Sunday, July 20, 2008

Warriors of God

If I could use only three words to review all the entries in Multiman Publishing's International Game Series so far, I could do it: Too long.

Seriously, I think all of these games (Fire in the Sky, A Victory Lost, Red Star Rising) would be far more appealing if they could cut several hours off of their playing time (or, in the case of Red Star Rising, if it had some year- or campaign-length scenarios to go with the toys and monsters). All of these are clever, well designed games that just go on for way too long to ever get much, or indeed any, table time. So for me anyway, Warriors of God was as much about answering the question, “is this whole series doomed to excessive play time?”, as it was about finding out if the game itself was any good. Because if it carried on the series’ tradition in this respect, I could walk away from the whole IGS thing.

The short answer is, it isn't, and I can't. Warriors of God was pretty fun, and while it still is unquestionably a bit too long for the game that it is, the magnitude of the problem is far less than it has been in previous IGS games. Warriors of God runs about 3-4 hours when 2-3 would be more appropriate, given that it's chaotic and can become somewhat repetitive. Fire in the Sky ran like 10-12 hours but started getting tedious at around 6. Fire in the Sky’s length problem was a show-stopper. Warriors of God’s is not.

The basic idea of the game is that you play either the French or the English in the various wars in the 12th through 15th centuries. The main attraction is the Hundred Years War, but there is also a Lion in Winter covering the earlier period surrounding Richard the Lionheart. The tools you will use to win are the leaders the two nations have at their disposal, from the bad (a bunch of guys named some variation of John and/or Jean) to the legendary (Henry V, Joan of Arc, and Robin Hood, to pick a few). Leaders are rated for their rank, which limits how many troops they can command and who will be in charge when leaders fight together; the number of troops they can wield in battle, which limits the number of dice you can roll in combat; and how valorously they can lead them. The last is quite important as an advantage in valor gives a to-hit bonus to the possessing side, and since the basic hit number is a 6 on a 6-sided die, even just a +1 doubles the effectiveness of your troops.

The flow of the game is driven by the arrival and departure of these leaders. Every turn 6 show up (2 French, 2 English, and 2 neutrals, the last of which the players draft), and everyone who is already there checks to see if they croak. Basically, every leader in play rolls a die, and if the die roll plus that leader’s arrival turn is less than the current turn, that leader dies (or retires or whatever). Anyone who is left musters troops and campaigns against the enemy.

Really, that's about all you need to know about the game. There is some solid period chrome, from rules about longbows to gunners and sieges, but like Britannia, the real flavor of the game is in the flow of these leaders, good and bad. Sometimes you've got a great leader like Henry V and you need to make maximum use of him before he dies. Sometimes you've got nothing and you just need to hold out until someone competent shows up. This dynamic is fun, albeit fraught with chaos; some games Henry V will show up and promptly die, while some games you may get him for the full 6 turns. Obviously, being able to use the most awesome piece in the game for 6 turns vs. 1 is just a little bit game-altering. The uncertainty is obviously an important element of the game. But those leader death checks are some pretty high-stakes die rolls.

In general, the game doesn't make you pick up the die unless you're rolling for something really important. Sieges which decide the fates of armies are resolved on a single die roll, typically a 1:6 or 1:3 roll. The initiative die roll will dictate whether the turn has 3 or 8 impulses, and so how much time you have to utilize your just-received awesome leader. And you can only gain control of provinces at all on a 1:2 or 1:3 die roll.

This last thing actually is really the only thing that sort of bugged me about the game. Controlling provinces is the key both to winning, and to forming some sort of territorial coherency for your kingdom and therefore managing troop mustering and getting some sense of strategy beyond raw opportunism, and the difficulty of gaining control of provinces is kind of odd. You can only roll once per turn, which represents ten years, so it's possible to send a leader milling around somewhere for 30 or 40 years (assuming he lives) and never actually be able to control the region. For me personally, this was almost a die roll too far. I could live with the huge chaos involved in the leaders, battles, and sieges, because I felt like they added texture and the frustration they served up was at least in service of something historical and flavorful. But having to make further high-stakes die rolls every turn just to take control of provinces – even when the enemy was nowhere within a hundred miles – seemed gratuitous.

But the bottom line on Warriors of God was that I enjoyed it. I wish it were shorter; it's a very chaotic game, and although I think it's chaotic in a fun way, the buffeting winds of fate do tend to wear one out after a couple hours, and so I can't exactly see it getting a ton of table time. But it is flavorful, and fun, and unusual, and has that “epic sweep” flavor of Britannia as players enter and exit the stage. In sharp contrast to the route taken by most euros, a lot of the best wargames are about managing chaos, about looking for opportunities in apparently unpromising situations or rolling with the punches, and I felt Warriors of God managed to find a generally good spot there, giving you an unpredictable situation to deal with as well as the tools to try to cope with it. There aren't a lot of these low-end wargames that I like very much, and while it’s true Warriors of God didn’t exactly blow me away, I did enjoy it, and feel like it fills a niche in my collection for the time anyway.

