Headed off to the WBC

July 31, 2009

It’s official– on Sunday, Russ and I are headed the 1,128 miles from Rockford, MN, to the weeklong World Boardgaming Championships in Lancaster, PA. Mike is tagging along for two days; he’ll stay Sunday night with us in Pittsburgh and then hop a train from Lancaster to New York City. In recent days, we have learned that the WBC has shattered all previous records and a huge number of people have pre-registered this year. We expect around 1500 gamers to be there, along with various boardgame manufacturers. The heart of the WBC is competitive play, which is why we chose to attend; other options included GenCon and Origins. What will we be doing this week, you ask? Well, I’d like to divide that into four categories: compete, meet, try, and buy (catchy, I know!).

Compete: This is truly the core of the convention. 125 different games will be played; winners will take home plaques declaring them to be the champion for 2009. In essence, we are traveling to Lancaster because we want to match our skills against the best of the best. Tourney formats differ, but most include a few rounds of preliminary play, followed by a quarter-, semi-, and final round in which the winner is determined. Some tourneys have hundreds of people competing, while others have only a few dozen. I’ve packed my schedule because I’m thinking that I’ll get knocked out in a lot of first or second round games. Here’s the list: Here I Stand, Hammer of the Scots, Wilderness War, Twilight Struggle, Britannia, and Crusader Rex. Russ will be tackling most of these same games, but he’ll also add 1960: the Making of the President.

Meet: I’ve had the good fortune to rub elbows with a fair number of gamers and game designers via various blogs, Web sites, podcasts, and Play-by-Email (PBEM) tournaments. We hope to see some of these people and person, and no doubt we will make some friends across the gaming table as well.

Try: This is the other exciting part of the WBC. Many games are demo-ed by the designers themselves. Often, there is a one-hour slot in the convention schedule during which you can meet up with other interested people and the designer, and he/she will teach you the game. You often then have about an hour before the tourney begins. Russ and I have both compiled lists of games we’d like to demo at the convention. The other cool part about trying games is the Open-Gaming Room, a massive ballroom with a free games library. You can just check a game out, find some random people, and begin play. I’m hoping to learn Britannia this way; it’s sat on my game shelf for two years now, and I’ve never played it. If I’m lucky, a group of veterans will have mercy on me and teach it! I’m interested in trying the following: San Juan, Thurn & Taxis, Britannia, Advanced Civilization, Fields of Fire, Battlestar Galactica, Steam, and Puerto Rico. Many game designers also take this time to playtest games they’re tweaking. I’m hoping to at least see Virgin Queen (the sequel to Here I Stand) and War of the Roses in action.

Buy: We are gamers on a budget, but that shouldn’t stop us from picking up a game or two. WBC has a Tuesday auction that goes practically all day, and an silent auction store running at the same time. I have a list of things to shop for, but I’ll wait and see what I actually purchase before it ends up here on the blog.


The games I'm taking to the WBC.

Are we excited for this? You bet! This is the culmination of ten months of planning and a personal promise that I made to myself: to get in shape and lose twenty pounds. This trip (definitely made possible by the amazing support of my loving wife!) is the long-awaited reward for that. Expect to see semi-regular updates from the convention–check back often as we offer coverage, analysis, and musings from the Lancaster Host Hotel.

Hand Management in Manoeuvre

July 28, 2009

I won’t claim to be the best Manoeuvre player (still sitting at 4 wins and 5 losses), but the fact that this game baffles me a bit has me thinking about it a lot. One of the critical elements to master is proper hand management. Unlike many other card-driven games, your Manoeuvre turn starts with a discard phase in which you can ditch up to your entire five-card hand to pull new ones from your deck. This element is made more interesting by the nightfall rule. If one player fails to kill five of his opponent’s units, the game ends when the second player exhausts his deck. The first, once he’s cycled through everything, just reshuffles and keeps going. If you add the optional “experienced/optional” rule, then there’s even more to consider; you get to run through your deck at setup and pick your starting hand.

