Gamer’s Notebook December 2007
To sunny Eastbourne on Britain’s South coast for the regular post-Essen get together organised by Mike Clifford and myself. Twenty five or so gamers leave their other halves looking at the calendar, with a sense of deja vu, and whizz off to a small hotel to enjoy four days of fish & chips and solid gaming – hopefully ticking off most of those titles unplayed and bought in the previous month. Uncannily, it runs at the same time as bgg.con, and we like to note that we are the senior event, if somewhat smaller in scope (!). And it was sunny. I don’t know how, but it was. A few hardy souls were sea swimming in late November.
Age of Empires III
I like Age of Mythology, but realise I am in a minority. Otherwise, there have been a long series of computer game spin-offs that I can happily live without. I would therefore not have given this game a second glance if it weren’t for some very positive word of mouth coming out of the States. In the end, it became my game of the summer and it got a lot of play at the club and at home sessions.
This is a clever twist on the action drafting mechanism that is very much in vogue. Each player places their markers on areas in the Old World, ready to be shipped across to the New. Once there, they might annex a region (killing the indigenous natives), exploit an areas’ resources, fight or explore. Once established, you start in on buying ships, buildings and strategy cards. Another nice element is that you have several types of marker, some of which have different powers.
So, not anything we haven’t seen before, but re-jigged into a very appealing format. There are, cliché time, several routes to victory which genuinely seem to be distinct. As a result there is a real sense of building an empire somewhat different to your neighbour’s, and when the seats on the settler ships become scarce, one really feels the pressure. You can, say, completely ignore your merchant fleet and go for colonial holdings. You can explore rather than bothering about resources. As usual, a mixed balance can also work. Because these options work so well, you can actually play the game five times or more just trying out strategies. Good stuff.
AoE has that slight problem that only seems to bother hardcore gamers. You can play the whole game cleverly, brilliantly even, but you are still at the mercy of the fates. If you get the right cards at the right time, or you have a run of good luck on discoveries, you will find the zero-luck addicts crying into their coffee. As you may have gathered, I don’t mind it. What guarantee was there ever for a group of explorers landing on a foreign shore? Who is to know the ultimate outcome of a merchant naval policy?
Apart from the gaudy and overblown plastic production, and the map where the space could have been better used, I really like this game. I find the situation appealing, I very much like the feel of the Old and New countries, the constraints of shipping, and the actions available. It all adds up to one of my favourite games of the year. When Tropical Games catch on about wooden bits, they’ll be dangerous.
You may have heard of this one.
Despite the massive PR machines behind Ravensburger, Amigo and Hans im Glueck, it is the tiny Lookout Games who have, this Autumn, created that most valuable resource – buzz. I say again, buzz, not hype.
Agricola is a game about farming in the 17th century. How long we have waited for a good one. Each player has their own farm, is given a set of cards that indicates their probable route forward, and you get fourteen turns to score as many victory points as you can. Alternatively, for reasons that will become apparent, it is also a sandbox where you can just have fun doing your own thing. It seems everyone I know really wants to play this game, me included, and many were prepared to jump through hoops to make that happen.
Hoops? Well, the game is in German. Although we have an excellent rules and card translation, more on that later, however many assurances you might get that ‘it is only fourteen cards’, it isn’t. If you want to paste up all the cards, it is over three hundred, which by anyone’s calculation is a lot of hours. You can get by on less, just the ‘E’ pack is enough to get started, but there is old school work to be done before the game can be played. Ideally someone you know will have done this paste-up work for you.
It must be said here that any Anglophone who buys the German version will not be left adrift. Lookout Games have promised to sort out something, and I believe them, but at the moment they are snowed under with the success of the game. We need to be patient.
