Learning a New Game

November 25, 2009

All of the games I’ve ever played (probably in my entire life) have been taught to me. Someone else older, more experienced, or just more apt for reading had done the dirty work of learning the game and taught me the game in the few minutes the board was being set-up to play. This can often lead to problems. Perhaps the one teaching the game doesn’t know all the rules correctly. Or maybe what they think are actual rules are a variant or house rules for the game. For example: Free Parking does not entitle you to loads of money in Monopoly. (Look it up.) You also tend to get advice from whoever is teaching you the game – picking up their strategy instead of learning to develop your own. A friend and I decided to change all this and learn a new game on our own. No coaching from anyone. No reading of strategies. Just read the rules and play. We selected another Margin of Victory favorite: Twilight Struggle.

Step 1: Read the Rules
I think this is the obvious first step in learning any game (if you don’t count “Open the Box”). Give the rules a read through once or twice. Also read any additional materials provided with text: cards, player aids, etc. Note anything that doesn’t make sense – sometimes you need to consult an FAQ.

I looked at the rulebook for Twilight Struggle. 28 pages thick, but, only 8 pages of actual rules. Nice! We read through them and it seems pretty simple. I read through them again and still haven’t seen anything that doesn’t make sense. I also take a quick look at the cards. As I read through the cards I realize that there may be some confusion on how they are played. I download an FAQ to have nearby. Step 1: Check.

Step 2: Set up the game
Make sure you have all the pieces and set up the board according to the rules. Check to see if there are any differences in 2 player vs 3 player vs more. Also be sure to set up the board/card decks according to which scenario you are using. And make sure you’ll have enough space.

Twilight Struggle board set-up is also mostly straight forward. We pick our sides: I’ll represent the US. We place some initial influence in the right countries, but here’s the first decision. Where to put the extra influence in Europe? Having never played we have no idea what the best countries are. OK, we each decide to control a couple more countries. The Military Operations, Space Race, VP and Turn markers are placed. The Early War cards are shuffled. We’re ready to go.

Step 3: Play
For a first play through allow plenty of time, but don’t worry if you make a mistake. If you realize you’ve been playing incorrectly you can rewind (if it is easy to do so) or just start playing correctly at that point. Agree on a ruling and move forward. Remember: the goal is to have fun!

We deal the cards and read through each one. I find Defectors in my hand, an obvious Headline event, and select it right away. USSR takes a bit longer, but eventually picks one. Headline phase over – that was easy. We go back and forth in the actions rounds and play is going smoothly – until the first scoring card comes out. He thinks he’s scored 8 VP – I count 3 VP. He checks the rules and realizes his mistake on what a battleground country is. He shouldn’t have been putting that much influence in Finland – lesson learned.

The action rounds start to go by quickly and I have been racking up VP. In the middle of turn 3, I go up to 19 VP. One point away from a US victory. I realize I may have been accruing Victory Points by playing the events, but at the cost of him being a few influence away from controlling Europe (another way to win). And I’m holding Europe Scoring. Uh oh… I end turn three at only 5 VP.

The mid-war begins and we’ve started to settle in. The cards are played a bit faster and we seem to know what we’re doing. Or so we thought, we realize we’ve been playing a couple things wrong. The DEFCON was 3 and we made realignment and coup attempts in Europe and Asia. We also split up Operation Points for placing influence and realignment rolls*. It’s too late to rewind. We were both guilty so we just move on with the correction. Before the end of the mid-war another minor mistake is quickly rewinded: it is obvious he didn’t want to end the game but couping a battleground country while DEFCON is 2.

We make it to end-war, only 3 more turns. At this point we are playing fast and no longer making any mistakes. Turn 8 goes by. Then 9. At this point it is all going to come down to Final Scoring. The final deal comes and is good for me. I’ll get to play 8 cards this round (due to North Sea Oil) and I’m up by 6 VP. The play slows down as each card play is calculated. I do some careful number crunching with my final two card plays. I hold the China Card, but realize I need to play it to dominate Asia and get the required military operations for the turn. My last play gets me presence in the Middle East.

Before final scoring I have a 3 VP lead. He adds up the score. I add up the score. There’s a slight discrepancy. I’ve counted wrong and we go over it again. We agree: USSR scores 3 points. We check the rules for a tie-breaker. None exists. A tie.

