I got a chance to play Liberty again.

At the end of the day, I like all of the games in Columbia’s line, with the possible exception of Victory. There are two, however – Pacific Victory and Liberty – that will always be plagued in my mind with serious questions about how balanced they are.

In the case of Pacific Victory, somehow it doesn’t bother me. Pacific Victory is such a fascinating little game system, that I’m happy to play it a couple times a year even though the Japanese are in an extraordinarily difficult position. There are a couple suggested fixes to the problem, but somehow I’ve never tried them. I think it’s just a matter of re-jigging the number of VPs required for victory, but I’ve never gotten enough experience to know what those values should be. But I’ve still always enjoyed Pacific Victory quite a bit, because the game is engrossing and the Japanese always feel like they might win until you look up the scores at the end.

Liberty, though, I just have no sense of how the British are ever even supposed to feel like they might win.

In the past, I’ve played a “southern” strategy as the British. The Americans are concentrated in the North early, so you use your sea movement advantage to rapidly switch forces south, clean up Charleston and vicinity, and head towards Delaware. The problem with this strategy is that there are simply so many small towns to garrison, you end up very short of troops and it’s almost impossible to take the last few cities you need with just a handful of guys. That, plus the long coastline and dispersed garrisons are very vulnerable to French landings once they show up. I’ve never had any success with this approach.

So this time, I went for the heartland of the rebellion – New York, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts, places where a lot of victory points can be gained with a few cities. This turned out to be no easier. On turn three I lost 4 good units (including both B2s) in an assault on Ticonderoga to some hot American dice (8 hits in 9 shots in the opening round). Since I then proceeded to draw no supply cards for the next 4 years (we were playing with the optional that you could force a prisoner exchange with a Supply card), I couldn’t get those units back, and was playing short-handed. I could never get an offensive off the ground, and a victory in the game never even appeared a remote possibility.

Now, part of this was that I felt I played a bit sub-optimally. I had drawn some mistaken lessons from previous games – I think the British should probably build out their force pool to the max right away before embarking on major offensive operations since they have a big unit advantage early, something I did not do. And my best unit (the Guards, a C4) was mis-allocated and idle for the first couple years. And I had some bad luck, both with the dice and with the cards.

But still … I’ve played about 5 times now and I’ve never seen the British even close, which is unfortunate, because if I had any sense that the balance were reasonable I think I’d like this better even than Hammer of the Scots. It’s a great game system, one filled with tough and interesting choices, both strategic and tactical, but of very low complexity (for a wargame). But even my friends who are much smarter than I am haven’t been able to come close to winning with the Brits.

It’s quite possible that there are simply some techniques that we’re missing, and BoardGameGeek does seem to have quite a few high ratings from people who seem to know what they’re talking about. So I think I’ll maybe cruise around Consimworld and Columbia’s discussion forums and see what people have to say about this. Until I find some answers, though, it’s likely Liberty will continue to have a reputation for balance problems around here and be infrequently-played.


Ardennes ’44

This is about the 5th time I’ve played Ardennes ’44, and I’ve been pleased that it’s been holding its own, even just playing the 6-turn version, which can be played in about 4-6 hours. The 8 turn scenario might be a bit more interesting – the Germans might have an outside shot at taking Bastogne, and so a few more options – but at the price of taking the playing time over the magical 6-hour boundary beyond which it would be difficult to finish in one sitting. Our games have generally been pretty close, although the Americans have won more often.

So, here are some of my thoughts on winning as the Germans, on a sector-by-sector basis.

7th Army: Separated from the rest of the offensive by the dense terrain between Ettelbruck and Wiltz, this army operates more or less on its own. Obviously, you have to take Diekirch and Ettelbruck. But you can also cause significant heartache to the Allies by blocking some of those exit zones on the map edge, which will suck up numbers of good-quality US reinforcements for virtually no purpose. If the US does not give this sector enough attention, thinking it a backwater, you should definitely commit the artillery to make them pay.

5th Panzer Army: The 5th Army has two objectives, Bastogne and St. Vith. St. Vith has to fall for you to have any chance, and this will require a set-piece assault – bring up the artillery, surround the city, and pummel it. Don’t mess around with chancy low-odds attacks against the city itself; work on encircling it instead. Bastogne, on the other hand, is a goal that should be unachievable in the 6-turn game … but you still want to drive hard for it. The purpose here is to open a yawning gap in the American lines somewhere between St. Vith and Bastogne. If you can unhinge things there, you can breakthrough into the point-rich area to the north, or go around to exit units. This is where you can win.