The interesting twist with Agricola is that it seems to have generated a passionate level of enthusiasm. I believe this is down to a cocktail of the designer’s reputation, the subject matter, the multi-level gaming it offers, the frisson of the components, the potential of the cards, and the long lost frustration of not being able to play a German game that you have just bought…
There is also something else: positive mental attitude. A significant number of gamers have played Agricola, enjoyed it to a point, and said that they expected it to improve (and this might be from 7 or 8, to 9 or 10). They also sit down and play again as quickly as they can. This compares well with almost all other Euros. Typically they might be ruthlessly discarded after one play, or less in some cases! But gamers seem to be willing to give this one every chance of repeat play.
Why would that be? I wish I knew, because goodness knows it is a quality that too many games lack. And what is the appeal of a game about farming? As the person who has facilitated hundreds of games through her excellent and timely translation, I asked Melissa Rogerson why she was so keen on this particular game. She generated a list of reasons:
1. It’s complex. Big and meaty, and not too long.
2. It’s a game with relatively little player interaction. See below.
3. I spent quite literally every spare moment for a month translating the game. It has to be hot!
4. The theme and the mechanics seem well integrated. I love a good theme.
5. It was super-cool trying to learn all about 17th century
agriculture. Although I was sorry I didn’t call the swineherd, ‘Pig boy’.
6. Variety. Lots and lots of variety.
7. The Mystique of Essen.
8. I had such a good time translating it – the people factor. There were lots of late-night conversations, about precisely what particular terms meant and how we could translate them. That was fun. I also love getting right into the guts of a game like that. And I tend to be lazy with rules of games in English – I skim through them, and am impatient to get to playing the game. So really getting to understand it is good. And tends to make me like the game regardless.
9. Hamburgum and Cuba, as well as other Messe titles, sound interesting but ‘done’ already. I’m sure I’ll enjoy playing them, but they didn’t float my boat.
10. Insight into the game development process.
I can relate to those comments.
The next point Melissa raised was very interesting and is something I have been thinking about for some time. The subject is multiplayer solitaire. Agricola is such a game, because the only interaction is the joint action drafting/choice of resources, and not getting what you need, but I am not going to label this a good or bad attribute.
Melissa says, “Agricola is a game with relatively little player interaction. When I look at my top-rated games (Princes of Florence, Louis XIV, Notre Dame) there is a bit of a trend there. I know that my gaming weakness is that I start out making a plan and don’t allow for enough variables or adapt well to change – so I tend to be weaker at games like Caylus where it’s easy to screw other players over, although I still enjoy them. But I’m good at the planning kind of game – and don’t we all like to win, sometimes?”
My take on this is that almost all the time multiplayer solitaire is cited as a negative. Like Melissa, I find that some of my favourite games are in this vein, and it doesn’t greatly bother me. In fact, it can be a plus. If it means I can avoid auctions then that is another bonus, usually. Sometimes it is good to sit and try to implement a strategy, hindered only by the inability to get resources when you want them. Not exactly my beloved chaos gaming, but sometimes it is what I enjoy. Agricola seems to score (based on the eight gamers I have so far played with) because you can do your own thing. Every single farm I saw was different. Some were harvesting crops, some had sheep, others cattle and wild boar. One of my farms was essentially secondary to a wood turning business.
Mainly then, for me, such games are an experience and I am happy to go along for the ride. How well can I do with what I have been given? What is my plan? Can I get enough food? Do I want to have children? Can I try a weird tactic, or left field strategy, and still stay respectable or even win? Most importantly, am I having fun?
Having played Agricola, I feel there is definitely an element of ‘personal best’ going on here. After my derisory 20 point opener, I was determined to do better the next time. And that next time may as well be right away. I made 23, with very different cards, and was pleased. I also enjoyed it a lot. I’m so easy. So it is a challenge, in a puzzley sort of way and I can see myself playing it for some while, even at the basic level of cards.
On the downside, and you just know this is going to relate to theme, I have a quibble. While this is a game about farming, it is farming from a strange angle. I think it is clear we are micro-managing. A fair amount is made of one farmer having a cooking pot, another having a proper hearth, or a makeshift barbecue. The fact that someone might not have a cooking pot at all, but does own a hut, seems inconceivable. Doesn’t it? But this is where you start. Perhaps you have lost everything and have to re-build from scratch. And where are the chickens and geese?