Step 4: Repeat Step 3

Learning a new game on our own was great. And we both agreed that Twilight Struggle is a great game that creates an intense atmosphere – even with our errors and rewinds. We didn’t worry about coaching or letting the new guy win so he’ll play it again. We were free to try anything. We made a lot of mistakes but we learned from them. We discussed the strategies we were trying and learned from each other. With the Holidays approaching I’m looking forward to learning some other newly acquired games with friends.

* Yes, there is a designer variant that allows this. However, at the start of the game we agreed to use the standard rules as written.

Battle of the Brothers – French Perspective

November 19, 2009

Last Sunday three sets of brother sat down for a friendly game of Here I Stand (read the twitter feed for some play-by-play commentary). I was really looking forward to the game for many reasons. One, the sibling rivalry aspect – I would play the French and my brother (Russ) the Protestants. We shouldn’t tangle too much, but we’re brothers, anything can happen. Two, this would be my fourth game of Here I Stand so I was feeling really good about the play and rules aspect of the game. And three, I analyzed all the possible plays, cards, etc. to get the VP necessary to win as the French. I was ready!

Turn 4
The deal was bad: I got 5 cards for a total of 10 CP, well below the 2.7 CP/card average. I would need some help. I allied with the Hapsburg in exchange for Besancon. Not too important, but I was really just looking to keep the Haps off my back. I knew I was going to war with the English. The English would DoW Scotland with their home card and I would vacate it. In exchange, I would get a card draw the next turn. Sounded like a good deal and if anything changed, I could just hold Scotland.

The action phase progressed as expected. I took Milan and the English DoWed Scotland. However, after the English rolled a 6 on the pregnancy chart and got a healthy Edward and 5 VP, I wasn’t going to give him another easy 2 VP. So I held Scotland and sent an explorer who went off to discover the Amazon! 7 VP in one turn! Things were looking up.

Turn 5
Going into this turn, I knew the English would try to press me. I got decent cards and decided on a pure defensive strategy. I was near the lead and didn’t want to draw any attention. My hand was decent: Potosi Silver Mines and Plantations should net me cards for Turn 6 and I could use Auld Alliance to defend Scotland. I was also able to get a Franco-Ottoman alliance this turn. He would play Swiss Mercenaries on my behalf and I would loan him a fleet. I would build my forces and gain the cards necessary for a turn 6 win.

The English player went for Metz and Bordeaux (with the crafty play of Charles Bourbon and moving out some fleets). He forced the use of my home card for CP, but my defensive plays and his bad dice roll on the assault in Metz forced him into an odd position on his final play of the turn. With his 1 CP card should he assualt Bordeaux or Metz? I still held one card in my hand and no one knew what it could be – Mercenaries Bribed had already been played. I put on my best poker face. He finally chose to assualt Metz and I played my combat card: Mercenaries Grow Restless! The renegade leader and his ragtag bunch of mercenaries were wiped out! After that huge success I was riding high and hoping for great things in the new world. Then Lady Luck left me. I had invested big in the New World and got nothing. No extra cards.

Turn 6
We dealt out the cards and and I got a decent CP hand, but no good events. The negotiations were intense. The Hapsburg player (Joe) was in the lead and had 11 cards in his hand. Having won the previous two games, he already had a huge target on his back – this just made it bigger. The Ottoman, Papacy and Protestant powers wanted either the English or the French to go to war with him to block his win. With the promise of a card play and a couple of mercs I could easily stop the Hapsburg player. However, I would also need an alliance with the English to also give myself a chance at the win. The English player knew this and refused. My next best bet was to go to the Hapsburg. I would give up a card draw for an alliance as well as the transfer of Navarre to the French. He was interested in the deal but also spoke to the English. During the announcements, my hopes of winning were crushed. The Hapsburgs took the English deal instead and I was on my own. My only chance at victory now was to go to war with the Hapsburgs and the English.

The action phase began. I took Navarre right away and then turned to defending against the English onslaught. The English player took Metz and then stormed on to Lyon. I did the best I could with my few remaining CP, but it was of no use. The English took Lyon. I could only build Chateau for 1 more VP and finished at 20. Good enough for fourth place. The English player made all the right moves and with luck in the new world, rolled himself to a great victory.

