Relief of Helm’s Deep

There were 5 of us interested in doing some Lord of the Rings miniatures tonight in lieu of our normal Arts and Crafts night, so we broke out the huge Relief of Helm’s Deep scenario again. I wanted to play the bad guys this time, not least because I am no longer all that confident of my handling of the powerful but tricky to use Riders of Rohan and Gandalf the White. Plus, I played Rohan last time. So, we broke down into Milton (controlling the Heroes and a handful of Rohan footmen coming out of Helm’s Deep) and Jeff (Rohirrim Cavalry coming to the rescue + Gandalf) as the good guys, with Kim, Rich, and I splitting the bad guys basically into sectors.

It started out well for us. The Rohan heroes were split into the far north and far south, while the Riders in the middle were leaderless and so frozen when my two captains there declared priority moves to charge them. This beat back the central thrust with heavy loss, at very little cost to ourselves. Meanwhile, Rich’s crossbowmen were raking the Rohirrim footmen as they emerged from the fortress, and Kim’s Uruk-Hai were skillfully holding their own against Gandalf, Eomer, and many Riders (Jeff’s dice-related issues helped here too). The Riders can be very powerful, but they are also fragile once the melee develops since straight-up the standard Riders are inferior to the Uruk-Hai in every way – fighting skill, strength, defense, and crucially much inferior in their ability to concentrate power. So they rely on their charge bonuses; once locked in melee things get tough.

Meanwhile, though, Milton’s Heroes (Aragorn, Gimli, Legolas, Theodin, and Gamling) were riding around the edge of the battlefield to link up with Gandalf. Once Aragorn slammed into our thinned-out lines, he tore through the Uruks at an astounding clip – I think he killed something like 10 Uruk-Hai in 2 turns (yes, really), although it burned up much of his might.

In the end, though, the early losses were too much. Aragorn and Gandalf were unhorsed, Gimli and Legolas were surrounded, and Theoden and Legolas were buried under a sea of Uruks. In the end, it was actually much closer than I thought it would be, given the rough early going for Rohan – if they had just rolled well enough to stay in the game for another turn, the Uruk casualties would have been enough to start forcing courage checks, which are not their forte. Rohan would still have been behind, but it would have been quite interesting. Another point is that it may have taken Milton & Jeff a little bit too long to get Aragorn into the fray; by way of comparison, every Rider on the board (24 of them) weigh in at a total 295 points while Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli are worth some 365 points total – yet the heroes were not engaged for at least the first three turns as they skirted the battlefield to link up with the main force.

Still, I think this scenario might be just a bit too tough on the good guys. The terrain as prescribed by the scenario really breaks up their horsemen, and forces them to attack more piecemeal than they’d like. And all those Uruk-Hai pikes (20 of them) are very tough; they can form hedgehogs almost impervious to the cavalry, and the cavalry really doesn’t have enough room to maneuver. Aragorn & Gimli are the great equalizers once they arrive, but there are just so many Uruk-Hai even they will get buried if they aren’t careful. All it takes is one lost combat when the Uruk-Hai are rolling 6-8 dice to wound for things to go south in a big hurry.

So, next time, I think we should play with a much more open field of battle, perhaps removing all the terrain. It would open things up for more maneuver, and probably wouldn’t be hugely unbalancing as the greater scope for concentrating the cavalry would be offset by the more open fields of fire for the crossbowmen (even though the Rohirrim would benefit more, I think, but that’s the goal after all).

That being said, my appetite for huge scenarios has been sated for a while. Next I’m gunning for some mid-sized stuff; the Charge of the Rohirrim from the Return of the King especially (only a handful of figures will still need to be painted), but also some of the Osgiliath scenarios look pretty cool.

On a slight tangent, the scenario in the game of course models the battle in the movie. Games Workshop has recently been publishing some scenarios in White Dwarf based more on the books (for example, a Fords of Bruinen scenario with Glorfindel, Aragorn, and the Hobbits instead of Arwen & Frodo), and I was wondering how to remake this one more in the mold of the book. Interestingly, the roles would be reversed, with the Horsemen riding out of Helm’s Deep while Erkenbrand’s footmen come to the rescue. I’ll have to break out my Atlas of Middle Earth (which has details on the battle, including force sizes) and try to work it out.

