Sword of Rome

I played Sword of Rome for the 3rd time. I’ve now played the Romans, Greeks, and Samnites/Etruscans.

Each time I’ve played the game, my opinion of it has gone down. First play was fun, second was frustrating but still OK, third was often just frustrating, and now I think it’ll be a while before it comes out again.

Some of Sword of Rome’s problems:

  • It’s too harsh on the attacker. It’s impossible to get anything going with decent odds since leadership is so similar between players, force advantages generally don’t give you much, and the combat cards are generally indiscriminate between attacking and defending so even if you have the cards lined up you may just get reamed by defender’s cards. This is combined with the combat system which is just far too random.
  • Two positions – the Gauls and the Greeks – spend way too much time dealing with the non-player powers, the Carthaginians and the Transalpine Gauls, and not enough time playing with the other players. The Greeks in this game felt like they spent like 20 minutes of the 5-hour running length actually playing with everyone else, the rest of the time banging their heads against Carthage. It doesn’t then help that the war for Sicily is just a total crap shoot, since both sides have equivalent troops and leaders. It just comes down to die rolling and drawing the right cards at the right time.
  • I didn’t get as good a feeling from the card decks on the third play as I did on the first. Some decks (like the Greeks) are pretty good, in that you’ll usually have a few good cards in your hand and some choices. Other decks, like the Etruscans/Samnites and the Romans in the 6-turn game, just seem to me to have too many cards that are so specialized they’ll hardly ever be relevant. It almost seems like the 9-turn game is the real game, but the 9-turn game is way too long. I wonder if the decks should be thinned for the 6-turn game?

These three things are significant problems. I think, though, that the real fundamental problem here is that I’m just not sure where the fun is supposed to be. The game isn’t mechanically bad, but I can’t point to any element of it that is really engaging either. You try to do some planning, but you never get any feeling of progress towards intermediate goals, or doing anything more than just reacting to immediate circumstances, and as a result, there is almost no strategic content to the game. On the other hand, the cornerstone of the tactical game is the hugely chaotic combat system, which combined with the on-board difficulty of ever getting reasonable odds of success, is awful. The pacing of the game is also significantly off, as players spend far too much time in recovery mode with absolutely nothing interesting to do from simple bad luck, as a single bad combat result will set you back an entire turn or more and a couple back-to-back bad results can effectively take you out of the game.

I think the designer made a valiant effort on the hard problem of doing a multi-player free-for-all wargame, and I understand that he’s trying to address a few of these issues in the expansion. All in all though, while there is some interest in the ambiance, the issues with the underlying game combined with its length and complexity (it’s significantly more complex and time-consuming than Hannibal) means I probably won’t be coming back to it anytime soon.

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Europe Engulfed

My Europe Engulfed play tailed off a bit in the second half of 2004 unfortunately. It’s a big game, and so hard to schedule. But I was tracked down by Clark, a local guy (well, “local” by Bay Area standards anyway) on BGG. We decided to play the 1941 scenario and see if we could get it done in a full day of excessive gaming. I’ve played from ’42 a fair amount – either the one-mapper, or the tournament match, or playing the tournament game until the Germans throw in the towel – so I was glad to try something a bit different. We also threw in all the balance-neutral “designer” optionals. I was the Germans.

When starting the game, I imagine my thoughts were similar to many gamers: the Germans had trouble focussing, and spread their efforts too thin amongst too many objectives; with just a couple more panzer corps, maybe they get to Moscow and maybe they have a chance. So that’s what I did – I sacrificed U-Boats and interceptors to build more ground units and hammer on the Soviets.

This produced gratifying results in the short term. The Soviets reeled from the invasion, and lost Moscow to the opening assault, with many unit losses; the Summer ’42 start line was similar to the historical one, but included Moscow as a bonus. The Summer ’42 offensive mauled the Soviets again, and had the Germans doing their shopping for fall fashions in Gorky, although, at the end of the campaigning seasons they returned to the ’42 kickoff line satisfied with another large count of eliminated units (including the destruction of two of the valuable Soviet elite infantry).

