Wreckage

Wreckage is a tabletop battle game (i.e., miniatures with cardboard counters) from Fantasy Flight that I was curious about, because it sounded like they had “borrowed” some from Matt’s own self-published Lunatix Loop, a favorite race game of mine. Matt & I were curious how badly they had ripped him off, so he Rich, Kim and I gave it a spin.

The basic idea is that you pre-plot your turn by selecting two maneuver cards, putting them face down in front of you. Then everyone in turn turns over their card, executes the maneuver, moves forward their speed, and blasts stuff. The pretext is to collect gas cans, but really it’s about wasting your fellow-players. You do this by equipping your car at start, selecting a variety of weaponry and other equipment from the deck. I’ll give you the game-end summary from the various players first (paraphrasing):

– Rich: “This game blows. Not as bad as Nero, but still.”
– Kim: “I won!”
– Matt: “I feel better about Loop now.”

As for me, I dunno. I’d like to like it. But it certainly has a lot of issues. The cars & weapons are rather unbalanced – some of the cars are rather obviously just better than others, and some weapons are totally marginal (the mine-dropper is worse than a waste of space). The turning radius on these vehicles is ludicrous, it takes absolutely forever to get going the right direction once you are headed away from everyone. It’s an elimination game which is nowhere near short enough on balance for the first player who is eliminated.

And still … I want to like it. This was the first time I had played, and there was a minor screw up in the setup, which once corrected would help the game somewhat. I also erred on the hairpin turn rules, which are tacked on at the end and nowhere near any of the other movement rules. I doubt this will help enough to redress the rather significant imbalance in some of the cards, but I’d probably be willing to give it one more try. I think there is a fun factor hiding in there somewhere waiting to be released. Despite this conflicted desire to try again, though, I’m not terribly optimistic.

And by the way, the answer is that I’d be surprised if the designer of this game hadn’t had some exposure to Lunatix Loop, but maybe it’s just the shared Car Wars heretige. Certainly not a rip-off, though. For that it would have to work a lot better.

Return of the King: Army of the Dead

This scenario from the Return of the King features Aragorn wielding Anduril, Legolas, Gimli, and a bunch of dead guys tearing into what appears to be the standard Return of the King contingent of Orcs – 36 of them plus two of the ever-imposing Mordor Trolls. Tonight, one of them will even really be a Mordor Troll model, as my newly-painted figure makes its debut appearance. The other will be represented by a rather less imposing Cave Troll.

Once again, the good guys are trying to break through to Minas Tirith (i.e., exit off the opposite board edge). This time, though, instead of a long, narrow battlefield, it’s a short, wide battlefield. The bad guys (Kim & I), setting up first, have to spread out to cover the whole board. The good guys then predictably clump along the right flank.

Here’s the brief summary: Aragorn rips through the bad guys, as usual. I don’t think we landed a single blow on him, although he never had to face the Troll. The Army of the Dead is nasty but not overwhelming – the Orcs managed to take quite a few down actually, to the point that the game was actually very close, the good guys exiting only a single extra model. The wound-split (Orcs need a 6 to wound the Dead, while the Dead need a 4 to would the Orcs) is ugly, but once the Orcs start ganging up and using their two-handed weapons to good effect, it’s no walk-over. And that Troll. A huge amount in this scenario hinges on whether the one Mordor Troll who can get into action can pass his courage checks to charge the Dead. Once he’s in there, he’s a smashing, mashing machine; with his fight 7, strength 7, and 3 attacks, about all you can do is get out of the way. In this game, Gimli was flattened beneath his hammer which was greeted by great applause from Mordor; Kim & I couldn’t even remember the last time Gimli had ever been eliminated, or even seriously wounded.

At the end of the day, I admit I wasn’t particularly taken with this scenario. Without any cavalry-type models, the long, wide board just means the good guys form a flying wedge right up against the side of the board furthest from a Mordor Troll and dash for the exit. Not really that compelling, much less interesting than the Ride of the Rohirrim scenario. The real appeal here is the Army of the Dead, which is kind of cool (lots of courage checks for the bad guys), but hopefully they’ll make a more impressive appearance in the Pellanor Fields. Just need to finish painting a few more Easterlings.