6th Panzer Army: This unit has two avenues of advance: north of the Warche (through Eisenborn) and south of the Warche. The northern option is a non-starter – the American units there are too good. Be happy if you can take Eisenborn. South of the Warche you have some options. You’re likely to see severe traffic problems initially, but you have a large number of potent units. The problem is, you’re also close to the point where the best and most numerous US reinforcements arrive, and the terrain is, as usual, awful. I’ve never seen the Germans progress even to Malmedy in this sector – it’s just too easy to reinforce. Unless you can create a crisis elsewhere, I wouldn’t expect much in the way of VPs, and I certainly wouldn’t redirect units from other sectors here or put artillery here at a high priority. But, if you can attract divert reinforcements from the center, that’s still good. And as always, you want to be on the lookout for opportunities. The Americans will have to strip or neglect some sectors to bolster others, so you want to be prepared to exploit weaknesses.

Bearing in mind that wherever the Americans commit the reinforcing 9-6-6 Combat Commands and 6-defense infantry units your offensive is likely to stall out, I think the most likely vulnerability is the long dangling flank between St. Vith and Bastogne. Pressure in the 6th Panzer Army and 7th Army sectors won’t create breakthroughs, but will divert units that create the possibility of a breakthrough somewhere in this sector. Look for opportunities both to seize VP locations and to exit units.

Also bear in mind that your offensives will stall out without artillery support. I find that you will win or lose based on whether you have your artillery in the right place at the right time in the right quantities. Artillery makes the difference between just dislodging the defenders and getting bonus advances and breakthrough combats.

As I say, I’ve been quite happy with both the playability and the replayability of the 6-turn game for both the US and the Germans. I’d love to play the whole campaign game sometime, but that would be an almost prohibitively long game (although to be sure, I imagine it often won’t take 22 turns to realize the Germans aren’t going to make it across the Meuse).

Siege of Gondor, Prologue: Osgiliath

This scenario is the first from the Siege of Gondor book, and covers the events surrounding Boromir’s battles in Osgiliath, which happen off-screen in Lord of the Rings (but on-screen in the movies). The format of this scenario is essentially a multi-way king of the hill game. 5 objectives are scattered in the middle of the board, 3 closer to the good guys, 2 to the bad guys. Whoever controls the most objectives at game end wins. The scenario features a bit of everything: we have the face-off between the major heroes Boromir and Gothmog (an Orc in Peter Jackson and GW’s imagination). You’ve got the Citadel Guard up against the heavily armed and armored Morannon Orcs, Mordor’s shock troops. And you’ve got a chunk of mobile cavalry on both sides, some Knights of Gondor and Warg Riders.

Kim, Jeff, and I were the good guys. Milton, Rich, and Richard were the bad guys. There are a lot of models.

The twist to the scenario is that half your models start on the board while the other half arrive randomly – maybe on a friendly board edge, but maybe on the flanks, and maybe in a spot chosen by your opponent. Our attack started out well – Boromir the tank charging down the middle, while the Knights and some archers screened the flanks. Things started to go awry when a bunch of Wargs showed up on Jeff’s flank. He rapidly found himself outnumbered, outflanked, and trapped in the street with nowhere to retreat. As you might imagine, this did not end well.

Meanwhile Kim and Richard were staring at each other across neutral territory on the left flank. After a few turn, Kim decided to try her luck with a charge, as we were feeling like the crumbling right flank was forcing our hand. It started out looking promising, but the Orcs were driven to a Fury by their shaman, and repelled the charge.

Meanwhile, in the center, Boromir was making progress … but not fast enough. The Orcs were simply falling back under the wily leadership of Gothmog as Boromir pressed on, and he and his Citadel Guard just couldn’t come to grips with them and couldn’t reach the objectives.

The collapsing flanks then led to bad news for the good guys.

This was a pretty good scenario, and played quickly for one so big (more than 100 figures on the table); we finished it in under 3 hours. It’s a fluid battle with so many objectives, which I think is good, and the players have a lot of freedom in making choices. My only complaint is the system for determining where and when the reinforcing units show up, which involves a lot of die rolling but should be played strictly instead of taking shortcuts (that is, roll a die for a model, make the decision where he shows up, go on to the next one, rather than doing them in chunks) for best effect.

Hollywood Lives! – Reiner Knizia designs a LARP

LARPs, for those of you who may not have seen them being played at cons or caught the Vampire: The Masquerade jokes in Dork Tower, are role-playing games taken to their logical extreme. There is no character sheet, no clear victory condition, few rules, and it’s all about the acting, costumes, and roleplaying.

