Twilight Struggle: Optional Cards in Play

December 16, 2009

GMT Games just put out the deluxe edition of Twilight Struggle with a new board, counters, and deck which included seven optional cards. Since I already own the game, I just picked up the upgrade kit. On Saturday Rick and I sat down to play; it was my seventeenth game and his fourth, but our first with the optional cards. In an effort to see if the new optional cards really balanced play, we decided not to bid. I took the US; he took the USSR. (I won in turn ten scoring.)

The Cambridge Five, early war (USSR): This card forces the US player to expose all his scoring cards. Then the USSR player gets to add one influence in any region named on one of the scoring cards. This was played twice by me (US), but it never benefited Rick. It seems like a relatively harmless card in most situations.

Special Relationship, early war (US): If the US controls the UK before NATO is played, the US gets one influence in any country adjacent to the UK. If it is played after NATO, he gets to add two influence to any Western European country and two VP for his trouble. We saw this come out once in the late war, and it provided a much-needed boost to me at the time. I can see how if this came out on multiple occasions, it could really wreck the USSR’s day! It’s just another way for the US player to chip away at an early USSR lead, and it gives you more reason to play NATO too.

They don't just track Santa!

NORAD, early war (US): Holy cow. What a card. I played this early on, and it gave me reason to want to see that DEFCON track drop to two. If the US controls Canada and the DEFCON track drops to two, the US player gets to place one influence in any country that already has US influence. This is an excellent way to shore up your defenses in light of an aggressive USSR player. Throughout the game, I was able to place three influence through this effect until Quagmire canceled it.

Ché, mid war (USSR): The USSR player gets to make a coup attempt against a non-battleground country in Central America, South America, or Africa. If the coup is successful in removing any influence, he gets another coup attempt. After asking about this on Board Game Geek, it seems both coups count as military ops (they’re not “free” attempts), which fulfills a requirement for the turn. This came out once, and it was a great way for Rick to make headway in Africa and Central American when he was lagging a bit. This is a powerful card for sure.

Our Man In Tehran, mid war (US): Heck, it’s just fun to say the title out loud five times fast. If the US controls one country in the Middle East, the US player may take the top five cards from the discard pile and discard any of them (the others are reshuffled back into the deck). When I played this in the Late War, it let me get rid of four USSR events which never came back (no more reshuffles). I’d suggest saving this card if at all possible until you can permanently dodge a few bullets.

Yuri and Samantha, late war (USSR): The USSR receives 1 vp for each US coup attempt made during the rest of the current turn. This was played in turn 10 after I had made my military ops requirements, so it didn’t do any damage. I could see how this might matter in a very tight game, however.

AWACS Sale to Saudis, late war (US): The US player gets two influence in Saudi Arabia, and Muslim Revolution may no longer be used as an event. If the US player can get this out early in the late war phase, it will probably stop the play of Muslim Revolution once.

All in all, the new additions are welcome. The cards are definitely in the US player’s favor (four to the USSR’s three) in terms of events and ops value (2.8 to the USSR’s 2.3). As the US player, I felt I had a bit more breathing space, and not so terribly screwed by Rick driving that early war DEFCON track down to two. My only complaint is that these cards have some pretty serious errata issues already, but it sounds like GMT will be shipping out fixed versions of the affected cards by February (for now, you can check out the errata in this pdf).

I’d love to hear your experiences with these new cards. How have they affected play?

Game Design: Research

December 8, 2009

It’s a common gripe among the contributors to this blog: we don’t have enough time to pursue our hobbies. This has been especially true in the last few months, as Russ and I juggle graduate school and full-time jobs. As Russ previously mentioned, there is a correlation between how complex life is and what corresponding games get to the table. Two weeks, I ran myself ragged planning lessons and grading papers at work so that I could go off to my four-day Thanksgiving vacation without any work obligations. During the vacation, I spent a lot of time riding in a car to see my in-laws and extended family. This allowed me the time to do a bit of leisure reading, which I used doing some research for a game I’d like to design someday.