More worrying is that ‘technologies’ develop, but they do not become available to rival farmers, even though we are all looking over each others hedge all the time. This compared sharply to a game of Origins going on at the next table, where skills can often be learned. This also strengthens the solitaire aspect, already discussed – you are on your own, doing your own things, building little card ‘engines’, working your own land. I suspect what has happened is that some aspects have been tweaked to make a game of it, which is fair enough. Perhaps that is how it was? None of this is going to stop me playing it, or even give me a second thought, but it doesn’t sit too well.
The other area is the cards. From what I have seen so far I think the cards are reasonably well balanced. This is, without doubt, quite an achievement. But my neighbour in game one did have a hand that looked considerably less useful than mine, with quite a few ‘secondary’ cards that were not immediately useable. There is undoubtedly a degree of improvisation required; you make the best of your lot, and that will improve with experience. I am just slightly worried that you might be going into a two hour game (it runs 30 minutes per player, pretty consistently) with little chance of having a good time or scoring well. This might happen because of bad cards, or more subtly and more likely, cards that do not combine well, nor permit synergies later in the game. At the moment, I don’t know if this is an issue. I would like to hear your experiences.
So, to conclude, Agricola is a very interesting game which has all the signs of being well designed, developed and tested. There is definitely more here than the sum of the parts, and I think we must look to the cards and the combinations (how I love combinations) to explain this. And this without yet venturing into the mysterious ‘I’ (interaction) and ‘K’ (complex) decks which will add a raft of cards and variety. Though whether Agricola will remain fun while suffering ‘interaction’ remains to be seen.
Congratulations to Hanno Girke and all at Lookout Games for backing this one. In case you have not been reading the web, there will be an English version from Z-Man Games. I think we can safely predict a big seller. I know it is easier said than done at the moment, but do try to get a game of this excellent release.
After quite a run of games from Friedemann that I didn’t care for, here is a very enjoyable filler. I have been thinking that we should see some positive by-products from the poker boom (now fading?) and sure enough Filou picks up on the betting trend. Nothing complicated, just assess a partly exposed hand based on knowledge, numbers and reading the opponents, and stick a bet on the total value. Filou is not quite there because you have to know not to run out of money during play – this is very important! – but overall this is quick, fun and interesting enough to revisit. Recommended.
Battleground: Fantasy Warfare
About thirty years ago the boardgame company GDW released an innovative product called System 7. With front page splashes in The Dragon, wargame magazines and elsewhere, it caused quite a stir. It certainly caught me up in the excitement created. Although comprising cardboard markers and a separate rule book, it was trying hard to replicate the mechanisms, colour and glory of Napoleonic miniatures gaming. It did this by offering high quality base-sized counters in evocative uniform shades, nominally using 7mm figures. Most of the major nationalities were available in sets, with units named and jacket/facing colours represented.
The basic idea was that you could start miniatures style gaming without the front loaded time and money investment, or indeed easily move into Naps as a new period. The overall effect was not unpleasant, and it achieved a creditable level of success for a while. System 7 foundered, I think, because it fell between two stools, the terrain was lacking, and the accompanying rules were not the best. With hindsight, the ‘figure’ ratio may have been mistaken – there were several fiddly counters to a unit, making the adaptation too literal. But ultimately, if you are a miniatures gamer at heart, well, you probably want miniatures. Still, the game has fans and you can find updated rules and components on the web.
However, for beginners or for testing rules, I still know gamers who will cut out card or even paper counters. I know I did when funds didn’t permit much more. There are a couple of groups on the web that actively promote paper wargaming. It is at least lighter than anything else. Some of you will remember the Micro series from Tabletop Games, and I played a lot of the Napoleonic and Naval games back in the day. I also bought into the CCG craze in a major way. Games such as The Last Crusade, Eagles and Dixie were all collected and played with some enjoyment, and they still come out occasionally even now.
