Dirty Hippy Win Criteria Makes Russ Rage

September 30, 2011

A while back, I had the pleasure of learning a new game, Shadow Hunters. Shadow Hunters is a bit like Werewolf or Mafia in that the players are out to determine who is who and eliminate their opponents. Stacked on top of that are items and special powers and a theme that’s a bit like Witch Hunter Robin meest Arkham Horror meets a number of anime tropes. I mean, what’s not to like about playing a horror of the night killing off the forces of light and neutrality?

Easy answer. Win criteria that results in just about everyone at the table winning, that’s what! At a seven player game, we had four people win. Then in the follow up game, we had five people win. People were flipping over their character cards, looking at their win criteria, checking the board, and then announcing, “I win too!”

What are we, a bunch of dirty hippies that need to have everyone win? We can just ride the coat tails of others to success? What’s next, games that give me a participation trophy for “doing my best?” Bah, count me out. I play King of the Hill, not Committee of the Hill.

I want competition in my board games. When playing Twilight Struggle, I want the Soviet player to announce his play of “We Will Bury You” with conviction. In Here I Stand, strained voices and beads of sweat means you’re playing it right. Shaking your fist at attack helicopters as they chew up your tanks in World at War, drives you beat your opponent next time.

The big problem is that when everyone wins, no one wins. There are lessons to be learned in loss and no pride to be gained in victory.


Commands and Colors: Napoleonics—The Best C&C Game Yet?

September 25, 2011

(Folks, let me open by stating emphatically this is not a review. We don’t do reviews at Margin of Victory. Rather, this is a simple explanation of why I believe Napoleonics to be the best Commands & Colors game yet published.)

I’ve only played five games of Commands & Colors: Napoleonics. And yet already I know it to be a more interesting game than its cousin, Commands & Colors: Ancients, which I played the heck out of between 2005-2008.

The same card-driven mechanic is in play here, as are the left, center, and right divisions of the battlefield. Light, medium, and heavy units are now infantry, cavalry, and artillery units (all of which have some weaker and stronger versions). So on the surface, it’s basically the same game, just with a few tweaks. What’s amazing is that Richard Borg gave players more choices in Napoleonics without making the game much more complicated.

Look familiar to some other games you've played?

The three important additions are Napoleonic-era tactical decisions:

Cavalry Retire and Reform: In the face of an infantry melee attack, cavalry may evade. This works exactly the same as evasion in Ancients, it’s just that only cavalry get this option now.

Form Square: In the face of a cavalry melee attack, infantry may assume a square formation. The defending player must have a random card taken from his hand, which is then placed out of play until his unit resumes its usual formation. Attacking cavalry may only attack with one die, regardless of other benefits. The infantry battles back with one die, but if they score a retreat result on the enemy, the cavalry must move one hex away from the square (a “bounce flag”). This formation is great if your infantry get cut off and are on their own. It’s a very tough choice if they are facing both enemy cavalry and infantry, as their ability to defend themselves against the infantry is vastly reduced.

Combined Arms Attack: While attacking, you may order one cavalry/infantry AND one artillery unit to attack at the same time. You roll the normal melee dice for the cavalry or infantry unit, but you also get to add the ranged combat dice of the artillery unit in the same roll. Yup, you might be rolling 8 dice in a massive assault.

On my first read through of the rules, I didn’t think these tactics would change the flow of the game much. But about halfway through my first game with General Rick of the allied army, it was clear they were going to matter quite a bit.

In the Rolica (first position) scenario, a unit of my French light infantry found itself way out ahead of the rest of my army. Having taken earlier losses, they were at half strength and facing British heavy cavalry and line infantry. Rick ordered both units and chose his cavalry to attack first. I formed square, knowing I would likely survive the attack but also realizing that my troops would get cut to ribbons by the line infantry attack a moment later. However, if I had not formed square, his cavalry likely would have destroyed my unit, received a bonus move, and received a bonus attack against another unit. So while I lost the unit to the second attack, I denied him a breakthrough.

The game ended when General Rick executed a perfect combined arms attack. Using cards that allowed his units to move extra hexes, he arranged it so some British artillery was on a hill, firing directly down on my troops (whoops!). Then he brought some line infantry up, ordered both units, and crushed my line in a devastating combined arms attack. He rolled 8 dice in one mighty attack (4 for the line infantry + 4 for the artillery firing at point blank range). Needless to say, this caused one of my full-strength units to magically transform from neat rows of blue-coated musketeers to a pile of corpses and, alas, my French lost the battle.

