Friday, June 20, 2008

El Capitán

I think it's the curse of being a game-buyer that you always end up with a few games that you like a lot but that nobody else in your game group(s) has any taste for. Some of my favorites that nobody around here likes much include Fifth Avenue, Mall World, Khronos, and perhaps to a lesser extent Candamir, Rum & Pirates, and Blue Moon. I remain a big fan of Settlers of Catan even though everyone else around here is burned out beyond return. And these days I wouldn't mind playing Monopoly a couple times a year, but after doing some arm-twisting to get in a few games last year, I don't foresee that happening again anytime soon.

For the most part, though, I'm sympathetic. I can see that Khronos and Mall World are a little weird, that Fifth Avenue is a little edgy, and I understand Catan burnout, even though I don't suffer from it. However, one recent game that I am a big fan of, and that has gone over like a lead balloon with most folks I've played it with, is El Capitán, and I'm not quite sure why. It seems like a game folks would like.

To me, El Capitán seems to have everything that a lot of popular economic games have, in a cleaner and tighter package: good cash and debt management, interesting route-building-like choices, and an interesting cooperative-competitive tension and dynamic. It's sort of a cross between Age of Steam and El Grande: you need to manage your cash and debt and plan your moves, while at the same time efficiently competing for markets which reward players both for cooperation and competition. To me, it's one of those endlessly fascinating games that manages to have fairly simple rules and systems that produce a game of some nuance and subtlety, unlike the much clunkier Age of Steam or Brass that have complex rules and systems that obscure fundamentally straightforward games.

But, it's been a more or less total bust with the folks I've played it with.

One complaint has been the graphic design. The game has a wonderful cover, but a number of the components have significant usability problems, the most serious of which is that the names of the cities on the board and on the cards are impossible to read due to the excessively florid script.

But the big thing seems to be theme, and I haven't come up with a great answer to that complaint. El Capitán does seem a little dry, and despite the significant role of cash in the game it does feel more like a compete-for-areas game than an economic game, and my sense is that compete-for-areas games aren't as gripping, in general, as economic games.

Anyway, this all comes around to an interesting interview I heard on NPR's Science Friday about eco-friendly cars. In the piece, one of the guests talked about how he welcomed competition from other car makers in the area of hybrid/fuel cell/electric cars, as they would help to grow and expand the market for everyone at this point. Which reminded me of El Capitán, and why I like it. If you think of each of the nine cities in the game as individual markets, in the early stages investors benefit from competition, as more investments mean a greater ultimate payoff: a player who comes in second in a contested market can do as well as a player who is the only investor in an uncontested market, while winning a contested market is much more lucrative than an uncontested one. But as time goes by, the dynamics change. Early investments are made obsolete by later developments, and payoffs go down as markets mature. It's actually an interesting, authentic cycle. Players who make early investments in markets are taking a risk, as returns will remain weak until there is some competition. But if you wait, you lose that first-mover advantage (in the game, the tie-breaker for figuring out payoffs). Once the early investments are made, players have to judge when and where to jump into developing markets that may be made more attractive by the aging infrastructure of the early adopters, or where cheap returns can be found for a second place because another player has already made heavy investments. And as everyone becomes flush with cash later in the game, cutthroat competition in many markets will see the return on investment drop dramatically.

To me, this is all clever and interestingly thematic. But, I guess if you didn't buy my argument for the theme in Lost Cities, this may be a tough sell also. And admittedly the mechanics of moving between the cities ("buying sea routes", in the games' unconvincing parlance – the old Tycoon’s jet-setting theme was marginally more convincing) is pretty abstract and not terribly evocative.

But taken as a whole, I rather like it.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

The Devil's Cauldron

I’ve had an on-again off-again relationship with “monster games”. One of my most enjoyable wargame experiences was playing a campaign game of Red Barricades, a monster game by any measure. I am a big fan of MMP’s Operational Combat Series. Then again, monster games are fraught with difficulties almost too numerous to list, not the least of which is the impossibility of seriously testing them for game balance, since they tend to run into the tens of hours to play, if not hundreds. For monster games to work for me, they also have to work as non-monsters – a great example is Avalon Hill’s and MMP’s Great Campaigns of the American Civil War, which is a tremendous game whether you are playing shorter scenarios or longer games, and even in that case the long games are not insane. I once played a full campaign of Grant Takes Command in a day.

