Saturday, 23 April 2016

Quartermaster General

Plays: 6Px1.

Quartermaster General is one of the hotter recent games. My regular gaming buddies at had played it a few times and it was much discussed. I missed out the first few times it was played. Only on a more recent visit I was lucky that we had exactly 6 players. Quartermaster General was brought out again, because it plays best with six. I guess it felt wrong to not play it when such an opportunity arose.

The Game

Quartermaster General uses the same setting as the global version of Axis & Allies - World War II at a global scale. The six playable countries are Germany, Italy, Japan, USA, UK and USSR. The first three are the Axis, and the last three the Allies. This is a team game. It is played over at most 20 rounds. Players score points at the end of every turn. At the end of a round, if one team has 30 points more than the other, it wins an instant victory. Otherwise the game is played to the bitter end and scores are compared then.

Game setup is a breeze. Every country starts with just one army (tank piece) at its capital.

Every country has a different number of pieces and these reflect history. Each country has its own unique deck of cards too. The total number of cards, and the type and distribution of cards are different. This photo shows the Japanese pieces and cards. The planes come with the Air Marshall expansion. The base game contains only tanks and ships.

The game starts off with the board rather empty. The situation in Europe is more tense, since four countries are crowded there. Asia is rather empty and Japan looks like it will have a good time expanding. A territory with a star is worth 2 victory points for each turn a player controls it.

Generally on your turn you do just one thing - play a card (and do what it says). You want to build an army? You need to play the Build Army card. You want to attack an enemy army? You need to play the Land Battle card. Almost all your actions in the game depend on playing a card. If you happen to not have that card, you'll have to wait. If you can't wait, you have the option of discarding cards at the end of your turn, so that you get to draw more new cards. You always draw up to the hand limit of 7. However any card you discard is lost forever. The discard deck is never reshuffled. When your draw deck runs out, you won't draw any more cards. In fact you will be penalised. Every country has a specific number of Build Army, Build Navy, Land Battle and Sea Battle cards. You can keep count of how many you, your teammates and your opponents have used. However some cards are discarded facedown so you can't be 100% sure about your opponents.

Cards are precious. They are the core engine of the game. Quite often you are forced to sacrifice some cards. You are forced to make choices. This is what makes the game interesting - the difficult decisions. Some cards when played require other cards to be spent as payment. Even at the start of the game, you draw 10 cards are must already discard 3, before forming your starting hand.

There is no concept of movement in Quartermaster General. Strictly speaking the army and navy pieces don't represent any particular army or fleet. They represent the presence of your forces in general, and your control over specific territories. When you "build" an army, it must be built next to an existing army. This means you are actually expanding your sphere of influence. To attack an enemy, you don't need to march an army into his territory. As long as you control a neighbouring territory, you can play Land Battle to destroy his influence. It is normally impossible to defend against an attack. It is a question of whether your opponent has the necessary Battle card and whether he is willing to spend it for this particular battle. It is also a question of whether you should have built an army in a vulnerable territory in the first place. It's all about how you want to use your cards, and how you think your opponents will use theirs.

There's a type of card called the Response card. These are played facedown. Some are like traps. Some are special powers that boost another type of action. They are triggered when some other condition is met. Japan has many such cards. There's another type of card called the Status card. These are special abilities you give your country. It is usually good to play them early, so that you can enjoy the benefits for the rest of the game.

Fighting for VP territories on the map is important. They are a way to secure a steady VP income. However what is every more important is securing and pushing the frontlines, while at the same time protecting your supply lines. This game is a balance of power. To do better than your opponents, you need to tilt the balance in your favour. So you are constantly looking for a breakthrough. You want to strengthen your overall position so that you will be able to pressure, then crush the enemy team.

I have only played one game, and the game ended in instant victory due to the VP gap. The other players told me that their previous games ended in this manner too. It seems the war dragging till Round 20 is rare.

The Play

Of the six of us who played, Jeff, Ivan, Jason and Dith had played before. Sinbad and I were new, so we got to pick our countries first. Sinbad picked USA, which was far from the frontlines and felt like a safer country to play. I picked Japan for pretty much the same reason. So the four veterans started in cramped Europe.

USA (green, Sinbad) decided to focus on the European theatre, and didn't bother Japan (me) in the Pacific theatre. Italy (purple, Jeff) and Germany (grey, Ivan) expanded aggressively. Germany played a Status card early, which gave it a free Battle every time it built a new army. This was very powerful. This let Ivan advance towards USSR (red, Dith) very quickly.

Being Japan (white) I thought it would be a walk in the park when I tried to create the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. However early in the game UK (yellow, Jason) played a card which made India his second capital, and also a supply centre. I guess I shouldn't have been surprised. In our game, the Asia Pacific theatre evolved into me and him pushing backwards and forwards.

Jason (UK), Sinbad (US), Dith (USSR), Jeff (Italy).

Italy (purple, Jeff) conquered Africa, because he had a Status card which let him score points for controlling Africa and the Middle East. A red line on the map means there is a strait between the two sea zones. All straits are by default controlled by the Allies. If the Axis powers want to use a strait, they need to first control the territory linked to the strait. At this moment Italy controlled North Africa, so the Strait of Gibraltar was now under Axis control. USA (green, Sinbad) could not attack into the Mediterranean Sea. It would have to at least liberate North Africa first.

