Revolution Update

Having played Revolution: The Dutch Revolt at Bay Area Games Day, I decided I liked it enough to give it another spin in short order.

It held up well to another play. The playing time was somewhere between 5 and 5.5 hours this time, which was still fine. We didn’t exactly play at a breakneck clip, thus so far the evidence is that with reasonable groups, it should take a reasonable amount of time.

One tip: Play this game in good light. The graphics definitely can be a little murky, and the lighting at Games Day wasn’t great; but when played in my apartment under brighter light, everything was much crisper. This is not to imply I approve of the graphics, which definitely have issues. Just get a good lamp is all I’m saying.

About the endgame: Last time I commented that I liked the fact that you can’t simply trash whoever is ahead on the last turn. This is true, more or less, but it merits some qualification. Being a multi-player, fairly open game, there is a certain element of “don’t be ahead until the last turn” going on here, and players certainly can go after the leaders (and some factions, like the Nobility, are more subject to this than others, like the Reformers). This is a fact of life in this style of games. But the order of magnitude of whacking the leader is comparable to Tresham’s other games – perhaps a little less than Civilization (classic), but more than 1829/25. Compare to the total gratuitous leader-hosage in Vinci, A Game of Thrones, The Napoleonic Wars, Sword of Rome, Risk, 7 Ages, Advanced Civilization, etc., and Revolution looks awfully good.

Another point worth mentioning is that it seems that the “conservative” factions (Catholics and Hapsburgs) are tougher to play than their “progressive” counterparts (Burghers and Reformers). They start with a strong position, but that is fairly quickly eroded. The Hapsburgs especially seem to be tricky. I don’t get the sense that things are significantly unbalanced, but bear in mind that you want to keep you eyes on the Reformers.

I like Revolution and will definitely play it again. It’s in a nice niche for a meaty game – it’s a bigger game than Age of Steam or 1825 of Goa, or even Die Macher, but not by a huge margin; but it’s definitely a lot more accommodating than Civilization or 7 Ages or the bigger 18xx games. The rules have just a few pointy bits (like the Water Beggars) and you’ll likely have to make or find some player aids, but overall the game plays fairly cleanly once you get going. You’ll likely have to stop on occasion the first game to sort out a few edge cases (and make sure to get the one piece of significant errata off of BoardGameGeek), but it’s nothing too major. The first “turn 0” is a nice mechanism for getting the board set up and easing players into the rhythm of the game.

It’s too bad about the price and availability in the US though. At today’s exchange rates, you can buy a copy for about $81 direct from Phalanx. This includes a whopping $30 shipping. This is rather steep but not totally out of control given the overall quality of the product and its relative uniqueness (the high prices on Reef Encounter, Ys, or even Diamant, just to pick a few, are far less justifiable). And if you’re going to Consimworld Expo, you can get a special deal whereby you can buy a copy for $85. I got mine direct from Phalanx, but saved a little by bundling it with a copy of Heart of Africa. Of course, Heart of Africa turned out to be wretched, so maybe that wasn’t such a big win after all. Regardless, I’d feel better if it were closer to $50. I think I’ll get my money’s worth, but it’s not a no-brainer at the current price.

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Amun-Re

Starting back around the release of Taj Mahal, maybe even as early as Ra, new Knizia big-box games started being treated with increasing skepticism by the “serious gamers” in the online crowd. I had to take to task the early adopters on rec.games.board who found nothing new of interest in Ra. I loved Taj Mahal, but found only a few takers at The Gathering when it was new, and those who I played with were unimpressed and generally unenthusiastic.

This sort of thing is easy to chuckle about in retrospect (and eBay prices on Taj Mahal and Ra seem to have borne out my point of view). Amun-Re got more or less the same treatment – “Another Knizia auction game? How many times can he do this?”. I was again surprised, not least because Amun-Re isn’t really an auction game. I think of it as a cash management or economic game. While I don’t think of Amun-Re as an enduring classic like the best of Knizia, I still like it quite a bit.

There is, however, a dark side to my fondness for the game. Prior to my recent plays, I figured there was depth to it – it’s a Knizia big-box game after all, and it certainly has the trappings of a deep game – but I didn’t have actual personal experience of its depth.

