A Distant Plain

The area around Kabul gets a lot of action

The area around Kabul gets a lot of action

Although I wasn’t very impressed by Andean Abyss, I’m still intrigued by the idea of GMT’s COIN game system, so I went up to EndGame in Oakland to join in their biweekly(ish) wargaming group to try to give A Distant Plain a fair shot.

I’d actually played the game once previously in a near-final playtest version, and hadn’t been very impressed. It’s sill unconscionably long when payed to 5 propaganda cards, easily 6+ hours if the game goes the distance (today we played to the 3rd propaganda cards of a 4-card “short” game in 4 hours). The green faction (the Warlords here) is still pretty boring and basically just doing the one or two things that they do and praying nobody notices; however unlike the Cartels in Andean Abyss, the Warlords in A Distant Plain face extremely daunting victory conditions. The pacing is still pretty slow unless players make a conscious effort to move the game quickly. It’s still completely bewildering the first time you try to play it as each faction has its own set of actions available, and there is a proliferation of different levels players are competing on. The Government wants to control population and pad their Swiss bank accounts but doesn’t care whether their citizens are actually happy; the Coalition wants people to support the government at low cost but doesn’t care about military control; the Warlords want to keep the the state destabilized; and the Taliban just wants everyone to be unhappy.

The magic in A Distant Plain is the relationship between the (Afghan Central) Government and the (US-led) Coalition. Broadly speaking, the idea of the game is that there are two fronts in the war: the military battle for control of territory, and the battle for the hearts and minds of the population. The Government’s  goal is to physically control territory; they are only interested in hearts and minds to the extent that it allows them to engage in graft without the population immediately going over to the Taliban. The Coalition is interested only in hearts and minds, but you can only win hearts and minds by first militarily controlling territory. The two players don’t trust each other, but do have to share a checkbook and have some joint military command. Only one can win. Cue endless and entertaining bickering. This is the soul of the game and does capture the incredibly fraught relationship between the US and Hamid Karzai.

By contrast the positions of the Taliban is fine but far less interesting, and probably not going to keep you going for 4+ hours. The Warlords probably only have about 2 hours in them. So play the short game.

The other important thing I think A Distant Plain improves over Andean Abyss is that it amps up the power of the event card deck. In Andean Abyss, players seemed to quickly figure out that most of the events were really hard to justify taking given the opportunity cost (i.e., not moving pieces on the board). More powerful events mean more get used, which means more flavor, more tension, and quicker play – all good. One player felt like it might have gone too far, but I feel that’s unlikely. Whether it’s hit the sweet spot is hard to tell for sure obviously – this is a rather involved game – but it’s clearly closer.

Like Andean Abyss, A Distant Plain is a complete-information whack-the-leader and be-ahead-at-the-end game with simple and open scores. It’s not great, but at least at this point you should know what you’re in for. You need to be able to enjoy the journey here more than the destination.

Also like Andean Abyss, I remain somewhat frustrated by how superficially A Distant Plain treats the subject matter. For example, A Distant Plain portrays the Government as corrupt by making its endgame victory condition goal being corrupt (each time they take a Govern action, they convert support for the government into patronage, and win on a combination of military control and patronage, not support). There is no sense of or examination of why the Government is so corrupt, or the fact that the only way the US or the Afghan Government actually win this thing (or even establish the foundations for legitimate counter-insurgency) is by hacking away at that corruption. As long as that corruption is a fact of the game, the Coalition might as well go home. The  government was and is so weak because the real power outside of Kabul resides with warlords, which drives corruption at the center. But in A Distant Plain, the Warlords are just a warmed over version of the Drug Cartels from Andean Abyss. A Distant Plain would have been more interesting and authentic – at least if it’s really attempting to be a game about COIN – if it had not been satisfied with just having a great Coalition-Afghan Government relationship, but had attacked the relationship between the Warlords and the Afghan Government and the Warlords and the Taliban with the same vigor.

I also have to say I find the area control mechanics of the cubes-and-cylinders game not very evocative of the violence that has wracked Afghanistan. You’ll get some sense of the human cost inflicted on the Taliban as those cylinders routinely get wiped out by Government and Coalition offensives and airstrikes, and Government cubes are unreliable and will go home or be infiltrated or suborned. But the Taliban doesn’t seem to have the incentive or means to inflict damage on Coalition or even Government cubes. “Good guys” going to the casualty box will be a rare occurrence unless the Taliban can snag a good set of capabilities cards, and should not tax your conscience.

If you’re interested in the topic of counterinsurgency in general and Afghanistan in particular, I recommend Max Boot’s Invisible Armies, which is a solid survey history of insurgency and counter-insurgency. Also Fred Kaplan’s The Insurgents (not those insurgents) and Daydream Believers, as well as his many columns for War Stories over at Slate, in which he has discussed the surges and the complicated relationships between Washington and Kabul at some length. While I think A Distant Plain does an interesting job of tackling elements of the war, to me it relates the stories of the battles but not the actual fundamentals of counter-insurgency. Perhaps due to the currency and rawness of the topic it couldn’t do any more, but if that’s the case, why make it?

I’ve saved the worst for last, mostly because it’s the least interesting, but the design of the action cards which are central (and crucial) to the game is truly awful. The pictures are small and busy and you often have to squint at them to make out what’s going on. The text size is small and low-contrast and hard to read even when you have excellent light and are looking right at it, which of course you almost never are because it’s right across the board. The sandy background further disrupts the already terrible readability. It’s unforgivably bad and is a significant obstacle to enjoying actual face-to-face play (does all playtesting take place over VASSAL these days?). These needed to be either on larger cards with bigger fonts, or the pictures needed to be ditched, or something, because a crucial element of the game is borderline unusable.

