Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Successors (3rd edition)

Plays: 3Px1.

The Game

Successors is a card-driven wargame (CDG) in its third edition, which means it must have done something right. It is about how Alexander the Great's generals fought among themselves after he died without naming an heir to his vast empire. The game is primarily designed for 4 players, with slight changes required for playing with 2 or 3. The game is played over at most 5 game turns. To win, you need to reach a certain number of victory points (mainly from provinces controlled, and also from a few other sources) or to reach a certain number of legitimacy points, or to have the highest total of these while controlling an heir when he comes of age. These translate to (a) becoming the most powerful general so that you take over Alexander's empire, (b) doing enough deeds and commanding enough support from the royal family to be considered a legitimate successor, and (c) becoming regent when one of Alexander's sons takes the throne.

The battling part of the game is not so different from other CDG's like Hannibal: Rome vs Carthage and Washington's War. You need generals to move armies. You can intercept enemy armies. You can attempt to avoid battle. You siege. You can travel by sea. Also similar to these two games, there is a concept of controlling a city by placing your marker on it. And all of these actions are driven by cards, which can be used to trigger events on them, or used for the operation points printed on them. Every action you do is driven by a card play.

What's special about Successors is the back story, which I think the game brings to life quite well, via a few unique details, starting with Alexander's dead body. Alexander died in Babylon, and the generals fight for his corpse, wanting to be the one to bury it and to be the one controlling the burial site. If you can bring the corpse all the way back to Macedonia for burial before it rots, you gain a huge boost to your legitimacy, for being such a sweet soul. There are various royal family members that you fight to control. If you, ahem, persuade them to support your cause, they increase your legitimacy. Legitimacy may not win you the game though, if you can't go high enough. If push comes to shove and noone can meet any instant win condition during the game, victory is decided by victory points (VP's) only at the end of game turn 5.

So you still need to fight for VP's, which means controlling cities and provinces. That too comes with disadvantages. Every game turn the player with the most VP's get labelled the Usurper. Everyone starts the game as a Champion, i.e. you (at least on the surface) support one of Alexander's sons to become the next king and have no selfish ambitions. You shall not attack any other Champion (there are barbarians and independent cities you can attack), lest you reveal your true nature as an aspiring Successor. Being Champion is worth legitimacy points, so there is incentive to stay one as long as possible. However the Usurper guy is a special case. He may still be officially a Champion, but because he is so greedy, you can attack him without losing your Champion status. Everyone likes to see the big guy fall from grace.

Green markers are not player markers. They are barbarians and independent cities. That green square at the bottom centre is a barbarian army, which can enter the game and move/attack by play of event cards.

There are many spaces without control markers because we did a 3-player game with each player controlling only 2 generals. Usually each general controls one province.

The numbers in yellow squares on the board are victory point values of the provinces.

At the start of the game every player is randomly assigned at least two generals and their provinces (depending on the number of players and variants used), so games can vary depending on the initial general card distribution. Some generals appear mid-game based on cards drawn. I think the game will be best with four, because there will be no vacant provinces and there will be more interaction among players.

The Play

This is one very rare game that I tried to and could not summarise into one sheet of A4-sized paper, even when using font size 9. I needed one and a third page. Reading through the rules was a bit of a struggle, since I have not really played that many CDG's. However playing the game turned out to be much less stressful. I think I have actually been more stressed about squeezing everything into one sheet of paper than learning the game.

Han, Allen and I did a basic 3-player game, each starting with 2 generals. In the early game, Allen drew two more generals, and Han one more, so the number of generals suddenly became rather lopsided. I guess I didn't shuffle the cards as well as I had thought I did. Generals are important because armies can only move when lead by one. Everyone has 4 generic minor generals in addition to the major generals, so you are not completely dependent on your major generals. These major generals can get killed in battle. Major generals, of course, usually do better in battles. You can't simply raise troops any time you want. Every game turn (and there are only five) you get 2 mercenaries in the worst case, but not much better even in the best case. You get 1 Macedonian unit if you control Macedonia or if you have the highest legitimacy. You get 2 more mercenaries if you have the most VP. All in all, not much. You need to be careful not to waste your troops.

Battles are often risky business. The battle loser loses all mercenaries and elephants, and the Macedonian troops are out of action for the rest of the game turn. Battles are quick though, only two rolls of the dice required, one for each side. One interesting aspect is the Royal Macedonian troops. They are picky and won't fight any opponent general who has higher legitimacy than their general. They just stand aside and watch. So legitimacy can sometimes be crucial.

A battle between Han (yellow) and Allen (red). The units with purple stripes are Royal Armies, and they stood aside because the opponent general had higher legitimacy than their own general.

Event cards add some flavour and surprise to the game. If you want Cleopatra to support your cause, you need one specific card which makes her marry. Until someone wins her heart, she stays put in a specific city and does not lend legitimacy to anyone.

In the game we played, Han was aggressive with his armies and managed to control the Hellespont strait (the strait leading to the Black Sea), securing some extra VP's. One of his generals started the game controlling Alexander's dead body, but in order to deliver it all the way back to Macedonia for burial, he would have to pass through Allen's and my territories. It was a daunting task. After much delay, he eventually decided to bury Alexander in Babylon. Allen spent the most effort subjugating barbarians and sieging independent cities, eventually growing his holdings to a massive patch of red. He also built up some big armies. I gradually retreated because my armies were no match for his, eventually even vacating one of my start provinces. I switched to focus on coastal provinces and islands, many of which provided navies. I had the largest fleet and noone dared to travel by sea anywhere near my coasts.

Allen's (red) and my (blue) armies are theateningly close.

At this stage I (blue) had retreated to the islands, relying on my strong navy to protect me from Allen's huge armies. Conquering the island cities also gave me some victory points.

We did not manage to finish the game. I had the most victory points at the time we stopped, but since my armies were much weaker than Allen's, it was not likely that I could reach the required VP's for the instant win before he snatched away my coastal provinces. So at that point Allen was the most likely winner if we had continued. Han and I would likely need to form a temporary alliance to stop him.

This is where we stopped. Allen's (red) domain was growing and neither Han nor I could contain him. Only Han's general on the left was holding back Allen's general. Other generals were all trying to avoid Allen's generals.

The Thoughts

I was surprised the not-even-completed game took so long. It was partly because it was our first game and we still needed to refer to the rules frequently. I like the low density of soldiers. You have few troops and need to be very careful with how you use them. Battles are almost always risky, unless you greatly outnumber your opponent. Even when you do, your leader may still die in a victorious battle, or your opponent may have some card up his sleeve to turn the battle around. Every battle is tense, and yet the battle resolution is very quick and clean. There are combat resolution tables (CRT's) to refer to, but I don't find them troublesome. All the CRT's you need are on one reference card or on the game board itself.

I like the "extra bits" that make Successors different from other CDG's - the legitimacy concept, the Champion / Usurper / Successor status, Alexander's funeral cart, killing off Alexander's heirs in your custody if they don't favour you to become the regent (I'm serious). All these bits, although being additional rules to learn, create an interesting context. Even Alexander's mum is in the game.

This is still a wargame, so be prepared for lots of rules to digest and rules mistakes to be made if you are not familiar with CDG's.

I am thankful that Han has quite different tastes from mine when it comes to buying games, else I would have missed many good games. I normally don't pay much attention to Ameritrash games or wargames. The next time we play, if we only have three players, we intend to play with 3 generals each, which I think will be more interesting, with no power vacuum provinces and with a more equal number of generals.

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

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