You see, before this, I had almost always won at Amun-Re, even though I am traditionally not very good at cash management games. I credit this not to superior skill or intellect, but to the fact that while I have played a number of times, I have almost always played with people with little or no experience with the game. There are lots of different elements to the scoring, and it’s easy enough not to grasp the relative importance of everything (almost everyone I’ve played with has missed the significance of the “most pyramids” awards their first game, a major chunk of points). Since figuring out complicated scoring systems is something I am usually good at, against inexperienced players I could usually win just because I understood, generally, the weight of the various scoring opportunities. Since this fairly basic level of play was usually enough to win or do well, I was never forced to evolve and seriously delve into the subtleties of the game. I could see that they were there, but I didn’t have to work them out.

So it was nice to finally get to play Amun-Re a couple times on back-to-sessions recently. The first time, I won by my usual approach of going all-out in the first scoring round to get the 5-point most-pyramid bonuses. The problem then becomes that when you play with smart people, they tend to learn. The second game did not go at all well. I came in a distant last. So I started to think about some of the big questions in this game for which I had always thought, “yeah, that’s interesting”, but never really had to come up with any answers to.

One strategic question in Amun-Re has always been, how much of a cash buffer do you want to retain from round-to-round and epoch-to-epoch? Having a cash reserve is obviously good – if others haven’t saved, you can pick up prime provinces comparatively cheaply and have money at critical sacrifice auctions. You can build pyramids where they are more likely to do some good, and generally invest your money when the overall picture is clearer. Having cash at the beginning of the second epoch, when all of a sudden provinces are much richer (and more varied) at the same time as income is drying up, is obviously good. The downside, of course, is that buying things in bulk late is prohibitively expensive and it’s better to buy farmers and power cards earlier so they can pay off for longer.

In the past I usually spent all my available cash each turn, building up a reserve only occasionally, and it’s always worked for me. But this is clearly not the right approach; Kim won the second game by curtailing her spending and investing only when the returns looked promising. Did I mention this was a Knizia game? I never seriously thought that just spending all your cash as soon as you got it was really going to be the best way to approach the game, but it’s nice to have it proven that it’s not.

Many of the subtleties to the game are tied up with the properties of the different provinces, in a loop between farmer slots, the harvest auction, and cash. While the goods available in return for sacrificing are valuable, the impact this has on how much money the farmers make is also quite significant. If you have lots of farmers, you can bid aggressively for the harvest, knowing it’ll have the side effect of making your farmers more valuable; contrarily, a player who has no farmers will find it difficult to justify bidding high even when it would be otherwise desirable, and so will have to manage expenses more carefully. Of course, if you’ve spent a lot of money on farmers, you probably don’t have a lot left over! Since this is a cash management game, your choices (or non-choices) with respect to evaluating the fixed-income provinces, farmers, and trade routes which primarily dictate your income are critical to the game.

I’ve mentioned that Amun-Re is a cash management game several times now, and I think that’s the key to appreciating it. Many Knizia games have tactical depth that grows on you as you play: Taj Mahal has techniques for when to block and when to dodge the player to your right; in Modern Art you learn in what circumstances to use the different types of auctions; in Tigris & Euphrates you learn to recognize when you can use your destruction tiles to break up empires; in Ra you learn to manage the tempo of the game; in Samurai you learn the techniques for playing the bonus tiles. Amun-Re, it seems to me, has surprisingly few of these tactical details – it’s all about evaluating the worth of complex assets. Everything you might want to purchase – the farmers, the bricks, the power cards, the provinces – has a value that depends on what you’ve already got, what’s available, what everyone else has, your own and your opponent’s current and future cash flow situation, and so on. This is evaluation on a level that makes Ra look like straightforward. The players who can figure out what everything is worth will do well.

Hopefully, I’ll do a better job next time.

Good Games with Bad Rules

Since I posted my rhetorical question, “How many really good (war)games have had really lousy rulebooks?”, there have been some suggestions. Some good ones, but nothing I’m quite prepared to back off my position for.

Note, I wasn’t asking for good (war)games with mediocre rulebooks. I was asking for really good games with really bad rulebooks. Here are some of the candidates that have been presented:

Breakout: Normandy: I’m not sure how this got a reputation for bad rules. I actually think they are pretty good. Dense, sure, but well-organized, complete, and precise. Rules can be optimized for learning or referencing. Breakout: Normandy errs in favor of referencing, i.e., not expecting you to learn everything on your first read-through, but being able to easily find stuff when you need it for the first few plays. For this kind of game, I think that decision is eminently sensible.

