Thursday, 27 February 2014

Paths of Glory

Plays: 2Px1.

I bought Paths of Glory in February two years ago. At the time I was on a long break from work, and I had thought it would be easier to arrange a time to play this 8-hour game. That didn't work out. At the start of this year I decided I needed to do something about these games that I keep saying I should play but never quite get around to. I set specific dates to play them, and made appointments with my opponents. I hoped by putting a date into my calendar, it would help. It would also help to build the anticipation. So on 16 Feb 2014, Allen and I set aside one full day to play Paths of Glory at my place.

The Game

Paths of Glory is a Card Driven Game (CDG) about World War I. It is a long, complex, strategic 2-player wargame. One player plays the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, Turkey etc), and the other plays the Allied Powers (France, Russia, Britain, USA, Italy, etc). The game starts in 1914 and has 20 rounds, each round being equivalent to about 3 months. A Victory Point (VP) counter starts at 10VP. The Central Powers aim to reach 20VP, where they would win an instant victory. The Allied Powers aim for 0VP. You increase (or decrease) the VP value by capturing VP cities. Some events also change the VP value. If no one reaches the instant victory condition by the end of 1918, victory is determined by where the VP counter is. It may end up being a draw.

This is a CDG, which means the cards drive many events in the game, e.g. the Russian Revolution, initially neutral countries entering the war, and introduction of new armies. Every round players take turns playing cards to take actions. In addition to triggering events, cards are used to move troops, to initiate attacks, to make strategic redeployments and to heal troops. Play on the board revolves around a few major frontlines. Both sides try to break through and capture VP cities, while at the same time maintaining a formidable front. Staying in supply is important, because precious armies which go out of supply are summarily permanently eliminated.

Battles are quick, usually only requiring both sides to roll one die each. Many factors come into play, e.g. strength, entrenchment, terrain, fortresses, flank attacks and card plays, but once all these are taken into account, the outcome of the battle can be found in a narrow range. You know the best and worst cases of damage inflicted by both sides. The die roll determines where within this range the final outcome lies. You can't rely on luck to win. You need to maximise all the combat factors. If you manoeuvre well, some battles cannot be lost.

The units on the board consist of armies and corps. Armies are your main fighting units. Corps are much weaker. There is a predetermined number of armies for each country. New armies are introduced only via event cards. When an army takes damage, it is flipped to the weaker side. If damaged again, it is reduced to a corp. A corp, when damaged, flips to a weaker side too, and if damaged again, is eliminated. An eliminated army can be rebuilt in the country capital and sent forth to fight again. However if an army is eliminated due to being out of supply, or due to being unable to retreat after losing a battle, it is permanently removed from the game. This is painful because it is a permanent reduction in a country's battle capability.

Cards in the game are divided into three stages. Each player has his own deck. Both start the game with only cards from the Mobilisation stage. You need to increase your war status to specific levels before you can shuffle cards from the next stage into your draw deck. War status is increased by playing specific cards as events. This is one important aspect of the game that you must manage.

These are Central Powers cards from the Mobilisation (first) stage. If you want to move or attack, you use the first number at the top left as operations points. If you want to do strategic redeployment, you use the second number. If you want to play the card as an event, then of course you follow the main text. If you want to replenish troops or heal units, you use the text at the bottom. If there is a number in a bracket after the card name (in the middle), that's how much you increase your war status if you play the card as an event. The asterisk means the card is removed from the game if it is played as an event.

The game is rules-heavy, but the basic mechanisms are not all that complex. What is challenging is the many special cases and exceptions, and exceptions to exceptions. These are all based on historical facts, so there is a lot of historical flavour in the game. But these are also rules overhead that players will need to remember and also look up during a game.

This being a complex game, I won't go into further details. Let's look at pictures and do show-and-tell.

The Play

The rulebook says that in tournaments, the Allied Powers have a slight advantage, so I let Allen play the Allied Powers, while I played the Central Powers. I own the game and I read the rules, so I am at an advantage.

This is the start of the game. There are three fronts. The western front is at the French-German border, the main forces being French and German. I hadn't realised that Britain had so few battle-ready armies in 1914. The eastern front is at the Russian border, with mostly Austria-Hungarian forces plus some German forces facing the Russian forces. In the Balkans there is a smaller front, with Austria-Hungary vs Serbia. Countries not yet at war do not have their units on the board yet, e.g. no Turkish or Italian forces yet.

This is the western front. German units are grey. French units are blue. The British unit is biege. The larger units are armies, while the smaller ones are corps. There is only one French corp in this photo, the one at the bottom. The three numbers on the units are combat strength, health/endurance and mobility. When a unit is flipped over to the weaker side, usually only the combat strength is reduced. The weaker side of a unit has a horizontal bar. Cities with red borders are worth victory points.

