Wednesday, 23 April 2014

different faces of war

This year I played a number of games which shared the same historical background as other games I have played before, and I found the contrast between how different games treat the same subject matter quite interesting. I looked at the many games that I have played before and identified those which depict the same battle or war but in a different way. I hope you find this interesting. Look at the different components, the different mechanisms, and also very importantly the different ways the maps are designed.


The Sengoku Jida (1467-1603) or Warring States Period in Japan was a time when many great clans fought for supremacy. Famous historical figures from this period include Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, Tokugawa Ieyasu, Uesugi Kenshin and Takeda Shingen. This period of war ended with the establishment of the Tokugawa Shogunate, which lasted more than 250 years.

Samurai Swords / Ikusa has daimyos (clan leaders), ronins (masterless samurai / mercenaries), ninjas (men in black), and castles, but it is not based on any actual clans, events or personalities of the period. The starting setup of every game is random. So it is a warring states period game in spirit only, not in the details. However that gives much variability. The game is one level up from Risk, and is relatively easy to learn, thus suitable for casual players.

Sekigahara is specifically about the period of 7 weeks leading up to the Battle of Sekigahara, the final big battle that ended the Sengoku Jidai era. This is a two-player-only game and not a free-for-all. No dice in sight. Battles are fought by card play. Blocks create hidden information, and even after you get the chance to see and to remember which is which, cards still create uncertainty in whether your opponent has the right cards to activate his armies to fight. In this game all the clans, castles, cities and personalities depicted are real.


The French and Indian War (1756-1763) was the struggle between the British and the French for the colonies in North America, before the birth of USA and Canada.

A Few Acres of Snow is built on a deck-building core engine, using the deck-building mechanism to convey the challenges in managing warfare and development at a distant colony. What you invest in takes time to bring benefits - you buy cards into the discard pile and they will go into your draw deck only after the next reshuffle. It is hard to plan accurately when which resources will become available to you - it depends on the luck of the card draw. You don't see soldiers on the board. You only see settlements and towns. Soldiers are on cards. Warfare is abstracted.

Wilderness War is a card driven game. You do have to manage the nitty-gritty bits of having leaders command armies, making sure your regular troops get to wintering quarters before snowfall, and taking terrain effects into account. History is told through event cards. The game is longer and more detailed than A Few Acres of Snow.


The Battle of Waterloo (1815) was Napoleon's last, and was also an important one in European history. Everyone remembers it as Napoleon's defeat, but it was a very close-run thing and could easily have turned out differently.

Napoleon: The Waterloo Campaign 1815 covers 7 days leading up to the actual battle. Players have some freedom in setting up their units, and manoeuvring them prior to the battle. In fact, the location (or locations!) of battle, and the composition of the clashing armies may turn out to be quite different from history. This being a block wargame means there is some secret information involved, at least until the units engage in battle.

Waterloo is about what happened on that fateful day itself. It has a fixed setup. The Allied army led by the English needs to hold back the French army as much as possible until the Prussian army can rush to the scene by early afternoon. The different unit types function very differently, and there is a detailed battle resolution procedure to follow. This is unlike Napoleon where differences between unit types are mostly represented by differences in movement rate and attack power.

Of the same era, there are also the following games:

Commands & Colors Napoleonics is the 5th game in the Commands & Colors series I think. I think the order is: Battle Cry, Memoir '44, Battlelore, Commands & Colors Ancients, Commands & Colors Napoleonics. The board is divided into three sections - left, centre and right, and card play determines how many units in which sections can be activated for movement or battle.

Manoeuvre is almost chess-like. Actions are based on card play. The different nationalities have their own characteristics.


World War I (1914 - 1918):

Paths of Glory is an 8-hour game and a card driven game for 2 players only.

In contrast Axis and Allies 1914 is a much more mainstream game. Less complex, more colourful (literally). It supports up to 8 players (just be prepared Russia is not exactly fun to play). The map covers Africa, bits of India and bits of USA, which the map of Paths of Glory doesn't.


World War II (1937 - 1945). 1939 was the outbreak of war in Europe, but in Asia, China was invaded by Japan in 1937.

Photo from portal.strategie.net.pl

Photo from www.kobudovenlo.nl

Memoir '44 is one of the most successful titles from Days of Wonder, with many many expansions. Similar to other titles in the Commands & Colors series, you play cards to move or attack, and roll dice to see if you hit.

Conflict of Heroes is more complex and has a very different target audience. The game components are probably sufficient to scare casual gamers away. What do all those numbers mean?

In the Asia Pacific arena of the war:

Photo from www.columbiagames.com

Photo from BGG

Pacific Victory is a block wargame, so there is some fog of war due to the blocks hiding information. It has concepts like supply line, resource centres and maintaining a front.

Axis & Allies Pacific 1940 is more mainstream, but is at the more complex end of the spectrum among Axis & Allies games.