The Napoleonic Wars: Yes, I agree the rules here would qualify as wretched (worse than Empire of the Sun, probably). While this game has its fans and I sort of get why people like it – I decided I might even give it another chance sometime – I don’t think it’s in danger of entering the top tier.

Republic of Rome, Up Front: These are great games. Well, Republic of Rome is anyway, Up Front was a great game but may not be anymore. Regardless, while the rules are difficult, I think they largely just reflect the inherent complexity of the game. They are also reflective of the fact that they both have a “chromy” complexity, i.e., lots of little details wrapped around a lot of different systems. Altercations with recent GMT rulesets like The Napoleonic Wars, Grand Illusion, and Empire of the Sun have actually given me nostalgia for these rules. Sure, they were involved, but they did tell you how to play and you could figure out where stuff was. You could argue that the games really ought be simpler, but given that things are as they are, the rules do a pretty good job.

Rommel in the Desert (1st Edition): Yes, the rulebook was weak, and yes, the game is great. But the rulebook certainly wasn’t awful. I was up and playing with a minimum of fuss, using the short rulebook and 1 page of erratta/Q&A. There is only so much damage you can do if you have a clean system and only 12 pages rules and can remain basically coherent throughout. But I do know folks who have had more trouble with these rules than I did.

Anyway, it’s important to take my point in the right way. It’s not a question really of whether you can do a good or poor job of writing rules for a good game. The point is that if not enough effort has been spent on the most critical part of the game – the rules – what are the odds that substantially greater rigor went into the design process? Really bad rules, like we’ve seen from GMT in Thirty Year’s War, The Napoleonic Wars, and now Grand Illusion and Empire of the Sun, are more than likely just the tip of the iceberg. People say (with respect to Empire of the Sun) that they know there is a good game in there somewhere; I think there is clearly a good idea in there, but there is a lot of evidence it needed another year to gestate – almost identical to Mr. Herman’s previous For the People. In cases like this, the P500 system may be a real problem for GMT, in that it makes customers impatient (since they feel like they’ve already paid) and aligns a lot of forces on them to release a product before its time.

I am still looking forward to playing some more Empire of the Sun, playing the 1942-1943 time period, because I think that the game’s biggest problems are in 1941 and 1944-45. I am actually pretty optimistic that this will work and within those constraints, the game might be fun. But I am still not happy overall with the quality of this product and am irritated with GMT and the developer (Stephen Newberg) for not saying “no” and, at the absolute minimum, sending the rules back for a re-write and getting the player aids right. Having paid money for a game that has some obvious problems is a bummer; but even more aggravating is knowing an opportunity for a great game has been missed and can’t be taken back. When GMT has a sure-fire seller like this (big name, very popular “system”) they might do well to do it as a “regular” release.

As a postscript, I apologize for beating up on GMT here, because they do make quite a lot of rather good games and some of their rulebooks are also good (anything by Vance vonBorries or Mark Simonitch, Europe Engulfed, Downtown, Paths of Glory). I’ll still P500 anything vonBorries or Simonitch puts on the list. Decision and Avalanche are much more worthy of scorn, but since they rarely make anything worth playing in the first place, there seems to be little point in chastising them.

Revolution: The Dutch Revolt

Francis Tresham may be in the pantheon of all-time great game designers, but he’s done this on the strength of remarkably few designs: 1829, Civilization, 1853, 1825. And now, Revolution: The Dutch Revolt, 1568 – 1648 (hereafter know as Revolution). Revolution has reputedly been in the works for ages, and it’s Mr. Tresham’s first new game in about a decade. Was it worth the wait?

The first thing you notice when sitting down to play Revolution: the graphics are very nice, and within 10 minutes we were trying to figure out how to get around using them. As is by now traditional for Phalanx games, there are all sorts of minor usability problems: most things are too dark and with not enough contrast, and many important game features don’t stand out enough. There was some debate as to whether it was better than War of the Ring, and the consensus seemed to be it was – so while that’s a low bar, it’s serviceable … but I wish it were better. Particularly, the cities with Universities and commercial towns don’t stand out enough, and the city names are not clear. It’s overall an improvement over some of the Phalanx games with more serious problems (Waterloo’s invisible terrain, Nero’s hard-to-use cards, Age of Napoleon’s impossible-to-distinguish terrain types), but it’s still a ways away from the sweet spot between appearance and functionality.