Manoeuvre DeckAll of this begs the question: is it usually better to play your hand conservatively, letting the cards dictate your movements on the board, or is it better to play the hand aggressively, and discard often to pick up the best cards? After reflection and discussion with Mike, Dad, and Joe, I don’t think this is really an either/or thing. Instead, it’s dictated by the situation and what country you’re playing. Certain countries are more defensive in nature, and it seems best to set up good defensive positions and hold onto cards for those units. On the other hand, there are countries that really benefit from aggressive play and lots of discarding (the Ottomans, specifically, with all their cavalry and pursuit rolls). With these considerations in mind, here are a few of my thoughts:

  • Early Game: If you’re playing with the “pick your starting hand” rule, pick a hand that will allow you to knock out an enemy unit quickly. This offers you more options while making some of your opponent’s cards worthless. Once you’ve done that, usually it’s time to discard quickly and set up a few more nasty assaults with your strong units.
  • Mid Game: If you find yourself ahead on the unit kill count, continue to discard aggressively and go for the attrition win. If you’ve suffered some losses, slow it down and discard more carefully. If he over-extends himself, it’s time to discard aggressively again and counterattack.
  • Late Game: Much like the mid-game, if you find yourself ahead by quite a few units, go for the attrition win. However, if it’s a close run thing, position yourself to control the most squares; this usually means not discarding as much. If this is the case, this will allow you to control the end of the game (when, as the second player, you reach the bottom of your deck).

There is also a strong relationship between hand management and initial placement. This was pointed out to me in a BGG thread; essentially the author’s strategy is to place weaker units in the back row and discard any of their cards when they come up. This strikes me as sensible–less agonizing over what to discard early on. I’d love to hear comments on this–Manoeuvre is definitely a game I’m still learning.

(Edit: Cross-posted at Board Game Geek)

Manoeuvre Session Report: Foiled Again!

July 25, 2009
Not even Les Grognards could help me.

Not even "Les Grognards" could help me.

I’ve been foiled again! Manoeuvre (4 and 5 record) is the bane of my gaming existence. In the three months since I opened the box and read the incredibly simple rulebook, I have been beaten by my Dad, my wife, my brother, and Joe. What’s most embarrassing about this is not the 4 and 5 record, but the fact that both Dad and Joe beat me as I was teaching them the game. Thursday night was no different. Over cups of coffee and a bowl of dry-roasted peanuts, Mike’s steely-eyed British came back from what looked like sure defeat to mop the floor with my Frenchmen. Oh the horror! Perhaps it was the fact that he was drinking from a General Grant mug, while I had chosen a “Cardinal Ratzinger Fan Club” one. Maybe it was homefield advantage (his apartment). Or maybe I just suck at this game.

We used the setup for the 2009 WBC tournament, as I will be playing in it in ten days. Mike pulled out the Brits and the Frenchies, and I grabbed the Frenchies, hoping the Napoleon card could somehow make up for my lack of talent. We agreed to use the tournament/experienced play variant, which lets you shuffle through your deck to pick out five cards of your choosing. I took the north side of the map, we set up, and began play. Mike played a Spy card right off the bat to peak at my hand. Considering I had chosen it myself, he now knew the gist of my strategy; this was rather unsettling. However, I grabbed the high ground to the right with my Imperial Cavalry and Garde Imperial, and after some manouevering, we started trading blows.

I was able to knock out his strongest cavalry unit on the left early on by catching it between my Cuissars and Suisse infantry, and about halfway through the game, we were looking at Mike down two units. None of my guys had even broken a sweat, and I had captured a redoubt in the western woods on his side of the map. I thought I had this one in the bag. And that’s when things went terribly, horribly wrong.

We developed an interesting stalemate on the western side of the board. Mike had moved up a handful of infantry units into a long line. He was out in the open, and I moved several units to counter whatever he was planning. Instead of attacking, however, he built a second redoubt and sort of sat there. I was discarding, trying to find cards to punch out a unit or two, when he force marched some units on the eastern side of the board, surrounded a unit, and utterly destroyed it. Wow, I didn’t see that one coming, I thought to myself. Then it happened again as I was still trying to puzzle out what to do in the west.

I nailed another weak unit (take that, Dutch-Belgians!) with a combined attack from three sides. What I didn’t notice was that the unit required to advance was going to get crushed. One play later, Mike’s British took revenge for their fallen allies as he unloaded Wellington and two unit cards on me. “Let’s see, I roll 4d6+17 against…6. Okay…24 and they’re dead.” Then he took out another French unit in the middle of the board. Incensed, I trapped Mike’s 1st Regiment, weakened by an earlier cavalry charge, and smoked them.

