A Sense of Complacency

April 18, 2011

I had an excellent time playing Joe in Twilight Struggle last week. We talked about how we hadn’t played it nearly as much as we would like as of late. Today I’m looking back at my records and realizing I only played Twilight Struggle three times in 2010. More surprising, however, is the following:

Twilight Struggle, Dec. 2008-Mar. 2011
Total games played: 19 (14-5)
As U.S. player: 13 (11-2)
As U.S.S.R player: 6 (3-3)

What I like about these numbers is the percentage of U.S. wins! They are generally considered a bit more challenging to play, and this used to be even more true with the older version of the game, which is what we played up until late last year. On the other hand, it’s quite clear that I am not so hot playing the U.S.S.R. Another note on this is that most of my Russian wins came when I was playing against a less experienced player.

This brings us back to last night’s game. When we sat down, I specifically requested to play the forces of Communism, as I wanted to learn more about how to play them. With the exception of a few bonehead plays, I thought during the game that I wasn’t doing too poorly. However, it still wasn’t enough to stop Joe from winning on turn 9 after locking up Asia. Once we ended, we started talking over the game and then it dawned on me: I had been playing the wrong side. I  let several key opportunities to coup on the first action round and deny Joe military ops slide by. I  scattered my influence in several non-battleground countries. Worst of all, I  got into a few fights in which I threw more and more influence at a region, hoping to outspend my opponent, not realizing he had far more high-value cards. Lulled into a sense of complacency by my previous successes as a U.S. player, I played like the other side (though the board and the cards were screaming otherwise) and lost.

The lessons for the evening? First, when playing a game with asymmetric sides, try to play them an equal number of times so you’re competent at all of them. Second, have a clear idea about the strengths, weaknesses, and common strategies for the side you’re playing so you don’t look like a fool out there.

Third (humorous) lesson: Take the opportunity to ditch CIA Created when you can. I had a shot, did something else, and spent turns 3-9 holding onto that baby. Man I hate the CIA.


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.


Board Gaming over the Internet

May 12, 2010

Getting 6 people together to sit down and play through a full game of Here I Stand is difficult. With most people working during the week, the weekends are the only option that would allow enough time to fit in a game. But these often fill up fast with family, religious and other obligations.

However, technology allows some new options. There is real-time online play of games through websites, on gaming consoles or other devices. There is also the option is to play a game long distance by sending each move by email. Previous generations may have played a game of chess with their pen-pal by sending each move in a letter through snail mail. Now moves can be sent through email to speed up that process. Having played a few games with a couple of these systems, each has it’s own strengths and weaknesses.

Face-to-?
The most obvious advantage is that the games can be played from your own living room. No need to get everyone together in the same place. This will save on travel time and gets you right into gaming. For better or worse, the session is more focused on playing the game. I feel more comfortable playing with strangers over the internet than inviting random people to my house. But when I want to play my with my normal gaming group, the social enjoyment I get out of gaming suffers.

Saving…
I’m sure we’ve all done this with our board games: set-up up the board on the table and play through the game in multi-night sessions. I recently played a game of Twilight Struggle with my wife. We just left the board on the dining room table for a couple of nights. However, with small children in the house we ran the risk of the board getting changed between plays. Usually these online systems allow a way to save the game progress so that you can start where you left off at a later time. A full play through of a long war game can be broken into a few shorter sessions over a longer time period. That huge time commitment is now broken into bite sized chunks that are easier to manage. It may allow you to brush up on rules or rethink strategies before your next play. However, the game can also drag out to weeks or even months before it is finished.

Real Time
Russ has a good post on his experience with Settler of Catan on the XBox. I have played a dozen games using the website Wargameroom. One advantage of playing on a computer is that the rules are all programmed into the system. Only your available options are shown or are allowed to be carried out. This means no cheating, but more importantly it is a great way to help you learn the rules. Usually though you learn them the hard way. You think you are about to assault that fortress when the option to assault isn’t available because you haven’t met all of the requirements. A turn is wasted, but the next time you play you’ll remember that rule.

The real time aspect allows for a quick fix of a game. The board is set-up for you. Calculating dice requirements, card shuffling and rule checking is done instantly. There is very little down time that allows a longer game to be played much more quickly. It is a good option to get some gaming in on a tight time budget. Opponents can be found quickly through a chat room or even instantly with the use of AI opponents. The social aspect of gaming is mostly gone and a game that involves negotiations is greatly hindered. How do you convince or bluff a pre-programmed response?

PBEM
Play By EMail has also been a mostly good experience. Each player has a copy of the board on their own computer and a move file is sent as each person plays. Probably the most common program used is Cyberboard to track the board and generate move files and the website ACTS to track the play of cards and handles the random stuff: card shuffling and dice rolls. Each player checks their email at least daily and takes their turn. In a game that involves a diplomacy aspect, this is also handled by exchanging emails.

The huge advantage of this system is the long time between turns. For someone learning a game, they can check the rules or even ask for help on forums between moves to better understand the strategies and intricacies of a game. I’ve found that my understanding of the 40+ page Here I Stand rulebook has vastly improved. Diplomacy can be fun because is can be done simultaneously and in secret. No one has to know you sent an email to one power where in a Face-to-Face (FtF) play everyone saw you leave the room together.