Upon reading the rules, there seem to be great similarities between Revolution and Civilization. You have the same dynamic of a fixed pool of tokens being used to represent both influence and cash, and managing your faction’s balance between the two. You have cities which you can tax, turning tokens into cash. Factions compete for areas, which have occupation limits, and conflict is resolved identically to Civilization (or Mammoth Hunters, for those who may have played that but not the classic), by simply eliminating excess units from each faction in turn.

Given how similar many of the superficial mechanisms are, I was surprised that the play is almost entirely dissimilar to Civilization.

Revolution is, at its heart, a compete-for-areas game. Players pour resources into areas, which after conflict can be used to control cities (themselves mini-areas that have to be competed for), which provide cash and points, or the countryside, which provides influence and some tactical advantages in deploying future influence. The tools you wield to wrest control of these areas from your opponents are influence (tokens), armies, and cash. Influence is cheap and generally available, but usable only in areas where you already have some influence to begin with and hard to reposition once put on the board. Armies are expensive to build and maintain, can be more easily countered by opposing armies, but can move around easily and can be used to break into new areas, can influence a lot of territory, and are very effective against opposing cities. Cash can be used to not only to raise armies, but also can be used to directly sway the public opinion in cities, which can result in big wins for some of the factions.

The key element to the game is balancing your efforts among these three tools, because they tend to be mutually exclusive: not only can tokens be used only for influence or cash, but the sources are different: cities will generate cash, but the towns and countryside generate influence. When you are consolidating your own holdings or fighting for your base, influence is key; but when you are trying to break into other players’ areas, you’ll need cash and armies. Timing these cycles is important, because the choices you make this turn affect your capabilities for the next turn or two (and there are only 5 turns). Further complicating your timing, there are external factions (The Huguenots, Spanish, French, English Bankers, etc.) who will provide support to your faction, and they seems to function like a strategic reserve: you can build up influence with them over time, and then when you decide to use them you can deploy it all of a sudden, ignoring the usual limits on deploying influence, in a (hopefully) decisive stroke … but once spent, it takes time to build up again to meaningful levels. Co-ordinating your taxation and army building and foreign allies gives you lots of options and lots of things to worry about.

All this is rather interesting, but might be somewhat mechanical in and of itself. The cool thing about Revolution though are the 5 different factions. These are the Catholics, Hapsburgs, Nobility, Burghers, and Reformers, and they all have different objectives and capabilities. The Catholics want to control Bishoprics, the Hapsburgs want military control, the Nobility wants influence with the peasants, the Burghers want control of critical trade towns, and the Reformers want control of Universities; and everyone wants control of cities and provinces. The cool thing is that while all these objectives have peripheral conflict, none of the agendas will collide head-on, so there aren’t factions that simply have to beat each other up all game. However, they do create natural alliances – the right-wing types (Hapsburgs and Catholics) share some common interests and lack fundamental conflict, as do the left-wingers (Burghers and Reformers). While there is nothing to say that the Catholics and Reformers can’t make temporary arrangements of convenience, and while the Burghers and Hapsburgs may have to act as a check on their more-extreme partners on occasion, such alliances are extremely unstable and short-term. So while there is certainly significant scope for deal-making, this is much more of a management and tactical game than a free-form negotiation game. I like this. There is certainly much more direct competition than in, say, Die Macher, but it doesn’t seem to come down to the somewhat degenerate whack-the-leader-fest that you get in The Napoleonic Wars or Sword of Rome either. Also, each of the factions has subtly different parameters: the Reformers get cheap armies and can pop up anywhere, sometimes throwing entire cities into revolt, but start with no cash and almost nothing on the board. The Catholics start with a strong board position and cash, but their armies are expensive. Both the Catholics and the Reformers suffer because their units are the first to be eliminated in battle. The Burghers and Hapsburgs have nice foreign support and when they campaign with the Reformers or Catholics respectively, their allies are likely to take most of the losses while they reap the benefits. And so on.