Argh! Scots!

Argh! Scots!

If you’re keeping track, that put us at 4 kills apiece, with the next kill determining the winner. I began marching my Garde Imperial and Suisse regiments up the board to take out a lone cavalry unit of his when a good Forced March play on Mike’s part sent a howling horde of Scots at my poor Swiss! He laid two unit cards and a Committed Attack; I was not able to counter with a single defense card. And that was the game.

On the drive home, I thought about why I haven’t quite grasped this game yet:

  • It is abstract in the extreme, a bit like chess. This is not a historical simulation by any means. This abstraction is difficult for me.
  • I usually spend more time trying to make my current hand “work” than discarding a hand that doesn’t do much for me at the moment. This is especially true for special event cards, like Resupply or Forced March. I may not need it in the next three or four turns, but I’m really loath to get rid of them. This usually limits my options.
  • I am often so concentrated on setting up the perfect attack that I’ll make stupid decisions. I’ll leave a weak unit in danger of being surrounded and destroyed for the sake of that perfect coordinated attack. This almost never works out!

Luckily, I’ll be able to play this at the WBC this year; I’m excited to learn from the masters (though I’m definitely learning from my local group too!)

[Cross posted at Board Game Geek]

Play a Better Game: Know the Rules

July 22, 2009

For anyone that has worked an IT help desk you are probably intimately familiar with the abbreviation RTFM. And like a frustrated computer user, I was all ready to rail against the Space Race in Twilight Struggle until I popped open the rules and read the following section.

6.4.4 Special abilities are granted only to the first player to reach the space [on the Space Race track]. The special effect is immediately canceled when the second player reaches that box.

Apparently, John and I have missed the last sentence about the special action going away. Instead it always was played that it sticks around, so whoever got an animal in space first had a huge bonus and much easier time of dodging bad cards and landing on the moon.

While I’d like to declare my three losses to John null and void (I’ll keep the two wins!), part of this is my fault. I relied solely on John to teach me the game and never went and read the full rules myself. Suffice to say, this has taught me a valuable lesson never trust John know the rules yourself and have them available at the table.

But sometimes even the rules aren’t enough to clarify the situation, so what should you do?

  1. Check to see if there is an updated version of the rules. For example, going to GMT’s website, I find that Napoleonic Wars is up to version 1.3f of the rules. If you have an older first edition box, you’re playing with old rules.
  2. Search for a FAQ or clarifications document. Some of the strange scenarios John talks about in his DEFCON conundrum post are explicitly identified in the excellent Twilight Struggle FAQ. A US player that has read the FAQ is will know better than to play Lone Gunman when DEFCON is at 2.
  3. Ask at Board Game Geek. BGG has a number of excellent forums where rule text can be explained by experienced players.
  4. If all else fails, go with the interpretation that best seems to fit the theme of the game. For example, if the game is about building railroads, choose the interpretation that errs on the side of building more railroads.

Twilight Struggle and the DEFCON Conundrum

July 21, 2009
U.S. schoolchildren practice a duck and cover drill.

U.S. schoolchildren practice a "duck and cover" drill c.1950.

One of the constant questions that I have in GMT’s Twilight Struggle (10 wins, 3 losses) is how to use the DEFCON track to my advantage. Put simply, the DEFCON track is a method for tracking how tense the Cold War is at a given moment. If you attempt coups in key areas, called “battleground countries,” you drop the DEFCON status by one point. This has the effect of putting one region out of play–that is, you and your opponent may not make coup attempts or realignment rolls in that section of the map. The DEFCON track goes from 5 (Peace) down to 1 (Global Thermonuclear War). If at any point in the game a player takes an action that causes DEFCON to go to 1, he loses the game.

The thirteen times I’ve played this game in the past seven months, we have usually been pretty lenient on this last point. If someone tries to do something which will drop the DEFCON status to 1, the other player reminds him, he chooses to do something else, and play continues. But after a recent game with Russ, we have both realized that there are certain situations in which the phasing player can actually force their opponent to drop the DEFCON track to 1 and subsequently lose. There is an even greater chance that, at DEFCON 2, the phasing player makes a move that leads to an accidental DEFCON drop, causing them to lose!