Friday, 18 April 2014

Hearthstone

Hearthstone is currently free on the iPad. It's a Collectible Card Game with a World of Warcraft setting. I've tried it and from my initial exploration it's seems to be a decent CCG. Relatively simple, but I enjoy the variety in the characters you can play. Like Magic: The Gathering, it's about trying to kill the enemy character by reducing his health points to zero. You also get to play creatures onto the board, and the creatures fight each other. At the moment it appears to be much less complex than Magic, but it may be because I'm still new so I have not seen many fancy card powers yet. Also I have not explore the deck-building aspect yet at all.

Thursday, 17 April 2014

UGO

Plays: 4Px2.

The Game

UGO is one of the top ten games at the Fairplay magazine polls at the Essen game fair in 2013. I never quite paid attention to it. I only got to try it because Jeff at Boardgamecafe.net did an Essen Top Ten Night recently. It turned out to be a pleasant surprise.

UGO is a trick-taking card game, similar to Bridge, Hearts and The Bottle Imp. Players are dealt 10 cards at the start of the game (in the 4P game), and every round everyone plays one card. Whoever has the highest card wins the trick and claims all four cards played. The only restriction in playing cards is you must follow suit if you have cards of the same suit (colour) as played by the lead player. Whoever wins the trick becomes the next lead player. So far this is all pretty standard stuff. Where UGO differs is in what you do with the cards you win, and how you score points. To explain this, we need to look at the player board below.

There are five territories on this board, each being able to support one colour. When you win a card, if you already have that colour on your board, you must stack the newly won cards onto the territory with that colour. If you have just won a new colour, then you must open up a new territory (from left to right) for the new colour. At game end, the topmost card in each territory is worth points. Here's the twist - the farmers. The first two territories have farmers preprinted, but from the third territory onwards there are empty farmer spaces. If you use a territory but do not have enough farmers to fill up the farmer spaces, you lose 5VP (!!) per missing farmer. On the other hand, if you manage to fully farm a territory but do not have any card on it, you earn the points printed on the territory (i.e. the 1, 3, 5 in the photo).

Some cards let you earn farmers when you use them to win a trick. Some cards let you earn farmers if you lose the trick. Throughout the game you need to watch out for opportunities to earn farmers.

In this photo, the total score is 14VP. 19VP from the card values. -5VP for the fourth territory which is lacking one farmer.

Some cards have farmer icons. If you use them to win a trick, you gain farmers.

The Play

Like all trick-taking games, in UGO you have to do some analysis and planning the moment you see your hand of cards. You need to know the strengths and weaknesses of your hand, and have some rough idea how you want to play it out. Naturally as the game progresses, you will need to make tactical decisions and adjust your plans, and may even want to completely change your strategy. However that initial analysis is always important so that you know what you are doing and you have a strategic view.

The game is a constant careful manoeuvring to avoid taking too many colours. At the same time you are also trying to claim as many farmers as possible. I find it an interesting and intricate balance. More colours means more cards with which to score points, but it comes with the risk of penalty if you don't get enough farmers. Getting three or four colours (with the required farmers of course) seems to be the norm to shoot for, as getting enough farmers to support all five colours seem to be extremely hard. One interesting tactical consideration is losing your low numbered cards to an opponent to force him to cover his high numbered cards. Nasty! Also it is always nice to lose lots of different colours to an opponent to force him to open up more territories than he can handle.

Game in progress.

Card-counting is useful, but there are 5 cards undealt so you can't calculate precisely what cards are left in your opponents' hands.

We played two games back-to-back. We started to understand some of the intricacies when we finished the first game, and we all agreed to have a go again. It was a pleasant journey of discovery.

One thing I still have not figured out is how to manage a hand with lots of 8's and 7's (the largest numbers). It seems to be rather impossible to not take many colours given such high numbered cards, and it might not be easy to collect enough farmers, because the might 8's do not give farmers. In the first game I had many such large numbers. I was penalised so badly that I went into the negative. I'm still not sure how I could have played differently.

Should I just give up when I draw such a hand?

The Thoughts

I was pleasantly surprised by UGO. I enjoyed the tricky balancing act of trying to not get too many colours, but also not too few, plus the tactical manoeuvring of trying to earn farmers as often as possible. This little game gives the brain a decent workout. Like most trick-taking games, UGO has good depth. The better you play, the more you will appreciate the unspoken communication and understanding between players. You start to guess what cards your opponents have based on what they have been playing. It is quite a wonderful feeling (although I'm still far from that level of gameplay). It's a pity that trick-taking games tend to be rather lacking in setting and theme, and thus do not attract gamers like other "proper" boardgames with lots of fancy artwork and components do. UGO is rewarding and very much worth the effort if you spend some time to learn to play it well.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Kashgar

Plays: 4Px1.

The Game

Many people will probably think of the queuing mechanism in Kashgar as a twist to the deck-building mechanism, but the designer actually came up with the mechanism before the first deck-building game, Dominion was published. Here's how it works.