Game Over
The Turn 6 diplomacy was the win or lose moment of the game. All 6 powers had legitimate shots at winning the game going into the final turn. The Ottoman player could win with Vienna and Piracy. The Hapsburg player was in the lead and held 11 cards – I still can’t believe the luck in the new world! The Pope was doing well against Luther, but the religious game can swing so dramatically it is hard to tell. The English and French had made big moves and only needed another key or two.

And this is why that diplomacy phase lasted way too long and was way too intense. Everyone had a huge stake and wanted someone else to stop the Hapsburgs. But no one wanted to give up much to allow that and throw away their own chances of winning. Having Russ at the table and knowing how to push his temper didn’t help matters either. I couldn’t blame him for throwing his hands up and leaving the table for a few minutes at one point. This was supposed to be fun?! It gave me a headache and I wanted to stop.

A few days later I composed my thoughts for this blog. I thought this was the best I’ve played a game of Here I Stand. I knew all the right things to do and made good moves during the negotiations. I think 2 extra cards from my colonies would have won it for me. The atmosphere was intense; every power had a shot at victory; good diplomacy can give you the power to win. This left me thinking: when’s the next game?


Integrity or Victory?

November 15, 2009

In today’s game of Here I Stand, I had an interesting dilemma.

I was the front-running Hapsburgs, and in my desperation for an alliance, I made a deal with the last place English. However, as the turn went on, the English ended up as the only team that could win except for myself. We were the only ones with meaningful cards left, and I would win any VP ties. In hindsight, I should have added a caveat to our deal, “I won’t play it if it comes down to you and me.”

If you agree to a card play in diplomacy, do you play it knowing that if you don’t you are guaranteed to win? At what point is winning the current game worth undermining your integrity with friends and in future games? Winning is great, but do you screw a friend out of a chance of winning just to lock up victory for yourself? Or is the breaking of deals just so common in Here I Stand that I’m just being silly? Probably. In one hand, victory and betrayal. In the other, a dice fest in which I had about a 50/50 chance of winning. What if you know you will be playing with the same group again? Is integrity worth more then? I know I remember who can be trusted . . .

I chose to keep the deal, but it wasn’t an easy choice. The play of Book of Common Prayer ended up winning the game for England after the Protestant player succeeded in rolling him to two additional VP’s. Then in the New World, he scored 1 VP on an explorer, putting him up on me by 1 VP. Granted, without England’s help, France may have won the game (England took a French key). I’m just curious if anyone else has a similar horror story. What deals have you made that ended up putting you in a similar spot? What did you do? Would you do it again?


Here I Stand Game being live-tweeted today!

November 15, 2009

Three pairs of brothers are playing Here I Stand today. Head to Twitter.com and look for user: marginofvictory  or go to http://twitter.com/marginofvictory


Here I Stand: Henry VIII, Warlord

November 14, 2009

I am new to Here I Stand. I had been interested in trying it for over a year, but with every game my friend John hosted, I had schedule conflicts. Had I known what fun I was missing, I may have pushed harder to get them to schedule a time that I could make. Last July, I finally made it to a game. Playing as the French in the tournament scenario, my lack of experience and knowledge of the rules caused me to flail about, get pushed around diplomatically, and squander CP like crazy. My lack of skill probably ended up working in my favor, as the rest of Europe beat itself up, ignoring the French, leading to a sneaky French victory on the back of some nice cards and optimal New World rolls.

Initial Strategy

After having a blast in my first game, but regretting not understanding the rules better, I wanted to be better prepared for the next game I played. I learned in advance that I would play as the English. I turned to John, our most experienced player, who had played the English in our last game for clarification on the only confusing rules issue for the English, the divorce and pregnancy chart. My plan was to make a deal for the divorce with the Papacy, unless I had a very high CP hand that I did not want to risk with granting card draws. While I think the divorce is valuable, my powerful home card also guarantees that Edward is born if Henry is persistent. Depending on the hand I was dealt, my offer would vary between one or two card draws or card plays. I figure that unless a disaster happened, I would be able to eventually get Edward and the 5 VP, using my home card as many times as needed. I planned on taking Scotland, and then targeting a French or Hapsburg key, picking up some New World VP’s and making England Anglican. I figured a balanced approach would allow me to draft behind the front-runner until I could use my home card’s special ability to surprise a mainland power later in the game. The best part about seeming harmless as the English is that the Protestant player can generate a lot of VP for you by converting England. They won’t do that if you are in the lead, so it was critical to my success that I strike late.