This faction differentiation is Revolution’s real strong suit. In the post-game discussion, which was generally quite favorable, most players indicated that they felt they knew how to play now … at least the faction they were playing, and that playing a different faction would almost be a completely different game. This is pretty impressive given that there are minimal faction special rules, just a few different parameters (like army costs), different victory conditions, different setups, and different sets of off-board allies. I’d almost say it does a better job than Sword of Rome, despite Sword of Rome’s much higher overhead (all the different card decks and faction special rules).

The other neat thing is how positions solidify over the game. While some have complained about this, saying it’s too hard to break into other players’ positions in the late-game, I see this as a feature. One of the problems with a game like The Napoleonic Wars or A Game of Thrones is that it seems a bit too easy to rein in anyone who gets ahead. In Revolution, carefully built-up positions can’t simply be wrecked because you’re ahead on the last turn, and so there is some incentive to invest rather than just trying to hang back and then make a late-game surge. Likewise, you want to keep an eye on your opponents lest they build up too strong a position, and try to intervene early. This is good. And unlike Civilization (or especially Advanced Civilization), the game doesn’t seem to go past the point where the outcome is apparent, although one player doing poorly may suffer through the last turn.

The big question hanging over Revolution is that of playing time. The box gives the rather wide and uninformative range of between 4 and 8 hours (perhaps after Phalanx’ ridiculous underestimate of playing time for previous games). We played in 4.5, despite a couple of handicaps: it was everyone’s first game and we had to go to the rules to figure stuff out on a number of occasions; and we were playing at Bay Area Games Day XXXVIII, which can be rather crowded, loud, and so a bit disconcerting. I’ve heard reports of much longer playing times, though. 4.5 hours was quite comfortable; I think I could have gone to 5 or 5.5 hours and still been happy. Much beyond that and it might get problematic. There is definitely opportunity here for analysis paralysis; there are a lot of things to work through, and the situation can get complicated. I think you want to try to peg this at 5 hours, and make sure that people are thinking while others are moving, and do stuff in parallel when possible.

Bottom line, I quite liked this play-through of Revolution and am looking forward to trying it again sometime soon. While it doesn’t quite have the obvious visceral thrill of, say, A Game of Thrones (a game I can’t help thinking of it alongside, despite their lack of any real similarities other than being multi-player and conflict-based), on the other hand it seems like a fundamentally very well-crafted game, as most Tresham games are, and really makes an effort to address the fundamental problems of these free-form multi-player conflict games. And it seems to succeed.

Empire of the Sun

I’m trying to keep an open mind about this game. Mark Herman has a reputation as a top-of-the-line game designer (not that I’m entirely convinced of this myself), and the card-driven wargame format still has such great untapped potential.

But it’s hard.

It’s hard to work through a game with rules this poor and still keep up your optimism. How many really good wargames have had really lousy rulebooks? I can’t think of any. It’s hard to deal with player aids with multiple egregious errors and not have a sneaking suspicion that this is a game that is, at best, half done, and wonder if the designer and developer aren’t just wasting my time. And it’s hard to face the fact that your nice professionally-printed rulebook has become obsolete and replaced with stapled-together photocopies within days of actual players getting their hands on the game.

Empire of the Sun, like Mark Herman’s previous We the People and For the People games, is based on card play. Cards have either a simple numerical operation value or an event. The operations value of the card abstractly represents the level of preparation for an offensive: a higher value means both more units can be involved and they can come from further away – and also that the defender will have an easier time reacting to it. The defender can react by playing cards of his own, or can rely on die rolls; Allied security is pretty tight, and the Japanese will have a hard time reacting to most smaller operations, while due to the efforts of Magic, Japanese operations are about as secure as Internet Explorer, and the Allies should be able to intercept most of the time even without a card play.

I think this offensives procedure, the heart of the game, works very well. As an idea it’s simple, produces a historical feel, leverages the advantages of the strategy cards, and forces interesting choices. The difference between a 1 and a 3 ops isn’t as great as it is in Hannibal, so you don’t get the same level of tension – for the Japanese, even their small operations will tend to be easily intercepted, so 1 operations seem rarely useful – but it works well enough.