In Hollywood Lives!, players take the roles of Hollywood personalities trying to gain fame, fortune, and make great movies. The game is played in two rounds. In each round, there are three screenplays available. Players bid money for the right to produce these movies, which probably requires making deals and pooling assets, since the scripts are likely to go for more than a single player’s starting capital ($10M). Once the screenplays are acquired, the three producers then try to acquire the talent to make the movies. Each movie will have a certain number of roles, each of which will provide fame for the player who land them; the amount of revenue the movie makes will also be determined by the fame of the actors that the producer can recruit. There are several more roles than players, so there will always be demand.

Then, the real game begins. Once the cast is signed up, you have to actually make the movie. From script acquisition through deal-making to performance, the team has 20 minutes to produce a 3-minute trailer, in which everyone has to act in at least a minor role. After seeing all the trailers, everyone votes on best film, best actor, and best actress. The best actors and actresses gain fame, and the film voted best gets a substantial cash payout.

Here were the films that were produced:

Night of the Lemmings
From a famed Finnish director, a saga of a forest ranger’s tireless quest to find out why lemmings jump. Rita Bargot (Jennifer) wins an Academy Award for best actress for her compelling scream in the role of the forest ranger. This moody picture would take home the Academy Award for 1951.

David & Samson
David says Goliath, Delilah shears Samson, the lion steals Samson’s hair and goes after David. Then it turns out Goliath isn’t dead, and he kills the lion and gives Samson back his hair. Will there be a happy ending for David and Samson? Will the audience be able to actually follow the plot? Come see the film to find out. C C Senior (Matt) wins Best Actor for his portrayal of David, while Buster Langdon (Rich) gets a nomination for the role of Samson. David & Samson would also bring home an Academy Award nomination.

It’s a Marvelous Wife
It’s Paris. Lonely men and a Moulin Rouge dancer, a waitress, and a rich daughter of the Defense Minister, fallen somewhat out of favor after WWI. How will the couples pair off in the end? Millie Zenelli (Michelle) as the traumatized waitress, Barbara Candlewick (Candy) as the daughter of the defense minister, and Louis D. Major (Roger) as an American tourist would all bring home Academy Award nominations.

I was the gamemaster, and I had warned everyone that time would be tight, and that a 3-minute trailer really isn’t a whole lot of time. I used to do speech & debate back in high school, and I remember the 5 minutes they game us always felt very short. In the end I may have led people astray, though, as nobody used up their full 3 minutes. In the second round, folks adjusted:

The Big Sheep
The second picture from producer Sam E. Blodwyn (Chris – producer of Night of the Lemmings) features 4 farmers on an island. The brick production is going fine. There is wood to spare. Grain and ore are in abundance. But with winter approaching, folks think it might be nice to have … some sheep. But in the morning, the sheep are missing, to a faint odor of mutton. Who committed the dastardly dead? The islanders hire a knight to investigate. The Big Sheep would earn an Academy Award nomination, and C C Senior (Matt) would win a best actor nomination for his dual role as the farmer and the knight.

High Moon
From producer Mimi van Donen, we have another plot-heavy drama centering on a dysfunctional family, a distraught wife, their out-of-control son. A handsome stranger happens by and changes the life of the wife with his kindness, but in the end must donate his brain to save the life of the child when he kills himself in an explosion. High Moon cleaned up in the awards, winning Best Picture, Best Actress for Millie Zenelli (Michelle) as the wife, a nomination for Mimi van Donen (Linda) in a dual role (mother and flower saleswoman), and Best Actor for Errol G. Swash (Shay) as the handsome stranger.

Drop Anchor
Fresh from his triumph in Night of the Lemmings, this big-budget musical was a star vehicle for Humphrey Geaucart. The cast valiantly attempts a song & dance show about a retiring pirate, his assistants, a king, and his daughter, but the audience has a hard time following plot twists and turns that make the Pirates of Penzance look plausible. Humphrey Geaucart (Liam) and Olivia de Lancaster (Kim) get Academy Award nominations.

You can see some photos of the teams here. I wish we had gotten more photos, but everyone was pretty busy hammering together performances. If we run it again, I might consider taking video of the trailers; The Big Sheep could have been an underground cult gamer’s classic, and everyone’s performances were entertaining. But taping it might also put a damper on the friendly atmosphere, so on balance I think it’s just as well we didn’t.

