Not All Card Driven War Games Are Created Equal

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that not all Card Driven War Games are created equal, that they are endowed by their Designer with certain unalienable Mechanics, that among these are Operations, Events and the pursuit of Victory Points. — That to secure these mechanics, Games are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the players, — That whenever any Form of Game becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the Players to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Games , laying their foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Hand Management and Victory.

Whew! Working board games into the Declaration of Independence was getting a little tough there. But did you like the part about “Operations, Events and the pursuit of Victory Points”? I’m quite fond of that one.

I’ve been spending a lot of time pondering Washington’s War and whether I really like it as a game. Or if I just keep playing it and saying to myself, “That was fun,” it will one day come true.

Card-driven war games seem to fall into two camps with card design. In one camp is the likes of Washington’s War and Wilderness Wars (despite overwhelming evidence, you do not need to have two words starting with W in your title to fall into this camp). In the other are the likes of Twilight Struggle and Here I Stand. In the former, card are either event cards or operations cards, we’ll call these isolated cards. In the latter, cards are both event cards and operations cards, we’ll call these combination cards.

Decks made of isolated cards usually consist of half or more operations cards. The idea being that in any given hand a player  will have enough operations cards to do something. So, even the player gets poor events or the opponents events, the turn won’t be fruitless. However, experience has shown otherwise. And memory seems to latch on to the really bad hands even if they are a small minority of all hands played.

Contrasted with combination cards, even bad hands can be managed or turned out good. Twilight Struggle uses this idea to its fullest. Opponent events must occur, but you get the operations points to manage the situation before or after the event, your choice. Cards with your event may be played for the event or the operations points.

From my play experience, I favor games with combination cards over isolated cards. I prefer the decision making and hand management that comes from combination cards. Every hand, no matter how bad, seems playable. Every hand can build on the last to create a strategy for winning. Isolated cards feel like they take that decision making power away from me. Too much is dictated on the specific hand I am dealt and strategy seems like it doesn’t last much beyond a single hand of cards.

So, will I ever like Washington’s War? I think so. I just need to adjust my play style to account for isolated cards. But, it won’t be knocking Twilight Struggle from it’s throne. And knowing that not all card driven war games are create equal will help when buying future board games.

Disagree? Like isolated cards better? Let me hear about it in the comments.

Edit: It has been pointed out to me that Wilderness War may not fit in the first camp. Until I can verify my original statement, it has been struck out.

7 Responses to Not All Card Driven War Games Are Created Equal

  1. John says:

    I’ll just point out that the reality is a little more complex than just “two camps.” (And by and large, Wilderness War falls into the “events/points” camp. There are only a handful of truly mandatory cards.)

    1. Some early CDWs had either points or ops cards.
    2. Then came along the points/ops card development.
    3. Some newer games have included mandatory events, but with a ops “consolation prize” to the person who gets stuck with it (Here I Stand)
    4. Other games offer a safety valve so that even if you get stuck with a bad event, there’s a way to get some advantage and mitigate or avoid the damage.

    I think there are two weaknesses with the way Wash. War falls into camp #4. First, it seems that the consolation prize you get for avoiding an event is pretty minimal (place or remove one PC marker under some very tight restrictions). Second, the whole “safety valve” mechanic first introduced in TwiStrug is somewhat hidden here, and it’s definitely not intuitive:

    “Wait, so if I play this event card to place/remove PC markers, then my opponent can pick it up by discarding an OPS card, but only a 2 or 3 when he’s an American OR a 1, 2, or 3 card if he’s British? And the only way to avoid him picking it up is to play it in battle?” In short, it’s quite a lot to wrap your head around.

    I think where Washington’s War really fails is that the designer has undermined the elegance of CDWs by including rules exceptions IN the rules (in the differences of the two sides) AND on the cards at the same time. Even Wilderness War, a relatively old design as these things go, handles the differences in an easier way with different unit types and a few event cards that present a mechanic that only one side can use (Amphibious Landings, for instance).

    • Russ says:

      Consolatory and safety value have the same net result, you still have to play or maybe discard the event and you don’t get a decision as to how the card is played. Using that decision making factor, I lumped it in camp one.

      Granted my definition may seem broad, but it really goes back to my preference for the kind of games I like to play.

  2. Rick says:

    I think the biggest failure is in John’s 3rd point. The mandatory cards in WW can be fatal. If you draw a couple of these in a hand you will be at a severe disadvantage. Obviously this is likely to average out after a few hands or plays, but the results of a single game could be determined by a bad draw.

    I think the quick playing nature of WW is helped by the ‘isolated’ cards. Once you’ve got the rules down (after 3/4/5? plays) the game should play very quickly which I see as a benefit to using these types of cards.

    I prefer combination cards because you can do something with every card in your hand.

    I think playing WW with only the Ops cards and a fixed end date would be interesting.

    • Russ says:

      “but the results of a single game could be determined by a bad draw”

      This is my big problem with the game. It is why I don’t play the card game War.

      • Joe says:

        Come on now. You can get killed by a bad draw in TS. In both ways, by drawing a stack of recurring bad events, or drawing every score card. There are also certain card combos that are unstoppable in that game.

        Certain cards are essentially “skip your turn” plays. Like “Socialist Governments.” Play that one as an American and odds are you are spending 3 ops to keep control of Germany and Italy.

        For a pure match of intellect with no luck involved, you will have o leave the genre entirely. Chess anyone?

  3. Joe says:

    I have been playing games like crazy with my brothers of late. Tim and I played some Hannibal: Rome vs Carthage about a week ago, and that game once again confirmed that it is probably my favorite CDG, at least my favorite wargame. In this game, everything went right for the Romans (me), despite terrible campaign cards. Hannibal was killed mid-game by Scipio in a close affair south of the Alps. The game ended with Scipio Africanus Landing his army in Carthage, beating back three attempts to raise the siege from Hanno and Mago. All the while the strongest Carthage force under Hadsrubal was stuck in Sicily. It was unable to move by sea in time to save the city. Carthage was destroyed and salt was tilled into the fields. Instant victory.

    Carthage is better for a more experienced player, not because they are at a disadvantage, but being able to recognize when to apply extreme aggression or caution is needed. You get the best General (vastly superior to everyone except the late arriving Africanus, who is only somewhat less fearsome), elephants, and at an advantage in defending the home turf.

    Rome gets many soldiers and a host of crappy generals so it can take a rare crushing defeat and come back from it.

    The cards are for event or command points, and most events are uniquely for one side, but in general, cards are never terrible wastes. The game usually goes the full nine turns, which helps mitigate short term lucky streaks (which can be huge in TS). The other great part is that not everything hinges on the campaign cards. Luck is then mitigated further with the battle system, which is the best in any game I have played, and can truly make big battles epic and tense.

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