Of course, the major disadvantage of this system is the long time between turns. Once the diplomacy phase is over, carrying out those plans for just one turn could take months. Waiting for a person to take their move isn’t fun. In a FtF game a minute can seem like an eternity. Try waiting 10 days for your opponent to take his turn because he was on vacation and then got stuck in Europe because of a volcano (actually happened).

Overall Impressions
I think using technology to play your favorite board game is a great idea. There are certainly some great advantages for new players and people who can’t make big time commitments. However, nothing beats staring down your opponent in a good ol’ face-to-face play of any game.


Holiday Gaming Binge

January 6, 2010

This year I took off work between the Christmas and New Year’s holidays to spend time with family and friends. As a result, I got a lot of board gaming in. From the 23rd to the 28th I played 26 games (4.3 games per day). On the 31st I hosted a game day to ring in 2010 and racked up 7 more plays. I thought I’d share some of the highlights of the gaming binge:

Tobago: I first saw pictures of this game on BoardGameGeek and instantly knew I had to learn more. The pieces are amazing (an “Inside the Box” should be coming shortly) and the reviews stressed the “fun” of the game. The highlight of my plays so far was the surprise curse! We had divvied out 1 treasure (5 cards big) and then a second was found (7 cards big). The first 12 treasure cards can’t be cursed so I was explaining to everyone (while we were examining our potential share) that this treasure was still “safe” but after that it may be cursed. As soon as a finished speaking I flipped the first card up and it was a curse! My mouth dropped. How could that be? Then I realized the first treasure was 6 cards – not 5! I’m sure my face was red.

Small World: I also received this as a Christmas gift along with the Cursed and Grand Dames expansions. Fortunately, all the games of this played out much better than my last play. There were two SmallWorld highlights in one game:
1 – My frugal brother-in-law is always getting great deals on things because of his bargaining prowess. It was funny to see him predictably always pick the “cheapest” special power/race combination – especially when it gave him a few coins along with it.
2 – We also had one combination randomly occur that gave everyone a laugh: Wealthy White Ladies

Twilight Struggle: Russ brought along his newly acquired copy of TwiStrug and I helped my little brother, Brad, play a game against him. Brad got consistently good hands – a rarity in this game. Russ got consistently poor hands often hindered by 1 or 2 scoring cards. Brad also had the dice gods on his side as he hit every roll and Russ had miss after miss. I think it was only turn 5 (or maybe 6) that Brad won a automatic victory with 20 points. He was ready for another easy victory. The next game was more typical and I taught him a lesson: beating him by 10VP in final scoring.

Texas Hold’em: Our family played two games of Texas Hold’em. The first with no money that I was skilled enough to win. For the second game we all threw in $5. I was unlucky and was knocked out in 4th place. (Notice how I was “skilled” when I won and “unlucky” when I lost.) My wife went on to beat Brad for 1st place – he didn’t catch the ace he needed. While we cleaned up, I put was putting the cards back in the pack. That’s when I noticed the Ace of Spades still in the pack. We had played the entire game a card short! Needless to say, we all took our money back.

New Year’s Eve: This was our first ever “Day of Gaming.” We started playing the first game at 10:00 AM and the last one finished a little over 12 hours later. Over a dozen people playing a wide variety of games and as many as three games going on simultaneously. We also made up a scoring system to keep track of plays: each game played got you 1 point + 1 for each person you defeated. Of course this was criticized harshly as it was completely unfair to everyone: coming in 2nd or 3rd place in a large group game win netted you 5 or 6 points while a hard earned 2+hr war game win only got you 2. But there was no prize for first place so in the end no one cared too much. Although I will say I ended up on top with 18.5 points in 7 games!

Looking back 2009 was a good start to my board gaming hobby. What are your highlights of 2009?


Holiday Haul

January 4, 2010

Between Christmas, my birthday, and a preorder, my board game collection was bound to grow. Here’s a quick run down of what I got:

Twilight Struggle Deluxe Edition – The MoV favorite and popular two-player card driven war game get’s GMT’s deluxe treatment. This means a beautiful new cardboard board, 7 new cards, and a heavier constructed box. I preordered this when it was first announced, so to finally have it arrive on my doorstep was a nice early Christmas gift. Look for thoughts on the Chinese Civil War rules in the future.

Ghost Stories – This was a bit of a gamble and a self-bought birthday present. Ghost Stories is a kung-fu horror themed beat-the-box game. The art and production values of the game are fantastic. I’m really happy with board game producers getting in on new printing technologies and turning out better looking games. I’ve played a few sample turns and the game looks interesting. I’ll be putting together an “Inside the Box” for this game and hope to post play experiences soon.

Dominion: Intrigue – Dominion is quickly becoming the game I get to the table the most, so it was nice to unwrap this present from my little sister. Intrigue introduces some new interesting new card combination and can be combined with Dominion to allow for 5-6 player play.

So how’d I fair? Or more importantly, how’d you fair?


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?


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.