Sunday, May 11, 2008

Manoeuvre, Glory to Rome

I recently had a chance to play Manoeuvre, GMT's latest lightish, wargame/family game crossover attempt. In it, two armies of eight pieces each maneuver, chess-like, over a square grid and attempt to defeat each other. There are 8 different armies in the game, each from a different period and nation – Americans from the Revolution, British and French from the Napoleonic period, Ottomans, and so on. The nations have a different makeup for their eight units: the Ottomans have lots of cavalry while the Americans have none, for example. Each turn you must move one piece one square (two if cavalry), and then you may attack, if cards permit.

Those cards are the core of the game, with board positioning and whatnot being somewhat secondary. Each nation has its own unique deck. Most of the cards are unit cards which match the nation's playing pieces, and are primarily used to fight with those pieces – usually assaults, but also volleys and artillery, with different armies having different mixes (the Russians have lots of artillery, while the Brits are good at volleying). Also included are special actions like forced marches, supply, ambushes, and guerillas. These seemed to be a bit of a mixed bag; a lot of the events are generally useful, like the Supply Columns and leaders, while some sound cool, like Skirmish, but in practice seem to rarely come up. The game is fundamentally about managing these cards – cycling ones you don't need rapidly, looking for high-value combinations, and being willing to let go of a good card that you don't happen to need just now.

To the extent that these card management issues are interesting, Manoeuvre is clever and more subtle than it first appears. There are a fair number of factors that go into deciding the value of a card, when to play it, when to hold it, and when to cycle it. Maybe you have a leader card, which allows units to combine their attacks (among other things), so you have to balance playing it now for a modest attack vs. holding back to try to set up something really devastating vs. realizing you just can't set up that devastating attack anytime reasonably soon and just letting the card go or using it for a lesser effect just to clear it. Frequently you'll want to make lower-odds attacks just to do stir the pot and cycle cards and see what comes your way. On the other hand, since in this game you draw cards at the beginning of your turn, and since unit cards are valuable both on offense and defense, attacks which expend cards can leave you vulnerable to counter-attacks. Even if you're holding junk, just having 5 cards in hand will give your opponent some pause, while burning 4 in a coordinated assault will leave him more confident in his counter-strike.

All this is not bad, Manoeuvre is clever than it looks, and is an interesting little design.

There are three problems, unfortunately. And for me, one of them is a deal-killer.

The first problem is that clever card management and evaluation decisions are not terribly evocative of Napoleonic era tactics. Manoeuvre is basically abstract, moreso even than Memoir '44 and much moreso than Command & Colors: Ancients; I can't help but think of it as Advanced Checkers With Cards. It's not terrible, the nations are unique in ways that are somewhat representative, but even the Ottomans and British, historically armies at different extremes, just do not play that differently in the game. The game is constrained by random terrain, a constant and fixed number of units per army, a single meeting engagement style scenario, and the requirement for plausible game balance ... which just doesn't leave much wiggle room.

Secondly, Manoeuvre has something of a pacing problem, especially in the early game. The units start a fair distance away from each other and move only one space a turn. So the opening game of moving to contact just isn't all that interesting, as the cards don't really provide the same sort of tactical drive as the Command & Colors games. So you're moving guys one space at a time, maybe cycling cards, and the game takes a while for things to mix up and get to the interesting bits. The endgame can be a little protracted as well; since one victory condition is to destroy 5 units, you can get into a game of hunting down the last kill that isn't that compelling. Manoeuvre isn't a long game, fortunately, so this all isn't too bad, but the screws could have been tightened a bit here.

The deal-killer for me? Manoeuvre is a basically-abstract card management game. As such it's on a head-on collision course with a variety of games based on very similar card management and evaluation decisions: Blue Moon, Race for the Galaxy, and Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation, just to pick a few. It's a tough space with quite a few brilliant games, and one in which Manoeuvre just isn't that competitive. It's arguably neither as evocative nor anywhere near as compelling as any of these games, and neither is it simpler or shorter.

