Gamer’s Notebook

Transience

There has been much talk recently, in my group and on the cloud, about disposable games. You know, play them once, tick the box, 97% of them never seen again. Well, I see them when I pack and sell on months later. What accompanies this phenomenon is much hand wringing. Why?

Firstly, this has been my norm since the early days of German Gaming. Literally hundreds of games pass through the system while only a few get repeat play. Disposability is the nature of the beast, though less so now with the heavier and spreadsheet games that have moved in to corrupt the form. I completely understand that others play, steadily replay and wear out games. I don’t very often. And I am not alone.

For me, this is a fairly detached process. Candidates present to be assessed, and there is a very long queue. I look forward to every interview – it is a hobby after all – but there are not many that fully reward that optimism. Most are solid but passable candidates, a few not, and perhaps one in twenty makes the grade. I may then give the latter a Sumo and, in very rare cases, be inspired and/or impressed. Or even buy a copy. That’s it. I don’t want to think about the failures, I quickly forget the middling games (sometimes the same day) and know that most, even Dice Hospital, will find gainful employ with other companies.

The result is, simply, that we identify the good games. Skim off the cream. Yes, we wrongly assess some (worried what I missed in Azul and Roll Player… perhaps nothing). The film analogy, or possibly even music, is a good one. You see a film, pay the ticket price, and give up two hours of your time. Most are decent. Some you love and re-watch. Games are fighting in the same leisure time model, plus they are living in a honeymoon bubble.

But when the process works, mmmm boy. In recent weeks we have played these games multiple times: Root, Lincoln, Rajas of the Ganges, Founders, QG: Cold War, Centreville, and Sekigahara. We will definitely play Arkham 3rd, Wildlands and Trade on the Tigris several times. Most will make five plays, which is a Modern Classic. As I said to my regular opponent, that is quite a summer of gaming and, to me, validates the process. So, no need to fret about those also rans. Sell them and move on. Enjoy the storage space. If you miss them in five years, I will be very surprised.

The Wanderings of Wallace

I am more than happy to play any Martin Wallace design. I have done it since his first ever game, and I have tried almost all of them; the experiences have certainly been variable, but always worthwhile. If nothing else, because of the innovation, he gives us something to talk about. For me, the early inconsistency – compared to his Golden Age (2004 to 2011) – has returned in recent years, made worse by quality control and licensed games. But this is about form and class and, fortunately, there are signs of his class re-emerging.

I will start with Wildlands (Osprey), a generic fantasy faction game designed to spawn expansions, maps, and cash flow for publisher and designer alike. Regular readers will know that I am heartily bored with these tactical combat (skirmish) games, grey plastic figures, killing sprees and uninteresting combat systems that bear no relation to combat. I have house-banned the word faction (except above). Saga has a lot to answer for. I will however always try them out. Shadespire offered a glimmer of hope, and I really enjoyed Pantheon. Wildlands probably trumps them both, despite my reservations.

So what do we have? Each player takes a 6-a-side team. Sneaky short wingback, midfield general, big bloke up front. You know the drill. These are the usual stereotype orcs, humans, trolls etc. We think the teams are equal but it will become apparent that they are not. We oppose each other over a squareish map. There are two maps, one has elevation and interesting fields of fire, one is a dungeon. I see more maps in our future, and some people will make 3d maps with painted figures, and all the world will be good. Our task is to collect shards (in almost exactly the same way as Pantheon) and/or immobilise (okay, kill) the opposing characters. When we have a quite achievable number of shards/kills, the game quickly ends.

So far, so vanilla. The game kicks up a gear with deployment. Pre-game, you secretly locate both the shards that your opponent needs and your characters. Think Squad Leader hidden setup with bigger map references. One character appears each turn. So on turn three their tank is walking down an empty corridor but you know that next turn you will deploy a character behind him and another waits around the corner. Good. Interesting. Better the second time because you know what you are doing. Oh, and there is no writing stuff on paper.