Turn 4

We had a couple new players at the table, and after a brief tutorial for them, we got the game going. My initial draw was outstanding. I had Erasmus, Paul III, Copernicus, Michael Servetus, and Foreign Recruits. I had the ability to work out a deal for the divorce, and score  3 additional VP. So much for keeping a low profile. The Pope agreed to grant the divorce, in return for the play of Paul III on my first impulse, and Erasmus on my second impulse. I also got a mercenary and a card through the use of Diplomatic Overture from the Protestants, in return for an alliance and a promise not to play Servetus until he had no cards to discard. I rolled a six–healthy Edward! The roll freed me to use my home card for a war of my choosing during the action phase.

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Anne Boleyn was spared by providing a healthy male heir

Turn 4 was exciting. The Hapsburgs were running amok after playing Diplomatic Marriage to activate Venice on his first impulse and taking Metz early in the turn. The Ottomans were getting absolutely crushed with terrible rolls. The French took Milan immediately and built a chateau soon after. The Papacy, in large part due to plays by myself and the Hapsburgs on his behalf, made some significant gains early against the Reformation. Late in the turn, with the Hapsburgs threatening a domination victory, I declared war on them instead of Scotland, and, through a naval move, put Henry VIII and a sizable force in Calais and then marched on Antwerp. The Hapsburgs were not pleased, and eliminated my mercenaries with a card and then attacked my siege force with Charles V and a slightly smaller army. The dice crashed into the box and I destroyed the Hapsburg force, capturing Charles V and leaving only one unit in Antwerp, which fell on my impulse moments later. I had to use Servetus (which the Protestant snapped up and played using his home card) for the assault, but it was well worth it. That ended turn 4, with Hapsburgs at 19, The English at 18 (9 VP this turn), The Papacy and France tied at 18, Ottomans at 17 and the Protestants at 16.

Turn 5

The next turn was certain to be interesting. I got Dissolution of the Monasteries, Diplomatic Overture, Auld Alliance, Siege Mining, and some other average cards that I can’t remember. I also was able to get the Hapsburgs to agree to an alliance even though I had taken a key and would get a card for Charles V. He certainly did not want to sue for peace, which would have granted me some combination of VP’s or card draws. The French were looking to take Genoa, and asked for an alliance, which would have prevented me from taking any keys this turn, but would not pay my fee of one card for that peace of mind. I drew a lot of cards from the deck with poor results. I got three cards worth 1 CP and one worth 4 with Dissolution and Diplomatic Overture, turning 12 CP into 7 CP. I drew Threat to Power from the Hapsburgs. I still ended up with a lot of cards to play with, meaning my opponents would be unable to react to my plays at the end of the turn. I was looking for a knockout blow, but I wasn’t sure where to deliver it, or if the other powers would perceive the English threat before it was too late.

The Ottomans continued to crash into the Hapsburgs, but finally succeeded in taking Vienna, losing Algiers to the Hapsburgs. The French went after Genoa and New World VP’s, and spent their home card for another chateau. The Protestants, aided by the Anglican movement, gained some ground, but sort of fizzled after the Jesuits showed up and negated the reformers in France and England. I decided to invade Scotland. Using my home card, I made the declaration, and the French intervened. This move puzzled me, because only two regulars and the French king stood between Henry VIII and his sizable, war-hardened force marching from Calais to Paris. I should have declared war on the French directly, but I figured I could win by taking Scotland and going after the new world. I shifted gears, took Paris (siege mining made it easy), captured the French king, and used Auld Alliance to deactivate Scotland. The French sunk my explorer. With victory out of reach, I held a couple combat cards for the next round. England 20,  Hapsburg 19, Protestant and Papacy 18, French and Ottoman 16.