Every player starts with three queues of workers. On your turn, you pick one of the workers (i.e. cards) at the head of a queue, and execute his ability. Once done, he goes to the back of the queue and starts queuing up all over again. That means you will need to activate all the other workers in that queue before you will cycle back to him. You start the game with two workers per queue, one of whom is a Patriarch who can recruit new workers. When you recruit, you draw two cards from the worker deck and pick one. Sometimes you can select one worker from the discard pile. Worker abilities vary greatly, but most do one of two things - collect resources, or fulfill contracts by spending resources. Fulfilling contracts is the main way to score points (some workers are worth point values too). There are always four contracts revealed at the centre of the table. Whoever fulfills a contract claims the contract card and then replenish the contract pool.

Game end is triggered once anyone reaches 25VP. The round is played to completion.

So far I only know of the German version. I don't know whether there will be an English one.

The player board on the left is for tracking your resources. The three queues are on the right. Claimed contracts are at the bottom. This copy of the game (Kareem's I think) has English paste-ups, without which it would be very hard to play because it's text-heavy (well, unless you know German). Blue circles with yellow numbers are victory point values. All contracts have them, some workers have them.

The Play

Right off the bat I started aggressively fulfilling contracts. Every player starts the game with some resources, and since some of the initial contracts in our game were small ones, it was already possible to fulfill them in the early game. Naturally that was also dependent on being able to recruit a worker who could fulfill contracts. It turned out to be not a bad idea. I took an early lead, and continued to maintain it throughout most of the game. This doesn't seem to be a game where you have to focus on building your engine first, and then at some point switch mode to scoring points. It is possible to do both at the same time. I didn't plan to specialise my three queues in any particular way. Broadly speaking, two of them were helping me to gain resources, and the third was the only one with some workers who could fulfill contracts. Playing the game was a matter of watching the available contracts, collecting the required resources (hopefully more quickly than others) and then timing the workers to fulfill the contracts. Ivan and Dith had workers who could fire other workers, and they both culled one of their queues down to just one worker. That means whenever they activated that queue, it would always be the same worker reporting to work (poor guy!). That's not a bad idea actually. For example, always having a worker ready to fulfill a contract is handy.

As everyone's worker abilities grew, it became more and more competitive, and racing to be first to fulfill a contract became more intense. Dith claimed one contract just before I could do so. It would have helped me cross the 25VP line. I had to settle with claiming another one which only got me to 24VP. Soon after that Ivan managed to reach 25VP to trigger the game end. I had a Matriarch card at the front of one of my queues, which allowed me to recruit a worker from the face-up discard pile. I picked one worth 1VP, pushing my score to 25VP. Tiebreaker was reverse turn order, so I narrowly won the game.

I didn't have any worker who could fire another worker, so my worker pool grew to be quite big. Aahh... unions.

The Thoughts

The queuing mechanism in Kashgar is interesting. There are various ways to build your queues and to make use of combinations of worker abilities. The resource collecting and contract claiming parts are pedestrian. They are just there to give a goal to the core mechanism. This reminds me a little of The Speicherstadt, which I didn't like, and felt it was a hollow game built around one clever mechanism. But in Kashgar at least there is some meat in the various worker abilities to chew on.

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Wilderness War

Plays: 2Px1.

The Game

Wilderness War is a game I bought 10 years ago in Taiwan, and only recently got around to play it. Back then I had underestimated its complexity (or overestimated my capability). Later, even after I started to delve into more complex games, I still never quite found the time or will to play it, even after I bought the deluxe game board (the original game board was just thin poster paper). This year, because of my new year resolution of planning one hard-to-arrange game per month, I finally managed to bring it to the table.

Wilderness War is a card driven game, like Twilight Struggle, Paths of Glory, and Washington's War. The cards contain events which bring out much of the story, and can also be played for their operations points to execute various actions on the board. The historical backdrop is the French and Indian War in North America, i.e. the same as Martin Wallace's A Few Acres of Snow. This is a rare topic in boardgames. This period in history was a turning point for North America, when the English defeated the French to become the main colonial power. However soon after this the War of Independence occurred, and the colonies broke away to become USA.

One player plays the English, and the other the French. The objective of the game is to reach a certain victory point (VP) level, while the English can also win by capturing specific locations. VP's scored by both sides are always net off, like in Twilight Struggle, so it's a tug of war on the score track. VP's are gained mainly by winning battles, capturing or destroying fortifications, and raiding. The game comes with a few scenarios, varying between 3 to 8 hours of gameplay. Victory conditions differ slightly depending on scenario. Each scenario lasts a fixed number of years, and each year has two rounds, a round being a complete play of a hand of cards.