Hollywood Lives has essentially two bits to it. There is the bit where everyone sits down to write, produce, and act in movies. This is the “LARP bit”. Then there is the “Knizia bit”, which is where everyone makes financing deals, negotiates contracts, and earns money. At some level, I’m not the one to judge because I didn’t play – I just ran the game, making sure everyone knew the rules, tracking the timing, tallying votes for awards, and calculating movie payouts. But, my sense is that the LARP bit went over really well. Everyone, even the folks who had some trepidation going in, seemed to get into making the movies. The structure is great, with significant time pressure keeping people from slowing down to think, and the short trailer format letting people be creative without being too overwhelming to folks who wouldn’t normally do this sort of thing. The academy award voting adds an element of nice friendly competition, but with enough awards being handed out each year (6 actor/actress awards, with only 12 or so players, and 2 of the 3 movies get awards), the odds are you’ll get to experience success at some point.

In our group, though, I’m not sure that the Knizia bit quite flew, despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of us are big fans of Knizia’s boardgames. It seemed like the negotiation for roles and the bidding for screenplays was a bit flat. I think it’s a combination of things, with the amount of money movies make being fixed by an open formula and not that dependent on the fame ratings of the actors, but more on academy awards, which are won on script-writing ability and acting talent – which nobody knows until you’ve played with the same group a couple of times. It’s not that it didn’t work, just that it wasn’t really compelling – I don’t think there is ever enough money at stake to make the negotiations worthwhile. I think if you wanted to get into that aspect of the game you could, but only if everyone else was doing it too. I wish that element were a little better. Competing for stars and money lends the game structure, which is nice, but I’m just not sure that competition is compelling enough.

But in the end, the “LARP bit” is the reason to play the game – the “Knizia bit” is just a supporting framework to provide some concrete goals, and has the advantage of relative simplicity. I think everyone enjoyed producing the trailers, and I enjoyed watching them. It was fun, and Kim & I hope to do it again sometime.

Game Night

After our defeat last time, both Jeff and I had been hankering for another go at Friends and Foes. We had 4 players, and started Sauron on 15.

Last game, we got hammered in Bree. This time, we had much better luck. We were able to keep the Foes under control. We were able to get past the nasty Nazgul Strike by completing the Hiding track, thus saving Sam’s powerful Valor special ability for a later day. We managed to scoop up all the goodies and clear out all the foes, and skipped Moria.

Part of this was just better luck; we didn’t have to deal with the avalanche of foes we encountered last time. But part also was because we were much more willing to expend resources earlier, rather than hoarding thim. We used Merry’s foe-defeating special right way, along with Frodo’s insight. We also used Gandalf’s Letter very early. This all helped a lot.

We cruised through Isengard, skipped Helm’s Deep, were able to use Sam’s Valor to avert potentially rather serious problems with the Faces of the Dead, and cruise through Mordor while keeping the Foes in check (we played with the Black Gate, which requires re-creating the Foes deck to basically take the military victory out of play).

In the end, we were able to win fairly comfortably. And there was much rejoicing. Even if it does sacrifice a little bit thematically, Friends & Foes is a pretty cool addition to the game that had been effectively “off the table” for a while because it was considered too difficult; now, maybe we’ll play it some more.

Last up was Im Schatten des Kaisers, an area control game reminiscent of both Kremlin and El Grande, although lighter than either. I think this is a rather clever game – pretty simple, fairly thematic, with significant strategy, and it is a unique game. That all said, you might want to watch for one thing: unusual for a German game, Im Shatten des Kaisers has a little bit of that dreaded arbitrary hoseage. If you are emperor, you will sometimes be presented with a choice between which of two other players to help and which to hinder, but the ability to make deals is rather limited so you end up picking somewhat arbitrarily. I don’t consider Im Schatten des Kaisers to be a diplomacy or deal-making game in the traditional sense because there really isn’t much to negotiate with; basically, it’s just “I’ll vote for you for emperor”. “No, I’ll vote for you for emperor”; there isn’t a lot going on there. So it boils down to trying to remember who has the most victory points, and people’s memories are virtually always faulty in this regard. At some level, this is just an artifact of the system, which is otherwise quite good, and since it doesn’t show up that often and the game itself isn’t very long, I can live with it.

Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage

It’s actually been quite a while since I played Hannibal. I think I probably last played it 2 and a half years ago, perhaps? I played it a ton back in 1998-2001, but not so much since then.

Part of that has been playing through the new card-driven stuff from GMT, but quite frankly, a lot of those games have turned out to be disappointing. Paths of Glory and Barbarossa to Berlin got a fair amount of play, but For the People was awfully complicated, Wilderness War was fun but fiddly and lacking serious replayability, and Thirty Years War had serious problems.

So it seems things came full circle … back to Hannibal.