Unfortunately, even here in the heart of the game where things should be rock-solid, Empire of the Sun has rules problems. It takes a full page just to explain the very simple loss-allocation system, and the rules essentially admit that they aren’t really confident as to whether it works or not and if all the contingincies are covered (it’s right there on the bottom of the left column on page 19). The air movement rules are, when viewed in the best possible light, confusing. The procedure for doing an interception – basically, roll a die and roll less than the number printed on the card, with a single possible +2 modifier – should take about 5 lines to explain, but instead it takes about two over-wordy paragraphs, copied and pasted a couple times, and is then restated in summary a few more times (I count one paragraph-length explanation, 5.22, and then another two paragraphs dedicated to this in 6.25 C & D, much – but not all – of which is duplicated. Then we have overviews of the intelligence die roll again in 4.22 – which has a half column overview of an offensive – then again in 6.1, which dedicates another half-column to an overview of an offensive).

This is frustrating beyond a reasonable point, but ultimately tractable. What is more frustrating are the victory conditions. The Pacific Theatre is a hard problem, as Mr. Herman admits in the designer’s notes, and coming up with sensible victory conditions isn’t easy. But the ones in here are not particularly satisfactory.

To win, the Allies have to either invade and conquer Japan or accomplish three tasks: hit Japan with strategic bombers for four turns in a row; strip Japan of all but one resource hex; and have a B29 in range of Tokyo.

This might sound plausible, but much of it depends on pure luck. Strategic Bombing is just a die roll; if you roll a ‘9’ on the turn your first B29 arrives, when you only have one bomber, you’re out of luck and will have to do a far more difficult invasion of Japan. There are two resource hexes in Manchuria that the Western Allies are legally barred from taking, and can only realistically be taken by the Soviets (the Chinese are at least allowed to attack them, but they are so far away it’s a practical impossibility) … which requires a sequence of cards to come out in the right order – Tojo resigns, followed by the Soviet Manchurian invasion – cards over which the players have only the most minimal levels of control. I haven’t tried to figure the odds, but given the huge 80 card decks for each player, this is not a highly-predictable event.

So, whether you get to do the easy option or the really hard option is more or less a crap shoot. OK, so let’s say you’ve consigned yourself to invading Japan. This is not inherently a problem. However, the game also features an abstract War in Europe. As this heats up, the Allied army and army air reinforcements may be sent to Europe. The problem is, it’s entirely possible, through simple bad luck, to lose enough infantry corps in this way to make an invasion of Japan impossible, as happened to Milton in our game. What we saw was that as the war wound down, it became clear that the odds of the Tojo/Soviet cards coming out in time and in the right order were vanishingly small. So the Japanese just withdrew every unit in their order of battle and piled them into the Japanese mainland, stripped China of all of its replacement points, and waited. Since the Americans had lost all but two or three corps to the war in Europe, they were screwed. All the prior interesting play, and all the investment in the 30-page rulebook, had come down to a handful of dice rolls and card draws over which the players had essentially no control. And it should be noted, that even had the Allies not lost their reinforcements (or if the Olympic/Coronet card returned the units that were lost to Europe, which would only be realistic and fair), invading Japan is exceptionally dicey. The Japanese are likely to get a few turns of warning that an invasion is going to be the only way for the Allies to win, in which they can recall most of their units to Japan and dig in (a couple poor-quality reduced air units are all that is required to shield units using strategic movement from the wrath of the entire Allied carrier and submarine fleet, and there are no limits on how many Japanese units can be sea-transported). If they do this, the Allies have no chance to clear Japan given how attritional ground combat is and how bloody amphibious assaults are.

To call this endgame underwhelming would be an understatement. One of my fundamental rules of gaming is that player control has to go up with the rules and game length. For me personally, if you’re going to make me learn 30+ pages of rules and play for 8 hours, I really, really have to feel like my play matters. Preferably a lot.

