Saturday, 27 August 2016

Quartermaster General – Victory or Death: The Peloponnesian War

Plays: 4Px1.

The Game

The name is too long, so I'm going to call it just Victory or Death. Victory or Death is a sequel to Quartermaster General, and uses similar mechanisms. However the setting is completely different. This is no longer about World War II. This is about the Peloponnesian War, more than 2000 years earlier. The game is still a team vs team war game, but this time it is 2 vs 2 instead of 3 vs 3. The combatants are Sparta and Corinth on one side, and Athens and the Delian League on the other. A full game may last up to 15 rounds, after which a final scoring is done and whichever team with more points wins. Intermediate scorings are done every 3 rounds, and if any team creates a lead of 10pts or more, it wins immediately - a sudden death victory.

The soul of the game is still the unique decks of each faction. Almost everything you can do in the game depends on playing or spending a card. On your turn, by default you can only play one card. You can play a second card, which must be of a specific type - Prepare cards - if you sacrifice another card from your hand. Since there are only 15 rounds, that means you will have between 15 to 30 actions in the whole game. At the end of your turn, you always draw back to 7 cards. If you have played or spent more cards, you will draw more. Your discard pile is never reshuffled to form a new draw deck. Once your draw deck is exhausted, you don't draw any more. If you run out of cards to play, there will be a 1VP penalty every round. In this game, 1VP is a big deal.

Actions as simple as mustering an army or attacking an enemy in an adjacent space require a card play. You only have that many muster and battle cards in your deck, so you need to be prudent. The mix of cards of each faction is different, and they have very different characters. Sparta is strongest on land, and has many cards for mustering armies and conducting land battles. Athens dominates the seas, and has many cards for mustering navies and fighting sea battles. One thing that the game doesn't have is the ability to move troops. Your armies and navies on the map don't represent actual armies and navies. They represent your presence.

Other than the basic muster and battle cards, there are Event cards. You apply the effects stated immediately when you play such a card. There are Prepare cards which are played face-down in front of you. Their effects are triggered sometimes by an opponent's action and sometimes by your own action. There are Status cards which are played face-up in front of you. These give you special abilities, e.g. being able to score points by fulfilling certain conditions, being able to perform extra attacks.

There are only two unit types - armies and navies.

The cards are the soul of the game. They drive everything you do.

One source of victory points is city pieces. Quartermaster General does not have this. Every faction starts with one home city. Cities score 1VP each at every scoring stage. Other than cities, some cards also let players score points, some directly and some having prerequisites. Some territories are worth VP's, but only at the end of Round 15.

The yellow circles with numbers mark the territories which are worth VP's at game end. Both home provinces of Sparta and Athens are worth 3VP.

There's a new mechanism in Victory or Death called the bribery mechanism. You may sacrifice a card to get a coin (i.e. bribery marker). At any time this coin can be placed on an empty province, and this province will support your cause until the start of your next turn. Bribed provinces help you create a supply line, allowing you to extend your forces. When combined with some cards, they allow you to place new cities. Bribery creates more possibilities.

Every faction has a different card back. This is the card back of Athens. Those coins are the bribery markers.

It's hard to explain how the game feels by only describing the key rule elements. Let's look at how it plays.

The Play

We did the full four-player game. Jeff and I had played Quartermaster General before, but not the other two players, so we agreed that the two of us should be on different teams. Jeff played Corinth, while I played Athens.

This is the starting setup. Sparta is red, and starts at the southern tip of the Peloponnesian Peninsula. Athens is blue, and starts at the eastern tip of the Greek mainland. Sparta's ally Corinth is purple and also starts on the Peloponnesian Peninsula, but on the northern shore. Athen's ally the Delian League starts on an island in the west.

Corinth (purple) started our game harassing the Delian League (yellow) relentlessly. It established a foothold on the island of Sicily in the west, threatening the Delian League homeground from both directions. Athens (blue) had a mighty navy and decided to expand east, because there were two islands with end-game VP's in the east. Sparta (red) didn't want any direct confrontation with Athens at sea, and expanded eastwards along the southeastern edge of the map, avoiding the Athenian navy. Corinth, Athens and the Delian League had coins (bribery markers) on standby in the bowl at the top left. It's good to have at least one coin on standby, because some bad events can be avoided by spending a coin.