The board shows the French colony in the northeast and the British colony in the south. In between is a huge swath of forests and mountains. There are three main fronts in this war. In the centre both the British and the French have built fortifications along rivers, which allows them to quickly send troops to the front to fight. In the west the French has forts and allied Indian settlements in the wilderness which can be used as bases to raid the English colony. The French will want to raid, and the English needs to build fortifications to stop that, or bring the fight to the raiders. The third front is the Louisbourg front, where only the English, if they are able to draw an amphibious landing card, can attack the French port fortress of Louisbourg. If they are successful, they can further press on along the coastline to attack Quebec and even Montreal eventually. The French, having a weaker navy, has no option to launch an attack in the opposite direction.

You can say there is a fourth front in this war - the raiding game. Raiding scores points, and the French which tends to have more Red Indian friends, has much incentive to raid the English colonies which has a long border.

This is the central front at the start of the game. This is looking southwards, i.e. looking at USA from Canada (although neither country existed at the time of this war). Those boxes in the foreground are holding boxes for generals. Instead of stacking so many pieces on the board, you can place troops and subordinate generals lead by one particular general in his holding box. At this moment the English has three generals in the vicinity (red coats), and the French has two (white coats), one on the main board itself and the other in the holding box of the lead general.

This is the western front at the start of the game. The French has one general rubbing his hands greedily getting ready for raiding. The English has started putting up fortifications, but there are still gaps.

A full view of the board. Square (and rectangular) spaces are cultivated spaces, round spaces are wilderness, and triangle spaces are mountains. When regular troops move, they must stop in the next space if they pass through a wilderness space without friendly fortifications.

There are three types of troops - regulars, auxiliaries and militia. Regulars fight well in the colonies, i.e. cultivated spaces. They can besiege. They can build fortifications. However moving regular troops in the wilderness is difficult. They must stop in the next space when they move through forests, unless there is a friendly fortification. If they lose a battle in the wilderness, they must be able to retreat to a cultivated space or a friendly fortification. Else they all die. Auxiliaries (Red Indians, British rangers and French coureurs) don't suffer these penalties. They move quickly. They can raid. But they are much weaker, and they can't besiege or build fortifications. When fighting in cultivated spaces, if you don't have regular troops but your opponent does, you suffer a penalty. When fighting in the wilderness, if you don't have auxiliaries but your opponent does, you suffer a penalty too. The use of regulars and auxiliaries in this game is one of its interesting features.

Movement on the board is mostly centred around leaders. The action cost for moving regular troops individually is high, so you will need to rely on your leaders to lead armies. Some leaders can lead as many as 7 units. Auxiliaries are much cheaper to move individually, but if you intend to use them to raid, you'd better have some leaders guiding them. Without leaders, raids tend to be rather iffy.

Players use the same deck of cards. Some cards can be used by only one side as events. Drawing your opponent's event is bad in that you can only use it for operation points, but it is also good in that you have denied your opponent this event which may be quite useful to him.

The Play

On 4 Apr Allen and I had our first outing with Wilderness War. Since this is a game about British ascendency and French demise, I let him play the British.

We played the shortest scenario, 1757 - 1759, so there were only six rounds, i.e. six hands of cards to play. The scenario started off with many troops already near the central front. We further escalated that by consolidating troops there and combining them into two huge stacks. The situation remained so for the whole game. We had some battles, and we continued to send reinforcements. It was an escalation that neither of us were able to back down from. As the French I had to commit all my resources here, because I received fewer new troops than the English did. As the English, Allen could afford to send some new troops to other fronts. Thankfully the French was still strong in the early game, and I managed to win some battles and even capture a fort. However I did not really break through that front, and we more or less maintained a nervous stalemate on this front throughout the game.

In scenarios starting in 1757, armies at the central front are already on the brink of battle.

To simplify the situation at the central front, we kept the army commanders (i.e. the lead generals) on the board, while we moved the subordinate generals to the holding boxes of the commanders. I moved my units there too. Round units are auxiliaries, square units are regulars. These match the shapes of locations on the map.

To make things even easier to see, I spread out my units, so that I could more easily add up their combat values. The four on the upper left are Red Indians of various tribes. The two on the upper right are coureurs, French soldiers adept at fighting in the wilderness. The top numbers on them are their combat values. The bottom numbers are their movement values. The square units at the bottom are regular troops. The numbers on the left are the combat values, and those on the right are movement values. When injured, a unit is flipped over to show the weakened side with a diminished combat value on a white background.

Allen's English army. Those with a red background are Englishmen. Those with a green background are provincial troops.

The situation at the central front kept escalating. We were both sending more and more troops here. In hindsight, this might not be a good idea. In the deck there is one Smallpox card which hurts many units at one go, especially when played on a crowded spot.

At the end of every year (i.e. every two rounds), there is a wintering phase. Regular troops need to return to civilisation (i.e. cultivated spaces), or suffer heavy attrition. Forts and stockades in the wilderness can accommodate some regular troops, but they have limited capacity. This photo shows the end of autumn, so troops at the central front have now all temporarily retreated.