Turn 6

Holding the lead heading into the turn made it very difficult to make friends in diplomacy. I was dealt a very high CP hand again, which included some nasty cards that could have been painful in the hand of another player. The French had no interest in ransoming their imprisoned king. While I was unable to make a single deal, I was able to break up a massive Hapsburg lead coalition, which was essentially designed to destroy me. I did this by convincing the Protestant that there was no way the Hapsburgs would play Catholic cards against him (easy point to make since obviously the CP would be critical for the crusade he was planning against me). A few of us also helped out our new Ottoman player by preventing a peace settlement that served absolutely no purpose for him, allowing him to eventually better his score by 3 instead of 1 (when you can’t win, play for the highest score possible). The pope decided that he could just wait to play City State Rebels. I convinced him to see how the war went, and then play it on whoever remained ahead of him. I assured him that I had no interest in converting England, so when the dust settled, he could possibly win if the Hapsburgs and French were successful in knocking me down if he conserved his CP. Seeing that their deals with the other three players were not on stable ground, the Hapsburgs and French had to change plans on the fly.

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Henry VIII did not live to enjoy his victory over France

I used Foreign Recruits in Antwerp on my first impulse, which meant not even a perfect roll on the City State Rebels could succeed, which would have been a likely waste of 4 CP. (I did expose myself later in the turn, and with me still in the lead the pope pounced!) No faction challenged my military directly. Had they seen my hand, they would have realized that it was a very wise choice; I could have summoned an impressive force to respond to any threat, and it would have likely resulted in them gaining no VP’s. I took Rouen early in the turn. The Hapsburgs lost Prague, and fought with the Protestant over Trier and Mainz.  They also invaded Tunis, but had that force eliminated late in the turn by Mercenaries Demand Pay. I decided to go for 24 VP and the win. I marshaled my forces and went for Bordeaux, forgetting that the Pope still held City State Rebels! He played the card, forcing me to use the Swiss Mercenaries I had planned on using to initiate the assault. I barely survived the rebellion in Rouen (1 regular remaining!) The Protestant really got burned at the end of the last turn, losing religious influence in a couple of electorates. All of England remained Catholic, except for the armies, after Henry VIII died late in the turn. The French finally took Genoa, and ended up scoring in the New  World and with another chateau.

Final: English 22, Hapsburgs, Papacy, and Ottoman 19, France 17, and the Protestants at 13.

I learned several things about Here I Stand from this session. The cards can really change your plan drastically. I had planned to dabble in everything and draft behind the leader, but instead ended up spending most of the game as the front-runner and almost completely focused on my military. Once you are in the lead the pack has numerous ways to drag you down. I was very fortunate to survive several close calls with amazing die rolls, and the Hapsburg player only dropped in VPs after his initial surge, simply because the backlash had crippled him severely, decimating his western force and costing him a key right away.

I also noticed that the Protestants were very hampered by my success. You can read about his trials in an earlier post in this blog. England is one of the easiest targets for reformation, but he could not risk giving me any additional VP’s starting early in turn 5.

This was a fun game, thanks to all the other players, and thanks to John, our gracious host! I look forward to our next showdown is tomorrow, November 15th, When I will be playing as the Hapsburgs.


Holiday Wishlist?

November 10, 2009

Since I started getting into hobby games in earnest 2.5 years ago, I’ve picked up 28 new games. Of these, I’ve only purchased five. Sara and I try to limit ourselves to a pretty small “entertainment” budget, which means that the lion’s share of my games show up in neatly wrapped boxes on my birthday or under the Christmas tree. My family usually asks for some sort of holiday wishlist around this time of year, and I thought that posting it here would allow for some feedback and perhaps others posting their own wishlists. So, in no particular order…

Conquest of Paradise: Despite some slight negative feeling towards this game, it really intrigues me. I learned how to play this from the designer at the 2009 World Boardgaming Championships (WBC), and there’s a lot of neat mechanics at work like “blind” exploration, hidden fleet movement, etc. It seems to suffer a bit from too little playtesting, but I think with a few house-rules, it could really be excellent. Plus, GMT is selling it quite cheaply!

