Saturday, March 9, 2013

Andean Abyss

Volko Ruhnke's Andean Abyss is the first game in GMT's new game series on counter-insurgency (COIN), with a game engine that could be described as a wargamicized El Grande (or perhaps El Grande meets Labyrinth). Four players fight over a Colombia ravaged by insurgency, drug lords, and paramilitaries as they try to further their own factional goals. The game takes place shortly after the events of Mark Bowden's excellent book Killing Pablo: The Hunt for the World's Greatest Outlaw, when the Medellín drug cartels were clipped in the mid-90s. One player plays the Government, and is the driving force for the game as they try to extend their writ throughout the country. The others play the FARC revolutionaries oppose them, the AUC paramilitaries, and free agent Drug Cartels.

This might not immediately strike you as a promising subject on which to base a game. The conflict is a nasty one of assassination, kidnapping, extortion, drug trafficking, and terrorism. It's still ongoing, and ideas about it are likely to be educated guesses mixed with speculation. However, counter-insurgency is a compelling general topic. The United States' most problematic foreign policy for the last half-century has been hip-deep in it, and so a game that is illustrative in even a small way could be important. Colombia, relatively unknown to the Americans that are the core market for wargames, could get less bogged down in ideology. From a purely game perspective, highly asymmetric games – where different players play with different objectives, or even different rules – are interesting and highly asymmetric games, like Ruhnke's previous game Labyrinth, are very unusual. For me personally, I'm always drawn to games that successfully tackle challenging themes. A game that could get you emotionally drawn in to the tragedy of Colombia's wars would be incredibly compelling.

The play of Andean Abyss is driven by a deck of event cards. Each card has an ordering for the icons for the four factions (Government, FARC, AUC, Cartels) across the top, which is the turn order for this card. Two cards will always be visible, this turn's and the next's. Each faction in turn has the opportunity to do something – take the event, run one or many operations – or pass. Only two factions can be active on each card, and whatever the first faction does generally forces the second faction into a more restrictive action (so if the first faction does an operation, the second faction will have a limited operation). Additionally, taking an action this turn forces a faction to sit out next turn, so a cycle tends to develop, with two pairs of factions alternating cards. However, being the first faction to act usually means significantly more flexibility than going second, so it's important to know when to pass because the turn order on the next card up is favorable and giving up an opportunity to act now will give you more freedom later.

Once you've decided to take an operation, your options are given by a faction-specific Chinese menu of thematically named actions: march, recruit, train, attack, assassinate, extort, airstrike, cultivate, terror, and so on. Each faction has troops (cubes for the government, cylinders for the insurgents/guerrillas) which fight for the control of areas, and bases (discs) which provide both the economic backing to fund operations and places to recruit. Control is described on two axes (population in an area can support the government or oppose it, while the area can be physically controlled by one of the factions), and there are different types of areas (regions, cities, lines of communication) with different economic and population-control implications. The Government has a lengthy process to go through of cycling in army, then police cubes in an abstraction of building up civic infrastructure while other factions try to keep their power bases and forces in being and remain flexible. While there is a significant amount of real nuance here, to me it felt like just a really complicated and asymmetric variant of El Grande. You need your cubes in the right place and in sufficient quantity to control areas. If they're out of position you need to move them. If you don't have enough pieces on the board, you need to get more out. If you're short money to fund actions, you need to get out more bases or do some extortion.

Volko Ruhnke is the designer of both Andean Abyss and Labyrinth, so it's not surprising that to the extent that both games succeed, they succeed in similar ways, and where they fail, the failings are similar also. Labyrinth may have struggled with politics, reality, and a wonky endgame, but it was remarkable for how well it allowed two very different player positions with different motivations and different tools to play the same game. Importantly, neither position or viewpoint was privileged over the other – both Jihadists and the US get the same level of thematic attention from the game. Ruhnke's older design Wilderness War tried to do something similar, but it's flaw (while, like Labyrinth, still being a game I enjoy) was that it privileged the British point of view somewhat over the French. The British concerns seemed to get more attention in gameplay detail and drove more of the action, while the French were essentially reactionary.

The factional viewpoints in Andean Abyss are somewhere in-between these two earlier games. The Government's position is thematically well-developed, with a detailed process for expanding their writ. The guerrilla factions – the FARC, AUC, and Cartels –  all feel pretty similar though. They all have a broadly similar range of actions available, although they are playing to quite different game-state goals. Those different goals though are were I believe Andean Abyss goes off the rails.