Appendix I:

As a historical game, I feel Warriors of God does suffer a bit from being a “complete information” game, sort of like Fire in the Sky did. Everyone can see everything and know exactly how good the leaders are and how effective longbows are going to be, so some historical events just can't happen. Being fully aware of the power of the longbow, the effectiveness of Henry V, and the ineffectiveness of their own leaders, the French are just going to run away at Agincourt, which seems rather wrong. Obviously, all wargames suffer from this to some degree. But Warriors of God, in which leaders play such a crucial role, could benefit from uncertainty or asymmetrical information as to leaders’ capabilities. The game as it is is still a good game, but the way leaders come and go could be seen to have the dual properties of being both hugely chaotic (because of the death rolls) as well as highly scripted (because we all know when Henry V is going to get here and exactly how good he's going to be) in a way that is almost reinforcing, when usually a game introduces some scripting to reduce the chaos, or vice versa.

Appendix II:

Generally I cut MMP some slack on their rules-writing given that compared to their primary competition, GMT, they tend to have far less errata and more coherent rules in general. But recently I’ve been frustrated and annoyed with a number of their rules sets. Warriors of God isn't bad, but it isn't great either for such a simple game (the use of the term “contested area” is extremely non-standard and confusing, the rules for mustering units are confusing, the rules for placing leaders are easy to misplay, and there is already errata), and after struggling with the extremely problematic rules for Fire in the Sky and The Devil's Cauldron recently, I think maybe it's time for MMP to re-think their rules-writing process for their non-ASL games.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Around the Horn: Tribune, Wealth of Nations, Tinners’ Trail, Im Reich der ..., Wie Verhext!

A few quick takes on euros I've been playing recently ...

Tribune: A new game from Karl-Heinz Schmiel (designer of Die Macher). This is becoming my favorite of the recent burst of stuff. Not because it's awesome, which I don’t think it is, or because there is any single design element which is an obvious magnet, but because it feels so solid and professional and well balanced. You can choose which goals you want to try to achieve to win the game; the various scenarios set goals in terms of money, a tribune, favor of the gods, faction control, military influence, or laurels, and you need to fulfill 3-5 of them, depending on the number of players. All of the goals can generally be achieved in multiple ways, so you have choices about how to get there as well. But there is also enough randomness to both add texture and opportunism and force you to reevaluate your plans from time to time, but not so much that the game feels frustrating. I think it’s landed in a really good spot which, honestly, Die Macher didn’t find despite its other virtues (for example, the polls in that game feel too random and high-stakes to me). Tribune's different flavors and game lengths imparted by the different scenarios you can play are a nice touch too. The “short” game was good but felt a touch too short for my tastes, but the “medium” game was just right for me. Another bonus: Tribune seems to scale well through its range of 3-5 players. I wasn’t hugely optimistic about the 3-player version, but it worked quite well.

Wealth of Nations: I've only played this once, so I'll just make a couple short comments. First, there has been some speculation on BGG that the loan system in the game – where the more loans you have the less money you get for the next one, but where you don't have to pay interest – doesn’t work. On reading the rules, I tended to agree. But having now played once, I think everything is OK in this respect, if not perfect. Regardless, this is another game with a punishing learning curve which, unfortunately, is coupled with a lengthy playing time (2-2.5 hours). You can make choices that are not obviously bad that will wipe you out of the game in the first 20 minutes or less with little to do for the remainder of the game other than struggle to keep your head above water. So, here are my tips, for what they are worth: industry tiles are more expensive than they look, and good returns more elusive than you think. The game needs to have a solid base of production for food, labor, and energy before higher-valued industries start to pay off. As in Container, you need to be risk-averse in the very early game while you wait to see how things are going to play out; if you're producing stuff you can't directly use, and for which there is too much supply and not enough demand, you're hosed. Everyone always needs Food, Labor, and Energy, and if you can’t sell those things, you can at least use them to grow your empire. Although Capital and Ore look tempting initially due to the high price of those goods, demand does not ramp up for a while, and if the early producers of Food and Labor are not given some competition, the prices on those commodities can become crippling for anyone not producing them. Wealth of Nations is clever, and I suspect a good and interesting game. But it may be too fragile in practice and possibly too punishing.

I will make one concrete criticism of Wealth of Nations, and that is of the game end conditions. This game does not end until you have been well and truly impaled on the fork: virtually all the industry tiles are played, the game board is used up, or one player is out of options. One of my cardinal rules, often stated (maybe I should make a page for them), is that games should end before they are over. Wealth of Nations could use a victory point or wealth target endgame trigger to go with the exhaustion of build options so that runaway winners don't have to spend resources to end the game just to put everyone else out of their misery.

Tinners’ Trail: This is Martin Wallace's first entry in his Tree Frog line. I enjoyed my one game of this, with some caveats, but I've come to distrust my initial impressions of Wallace games. Too much of his stuff has felt promising after one or two plays only to crash and burn, hard, because of out-of-whack game balance.