These two on the right were my (Athens, blue) status cards. One gave me 1VP whenever I sank an enemy fleet. The other gave me 2VP at each scoring stage in which I was able to garrison Attica, the province just next to Athens. The two on the left were my Prepare cards, which had been played face-down. My opponents did not know what they were. I could use them to plan a big move. I could also use them to bluff, hoping to scare an opponent into delaying an attack.

Corinth (purple) had destroyed the starting city of the Delian League (yellow). The Delian League had now established a new base on the eastern side of the map. Sparta (red) had expanded all the way to the mainland on the east, and had placed a new city. Athens (blue) continued to expand in the east, because the Delian League had played some status cards which gave VP's if the Athenian alliance controlled some of the sea regions here. With the Delian League exterminated in the west, Corinth and Sparta could now combine forces to press towards Athens. Attica became a key battlefield. Quite a few cards in the game featured Attica, and this was how the designer presented history in the game. Athens had great incentive to claim and protect Attica, while Sparta and Corinth had good reason to prevent that from happening. Once you get familiar with the card decks, you can better plan for how to make use of cards that you will eventually draw. You will also learn to anticipate your opponents' moves. You know the tricks up their sleeves. You just don't know which cards exactly they have in their hands at any one time. It's all about timing.

I can't help comparing Victory or Death with Quartermaster General. The Delian League is a lot like Italy, because of its many scoring cards. I don't think that's historical, but it does make the game interesting and balanced. Sparta is like Germany - invincible on land. Everybody is like Japan. It seems that every faction has many Prepare cards - secrets and traps to ensnare opponents.

Sparta's (red) new city in the east was destroyed. So was its expedition fleet. The Delian League (yellow) had established a second city in the north east. Unfortunately (for me), on the Greek mainland, Athens (blue) had fallen to the numerous attacks launched by Sparta and Corinth (purple). Sparta had been rather tentative in the first half of the game, barely advancing towards Athens, probably because it didn't have the right cards in hand. However it did play many powerful Status cards, setting itself up for spectacular moves in the late game. E.g. one card gave Sparta an extra attack upon mustering a new army, another card let Sparta launch an extra attack after executing a normal one. Athens had 3 or 4 cards in its deck which could help prevent the sacking of its capital. However I had only played one of them, which was ultimately insufficient. I had spent the others on other uses. I underestimated how much protection Athens needed. The Athenian alliance led in points throughout most of the game, but was soundly beaten at the final scoring. The sacking of Athens was crucial. Sparta gained 1VP for burning the city. Athens lost 4VP in the final scoring because of the 3VP of the territory, and 1VP of the city itself. Sparta had been building up towards this final climax, eventually succeeding in executing its plan.

Athens in ruins. I guess one consolation is that this is historically accurate.

The Thoughts

Similar to Quartermaster General, Victory or Death is a game of simple turns and few actions. Yet it manages to deliver much historical flavour. Due to how few actions you have, there is much decision angst. Every card in your deck can potentially be put to good use, but there are only 15 rounds in the game, possibly fewer. So you have to choose. You can only hope to pick an effective combination of cards to use, and you hope to draw the right cards at the right time. The game is very much about timing and hand management. You have to make the most of what you draw. It is possible to sacrifice two cards to find a specific basic card from your draw deck. This gives you a way out if you are really stuck with very bad luck, albeit at a cost.

After you become familiar with the game, you will experience an additional layer of double-guessing. You know all the tricks your opponents have, and vice versa. It comes down to what you think they will try to do in that specific game. You try to guess their intentions based on their actions. You try to hide yours and hope to catch them unprepared.

Compared to Quartermaster General, there are more Prepare cards (called Response cards in the earlier game). So players are spending more time laying traps and making elaborate plans of attack. When you see more and more Prepare cards in front of your opponents, the tension escalates. You worry whether there's a card which will completely foil your next move, and whether they are going to finally unleash hell next turn. All this secret planning makes the game feel a bit more complicated. The bribery mechanism also adds some complexity. The game is less straightforward than its predecessor.

The overall feeling is still similar. The card decks together contain a rich collection of historical and theoretical events. There are many possibilities. When you play, you are converting these possibilities into real actions and events. Sometimes it is your choices which drive the story, realising some possibilities and eliminating others. Sometimes you are forced to react to your opponents' actions. It is an intricate dance. You manage your inventory of potential actions, deciding which to sacrifice and which to use.

Game components.

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