Origins – Day 3

One thing you may notice here is an absence of any traditional wargames from my schedule. No Columbia games, no Europe Engulfed, no Ardennes ’44, no Lock ‘n Load, no OCS, no Barbarossa to Berlin or Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage. The simple reason– as arresting as this may sound – is that there are virtually no scheduled wargame events at Origins, the largest and most all-encompassing of American game conventions. The people who run the War Room, CABS, have gone with the “bring a game and try to find someone to play it” model, which on the one hand makes their job of organizing the “event” extremely simple – trivially simple, actually, as they provide no coordination whatsoever – but on the other hand it more or less ensures the hemorrhaging of players to other, more reliable events, or other cons, or to not coming at all. Sure enough, the War Room was looking decidedly thin and slightly sad this year, even more so than last year, as there was almost as much table space dedicated to leaving unplayed games set up as there was to actual game playing, and of the rest of the space, a significant fraction of it was dedicated to eurogaming (the most commonly played single game seemed to be Goa) as the local CABS folks more or less treated the area as their own pick-up game room. If I travel 2500 miles to a con, I want to be able to schedule, and apparently lots of other people agree with me, judging by how few were present here. Usually Columbia runs a fairly reliable area – if you show up you can get in a Hammer of the Scots or Wizard Kings or something else short-to-medium-ish – but neither Grant nor Tom were in attendance this year unfortunately and they left things in the hands of CABS, not a very smart move if you want your games played.

However, I did get to play a pre-production copy of War of the Ring in the Fantasy Flight area, part of the main boardgame hall. The copy was still a little rough – the cards were paste-ups, and the rules were still in single-sided, double-spaced, no illustrations rough draft format, if that gives you some help on when you might expect this to show up in retail shops – but everything was there and it was good for a go.

I think I can say two things for sure about War of the Ring: firstly, it doesn’t suck. Secondly, that it’s still a ways away from being the ultimate Tolkien game, and it’s not truly top-shelf. Somewhere between, say, 4 and 8 on the 10-point rating scale. Beyond that, I am still rather conflicted, and so what you’re going to get is, to some degree, waffle. So here you go.

The core wargame here is an Axis & Allies/Risk derivative game, although with a few twists. There are only two unit types, standard footsoliders (hits on 5 and 6, absorbs one hit) and elite units like Warg Riders, Oliphunts, and Cavalry (also hits on 5 and 6, downgrades to standard on the first hit it absorbs, and more critically some event cards have effects tied to elite units). Only 5 units can be used in combat at a time, although the excess may absorb losses. This gives combat a definite Risk/A&A hybrid feel, simpler and more attritional than A&A, but less tedious than Risk. I must say this lack of any unit differentiation – no, cavalry doesn’t move any faster than infantry nor is it any more potent; no, the Elephants and Trolls are not very impressive in combat without fairly uncommon combat cards; no, the Free Peoples and Sauron’s armies do not handle any differently – and the fact that combat resolution is rather simplistic and mostly a matter of pushing around big stacks all were rather disappointing.

The most interesting and successful bit of the core design is the dice that control your strategic options. Each action die has a bunch of faces on it, including Recruit/Diplomacy, Move/Attack, Leadership (used for activating armies with leaders or moving the fellowship, which works as a slightly more interactive Anakin track a la The Queen’s Gambit), Card Action (draw or play), and Wild (for the good guys) or Ring-hunting (bad guys). Each impulse you use one of your dice and do what it says, until both sides are out of dice, when a new turn begins. The good guys start with 4 dice, the bad guys with 6 (perhaps 7? My memory is hazy), but you can add dice in various ways (the bad guys for example get one each for bringing in Saruman, The Witch King, and the Mouth of Sauron). This is nice and produces some turn angst, as you try to figure out the best way to spend the dice you’ve got. The only snag is that you roll the dice openly, so your opponent can sometimes know for certain that you can’t move any more armies, for example, and so can act more freely than otherwise.