Western Europe was previously captured by Italy, but now the Americans had landed. Germany (grey, Ivan) focused on hammering USSR (red, Dith). USSR could only defend and could muster little strength to counterattack. UK (yellow, Jason) had not contributed much to the European theatre.

UK (yellow, Jason) was much more active in Asia, and was now pushing towards Australia.

The US troops (green, Sinbad) in Western Europe were destroyed, and France reverted to uncontrolled status. Moscow (red, Dith) was now surrounded by the Germans (grey, Ivan).

We played using the Air Marshall expansion, which introduces the planes. It's quite a simple addition, just airplanes and some cards, and a few rules regarding the air force. Normally a territory or sea zone only allows one army or navy per country. With the expansion, an army or navy can be supported by an air force unit. When attacked, the defender may choose the air force to take the hit instead. If the defender chooses the army or navy to die, the air force can be redeployed to another location.

The Axis team - Jeff, Ivan and I. My teammates are camera shy.

Japan (white, me) won the race to Australia against the UK (yellow, Jason). However I later found out I had made a mistake. When building a navy, it must be supported by a friendly army in an adjacent land territory. When I built my navy in the Southern Pacific, I didn't have any supporting army. It was an invalid build. By the time we discovered this, it was rather late, and it would have been a pain to undo everything. So we decided to just proceed. Sorry, I had inadvertently taken advantage of you Jason.

Germany (grey, Ivan) had moved into the Middle East, and was now threatening the UK capital in India. UK was forced to respond. If it didn't, and India were lost, all UK troops in Asia would be out of supply and would be destroyed.

UK (yellow, Jason) was doing something in Europe now, capturing France. Things were not looking good for USSR (red, Dith). Germany (grey, Ivan) had it surrounded, and now even had an air force supporting the preparation for the final push.

Germany had played a Status card in the early game which gave it a free attack for every build. Ivan had actually also drawn a Status card which gave a free build after a successful attack. He kept the card and didn't play it, because he knew UK had an Event card which could cancel another player's Status card. Ivan waited until Jason played the Enigma Code card, before he unleashed this second powerful Status card. After that, it was (as my younger friends would say) "GG" (Good Game) for USSR.

We played till about Round 15. Those who had played before said this was much longer than their past games. Previously the games were decided by about Round 10 or earlier. The Japanese troops in Australia (white, me) were destroyed by the UK (yellow, Jason) eventually. USA (green, Sinbad) captured Africa and dominated the Mediterranean Sea. However the European mainland was firmly in Axis hands. Moscow had finally fallen, and there was no chance for USSR (red, Dith) to come back. The Axis team won by creating a 30VP gap. Those who had played before commented that the Axis won in their past games too, but the games developed quite differently each time they played.

The Thoughts

I was pleasantly surprised by Quartermaster General. I had seen quite a few positive reviews, but I had not spent time to understand in detail how the game worked. The unit count in Quartermaster General is very low, but I am amazed how thematic the game feels and how much the setting comes across from the game mechanisms. It reminds me very much of standard Axis & Allies. The players are presented with the same kind of dilemmas. Does the Axis go for a Kill Russia First strategy? Should Germany launch Operation Sea Lion? Should USA focus on Europe or Asia, or split its resources? The card mechanism is certainly very different from Axis & Allies. The story of World War 2 is told in the cards. Not every card will be used. There are at most 20 rounds, and thus 20 main actions. Sometimes you need to sacrifice cards to play other cards. Sometimes your opponents force you to discard cards. Sometimes you voluntarily discard cards hoping to draw cards you need more urgently. The cards are the soul of the game. It is the most painful and frustrating part of the game, and it is also where it truly shines. You are always forced to choose between cards. Sometimes you have too many good cards and you are pained to pick some over others. Sometimes you get a bunch of cards which you don't need yet, and you need to think hard whether to hold on to them or to discard them, hoping to get something you can use now.

Timing is important. Sometimes luck can screw you up, giving you the wrong cards at the wrong time. The game is very much about card management and deciding when to play which card. The game gets better and better as you become familiar with the cards. Not just your own, but also your teammates' and your opponents' decks.

Some parts are not really historical, at least not that I can see. Italy has some cards which help it score points. Japan has many Response cards and can spring surprises (SUPPLIES!) on its enemies. I don't see how these relate to history. I think they are there for gameplay balance, and to give uniqueness to each country. I think that is fine.

In some ways Quartermaster General reminds me of Sekigahara. Winning or losing is not based on dice and probabilities. Battles are almost deterministic, the variable aspect being purely the decisions made by players. Are you going to spend that Battle card to attack? Does your opponent currently have the right cards to counterattack? The game is about guessing your opponents' hands, guessing their intentions, and gauging their priorities. There is bluffing and psychological play.

If I were still in the build collection stage of this hobby, I would have bought a copy without hesitation. However nowadays I have scaled down my game purchases. There are many games that I like but have not bought, like Panamax and A Few Acres of Snow. Some games I know I can easily find friends to play with because they own copies. I already have too many other games sitting unplayed on my shelves. I do highly recommend Quartermaster General.

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