Gettysburg

Carl and I played our first game of Columbia’s newest release, Gettysburg. Hypothetical question: at what point will I not need any wargames from companies other than Columbia? Sure, there is still a niche for great, meaty games like Ardennes ’44, Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage, Grant Takes Command, and Burma. But amongst wargames I actually get to play, Columbia has been slowly eclipsing everything else.

First impression: this is a game with a great feel. I was immediately taken with it for similar reasons as EastFront – it’s a substantial, meaty game, with a lot of blocks and rich detail, but one with very manageable rules. Far more manageable than EastFront. Simpler even than Hammer of the Scots I’d say, but you get a quite substantial game, one with lots of tactical and operational choices, one which always puts you on the horns of a dilemma, and has a very nice historical feel. Because there are a lot of units, there is great drama – the hordes of Confederates massing against Cemetery Ridge, the Union line straining and buckling but not breaking – the same sort of drama you get from EastFront, but in a more manageable package. I’d say that this gets basically everything good from The Gamer’s Civil War Brigade series in a fraction of the package size with vastly great playability. I’ll never play Thunder at the Crossroads again. Not that I would have seriously considered doing so before I got this game, but I have to think about all the CWB series is good for at this point is a baseline for maps and OOBs for new games in this series. Seriously.

To take the high level view, this seems to be a very nice blend of both strong resource management and tactical elements. On the one hand, command steps are a scarce commodity, you never have enough troops, and you have to spend your limited resources wisely in choosing where and how strongly to attack or defend, and when to hold and when to retreat. However, the game also give you plenty of interesting tactical details on how to move your units, deal with terrain, and choose your weapons to overcome the defenders.

Like most tactical and operational Civil War games, at the core of Gettysburg is the command structure. The basic unit is the brigade, which can move on its own but not attack. A handful of brigades make a division, with divisional leaders having to spend steps to coordinate fire and press attacks, and each leader’s ability to do this is rather limited (moreso for the Union). Corps leaders provide support by “refreshing” a divisional leader’s steps at critical junctures, allowing them to continue operating, and Army leaders can add steps to any unit.

The Confederate and Union armies have very different command structures, and it means they play very differently. The Union has more smaller divisions of 2-3 brigades and a divisional leader, while Corps have 3 or so divisions and maybe one attached artillery unit. Confederate divisions, on the other hand, are huge, with their own attached artillery, and Corps are larger still. While the Confederates have one outstanding Corps leader (Longstreet), in general there isn’t a huge difference between the Union and the Confederates at the Corps level … where the Confederates do well is in the Divisional leader department, where their leaders are dramatically superior to the Union. On the other hand, while the large Confederate Divisions and Corps make their focussed attacks quite potent, it also makes them somewhat less flexible. So while the Union will find it hard to coordinate the 2-3 divisions required for a counterattack, they have decent defensive flexibility because they can detach small numbers of units to hotspots and efficiently fight smaller actions while keeping formations together, a critical issue since brigades out of touch with their divisional leader can’t effectively attack anything but the most feeble opposition. And the Union corps leaders will almost always be in the right place at the right time to coordinate multi-divisional attacks, even if they aren’t brilliant at it, while the Confederate Corps leaders can be much more easily caught out-of-position.

The Gettysburg battle also has a much more interesting feel than I’ve generally given it credit for. I must be about the only wargamer my age to never have played any of the many incarnations of Avalon Hill’s Gettysburg game. Anyway, what you have here is a tiny battle (starting with just a couple divisions on the map) escalating to a massive conflagration. The Union is clearly on the defensive here, but still the tenor of the battle changes each time another big batch of reinforcements arrive. The first day is a desperate holding action for the Union, with each reinforcing division providing critical relief, but if they can hold out until evening things improve.