While this was going on, the British were revelling in the lack of U-Boat action, and maxing out their fleet builds. For reference, in the ’42 scenario the Good Guys start with some 8 fleets (5 Atlantic, 3 Med), same as they start with in ’41. By ’42 in our game, the Allies had over 12, which gave them great flexibility and made the Med completely untenable for the Axis. In fairness, I’m not sure how the Axis could limit the Allies to 8 fleets in ’42 – they get two in Jan ’42 when the US arrives, so Britain and the US would have to build no fleets and the Italians would have to somehow manage to eliminate 2 to match the “historical” situation. At any rate, a note to future Axis players: letting the allies have this much economic leeway is bad. What’s generally keeping the Allies from seriously considering Overlord in ’43 is fleet capacity, it seems. Ground units are pretty cheap when your baseline budget is 50-60 WERPs. Without pressure on their economy and SRs from U-Boats, they will run amok.

In our game, this meant a powerful invasion of Italy, and a premature Italian collapse. This diverted a significant number of German units from the Eastern Front, and started to really thin the German defenses. The crisis then came when the Allies invaded the Balkans (side note: the method that they used – a paradrop into Albania followed by pouring in reinforcements by a breakthrough op-move – turned out to be illegal, as you can’t paradrop into rough. However, almost exactly the same effect could have been fairly easily achieved with an amphibious assault on Salonika, which was not heavily garrisoned).

As usual, when this sort of thing happens the Germans are between a rock and a hard place. SR their guys out of Russia to crush the landing, and then get reamed by the Soviets as you’re out of special actions? Or try to contain the landings with more conservative special action expenditure? It was especially tough because at the time I had a pretty devastating offensive all set up in Russia. I ended up splitting it down the middle, launching a smaller offensive in Russia (which did eliminate a gratifying number of units, but was nowhere near what I hoped) while sending what turned out to be an inadequate conterattack force to the beachhead. Ironic, that. My only defense is that the last time I played, I got burned by over-reacting to Allied invasions (last time I was the Germans in the late-war, the Allies did like 4 amphibious assaults in Western Europe, all of which but the last were brutally crushed).

This resulted in a nightmarish Balkans campaign in which 2 British units wandered around taking out minor allies, which was especially painful given the Rumanians were basically holding the southernmost portion of the line in Russia all by themselves, which opened up a huge hole which the Soviets were more than willing to exploit. I then failed to take into consideration that even cut off and with no hope of reestablishing a supply line, the Brits could still move and capture territory, territory that has to be physically recaptured even once the units in are long gone, since isolated territory doesn’t convert. The last gasp of the British was to move one out-of-supply unit into an ungarrisoned Ploesti (the Rumanians having just surrendered).

These are the sorts of mistakes you only make once. Or at least, one hopes.

I’m not sure what the takeaway message here is. I think it’s to make sure Thessalonika is adequately garrisoned, preferably with two decent units (similar to Trondheim). I think the Athens beach is too far south and too bottled in to worry about too much, but Salonika could be trouble if you leave it to a 2 CV Bulgarian.

While all this was going on, and despite the severe mauling they received in ’41 and ’42, the Soviet steamroller was becoming recognizable again. It seems unless you knock them out entirely (winning the game), the Soviets just keep coming back. No other WWII game I’ve played has ever really given the Soviets their due the way Europe Engulfed does. By ’43 the Soviets were again quite dangerous, and with the Germans now down a special action and having to cope with the Americans and British, the best you can hope for is a delaying action. When the critical minor allied filler disappeared, there just weren’t enough guys to hold the line; the Germans seem really hard-pressed to scrape up enough units, another thing I like about EE compared to other strategic WWII games.

We ended up making it from Summer ’41 through Winter ’43, when I conceded, in about 10 hours.

So that was my first trip backwards in time from 1942. At the time, it was great fun for the first 8 hours but then to have it end in a slightly weird-feeling Balkan campaign was frustrating. On the other hand it was a great learning experience, and after I had gotten over the exhaustion of gaming for 10 hours straight, I was able to analyze my mistakes and was left craving more Europe Engulfed.