The first problem is the relatively straightforward nature of the AUC and Cartel victory conditions. While the Government has to go through an involved process of pacification, and the FARC is fighting a lonely and probably doomed war for control of population and regions, the AUC and Cartels need only get a fairly small number of bases on the board and (for the Cartels) accumulate a wad of cash. These relatively minor players – with few forces, no interest in controlling population, and more limited options – are compensated with easy VCs, to the point I've actually never seen anyone other than the Cartels or AUC win the game. Now, this is just my I experience and I don't actually believe it's the way it has to be, but it brings me to my main, crucial problem with Andean Abyss, which I could have written several paragraphs ago and saved us all a lot of trouble:

Andean Abyss is a game about counter-insurgency with no – none, zero, zilch – asymmetrical information. No hidden cards, no hidden units, no mysterious capabilities. Everything is on the table all the time. You know exactly how much force everyone has everywhere, you know the entirety of the options available to everyone, you know the results of any operations anyone might run. To the extent that there is randomness to the outcome of operations – which is almost none – everyone knows the probabilities. Everyone knows exactly how the the population thinks and exactly what to do to change their minds.

This seems highly questionable from a thematic point of view and gives little sense of the murky nature of these conflicts. Not only that, it has manifestly undesirable consequences for gameplay. Instead of making quick decisions about risk, players run several degrees of chess-like move and counter-move look-ahead, because that's how the game is clearly telling them to think, and it turns what should be a 2 or 3 hour game that would be pressing its luck to go 3 hours into a tedious marathon (my games have gone 5 hours even for the short game). Even worse though, everyone can see all the time exactly who is exactly how close to winning. So it just turns into the usual exercise of bashing whoever is in front.

I had some hopes that familiarity with the game would drive down the playing time. The menus of numerous different actions, apparently different for each faction (although less diverse than it first appears), is hugely daunting for new player to grapple with. Playing a 100% open information game where everyone has different actions available and trying to get some sense of the implications of what you're doing requires understanding a lot of things and constantly puzzling over options. Once you've learned this stuff, you could hope for a more streamlined experience. Unfortunately, there are two major obstacles. Firstly, few people really want to play again after the first 5+ hour slugfest. Secondly, the time you save in understanding the game is clawed back by the fact that now everybody knows everyone has to be on the lookout to block anyone who comes close to winning. So you add a lot of less than compelling scenario analysis and back-and-forth time back in.

Finally, like Labyrinth before it, Andean Abyss ducks too many hard questions and instead presents us with a crisp, clean, and sanitized design of cylinders, cubes, disks, and highly predictable outcomes that does little to convey the violence and capriciousness of the conflict. Perhaps an RPG would be a better format to explore the tragedy of Colombia, but Andean Abyss could have done more just by integrating more historical photos into the map and reference cards (the photos on the cards are too small and too far away to reliably make out), and using a more naturalistic approach to the visual design.

I really wanted to like Andean Abyss and wanted it to be a launchpad for a new and intriguing series of games. Flawed as they were, I am still fond of Labyrinth and Wilderness War. The game mechanics of Andean Abyss – the event cards that drive turn choices, the individualized faction action menus, the light economic model backing a positional game of discs and cubes – are promising. There is clearly a game that could have been built using them. Unfortunately, Andean Abyss is not it. Despite the undeniable level of thought and detail that has gone into it, what comes out at the end is just tedious, overlong, and overcomplicated in the same way as many other much less thoughtful king-of-the-hill type multiplayer wargames are. Unless future games address the core problem of 100% information symmetry, I don't hold out much hope the series will improve.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

X-Wing Miniatures Game

No franchise is more beloved of gamers than Star Wars, and it's actually had a number of pretty good games. My personal favorite is The Queen's Gambit. The two Star Wars adaptations of Risk (Clone Wars and Original Trilogy) are still Risk but surprisingly good, and Clash of the Lightsabers is a nice fast 2-player game that melds euro-y mechanical tightness with a nice thematic detail. The West End and d20 Saga Star Wars RPGs are decent but to me nothing special, and there are still a lot of mediocre games trying to make a quick buck off the license along with the well-intentioned but misguided (Star Warriors), but overall I can't complain. Fantasy Flight has now thrown two new games into the ring (X-Wing and Star Wars: The Card Game), with one more (the official release of the Edge of the Empire RPG) coming soon.