A Game of Thrones

Ed was back in town for the holidays again, so we went over to his place for some gaming. He, Shay, Dave, Kim, & I played A Game of Thrones, a game I’ve been wanting to play for a while but couldn’t bring myself to purchase. If you’re interested in a more detailed overview of the mechanics, has a pretty good review by Shannon Appelcline here and you can download the rules from Fantasy Flight.

A Game of Thrones is basically Diplomacy. You have 5 (sort of) equal powers slugging it out for domination of the board, which is sort of a stretched-out England. You build up your armies, navies, and influence in much the same way as Diplomacy, making deals to work your way up the food chain. What makes A Game of Thrones interesting is that there is a lot more subtlety to the tactics of play. You have to amass not just cities (which produce armies), but supplies (which keep those armies in the field and dictate their size) and influence. Influence is used to acquire “offices” which influence the turn order, give you advantages in battle, affect what orders you can give to your units, and give you an edge in allocating those orders.

The orders system I think is a very interesting one – instead of the fully pre-written orders you have in Diplomacy, you instead place chits in each of your regions indicating what each will (try) to do secretly, and then everyone turns them up and acts on them in player order as dictated by their standing in court (bid on with influence). This is a lot easier than pre-recording everything (and so there are more options than just move/support, including raiding and influence-building), but it has a slightly unsatisfactory side-effect of producing some heavy badgering and whining all throughout the movement phase. Sure, you played that attack chit, but once it comes time to actually do it you (potentially) have to listen to the endless whining of the aggrieved trying to convince you to attack elsewhere (you don’t have to commit to a specific target) or to cancel the action. This is much less clean than the fire-and-forget treachery of Diplomacy, and if I play again I will suggest a pre-movement-phase diplomacy session, followed by a movement phase is which no discussion is allowed.

The other major unsatisfying thing I found during the play was the “end of the world” syndrome; the game ends after 10 turns, and whoever has the most cities on the last turns wins. So we had the usual land-grab bash-the-leader thing going on during the 10th turn, which I don’t care much for.

Anyway. The interesting thing about A Game of Thrones was that I actually quite enjoyed it while we were playing. It was fun, there are lots of choices to make, resources to manage, and the concept of a more subtle, less time-consuming Diplomacy was an appealing one. Unfortunately, it wilted somewhat under the post-game analysis. There was too much randomness, I thought, for one. When the influence auctions happen (which has a huge effect on the game) is random, so all the players who were hoarding influence in the hopes of winning those auctions were hosed when no auction occurred for the first 9 turns. Everyone then spent their massive stores in acquiring the powerful advantages conveyed by the offices, only to be screwed again when on a fluke they were auctioned off again the very next turn, so when everyone had only 2 influence to bid with, the player who broke ties (the winner of one of the bids last turn, who turned out to be the only one who hadn’t been able to amass much influence) wielded immense power and won two of the three offices. Likewise recruiting & supply checks happen randomly, and we had only one supply check, which happened early – so people were unable to expand the size of their armies for most of the game. For the last two-thirds of the game there was essentially no recruitment. Now, I have no problem with chaos, but this was a bit much – the run of the cards can completely invalidate a perfectly reasonable strategy. One player (Ed) said that in his last game, no recruiting at all occurred for the first 7 turns – which to my mind would lead to something of a non-game.

The final complaint is, interestingly, that the game isn’t long enough and the victory threshold is much too low. In order to win, you need 7 cities. The reality is, that isn’t all that hard to get – a two-player Diplomacy-style alliance could carve that out of one neighbor without too much effort, if they stick together. So despite the good stuff, you end up with a game that has the same flaws as Vinci, The Napoleonic Wars, Throneworld, Kill Dr. Lucky, Attika, or any of the other of these types of games … the players are more than able to stop anyone from winning, alliances break as soon as one player makes much progress, and the game develops a huge amount of inertia. The winner will therefore be the one who either sneaks in for the win because nobody was paying attention or because everyone tapped themselves out stopping someone else. This is, to me, wholly unsatisfying. When we began play, I was envisioning a Diplomacy-type game; the players would sit down, work some deals to carve up their neighbors, and whoever was good at persuasion, tactics, and deal-making would set themselves up for the second round when the geopolitics have changed, when you have to shift alliances with the changing situation. Sadly, there is no second phase; it’s just a race to 7 cities which nobody can really win, then the unappealing land grab on the last turn.