So I won’t deny there are a number of things about the game that bug me, some of them pretty significant. I’m trying to decide if the fact that it has one really great thing plus a generally more nuanced and interesting texture than Andean Abyss makes it worth playing. I don’t have a definitive answer, but I do think it has a lot more going for it than the previous game did. Even if it’s not a panacea, the central driver of the US-Afghanistan relationship gives the game a soul that Andean Abyss lacked. The better and more interesting event mix gives the game a bit more energy and motion. I think if you know what you’re getting into and set expectations appropriately it’s worth a shot, although some experience with the much shorter Cuba Libre will be valuable in making it less daunting. Just stick to the short game, and make sure the pace moves.

Göthe takes on The Virgin Queen

Despite having turned on Here I Stand after a handful of games, I picked up The Virgin Queen at GMT West last year – lured perhaps by the lower turn count, the more open game situation, the promise of more reasonable rules for playing with fewer players, and the memory that I did enjoy Here I Stand for a number of games before it became tedious.

What I find interesting about both games is that they seem to defy basic critical analysis as games for me. Göthe says that in a work of criticism, we should figure out what something is trying to do, whether it succeeded in doing it, and whether it was worth doing. That first question is where The Virgin Queen mystifies me. OK, we know that it’s trying to portray the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. But that’s too broad to be helpful. What is the game trying to say? And how, exactly, is it trying to say it?

It’s clearly not going the abstract, high-level route favored by many successful thematic games: Beowulf, Settlers, Lord of the Rings, Pandemic, Modern Art, Sekigahara, Napoleon’s Triumph, Rommel in the Desert, or perhaps Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage, just to pick a few. These games try to focus on just one or at most a few really essential things about the topic (Bowen Simmons used the term quiddity) and use that as the cornerstone of the design. Clearly, limiting scope is a foreign concept to The Virgin Queen, and the many and varied subsystems (mini-games, almost) are given fairly equal design weight.

Another design option is to focus on the decision making of the historical parties and try to convey the forces that pressed on them. This is the method Mark Herman called out in the designer’s notes for For the People, and while I don’t think it was particularly successful there, a great example of a game system where it works is the Great Campaigns of the American Civil War series (the most recent, in-print installment being Battle Above the Clouds). While Battle Above the Clouds’ game systems are inherently abstract, with dice rolls controlling movement and initiative even though historical commanders knew quite well how far a division could march in a day, it masterfully conveys the confusion, uncertainty, and murk those commanders faced in a way that remains fun to play and recreates the historical press-your-luck decision making pressures. Another classic game in this mold is Up Front, and Labyrinth might be trying to go this route also. Clearly this is also not the approach The Virgin Queen is taking. The trade-offs made by players in The Virgin Queen are fundamentally arbitrary – Elizabeth I didn’t have some spreadsheet in which she allocated some of her budget to Shakespeare, some of it to New World piracy, and some of it to whacking Catholics. She certainly never thought, “hey, if I can avoid getting married ever, I’ll earn a bunch of VP!”. I’ve never been able to get my head around how the cards in The Virgin Queen (or The Napoleonic Wars) are supposed to be driving authentic, or even interesting, decision-making pressures.

Another way you can go is to be representational. The idea here is to present a playing field that is as rich a simulation as is possible or reasonable as constrained by the game’s complexity targets, then throw out the historical personalities and let the players step into their place. Obviously, a key here is being able to blend sensible abstraction of key elements and knowing when simulation detail is useful in either producing interesting and evocative decisions or eliciting emotional response, but the idea of authentically portraying processes is key. Vance von Borries is a master of this sort of design, and Mark Simonitch’s ‘4X games are great examples of games that both focus in on critical factors, abstracting the rest, while also having just the right amount of simulation detail. Other great examples to my mind include Europe and Asia Engulfed, EastFront and Downtown. This is an approach in which the key difficulty is knowing how much complexity is sensible, something about which reasonable people can disagree. Regardless, The Virgin Queen isn’t doing this either. The idea that many of the game’s manifold distinct and abstract subsystems – patronage, piracy, naval operations, religious conflict – are modeling historical processes is laughable.

The Virgin Queen, like Here I Stand, feels very similar to other “card-driven” GMT titles like Twilight Struggle, Paths of Glory, Barbarossa to Berlin, and The Napoleonic Wars. They are all resource management games where the resources being managed are abstract and not really in service of any thematic focus. The subject matter is just window dressing – sometimes rather nice window dressing, but still. These games just seem to be trying to present the players with constant tough decisions. As games, they are successful to the extent that they can do that. Paths of Glory: definitely, at least for a few games; Barbarossa to Berlin: yes, at least when the cardplay is viewed in conjunction with the more representational on-board tactical game; Twilight Struggle: for me, eh, not so much, although others find the decision-making more compelling; The Napoleonic Wars: no.

If this is the this way we’re going to view the games, both Here I Stand and The Virgin Queen must ultimately be judged failures. They don’t reliably present tough or even interesting choices once you understand the game’s basic structure. And they don’t deliver those choices in a timely manner.

