time, maintains its interest almost right to the end, and appears to have well-designed and interesting cards and decks which tell the story of the desert campaign. I look forward to playing it more.

2011 Update: I wasn't logging my plays on BoardGameGeek back when Shifting Sands was in more in regular circulation, but I'm guessing I got about 10 plays out of it. My most recent play was just a few months ago, PBeM via VASSAL. Given the fond memories I have of the game, playing again was oddly unsatisfying, and I think it boils down to the Torch invasion. The inevitability of Torch tends to constrain the game – if the Germans are hanging on with prospects in Egypt, the impact of Torch will be disastrous since it seems like they can't hold off the Allies in the west without the DAK. It means that at a certain point, the Germans simply have to abandon everything to form defensive lines in Tunisia and Libya, or they lose. The game then becomes a siege. It's a somewhat unsatisfying end to what is otherwise a quite riveting game. I still count myself as a fan of Shifting Sands, and the more moderate playing time is a big deal. But it never quite exerted the same hold on me that WWII: Barbarossa to Berlin did.