To be honest, though, the underlying game here is, I think, pretty good. I think it’s just tweaks (albeit admittedly a number of tweaks) away from an almost-classic game. For one thing, I would suggest that perhaps instead of doing the auctions randomly, they should be done every 3rd turn. The card decks should be reshuffled less often, so the distribution of the different types of event is more even. You won’t find me saying this often, but it also might well pay to lengthen the game by upping the victory conditions and the length, to give the diplomacy more of a chance to play out; I’d rather play the game to it’s logical conclusion than deal with the end-of-the-world syndrome. Otherwise, at the end of the day, it’s just too much like Vinci with chrome. It does make you appreciate the success of the few really good games of this type, though, like Dune, Republic of Rome, Successors, or even Intrige (not to mention Diplomacy – playing A Game of Thrones helped me appreciate just how subtle a game Diplomacy is). It really is quite difficult.

Roades & Boats + &ceterea

Kim & I enjoy Roads & Boats as a 2-player game quite a bit, so I picked up a copy of their most recent expansion, &cetera, which contains a new terrain type (polder), a new way to score VPs (art), a couple assorted new buildings (Power Plants, Business Schools, Bomb Factories) and two new ways to transport goods (planes and trains, from the previously published expansion with the same name).

We played the 2-player scenario with a lot of polder, plus the Power Plant and MBA optional rules. I really liked the effect of the polder (which alternates between being land and sea as the game goes on), which made things very challenging to play out properly – your transporters get stranded as whole sections of the board switch between being land- and sea-accessible. The power plants seemed like a nice touch, although fairly powerful and repeated play may make building one clearly a no-brainer, although the managers didn’t seem to add much. I think both of these buildings may be a lot more interesting when you play with more players – two players could cooperate to build one between them, as great advantage to both, while if you’re just building one for yourself the advantages are less clear-cut.

While pricey, it does seem like the expansion kit is a good buy (although if given the choice I wouldn’t have paid extra for the bits for 5 and 6 players, since I would never actually play with that many people). The rules are clearly best used one or two at a time – just using polders and power plants made things dramatically more complex, so throwing in the kitchen sink would make this a brain-burner of the first order. Anyway, I enjoyed our game, and hopefully

Boxing Day Gaming

Lord of the Rings hasn’t come out as much recently as it did in the first couple years after its release; the high score sheet in my box indicates I’ve played only 3 times this year, and only a total of 7 times with the Sauron expansion (I don’t recall ever playing with anyone else’s copy, so that sounds about right for total plays). The total play count, though, is now up to about 40, with the Friends and Foes expansion getting somewhat short shrift (only 5 plays, and no combined Sauron/Friends & Foes games). Anyway. Kim got to play Sauron this time, while Milton, Linda, Jeff, Roger, and I were the good guys. Things were looking good through Moria, which we managed to escape with minimal pain, but then things proceeded to get ugly in Helm’s Deep as Linda pulled 7 bad tiles in a row, including some 4 (I think) events. This, combined with some timely Nazgul play by Kim, hammered us badly. We then got whacked almost immediately in Shelob’s lair, for a total score of 41 points, lowest ever (on my sheet anyway) for a Sauron game. We bought Gollum, which I think was our big mistake – we then lost players on the very next even to a lack of shields, which was bad.

Wizard then came out again, a standby when we have 6 and only an hour or so. We played with blind bidding (using the version of the game that comes with the bidding wheels), a variant I didn’t take to initially but that has grown on me. With open bidding, the bid comes out “even” often, but with the blind bidding you can get some tricky situations, especially in the middle game. On balance I’d rather have been playing Die Sieben Siegel, just because we play Wizard so much, but its weakness is that it only goes up to 5.