I think a much better approach was taken by Cambridge Game Factory's Glory to Rome; thanks to Brian over at the Tao of Gaming for putting me on to it. Glory to Rome is in the same family of games as San Juan and Race to the Galaxy: you're trying to build your little empire of buildings with special powers, and do it efficiently and quickly. Glory to Rome has taken the basic San Juan model and layered on some additional levels.

Each card is used for currency or for a building, but now the roles are on the card too, and if you want to either lead or follow a chosen role, you have to play a matching card. Plus, there are more roles. There are more buildings. And there is more process; if you have a Marble in hand and a Basilica you want to build, you can't just pay for it as you can in San Juan; you have to lay the foundation for the Basilica, perhaps using an Architect; you have to put the Marble into your storehouse first (maybe with a Laborer) and then add it to the building (perhaps with a Craftsman). Or maybe you'll decide that the Marble would be better embezzled and the proceeds put into your personal vault (using a Merchant). The Basilica requires 3 marble to finish, so the game becomes a lot about the process of building – which is good, because that's what Glory to Rome is about, rebuilding Rome after Nero's fire.

Where Glory to Rome wins is in the almost out-of-control special powers associated with the buildings. Building buildings in this game can be time-consuming, so you are rewarded with fairly significant advantages: the ability to draw and cycle lots of cards, put cards directly to your storehouse, use cards as other cards, get multiple activations out of individual cards, steal other players' cards or special powers, or immediately end the game. A lot of these powers allow you to take shortcuts in building future buildings (using some stray Rubble in that Sewer instead of Stone), which is also nice in terms of evoking the feeling of working in a corrupt environment of lax oversight.

And so Glory to Rome careens from power to power, with players erecting powerful buildings and trying to maximize their impact. It's a very edgy game. Unlike San Juan or Race for the Galaxy, you can mess with your fellow-players directly, stealing cards from their hands (using the Legionnaire) for example, and buildings can extend and expand that power. It's a very dynamic, fast-moving game, and one that you can often feel just one powerful card combination away from winning, or live in fear of the next building your opponent is going to finish. To be honest, I don't think for a moment that the building special abilities are all that well-balanced. The Colosseum, which flays your opponents clients and throws them to the lions, is extremely nasty. But it's this edginess, speed, and sharp interaction, combined with flavorful and appropriately cartoony artwork, which makes Glory to Rome appealing. Where Manoeuvre seems to have assiduously courted game balance to a degree that seems to have sucked most of the interest out of the game, Glory to Rome seems to have worried about it only enough to get close, and produced something fast, furious, and fun.

While I’ve found Glory to Rome to be a very fun game, I think it's better with smaller numbers of players – 3 or 4 seems to be a better game than 5. My experience was that early games felt like they ran long; maybe around 90 minutes, and I think the game wants to be 60. Once I had played a time or two, that’s where it ended up, but Glory to Rome does have a learning curve which has an unfortunate side-effect of potentially dragging out the game (Race for the Galaxy is much better in this respect; it has a significant learning curve as well, but not knowing what you’re doing won’t make the game longer). So I'd suggest making sure that your first game or two are played with a smaller player-count, then once the game-play has become second nature and you can easily explain it to others, you can add more players.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Games, Theme, Lord of the Rings, and Lost Cities

So, a hypothetical question:

Let's say you're a gamer, and you're trying to decide whether you like a game or not (I know, I know, how often does this really come up?). Let's also assume for the moment that games can be cleanly divided into two parts, theme and game-play. Which of these two halves is easier to get one's head around?

The answer I would have given, prior to last year anyway, was that theme is easier. You can easily tell if a game is evoking a certain feel just from playing it, right? What's so hard about that? It's almost not even worth thinking too much about. Most game discussions seem to me to spend far, far more ink on game-play than on theme.

Or is it really as obvious as all that?