Couple last things: one thing I came away with here is that a third player really helps late in the war. We made pretty good time through the first couple years, but the Allied player has a lot of very diverse activities to manage. Secondly, we used the playbalance-neutral optionals, and I liked them a lot (I usually resist optionals until I have a handle on the game). Next time I’m planning to upgrade to using all of the “designers'” optionals.

Gettysburg: Badges of Courage

Gettysburg: Badges of Courage is a game that although I like, I’ve developed a few reservations about. On the one hand, it’s an absolutely great system, simple, yet it does a good job of emphasizing command and control, and it produces a lot of excitement. On the other hand, there were always a few details that didn’t seem to work quite right – the way the Confederacy could get hung up in Gettysburg, but once they broke through the Union had a heck of a time setting up a viable defense line on the hills which provided so little cover. Or the unrealistic way artillery was always being brought up to the front lines for point-blank fire.

Fortunately, Columbia has tried to address these issues with a simple set of “experimental” rules, rules that slightly increase the defensive value of hills, make artillery a little more vulnerable at close range, and weaken the defensive value of Gettysburg by weakening the streams. It all works very cleanly and it seems like just the level of change required to bring the game into line.

In our game, I played the Union, Charles the Confederates.

Buford had his usual bad luck defending Seminary Ridge, with lucky shots shattering both cavalry brigades at only a minimal slowdown to the Confederates. The Iron Brigade deployed into Gettysburg, but as expected the terrain was much less favorable and their flank was quickly turned and they were forced to retreat to Cemetery Ridge. A Union counterattack on the Confederate right flank threatened to annihilate a couple isolated brigades and artillery, but was stalled out not so much due to resistance as to sheer incompetence – of the 24 dice thrown over three turns of action needing a 1 or a 2 to hit, only one hit was scored. 6 precious command steps down the drain. One of the big changes in the new rules is that artillery that is too close to enemy infantry can be directly targeted by fire, which is extremely dangerous, but only if you occasionally roll hits.

On balance, the first day progressed much as it always does – the Union getting disorganized and driven back, while Confederate units drive hard and take only incremental casualties – but it did so in a more satisfying manner. The Union is still hard-pressed, but they have a substantially more viable defense line at the ridge. The Confederates can still drive hard, but they can’t wheel their plentiful and powerful artillery up to point-blank range with impunity as they could before. The Union will still be hard-pressed to actually win (as will the Confederates – the game was really designed to be played for two full game-days), but they have an outside shot – I was sitting on 4VPs as late as 7PM.

As I say, I have always liked Gettysburg, even if it couldn’t quite deliver on the outstanding early impression, and it seems like the rules tweaks might really help with a few of the technical issues. Assuming they do, the main remaining obstacle is just how long it takes to play, 6-8 hours probably for the two days to get a really satisfying game, which to me means two sessions. I still wish Columbia could provide some sensible victory conditions for the one-day game so you aren’t more or less forced to continue to the second day. I’d suggest that if you split the difference (7VP is a draw, more or less is a Confederate or Union victory), that feels about right with the new rules. Previously, the Union was desperate just to keep the VP count below 10 on the first day; now it seems like things are a bit more reasonable.

Game Night

Sole Mio!: This is of course the sequel to Mamma Mia!, the pizza-building game. Although I enjoyed it for quite a while, I burned out on Mamma Mia! ages ago, but thought I might try to revive it. On the one hand, playing Sole Mio! reminded me why I liked Mamma Mia!, and now maybe I’ll go back and play the classic again. I wasn’t really sold on Sole Mio! itself, though. The pizzas are just too weird and with too many special rules – for a simple game, it’s too hard to explain and remember exactly what all the funky pizzas do, and there is some confusion with the new double-ingredient cards. I liked the “helping” rule, though. Not great, not bad, but not as good as the original in my opinion. The best bet may be to use it in the combined game, where the weird pizzas from the new game won’t dominate things so much.