Last was Global Powers, another new small-press game from Essen that is basically another area-control game, but it’s got lots of interesting thematic stuff that you can do once you control an area – grow the economy, buy military, go to war with your neighbors, lobby the UN, etc. The rules for this game are a bit dicey (even in the German … they seem to contradict themselves on when you have a Coalition Government and when to use the tie-breaker rules). The game was fun in principle, but had a few flaws. Firstly, the game time estimate on the box is ah, well, not entirely accurate. It says 45min to 2hr, but our 5-player game took over 2 hours to play only 2 turns, out of a maximum possible 4 turns (although turns will get significantly shorter as the game goes on, as players lose politicians from the game each turn). I can’t see much way to get the game down to 45 minutes. Secondly, there is an issue with virtual player elimination. If you get to the point that you don’t control a government anywhere, you may be completely hosed as virtually every game action requires you to control a government somewhere. It may also be too expensive to bring politicians on to the board; again, you can’t do it without controlling a government somewhere, and it’s rather expensive even then, so it might lead to being a bit hard to alter your current situation.

Still, all this being said, this still is a very flavorful game with a lot of interesting choices. I liked the event cards, which seemed powerful and dramatic, but not overly so once you knew what was out there. The threat of military action seems to drive a lot of the game, and I liked how that whole system worked. So both Kim and I thought it would be good for another go (others at the table were not so inclined; Milton gave it a thumbs down, although Roger liked it). If the playing time could be brought down to 2 hours or less by familiarity (a possibility), it still has a chance to be a pretty decent game; but the jury is still out.

Europe Engulfed

I picked up my copy of this interesting new game from GMT just before Christmas, as soon as Fine Games got a copy. It’s official now … GMT Games can go bust now if they like. Not that I wouldn’t prefer to keep them around and lose the deadweight like Decision and Avalanche, but I now have everything I want from GMT game-wise and very litle in their current pipeline is moving me much … the Typhoon reprint, maybe, or Roads to Leningrad … but overall, I’m good now (although if Berg’s Ancient World series keeps going, I’d quite like to see that, even though I still haven’t played Rise of the Roman Republic).

Anyway, Europe Engulfed is the first block game that I’m aware of from someone other than Columbia. It certainly borrows heavily from many of their games, but that’s OK I think since EE is a big game and Columbia is now quite reasonably out of the big game business. Still, EE seems quite playable for a big game, with rules I can read through once and comprehend even at 20 pages, unlike so many GMT games. I’m looking forward to giving it a spin. In general, WWII strategic games have a lot of issues, so it will be interesting to see if EE manages to get past these. I am especially drawn to EE’s “Special Action” chits, which allow you to take a range of bonus actions, from additional combat phases to more flexible reinforcements, extra supply, retreat before combat, counterattack, etc. The disposal of these chits seems like it will make for some very tough decisions and should be interesting. I like wargames that are biased towards momentous, big decisions instead of endless little fiddly decisions, and the Special Action chits I think but EE firmly towards the former category.

One comment in the rulebook really caught me off-guard, though: in talking about the victory conditions, the designer makes the offhand comment that in usual play, the Germans will survive past June ’45 between comparable opponents because historically “the Axis powers made bigger mistakes than the Allies did.” This really floored me … I mean, if the incompetent defenses of France and USSR don’t count as greater mistakes than anything the Axis ever made? Given the corruption and inefficiency inherent in the single-person state, it’s hard to imagine the Axis doing much better than they did. In order for most WWII strategic games to work, they usually need to force the Allies into making their historical mistakes (by mandating an unworkable setup for the Soviets, for example) while allowing the Axis to undo theirs. Anyway, this hardly detracts from the game I should say, but was interesting to me nonetheless.

Princes of the Renaissance, Flaschenteufel, Logistico

Matt came by to pick up his portion of the Adam Spielt order, and we played a couple of the new games while we were at it:

Princes of the Renaissance is the new Martin Wallace/Warfrog release. I’ve got decidedly mixed feelings towards Warfrog (and Martin Wallace games in general), as far too often it seems that the first play seems interesting, but then subsequent plays reveal serious fundamental imbalances in the game (Way out West was far too biased towards shoot-outs, in Empires of the Ancient World the sea areas are far too important, in Tyros the last turns are meaningless and there are few actual play options once you understand the game, The White Lotus was neat but far to repetitive, Liberte had far too little control for the intellectual work … and so it goes. Although I should say I have not played Age of Steam, largely because Volldampf did not move me, but I think Volldampf was OK gamewise, just not my thing). Anyway, Princes of the Renaissance is an Auction/Special Powers game, perhaps in the mold of Magellan, but more high-end. You buy chits (usually people) from the various cities which work almost like shares – each city will have an endgame status value, which will translate into VPs for each chit you own from that city. That status will be affected by wars, as players can provoke conflict between the cities which will likely increase and decrease somebody’s status. You also try to amass chits with complimentary special powers.