X-Wing was hard for me to know what to make of initially. It's built on a very similar engine to Ares' Wings of Glory (which has mechanically similar, but quite different in feel, WWI and WWII versions). Players simultaneously plot their moves ahead of time, then reveal and execute turns, loops, and whatnot and then fire their weapons. There are enough clear similarities between the games, and my respect for FFG's in-house design team is low enough, that my initial impression was "OK, they just ripped off Wings of Glory" and to proceed to apply similar heuristics for tactics and strategy. Fortunately for gamers and unfortunately for my pilots, it is not. In fact, in terms of where the game is – where the real decisions lie, and what the game tensions are – X-Wing is very distinct from its parent game.

For starters, combat in X-Wing is quite lethal. An off-the-rack TIE fighter can absorb 3 points of damage before exploding in a cinematic fireball. An X-Wing with its 3 attack dice can do that outright one time in 8 – the 8-sided attack dice have hits on half the faces. If your attacker is focussed, the odds increase to almost 50%. If he's Wedge, or locked-on, or a Marksman, or at point-blank range, or all of the above, the odds – which you really need to be told about – keep on increasing. Now, the TIE Fighter is going to get some weaker evasion dice, and he may be spending effort on dodging. Nonetheless, the X-Wing in this confrontation will only need to land one or two blows to take out its target. In Wings of Glory, inflicting the 18 damage points required to take down an Me-109 is likely going to take three or more point-blank shots from a Spitfire.

Where Wings of Glory spends all its attention to detail on hardware differences – the different turning or speed or weapon capabilities of different aircraft – X-Wing is much more focussed on pilot capabilities. The differences in speed and maneuverability between an X-Wing and a TIE Fighter, while not zero, are pretty small compared to the differences between Luke Skywalker and a generic Red Squadron Pilot. The single most crucial performance asymmetry of real ariel warfare that is at the core of the design in both Wings of Glory games – turning radius – varies only slightly across all fighters in X-Wing. The TIE fighter may be slightly faster than the X-Wing, but at a given velocity everyone turns in the same circles, with a few differences on the edges (A-Wings and TIE Fighters have a slower minimum speed so can execute somewhat tighter circles, while Y-Wing pilots take stress for some tight turns).*,** Putting Wedge Antllies in the cockpit, on the other hand, dramatically increases the ship's lethality. 

Lastly, scenarios in X-Wing don't give you an order of battle, instead they give you points (usually 100) with which to buy your forces. The number of available options for spending these points is large, assuming you've invested in a modestly-sized collection. Pilots for your fighters are the big cost, but pilots can also be given special skills (marksmanship, determination), fighters can have additional weaponry added (proton torpedoes, ion cannons, various missiles), and there are more specialized upgrades (R2 units for your X-Wings, and Slave I or the Millennium Falcon can be tricked out with half-a-dozen different options). If like me your perspective is Wings of Glory, you might think "Aha! At last, a point-buy system for getting reasonably balanced match-ups!". But that's not what this is about.

Because of the game's lethality, X-Wing is about big battles. Where in Wings of Glory you would be content with the complexity of controlling 1 or 2 planes, in X-Wing you'll want 3 or 4 or more fighters to stay interested. In Wings of Glory, you'll be primarily concerned about how to maneuver your one or two planes to improve your positional advantage on the one or two enemy planes in your vicinity. In X-Wing, you'll be concerned about how to use your entire squadron such that pilot special abilities and synergies are maximized and any special weaponry you've bought is employed to its best effect. And, crucially, you'll want to spend your 100 points such that your squadron is both tactically coherent and as potent as you can make it.

At the end of the day, X-Wing is a deck-building game with a detailed combat resolution system. I think you will enjoy this in direct proportion to how much you enjoy tricking out your squadron and seeing how it fares in battle. The tactical game is pretty good, but a little random and not, in isolation, enough to be engaging for more than a few plays. But combine it with the fairly rich squadron purchasing system, and now you've got something. You've invested the pre-game energy in your pilots and ships and (probably) developed both a more nuanced tactical view of how it should be employed that may only play out over a few games, as well as something of an emotional attachment to your pilots.

Does all this hew to the feel of Star Wars? Yes-ish, with the caveat that like most classic books and movies, Star Wars speaks in different ways to different viewers. The emphasis on people more than machines is clearly right, although more pictures of people on the card design would have been a no-brainer (and restoring some of the female pilots cut from Return of the Jedi would have been awesome). For me personally though, X-Wing buys into one thing that has always bugged me about Star Wars material not written by George Lucas: it assumes that all the people we see on screen are more competent than everyone who doesn't get name-checked. I always thought the classic stories focussed on Luke and Han and Leia because they were interesting, not because they were the biggest bad-asses in the entire universe. Games, books, and comics frequently assign superpowers that are just not in evidence in the movies, where the humanity and relative ordinariness of the characters is such an important element. In fairness, X-Wing is far from the worst offender here, but it still bugs me a bit that Wedge Antilles has a table presence that vastly exceeds any other Red Squadron pilot. I always thought he was some guy who happened to be Luke's wingman. Both excellent pilots, but really, does the Rebel Alliance have nobody else? These personal feelings aside, X-Wing does do a good job of evoking the feel of the scenes in the movies. Action is fast and furious, combat is capricious unless you've heavily invested in an über-pilot, and the miniatures really are fantastic – very attractive and very faithful to the original models, but durable enough to stand up to the stress of play (the design of the stands themselves isn't that great, but Litko makes a nice replacement if and when something breaks). 