I am loathe to disclose any details about this game right now, but I am working with a historical period which has remained virtually untapped for board game ideas. There are all sorts of possibilities about what type of game could come out of this. I’d like to  sporadically update where I am at in the whole process of game design, but also to describe some of the successes and failures that others might find helpful in their own design process. I have found relatively few resources which describe the process (but if you have found some, please post links!).

The first step in the process is, of course, research. I am working on a political/war game, so this was the obvious place to start. I contacted an acquaintance who is a native of the region in which my game will be set, and who has also earned a PhD in a related academic field (history). This correspondence yielded a few book titles which I am slowly working my way through. I am also lucky enough to be working with a time period that has a recognized book which is considered the “definitive history” of the era. That alone is a huge help.

As I work my way through these books, I am highlighting and taking notes in the margins, focusing on key decision points (where things could have easily gone very differently) and personalities. Every few days, I try to gather my thoughts in a notebook, describing possible mechanics, maps, titles, etc. When thinking about a historical game, there is a natural tension between “the events as they happened” and “things that might have been.” After all, a game needs to be true to history in some respects but also fun and balanced! I’m looking carefully at games that have done a good job of this–Twilight Struggle being a good example. Every time I play that game, I can look at the map afterward and say, “Well, that’s not exactly how it played out in the Cold War, but I can see how that might have happened.”

I hope to update every few months on the process, and once I’ve narrowed down the exact theme of the game, reveal exactly what it is I’m working on.

Inside the Box: Conquest of Paradise

December 5, 2009

Inside the Box is an in-depth look at the contents of a board game. It covers the quality, quantity, and aesthetic value of what is found inside the game box.

Conquest of Paradise is a light game of civilization building in the Pacific Ocean circa 500 A.D. I first played it at the 2009 WBC, when the designer, Kevin McPartland, introduced it to a small group of us. I really enjoy this game’s exploration mechanics, and managed to pick it up for $16.00.

The contents of the game.

The box is sturdy and appealing, boasting a textured linen finish very different from GMT‘s usual high-gloss finish, and a beautiful painting of a Polynesian canoe. The back of the box shows off a few of the counters and boasts that you can “learn in 15 minutes and play in 60-90.” Now I learned how to play this game in 15 minutes, but that because the designer was teaching me.

The box is crammed with items, including a short rulebook and designer’s notebook, both printed in black-and-white. In my opinion, the rules are rather poorly written and organized. For instance:

A player’s Movement and Battle Step may begin with a Transit pre-move. If you have a Transport Canoe Chain, you may move as many of your Playing Pieces (Colonies, Warrior Bands, Transport Canoes, War Canoes, and Rumors) along it as far as you wish. Transport Canoe Chains have an unlimited capacity during Transit. However, any Transport Canoes serving as part of the Chain may not themselves move during this stage. A Transport Canoe Chain is simply a line of FACE UP Transport Canoes, with one Canoe in EVERY hex..(p. 5).

In the example above, the term “Transport Canoe Chain” is used before it is defined, which leaves the reader wondering, “Um, is this going to get defined?” Only a few sentences later do we learn what the heck it is. The designer’s handbook is pretty neat, however; it gives a concise explanation of every island and event in the game and how they are important to Polynesian history.  One thing sorely lacking in all this is an extended example of play, though.

The four player aids are printed on thick paper in black-and-white. They’re functional, but don’t draw the eye at all. Last, it seems there were a few items left out in the original print run because GMT’s Web site includes updated PDF copies.

27 “Arts and Culture” cards come with the game. These are standard GMT fare: an eye-catching, glossy back and clean text with functional illustrations on the front. I immediately put them in protective sleeves, as the glossy finish tends to get nicked and start to come off after a few shuffles.

Sample cards.

The game comes with two sheets of square cardboard counters (310 counters in all), and two sheets of large hexagonal cardboard map tiles. The map tiles are easy to punch out, hanging loose like Settlers of Catan tiles, but the square ones require more care. In my copy, they did not punch out easily, requiring the use of a thin box cutting blade and a nailclipper to cut off hanging corners. It was a pain, but I’ve had similar problems with some other GMT games. The art on the counters themselves is adequate, but not beautiful. One gripe I have is that the green and yellow players’ chits are so light in tone as to be almost indistinguishable except under bright direct light. This will cause problems for players with poor eyesight (like myself).