So I spent a lot of time flip-flopping on whether to even try to mess with The Devil’s Cauldron. It’s billed as a playable monster, but everyone says that. It’s by a long-time gamer but first-time designer Adam Starkweather, and my general feeling is it might be a good idea to cut your teeth on something smaller your first time out. On the other hand, the whole Market-Garden campaign is an endlessly fascinating one, the grand tactical scale (units being companies) is intriguing, and the command system sounded interesting. A bunch of interesting-looking smaller scenarios were provided. So ultimately I cracked and have played a few times now, enough to pique my interest. Not quite enough, yet, to determine if it was money well spent.

The Devil's Cauldron is a chit-pull/activation-point based system; units in the game sit around until they are activated either by the draw of a chit, or through the spending of command points. Those units tend to be companies, which form up into either brigades, regiments, or Kampfgruppes, which are then parts of divisions. For example, the 82nd Airborne is made up of four Parachute Infantry Regiments, each of which has about twelve companies laid out as three battalions of four companies – but the battalion level of organization has no representation in the game. These four front-line regiments are supported by an artillery regiment and a "regiment" of division-level support assets, giving the 82nd six regiments in total. Each regiment has a chit, which can be added to an opaque cup at the beginning of a turn by spending the parent division's "dispatch" points, which accumulate slowly and somewhat randomly over time. When that chit is drawn, all the units of that regiment can perform actions – moving and attacking being popular options. Alternatively, the division also accumulates “command” points, which can be spent generically on a variety of things: allowing units to perform an additional action when activated normally, allowing units to activate when a "direct command" or divisional activation chit is drawn, and to automatically pass morale checks in some, but not all, circumstances (for things like forced marches or close combat assaults).

So, you've got two pools of activations points: dispatch points, which allow formations of units to activate as a group; and command points which allow individual units to perform a variety of activities including doing more when activated by a regimental activation, or doing anything when a higher-level activation chit (divisional or direct) is drawn.

Activation points are, from a game perspective, fundamentally a great concept. They introduce resource management, and force the player to make tough choices if need and scarcity are well-balanced. But The Devil's Cauldron is a sprawling wargame, not a concise euro, and so for me, the activation points have to make some sense in context and be at least somewhat representational and not just gratuitous micromanagement. We can tolerate a high degree of abstractness in euros because we can work through all the options pretty easily; but similarly, we don't just want, we need things to be more representational in big, complicated wargames because we can't play that way, we need to rely to some degree on our intuition based on knowledge of the subject matter or prior experience. For example, OCS's supply points are a good representation of the large supply requirements of serious offensive operations, so for me they work – we know armored divisions need fuel and artillery needs vast quantities of ammunition to be effective, and that's what OCS asks us to manage. On the other hand, the activation points you get through card play in Paths of Glory really are not representative of anything other than the designer's desire to have you make some tough choices. Paths of Glory works because the rest of the game is so good, and not hugely complex, but it would be nice if the activation points made some sense and it would be easier for players to figure out the techniques if they actually modeled something historical.

So with that long-winded intro out of the way, where does The Devil's Cauldron stand on this point?

The activation chits model the common theme of the difficulties in cross-command coordination, whether it be between divisions or regiments, and the vagaries of the decision cycle (you may want to attack, but the enemy's chit gets picked first, giving him some initiative). This is a tried and true technique which works pretty well for the most part (one might quibble somewhat with the difficulties of getting divisional assets like anti-tank guns to coordinate with lower-echelon units that they are assigned to and deployed with, but it's tough to get too exercised about it).

The dispatch points model command and communication difficulties, and the time required to put together plans. If you want Tucker and his 504th PIR to get his butt in gear and take Nijmegan bridge, you'll need to get on the phone, give him some specific instructions, spend some dispatch points, and get his activation chit in the cup so his units can move.

Well, sort of. This is where things start to get a little hazy. You actually have several ways to activate Tucker's units. By spending the dispatch points, you get his chit and can activate all his units when it's drawn, for free and without constraint; you can additionally then spend command points to activate those units a second time, albeit not for the same task (so they can move adjacent to some Panzergrenediers for free, then you could spend a command point to have them fire or assault; but if they started adjacent, they can't fire twice, although they could fire then assault).

However, each division also has a DivAct chit, which gets put in the cup every turn for free, without having to spend dispatch points. This chit allows units to activate for free if they are not engaged with the enemy and not doing combat activities, or you can spend command points to activate them without those restrictions. So, you could just wait for the 82nd's divisional chit to get pulled, then you can spend command points to activate any of the 82nd's units directly (including the 504th PIR).

There is also a direct activation chit that gets added each turn, also for free, which allows you to activate anyone you want, but you must spend command points.