Anyway, probably the best I can give you here are some basic tips to avoid my fate in your first game of the Day 1 scenario as the Union (and some of these can be turned around for advice to the Confederates, of course). So here you go:

  • Do not get any units Buford’s cavalry division shattered. These are very good units, but they are hung out and the penalty for shattered units is extremely high. Do what you can to inflict some casualties, but these units’ capacity to meaningfully delay III Corps is minimal. In order to make sure they survive more or less intact, you’ll need to …
  • Play the game very differently when you move second vs. first. Turn flip-flops (where one player gets two turns in a row) are critical for you and if, for example, Buford’s division is adjacent to a bunch of Confederate units at the end of your move when you’re going first, they’ll get outflanked and wiped out if the Confederates get a double move. While you may not have much choice in the case of your critical defensive lines, your pickets should be moving out of threatened positions when facing down a potential double-move. 1VP for a shattered unit is a lot, and you’ll have your share of them when the Confederates go after Cemetery Ridge. No need to make their job any easier.
  • That all being said, as long as you are going second, you can maintain forward positions since the Confederates won’t be able to fire at/assault you unless they start adjacent. These forward positions can slow the enemy down significantly. Just keep an eye on the risks and get out when they become unpalatable, i.e., are threatening to severely maul or shatter a unit.
  • Obviously, you’ll need to garrison both Cemetery Ridge and Little Round Top. You’ll probably need to send two divisions to Little Round Top before you’d like to. Just be sure to put a unit on that anonymous hill between the two positions, lest the Confederates slip between the gaps to go after Powers Hill and/our outflank Cemetery Ridge, both of which are bad, bad, bad. Any interference with the timely arrival of your reinforcements to Cemetery Ridge is cause for serious alarm.
  • Hills with Trees on them are good. Hills without Trees are OK, but you are vulnerable to being simply swept off by fire, which is not penalized by shooting up. And you are desperately short of the Artillery that can do real damage. Your guys on unprotected hills are likely going to get pasted. You still have to defend them, though.
  • While it’s tempting to simply plop the Iron Brigade down and make a position like Cemetery Hill impregnable, if you’re not using your best unit to blast stuff, you’re not getting very good mileage out of it. Keep it in the hotspots, or in reserve and throw it into the inevitable breach or counterattack. While the Confederates have a very nasty 4-step B3 early (Pettigrew), they are very short on A-level units, which have a big advantage in Melee if the number of units is small.
  • Benner Hill is not very defensible. If the Confederates want it (and they should), they’ll get it. Get over it.
  • Losing (Little) Round Top, Culp’s Hill, or Powers Hill is likely to be decisive. You can afford to lose Cemetery Hill and still hold out to the second day. Don’t get killed by trying to hold the line on Cemetery Ridge longer than possible in the face of determined Confederate assault.
  • While you certainly want to stay open to the option of counterattacking, especially if the Confederates have stripped the Peach Orchard area to go after Cemetery Ridge with everything they’ve got, you are seriously outgunned in this confrontation. Your units are not on a one-for-one basis much inferior, but the Confederates have a decisive artillery advantage on day 1 and their better command structure and division leaders means they can press the attack far longer than you can – once your leaders are tapped out (which will happen disturbingly quickly in most cases), you become extremely vulnerable. So stick to limited-objective, local (counter-)attacks. While the Confederates get 25% fewer supply points overnight, each point they get is worth significantly more than yours due to their vastly better divisional leaders. Keep this fact firmly in mind when managing attrition.

I enjoyed Gettysburg quite a bit, and look forward to our next game. I was very extremely happy with the complexity to depth ratio here. Another great thing about Columbia, I think, is that while they often do games with related systems (Hammer and Liberty, say, or Victory and Pacific Victory or Rommel and EastFront), you can never accuse them of standing still. Each game they do has a very different flavor, scale, or feel. It’s on a different complexity level, or has a greater or lesser block density, or a different strategic scope. So while Gettysburg is familiar in the abstract (the leaders are much like HQs in EastFront, melee is just like Wizard Kings/Hammer/Liberty, etc.), it still feels quite unique and different in their line. Hopefully, they’ll do a Shiloh game using the same system before moving on.