I have more beefs than this with The Virgin Queen. The game is unstable and balance is suspect; the narrative tension is absent; it’s overly complex and overly long; the design of the card deck doesn’t produce useful suspense (unchanged from Here I Stand). I could enumerate and detail these and other mechanical problems. At the end of day, though, the game simply lacks a coherent thematic focus and so it lives and dies on its ability to rapidly present the players with tense decisions. Which for me, it doesn’t do.

Is this sort of thing really worth doing, especially in the space of very long, very complex games? To me, not especially. For one, getting the balance right – delivering these constant, difficult decisions to the players – is technically challenging even in a short game and gets dramatically more difficult to the point of practical impossibility as you add length, rules, and scope. For another, this is a very well-mined field. Games that deliver tough choices without much thematic payload are a dime a dozen.

I’m aware that lots of people are rather fond of both games, and even think of them as highly thematic, so I have to ask myself: maybe there is something else going on? Obviously, they find something there that I don’t, and it’s pretty unlikely that they are just wrong. I think that The Virgin Queen and Here I Stand succeed for some players for exactly the same reasons that an entirely different set of players are drawn to Arkham Horror: the players bring the fun to the table themselves, and use the game only as a touchstone. The period of Martin Luther and Elizabeth I is endlessly fascinating and a lot of history geeks know a little to a lot about it, and The Virgin Queen serves up nerdtropes for the knowledgable player to riff on. It’s a vehicle for players to share a historical experience, which is fine, but it’s not really a game in the sense that I understand games. Even by these standards I think The Virgin Queen experience doesn’t really work for the same reasons Arkham Horror doesn’t really work – the historical tidbits it serves up are infrequent and structurally incoherent – but hey, if you want to have some Reformation-period fun and wear an Elizabeth I nametag, there isn’t much else available.

Andean Abyss

Volko Ruhnke’s Andean Abyss is the first game in GMT’s new game series on counter-insurgency (COIN), with a game engine that could be described as a wargamicized El Grande (or perhaps El Grande meetsLabyrinth). Four players fight over a Colombia ravaged by insurgency, drug lords, and paramilitaries as they try to further their own factional goals. The game takes place shortly after the events of Mark Bowden’s excellent book Killing Pablo: The Hunt for the World’s Greatest Outlaw, when the Medellín drug cartels were clipped in the mid-90s. One player plays the Government, and is the driving force for the game as they try to extend their writ throughout the country. The others play the FARC revolutionaries oppose them, the AUC paramilitaries, and free agent Drug Cartels.

This might not immediately strike you as a promising subject on which to base a game. The conflict is a nasty one of assassination, kidnapping, extortion, drug trafficking, and terrorism. It’s still ongoing, and ideas about it are likely to be educated guesses mixed with speculation. However, counter-insurgency is a compelling general topic. The United States’ most problematic foreign policy for the last half-century has been hip-deep in it, and so a game that is illustrative in even a small way could be important. Colombia, relatively unknown to the Americans that are the core market for wargames, could get less bogged down in ideology. From a purely game perspective, highly asymmetric games – where different players play with different objectives, or even different rules – are interesting and highly asymmetric games, like Ruhnke’s previous game Labyrinth, are very unusual. For me personally, I’m always drawn to games that successfully tackle challenging themes. A game that could get you emotionally drawn in to the tragedy of Colombia’s wars would be incredibly compelling.

The play of Andean Abyss is driven by a deck of event cards. Each card has an ordering for the icons for the four factions (Government, FARC, AUC, Cartels) across the top, which is the turn order for this card. Two cards will always be visible, this turn’s and the next’s. Each faction in turn has the opportunity to do something – take the event, run one or many operations – or pass. Only two factions can be active on each card, and whatever the first faction does generally forces the second faction into a more restrictive action (so if the first faction does an operation, the second faction will have a limited operation). Additionally, taking an action this turn forces a faction to sit out next turn, so a cycle tends to develop, with two pairs of factions alternating cards. However, being the first faction to act usually means significantly more flexibility than going second, so it’s important to know when to pass because the turn order on the next card up is favorable and giving up an opportunity to act now will give you more freedom later.

Once you’ve decided to take an operation, your options are given by a faction-specific Chinese menu of thematically named actions: march, recruit, train, attack, assassinate, extort, airstrike, cultivate, terror, and so on. Each faction has troops (cubes for the government, cylinders for the insurgents/guerrillas) which fight for the control of areas, and bases (discs) which provide both the economic backing to fund operations and places to recruit. Control is described on two axes (population in an area can support the government or oppose it, while the area can be physically controlled by one of the factions), and there are different types of areas (regions, cities, lines of communication) with different economic and population-control implications. The Government has a lengthy process to go through of cycling in army, then police cubes in an abstraction of building up civic infrastructure while other factions try to keep their power bases and forces in being and remain flexible. While there is a significant amount of real nuance here, to me it felt like just a really complicated and asymmetric variant of El Grande. You need your cubes in the right place and in sufficient quantity to control areas. If they’re out of position you need to move them. If you don’t have enough pieces on the board, you need to get more out. If you’re short money to fund actions, you need to get out more bases or do some extortion.

Volko Ruhnke is the designer of both Andean Abyss and Labyrinth, so it’s not surprising that to the extent that both games succeed, they succeed in similar ways, and where they fail, the failings are similar also. Labyrinth may have struggled with politics, reality, and a wonky endgame, but it was remarkable for how well it allowed two very different player positions with different motivations and different tools to play the same game. Importantly, neither position or viewpoint was privileged over the other – both Jihadists and the US get the same level of thematic attention from the game. Ruhnke’s older design Wilderness Wartried to do something similar, but it’s flaw (while, like Labyrinth, still being a game I enjoy) was that it privileged the British point of view somewhat over the French. The British concerns seemed to get more attention in gameplay detail and drove more of the action, while the French were essentially reactionary.