Before this, we often saw the USSR player drive the DEFCON to 2 as early as possible. This did a few things: first, it allowed him to maintain any early gains he had made in certain regions. Second, it meant that after a new turn started and DEFCON bumped up to 3, the USSR player could use his first card play to coup a battleground country and drop DEFCON back to 2 without the US player being able to do anything about it. For instance, in Sunday night’s game, I took an early lead in the Middle East and Europe, while Russ locked up Asia. Later on, I was able to take several battleground countries in Africa, and by keeping DEFCON at 2 throughout most of the game, I was able to cement my lead in three regions while ceding one (though rich VP-wise) to him.

The Cuban Missile Crisis was one of the few times the US military went to DEFCON 2.

The Cuban Missile Crisis was one of the few times the US military went to DEFCON 2.

Now, after a quick analysis of the deck, I’m wondering if this is such a good idea. By my count, there are 13 out of 110 cards (almost 12% of the deck) that deal with DEFCON. Three are US (Duck and Cover, Nuclear Subs, and Soviets Shoot Down KAL-007). Two are USSR (“We Will Bury you!” and Glastnost). The remaining eight are usable by either player. These include the following: Olympic Games, Nuclear Test Ban, Cuban Missile Crisis, SALT Negotiations, Summit, ABM Treaty, Wargames, and “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.” Seems like a lot, doesn’t it?

The question is this: how dangerous is DEFCON 2? Does it actually do more harm than good? For instance, think about this example: USSR player has dropped DEFCON to 2. He plays Missile Envy, which means the US player has to hand the USSR player the highest-value card in his hand. If he hands him a USSR event or an event that can be played by either player, it is triggered. If this card is “We Will Bury You!”, it drops DEFCON to 1. Because the USSR player is the phasing (or active) player, he loses the game. Even if it’s Olympic Games, all the US player has to do is choose to boycott, which also degrades DEFCON. Again, the USSR is the phasing player, and he loses. Whoops! Or take another example: DEFCON is at 2. US player plays Lone Gunman. The USSR player gets to look at the US hand, and then use the point to “conduct operations” at that moment. He decides to start a coup in a battleground country. This degrades DEFCON to 1, and because the US player is the phasing player, he loses.

In the examples above, you’ll note that there are a few cards which give immediate ops points to the other player, or read something like, “Pull card out of opponent’s hand. If it’s an event for your side and/or an event for both sides, the event occurs.” From my count, these include the following: Lone Gunman, CIA Created, Five Year Plan, and Missile Envy. (Note: I’d include Grain Sales to Soviets, but that does let you pick a card and return it to your opponent’s hand if you don’t like it.) If you’re keeping track here, this means there are a total of 18 cards that can mess with DEFCON and/or spell disaster in that situation. That’s 16% of the deck! I know that some will say, “But John, you can shoot a lot of those cards into the Space Race.” My response to that is…sometimes. A lot of the cards we’re talking about are 2-value, which means they can only be played into the Space Race on the first four boxes. And CIA Created and Lone Gunman? Those are 1-op cards.

I thought Twilight Struggle was intense before this, but now…well, let’s just say after doing a bit of research into the potential, I’m a bit stunned! How can a player protect himself against such disasters? A couple of things come to mind:

  • As a turn begins, think about where you want DEFCON to protect your holdings and/or encroach on other regions. In addition, think about how your opponent might use the DEFCON track to his advantage.
  • Especially in the Mid-War, when Bear Trap and Quagmire are in the deck, ask yourself whether or not it is too risky to have DEFCON at 2. Without The China Card and a few bad Quagmire/Bear Trap rolls, you might be required to play an event which degrades DEFCON or allows your opponent to opportunity to do it.
  • If you have The China Card in your possession and DEFCON is at 2, think about playing it (even if it’s not an optimal play) in order to hold a card like CIA Created or Lone Gunman over until next turn, when DEFCON will go to 3 for at least one card play.
  • Keep in mind that a lot of cards actually improve DEFCON. While doing this can expose you to unwanted coup attempts, it can also get you out of a tight jam.

Do you have a good story about losing/winning the game over DEFCON? Or do you have other thoughts on the “DEFCON Conundrum”? Leave a comment!