This is the eastern front. Russian units are brown. Austria-Hungarian units are light grey. German units are grey. The 8-pointed stars are fortresses. They provide additional strength to defenders. Even when vacant of troops, a fortress forces enemy units to besiege it and thus ties them down. Once destroyed, a fortress cannot be rebuilt.

Allen's Russians took the initiative and made a joint attack on my Austria-Hungarian army.

I did rather poorly in the eastern front, and Allen's Russians kept forcing me back. Unlike the stronger German units, Austria-Hungarian units are equal to Russian units, so I had no unit quality advantage in this theatre.

The Russians are coming. Allen by now had one large army group right next to Budapest, one of the capitals of Austria-Hungary.

Allen made one grave mistake at this point. His Russian (brown) army group had been overly aggressive, and its supply line was cut by my weaker Austria-Hungarian armies. Being out of supply meant his army could not move or attack. It had to wait for rescue - for other friendly armies to reestablish a supply route. My two Austria-Hungarian armies (light grey) positioned themselves to block any attempt by Allen's other Russian and Serbian forces to rescue his isolated army. If I could hold off the rescuers, the stranded army would be permanently eliminated, a large blow to the Allied Powers.

My Germans (grey) came to help too, holding the positions staunchly to keep the Russian army in Budapest out of supply. Allen's rescuers could not break through, and he lost not only this sizeable force, but also more critically, the momentum in this theatre of war.

The tables turned, and my armies turned around to pursue the Russians and Serbians instead. The northern part of the eastern front had been mostly neglected prior to this. Now that I could afford to spare some attention there, I eagerly attacked. Allen's defenses were weak there, and I was able to break through easily and I destroyed quite a few fortresses.

About five hours into the game, we realised we had made one very big rule mistake. We completely forgot that we were not supposed to enter the borders of countries which were not yet at war. In our manoeuvring at the eastern front, we had trampled all over Bulgaria and Romania, when both of them were not yet at war. Oops... so sorry... please excuse us. No wonder the eastern front felt so spacious! We had been running around the neighbours' backyards without permission.

The western front was a very different story.

There were many fortresses along the western front, many armies were entrenched, and there was not much manoeuvring space. The positions along the front were easy to defend but hard to attack. It was a war of attrition. We kept needing to send fresh troops and to heal the units here. I had a small breakthrough in the early game, capturing Brussels. However I could not sustain a strong enough force and the army group which broke through eventually had to retreat back to the old frontline.

Two French (blue) armies attacking my German (grey) army. As the game wore on, our forces gradually depleted and it became harder and harder to hold the line.

The French broke through and my German army was forced to retreat. By this time the British (biege) had mustered a decent force too. I had been assigning some reinforcements to the eastern front, which meant I had fewer new armies for the western front.

Throughout the game, Allen had been much more aggressive than I was in increasing his war status. By the time he entered the third and final stage (Total War stage, at war status 11), I had barely entered the Limited War stage, with a war status of 5. I spent many cards on replenishment, hoping to gain a strong momentum to break through, and I didn't play many cards as events which could have increased my war status. I think my view was a bit too short-term, and my decisions came back to haunt me. I'm not sure whether progressing quickly to a higher war status is always a good thing, or whether under some situations holding back can be beneficial. My gut feel is generally it is good to progress. Some cards which allow new nations to enter the war are in the later stages. Also certain events that progress the Russian Revolution are in the later stages too. Surely these would have benefited me.

When Turkey (strictly speaking, it was still the Ottoman Empire at the time) entered the war, I didn't quite know what to do with it. Most of its units were placed in the Near East section of the map, and most of them were corps. The Near East map has many restrictions - limited movement, limited strategic redeployment, limited attacks etc. There were many exceptions, and because of that I was too lazy to deal with it. Also the units were mostly corps, which were much less glamorous than armies. So I mostly neglected this theatre of the war. I don't quite know what to do with it.

One interesting bit in Paths of Glory is it has Lawrence of Arabia! The Arab Northern Army in the game was lead by Faisal, a close friend of Lawrence.

This is the Near East map. Turkish units are orange. The Arab North Army (treated as a British / beige corp) starts in Arabia, and now has captured Jerusalem.

Italy was the next country to enter the war after Turkey. The starting army composition and army locations of all countries are all known. So both players can prepare for how to deal with them beforehand. In hindsight, I should have done that with Italy, and not scramble to respond only after the Italian troops popped up on the board. Thankfully Italians troops were initially weak and dispersed. I was able to quickly put together a formidable Austria-Hungarian army group, and I marched it south to deal with the pizza boys before they became a serious threat.