The factional viewpoints in Andean Abyss are somewhere in-between these two earlier games. The Government’s position is thematically well-developed, with a detailed process for expanding their writ. The guerrilla factions – the FARC, AUC, and Cartels –  all feel pretty similar though. They all have a broadly similar range of actions available, although they are playing to quite different game-state goals. Those different goals though are were I believe Andean Abyss goes off the rails.

The first problem is the relatively straightforward nature of the AUC and Cartel victory conditions. While the Government has to go through an involved process of pacification, and the FARC is fighting a lonely and probably doomed war for control of population and regions, the AUC and Cartels need only get a fairly small number of bases on the board and (for the Cartels) accumulate a wad of cash. These relatively minor players – with few forces, no interest in controlling population, and more limited options – are compensated with easy VCs, to the point I’ve actually never seen anyone other than the Cartels or AUC win the game. Now, this is just my I experience and I don’t actually believe it’s the way it has to be, but it brings me to my main, crucial problem with Andean Abyss, which I could have written several paragraphs ago and saved us all a lot of trouble:

Andean Abyss is a game about counter-insurgency with no – none, zero, zilch – asymmetrical information. No hidden cards, no hidden units, no mysterious capabilities. Everything is on the table all the time. You know exactly how much force everyone has everywhere, you know the entirety of the options available to everyone, you know the results of any operations anyone might run. To the extent that there is randomness to the outcome of operations – which is almost none – everyone knows the probabilities. Everyone knows exactly how the the population thinks and exactly what to do to change their minds.

This seems highly questionable from a thematic point of view and gives little sense of the murky nature of these conflicts. Not only that, it has manifestly undesirable consequences for gameplay. Instead of making quick decisions about risk, players run several degrees of chess-like move and counter-move look-ahead, because that’s how the game is clearly telling them to think, and it turns what should be a 2 or 3 hour game that would be pressing its luck to go 3 hours into a tedious marathon (my games have gone 5 hours even for the short game). Even worse though, everyone can see all the time exactly who is exactly how close to winning. So it just turns into the usual exercise of bashing whoever is in front.

I had some hopes that familiarity with the game would drive down the playing time. The menus of numerous different actions, apparently different for each faction (although less diverse than it first appears), is hugely daunting for new player to grapple with. Playing a 100% open information game where everyone has different actions available and trying to get some sense of the implications of what you’re doing requires understanding a lot of things and constantly puzzling over options. Once you’ve learned this stuff, you could hope for a more streamlined experience. Unfortunately, there are two major obstacles. Firstly, few people really want to play again after the first 5+ hour slugfest. Secondly, the time you save in understanding the game is clawed back by the fact that now everybody knows everyone has to be on the lookout to block anyone who comes close to winning. So you add a lot of less than compelling scenario analysis and back-and-forth time back in.

Finally, like Labyrinth before it, Andean Abyss ducks too many hard questions and instead presents us with a crisp, clean, and sanitized design of cylinders, cubes, disks, and highly predictable outcomes that does little to convey the violence and capriciousness of the conflict. Perhaps an RPG would be a better format to explore the tragedy of Colombia, but Andean Abyss could have done more just by integrating more historical photos into the map and reference cards (the photos on the cards are too small and too far away to reliably make out), and using a more naturalistic approach to the visual design.

I really wanted to like Andean Abyss and wanted it to be a launchpad for a new and intriguing series of games. Flawed as they were, I am still fond of Labyrinth and Wilderness War. The game mechanics of Andean Abyss – the event cards that drive turn choices, the individualized faction action menus, the light economic model backing a positional game of discs and cubes – are promising. There is clearly a game that could have been built using them. Unfortunately, Andean Abyss is not it. Despite the undeniable level of thought and detail that has gone into it, what comes out at the end is just tedious, overlong, and overcomplicated in the same way as many other much less thoughtful king-of-the-hill type multiplayer wargames are. Unless future games address the core problem of 100% information symmetry, I don’t hold out much hope the series will improve.

Sekigahara

We wargamers have this genre called “Card Driven Games” (CDGs). Back in the early aughts, this was popularized by GMT to mean “games vaguely based on the ideas in Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage, a game we know many of you like a lot”. But things have sprawled now, and the CDG brand – to the extent it means anything at all anymore – has come to encompass a lot of games which have little or nothing in common. The Kaisar’s Pirates, Empire of the Sun, and Combat Commander all show up on GMT’s “CDG” page, for example.

What has diluted the idea for me is our propensity, as gamers, to focus on mechanism rather than something that actually matters. Cards, activation points, and events are mechanisms, but if that’s all you know, you really know next to nothing about a game. Adding in the topic – say, the First World War – doesn’t help much. We’re now at the point where “a CDG on the First World War” would be an essentially vacuous description.

What made Hannibal great and distinct was not that it used cards, although clearly that was a powerful design choice. It was that it was a combination of a game that consistently managed tension well, keeping the players in constant, high-stakes conflict, combined with card design as an effective means of portraying the flavor of the period in several dimensions. In the 2nd Punic War, the loyalty of many Italian allies was fluid and having this cleanly abstracted in the card deck is great. The players know Syracuse sympathizes with the Carthaginian cause in a way that neither Roman nor Carthaginian leaders had much control over, and the cards provide an abstract way to play that out. The cards provide reasonable trade-offs between (say) using your limited political capital to get a reluctant general to seriously campaign, and reaching out to Macedon or raising auxiliaries. The system also portrays the Romans, with their rancorous and still-vaguely-Republican Senate, as having more inherent political friction than their less-representative Carthaginian foes, at least until Rome goes all-in as represented by the arrival of Scipio Africanus. All this is easy for me to say, but it requires a lot of attention to detail to get right, especially in a game of the size and scope of Hannibal.