I was very lucky with the Louisbourg front. In early 1757 I played a French Squadron card which prevented the English from making an amphibious assault on Louisbourg for the rest of the year. This meant I could ignore defending Louisbourg, at least for the short term. That was only the start of my good luck. Throughout the whole game, Allen did not draw a single Amphibious Assault card! There are three in the deck, and the cards get reshuffled not only when they are exhausted but also when a specific card is played. In one of the rounds I drew all three of them! No Amphibious Assault meant Allen could not attack Louisbourg at all. He had two good generals there waiting to pounce, and he had also deployed troops there to be ready to launch an attack. Those were all wasted.

The Louisbourg front was uneventful.

On the western front, I eagerly did some raiding, and found out the hard way that it wasn't exactly a piece of cake. The chances of successfully raiding were not exactly high, and the risk of injuring my auxiliary units was high. I realised I really needed leaders to help improve my odds. I did manage to do some raids, but later on Allen assembled a strike force and came after me. I only had weak units which were no match at all, so I had to keep retreating, burning stockades as I abandoned them, so that Allen didn't get the pleasure of scoring points when he captured them. I kept retreating until I reached Niagara. One of the winning conditions for the English was capturing both Ohio Forks and Niagara. Ohio Forks was near the English colony and had already fallen. I could not allow Niagara to fall too. His western army was fast approaching. Niagara was not too far from my French colony, so I could quickly redeploy troops there, but I needed troops in the central front too.

This is the western front. I succeeded in making some raids. Upon completion of any raid attempt, regardless of success or failure, the raiding party escapes (teleports) back to the nearest fortification or Red Indian settlement. This makes raiders hard to catch. This is guerilla warfare. The location where that French general is standing is Ohio Forks, one of the victory objectives of the English. Allen had amassed strong English regular troops and was coming to get me. I did not have French troops to spare to help out here. I could at best do an organised retreat, burning stockades as I went to prevent them from falling into English hands.

The French started the scenario with 4VP. Throughout the game I managed to score more than Allen due to battles and raids, and my score was approaching the 11VP required for a sudden death victory. In case no other victory conditions were met by the end of the scenario, I would win by simply having VP's. So the pressure was on Allen to capture Niagara, which was his only realistic option by then, because it would be much harder to take away my 11VP within the little time remaining. I did a gamble. I sent more troops to the central front, threatening to defeat Allen's army for that last 1VP I needed to reach 11VP. This was just trickery, and it worked. Allen quickly consolidated his troops in one spot in anticipation for the battle. Then on my next turn, I took the chicken way - I captured an English stockade which Allen had left undefended. That was worth 1VP too, and I reached 11VP to win.

This was the end of our game. That stockade in the centre had been captured and turned into a French (blue) stockade.

After the game, I rechecked and reread the rules, and found out that I had taken advantage of Allen in more ways than one. I had incorrectly interpreted that sudden death meant the game ended immediately when one side reached 11VP. The correct way is to check for this condition only at the end of a year. So we should not have ended the game where we did, and my devious plan might not have been feasible at all because I had left Niagara poorly defended. Another mistake I made was regarding the French Squadron card. I played it in 1757, and it was removed from the game. Upon removal of this card, the French was not allowed to make any more naval moves. I had forgotten about that and in 1759 had redeployed some troops from Louisbourg via a naval move to reinforce the central front.

There was a third way I gained an advantage. There is a Massacre card which kills all Red Indians present when the enemy successfully assaults a fort or fortress. Allen played it on me, but he played it as a regular event, instead of as a response event when I captured his fortification. He had to take it back, and since I knew he had that card, I delayed my attack on his fort until he used the card for operations points. If he had played it at the right moment, it would have been a devastating blow to me because I had many Red Indians in my army.

I think we should do a rematch. :-)

The Thoughts

I find Wilderness War a game that gives me a lot of "feel". Perhaps it is because it has a rarely-used setting. The game feels unique. It has a strong character. The event cards really bring out the story. Much of your strategic manoeuvring has dependency on the event cards you draw, so to a certain extent you are at the mercy of fate. In most cases you will eventually draw the card you need, but the question is when. You need to make the most of what you are dealt. You grab an opportunity that arises. You try to do damage control when you get a poor hand, or when your opponent has a powerful hand. Every fresh hand of cards is exciting because you need to consider all the possibilities it offers you, how it can support your current strategy on the board, and whether you need to switch tactics on some fronts. Knowledge of the card deck is important. There are some powerful events you need to watch out for, e.g. the Massacre and Smallpox cards mentioned above. You need to anticipate event cards that your opponent may play, and prepare for them. If you happen to draw these cards, even though you can't use them as events, the fact that you are holding the cards means you know opponent won't have these options this round. So you can discount these threats when you plan your round. I find it an interesting design to have players share the same deck of cards.

The execution details like leaders, movement, battles and sieges are nothing particularly noteworthy. They work. What I do like is the additional touches that give the game some character, e.g. regulars vs auxiliaries.