The other kind of neat aspect of this is that Sauron has to choose how many dice to allocate to prosecuting the war (i.e., rolling normally), and searching for the Fellowship. In practice, this doesn’t work quite as well as one might hope, because the decision is done openly, and in order to make much of a difference to the Fellowship’s progress, Sauron will have to apply enough dice so that he has little chance to accomplish much on the board, and once they Free Peoples see 3 or 4 dice stacked up they simply don’t bother to move the Fellowship that turn and instead concentrate on Sauron’s poorly-defended outposts like Moria or Carn Dum while his armies are paralyzed by a lack of action dice. In general, the ability to see your opponent’s capabilities in these matters openly, and the fact that you as a player have to trade off moving Frodo with, say, having Aragorn counterattack at Helm’s Deep, is thematically rather unconvincing. But more on this later.

The flavor of the game is provided by the event cards, which give you many of the events from the books, albeit in a slightly disjointed manner. Each side has two packs of cards, one with “army” events and one with “character” events. You get one from each pack by default each turn, and you can play them or draw more with your card action die results. Each card has two events, a general type (which costs an action to play) and a combat type (which is free). These actually work rather well, but only up to a point. On the one hand, it’s fun to slap down a card and watch the Ents overrun Isengard. On the other hand, they have a very “take that” feel, which can make the theme feel a bit pasted on. For example, for your Oliphunts to work any differently from regular Orcs in battle requires playing a specific card. With some events (like the aforementioned Ents), you end up knowing they’re coming eventually, which can have some good effects (forcing Saruman to act quickly because you know he’s on a short leash, thus generating this “historic” course of events even if for very wrong reasons), but it also can feel a bit awkward. It’s top-down design, as it were – stuff from the book happens, not because you as a player are put in the position of the actors in the book, but because the game makes them happen. Most things that happened in the book will happen, and you expect it. Since so much of the charm of the book is the drama of the improbable and unexpected, this is a shame. The events tend not to flow but to simply happen: “Hey, the Balrog popped up! The Ents are rampaging! Oops, they’re gone now”.

However, by far the worst offender on the theme front is the concept of the Fellowship military victory. This requires the Free Peoples to take two Evil strongholds (to be clear, this really does mean just two strongholds – not two more than they’ve lost). Often wargames have some sort of auto-victory that should never happen, but is included for historicity’s sake and to keep one side honest. This is not the case here. The Fellowship military victory is not a stretch, but a constant threat to Sauron and is quite obtainable even in a nightmare Free People scenario of a completely overrun Gondor and Rohan and a stalled out and mauled Fellowship. This is because it can be had by sniping at the flanks, which are often surprisingly poorly guarded – Moria, for example, can be cleared out by the Rivendell and Lorien Elves if Sauron doesn’t pay attention, since the Orcs there are surprisingly paltry, the Balrog doesn’t exist even to defend Moria except through usually unavailable cards, and Rivendell and Arnor can crank out new Elves and Rangers at almost the same rate as Sauron can crank out Orcs. Odd. None of these are game-breakers from the usual standpoints of balance, interesting decision making opportunities, etc., but this is a game selling itself on theme.

So as I say, I am conflicted. The underlying wargame is decent and appears rather well-balanced, if not as fundamentally interesting as I’d like (although as a fairly serious board wargamer, my standards are high). The cards are nicely thematic at times, but at times also feel a bit too much like a take-that card game. The roll-dice-for-actions system is nice and generates tension and tough choices, but the fact that they are rolled openly makes things occasionally awkward and the system itself tends to limit strategic choice and flexibility to some degree. The problem of the victory conditions, the rock against which every attempt to do this game eventually breaks, hasn’t been swept aside just yet, and here clearly represents game system necessity. The theme really just doesn’t feel like it runs that deep, and the game feels constrained to follow the events of the books.

So despite some interesting stuff, and some nicely flavorful cards, for me there just is no “wow” factor here. It was an enjoyable enough time, and I would play again … but I would have wished for more, and I just don’t know if the game is quite there.