Sekigahara is the first game to come along in a long time that manages, like Hannibal, to deliver the whole package: an elegant, playable, high-stakes game combined with highly evocative player decision-making. It’s a game where risky, high-stakes battles produce great tension, and where hidden blocks give a lot of opportunity for bluffing and hoping. It plays in 90-120 minutes of high-speed action with a ruleset that can be easily taught at the game table. But what makes it a great game for me is that at the core of the design, the cards that drive the action, is an abstraction that makes sense and is historically flavorful.

In Sekigahara, you command an uneasy alliance of factions in the quest for control of Japan. Each player controls blocks of various strengths and types from four different factions. The shifting loyalties are controlled by a deck of cards (one for each player), with each card having a symbol for one of the factions. Once battle is joined, to get a block from a given clan to actually fight you need to play a matching card. Card-play alternates back and forth, with whoever is weaker needing to commit enough strength to close the gap. Large armies can be paper tigers due to the lack of sufficient political leverage to control them, while small armies that consist of dependable troops can be potent.

Of course, this being the period that it is, we have to have treachery. Each player has Loyalty Challenge cards which can cause blocks to switch sides if a clan’s loyalty is borderline (i.e., if after committing it to battle you can’t play an additional matching card to resist the challenge). While these challenges seem to be hard to time and rarely successful, they do make you nervous every time you commit a block with your last card for that clan and are dramatic when blocks actually defect.

Another interesting dynamic is the way cards are cycled. After battle, you replace all the cards you spent. So there isn’t a net cost in cards to fight a battle, but the overall loyalty picture of the various clans tends to significantly change. Who knows what happened during the battle to cause the shift – it’s below the level of the game – but nonetheless a battle where reach deep into your hand to call on the loyalty of your Samurai is a significant event with hard-to-predict consequences for loyalty amongst your factions. You may lose influence with some of your allies while another becomes more committed.

The thing about Sekigahara is that this relatively simple system creates a lot of the subtle nuance that is the hallmark of a great game. The strongest army is usually a hard core of good blocks from a single one of your factions which you can back up with matching loyalty cards, but this can be risky as a battle that uses up your cards and doesn’t bring good replacements can leave that army completely ineffective. Armies of diverse clans don’t pack as much punch but there is usually someone in there you can rely on if your opponent seizes the initiative. Battles can be fought for the secondary purposes of determining clan loyalty. You need to know when to press your luck because in the last battle your opponent cycled a bunch of cards and may be looking at a weak hand. And you have to know when to take a deep breath, give up significant tempo, and repair alliances by using the discard and draw action.

The last important thing that makes Sekigahara tick is the geographical layout. The game revolves around 9 castles on the board; Tokugawa starts with 5, Ishida with 4. Both players start with strong bases on opposite sides of the board, and isolated castles strung out in enemy territory. Both sides need to be super-aggressive about taking out the opponent’s armies that start in their territory and consolidating control over castles. Both sides face tough choices about how to balance aggression between marching on their opponent’s core areas (and relieving pressure on their far-flung outposts) against leaving enough troops behind to clean up their own backfield. Both sides face a huge amount of pressure to take the battle to the enemy, which is great and keeps the game dynamic and moving.

The designer’s notes to the game – which are recommended reading if you want to understand what Matthew Calkins has done here – talks about how important personal loyalty was to this conflict, and how the game was designed with that idea at the core. I think Sekigahara does a great job of both capturing something important and interesting about the period and conflict, and bringing it to the tabletop in an elegant, highly-playable, compelling package.

Nightfighter

Nightfighter is a new game from GMT Games and Lee Brimmicombe-Wood, the folks who brought us the entertaining but rather over-complicated The Burning Blue and Downtown. It covers primarily Bomber Command’s night campaign against German cities, although scenarios from many different campaigns (including the Pacific) are included. For players who were intrigued by Brimmicombe-Wood’s previous games but daunted by the complexity, the good news here is that Nightfighter is highly playable with only a dozen pages of well-presented and intuitive rules to get started. I realize that even 12 pages may sounds daunting in some contexts, but it’s not – I can generally teach players and have them up in running in just a few minutes.

Nightfighter is unusual in that it is a game for one and a half players. One player plays the night fighters, trying to find and shoot down the bombers in the dark. The other half a player plays the bombers. The game is single-blind, in that the bomber player has a map behind a screen with all the pieces on it and makes information available to the night fighter player as his radar and searchlight searches do their thing. While the night fighter player decides on his search strategy, the bomber player has essentially no meaningful game decisions. He is there so that the night fighter player can experience a thematic game, and will have fun in proportion to how much he enjoys his privileged position of watching the night fighter player struggle with the problem he knows the answer to.

The good news here is that the game plays very quickly – a single match can be done in 20 minutes even for new players. The bomber player enters bombers. The fighter tries to track them with a rather clever and fast-playing system for radar searches, and then vector the night fighter to shoot them down. It’s nicely evocative and plays quickly. The bomber player then gets to turn it around and play the fighters. If it helps, think of it as a two-player I go-you go wargame where the turns take about 20 minutes. Or you can just accept that it is what it is, and that it works.