Endeavor: This Euro-ish game of exploration, colonization, and conquest has been getting a lot of good press recently. Players compete to grab resources in the New World, and use them to grow in power back in Europe. I read a review in which the author described it as “the post gateway game,” which is sort of a weak point in my game collection right now.

Pacific Typhoon: A  card game about the Pacific theater in World War II. This is GMT’s sequel to Atlantic Storm by Avalon Hill. I had never really heard of this game until I noticed the number of people playing it in random corners around the WBC. This looks like a good cross-over war game.

Small World Expansions: At $10 apiece, Grand Dames and Cursed! look like cheap ways to spice up the base game for those of us who have been playing like fiends since it came out.

War of the Ring: Although I am a huge Lord of the Rings nut, I’ve never sat down to play this game. I know it won’t get to the table much due to its playtime, but I can’t pass up the chance to marshal the forces of good against evil, or vice versa.

Wits & Wagers Expansion: From what I saw at the 2009 WBC Wits & Wagers game show, these questions are most obscure than ever–perfect!

That Mystery Game I don’t know the name to yet: I’m putting a call out for suggestions. My brother is getting married soon, which means when we meet over at Mom and Dad’s house for Sunday dinner, there will be six of us (Mom, Dad, brother, his wife, Sara, and me). I’m looking for a light game that can be played in 60-90 minutes for a group of six people that like to play Ticket to Ride and Settlers of Catan. Any titles come to mind?

As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts about my wishlist or have you share your own.


Low-Interaction Games

November 4, 2009

“Dude, it’s your turn.” Rick is staring at me from across the table.

Huh? My brain freezes. Where are we? I was munching on a cookie and thinking about whether or not I had remembered to close the garage door after leaving the house earlier in the evening. Oh…right. Power Grid. I run my hands across my face, blink a few times, and glance at the power plant market. It takes a few seconds before I can fully re-focus on the game and concentrate on playing. These moments happen to the best of gamers–fatigue, stress, or distractions can pull our minds away from the game in front of us. But sometimes the blame for the momentary lapse in concentration lies not with us, but the game we’re playing. I call them low-interaction games.

Power Grid is perhaps the worst offender in my collection. An average game runs 90-180 minutes without much direct interaction between players with the exception of power plant auctions. There’s also a lot of mental math, which kills table talk as each player tries to figure out how he or she can spend money in the wisest fashion. There are many things I like about the game, but if I want to interact with people, it’s strictly through off-topic conversation, which lengthens the playing time. I sometimes find myself glancing at the board and thinking, Are we still playing this? Shouldn’t it be over by now?

Another low-interaction game is Ticket to Ride, which is not so much a communal  game as several solitaire games. I’m trying to fill in my tickets, you’re filling in yours on another end of the map, and there’s  terrible excitement if a player (heaven forbid!) snatches up a key section of a route before someone else. However, this game plays more quickly than Power Grid, so it’s not as bad.

A third game that comes to mind is Carcassonne, which I’ve been playing a lot recently. Gameplay is very intuitive, though there’s not much direct interaction. People are usually only directly competing if they are trying to out-do each other with farmers, or trying to connect up two cities. However, the “beer and pretzels” nature of the game is such that we can hold a conversation while playing. The game is so simple it can take a backseat while we talk about anything under the sun. And the 30-45 minute playing time means I’m never staring at the table wondering, When is this going to be over?

Since really getting into board games two years ago, I’ve learned that low-interaction games aren’t exciting for me unless they are simple and short. Conquest of Paradise is an example of a game that, while interesting in its theme, drove me up a wall. The game ends just as you are ready to interact with othe1r players (i.e., raid their villages, burn down their huts, and take their freaking yams–mwahaha!). I prefer to be playing games where the auctioning/trading/fighting is fast and furious, and people are engaged most or all of the time in what’s going on in the game (or if they’re not, they can carry on a conversation because the simplicity of the game allows for it).

This realization makes me wish Board Game Geek would include an “interaction rating” in each game profile. We’re in a recession, every dollar is precious, and I don’t want to waste my hard-earned cash purchasing games that don’t have lots of player to player wheeling and dealing or pillaging and looting. If I wanted a low-interaction game, I’d fire up FreeCell on my computer.

Are there games that you love/hate because of the low or high level of interaction? Leave a comment; I’d love to hear about them.