Game Night

It was a sparse(r) night tonight, just 5 of us, so we started with a quick round of Die Sieben Siegel. Wizard has been quite popular for a long time in our group, but I’d gotten a little tired of it so this is a very nice change of pace. It’s a little more cerebral I think than most Oh Hell variants, which usually works for me. It feels like it has a bit more control. I keep saying I’m going to acquire my own copy, but I haven’t had cause to put in a larger order to any of the usual online suspects yet, and shipping runs almost as much as the game for small stuff like this.

We then had a surprisingly difficult time settling on the next game, given how many great games there are for 5. After a few minutes of waffling we settled on Union Pacific, the classic game from Alan Moon, which we haven’t played in quite some time (and which I was interested in after the slightly less-than-optimal experience with Oasis). This game reminded me a bit why it took me a while to really warm to this game. It is superficially a very chaotic game, and it can seem a bit like you don’t have much control what with how the stock emerges randomly and with the sometimes draconian restrictions on playing stock. Drill down a little bit, though, and it’s clear there are a lot of nice tensions in this game, tough choices to be made, and good players win. Not as reliably as in, say, Acquire, and the final scores seem rather “damped” (it’s hard to win or lose by a big margin barring truly egregious play, and final scores will tend to be close). Still, the game often actively entices you to make bad choices, and you have to resist your instincts.

We played with the rules as printed, that allows you both draft a UP and discard a stock for a UP. For some reason some players don’t like this, and use a variant allowing you to do either or, but I’ve never understand the need or reason for doing this. More choices are good, and the UP simply isn’t as dominating as people seem to think. Our game was won by the player who had the 3rd largest UP holding, followed in 2nd place by the player with the 4th most UP. Like everything else in this game, it’s all about efficiency, not so much having the most of the best, so I think giving the players more options is good.

Game Night: Silicon Valley Boardgamers

For Sale was a quick round of filler as 5 of us had shown up, and we were sure more were coming, and For Sale has about the best bang for time investment of any short game I’ve played. And I won, proving that you can win just about anything if you’ve been playing off and on for 5 years and your opponents have never seen the game before (auction games are usually not my forte).

Speaking of which … Amun-Re is a game that I like a lot. This time must be about my 10th play, and it’s still going strong, still revealing new depth, and still playing in different ways each time due to the vagaries of the order in which the provinces come out who is playing. I did horribly this game because, for some reason, I was finding it hard to concentrate. I don’t know why. But like Taj Mahal and Tigris & Euphrates, this is not a game you can play on autopilot and expect to do remotely well, so I came in last. I find the early game very difficult, and usually get reamed somehow by committing to some element of a strategy (usually farmer-light vs. farmer-heavy) only to find things going the other way and everybody else zooming past me. I know it’s heresy, but Amun-Re might actually be better than Tigris & Euphrates and on par with Taj Mahal (*).

Last of the night was Urland with the new expansion. I think Urland is really a very nice game, better than its predecessor (Ursuppe) actually, rather underrated, and I think the new gene cards are much better than the new genes that came with the Ursuppe 5-6 player expansion. Mutation came out in our game, which is an interesting gene, as did Photogenic and Nocturnal (the latter too late to have much impact as it turned out). We played with the guidelines in the rulebook, which adds only a few of the new genes in a game; next time I think I’ll just mix up all the expansion genes in with the originals.

(*) Endnote: Although I like my Best of the Knizia Boardgames list on BoardGameGeek, I must admit it contains something of a white lie – I don’t actually think quite that highly of Tigris & Euphrates, and succumbed to it’s popular acclaim in ranking it #3. While you’d hardly go wrong with it, in my heart of hearts, I think Taj Mahal (#7) and Tigris & Euphrates should probably be reversed. If you think swapping #3 and #7 doesn’t make any sense, well, I didn’t want the top of the list to be dominated by all “big” games (T&E, Taj, Amun-Re). I might be coming to the conclusion that Amun-Re is better than Tigris & Euphrates, actually. But, I’ll be cautious on that for the moment.