The thing about Nightfighter that may trip people up, and which I think the game could do more to help make clear, is that what I’ve just described is not actually where the game is. A single scenario of night fighters vs. bombers is not really going to be all that satisfying – not even if you play twice and switch sides, and especially not for many of the earlier scenarios. After the brief initial thrill of discovery, the search techniques are clever but just not all that complicated, and once you’ve seen a given configuration of radar, searchlights, and bomber and fighter tactics, the replay value of any given game configuration is likely to be basically zero. It also doesn’t help that scenario difficulty is not always well-calibrated. My favorite scenario to introduce new players with is #3, The Kammhuber Line, because it’s the first to contain a minimally sophisticated defense network of a fighter, radar, and searchlights and so have a little bit of texture. But even though it’s rated as “normal” difficulty, it’s almost impossible for the night fighter player to lose unless he gets outrageously unlucky and gets shot down by bomber defensive fire.

The game here is in the evolution of night fighter tactics and technology. The first scenario has the fighter pilot looking out the window, trying to see stuff in the dark. The second adds some ground-based radar. The third adds more and better radar, as well as searchlights. The fourth takes away the searchlights but adds airborne radar. The fifth gives the defender some high-performance day fighters but the only detection equipment you have is searchlights and eyeballs. And so on, as electronic warfare evolves (tail warning radars for bombers and interception of navigation radars for fighters, for example) and tactics change (increasing density of bomber streams, evolving fighter tactics, and eventually intruder night fighters). This is where the game is going to hook you, or not – playing a series of scenarios which depict the changing nature of the air war. To use the language of Hamlet’s Hit Points, playing a single scenario of Nightfighter isn’t going to give you much in the way of arrows. There just isn’t enough going on. But play three different scenarios in a row that follow the narrative of the historical progression, and you’ve got something. Hope that a new set of equipment and tactics will be more effective than before, followed by the anxiety of facing an empty night sky with unproven techniques. And Nightfighter gives you a lot of different scenarios and variants to try out.

To that end, I think the satisfying way to play this game is to focus on Bomber Command’s night campaign against German cities and treat the various Pacific and other scenarios as sidelines that it was nice of them to include but that are just not the main event. The satisfaction here is going to be found over multiple scenarios that have some narrative cohesion, which the other theaters don’t really have. Play each scenario or configuration only once as the night fighter player (unless there are real rules problems, which there shouldn’t be). Keep moving through the historical narrative.

I like Nightfighter – it’s a clean, fast-playing game that nicely evokes the feel of the night air war over Germany. But I think you really need to treat it not as a 20-minute quick-playing game, but as a 90-minute game of 4-5 short episodes. If you play just one scenario and then put the game away, it may or may not come back off the shelf. If you give yourself a chance to experience the different environments, the game will have a chance to exert its narrative and emotional pull even when you’re playing the bombers.

Manoeuvre, Glory to Rome

I recently had a chance to play Manoeuvre, GMT’s latest lightish, wargame/family game crossover attempt. In it, two armies of eight pieces each maneuver, chess-like, over a square grid and attempt to defeat each other. There are 8 different armies in the game, each from a different period and nation – Americans from the Revolution, British and French from the Napoleonic period, Ottomans, and so on. The nations have a different makeup for their eight units: the Ottomans have lots of cavalry while the Americans have none, for example. Each turn you must move one piece one square (two if cavalry), and then you may attack, if cards permit.

Those cards are the core of the game, with board positioning and whatnot being somewhat secondary. Each nation has its own unique deck. Most of the cards are unit cards which match the nation’s playing pieces, and are primarily used to fight with those pieces – usually assaults, but also volleys and artillery, with different armies having different mixes (the Russians have lots of artillery, while the Brits are good at volleying). Also included are special actions like forced marches, supply, ambushes, and guerillas. These seemed to be a bit of a mixed bag; a lot of the events are generally useful, like the Supply Columns and leaders, while some sound cool, like Skirmish, but in practice seem to rarely come up. The game is fundamentally about managing these cards – cycling ones you don’t need rapidly, looking for high-value combinations, and being willing to let go of a good card that you don’t happen to need just now.

To the extent that these card management issues are interesting, Manoeuvre is clever and more subtle than it first appears. There are a fair number of factors that go into deciding the value of a card, when to play it, when to hold it, and when to cycle it. Maybe you have a leader card, which allows units to combine their attacks (among other things), so you have to balance playing it now for a modest attack vs. holding back to try to set up something really devastating vs. realizing you just can’t set up that devastating attack anytime reasonably soon and just letting the card go or using it for a lesser effect just to clear it. Frequently you’ll want to make lower-odds attacks just to do stir the pot and cycle cards and see what comes your way. On the other hand, since in this game you draw cards at the beginning of your turn, and since unit cards are valuable both on offense and defense, attacks which expend cards can leave you vulnerable to counter-attacks. Even if you’re holding junk, just having 5 cards in hand will give your opponent some pause, while burning 4 in a coordinated assault will leave him more confident in his counter-strike.

All this is not bad, Manoeuvre is clever than it looks, and is an interesting little design.

There are three problems, unfortunately. And for me, one of them is a deal-killer.