If you step back a bit and think about it, it seems otherwise everywhere else. Literature, for example. Take the Lord of the Rings, a perennial favorite of mine and, it seems, of many gamers. It's easy to appreciate these books for their obvious craft: the use of language, the narrative flow, the easy and economical but exceptionally vivid characterization, the incredible attention to detail, the visceral struggle between good and evil. But to understand and appreciate the themes that run through the books requires digging deeper. What is the nature of the evil Tolkien is portraying? Is the Ring in itself a force of evil, or is it simply the power of it that corrupts even the stoutest of hearts? Tolkien uses the language of both, and that ambiguity in exploring the theme of good vs evil is what makes thinking about the book deeply rewarding, and gives the theme strength and subtlety beyond the Manichaeism traditional to fantasy. This is just one of the themes of the book that can be understood more fully only after appreciating the simple excitement of a well-told story.

And so it sometimes is with games, I've come to understand.

Take Reiner Knizia's classic Lost Cities. For the couple readers who may not have played this game, here is a game-play summary: Lost Cities is played with what is essentially a 5-suited but otherwise standard deck of cards. On your turn, you must play a card on your side of the table, onto one of five columns, one for each suit. You can only play cards in ascending order; once you've played the 6, you can't go back and play a 5. If you want to get that 5 out of your hand, you have to play it to the discard pile, but then your opponent can pick it up instead of drawing from the deck. At the end of the game your score is simply the sum of all the cards you've played in a column, minus 20. The face cards are not numeric, but are doublers: you have to play them before you play a numeric card, and they double your score for that suit (not always a good thing!).

Most players will be immediately struck by the constant, wrenching choices the game throws at you. There are rarely obvious plays; you might have a 2 to start an expedition with, but nothing to back it up, or a couple high cards and you have to decide whether to play them or hold them waiting to fill in some lower-valued cards. Figuring out where and what to play is never easy.

But is the game thematic? I think most players (including myself) would instinctively say no, it's just another basically-abstract Knizia game with a theme of pretty pictures and nice presentation. The game gives you no sense of exploration or adventure. You're just playing cards.

Well, maybe. But if you take a deeper look at the choices that drive the play of those cards, you discover that Lost Cities is a game of risk management. How risky is it to double an expedition given what you know about it so far, i.e., what cards you have in hand? Is it worth it to set out early and leave drawing the rest of the cards you need to chance, or do you want to wait and do more research, see what the draw deck gives you? Do you want to start an expedition which you know has a small risk of a negative score, but no chance of a big positive score, or do you take a risk on an expedition with a greater upside but also a greater downside?

Although I've never put together an expedition to a lost city personally, in my mind I imagine that it would be primarily an exercise in managing and mitigating risks – knowing when you've done all the preparation you can expect to do and it's time to get going, or when there are too many unknowns and more preparation is required. Knowing which expeditions have good prospects and which don't. And in the sense of getting right at that idea – of planning and managing risk – Lost Cities does, in fact, carry the theme wonderfully. And almost by definition this thematic success simply cannot be appreciated until you have fully grasped not just the rules, but all the subtle nuances of the game-play, and not just how to play but how to win.

So now I consider Lost Cities, along with a number of other Knizia games I hadn't fully appreciated before, thematically compelling. It's a different way of presenting a theme – not as visceral as being shot at in Battlestations or dodging incoming asteroids in Galaxy Trucker – but also in many ways arguably as successful.

This all came up recently because I played one of Knizia's latest releases, Keltis. This is basically Lost Cities with room for 3 or 4 players, and a few additional touches – there are now bonus points for reaching certain checkpoints in the expeditions before the other players, which introduces a race element and makes the game-play even more exciting and interesting. Alas, we've lost the theme of expedition, replaced with generic Celtic art and no plausible thematic tie-in that I can discern. The game-play is still there, maybe even more interesting than it used to be, but I don't see any theme to strengthen the story. Perhaps it'll take another 6 or 7 years for me to have the aha! insight that illuminates this one. For the moment, though, if such things matter to you, you might want to wait for Rio Grande's version of the game which will apparently stick with the original expedition theme.