One half of the game's counters.

The map itself is thick cardstock along the lines of the original Twilight Struggle or Commands and Colors: Ancients board; it’s functional, but won’t grab someone’s attention from across the room. It requires the use of Plexi-glass or a poster frame, with the hexagonal map tiles laid on top.

Overall, I’d say the components are pretty middle of the road for a war game, and that Euro gamers will be a little disappointed with them. All the colors on the pieces and map are slightly washed out, when you’d think that a game about the Polynesian islands would be full of lush vegetative greens and deep ocean blues.

For $16.00, I can’t complain too much, however! The rules are short (though a bit difficult to read) and the game itself is pretty simple. Whatever small complaints I have with the components, I’m looking forward to sending out my canoes full of colonists and warriors and conquering paradise.

Virgin Queen Sneak Peek: Mechanics Evolution

December 1, 2009

I am currently knee-deep in the playtest of Ed Beach’s latest game, Virgin Queen. In previous posts, I revealed the earliest design themes and some pictures. Having digested the most recent rules documents and seeing a few phases of a four-player scenario play out, it’s time to reveal some of the updated mechanics:

Margot flirting.

Marriages: These have been integrated rather seamlessly into Here I Stand‘s diplomacy mechanics. In order to make diplomacy more interesting and easier to learn, a marriage sub-mechanic has been introduced. Each European power has a number of unmarried royal persons, each with his or her own “eligibility” rating. By offering them in marriage to other powers, you both get the chance at earning victory points and cards. In a recent playtest, I cemented an alliance with Spain as the French. To seal the deal, Margot Valois married Philip II. We placed their two pieces in an “engagement” box on the board, and at the end of the turn, we will see how successful the marriage was. Rolling dice and adding eligibility ratings, we can go all the way from “Husband murdered” to “Founds a new dynasty.” Clever!

Activating Minor and Inactive Major Powers: One of the common gripes about Here I Stand these days is how players can start phony wars. For instance, the Hapsburgs often agree to go to war with Venice so that the Papacy can intervene, get the Venetian key, and thus another card to fight the Protestant player. Now players can spend the CP value of cards to get bumped up on an influence track for a particular minor or inactive major power. When a card is played which requires you to “resolve the power’s status,” each player with influence with that power rolls a die and adds his influence rating. The highest roller gets to activate that power. In my current game, for instance, the French player starts with one influence in the Holy Roman Empire (an inactive major power in the four-player scenario). If the mandatory event German Intervention gets played, I’ll get to roll a die and add my influence. If I am the highest roller, then I get access to a small hand of Holy Roman Empire cards, can move those armies, build fleets, etc. This elegant way of fixing the “dummy war” problem is well-integrated, and doesn’t add complexity to the game.

Reformation and Counter Reformation: Another common complaint with Here I Stand is that resolving the religious game takes far too long. Ed Beach has developed a new way of resolving Reformation and Counter-Reformation attempts that both reflects the changes in the religious game in this new era, and moves the game along more quickly. The English, Spanish, French, and Protestant players can all either “preach sermons” or “suppress heretics” (think “publish treatise” or “burn books”). Spending 2 CP gets you four attempts. You first look at the map and determine whether any spaces are eligible for “automatic conversion.” If you wish, you can immediately flip these, which means no more rolling seven dice, knowing you’ll probably get your “six” result anyway. Once this is done, each remaining attempt equals a die. You roll those dice, and each “five” or “six” result means you flip an eligible space, while each “one” result means you place unrest on an eligible space.

The religious game is further enhanced by a special action only the Protestant player can take. This is a “rebellion.” Spending one CP, a player can start two rebellions. Choosing a space which is currently under Protestant religious influence, but French or Spanish (actually Dutch) political control, the Protestant player just flips them to his political control (assuming no enemy units in the space). Those planning on playing the Catholic powers will quake in their boots–if this space is fortified, a Protestant army pops up on that same space! This is why I’m currently rushing my French forces to unoccupied fortresses that are seething with discontent…

These are just three system that have clearly evolved in a positive fashion since Here I Stand. Stay tuned for more updates as the playtesting process continues, including systems that don’t seem to gel quite yet.