That having been said, Tinners’ Trail is a fairly straightforward, clean, well-paced and quick-playing game of mining for tin or copper in Cornwall. That’s all to the good. On the other hand, it's again on somewhat shaky thematic ground. The core issue here is that the cost for and opportunity to obtain infrastructure (ports, rails, adits, workers) plays out somewhat strangely – the supply of such improvements is extremely limited, and they have to be paid for with time (a là Thebes, vaguely) rather than money. The time cost is so negligible though that the decision is not whether to build an asset or not, but instead which of the starkly limited supply is the most underpriced and how to get good turn order so you can choose first and not get shut out. It is then doubly strange in that the one resource that is fairly plentiful and not likely to constrain you much – dirt in which to dig – is the one that is auctioned.

This is all a little strange, but in practice it does at least mechanically work reasonably well. But I think the thing that will ultimately undo Tinners’ Tail is the heavy-handed randomness in the market prices for tin and copper. You put a lot of thought into the game, but the uncontrolled swings on the commodity prices, which translate directly to victory points, make more difference than skilled play I think.

Regardless, I think Tinners' Trail does offer some entertainment and interesting decisions, does not outstay its welcome and is comparatively clean, and so I’ll be happy to play a couple times. But I can’t see it having any staying power. It also seems quite overpriced for what it is, which is a run-of-the-mill light-to-medium-weight German game. Oddly, the game it reminds me the most of is Guatemala Café. Both are abstract business games of development with pleasing production. I feel like I would have found both of them really clever if I had run into them 10-15 years ago. Today, not so much.

Im Reich der Jadegöttin and Im Reich der Wüstensöhne: These are two new games from Klaus Teuber, based on the old Entdecker game engine. By my count, these are something like his fourth and fifth attempts at getting it right (Entdecker, Entdecker: Discovering New Horizons, and Oceana having gone before), and in my opinion this is the first time he has nailed it and delivered the complete package. Part of this is improvements to the fundamental game engine; the ability to "store" tiles that won't fit for later play means blown exploration draws aren't as swingy, and the new movement rules, which allow you to get stuck in the middle of the wilderness if you press out too far on your own, make for interesting choices. I also think that thematically the archeology theme of Jadegöttin is more successful. Similar to what I found with El Capitan recently, Jadegöttin has an interesting cooperative-competitive dynamic: players benefit when others help them to explore areas of the map, but when push comes to shove, it's better for you to control the completed area than your opponents. The key in this sort of thing is getting the right balance of rewards for winning and for assisting, something which is not easy – Carcassonne, for example, doesn't capture as much of this as perhaps it should because its scoring rules are restrictive and punishing, making cooperation and therefore player interaction hard to justify. Jadegöttin (and Wüstensöhne) give points out much more generously to players with non-majority presences in areas, making the tension between helping others and striking out on your own much more interesting, and (in the case of Jadegöttin) more authentic for a game about archaeology. Anyway, I like both these games a lot. Jadegöttin is definitely the lighter and more chaotic of the two games, and more suitable for family or low-impact gaming, while Wüstensöhne is somewhat more sophisticated, with tighter resources and sharper decisions. Both ultimately weigh in towards the lighter end of things though.

Wie Verhext!: The latest alea game, this is a light and clever game that has grown on me. It's a vaguely role-selection based game like San Juan or Citadelles or Race for the Galaxy, but not directly analogous to any of them. The game has 12 roles, some of which allow you to gather the ingredients to make potions, some of which let you raise or spend cash, and some that let you actually make the potions. Each turn, you choose 5 of the roles you want to do. The lead player then picks one of those roles, say the Witch, and plays the card (“I am the Witch!”). Each player in turn then who has also selected that role must choose to either usurp the role (“No! I am the Witch!”), or settle for the lesser power of the role (“So be it!”). The player who ends up as the Witch gets to take the full power of that role (use the appropriate ingredients to brew a potion for victory points). Any player who was usurped gets nothing. The player who wins the role must lead. Obviously, leading isn't great, because there is a high chance of being usurped and you can't “duck” by taking the lesser power when you know it's going to end badly for you. But if you want the strong powers, you have to usurp, which means you’ll end up leading.

This is a game that’s easy to dismiss as a light, chaotic game when you first look at it, and maybe that's right. But as I got into it, I found there was more scope for bluffing, guessing, and second-guessing than you might think. While everyone starts with the same set of roles, ingredients, and money, the fairly strong role powers guarantee that holdings will rapidly and strongly diverge, and so you can get a pretty good read on what people would prefer to do, what order they might like to do it in, and therefore what roles they might be taking and how they might come out. From this comes a neat little game of planning, anticipation, and evaluation, both when choosing which roles to play, and in how to play them. It's not hugely strategic, but it is quick-playing and simple and there is more here than meets the eye.

At first I was a little annoyed with myself because I got this direct from Germany shortly before the US version was (finally) officially announced. But now that the English version has been delayed again, I'm glad to have it and have enjoyed playing it.