[NOTE: Cross-posted at Board Game Geek]

Here I Stand Session Report–Papacy Perspective

July 17, 2009

I’m not sure which side is the most difficult to play in Here I Stand, but I have to believe the papacy ranks up there pretty high. In our most recent HIS game, in which John has already posted the English perspective, I played the Papacy.

Going into the game, I knew it was going to be tough. I was sitting at a table full of crafty player. My brother, Rick, controlled the Ottomans. Rick is one of those crafty players that always seems to twist things into his advantage. Mike, John’s brother, played the Hapsburgs. Mike is turning into a pretty good player.  He’s come close to winning a few times and I think it has bolstered his confidence and made his play more aggressive and  sound. John, my boardgaming nemesis and good friend, played the English. My greatest fear was his ability to manipulate others at the table for his gain. Combined with sound strategy, he makes for a tough opponent. Joe, the new comer to the table played the French. Despite being new to the game, I knew not to underestimate Joe. He’s a good strategic thinker and is able to quickly execute on opportunities given to him. The final player was Will, playing the Protestants. Until this point, I hadn’t played against Will in a strategic game. He was a bit of a wild card, but I was confident I could outmaneuver him.

In round one of the tournament scenario, my hand was relatively poor. It contained a number of combat and response cards of low value. With such few CP, I decided to go the diplomatic route and get others to act on my behalf, rather than mulligan and try to draw a better hand and go it alone. The gambit paid off fairly well. I offered a card draw to the Hapsburgs in return of a promise to capture one electorate and one card for the French to pass through Geneva on their way to Milan so I could use the bonus die of a Catholic stack to counter Calvin’s presence on a book burning roll.

The card pulls only cost me 3 CP and put me in the good graces of the French and Hapsburgs, a relationship that would serve me well in both turns 1 and 2. If I made a mistake in the negotiations, it was probably not to grant the English a divorce for 2 cards. It would have probably given me 4-5 CP and made the English a bigger target for the other players to go after.

The turn 1 play saw the Hapsburgs and Ottomans stalemate in Hungary and the French make a slow trek to Milan. The Protestants made an aggressive push to change France to Protestantism, going so far as to translate the French bible. But with all the French and Hapsburg troops along the boarder, I was able to us my few cards to stem, but not stop, the tide. In a final gambit to stop France from falling to heresy, I called a debate and was able to burn a 1 value French language Protestant debater.

I finished turn 1 with some more improvements to St. Peter’s, allowing the Papacy to sit in third place, behind the Ottomans and Hapsburgs, but closely—too closely—followed by the rest of the players.

Turn 2 saw me with a high value hand. I knew now was my time to make a move. In negotiations, I went hunting for Society of Jesus, but found no one had it in possession. I also found that nearly everyone wanted me to continue my generosity and allow them a card pull. I rebuffed the offers and instead renegotiated the deals.

I promised a card play on behalf of the Ottomans for them declaring war on Venice, so I could ally with them. My card would allow the Ottomans to pull a card from the Hapsburgs’ hand and they would leave Venice to me so I could gain a VP and increase my hand size by one card for turn 3. With the Hapsburgs, I loaned a fleet and a mercenary, so they could further defend against Ottoman attacks or piracy in exchange for him playing a card that would allow a number of burn book attempts in France. The deal was definitely in my favor, but thanks to our friendly relationship from last turn, it was a fairly easy sell. In fact, thanks to my generosity on turn 1, it seemed like everyone I spoke to was willing to work with me. The final negotiation was with France. France spilled the beans on the English-French deal to team up and destroy the Hapsburgs. I counseled France to hold on to Machiavelli, watch how the English-Hapsburg fight goes and only jump in when the French could secure  VPs. My concern was the English seeking to weaken both the French and the Hapsburgs and take VP without spending many CPs or losing many troops. This along with the threat of the English gaining VP through the change to Protestantism could lead to a quick English win. The French agreed with my assessment and changed their play appropriately.

When it came time to play cards, I went after VP. I pushed forward by allying with Venice and getting a key. I then was able to use Michelangelo to increase St. Peter’s by 10 points, securing more VP! The rest of the game was spent securing Europe from Protestantism. I burned books, removing Protestant influence from the French and Italian language zones. With my final rolls, I pushed into England and Germany with a little luck.