So when looking at what these points represent about a division, I sort of think of the command points as the level of competence and initiative in the lower levels of leadership in the division. They'll allow you to execute your regimental-level activation chit more aggressively, or undertake actions even if the higher-ups don't have a plan (i.e., haven't spent dispatch points to put their chit in the cup). Dispatch points represent the quality of divisional leadership and staff work, how quickly the divisional leadership can plan and get those plans implemented.

For most of the game, this model seems to work and make sense. Most units in the game, like the 1st Airborne, the Guards Armored, etc., will accumulate a moderate number of dispatch points in a day (5-ish) and enough command points to do a few things, but not so many as to spend them frivolously. The lousy German units, like the Korps Feldt, get lousy command and lousy dispatch points, and those units feel appropriately sluggish and unresponsive.

The anomaly (on the Allied side) is the 82nd Airborne. They receive colossal numbers of command points – accumulating them at the fastest rate in the game – but a miserly quotient of dispatch points, ranking amongst the worst units in the game in this respect, as bad as some of the third-echelon German units they face. This is, on the face of it, odd. I'm not aware of any information suggesting General Gavin or his staff was out to lunch on this one, certainly not moreso than Urqhart of the 1st Airborne, who was caught behind enemy lines early in the operation (he still gets more dispatch points than Gavin).

At any rate, what this means is that the 82nd is run almost entirely off of their gargantuan pile of command points. They only get a little over two dispatch points in an entire day (on average), which means they put two regimental chits in the cup over a seven-turn period (there are some subtleties here that I'm glossing over). On the other hand, they get about ten command points each and every turn, almost enough to power an entire regiment.

This creates some issues, and makes the 82nd an extremely awkward and time-consuming formation to run. Unlike other units, which rely on dispatch points to make command-level decisions and then command points to supercharge those actions or take spur-of-the-moment stop-gap actions, every time the 82nd's divisional chit comes out of the cup, that commander has to sit down and micromanage the entire division. A division can't accumulate more than 19 command points, so the 10-ish that the 82nd gets every turn have to spent or they may be needlessly wasted. The decisions are not the command-level decisions of preparing or attacking, or picking objectives;  it’s more like figuring out how many command points you have to spend, looking at everyone in the division who is proximate to the enemy and figuring out whether they are worthy of having a command point spent on their behalf. It makes the 82nd very potent. If there is something that needs to be done, or something that comes up unexpectedly, they can react very quickly. They can run rings around their opponents in the Korps Feldt. The huge pile of command points more than makes up for their shortage of dispatch points. But it also makes running them an exercise in micromanagement that really does not seem thematic or appropriate.

I like the theory of dispatch vs. command points, and it seems like more standard divisions like the Guards Armored or 1st Airborne, with their less-generous command points but more reasonable dispatch points, would be more interesting to play. I have to admit that in the games I've played so far, the whole command point system has skirted dangerously close to feeling more like micromanaging abstract resource points than like playing a tactical combat game. But on balance, I’ve enjoyed the game the few times I’ve played short scenarios, even though the situations aren’t great and I wouldn’t necessarily play them again (Little Omaha has a lot for the Allies to do, but the defending Germans mainly get to hunker down and learn the Opportunity Fire rules, while in The Empire Strikes Back the hopelessly out-classed German attackers mostly hope not to blow a few amazingly crucial die rolls while praying to get lucky and roll a few dispatch points). So far, while the game has been fun, my hopes for decent small scenarios have been unfulfilled, but at least they do play quickly, and I’m looking forward to trying some of the games in the 1st Airborne sector, where both sides have quality units and where, I’m hopeful, the situation will find a better balance.

I can’t leave the topic of The Devil’s Cauldron without commenting briefly on its system for opportunity fire, which is unusual. I'm not sure how it got from point A to point B, but it's identical to the system used in another game I play. The general idea is that you don't get opportunity fire when somebody moves into your zone of fire, but rather when somebody performs a movement action in, or leaves, your fire zone. So an enemy company can move adjacent to you and fire at you for a couple hours, and this never triggers opportunity fire. You only get the shot when that enemy unit later leaves, or moves from one adjacent hex to another, or tries to entrench or something similar while adjacent to you. This is, strangely, exactly the system used by Dungeons & Dragons and the d20 roleplaying system, but not by any other hex-and-counter wargame I am aware of. In D&D, they're called Attacks of Opportunity, and they drive people absolutely nuts because of the anti-intuitive rules and some of the strange implications. They work better here.