So, there is scope for this ersatz solution. But what is the appeal here? Probably, the chance to get a taste of the miniatures experience in a ready made, ‘open and play’, immediate gratification package. Miniatures fast food, I suppose. You can do the whole thing with BattleLore and Command & Colors: Ancients, but they are £50 games. Compromises are inevitable, but with colour graphics, printing and game design moving ever forwards, we are getting closer to having everything but the little lead guys. And that is exactly where Battleground and Your Move Games are coming from.
Battleground is purchased in packs of playing cards. These each represent a fantasy faction, and comprise a range of units, tactical ploys and events. Each faction – men, dwarves, elves, orcs, undead, killer turnips etc – also has a reinforcement pack available, allowing for huge battles and that undeniable urge to grow instant armies. More factions are promised on a regular basis to keep the games’ match-ups fresh. You can also buy cut-out terrain sheets, which are very nicely done indeed, scenario booklets, and even custom pens and dice. If you can summon up a table and green cloth from somewhere, the overall effect of terrain and units is impressive.
Graphically, everything is functional but it doesn’t excite. Units are top down, which aesthetically cuts both ways, and ‘figure ratioed’ rather than 1:1 but there is a good sense of unit size and pose diversity. You may not care for the style – it is computer generated in intense colours, particularly the grass green – but realistically there is no other economical way to do it in these volumes. Certainly, the figure graphics do not survive the close-up shots. Of course there are options here to make your own cards and factions, for those with graphics skills. The rules book is well written and we had few queries. We did however feel that putting some advanced rules in the reinforcement packs was a bit cheeky.
The game is played by choosing a force from the unit cards, usually to an agreed points value. As ever with miniatures, once you have had your fill of equal sided encounter battles you can switch to attack/defend, the excellent scenario book, or even play one of Mr Grant’s teasers. Each unit card has a row of casualty boxes, progressing through green, yellow and red and these are marked off with a pen as casualties are taken. This works fine, but being an anal type I encased mine in Card Protectors which you can get at hobby and big bookshops. For reasons expanded upon below, I suggest that you do not play to the ‘kill all opponents’ game end condition.
We played two games. The first was a 750 point learning exercise. The second a 2,000 point battle, which still fitted on a card table. At the start of the game, you choose your army mix, set terrain, deploy, and assess the situation. Up to this point, the game is actually pretty exciting, because you get there so quickly and your fingers are paint free. For a while after, things are still looking very good. And then, well, you start to question results and pacing, and in truth it goes on a bit. We came in at almost four hours for the big battle. That’s a long game when we started with six to eight units each.
There are three main timing issues here, all interlinked. Firstly there is a lot of dicing. This is time consuming and not always productive. Secondly, some units have quite a number of hit points, and even the weaker ones aren’t necessarily going to disappear very quickly (because of luck of the dice) – one small unit of wolf riders had a charmed life and stuck around for ages. As mentioned, some scenarios require you to eliminate 100% of the enemy, which will get to you long before you get to them… I suggest 50% or 66% would make your C.O. more than happy. It is the death of a thousand cuts problem, and boredom sets in. Thirdly, linked to the hit points, the game system is curiously indecisive. By this I mean that it is quite forgiving of errors and that to exploit any tactical advantage is difficult indeed.
Let me give you an example. At one point, my opponent’s dwarves did a reckless manoeuvre and ended up exposing their flank, at right angles to my battleline. Right on cue, my Treant (really just an ent with a good copyright lawyer) saw his opportunity, lumbered across the field, and smashed the dwarves in the flank. This was early in the game and in my head, even allowing for fantasy fudge, I expected to either do a ton of damage, have them rout, or simply flatten the lot of them. Or all three at once. Glorious victory was in my grasp, the enemy centre would be pierced. In fact, I did a little damage (the bonus for flank attacks is negligible) and I was still there, branches flailing, roots a-stomping, seven turns later. By that time the dwarves had hurried their little legs and brought up leaf-free reserves. My Treant eventually ran off having failed a morale check in the eighth turn, which was not entirely as I’d imagined the encounter.