The first problem is that clever card management and evaluation decisions are not terribly evocative of Napoleonic era tactics. Manoeuvre is basically abstract, moreso even than Memoir ’44 and much moreso than Command & Colors: Ancients; I can’t help but think of it as Advanced Checkers With Cards. It’s not terrible, the nations are unique in ways that are somewhat representative, but even the Ottomans and British, historically armies at different extremes, just do not play that differently in the game. The game is constrained by random terrain, a constant and fixed number of units per army, a single meeting engagement style scenario, and the requirement for plausible game balance … which just doesn’t leave much wiggle room.

Secondly, Manoeuvre has something of a pacing problem, especially in the early game. The units start a fair distance away from each other and move only one space a turn. So the opening game of moving to contact just isn’t all that interesting, as the cards don’t really provide the same sort of tactical drive as the Command & Colors games. So you’re moving guys one space at a time, maybe cycling cards, and the game takes a while for things to mix up and get to the interesting bits. The endgame can be a little protracted as well; since one victory condition is to destroy 5 units, you can get into a game of hunting down the last kill that isn’t that compelling. Manoeuvre isn’t a long game, fortunately, so this all isn’t too bad, but the screws could have been tightened a bit here.

The deal-killer for me? Manoeuvre is a basically-abstract card management game. As such it’s on a head-on collision course with a variety of games based on very similar card management and evaluation decisions: Blue Moon, Race for the Galaxy, and Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation, just to pick a few. It’s a tough space with quite a few brilliant games, and one in which Manoeuvre just isn’t that competitive. It’s arguably neither as evocative nor anywhere near as compelling as any of these games, and neither is it simpler or shorter.

I think a much better approach was taken by Cambridge Game Factory’s Glory to Rome; thanks to Brian over at the Tao of Gaming for putting me on to it. Glory to Rome is in the same family of games as San Juan and Race to the Galaxy: you’re trying to build your little empire of buildings with special powers, and do it efficiently and quickly. Glory to Rome has taken the basic San Juan model and layered on some additional levels.

Each card is used for currency or for a building, but now the roles are on the card too, and if you want to either lead or follow a chosen role, you have to play a matching card. Plus, there are more roles. There are more buildings. And there is more process; if you have a Marble in hand and a Basilica you want to build, you can’t just pay for it as you can in San Juan; you have to lay the foundation for the Basilica, perhaps using an Architect; you have to put the Marble into your storehouse first (maybe with a Laborer) and then add it to the building (perhaps with a Craftsman). Or maybe you’ll decide that the Marble would be better embezzled and the proceeds put into your personal vault (using a Merchant). The Basilica requires 3 marble to finish, so the game becomes a lot about the process of building – which is good, because that’s what Glory to Rome is about, rebuilding Rome after Nero’s fire.

Where Glory to Rome wins is in the almost out-of-control special powers associated with the buildings. Building buildings in this game can be time-consuming, so you are rewarded with fairly significant advantages: the ability to draw and cycle lots of cards, put cards directly to your storehouse, use cards as other cards, get multiple activations out of individual cards, steal other players’ cards or special powers, or immediately end the game. A lot of these powers allow you to take shortcuts in building future buildings (using some stray Rubble in that Sewer instead of Stone), which is also nice in terms of evoking the feeling of working in a corrupt environment of lax oversight.

And so Glory to Rome careens from power to power, with players erecting powerful buildings and trying to maximize their impact. It’s a very edgy game. Unlike San Juan or Race for the Galaxy, you can mess with your fellow-players directly, stealing cards from their hands (using the Legionnaire) for example, and buildings can extend and expand that power. It’s a very dynamic, fast-moving game, and one that you can often feel just one powerful card combination away from winning, or live in fear of the next building your opponent is going to finish. To be honest, I don’t think for a moment that the building special abilities are all that well-balanced. The Colosseum, which flays your opponents clients and throws them to the lions, is extremely nasty. But it’s this edginess, speed, and sharp interaction, combined with flavorful and appropriately cartoony artwork, which makes Glory to Rome appealing. Where Manoeuvre seems to have assiduously courted game balance to a degree that seems to have sucked most of the interest out of the game, Glory to Rome seems to have worried about it only enough to get close, and produced something fast, furious, and fun.

While I’ve found Glory to Rome to be a very fun game, I think it’s better with smaller numbers of players – 3 or 4 seems to be a better game than 5. My experience was that early games felt like they ran long; maybe around 90 minutes, and I think the game wants to be 60. Once I had played a time or two, that’s where it ended up, but Glory to Rome does have a learning curve which has an unfortunate side-effect of potentially dragging out the game (Race for the Galaxy is much better in this respect; it has a significant learning curve as well, but not knowing what you’re doing won’t make the game longer). So I’d suggest making sure that your first game or two are played with a smaller player-count, then once the game-play has become second nature and you can easily explain it to others, you can add more players.

WW2: Barbarossa to Berlin – Nobody ever invades Sweden

I finally broke out my totally tricked-out copy of WW2: Barbarossa to Berlin: the deluxe map, new cards, plus – and this is the cool part – my new C3i-supplied extra bonus Wermacht infantry corps that was accidentally not included in the base game but which nobody ever needs anyway. I like Barbarossa to Berlin a lot – more than Paths of Glory, actually – but the amount of errata had gotten seriously out of hand, especially card errata. It was to the point that the game was more or less unplayable, which is probably why I hadn’t actually played it in a long time.

I have to say, the new map (in either its Deluxe edition, or in the new second edition of the base game) is a huge improvement over the original, first-edition map. The river crossings are much clearer, and having the terrain symbols in circles outside the actual spaces (where they won’t be covered by unit counters and you can actually see them) both enhance playability significantly, and there are a number of other more minor, but still useful, improvements.