Can the game overcome these problems? Possibly. The most promising angle is simply to admit that neither the first turn of the Pacific War (the Japanese surprise attack) nor the last year (where the Allies are simply trying to dismantle the outclassed, outgunned, and outnumbered Japanese in the most efficient manner possible) make for terribly compelling gaming for either player. So the real game here is ’42-’43, maybe through early ’44, and if we accept this than the hokey victory conditions for the full game can be ignored. In ’42 and ’43, the good parts of the game are predominant, and the balance goes from Japanese strength to Allied strength, but not in such an extreme way. And you have all kinds of things going on: the Central Pacific campaign, the Solomons, China-Burma-India, and China proper, all of which are interesting. Both sides have hitting power. The event decks have variety and seem flavorful and well-done, in general. And there is real tension in the operations card play in this period. All good stuff.

In the end, I haven’t played that much, so my judgement is not definitive yet. My enthusiasm for the campaign game has been significantly blunted now that I’ve played it, but I am still reasonably enthused by the middle war years. I think there is good stuff in Empire of the Sun, but the fact that it feels like the last round (or rounds) of playtesting are being done by the customer who paid $50-$75 is definitely demoralizing. Once things settle down, this may turn into a good game, but even then it’s still going to be a bit of a niche game in my opinion – one more for the technocrats, and I think it is, unsurprisingly, going to appeal to the same folks who liked For the People. For those of us who are waiting with growing impatience for the card-driven wargame that follows in the footsteps of Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage … I think I can safely say we’re still waiting.

More Euros, plus the long awaited Watch Your Back

Shadow of the Emperor: Last time I wrote about this game, I talked a bit about what I call gratuitous hoseage, i.e., that players will often be forced to make a decision that helps or hinders one of the other players, and the only thing driving the decision is who he or she thinks is winning (or, if we were to be less generous, who he or she doesn’t like, finds annoying, won the last game, etc). The “Munchkin” factor, perhaps. For obvious reasons, I don’t like to see this sort of thing in games to any degree – if you’re going to have to whack someone, there should ideally be some in-game reason which you can plausibly claim directly helps your own prospects. So if, on a scale of 1 to 10, we rate Munchkin a 10 and Quo Vadis a 1 in this respect, where is Shadow of the Emperor? Probably about a 3 or 4. Not bad on the scale of things, but just enough to make me slightly uncomfortable, and enough for my enthusiasm for the game to taper a bit. I still like it, as the game has a wealth of interesting tactics and flavor, and I am not disappointed with my purchase. I’m still good for a few more games, so it’ll make it to 10 plays comfortably. But I think it’s not a long-term keeper.

Lord of the Rings: Black Tiles: We had 5 players. Lord of the Rings was the game we settled on. We didn’t want to deal with the complexity of Sauron or difficulty of Friends and Foes. “How about this black tile mini-expansion from Sauron?” he asks, innocently. “They probably won’t make the game much more difficult, and they might be interesting”. With this blissful appraisal, we started Sauron on 10 (as I always do when playing the basic game). By the time we were out of Moria (exiting via the last event, not through card play), Sauron was on 5, several Hobbits were up to 3 and 4, and things were looking grim. No, I think “hopeless” might be a better word.

But I’m always energized by these hopeless causes, perhaps because I spent my youth rooting for the Cleveland Indians in the late 70s and into the 80s. Sure, we may be just a few percentage points from being mathematically eliminated, and it might only be May, but that’ll just make victory all the sweeter.

With that kind of lead-in, I hardly need tell you that we didn’t win. However, we did save considerable face by making it a chunk of the way into Mordor, which is better than any of those Indians teams ever did – I figured we’d be lucky to make it through Helm’s Deep. And I think if we had played with a little less desperation, we would have made it at least a little further still, and if we had started on 12, we would have had a pretty good shot at the win. In retrospect, those black tiles are pretty nasty. If they had been designed to make things easier, I guess they would have been some friendlier shades of blue or green. So learn from my experience, and start Sauron one notch higher when you break them out. But, I do really like the more varied penalties on them, along with the choices about which to face, and I think they make the game somewhat more interesting. And once you’ve played a game as often as we’ve played Lord of the Rings, it’s good to have some variety.

Einfach Genial: Last time, I mentioned that I had become a little dissatisfied with the 4-player version of Einfach Genial, because a losing player will sometimes get to make a move to decide who wins, which occasionally can’t be done in an impartial way (the 3-player version doesn’t appear to have this problem). So when we had 4 again, we went with the partnership version. I enjoyed this version, and it seemed a much more satisfactory game than the regular 4-player version.