Compared to A Few Acres of Snow, Wilderness War is more detailed, more complex and requires more effort. A Few Acres of Snow uses an abstract way to represent armies and battles. They are represented by cards and there are no actual units on the board. Before I played Wilderness War I wondered whether I would like it more than A Few Acres of Snow because it is more detailed. Now that I have played it, I find that it doesn't diminish what I think of A Few Acres of Snow. Not having detailed control over armies is not really an issue. In fact sometimes micromanaging armies can feel tedious. In A Few Acres of Snow, you decide what cards to buy to augment your personal deck. You are at the mercy of the order of cards being drawn from your deck, but what cards get added to your deck is completely under your control. In Wilderness War, the uncertainty is not only in the timing of cards appearing, but also whether the cards are being drawn by the "right" player. In A Few Acres of Snow, the difficulty is your deck grows to become more and more unwieldy, and it becomes harder and harder to draw what you need when you need it. In Wilderness War, the shared card deck presents the players different hands every round, and the challenge is making your hand work for you, not just for that round, but also for the longer term. At the tactical level, i.e. where you spend cards as operations points, you are restricted by whether you draw high numbered cards. At the strategic level, where events dictate reinforcements, allow amphibious assaults and trigger many other powerful effects, you need to puzzle out how to best use the events and the order of their appearance. A lot of excitement comes from seeing what hand you are dealt next, and whether a carefully planned event card play will work out. These two games are very different, despite trying to simulate the same difficulties faced by the two colonial powers in this war.

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Shadow Hunters

Plays: 5Px1.

The Game

Shadow Hunters is a secret identity team game, like Bang, The Resistance and The Message: Emissary Crisis. The two main teams are the Hunters and the Shadow. They aim to kill off each other. Some players will play neutral characters. They win by achieving their unique personal objectives.

The game starts off with the six location cards randomly distributed to three locations. On your turn, you roll two dice (a four-sided die and a six-sided die) to determine which location card you go to. Usually the location card will ask you to draw a card and apply its effect. Sometimes it asks you to either injure another player or heal yourself. After that you may attack a player at the same location, i.e. on the same location card or the one next to it. The attack value is determined by rolling the two dice and taking the difference, e.g. rolling and 6 and 1 will yield and attack value of 5.

The game board has an injury track on the left, where everyone starts with 0 injury, and three locations with 2 cards each on the right. On the injury track, the health level of every character is marked, so if your injury marker reaches that spot, your character is dead and you are out of the game. The position of the markers are a clue to an opponent's identity. If his marker has passed or reached specific spots on the track and he is still not dead, then you know he must be one of the characters with a higher health level.

There are three types of cards. Black and white cards are equipment and spells. Equipment are placed in front of you and take effect every round. Spells take effect immediately and are then discarded. Black cards seems to be more powerful, but sometimes they can injure you too. Green cards help you determine the identities of other players. After drawing and reading a green card, you pass it face-down to another player. That player then reads it and does what it says. His action will give you clues to his identity. E.g. a green card may ask the recipient to take one damage if he is a hunter or a neutral. Having a green card passed to you can help you guess the identity of the card giver too. If he continues to attack you after knowing your identity, then he is likely from the opposing faction. The bystanders who don't get to see the content of the green card can also make guesses based on the subsequent actions of the two players involved in this green card transaction.

Every character has a single-use power, and to use it, you need to reveal your identity. The power is strong, but the danger is you are telling everyone who you are. So this should be used with caution.

The Play

I did a 5-player game. An experienced player taught four of us newbies to play. With 5 players, there are two hunters, two shadows and one neutral. The rule teacher, as is customary, was attacked by all of us when everyone was unsure who was on which team. That was not a good idea at all, since he could be your teammate. I guess we weren't taking the game too seriously. Afterwards, we were shocked to find that we had almost helped the teacher win. His character turned out to be a neutral with the objective of being the first to get killed. If we had not felt guilty for piling the hurt on him and then decided to "spread the joy" around a little, we would have easily killed him off early and given him the win.

Our game teacher (black) was hit left, right and centre and was already severely injured in the early game.

In the early game I had no clarity at all who was who. I didn't get to draw green cards much, so I could not deduce friend or foe. It seemed we were all randomly attacking each other, and just trying to keep the injury evenly spread so that no one was "left behind". Well, maybe the others had some clue about who was who and knew what they were doing. I was rather clueless. Attacking is actually optional, and not attacking is probably a good idea when you don't know for sure whether you are attacking an enemy. In our game we got the ball rolling with the random attacks, and we couldn't slow down.

By the time I found out who my teammate was, I was glad to find that she was the least injured player. We were in a good position. We were hunters, and one of the shadow players had already been killed. Once I identified my teammate (by using a green card), I attacked another player immediately, which should be a clear enough message that I was on her team (or perhaps I could have been trying to mislead her). I decided it was time for me to reveal my identity so that I could use my special ability, which was a strong attack. Soon we killed the other shadow player, and won the game.