However, the game was too close. I hadn’t gained enough VP and with a few cities falling to Protestantism, I’d lose the VP I fought so hard for. The Hapsburgs and the Ottomans found to a stalemate while the English and the Hapsburgs suffered heavy casualties in Antwerp. After seeing the Hapsburgs use all their good cards and fearing what would happen if I gave the Ottomans another card, I stabbed the Ottomans in the back and didn’t play the card I promised on their behalf. Fortunately, we had already decided this was to be the last turn, so it was a betrayal without consequence. Not exactly my finest gaming moment, but I needed to keep my buffer on the Catholic/Protestant track and could dare give the Ottomans a chance for a win.

The French heeded my advice and instead decided to declare war on Genoa. However, I wasn’t out of the woods yet. The final Protestant and English cards would make or break me. To Will’s credit, he avoided the easy conversion site, England, to go for an undisputed win, as changing England would result in English VP and an English win. He once again went after France and found success, but not enough to change the VP points.

The English then went for the win with their final card play. They tried to convert England. This would be doubly bad for me. Not only would it take me out of the lead, but it would push the English above me and tie me with the Ottomans, Hapsburgs, and Protestants on the VP track. But luck was with me. A couple good rolls kept the English Catholic and the dreaded VP change from happening.

However, the dark horse French took the prize when they captured Genoa and had successful rolls in the New World phase.

Final order of powers: France, Papacy, English, Hapsburgs, Ottomans, Protestants.

Getting to second place took all my effort and the cooperation of the other players. I’ve learned as the Papacy that you need friends to survive and thrive.

Furthermore, debating is very difficult and as the Papacy, you must use everything, including your home card, to stack the dice in your favor. While removing a 1 value debater from the game doesn’t really hurt the Protestants, but the VP you gain can never be removed.

And while it is easy to forget out St. Peter’s, don’t. 5 CP for 1 VP is a given ratio for the Papacy. When deciding to build or burn books, make sure you take the CP to VP ratio into account. I wish I could go back and reexamine my final card plays. It may have been better to burn books one less time and instead get a VP from St. Peter’s.

Here I Stand Session Report–English Perspective

July 15, 2009

I purchased Here I Stand roughly 14 months ago and have played it ten times since: eight times in person and twice online (6 and 4 personal record). It is a six-player card-driven wargame about the Wars of the Reformation. If you’re interested in purchasing it, you might be swayed by the fact that it has received excellent support from the designer and has a rather large and enthusiastic fan base. This past Sunday I sat down at the table with five other guys ranging from 25-30, one brand new to the game, and we saw who could have “the biggest hat in Europe.” We started the tournament scenario around 10:45 AM, broke for lunch at 1:30, and finished by 5:00 PM. The agreement was that we’d go two turns, with the auto-victory being 23, not 25 VP.

This session report is from my point of view as the English. My first hand was pretty mediocre: no exciting events, no combat cards, and nothing to help my friend Martin Luther out. I met with the Protestants and got a card draw out of him; I was hoping to use it as leverage to get the Pope (Russ) to grant a divorce, but that didn’t work out. I even offered him two cards in exchange for a divorce (probably a mistake), but he wouldn’t take it. Darn! I met with the French last, played by Joe, our new guy. I gave him a card pull and we agreed to a sort of convoluted deal I first saw in round 2 of the 2009 play by email tourney.

One new war was declared in the first turn–I went after Scotland. France chose to intercede for free, pulling the Scottish into an alliance (as per our agreement!).  The action phase saw a rush of movements on all fronts. The Ottomans immediately clashed with the Hapsburgs (Mike) in Hungary, but not a lot of territory exchanged hands. Then the Ottomans went for a very successful piracy strategy, hitting the Hapsburgs several times and receiving VPs and cards. The Protestants played a very common combination of military moves to snatch up electorates and convert French spaces to their faith. In response, the Pope called debates and flipped most of the French spaces back. He also burned a debator late in the turn. The French took Milan late in the turn, while the Hapsburgs snatched up Metz.