Razzia!: We played with 5, and I have just a couple things to add. First off, while I’ve enjoyed the game with 3 and 4, I felt it creaked a bit with 5. Since the number of Razzia! cards to end the round doesn’t increase with the number of players, it seemed like there was a lot more time pressure and too much emphasis on the high valued checks. Still a good game, but I think you want to keep it to 3 or 4. Also, there are two additional differences between Razzia! and Ra that people haven’t mentioned: firstly, scores are open. Secondly, instead of randomly assigning the checks at game start, they are given out in a strict order. The first can have an impact if you play with the analysis paralysis types. Not sure on the second.

Coyote: This is an interesting game that is effectively Liar’s Dice, but with a lot more randomness and a little more bluffing. You put a card on your forehead (so you can’t see it, but everyone else can), then bid the total number at the table – but there are some big-numbered cards, doublers, etc. out there. This is a pretty fun game, comparable to Liar’s Dice, perhaps a little livelier but far more chaotic. I enjoyed it, but I won. The game shares with Liar’s Dice the problematic flaw of player elimination though; it’s really not that fun to sit around and watch (even though the observers have total information while the players don’t, so they can get a chuckle). Somewhat surprising they couldn’t come up with a scoring scheme that keeps everyone in until the end; unlike in Liar’s Dice, you don’t lose information as you lose challenges – you always get one card, while in Liar’s Dice you have to play with decreasing numbers of dice. Also, there can be occasional “you lose” or “can’t lose” deals, but again, overall a fun enough game.

Maharaja: This game is now pushing 10 plays for me personally, but I’m not sure I’ve ever played it with the same group twice. I think it’s starting to fade for me a bit. It seems to have about a one-game learning curve, but it just doesn’t seem to have had enough inherent interest for my friends to get it onto the table the second or third time. I like it well enough, but it probably doesn’t have enough variability in the play to keep it going too much longer, so it’ll probably be on the trade/sale pile pretty soon.

Candamir

In Candamir, the players are taking the roles of Frontiers-people, perhaps, rather than Settlers. Instead of building roads, settlements and other infrastructure bits, you are personally going out to acquire resources and items for use by the first four Catanian colonists. Doing so requires strength, skill, and charima as you face down wolves, bears, snakes, and bandits to fulfill your objectives, but if you do so you are rewarded with experience, tools, and helpful herbs, as well as the raw materials required to win.

Your persona in the game is a character who will probably have a couple special powers and be rated in four attributes: Strength, Dexterity, Charisma, and Fighting Prowess. There are four default characters, but there is also an interesting point-buy system allowing you to build your own. Over the course of the game, you have to pass many tests, each of which is against one or more of these abilities, and has certain penalties for failure and payoffs for success (some even have up-front costs as well). Each test is simple – you roll a d6, add your ability score, and win or lose. The costs and benefits are all clearly laid out in nice friendly icons.

You earn victory points by gathering familiar Settlers resources for the colonists. To do this, you have to trek across the land, which is a square grid. Each time you want to move you draw a card from a travel deck, revealing what lies in each direction: sometimes nothing, but sometimes dangers, sometimes opportunities, and sometimes a bit of both. You then choose which way to travel – to risk a dangerous encounter to take a straight path, to divert to pick up some herbs, or to chance a possibly beneficial encounter.

When you return from your travels, you will probably have picked up resources. The colonists generally want swords, trunks, and some sort of window shade thing, all of which are assembled from multiple resources, so you can use what you’ve got or do the traditional trading. Providing a colonist with an item will provide a flat VP out of the ten you need, but each colonist also provides a bonus VP, longest-road style, to the player who provides the most items to him or her. Additionally, once you get back to the village, herbs that you may have collected on your travels can be brewed into various beneficial concoctions. Because this is a Settlers game, you have the opportunity to trade resources and herbs with your fellow-players.