I enjoyed Ancients, but I like Napoleonics even more. I feel like I have more tactical decisions to make, and thus more control over the battle. Once I factor in the varied landscape in each scenario (no more featureless plains like in Ancients) and the specialized units (rifle infantry! horse artillery! cuirassiers! oh my!), I think I’ll be playing this game for a long time to come.

"Uh oh. Form square? Stay in line? Either way, I think we're screwed, guys."


World at War: Blood and Bridges — Air Asset Imbalance?

March 22, 2011

Russ and I are both big fans of Mark Walker’s World at War series of games. We love us some Cold War gone hot, modern tanks rolling through the countryside of Western Europe, anti-tank missiles screaming down range, artillery strikes…it’s all good. We also like how World at War mimics the “organized chaos” of modern warfare (check out a great post on it here). But recently I thought I had found one sticking point, one thing that lessened my enjoyment of this series of games a bit. And that was the proliferation of air power in Blood and Bridges scenarios, especially when compared with the paucity of anti-aircraft weapons.

Playing the scenario “Separation,” I wondered how the Germans could win given their one SAM weapon v.s. two Hind helicopters and a Soviet airstrike. I wondered the same thing again when one blunder on Russ’s part (moving a self-propelled anti-aircraft unit so it was “ops complete” when my airstrike arrived on the scene) in “Calm Before the Storm” led to the total obliteration of two Chieftain platoons and their headquarters unit.

Burn, baby, burn!

After tallying up the aircraft and anti-aircraft assets used in the scenarios, it comes out pretty evenly: 27 v.s. 26. However, we must keep in mind that the aircraft are vastly more powerful than the anti-aircraft assets, with helicopters and airstrikes obliterating enemy targets relatively easily and surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) missing quite often, especially if the other player is careful to keep his valuable aircraft out of the way.

In most scenarios (but not all), the power of aircraft is mitigated somewhat by the inclusion of rules regarding missile depletion in helicopters. Also, some scenarios include the possibility of an air cover event, which allows a player to pounce on an enemy airstrike or helicopter when he chooses. However, these are determined randomly, as opposed to on board anti-aircraft assets like SAMs and self-propelled flak guns. Though I thoroughly enjoy the organized chaos of the World at War series, I think powerful helicopters and airstrikes aren’t always properly balanced out by anti-aircraft assets in scenarios like “Separation.”

Mind you, I’m not calling for fewer aircraft, but rather more SAMs and flak guns to oppose them! This will mean that players will feel less like they are at the mercy of the dice, praying for missile depletion or air cover, and more in control as they strategically place SAM teams and flak guns in woods, etc. As Russ and I play the series more, I’ll look for opportunities to tweak scenarios that seem a little off balance.

Yup. More missiles for our poor grunts.

So, have you seen an imbalance when it comes to aircraft v.s. anti-aircraft assets? What have you done to correct this? Or do you feel this perceived imbalance fades when playing point-based victory conditions? (Heck, those helicopters are worth quite a few points!)


Not All Card Driven War Games Are Created Equal

November 8, 2010

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.


Mechanics Mirror Reality in Wilderness War

April 13, 2010

Few games mimic the intricacies of a given conflict as well as Volko Ruhnke’s Wilderness War (2001). The designer uses several simple mechanics to good effect, elegantly showing the frustration players’ historical counterparts experienced in the French and Indian War.

Rivers as Highways: In early colonial America, thick forests and difficult mountain ranges necessitated the use of waterways as roads. Ruhnke emphasizes this by stating that units may move up to nine spaces via rivers, as opposed to the usual four by land. He even incorporates portages, allowing troops to move between rivers. Players quickly find themselves constructing fortifications at the confluence of two or more rivers to control these liquid highways.

A New Form of Warfare: The geographical and political circumstances of the French and Indian War ushered in a new era of warfare that confounded commanders who were stuck in their European ways. Wilderness War utilizes two types of troops, “drilled” and “auxiliary.” Drilled units need to construct fortifications to stay in supply, and suffer penalties when fighting in the wilderness without friendly auxiliaries–light, non-traditional fighters, including Indians, rangers, and French fur trappers.