After declaring war, I marshaled my forces and went after Scotland, but not before the French had moved those infantry units out of Edinburgh for me. I took Edinburgh easily and left the three Scottish units in Glasgow. They eventually winter-moved to Paris and effectively became the Scots in exile. The sum effect of the deal was this: I got a key (2 VP) at very little cost, the French got a card pull and three Scottish infantry units on the Continent. I ended up burning the Scottish ship in port, but in the future, I think I’d offer that up too (we sort of forgot about it!). This has become my standard opening move for the English; any feedback on it would be most appreciated.

(Update: I cut this deal a third time in another PBEM game. After going through with it, this was met by howls of protest from my opponents. Someone emailed the designer asking about the legality of the deal, considering it is very “gamey”. No official word yet on whether this will be outlawed in future. From my point of view, this is one of the only moves that gives the English a prayer of winning in competitive play. One player dubbed this “The Caledonian Gambit.”)

That done, I was content to use my home card to marry Anne Boleyn; a lucky six on the pregnancy chart yielded a healthy Edward and five VPs! Things were looking good at this point. To end my turn, I built up infantry units in London and a fleet in Calais. By the turn’s end, the Ottomans were threatening an early victory, with the Papacy and the Hapsburgs close behind.

After a lunch break, we returned to the table and drew cards. The Hapsburgs got extremely unlucky with their colony rolls and didn’t get any extra cards. The French picked up one through Potosi Silver Mines. I was fortunate to be dealt a strong hand with many CPs: three “five” cards! Combined with “Dissolution of the Monasteries,” it looked to be a fun turn.

Diplomacy was even more involved this time; Martin Luther and I couldn’t really come to a deal, although I did have “Calvin’s Institutes.” He was feeling pretty confident after snatching “Printing Press” from the discard pile the previous turn. I allied with the French with the understanding that we would declare war on the Hapsburgs and make a mad dash for the finish line before the Ottomans got there. The French had “Machiavelli’s ‘The Prince,'” so this turn was going to be a surprise for Charles V!

However, things didn’t go exactly as planned. I spring deployed to Calais and used my home card on the Hapsburgs right away, and then made a hard drive for Antwerp. This was foiled by a nice intercept roll and two combat cards, “Field Artillery” and “Tercios.” In a massive field battle, I lost four of eight units while he only lost two of seven. While I retreated to lick my wounds, the French delayed jumping in on the war and sent out an explorer. Not good! And the Ottomans and Hapsburgs clashed at Pressburg…again. The fields were awash in casualties, and both sides spent some combat cards, but it only served to exhaust both of them. The Ottomans later went on to do piracy, and the Hapsburgs found themselves out of cards very early on. However, there was a large stack at Antwerp now (six units and a leader), and I felt that a field battle and siege might not get me what I wanted.

The French never declared war on the Hapsburgs, opting to go for Genoa instead with “Machieavelli.” This was a bummer for me, but what can you do? Martin Luther opted to grab a few electorates and make Germany almost entirely Protestant. While this was frustrating for me, I was able to play “Dissolution of the Monasteries” and got two cards and three free Reformation attempts. (And the Protestant not helping the English too much is understandable…that can be like dealing with the Devil.)

As the turn wore on, I used my high CP cards to good effect. I built some more units in Calais and deployed my fleet, eventually invading Spain. Since the Hapsburgs were out of cards, I was able to snatch one key. I then sent out an explorer and tried to publish my own treatises, but they failed!  At the end of the action phase, the Papacy was at 20 VP due to a great play of “Michelangelo.” The Hapsburgs were at 19 with the Ottomans, the French, and me, and the Protestants trailed at 18–definitely the closest game I’ve played in. During the New World phase, the French pulled their best explorer and found the Amazon (21 VP). They then conquered a tribe (22 VP). I found the St. Lawrence (20 VP), but it was not enough. Joe, a first time player, won the “biggest hat in Europe” award as the French.

Final scores: Ottomans 19, Hapsburgs 19, English 20, French 22, Papacy 20, Protestants 18. And it all came down to a few die rolls. Very satisfying.

So what was the margin of victory for me? What could I have done better to win the game? I had a huge CP hand that second turn. It was truly ridiculous. Had I not been so torn between the military or Reformation paths, I could have chosen one and gone for broke. I had the CP to possibly take Antwerp and invade Spain (which was nearly empty) for 23 VP. Or, I could have played some cards in a different order, taken the Spanish key, sent an explorer, and gotten two treatises published, which may have put me over the limit. (As it was, I only published one treatise and flubbed both rolls.) Last, I could have ignored the military after the Calais defeat and published treatises like crazy, which might have put me over.