I think there is actually a lot of stuff to like in Candamir. The character/adventure subsystem to me works much better than, say, Return of the Heroes because it’s much more subtle and incremental. There is a lot of pressure to up all your abilities to be able to defeat challenges both for their payoffs and for the time savings; but doing this is slow, and you have to choose between acquiring resources for the colonists and acquiring the experience to improve your own abilities, so you’ve got the usual nice tension between building up your capabilities and doing stuff that will actually score points. The game is also thematically quite rich, and is also really quite straightforward and easy to play, while still being quite varied and giving you interesting choices. There is also little reason why you can’t use the German edition even if you don’t speak German; the only relevant text is two character special abilities plus the special power for Mead, which isn’t that big a deal.

The potential pitfalls are downtime and game length. With 3 players, we just didn’t have a lot of trading going on, less than Settlers or Starfarers. That’s a little unfortunate, since trading is such an important part of all Settlers games, keeping everyone engaged most of the time. I’m not sure if it was just the game we were playing – managing unpredictability is another key feature of Settlers games – or if it’s the way the system goes. More play will be required on that count. It seems like trading could be quite productive; each character has certain movement bonuses that makes gathering certain resources easier than others (my character was a climber, for example – good for moving in the mountains and thus gathering Ore). It also seems clear that more players will lead to more trading, as in every Settlers-type game; but in Candamir, more players will lead to significantly more downtime, as the game is much more tactical. In Starfarers you’re moving a lot of pieces around and resolving encounters, but here you have many more moment-to-moment movement decisions – as well as possible encounters – so things could take a while. These are not hard or momentous decisions, and with the right group should move briskly. But they can add up, especially if you’re playing with one of those folks who feels that if they are presented with a choice, they really need to spend some time thinking about it.

At the end of the day, though, I liked Candamir. I have a few reservations that will require more play to work out if the problems are real or imagined, but the game had a good feel to it, and it had the always-welcome features of being straightforward, new, and different. I look forward to giving it another try, next time hopefully with 4.

The Greying of an Avalon Hill Gamer

Everyone else in the gaming blogosphere seems to be talking about Lewis Pulsipher’s (the designer of Britannia, apparently) recent article called “An attempt to explain why (and how) boardgaming has changed in the past twenty years“. It even made GameFest’s front page, I’m not sure why – they rarely spotlight outside articles, and when it comes to this one, what the other bloggers have rather generously failed to mention is that Mr Pulsipher is just blowing smoke.

Not one of his sweeping, stereotypical assertions as to the changes in the boardgame world is backed up by a shred of serious data. People are worse at math? You’d think that sort of claim could be made with some statistics if true. But no, it’s simply asserted without evidence, one rather implausible claim after another. Am I seriously to believe that kids are now so intellectually bankrupt that they have to add up the pips every time on the dice instead of simply recognizing the patterns as Mr. Pulsipher would have us believe? This is just the most ludicrous, unsubstantiated claim in the piece (perhaps the school district in his area is really, really bad). In short, what he’s saying here is “back when I was a kid …”, the rant of everyone who starts to realize they aren’t young anymore.

This article has been written many times before by many different people, and what it boils down to is “why won’t people play my favorite old games with me?”. Who cares? We are now, in my opinion, in the golden age of boardgaming, wargaming or otherwise. On the wargame end, GMT publishes more games in a year than Avalon Hill ever did, and games like Paths of Glory and Europe Engulfed are enjoying surprising success and longevity for their complexity, with Paths of Glory just being reprinted for the third time (let’s remember, classic Avalon Hill games were rarely very complicated). Columbia is apparently doing quite well in the low-to-medium-complexity, high-quality niche, with many titles in print – Rommel in the Desert, a classic 20-year-old game worth of today’s standards, was just reprinted. The Europeans are giving us huge numbers of games with a quality undreamt of 20 years ago, achieving more in depth and interest in 60-90 minutes and 6 pages of rule than all but the best comparable Avalon Hill games, and with amazing physical quality (if you want the reason why the boardgaming world has changed, I would suggest you start here). We are now enjoying the games of Reiner Knizia, unquestionably the most brilliant and prolific game designer ever to practice the craft. While the individual US print run numbers don’t compare with the glory days of Avalon Hill, remember that AH had a no serious competition in the “games for hobbyists” segment of the market, foreign or domestic, for several decades. Today there are quite a few serious players in the US (Rio Grande, GMT, Columbia, Mayfair, Fantasy Flight, Überplay/Eagle, Days of Wonder, even Hasbro/Wizards/AH), and dozens in Europe – the joys of internationalization – and the US boardgame market is growing strongly. You can read 20-page analyses of Puerto Rico, Goa, or War of the Ring on BoardGameGeek by twenty-somethings. Kids are playing Magic: The Gathering with opponents all over the globe in tournaments for real money (not as much as they used to, but still). Settlers of Catan, a ten-year-old game, is still a top-seller (having outsold by several factors any game Avalon Hill ever made) and still enjoys wide critical and popular acclaim. And Dungeons and Dragons in it’s new third(ish) edition still, I imagine, outsells them all. And that’s despite stunning competition from great console games like Halo.