Anyway, I thought this was a neat game, as did Kim and Matt. I definitely would like to play again. Bearing in mind my previous history with Martin Wallace, I am unwilling to purchase it just yet, but hopefully Matt will bring down his copy again sometime.

Flaschenteufel – Well, not much more to say on this one. It was fun. I haven’t yet gotten past the learning phase, so I can’t say yet whether it will be a long-term thing.

Logistico – This was a game I thought Kim would like, as she is a big Roads & Boats and Crayon Rails fan. Turns out, she wasn’t that impressed, although Matt liked it a bit. I think my opinion is now settled, it’s a game that is interesting enough in the play and route-finding, but I don’t think it works overall as a game. There is too much randomness in the setup, and the game is too skewed towards delivery in the endgame. I still think it’s a fun game to play (although you can’t play with anyone who will get too bogged down in the analysis), but in the end it’s just not quite there.

Die Rückkehr der Helden

Of the games I got from Gemany, Die Rückkehr der Helden was the most intriguing to me for some reason. I’m a big Magic Realm fan, or was anyway back when the amount of time & effort involved in playing the game seemed quite reasonable. However, this one has a lot of German on the bits so I wanted to give it a run-through with Kim to determine which player aids would be needed and what paste-ups I might need to make (and, of course, if it was any good or not).

The general idea is that each play plays a hero(ine), questing through the land to increase his or her own prowess until they are capable of facing down the Dark Lord. You accumulate items, experience, and money by fulfilling little sub-quests (many of which involve simply visiting some area of the board) and taking out various random adversaries that may pop up in your way. As you accumulate money, you can cash it out for more stuff, training, etc. At some point, one play will complete the “major” quest they were given at game start, which then allows them to also make a move on the Dark Lord if they wish (there are about 5 Dark Lords with different powers, discovered only when you enter his Tower). Completion of parts of the major quest also trigger the deployment of the Dark Lord’s many minions.

The good news is that the German isn’t so bad. The vast majority of the mini-quests are of the format “go to location X” or “retrieve item X and take it to location Y to receive item Z” (for a while, the game is almost a pick-up-and-deliver type game). It took us a bit, but before long we were dealing with the German fairly comfortably.

In the end, though, the game didn’t quite compel me. It seemed like there weren’t as many real decisions as one would hope – you run around the board discovering face-down tiles, picking and choosing which quest to pursue, occasionally stopping by the Bazaar to pick up equipment when you have cash. Also, as the Elf, I must admit I never really felt challenged. I racked up experience fairly quickly, and once he’s rolling three or four dice on attack he becomes very tough; none of the monsters on the board were much of a challenge.

Now, that being said, there were still some neat decisions, and some planning required which I like. The Elf is probably the least interesting character as he is so one-dimensional; all archery, all the time. The other characters have more balance between the melee, archery, and magic skills and so have some choices; in the case of the Elf, melee might as well not exist. Also, I think the game would benefit a great deal from more players; there is a reserve supply of chits with more allies, adversaries, and quests that enter the game only as existing tiles are removed, and with only 2 players you cycle those chits slowly. With 3 or 4 players more of the cool chits would come out more rapidly, and we’d see a bit more choices. There would also be more competition for tasks & items, which could only be good.

So anyway, while I wasn’t terribly impressed with the first game, I think more players and having a play under my belt will help – while it isn’t a complex game (it’s rated as a 10 and up, which is probably fair), there is a fair amount of “stuff” and it’s tough to get a handle on out of the box – I think understanding the available options right from the start will be a bonus. The game definitely has some promise; although clearly it won’t be up to Amun-Re or Domaine for the serious gamer, it’s go potential to be a fun diversion. It also might just be flat, so we’ll see after having another go. At least it’s reasonably short.