One last thing: I have played and won as the English before, but only in games where I was playing both them and the Protestants at the same time. The English are really hemmed in by the Scottish, the French, the Hapsburgs, and the need to get the Reformation going. It feels like one doesn’t have many options when playing them, which is a pain.

However, this was, hands down, the most fun and smooth game of Here I Stand we’ve played. A hearty well done to all players, and congratulations to Joe/Francois!

Cross posted to Board Game Geek.

The Space Around the Game

July 10, 2009

I’m a person who is usually thinking about the aesthetics of things, their beauty, if you will. And this does not change when it comes to board games. There is something beautiful about them, something about the geometric shape of the board and the  pieces resting on top, the colors, the feel of the dice or cards in one’s hands–more on that in the future. But I believe there is also something important about the space around the game–the table, the room, etc. When I was a kid, my parents wouldn’t have called me a particularly neat person, but that has changed as I’ve gotten older. And I have become slightly obsessive about what goes on around the game:

The room: This is a key aspect of the game. Where are we playing? I like the room to be clean and relatively free of clutter. If we’re playing at our apartment, this usually means we’re in the kitchen at the table. If we’ve eaten beforehand, I like things set away in cupboards and the dishwasher before we begin. Usually the table has only two things on it: the game itself and a few drinks on coasters (though some people call foul on the drinks). A cluttered game table drives me up a wall, as does a pet running around during a game. Televisions, video game systems, etc., should be turned off. Russ does an excellent job of all this, especially when we’re playing a roleplaying game over at his house. He keeps character sheets in folders, draws out his maps beforehand, and places extra dice and figures off to the side on a desk and covers it with a gamemaster’s screen. This is why I love playing at his house!

The chairs: This is critical, especially in games that go over an hour. Chairs that are too comfortable cause people lose focus; chairs that are too hard make everyone restless. I think the worst thing of all is to have a chair that is not suited for the table. My in-laws used to have dining room chairs that drove me nuts! They had these soft vinyl cushions stitched into them so as the game went on, I would find myself “settling in” and unable to reach parts of the board. A nice, average dining room chair will usually do it. This is important for both me and my dad because we both suffer infrequent but uncomfortable bouts of sciatica. Sitting on the floor is a no-no too. This can also mean we’re playing on a low coffeetable and that’s just wrong on so many levels!

Temperature and Lighting: Like most people, I enjoy playing in cool, dry places. In Minnesota, we usually range between “hot and humid” in the summer to “unbearably cold and dry” in the winter so A/C, a fan, or a humidifier are necessary. My friend Melissa comes prepared for temperature fluctuations, and I’ve learned a lot from her as we’ve attended gaming conventions together. She always brings a light sweatshirt or sweater of some sort, in case it gets too cold. Proper lighting is also needed. If it’s too dim, we can’t see the board, and if it’s too bright, it’s often difficult to examine the board off of the plexiglass we use for war games. Playing in an unfinished basement with poor lighting? Not if I can help it!

Music: This is a difficult one. If it’s low music that is theme-appropriate and not too distracting, great! However, if there’s someone in the group who has trouble with that, it should be turned off. Some of my favorite game experiences have included music. My brother Mike and I once played Wellington while listening to the Gettysburg soundtrack–a perfect selection from his enormous music collection. On another occasion, Sara and I played Settlers of Catan with my mom and dad in a stormy power outage while listening to a playlist of 17-19th century folk music from an mp3 player. That night, with the soft music coming from the battery-powered speakers and the faces of my family lit softly by candles, will probably go down as one of my most vivid memories.

I’ve listed a lot of things to not do or have, but a few general themes should be brought out. The space around the game should emphasize a decent level of comfort, cleanliness, and focus. It’s really about making other people feel at home around the game table. Clutter detracts from the overall experience, whereas a clean table accentuates the artistic design in a game (see this example: nice job, people!)

Do you insist upon similar standards around your game table? Discuss!

Edit: Cross-posted at Board Game Geek