So, generally pretty appealing, but a couple obstacles remain. Firstly is the lack of decent support for multiplayer. 100 point squadrons are borderline OK, with players each taking control of 2-4 ships. Due to the lethality of combat though, someone is bound to have a ship or two knocked out early and face waning interest. It's not bad, but out of the box X-Wing is really optimized for two players and you'll have to make do. Multiplayer really wants specialized scenarios with multiple squadrons on a side, with players buying their own (smaller) forces, possibly with different tasking. This is slightly unfortunate given the possibilities and given how good Wings of Glory is for 4 or more players. (As an aside, when playing multiplayer do not neglect the very important rule that you cannot show your maneuver dials to your allies).

Secondly, do not mistake the point values assigned to various upgrades as a reasonable approximations of their worth. Squadron building requires thought. You can't throw together 100 points of stuff and and figure it'll do OK any more than you can throw together 60 vaguely appropriate Magic cards and expect that deck to perform. There are good and bad buys in the mix, and you can build both very potent and very underpowered ships and squadrons. This is fine – part of the game even – but something casual players who enjoy Wings of Glory may find frustrating. While you won't go too far wrong fielding X-Wings, an off-the-rack Y-Wing is pretty pricey for what you get in most cases, and as such is a specialty ship. Add an Ion Cannon to it and it's a huge hole in your budget unless it's filling an important tactical need. For the Imperials, their fragile TIE fighters require attention to synergizing pilot abilities to be competitive – but a large, finely-tunend Imperial squadron can be a beast.

Thirdly of course is cost. As usual, Fantasy Flight has shipped a core set that is playable only in a technical sense, and is a teaser more then a satisfying game. You're going to need more ships for this to work – my feeling is at least a second core set and a few of the Wave 1 expansion blisters. With big-box games now routinely weighing in at $60 or more it's actually not too bad comparatively and you do get nicely detailed and painted ships, but it can add up. For me, the online prices were palatable, full retail not so much. Fortunately, you're also going to need multiple invested players, so there is no reason you can't pool ships in a regular gaming group.

I quite enjoyed X-Wing, although it took me a little bit to get there. As a long-time Wings of Glory player, the similarities between the games are deceptive and it took some effort to appreciate a rather different game. As an older gamer, it's filling a tricky niche though. It needs multiple players who have bought in enough to have forces available and be willing to spend the up-front time tuning their squadrons. It's not a ton of time, but it is some. It's best as a two-player game until we get some scenarios optimized for multiplayer. It's in the same general niche as Wings of Glory, but it lacks that game's accessibility and easy tactical richness. Having said all that, though, X-Wing is definitely not Wings of Glory, and it brings a very different, richly varied, and exciting experience. And honestly, who doesn't want to fly around authentic, nicely-painted X-Wing miniatures?


* Because the TIE Fighter has the Barrel Roll action available, it can technically turn in a noticeably tighter radius than other ships. Unfortunately, since doing this costs the pilot his action, this comes at the expense of evading or focusing – actions crucial to keeping his fragile ship alive. So it's helpful, especially if it means dodging out of someone's firing arc at the last minute, but not a general-purpose ability. See also the following correction.

** Correction: This sentence originally stated everyone's turn radius is the same. This is not quite true. Everyone uses the same movement templates at any given speed, but not everyone can use the shortest/tightest-radius template. The ability of TIEs and A-Wings to do very tight turns is not insignificant, but it's rather different from (say) knowing that your Spitfire can out-turn opponents at any speed, and its just not as important to the X-Wing design in my opinion. For a look how the different fighters move, check out this file on BGG. Some of the distinctions seem nonsensical (why is a speed 2 sharp turn an easy maneuver for an A-Wing, while a speed 3 is not? Why can the A-Wing and TIE Interceptor do an Immelman – sorry, Koiogran – at speeds 3 and 5 but not 4?).  Who knows. But the system does work, and provides some maneuver differentiation without going crazy.