Thursday, 26 January 2012

The Ares Project

Plays: 3Px1.

The Game

The idea behind The Ares Project is based on real-time strategy (RTS) games on the computer, like Starcraft, Age of Empires and Warcraft. Players start with a base and some basic units. They harvest resources, construct buildings, use those buildings to build new and better units, upgrade units, and then fight to the death. Usually there are different factions for players to choose from, and each has its own strengths, weaknesses and unique aspects.

The Ares Project implements all these using a clean overall structure. Every player has his own deck of cards. On your turn, you just play one card. If played face-down, it's a resource that you can use to construct a building or train a unit. If played face-up you use what's on the card, which can be a building or some special improvement. All this is done behind a screen so your opponents can't see what you're doing. There are some special battle cards, and when played face-up, you attack an opponent.

Other than the players' bases which are not adjacent to one another, there is one other location called the frontier, which is adjacent to everyone's base. Normally you can only attack the frontier from your base, and only after you control the frontier, you can attack others' bases. If you conquer an opponent's base, he is eliminated. You win if you are the last man standing. The game also ends if everyone runs out of cards. In this case victory is determined by the number of battle cards held and control of the frontier. Whenever a battle card is played, it is usually claimed by the player who is holding the frontier at that moment. Thus the importance of controlling the frontier although it makes you more vulnerable to attacks.

Only during battle are player screens removed, so that you can see what your opponent has built. Units are placed in a battle line, and a number of combat rounds are conducted using dice. There are four types of units, infantry, armour, air and buildings. Every unit has different attack abilities against the four unit types, so it's important to position your units well at the battle line.

Every turn a card is played into your own playing area behind a screen. You have a hand of 3 cards, and whenever you play a card, you have to decide between using it as a resource, or using the ability on its face (usually a building type). Buildings which can train new units have two halves, each for a different unit type, and when constructing them, you have to decide which half to use, and play the card with that half pointing forward.

When it is time for battle, the screen is removed, and both combatants get to see what buildings and units each other has built. Only at this point resources (i.e. cards played face-down) are converted to actual unit tokens.

The Play

Allen, Han and I did a 3-player game. I played the Terrans and Allen the Kahoum (a wizard-like human faction). These two are "normal" factions. Han played an insect-like race called the Xenos, which works rather differently. We were mostly conservative and did much build-up before committing to battle. I was first to claim the frontier, and Han was first to attack me. I managed to fend off his attack, but this battle left both of us weaker, while Allen preserved his strength and built powerful buildings and units. Later when Allen attacked me, I conceded the frontier to him. He attacked me again, this time targeting my base, so it was a battle for survival for me.

Allen's units were expensive and he didn't have many, but he had very powerful obelisks, a unique Kahoum building that support his units during battle. One of them gave instant kills by expending power, and it destroyed a full battalion of my armour units (four of them). I lost the battle and was eliminated. I had collected the most battle cards (equivalent to victory points) up to that point, but they now went to Allen.

Han's only chance of winning was to eliminate Allen, since he didn't have that many battle cards. When he attacked the frontier, Allen conceded it to him. Before his deck ran out, Han launched a final attack at Allen's base. To maximise his odds, he brought along his queen, which is the most powerful single unit in the game. Unfortunately for him he couldn't overcome Allen's defenses. Even his queen got killed. So Allen was the final victor.

The small red square board is the frontier. Whoever controls it places his faction marker on it. The orange player screen is for the Xenos faction, blue for Colossus (but Allen was actually playing the Kahoum) and green for Terran.

The final battle between Han and Allen. Units are arranged in a battle line like this. Green squares are infantry-type units, red circles are armour units, blue triangles are air units, and grey pentagons are buildings. When you attack an opponent's base, you can get your units to attempt to destroy vacant buildings instead of shooting at enemy units. You do so by attacking the Base cards, which are placed at two ends of the battle line on the defender's side.

The Thoughts

I wonder whether this should primarily be a two player game. With three or more players, it seems the first two to get involved in a battle are making themselves vulnerable to the other players. I have only tried one game so I can't say for sure. It's just a gut feel. In our game we did a lot of build-up before the first battle so it was a big one with much losses inflicted on both sides. If players attacked earlier and more frequently, this situation I worry about may not occur much.

The basic turn structure is very simple, which I like. Player turns are quick. The game is most rich in the unique faction abilities and characteristics. They all require different styles of play. You need to invest time to understand their strengths and weaknesses to fully appreciate the intricacies of the game.

I found the battle resolution procedure a little tedious. How the various unit abilities and faction abilities come into play is interesting, but there's no avoiding the actual execution. The game has the rock-paper-scissors concept of units being effective against some unit types but not others, but I didn't find the implementation particularly interesting.

In summary, I like the high-level design, didn't fancy the detailed implementation, and still need to explore much more of the faction intricacies to get a deeper understanding of the game.

Buy from Noble Knight Games. Status: in stock (at time of this post).

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