Wings of War: Watch Your Back: This long-delayed game was always going to be the make-or-break set for Wings of War. Famous Aces was a very fun game, but it required a certain “suspension of competitive instincts” to play well, in that everyone had to be willing to mix it up and not run away or delay or try to optimize too much. Now, though, we have some two-seaters and scenarios with fixed objectives and no excuses. Cool. We played the scenario with an Austrian bomber and escort opposed by two Italian fighters.

Here’s the thing. The Austrian bomber is faster, more heavily armed, and not measurably less maneuverable as the lousier of the two fighters trying to intercept. So the Austrians have not only more ways to win (reaching the objective and returning, or just shooting down the interceptors), they also have arguably better planes. This didn’t thrill the Italian players; this scenario might have been more balanced if there had been no Austrian escort at all! Something to think about the next time we have 3 for this game. Those two-seaters are really tough, they can just keep blasting away as it’s really hard to avoid the guns, and the lack of maneuverability is not as critical in the short, fixed-objective scenario.

So … if we did this again, I would definitely upgrade one of the intercepting fighters to a Sopwith or a Spad from the Famous Aces set, to at least give the interceptors a more significant speed, maneuverability, and firepower edge. All that said, though, seeing the two-seater in action was cool. Keeping in mind that some of the fighters in the Watch Your Back set are quite weak, I’m definitely ready to try it again.

Euro Roundup

Warriors: This is the Alan R Moon/Richard Borg game from Face 2 Face. It came out sometime late last year; I passed on it due to the 8+ on the side of the box and the fact that Face 2 Face does not yet have a winning track record for me (I’ve always disliked Kohl, Kies, und Knete/I’m the Boss rather intensely, and Buy Word seemed like a half-finished game to me). This is apparently an attempt to do Risk in a card game format, and I’d say it succeeded: it’s fairly tedious, random, and feels vaguely pointless while you’re playing it. Play some cards, pick on someone to attack, misunderstand the surprisingly fiddly rules, roll some dice. I see no reason to play this game as an adult, and I’m having a hard time spinning a reason to inflict it on your kids either. It’s rather cheap at least. And it is short. But play Clash of the Gladiators instead.

Candamir: Last time I played this, I thought this was a rather clever system with potential. I still do, but I don’t think that the game actually in the box delivers on the potential. The game is just too long and doesn’t quite have the player interaction a Settlers-style game requires. You spend too much time off in the wilderness, not trading or interacting with the other players. Otherwise, a lot of the game is great, but for a long game it’s missing the momentum that keeps you going. Interestingly, Teuber’s other most recent Settlers spin-off, Anno 1503, had the same problem. I am aware that Starfarers of Catan had similar initial play length problems, and eventually came down to a comfortable 90-120 minute play length, and I now consider it a classic. But in Starfarers, there were obvious efficiency gains to be made by knowing what you’re doing. It’s not clear that this is the case for Candamir. The game is largely in the flavor of adventuring, which is rather well-done, but not quite cool enough to keep me going for the length of the game.

Diamant: When I first played Diamant a couple weeks ago, I liked it well enough, but was taken a bit aback by what you’ve got to pay for it here in the US (and even the €20+ in the Europe is a bit steep). Further play has solidified it as a nice game, but basically a pretty plain-vanilla guessing game, good as filler, fun, but not something you’d want to pay that much for.

Louis XIV: This is now up to about 5 plays, and doing well. I quite enjoy it, but I have a hard time seeing how it’s going to make it past about 15 games or so. There just isn’t enough variability in the system for it to have strong replay value – the texture of the game is going to be pretty much the same each time. 15 plays is rather good, though, and I’m quite happy with the $25 I spent on it.

And finally, an older game …

Trias: Trias is a pretty straightforward influence game: get the most guys on various continents, which evolve as the game goes on. I think what keeps Trias coming off the shelf occasionally is just how differently the board develops each game, even though the continental drift rules are so simple. Sometimes you get dinky little continents breaking off one at a time, sometimes the big central island takes forever to break up, sometimes you get a few big islands, sometimes you get a bunch of dinky ones, sometimes you get a mix. It always has a different feel. It’s not a deep game, so it’s going to be one of those games you keep on your shelf and bring out only a few times a year, and it would probably suffer if overplayed. But given that constraint, a very nice little game.