2014 Footnote: I’ve been reposting these articles verbatim until now, but I feel like I have to add here that 2004 me was pretty wrong about this. Amun Re and Taj Mahal are both great games, and would likely be the crown jewels of any designer other than Reiner Knizia. Taj Mahal is even an almost-classic which still gets occasional play. But Tigris & Euphrates is the clear masterpiece which I’ve come to appreciate more over time. It also doesn’t help that Taj Mahal has been sort of supplanted by Beowulf, while Tigris & Euphrates has never been emulated.

Samurai, Oasis, Sumera

While others played Yukon Company, Shelly, Kim, & I pulled out Samurai, a classic which works quite well with 3. Much to my surprise actually, I won again in yet another extraordinarily close game (I had the plurality of helmets, and there were no pluralities in any other tokens). I guess if you play something long enough, you eventually know what you’re doing. Interestingly, in the Knizia games I’ve gotten good at (like Samurai, Ra, or Taj Mahal), I have a very intuitive sense of the game, which makes it hard to explain what I’m doing. Interesting because I’d expect the answer would be more analytical.

After the Yukon Company broke up, Kim and I joined up with Doug & Shelly to play Oasis, the new release from Überplay, Alan Moon & Aaron Weisblum. This is a classic Alan Moon set-collection game. To reduce the game to its uttermost basics, the idea is that you are trying to accumulate two different kinds of tiles in 4 different suits, for a total of 8 different kinds of “collectibles”. At the end of the game, in each suit your score is the product of the number of tiles of each type you collected. So in green, say, it’s pastures and oasises, so 6 total pastures and 3 oasises are 18 points.

Each turn, the players turn up cards from their “reserve deck”, just a face-down pile of cards, each of which offer some quantity of one of these items. Then each player in order selects one of the packs on offer, and passes his or her turn marker to that player, thus determining the turn order for the next turn.

There is a board, so when you pick up camels, pastures, savannahs, etc., there are some placement restrictions and it’s conceivably possible you won’t be able to place a tile and score it, and there are a couple of “bonus” tiles available on the board. In practice, though, the board is even more superflous than the one in Union Pacific, and it could easily have been a card game and played Reibach (Get the Goods) style.

For a $40 board game, I was somewhat unimpressed. Because when thinking about Oasis, the word that comes to mind is not “bad” but “superflous”. Virtually everything in there has been done better in other Alan Moon games – Andromeda, Union Pacific, Reibach & Co.. What this game wants to be is a nice, short, card game, maybe 30-45 minutes, for $10-$15. I think in that niche, I would have been more taken with Oasis. It’s very light on control; you essentially “bid” for the right to go first next turn, but you have no way of knowing if anything interesting at all will be available. There are no wertungs, no intermediate scoring rounds, so there are no time pressures or trade-offs. The game ends up being about two things: using your reserve of cards to most efficently go as high up in the turn order as often as possible, and intelligently selecting the best offer when you go first. Since that second part is a virtual no-brainer, it’s all about the offers. Now, there is a little subtlety to this process, but in the end since you have little control over what you offer (you can’t select a card, just turn over cards one at a time Medici-style and decide to go with it or turn over another), it’s mostly a wash.

Whether or not this game works for you will depend on how long you’ve been at the whole boardgaming thing. For those who haven’t experienced some of Alan Moon’s other games, Oasis will be kinda neat, albeit probably not for too many games. For those of us who have already been through Reibach, Union Pacific, Andromeda, and Elfenland – all games that have some obvious similarities to Oasis to varying degrees but are much superior games in my opinion – Oasis is not likely to move you. This seemed to me to be a design-by-the-numbers. To be honest, I liked the somewhat-maligned Eizset/Mammoth Hunters significantly better than Oasis, not so much because it was a vastly better game, but because it was at least rather different and it gave you the sense of trying to exert control on a chaotic environment, rather than just being random.

