Tuesday, 11 September 2007

Byzantium, Wings of War, Roma

On my Sat 8 Sep 2007 boardgame session I played two new games, Byzantium and Wings of War. We also played Roma.

Han and I started with Wings of War, while waiting for Shankaran to arrive. This is a game about World War I dogfighting - fighter planes trying to outmaneuver and shoot down their opponents. It is a game I have been interested to try. Each player gets one or more planes, and they plan their fighters' movements 3 at a time, and they shoot at their opponents whenever they get within aim and within range. You win by shooting down your enemies.

Each plane has different characteristics - how nimble or maneuverable it is, which is reflected by the movement cards; how good the weapons are, which is reflected by the shooting cards (or whatever they are called, damage cards?); and how sturdy the plane is, which is simply reflected by how much damage it can take before it is destroyed. To move your plane, you secretly assign movement cards. These are revealed simultaneously as your opponents. The movement cards have an arrow on them, which determines how your plane will move, e.g. going straight, turning to one side, turning backwards, or even suddenly slowing down.

I find the design to be very clever and also thematic - how the cards capture the characteristics of a plane, and how you are trying to outguess your opponent, and how shooting is handled. When you are shot at, you draw damage cards. Some tell you how much damage you suffer, some tell you that your opponent missed and you suffer no damage, some tell you you are smoking or you are on fire, and some even tell your opponent that his or her gun is jammed and cannot be fired temporarily.

We didn't finish our game though. Shankaran called to say he couldn't join us, so we stopped in order to move on to our "main course", Byzantium. In our game of Wings of War, we spent a long time circling and maneuvering, and there was very little shooting because we seldom managed to get into position or in range. Hmm... either we were playing too well or we suck at this.

Byzantium is designed by Martin Wallace, who designed Age of Steam, Struggle of Empires and Liberte. Some of Martin Wallace's games have very interesting twists in their victory conditions, and Byzantium is definitely one of them. Byzantium's setting is the time when the Byzantine empire (also known as the Eastern Roman Empire) was about fall, the Arabs were rising, and the Persian empire was already deteriorating. Players control both the Arabs and the Byzantines (and even the Bulgars, which will be discussed in more detail later), and they try to gain the most influence as puppeteers in this war between the Byzantines and the Arabs.

At the start of the game there are many Byzantine cities, some Persian cities and a few Arabian cities. Each player has one Byzantine army and one Arabian army, and a supply of cubes and money. Cubes in this game represent many things. They can become soldiers in your army, they can be used to claim a city as yours, and they can be spent to perform special actions. The most frequent action in the game (at least in our game, which was a 2 player game), is the movement of your army. Your army can move to a friendly city (e.g. Byzantine army going to a Byzantine city) or a hostile city (e.g. Byzantine army going to an Arabian city). Preferbly you move to a hostile city, so that you can attack it, and then claim victory points. The main ways of scoring victory points are by capturing a city, either by conquering it with your army, or by claiming an unclaimed city directly, costing you one cube.

Early in the game. Cities with purple stacks are Byzantine, white stacks are Arabs, no stacks mean Persian. Those with a cube on top of the stack means a player has claimed or conquered the city.

I find that the game is very spatial, i.e. about the positioning and movement of your two armies on the board. You try to maximise your opportunities for conquests (and thus scoring) while trying to block your opponents. Cities are only worth points when they are larger, sizes 2 or 3. Every time a city is conquered, it's size reduces by one, and conquering size 1 cities gives no victory points nor money. Your Byzantine army can only attack Arabian cities, and vice versa. You can make use of a special action (civil war) to have an army attack a city of the same culture, but this costs an extra cube and there is a limit on how frequently this can happen. You can attack your opponents' armies too. Soldiers can get killed (naturally), but you don't earn victory points from this.

First two rows represent your Byzantine and Arabian armies respectively, from left to right, elite soldiers, regular soldiers (both form part of your mobile army), levies (who can "pop up" at any city under attack to fight the invaders, i.e. hinder your opponents) and supply (you pay supply every time your army moves). Bottom row is your Byzantine and Arabian treasuries, and your "free cubes" (you can use them for free).

That little pawn is my army. When it is standing next to a white Arabian city, that means it's the Arabian army.

Byzantium has an interesting way of scoring Victory points. You earn two types of victory points, the Byzantine victory points and the Arab victory points. They are tracked separatedly and are totaled to determine the overall victory points. There are two twists. Firstly, if your score on one side is more than double that of the other side, the lower score is not added to your total. This forces you to be balanced in earning victory points. You are not on the Byzantine side or the Arab side. You are on both sides at the same time. The second twist is the Bulgars.

The Bulgars can attack from the north west of the board, very near Constantinople, the Byzantine capital. Activating the Bulgars is done by a player, if he/she chooses to do so. The Bulgars can increase their army size by 4, or increase army size by 2 AND attack a city. They can be activated at most twice in a round, i.e. at most a total of 6 times throughout the 3 rounds of the game. If the Bulgars successfully conquer Constatinople, the game ends prematurely, and only the Arab victory points count. This is the second twist in the victory contidions, and this is how I lost the game.

On the bottom left are the special actions available for each of the 3 rounds of the game. Each action is only allowed once per round, although there are some duplicates. The orange cubes are the Bulgars.