Dilatory Generals: In this conflict, the British were plagued early on with slow-witted commanders who were unable to adapt to the new modes of warfare mentioned above. This is clearly mirrored in the game, as each general is assigned an activation rating. A higher rating requires players to play a high value card to activate him and his force. I’ve often sat staring at the board, gnashing my teeth as General Loudon and Abercrombie sit snug in their forts, afraid to march into the wild and take the fight to the enemy. No doubt British Primer Minister William Pitt felt the same when reading dispatches from the colonies.

Shifting Alliances and Unpredictable Events: Ruhnke also does an excellent job mixing on map realities with events on cards. For example, both sides’ Indian allies desired easy access to European goods. Thus, if I want an Iroquois Alliance (card #28), I’d better have my troops build a stockade/trading post near their villages! Likewise, if I want to Ambush (cards #11-12) my opponent, I need to have a greater number of auxiliaries than he does. Players find themselves working to maintain control of certain on-map elements to they can access card events later on in the game.

War is Hell: As I stated earlier, the French and Indian War was truly a new kind of conflict, which surprised its European participants with its unpredictability and brutality. This is also reflected in the design. Cards such as Ambush, Massacre, and Coehorns & Howitzers are powerful but rare. When they are used against me, I am surprised, but I never feel “robbed.” Likewise, leader loss is pretty high compared to most other war games, but again, this is in keeping with the historical realities of the war.

Montcalm was one of many generals who met his fate on the battlefield.

In short, these few elegant design choices serve to immerse players in the conflict in a way few other games do. When I’m playing Wilderness War, I don’t feel like a board game player, but a general, tired, bruised, and dirty, urging my motley forces through the forest to victory.


Battlefield Chaos

February 23, 2010

The past five games I have played have all been from the World at War series. I’ve enjoyed my immersion in the game as it has allowed me to learn the rules, be a better players, teach the game, and develop sound strategies.

For me, one of the defining characteristics of the War at War series is the activation method. Formations are activated based on a blind chit pull. Soviet formations get one activation chit, while NATO units get two. This is meant to represent the better training and initiative of the NATO forces; the force multiplier, so to speak. However, Soviet formations are larger than NATO formations. Also, into the blind pull go end-of-turn markers. The number of markers is based on the scenario, usually two, but pull two end-of-turn markers and the turn is over.

Random activation makes for a wild experience and a grand departure from the normal turn taking in all the other games I’ve played. Proper deployment of your forces at any moment is vital. To me, the combination of random activation and positioning strategy meshes well with my idea of modern warfare.

In this game, the player isn’t some general pushing blocks around a map in an air-conditioned room. He’s the commander in the middle of a raging battlefield desperately defending a city, while trying to mount a counter-attack and convince HQ to sent him some air support for once. In this game, players must accept that some things are beyond their control.

The Blood and Bridges expansion adds to this turmoil by adding a Battlefield Chaos marker and air support to the blind pull. The Battlefield Chaos marker represents everything from weather to air cover to the situation elsewhere and HQ pulling or lending support. It is an interesting mechanic and one that can totally change the nature of the game.

This was the case when I played as the British in the defense of Dattenburg against John’s Soviets. I had forced John’s units into single bottleneck approach to the city. The 1st King’s Regiment had take up a defensive position in the city and provided overwatch for the Royal Lancers who had moved out to harry the Soviets approach. And a Royal Tank Regiment was on their way to provide reinforcements and the heavy punch to keep the Soviet from crossing the Rhine. I was quite happy with my position when the Battlefield Chaos marker was drawn and a think fog covered the area. Suddenly, all my fighting ranges were reduced. The Royal Lancers’ ambush couldn’t go off. And even worse, the overwatch couldn’t cover them any more. Suffice to say, the Soviets made quick work of the Lancers and my game went down hill from there.

I know for some players, this would be unacceptable. A perfect plan ruined by a totally random event! But, I placed myself in the role of the beleaguered Brit commander trying to defend West Germany against the totalitarian forces. At the end of the day, Dattenburg was lost and it was best to retreat with the remain forces and live to fight again another day. Perhaps it is the fictional nature of this game, WWIII started by a Soviet invasion of Germany, that allows me more leeway when playing this game. Or perhaps is an understanding of history and how the tides of battles were often changed by weather or the smallest events.

But, I keep coming back to this game, because it is fun (randomness included), plays fast, and offers surprising depth.


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?