The Thoughts

I enjoyed The Message: Emissary Crisis very much. Shadow Hunters has a very similar feel, but somehow I didn't enjoy it as much. It might be because 5 players is not ideal. I think the game needs at least 6 players, 3 each of hunters and shadows. The other thing that bugs me is I don't seem to be spending much time trying to work out who is who. This should be the crux of the game, but I am dependent on the die roll to be able to pick green cards to help me identify friend or foe. There was a fair bit of luck in the game I played. However the impact of this randomness might have been our own doing - because we chose to attack even when we were not yet 100% sure about one another's identities. We probably should have played less recklessly. Overall though, there is still significant luck because of the die roll determining what you do on your turn.

If I play this again I would insist on having at least six players.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Napoleon

Plays: 2Px1.

The Game

Han was in town recently, and brought Napoleon over to play. This is a 2-player block wargame first published in 1974 (40 years ago!) and is now in its 4th edition. It focuses on the Waterloo campaign, and plays over 8 (in-game) days, with only 3 turns total per day. The English and the Prussian armies are preparing to attack France, and Napoleon plans to catch and defeat them individually before they can meet and combine into a much larger force.

In game terms, the French are under time pressure to attack because they lose if time runs out. The French win by defeating a specific number of English and Prussian units, or by capturing two of the three supply towns. The Allies win by defeating a specific number of French units, or simply by holding out until time runs out. On your turn, you get to activate two groups for movement. In the case of the Allies, one group must be Prussian and the other English. There isn't much time for movement and manoeuvring on the main game board, especially for the Allies who only get one move per country per turn. The positioning on the main board is basically setting yourself up for the actual battles, which are played on a separate battle board. Positioning on the main board determines how many units you start with when a battle begins, and how much reinforcement you can draw from neighbouring towns during the battle. Turns on the main board can be very quick. Once battle is initiated, you shift to play on the battle board.

This is early in the game. The French is blue, the English red and the Prussians black.

The number pointing upwards is the strength of a block. It indicates how many hit points the unit has left, and also how many dice it rolls when attacking. The red text in the corner means firepower. F1 means the unit hits when rolling a 1. F2 means the unit hits when rolling a 1 or 2.

Like a Chinese Chess board, the battle board has two symmetrical halves, each half consisting of left, centre, right and reserve sections. You can advance to your opponent's side of the board, but you can't move laterally between left, centre or right sections. To win a battle you need to capture one section on your opponent's side, i.e. have a unit there while clearing it of enemy units. There are three types of units - infantry, cavalry, artillery - and each behave differently.

Losing a battle is quite devastating, because most surviving units need to take additional damage, and when they rout, the road capacity is low, forcing them to disperse. It is difficult to reorganise after losing a battle. In Napoleon there are no new units entering the board and no healing. What you have at the start of the game is all you have. Every loss is permanent.

The Play

Han let me play the Allies, because they can play more defensively. The French is under time pressure to attack. The game comes with reference sheets showing where each unit was located historically. However players have much freedom in setting up their initial placement. They just need to make sure the units are set up in their respective setup areas, and they obey the initial setup stacking limit. Once the game starts, there is no stacking limit. I did my set up according to history, and then made some adjustment. The initial stacking limit for the Allies is lower, which means they are forced to be less concentrated. I'm not sure Han followed history. His French stacks were huge.

He went for the Prussians first, and he went almost all out. I managed to position most of my Prussian units to be able to reinforce the battle, except for a few holding back to guard my supply town. The English armies could not get in position to reinforce the Prussians unfortunately. The Prussians were outnumbered. They had a slight battleground advantage - a house on my right flank in which one infantry unit could hide, a hill at my centre from which my cannon could get a better shot, and a river on my left flank which allowed at most two units crossing in any one turn. Surprisingly Han put his focus on my left flank, probably intentionally. He had cannons shooting at me across the river, and then cavalry rushing in to attack. My Prussians defended staunchly (i.e. I got lucky with my die rolls) and dealt a fair bit of damage to the French. However I dared not probe into Han's area from the centre or right sections, because he still had the numerical superiority and I might need to shift my units from those fronts to help defend my left flank. Eventually I could not hold back the tide, and my left flank broke. The Prussians lost the battle and were scattered.

This was when the first battle started. The French army attacked my Prussian group in the middle. All blocks in surrounding towns could reinforce the battle.

This is the battle board. Before the battle starts, the defending player draws two terrain blocks (green blocks) and the attacking player draws one. These are placed onto the board and will impact unit abilities. E.g. a cannon on a hill can shoot more effectively, an infantry hiding in woods can conceal its strength and type.

In this photo you can see that Han is targeting my left flank.

Han's French units have marched up to engage mine on the left flank, and he is using cannons in the centre to shoot at my units.

While the battle is in progress, the main board becomes cleared up because units are all moved to the battle board. I still have two black Prussian units waiting to reinforce their countrymen.