I played Carthage, Matt was the Romans. Hannibal did his usual thing, heading off to cross the Alps and invade Italy. Trouble started right away. Strategic tip #1: Always, always leave Mago behind in Spain. It’s so easy to just bring him along with Hannibal, but he needs to stay behind to sea move reinforcements. I regretted this mistake, especially in light of the fact that Hannibal then painfully lost his first battle, losing 4 CUs and the Elephants. I was somewhat demoralized.

One of the great things about Hannibal, though, is that defeats are rarely as bad as they look for either side. Hannibal hung tough, stalling the Romans, while Hasdrubal brought in reinforcements. Once re-energized, he went back on a tear, getting up to four provinces in Italy, triggering Capua’s defection, and beating up on a couple Roman armies. Spain and Africa were very weakly-held, but the Romans could never really take advantage. Hannibal is ultimately doomed in Italy of course – the Romans just have too many guys and the good generals will show up eventually – but if you can keep Italy in play long enough, you should do well.

This was only Matt’s second or third time with the game, and there are definitely subtleties to the game that it takes a couple (or more) plays to appreciate – managing risks with the battle cards, the flavor of the event deck and what this means for the weight to give to the three theaters (Italy, Spain, and Africa) and the risks and advantages of campaigning there. Despite this though Matt played a good game, and it turned out to be pretty close; the Carthaginians won by one province in the end.

I’ve played this game a lot, even if not recently, and it’s still a wonderful game. It’s not too long – 2.5 to 3.5 hours for most people, not too complex, with lots of tactical details and plenty of excitement. After playing so many GMT card-driven games, I had completely forgotten what it’s like to look at a hand of strategy cards and be able to plan out tactics and specific operational goals for your entire turn based on the mix of events and activations (let’s see, I’ve got the Traitor in Tarentum card, so that means if I can secure Apulia I can then play it to set up a base in the south, but that would mean that I would need to use X and Y for activations…). No other card-driven game, with the possible exception of Successors, has nearly such an interesting mix of cards. Paths of Glory is the next best, but even it’s still more about separating the cool and/or relevant events from the weak ones and deciding which events you can afford to play give pressure to play operations rather than having a card mix which can really drive the on-board game by presenting real opportunities and surprises.

I enjoyed this game and hope to get some more play in. I’ll be hosting a Hannibal event at Origins, and I need to do a bit more prep work, figure out the timing for rounds and such. If you’re going to be the and like Hannibal, sign up!

A final note, I noticed going through my box that I had an old copy of the First Punic War variant from the General. I even have the generals mounted and cut out … but it really needs a new card deck since so many events are changed. I think it would be a fun variant, so I’m thinking going over to BoardGameGeek and seeing if we can get a pool of GeekGold going to offer to someone who makes up a nice deck.

1825 – Unit 3

As these things go, I’ve been playing a fair amount of 1825 in the past 6 months or so, and been enjoying it.

I bought 1825 Unit 3 mainly because a) I’m a completist and b) it helps cover the numbers well beyond 4 players (so if you were to play with 5 players, Unit 2 plus Unit 3 would be a good choice, where Units 1 and 2 don’t quite add up right it seems to me). But Unit 3 is also playable by two players.

18xx games are generally not very amenable to 2 player games. Especially on the 1830 side of the family (1830, 1856, 1870, 2038, 1835), the loot-n-dump is such an ongoing threat that you would simply never buy an opponent’s stock, which would take a whole interesting element out of the game. But if any of the 18xx games could support 2 players, 1825 would be it. Without the huge stock market risks, you’re free to make interesting investment choices.

I actually ended up liking it more than expected. The initial companies seem rather well balanced, so one player won’t be at an obvious geographical disadvantage. There are lots of interesting choices in the middle game, with 3 minor companies and one major company available to start in different areas of the board. This is the first time I’ve played 1825 in which the minor companies really made a difference, and I like how they work (you get to pick the par, unlike most companies which have a fixed par, and they are capitalized incrementally – getting cash as shares are sold – all of which makes for interesting cash-management decisions).

I used to play 1830-style games quite a lot in college, but rather rarely since. I’m happy that 1825 has helped me rediscover them. I like the blend of onboard tactical decisions and the investment decisions. I like how well-balanced all the mechanisms of the game are when compared to the classic 18xx games – investment is important, tactics are import, cash management is important, and you need to balance long-term strategy against immediate needs, but all the elements seem much more equally important than in 1830 or 1870, where so much seems to revolve around the simple acquisition of a permanent train. And, of course, the length is far more sensible.

It’s possible that 1825 will play out more rapidly than the meatier and more wide-open 1856, but until then, 1825 seems to have taken its slot as a favorite “heavy” euro.