In short, the gamer today is part of a broader, more vibrant, more interesting community than ever before, and has access to games that have made a quantum leap in quality in every respect from 20 years ago. That’s what’s changed. Even though the 70s and 80s did produce a few great games even by today’s standards (Titan, Dune, 1830, Squad Leader, and Rommel in the Desert, to pick a few), you still couldn’t pay me enough to go back. Well, you could, but I’d probably give up gaming. Regardless, you take my point.

As a parting shot, I quote from the article:

It would help if we had more short wargames. However, marketing very short wargames is also a problem. I’ve designed a number of wargames that can be played in an hour, but I’m not sure they’re marketable. They are much “smaller” than the typical wargame, and less strongly historical. When people play them they like them, but who’s going to buy them?

I guess that whole Memoir ’44 thing must be a massive shared hallucination. What’s its ranking on BGG? 7th? Days of Wonder isn’t exactly complaining about the sales, what with rumors of three expansions.

I have a couple sessions in the queue here, so we’ll be returning to our regularly scheduled program of gaming criticism momentarily.

Lord of the Rings – Sauron

I hadn’t played this particular configuration of Lord or the Rings (Knizia) in quite some time and had forgotten how cool it is. It’s interesting to have players on both sides for a change, and it’s also interesting that Sauron’s position (which I was playing) is so much different from the Hobbits’. You have to choose between building up your own position (by moving the Rider to get more Nazgul cards) and actively attacking the fellowship. When attacking, you have some choices of which types of resources to try and drain, and the choice of when to use the Nazgul cards is both difficult and critical. This latter area is where I made my main errors this game – there are so many powerful Nazgul cards, the temptation is to save them until you can administer a real killing blow, but it’s hard to set up anything that is quite that devastating, so you need to be judicious. Saving a bunch until the end will leave you without enough time to play them, many of them are better early than late, and it seems hard to set up any kind of “combination” action anyway.

We had the full compliment of 6 players and started Sauron on 15, as I always do when using the Sauron expansion, and I had a very tough time of it. The Fellowship traipsed through Moria and Helm’s Deep with hardly ever a bad tile draw, and so the situation was not looking promising (for Sauron) going into Shelob’s Lair. Even unleashing the Nazgul was not enough to make things close, and the Fellowship won handily with 86 points.

I thoroughly enjoyed this game, even though it wasn’t that close, and even though the lack of any die rolls (triggering Sauron’s “full” turns) left me idle at times; the Sauron position is still very interesting. Plus, as Americans I think we’ve been trained to believe that good theme is actions cards with thematic-sounding text (see Munchkin or House on the Hill), but Lord of the Rings certainly proves the bankruptcy of that idea – despite being pretty “abstract”, it certainly has a great feel to it.

Getting soundly thrashed left me with a burning desire to play again, as well as to break out Friends and Foes. It also challenged my assumptions that the Sauron expansion set makes it extremely hard for the Fellowship; it’s no cake walk, but I’ve always aimed for the maximum number of hobbits (5) and started Sauron at 15. I think 4 hobbits would be fine and 3 probably would have some chance, and with 5 it might even be worth considering starting Sauron on 12, at least if your players are mostly reasonably experienced.