The next layer is the card system. The card deck is unique to your side. There is a mix of card icons that will permit movement, combat, ranged combat (deadly) and specials. You also get wildcards and interrupts (ignore the suggested rule, it is clumsy). You often need to save cards to achieve powerful results, so we are in the familiar ‘what should I use this card for’, hand management territory. It is decision making, but not decisions I care for greatly because they are narratively false. On the plus side you can do some ‘moves’ (reminiscent of Shadespire) and a well prepped hand can be lethal. On the down side, defence is strong and you still find yourself standing next to an enemy with no way of hurting them. It works to a point, it is fast, and the card mix provides flavour and differentiation. There are no dice.

But the game has something… extra. I can’t spell Je ne sais quoi, but that is what it has. It has the discovery thing going on. What is your team good at, and who am I up against? Can my archer take out his hero from here? Is speed or combat more valuable? It has exploitation of the map terrain. It has surprise and ambushes. But mainly it is quick and clever because… you don’t really focus on fighting, more on the manoeuvre and gathering shards. There is a strong desire to avoid combat (you will realise why) and to play the meta game, rather than simply bulldoze the nearest enemy. You will do that, when it suits, but you don’t need to. Running away is often a valid option (gasp). Some of the skill is working out your opponent’s pieces, cards and mindset. I won’t say anymore because discovering the asymmetry and tactics, as in Root, is part of the fun.

The acid test is that you immediately want to play again. This is nothing more than picking up another team card after the game and seeing that they are different. You want to try the next map. You want to play the elves. In this way they will get three plays out of me. Perhaps five because it is quick. Others will adopt the system like a rescue dog. For me it is good, it is replayable, but… it is skirmish.

Lincoln

And then there is the other side of Wallace in the shape of Lincoln (PSC). A high level, card driven, minimal counter/map location, top down treatment of the American Civil War. It jumps into an arena dominated by the brilliant A House Divided and the even more brilliant Blue vs Gray. It had better be good.

It is. Really very good. Martin has a knack for taking a historical subject and not only making a game of it, but adding a new slant. His Gettysburg game, when I thought I would never play another Gettysburg game, ticked all the boxes. It is still proudly on the shelf.

Lincoln has all the usual elements of a wargame – geography, headquarters, recruitment, supply, combat, manoeuvre, forts, overseas influence and strategy & tactics. Naval activity is mainly abstracted, as is Europe. As usual, there are Wallace trademarks and innovations to be discovered, not least the rail movement and split location boxes. This is all card driven, and in time honoured manner the cards are multiple use with some interesting but largely repetitive events. The overall effect is that both sides establish slowly, protect assets and then can recruit and move large armies, but those armies and overall manpower dwindle. Battles are frequent and can be attritional. The onus on the Union is to quickly gain threshold VPs to be able to continue the game, otherwise it is a sudden loss. The Rebs suffer a longer fate.

The game play, as far as it goes, is excellent. It is obviously two player only, and the situation is balanced in most respects. Card availability, sequencing and luck of the dice can vary this position, but most of the time both sides feel they are in trouble, there is tension around heavily contested areas, and the game turns on key battles and control of territory. If one transplanted the situation to the Nebulus Quadrant it would feel something like GDW’s Imperium, and that is no little achievement.

But linked to that, there is a proviso. Quite a large one. Despite the artwork, map, cards and everything pointing to a proper wargame, it is not a historical treatment. Martin admits this in the designer’s notes (tweaking for balance) and in play it is apparent that ahistorical events are happening. The reception of this remains personal. One opponent left his game with me because he never wanted to see it again. Another beat me handsomely using the strategy that Martin considers an afterthought. For me, ignoring my Goldilocks genes, it was ‘close enough’ to continue playing and enjoying. I really liked its ludic qualities and could explain away the anomalies. The provisional rating is that it is a standout game, with possible balance issues, that has a good historical feel. It is also one that needs more plays for me to have a firmer view on what is on offer here. Meanwhile, definitely worth your time.

Trade on The Tigris

Not Wallace, but Engelstein and Sturm.

I always do backstory, but here it is actually needed for once. I absolutely loathe Civilisation (the original, Hartland Trefoil version). I should like it, but the length, the player mentality and the trading kill it for me. Mainly the trading. What could be the best system ever is spoiled by the fact that the wholesome, friendly person giving you the goods you need is also going to pass you a flood, pestilence or worse. And then be smug about that trade. It is just horrible and puts it firmly in the Diplomacy camp, where the m.o. is to lie. And more importantly, even if you aren’t lying they think you are. Awful experience, and only six to eight hours long. It remains one of the very few games I have ever excused myself from, and that infamous list includes Roborally, Sim City Card Game, Magalon/Mogadon and Lunch Money. You know, just for emphasis.