Now, having said all this, the caveat of course is that these are ramblings based on only one play of a preproduction copy, and even that not under ideal circumstances. We had two players on a side, but basically that just meant we discussed and decided on courses of action as a team, which never yields good results – as evidenced by the fact that no Army I know of uses a co-generals model. There is really no way to divide responsibility here, you can’t just say “you take Arnor and the Fellowship, I’ll take Gondor and Rohan” – the game just doesn’t work like that, the real money is in deciding where to use your activations, not in the tactics of moving the pieces around once you’ve decided. My ally and I were at loggerheads on a number of such decisions which could not be satisfactorily resolved, so … this is really a 2-player game.

The game bears watching, and I fully intend to play it again once it comes out, to give it another fair shot. For one thing, all other considerations aside, I have been taught rules incorrectly countless times at Origins, and even small mistakes can make a big difference. But my initial impression was that it didn’t measure up in either gameplay or theme to the previous champion in the “licensed game with lots of plastic” arena, Star Wars: The Queen’s Gambit. Keep an eye on it given the decent fun factor inherent in the Axis & Allies-style design (A&A has always been plagued by inadequate playtesting, not a failure of the fundamental design), and the amusement factor in plopping down cards that say “Ents Rampage!” or somesuch. For me, though, while I still look forward to the release, it’s dropped from “most likely buy” to “may buy, but the price is high and maybe we could split a copy”.

Medici: I played with 4 as part of the Kniziathon, although not as serious contestants (the competition started much earlier, Kim & I just wanted to play some Knizia games). Medici is a good game, but it doesn’t shine with fewer than 5 or 6. Not enough competition, I think. There is better stuff for 4. I got to play this with Joshua Alderson. You may be disappointed to learn that he just isn’t that cranky in person. Not cranky at all, in fact. A very enjoyable game.

My last game of the day was my only RPG session, a D&D adventure titled “Plague on Barsoom” run by Amorphous Blob and set in the world of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Mars books (I later learned that this was not really D&D, but a heavily customized variant for the setting). Sadly, the GM had come down ill and we were unable to play.

So Kim did something that I wasn’t quite able to bring myself to do, and that was get into the Buffy the Vampire Slayer game at the next table. I went back to the Rio Grande area to play some more various euro games. I think she made the smarter choice, as it turns out.

I gather that Buffy uses something called “Unisystem”, a rather simple RPG system. It’s still attribute/skill based, but much simpler than D&D. For one thing, skills are very broad-based. In D&D, they are pretty specific and are things like “Hide”, “Move Silently”, “Spot”, “Use Rope”, “Escape Artist”, and such … some 20+ skills in all. In Buffy, you’ve got only a total of about 15 skills, covering “Crime”, “Doctor”, “Languages”, “Science”, and the ever-popular “Getting Medieval”. This makes things a lot easier. Then either the “depth and detail” or “morass” (your choice) of the d20 combat rules have been largely dumped in favor of playability and bringing back some speed and tension to combats.

Now, Buffy as a TV show is pretty entertaining but as an RPG setting it might leave something to be desired. I mean, how many plots are there really? For this session, the players were actually playing low-level flunky Vampires, who needed to retrieve an ancient relic in order to resurrect some baddie. Yeah, that’s original. But as with the TV show the play’s the thing here, not the plot, and the group I gather had a lot of fun with it. Getting into the spirit of Buffy, especially the rather typecast bad guys, isn’t too hard. Especially when you’re pretty sure all the PCs are going to get slaughtered by Buffy and the gang when they show up. I think of the 5 PCs, there were 2 survivors – the ones who ran away.

Talking with Kim immediately afterwards, it was a real gut check on why we were investing so much time and energy into the overwrought D&D. She’s since backed off on this position a bit, since D&D is of course a much more versatile system (although the Buffy RPG does have a spin-off Angel RPG, which I hear is much more broad-based), and Buffy – largely due to the somewhat limited nature of the theme – is more of a one-off system, something you play the occasional adventure of on a lark.

Anyway, I was kicking myself for not getting into this game, because Kim had a lot of fun and I think I would have enjoyed it. I got to play some more Saint Petersburg (and meet Jeremy Avery, another very nice guy who I enjoyed gaming with) and San Juan, which was fun, but is something I get to do plenty of at home. Next con, I’ll make room for some Buffy.