My left flank is starting to break. My units are getting battered. Those in the reserve area are mostly injured units. And Han has seven cannons raining hell on me in the centre.

This is the aftermath of the battle. The Prussians are scattered everywhere and it will be very hard to reassemble, because I only have one move per turn.

Han was still 3 units short of reaching the Prussian kill requirement, and needed to divert some of his units to catch and destroy my routed Prussian units. At the same time he had to prepare to attack the English. It was at this moment that we realised it might not have been a good idea for the French to attack the Prussians first. Even if they could beat the Prussians, there was only one supply town protected by the Prussians, and taking one supply town is not enough to win. The English side of the map had two supply towns. If the French could defeat the English quickly, there was a good chance of capturing both supply towns. If the French went for the English first, then it would be the Prussians coming under pressure to rush to help the English. At this point in the game, as the English I could try to avoid battle to ensure the French wouldn't get enough English kills to win. I just had to make sure the remaining Prussians could hold out against any French task force split from the main French army, and I then could afford to lose one English supply town. If the French sent a task force towards the Prussian supply town, that would be good news for me too, because that meant a weaker French army coming for my English army.

I didn't feel like running. I wanted glory! I knew the French took considerable damage in the fight with the Prussians, so even though they had more blocks, I knew some of them were weakened. My English blocks were all still fresh. Knowing what was coming, Han didn't bother to divert a taskforce to take out the Prussian supply town. He came straight for the English army. I managed to get three still-fresh Prussian units to join the English. In the end, our final battle was not in Waterloo, but right next to it in Brussels.

Han again picked my left flank as his target. He positioned a huge group of artillery there and rained cannonballs on my defenders. I tried to reply in kind, sending in my own artillery, but I didn't have as many as he did. I had to send some infantry just to help take hits, so that my cannons don't get killed off too quickly. Those poor guys must have been cursing "this is not what I signed up for". While Han battered my left flank, I decided to advance on my right flank, sending up my fresh English cavalry, and following up with some infantry. It was a race between who would break the other side first. Thankfully my left managed to hold up long enough for my cavalry to do its work. Han even had to send in Napoleon himself to keep morale up. Every turn units damaged down to one hit point must roll a die for morale check. If their morale breaks, they must disengage, possibly causing a rout if there are no more units defending a position. Leaders like Napoleon and Wellington reduce the likelihood of morale breaking. Unfortunately for Han his units were already injured, so my cavalry eventually managed to break through, trampling Napoleon to bits under their hooves. The Allies killed enough French units to win the Waterloo campaign.

Small scale battles (called skirmishes) where at least one side has three or fewer blocks are not fought on the battle board. Only one round is fought directly on the main board, and then the loser retreats. We did have a few skirmishes during our game.

After winning the battle against the Prussians, the French army killed some routed Prussian units and also reorganised themselves to prepare for the next big fight with the English army. Three Prussian units joined forces with the English, preparing to face the French.

This was the climactic battle on the very last turn of the game. It was do or die for the French. Han had a whole orchestra of cannons on the left raining hell on my units. I tried to return in kind, but I simply didn't have as many cannons. I attacked on the right flank, hoping to make a breakthrough before my left flank was reduced to smithereens.

My left flank was still holding, but things didn't look so good for Han on the right. Even Napoleon himself had to come to rally his troops. Eventually my units broke through and won the battle.

After the game, we realised we had made some mistakes. Once the French defeated the Prussians (i.e. killing the 9th block), all Prussian blocks should have been removed from the game immediately, i.e. they would not stay to help the English. If we had understood this correctly, we would have played differently after the Prussians lost their battle. Han would have had more incentive to hunt down three more Prussian units, since removing all Prussians from the table would make their supply town completely vulnerable. I would be more desperate to make the Prussians last longer. Also I might not have had those three Prussian blocks helping the English army in the final battle.

The Thoughts

Our game took about 2 hours, but what I remember most about Napoleon is how fast-paced it felt. There are only 3 turns per day over 8 days, which means 24 turns in total, i.e. 12 turns per player. A third of those are night phases which means movement only, no fighting. So that's 8 turns per player where you can initiate a battle. I felt I was pressed for time, and every move was precious. The positioning turns on the main board are very quick. The play on the main board and on the battle board feel like two distinct games. However I don't think they will work as individual games. The former gives context to the latter. It is preparation and build-up for the latter, without which the latter would feel like an orphan, bland and generic. These two layers of the game are not particularly memorable individually, but together they make an interesting whole.

Among block games this is at the easy end of the spectrum, even simpler than Hammer of the Scots (and it makes me want to play Hammer of the Scots again). It is much simpler than Rommel in the Desert.

Players have much freedom in game setup, and can try different approaches in handling this Waterloo campaign. That gives some replayability. However the victory conditions are the same, and the victory towns don't change, so you can't veer too far off from the Waterloo campaign. Martin Wallace's Waterloo has a fixed starting setup, but it is about what happened on the actual day of the battle, and not the overall campaign.