In a nutshell, the cards and concept may be born again, but the rules are essentially old fashioned. They give a longish game where a quick one might well be preferable – 90 minutes rather than 240. Broadly, we are looking at something akin to Warhammer, when something like the weight of Warmaster, Armati or perhaps DBA might have been a better fit. I can understand if this was done to allow quick conversion for existing miniature gamers, but I think a major thrust of this game is to let newcomers try their hand. I can see some recruits playing this and thinking twice about playing again. It would be very interesting to hear your experience on this one.
I am very much stating a personal preference here, liking a quick, decisive, decision heavy/dice light game, and it may well be that the rules are acceptable to most, and even perhaps what is ‘expected’. Whatever, one of my opponents came out with the damning, ‘It is like every other figure game I have ever played’. I know what he means. On the other hand, there is some clever stuff in there. Initiative and command is well handled, as is movement – there is a handy-dandy scale, driven off of card widths. Units are similar to the extent that they all have half a dozen ratings, and often a special rule to distinguish them. The ratings cover movement, close and ranged combat, and the interesting ‘to hit’ ratings.
These latter numbers are surprisingly powerful as narrative builders. Some units may be very hard to hit while on the move, but much more vulnerable in melee – so we get the feel for fast, evasive, light troops. Conversely, the Treant is easily hit, but very hard to hurt, and it has a lot of damage points. This in addition to the usual flavour stuff – deadly Elven bows, slow but sturdy Dwarves, swarming Undead. You know how it goes. I liked this unit differentiation – it is simply and elegantly handled. The fact that the spread of these ratings works well, and cleverly conveys the feel of very different units, shows that the game has been well designed and developed in this area. As I said, there are a lot of positive qualities, they just struggle to keep their head above water.
Of course, you know what I am thinking. I would doubtless have enjoyed the whole thing more if it were historical. I have heard rumours that this development is coming soon. In fairness you can get generically close by using the Men factions, but in the end I played Elven Rangers and Trees – a traditional fallback if required to do the fantasy thing.
Despite its problems, Battleground does a lot right. For all my moans, it is playable and it does work, given time. Nothing is ‘broken’ here, to use that dismissive and rarely appropriate term. The battles have their moments, there are some fresh ideas in a field that has pretty much seen it all, and I can see that the sets will appeal to certain gamers, or make ideal presents for the younger generation. From those gamers that can’t or won’t paint, or simply don’t accept the expense and storage of miniatures, to those wanting to instantly recreate Tolkein’s battles, or those of the Warhamster World, then, well, you can see the huge potential. Whatever I may say about price, two starter packs are a bargain compared to any investment in figures.
As for me, not necessarily the target market, I have to say I am wary. A key test is whether one would play again, after the initial exploratory sessions. Personally I would, under some duress, but I would definitely want to make changes long term. These would be targeted at play length and combat decisiveness. The obvious solution is to self modify the rules, or wait for the second edition on the web, or draft in another set entirely. The cards themselves, and the base idea, are fine. If the rumoured historical units appear, then that would be another major draw, but one can see how easily the releases might run out of steam with one wrong turn – ‘Nobody bought the Swiss and Burgundian packs’. But you can be sure that I would.
I wish Chad, Robert and Your Move the best of luck. They have bravely launched a timely and interesting system, and I know it has already found a niche with a good many gamers. This could grow within the fantasy genre, then into science fiction, and hopefully for we sad old buffers – not strictly requiring pointy ears, gauss rifles or resurrections – into historical periods. If I were them, I would personally be looking to tweak my product to speed the game up, possibly through an official variant quick play rule set, and perhaps improve the graphics a little. That done, I could happily say that Battleground could be an outstanding product and worthy of your time.