Still, all this said the bottom line is that Oasis is certainly not terrible. It works. I’d play it again, although I can’t see myself playing it much more than 5 times if given the choice. It’s very control-light, but it’s clean, plays quickly, and despite not being highly interactive will not be plagued by analysis paralysis problems. New converts to the boardgaming scene who like lighter stuff are likley to find it at least modestly appealing. I think. But … the first new big-box game of the year is always tempting, and it tempted me, but at the end of the day I just don’t think Oasis is worth the money given that the previous, much better Alan Moon games are still available.

After Oasis, the next game up was Sumera, an interesting well-themed-abstract with a lot of wood. I think one of the key nice features of Sumera is that it’s short. This is a rather off-beat game which is quite clever at a lot of levels, but is also somewhat flawed by the fact that the scores are so easily calculable. As long as people don’t actively try to track all the scores, things are OK, but still. A game with some flaws can still be quite good if it’s short enough, though, and Sumera is I think. The rules are just fiddly enough, though, that I really need to make up a rules summary sheet since I play just infrequently enough that I have to relearn the game each time.

Game Night

It was kind of a light evening, with just Richard & I showing up early, and Ray and his kids slightly after that. The younger kids wanted to player HeroClix, so they did that while Richard & I played 2-player Feurio. This actually worked out pretty well; I wasn’t sold on the 3-player version of the game, while I liked the 4-player. 2-player is actually quite nice, there is some additional decision-making (which color of firefighter to place each turn) and given the large number of firefighters you have access to, you have a little more flexibility in doing blocking moves. I probably tried to block a bit too agressively, as I lost a close game.

Kim (who had been delayed with work-related activities) and Carl showed up in the meantime, so we did two games – Kim & Carl & I played Acquire while the others played Can’t Stop.

Acquire is a mysterious game to me. On the one hand, it certainly seems that there is a great deal of luck involved in the tile draws. On the other hand, there is crushing emperical evidence that this is absolutely not the case, as the same skilled players convincingly win game after game. Acquire has proved resistant to my abilities to analyze, much as Puerto Rico was.

So I went into this game with more of a “risk analysis” mindset on stock purchases. I stayed away from getting involved in any chains in which I had no information, i.e., no tiles nearby that might conceivably turn into merger tiles, especially when immediate neighboring chains are far off. This meant I largely ended up hoarding my cash early, which worked well as I was able to anticipate the first round of mergers and had cash flexibility after Carl & Kim were tapped out, so was able to get in on all the early mergers. I lost a bit of my focus in the middle game, though, which I think is where the game is won and lost. The first round of mergers is just the test to stay in; if you don’t get payouts early, you’re out of it. The middle game is where you get a lot more control, since options become more limited and crucial tilies more plentiful. I made a few ill-advised stock purchases, getting into the big-priced hotels to fight for the end-of-game payouts too early, before I had cash to burn, so I came in second.

By forcing myself to think a bit differently, I came away with more appreciation for the game. Acquire really is a great game, and worthy of its classic label. It’s a simple game with remarkable subtlety. Compare to Big Boss, which is very Acquire-ish; but the economic system in Big Boss succumbed to about 5 minutes of analysis, and I went on to a crushing victory in that game the first time I played. Acquire is far more subtle, with a very interesting mix of analysis and risk.

Last game of the night was Titan: the Arena, a classic game that hasn’t come out in a while. I like this one a lot, much more in fact than either its predecessor (Grand National Derby) or its successor (Galaxy: The Arena). It’s a nice light game, but one with some significant strategy – sort of like Clash of the Gladiators, although a more subtle game in that since your fate in Titan is so intertwined with the other players. Somehow, for me, the special powers of Titan: The Arena give the game a fun factor which was absent from Grand National Derby. Glad to see this classic will be rereleased in 2004 by Fantasy Flight.