I was too cocky, and forgot to protect my supply line. Allen used one lowly semi-prepared Italian army to cut off my supply, and my new shiny stack of Austria-Hungarian armies was permanently eliminated. Ouch! Now my southern flank was completely exposed. I only had two lousy corps hanging around screaming four-letters words repeatedly.

The Italians (yellow) are coming.

Allen and I played till Turn 10, which is halfway through, i.e. around mid 1916. It took about 7 hours, excluding rules explanation. We could not continue due to other commitments, and stopped there. My Central Powers were ahead in victory points (VP=13, i.e. above 10), but in terms of overall board position, I was poised to lose a lot of ground. My western front defense was starting to crack. My southern front was effectively a void. My war status was far behind. Only on the eastern front I had something to show. In such a situation, possibly one thing I could do was offer peace. This is one of the actions available to players. If you are ahead in victory points (more than 10VP for Central Powers, less than 10VP for Allied Powers), you can offer peace as an action. If your opponent accepts, the game ends in a draw. If he refuses, you roll a die to see who gains one VP, with you having better odds than your opponent.

These are the permanently eliminated armies - 8 Russian armies (brown), 4 Austria-Hungarian armies (light grey), 1 Italian army (yellow), and 1 British army and 1 British corp (beige). The British units are a special case (see the black dot). This is the British Expeditionary Force, and it is never allowed to heal. So once it is eliminated, it is permanently removed from the game.

The board situation at game end.

In the western front, France (blue) has broken through, and Germany (grey) is trying to push it back. Britain (beige) has now assembled a formidable force.

The Balkans. The Serbians (Allied Power) have been wiped out. The Germans have reached the Black Sea. I captured so many cities that I ran out of markers to mark them as Central Powers controlled. However we made a big mistake in this section of the map. We should not have been fighting in Bulgaria or Romania. They were not at war yet!

This is the northern half of the eastern front. The yellow markers are destroyed Allied fortresses. My forces were unstoppable, simply because Allen didn't have many units to stop me in the first place.

The main table is the General Records Track, where various statuses like VP and war status are tracked. The Combined War Status is also the general war weariness. If it hits 40, the game ends, and players look at the VP indicator to determine who wins and whether the game ends in a draw. The two tracks at the top are for US entry and the Russian Revolution. Obviously we have not gamed these aspects much. I think the Russian Revolution track should have progressed to the second space, just that I had forgotten to move the marker.

Allen gave me this tray, and I find it very suitable for Paths of Glory.

The Thoughts

Playing Paths of Glory reminded me of the game of Here I Stand that I played with Han and Allen. That game took a full day too. Paths of Glory doesn't have as much width or variety, but it has more detail. It is only focused on warfare, but it is very rich and strategic. It is grand in scale. You need to take a very strategic view. It is more about how to allocate resources to the different theatres of the war than about how to fight individual battles. It is about how to use your cards - as events, movement, offense, strategic redeployment, or replenishment, and not just about manoeuvring armies. It is about gaming your card deck, anticipating and leveraging events, and defining long-term strategies.

Although die rolls and card draws introduce a luck element, I feel that players have much control in this game. It mostly comes down to the decisions you make. You have perfect information on the board. All combat factors can be calculated and you know the possible range of the battle outcome. So ultimately it's about how much resources you have allocated to that battle, and how well you have positioned your units. I feel that in this game every decision will come back to haunt you. There are implications further down the line that you will concretely feel. Sometimes you regret, sometimes you feel justified. Sending reinforcements to one front will help you do well there, but it means another front is getting less support and will probably suffer. When I play, I feel that successes are because I have made wise decisions, and failures can only be blamed on myself. Decisions are often about compromises. You gain something, you lose something. This is what makes them interesting. And tough!

This is a game that you need to play with an opponent of about the same skill level. I imagine I would get completely slaughtered by an experienced player, which would be no fun for both parties. Manoeuvring units and protecting supply lines is an intricate dance in which both players will play out various scenarios and sequences in their minds before making any move. It takes two equally skilled (or unskilled) players to make this mental sparring interesting.

Allen thinks playing the game well requires knowing the cards well. That is very true. You need to have a good idea of what type of cards are in which stage so that you can plan. You need to know not only cards in your deck, but also cards in your opponent's deck.

Paths of Glory is a wargame through and through. It has quite many rules and is nothing like Eurogames. It takes significant time and effort investment. The basic mechanisms are not that hard to digest. What is challenging is the many special cases, and exceptions, and exceptions to exceptions. Most of these are to handle historical events and situations. I think if you know the history of World War I well, they will all make perfect sense, and will be easier to remember too. I am glad I finally got to play this. It was a lot of work to prepare for this one game, but it was very satisfying. The preparation and anticipation were part of the fun.

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