Han did a Bulgar action on the first turn of Round 3, attacking Constantinople. I rolled 5 dice to represent the defense of Constantinople. I needed 3 of them to be 4 or higher, i.e. it's a 50-50 chance. There were only 2. The Bulgars sacked Constantinople, and scored 5 bonus points for Han. Only Arab victory points counted, but anyway at the time Han's Arab score was already higher than me, so he won the game.

It was a little anti-climatic for me, as I felt I had done well in the first two rounds in terms of positioning and movement of my two armies. At the end of Round 2, I was ahead in Byzantine victory points and Han was ahead in Arab victory points, but we were close on both tracks. I thought I had a decent chance for victory by the end of Round 3. Unfortunately I had underestimated the Bulgar risk. I had thought it would take one more Bulgar special action to increase their army size by 4, before there would be a decent chance of success for them to try attacking Constantinople. So, Han's Bulgar attack came as a surprise to me. I had miscalculated the probability. It was actually 50-50, and was a very worthwhile gamble, at the cost of only 1 cube.

After the painful defeat, I immediately started thinking. Was this something that I could have prevented and planned for? Was there something that I could have done that would have made a difference? Was it all about bad luck in that last dice throw? Could this be a design flaw? (in a Martin Wallace game??!) My conclusion was, it was something that could be planned for and prevented. It was my own oversight that lead to my defeat. In this particular situation, I could have passed first at the end of Round 2, so that I would be the start player in Round 3, and then I could make that Bulgar attack instead of Han. If the Bulgars were successful, I would have won because I was less than 5 points behind Han on the Arab victory point track. The 5 point bonus from conquering Constantinople would propel me to the leading position. If the Bulgars failed, I would still be in a good position, because that failed attack would have killed off many Bulgars and the one remaining Bulgar special action would not likely be sufficient for Han to launch a successful attack afterwards. The other possibility is if I had achieved a 6 point lead on the Arab victory point track, the Bulgar attack would not have been a threat at all.

So, I think the Bulgars is a very good element of the game, which forces you to think and plan for it, be it in making defensive moves, or using it to achieve victory, or simply using it as a threat, thus forcing your opponent to spend valuable actions to counter your threat. The Bulgar alternative victory condition is what I find to be a touch of genious in many good games, e.g. the Ripper Escape card in Mystery Rummy: Jack the Ripper, and connecting two shrines using a chain of your buildings in Attika.

Game over. The Bulgars had conquered those two cities leading to Constantinople, and also Constantinople itself.

Han and I have played two games of Roma before. In those two games, we played very offensively, killing off or sending off each other's cards, and thus forcing each other to lose victory points. At the start of your turn you lose 1VP for every empty space you have on your side, and you lose the game when you reach 0VP. This time, we both tried the other extreme, racing to grab all victory points from the common victory points pool (game ends when the common pool is exhausted). Well, at least we were doing that in those few rounds of our very short game, maybe around 5 minutes. By the time we started preparing for some offensive moves (preparing to send off / kill each other's cards), the game was already over.

A photo of Roma taken when we first tried it in July.

At the start of the game you get 4 cards, look at them, and give 2 to your opponent. At the start of this game Han gave me the Templum and Basilica, both buildings that earn you victory points, but only if they are built next to the Forum. He didn't have any Forum and neither did I. The Forum is an important victory point generating building. I placed the Templum and Basilica so that there was an empty space between them, where I could build a Forum if I were to get one later. Luckily I did get one (I think I used one of the charater powers of another card to pick any card from the deck), and promptly selected and built it on the designated spot. Han also got a Forum and built it. Then on Turn 4 or so, I rolled the right numbers on my 3 dice, and poof, game over. I have exhausted the common victory points pool.

Some people complain about luck in this game. Han said if a game can be this quick, why complain about luck? Just play again if you're not happy with the outcome. I think that there is quite a bit of meaningful decision making and planning in this game, even though they are dictated by your die rolls and what cards you draw from the deck. Although there is luck, there is enough thinking and choices for the players, for the game to be interesting. Even if you get lousy cards and lousy die rolls, there is still something you can do to, well, at least not lose too badly. It is choices and meaningful decision making that makes a game interesting. Sometimes luck will spoil your effort, but if you can accept that this does happen sometimes, then there is no problem. For me, the luck is a little more than I like (maybe the existence of dice makes me biased), so it is an OK game for me, nothing to write home about, but I'm happy to play this as a light and quick filler game.


Han said...

Correction: In Byzantium, attacking a 1-token city earn neither victory point or money. It just changed the city's ownership. I was forced to attack a few cities in this manner as my Arab army was surrounded by Hiew's Arab city due to his better maneuvering (also wasting cubes by spending on civil war special action).

I also think a lot about the game and the possible future strategy to use. (This is usually a good sign for a game). It's easier to prevent Bulgar's attack in a 3-players game becuase the person least in Arab's point will definitely divert the attack elsewhere. Whereas in a 2-player game, both side need to concentrate on Arab's point and aim for autokill if chances present itself. A full strength Bulgar army (11 cubes) indeed have 50% chance of success. In our game, i attacked with 10-cubes.

The other odd things are human lives appeared to be very cheap in this game. We are throwing away our armies by making relentless attack and are actually happy that casualties occured as this will reduce the end of turn maintainence cost. This seems rather strange.

Hiew Chok Sien said...

Thanks for the rule correction. I've fixed it.

Yeah, I was quite the evil boss in our game, hoping that my elites get killed in battle, so that I don't need to pay their salary at end of round. But I assure you I'm very nice to my team members at work. :-)