Having not played Barbarossa to Berlin probably in a couple years, we were rusty. As we pulled out the counters to set up, we noticed the Swedes and Turks and commented about how these just seemed like wasted space on the countersheet. Who ever invades Sweden? Or Turkey? We mulled over scenarios. For Sweden, all we could come up with was going after the Ore. For Turkey … nothing. We couldn’t come up with a single plausible situation in which Turkey would be worth invading by either side.

Anyway, Matt kicked off the game with Von Paulus Pause, and pushed the offensive very hard in 1941 in Russia. He sacrificed all to ops, trying to surround Moscow. He even forwent playing PanzerArmee Afrika or making any effort at all in North Africa. This used to be a winning strategy (or so the internet says, anyway), but it seems like the new Yellow cards for the Allies (including the critical Industrial Evacuation) and the rules allowing the Allied player to fish for Soviet reinforcement cards make this a really tough row to hoe now. The Germans did well in terms of VPs, taking Leningrad and comfortably exceeding their Eastern Front objectives, but there were a lot of eliminated and depleted units, and Moscow was never seriously endangered. This made ’42 a tough year, and one mostly of repairing the Wermacht.

In the meantime, I had cleared out North Africa. With only token Axis resistance, I realized I had no need to launch Torch. The American units were not needed in North Africa, and Vichy would ultimately switch side when Casablanca came out, even if the conference wouldn’t really be in Casablanca. So I thought “sure, let’s go for Sledgehammer instead. I’ve never done this, and Norway would be a lot more threatening than invading an already-liberated North Africa”.

This theory is not quite as solid is it sounds. There is no supply source in Scandinavia, so you’ve got your Allied Beachhead locked down in perpetuity, which means you can only launch subsequent invasions that use separate British and Allied beachheads: that’s Husky, Overlord, the always rather dicey Roundup, and that’s it. The smaller but still threatening Shingle and Avalanche (given Italian weakness, and when combined with US Reinforcements) are ruled out, as is Anvil-Dragoon. This is a problem. A related issue is that all your serious battles are going to be fought from Limited Supply, making activating units up there incredibly expensive (you’ll most likely need spend a 4 or 5 ops just to try to force the straights in Denmark).

Plus, you’re pretty much forced to invade Sweden. There are two links from Scandinavia to Denmark, one through Norway (which is across a body of water that, for game purposes, is a river) and one through Sweden (which isn’t). You’re going to need that second approach. Which means invading Sweden.

(A small aside at this point on Sweden: I was operating under a misunderstanding about the Ore rules in Barbarossa to Berlin. The Swedes have an Ore space in this game. In every WWII game ever made with any detail, there is a rule about the now-famous Swedish Ore; usually, as long as the Germans can trace supply to Sweden, they get some production advantage. I was sure there was a similar rule here, but after scouring the rulebook, I believe there is not – the Ore space in Norway is the critical one. The Swedish Ore is just another space in another neutral country, and if the Germans want it, they need to invade. Which will happen about the same time that GMT decides to start including an index in their rulebooks so it doesn’t take 20 minutes to figure these things out. So, invading Norway is enough to knock the Axis hand down to 6).

So anyway. I invaded Sweden. We got to use those two blue pieces. It wasn’t that exciting. I had to destroy the Swedish units, which was annoying, and seemed unrealistic – I have a hard time seeing the Swedes taking up arms against the Allies in 1943, especially with several powerful armies hanging out next door in Norway.

At the end of the day, I think the deck is stacked against doing Sledgehammer instead of Torch. It’s just too hard with so little supply, and it constrains your options too much by depriving you of the ability to reuse that Allied Beachhead and severely limiting your options in the Mediterranean. You just can’t drain off enough German units, and it’s too close to German replacement centers. Italy seems a much better way to go. Norway does knock the Germans down to 6 cards by depriving them of Ore, which is definitely something, but I just don’t think it’s enough given the risks to subsequent invasion possibilities. If you invade Norway, and then get Husky or Roundup or Overlord in a timely manner, maybe it’s OK; but if an invasion of mainland Europe is delayed a turn or two because you couldn’t do Shingle or Avalanche, I just don’t know. I’d have to think really, really hard about doing it again. I think you would need not just to clear North Africa early, but also enter Total War as early as possible (Summer ’42) in order to minimize your risk of not seeing a follow-up invasion in a timely manner. A Sledgehammer invasion will put you more at risk of a strange card distribution situation.

We haven’t finished yet; we’re to ’44, but will need one more session to finish the game. After blunting the initial invasion of the Soviet Union, and clearing North Africa, I was feeling pretty good about my prospects; but I think the whole Scandinavian campaign has been too much of an expensive sideshow, and I fear I’ve lost ground. We’ll see.

In the end, I really like this game. It’s not perfect – I wish it had more latitude for different strategic approaches – but every game has to make trade-offs, and of this style of card driven games, I find Barbarossa to Berlin to be one of the most successful. The trade-offs between events and operations generally make sense, a (generally) good selection of events has been chosen, and the tactical game is rich but not too fiddly. I really like how the offensive power of armor drives events on the Eastern Front, with both players always having a strong incentive to attack, and it feels nicely historical. The complexity is quite manageable. The only real complaint is the game length, but it’s not hard to record and re-set-up, so we usually play over a couple sessions.

I still don’t have a plausible scenario in which Turkey would enter play though…