Saturday, 27 October 2012

Web of Power Card Game / Richelieu

Plays: 2Px3 (against AI)

China by Michael Schacht is a game that I greatly admire. It is a remake of Web of Power (which I am not sure whether I have played before), with a change of map and some rule tweaks. It is simple, short, and very clever. I recently bought Web of Power Card Game on the iPhone. The boardgame version of it has a different name - Richelieu. The iOS app is branded this way probably because Web of Power is more well-known.

The Game

Web of Power Card Game is a 2-player-only game about competing for majority in 12 areas. The game starts with all cards randomly laid out face-up in four rows. Eight wooden tokens are placed face-down on specific positions. Every card has one or two symbols. At least one symbol (and sometimes both) is for one of the nine countries in the game. When there are two symbols, the second symbol can be for one of the three powers - military (sword), clerical (cross) or political (castle). On your turn, you claim one or two cards. A card being claimed must be the leftmost or rightmost card of a row, i.e. you usually have 8 choices at any one time. If you claim two cards (one after the other), they must be of the same country, and they must not have more than two country symbols in total. E.g. France and France+Clerical is OK, France+Military and France+Political is OK. Usually you want to claim two whenever possible. Your goal is to claim more symbols than your opponent in as many areas as possible (9 countries and 3 powers). In an area where you have more symbols than your opponent, you score points equal to the number of symbols you have. Scoring is done at game end, after all cards have been claimed, and the higher scorer wins.

That's the basic concept. There are a few more elements that make things interesting. Each player has three ownership markers. On your turn, you can place one of your markers on any card to reserve it. This is not a hard reservation. Your opponent can still claim the reserved card, but to do so he must discard one of his markers. If he discards all his markers this way, your reservations will effectively become hard reservations, because he will no longer be able to claim your reserved cards. Placement of markers is very important.

Another key element is the 8 wooden tokens. They are claimed by whoever claims the cards they are on. Each wooden token has one symbol, which can be one of the countries or powers, or it can be a special ability to recover a discarded marker. The wooden tokens is hidden information, so it introduces some uncertainty in whether you are winning an area.

At game end, in addition to normal scoring based on majority, there is also a penalty of 5VP for each area that you have no symbols in. 5VP is a lot, so it is important to not be completely cut off from any one area.

Late game. Only one wooden token remains, on the white Swabia card. The blue and green circles are the player markers. The bars at the top and bottom show the current status of the majority competition. The numbers mean total country symbols, total wooden tokens, clerical symbols, military symbols and political symbols. The underlined numbers mean they include symbols from wooden tokens.

Another view of the same state in the game, this time showing the 9 countries. The AI (blue) is leading in five countries, and I am leading in three. We are tied for one country (purple - France).

The Play

I have played against the Easy, Medium and Hard AI's once each, managing only to beat the first two. The game is very much about squeezing out that additional bit of efficiency in claiming cards and tokens. You want to set yourself up to claim two cards in one turn, and also to claim tokens. At the same time, you need to block your opponent from doing so. You want to get at least one in every symbol, to avoid the stiff penalty. Tying with your opponent can be important. When tied, no one scores. So letting your opponent score or tying him can be a difference of about 4VP, which is significant. Because of this, the secret tokens can have a big impact. It's only one symbol, but one symbol can be the difference between winning and tying, or between tying and losing.

There can be some long-term planning, in deciding which countries / powers to focus on. I find that I just see two to three turns ahead. I prioritise short-term extra gains, i.e. those additional bits of efficiency like claiming tokens and claiming two tiles on one turn, and depending on how these actions position me, I then decide which symbols to fight for and which to give up on. Actually, even for symbols which you are surely losing in, it is still beneficial to claim cards with such symbols, because although you won't score, you will deny your opponent points.

I find that the bulk of the strategy is how to place your markers. This is how you position yourself for the next few turns. Markers hinder your opponent and protect your interests. When I played against the Hard AI there were quite a few "A-Ha!" moments when I saw it making clever moves. I was clearly outclassed from the beginning. The AI kept setting itself up to claim tokens and sometimes to claim two cards, and at the same it also denied me from doing so.

Game end scoring screen.

The Thoughts

Web of Power Card Game feels very tactical. The key is analysing the board situation and devising the best move to set yourself up for the big moves - claiming two tiles or claiming tokens. It's a clever and quick filler game, good for gamers but may not work for non-gamers who do not want to think too much when playing. It rewards skill and new players will likely suffer when facing an experienced player. That was the case when I challenged the Hard AI. As an iOS game I think even after you master the skills, it will still be worth the occasional play as a time-waster. However it is mostly an open information game (the only hidden information being the tokens), so I suspect often there will be just one or two optimal moves for any board situation. Once you master the skills, the game may become a little stale, because often you will be just analysing the board and calculating the best move, like solving a mathematical problem. The uncertainty in the tokens is important to keep the game interesting. I've only played three games and am nowhere near mastering the skills, so I may be completely wrong. For now I'm still interesting in challenging the Hard AI.

The game is very different from China and Web of Power, just to set your expectations. There's area majority and the setting is similar, and the game is quick and clever like most of Michael Schacht's games, but other than these, there are no other similarities.

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