So, back to Tigris. The clever team that are Geoff Engelstein and Ryan Sturm take that narsty Civ trading system, adds a lower half to each card, adds on small c civ nation development, camouflages the calamities, and comes up with one of the most surprising, original, fun games I have played this year. In fairness I don’t own the game so this is based on one play, and Geoff’s games can start off really well only to get wobbly (The Expanse), so there is a very small pinch of salt included here. But I am usually okay on hunches.

The game runs half a dozen turns. You can play the whole thing in 90 minutes. The key response was that we all wanted to keep on playing, and that never happens. This is because the game shifts from simple horse trading (on the Pit level) and earning money to a low key civ game (think 7 Wonders, Sid Meier, Uruk, sixty others I can’t remember). Yes, you start to build structures and those in turn affect your trading abilities. There is just a little bit of, ‘It ends too early’.

In itself, the nation development sounds hackneyed. While I fully expect to be building barracks and storehouses for the rest of my gaming life, it needs a twist to keep me engaged. Here the twist is that your buildings align your nation to governmental style and religion, improve your production from basic goods to luxuries, and add renewables – cards that are available every turn, but must be traded to establish value. You cannot use them yourself but, impressively, other players always want them. Liking this a lot, even though I vaguely recall it in an earlier game.

The other key element, among quite a selection of welcome innovations, is that each card that you meld for trading – the more the better, up to a point – also moves you on the political and religion tracks. So six Spice will bring you solid money/VPs, but may also move you along the track towards democracy and Marduk, the weather god. Loving all things Marduk; long story. This movement is not trivial. It will determine how many VPs you get at the end of the game, and which development cards you gain access to. The further along the track, the better the rewards. The rest I will leave to you, because it is fascinating.

Tigris scores because every turn you have more stuff, you want to do things and you can clearly see what they are, and – tadaaaaaah! – people actually want to trade with you. Gone are the plaintive cries of ‘Two sheep for wood?’ <silence>. ‘Three sheep?’ <louder silence>. Here, there is urgency. Normally all players have at least one trade each way, and often three or more. As the game progresses they slow at one end – basic goods to luxuries market shift – but accelerate at the other – non-goods items, barbarians and culture. You will still be traded calamities. You can trade them on. It is still unpleasant, but they are not earth shattering in effect.

Because I am cursed – I see dead games – I can spot the rough edges in Tigris. It may be three months short on development, but it is here on the table and I gave it an 8, so who really cares? We are ahead of most games already. I question some of the mechanisms. I do not like the negative aspect of wars. I am naturally suspicious of card impact, balance and swingy powers, and there are a lot of cards to have been tested. I am concerned at the need to trade optimally vs playing a Marduk Meld (waited twenty years to type that) and management of that balance.

Despite all that, Trade on the Tigris is a winner. It is fresh, fun, positive and lively. It has so many good ideas, and surprises, that I forgot all about the trading nasties. Almost. For a game that is little more than a super filler in length and weight, it impressed the entire group. I very much look forward to my next play.

QG: TCW

And to finish, a very short note concerning the latest addition to the stellar Quartermaster General (Griggling/PSC) series. Let’s be clear: I love these games and if BGG ratings dialled up to 11, I would use it. However, The Cold War was something of a baffling choice when I heard about it. Mainly because I am waiting like nothing else for the Napoleonic system, but also because it seemed like a straight two player, minimal combat prospect. No. Could not have been more wrong. The game is a solid three player, and the third player (non-aligned) is very much in contention. There is considerable combat; perhaps too much in Germany, but let’s view that as posturing and arms racing. The game is different, as we hoped, but at least as good as the others. It handles the brutal WMDs in a very clever and subtle way. It somehow builds COIN and terrorism effects neatly into card text. It is truly a world war. And it delivers the historical vignettes beautifully, if perhaps a decade or two late or early. But that is QG to its core. Wonderful design.

Mike Siggins

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