Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Evolution of Deck Management in Card Driven Wargames

The evolution of the Card Driven Wargame (CDG) continues.

I have played A Few Acres of Snow approximately ten times since I bought it about a week before the WBC. Through about seven of these games, I was beginning to feel that it could be one of my favorite games. Then I learned of the Killer Strategy (not too hard to stumble upon, mind you), and I must confess that trying to "unbreak" the game in the last few plays has been a bit of drudgery. But now Martin Wallace has released his rules changes and I am hopeful of this once again becoming a gem in my collection.

Even if the rules revisions cannot fix the game, it is a fascinating game in what it represents: the next stage of the evolution of the CDG. In particular, it marks a further evolution in a key aspect of CDGs, the ability to manage the deck from which you draw. 

Contrary from what some people think, I actually do NOT like randomness in games. I'll post more on this at another time, but let's just say this for now: I like randomness only if it can be managed at some level.

In CDGs, this many times takes the form of deck management. 

The first CDGs had very little of deck management. There was one deck, and both sides drew from it. In We the People (now Washington's War), each card was either an event or a number of operations points. In Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage, this evolved into cards that had both Ops points AND an event. But drawing from a common deck could very easily leave you with a session where your opponent received all of your key events.

A case in point would be Wilderness War from GMT Games. I play the tournament scenario, and, in this scenario, a key event is the "Highlanders" card which allows the British player to receive four more of the most powerful unit in the game, the Highlanders, along with two leaders (one of which is the ultra-poweful Wolfe). There are "smaller Highlanders" cards that allow the drawing of one of these units along with one of these leaders, but the "big Highlanders" card, as it has come to be called, can be a game changer. It is easy to imagine a scenario where this important card cycles through to the French player, he plays it for Operations, then, after a reshuffle, it again ends up with the French player. The odds are basically 50/50 each time, and, as we remember from that Stats class in college (the class designed for gamers), the odds that the French player is the only one to see the card is approximately (the random events causing a reshuffle affect this) 1 in 4. We can see this in Hannibal with the overly powerful Messenger Intercepted card, which allows you to steal an opponent's card and make it your own, giving you another event vs. ops choice, but, more importantly, giving you effectively two more action than your opponent. And after it is played, there is a 50/50 chance that the same player could get the same event back in his hand. The common deck needed some kind of improvement. 

Paths of Glory greatly improved the ability to manage the chaos in your deck. It actually is fairly brilliant and offers a system that, while not used very often, is one that may not have been surpassed until A Few Acres of Snow (and that may be overstating it - Paths of Glory's system may actually be superior to that of A Few Acres when all is said and done). 

With Paths of Gory, each side had his own deck. This considerably increased the likelihood that your events would come up  (I would say that it meant seeing your events was a certainty, but I suppose with poor management, key events may never come up). And it meant that you would not end up with a handful of your opponent's events.

Your deck was also divided into sub-decks. You now had your own Mobilization deck, along with a Limited War and Total War deck. The importance of this cannot be overstated. This was a rather direct way to simulate the escalating resources along with the escalating obligations of an escalating war. The goal of most players was to get to Total War as fast as possible. This was where the really powerful events were, and the larger operations cards started to appear in the Limited War decks. But you had to survive and fight while navigating through the less powerful Mobilization deck.

Also, this game was the first to feature significant culling of the deck as a player option. A number of events, including reinforcement cards, were discarded upon use. Other 2 Ops events were removed from play after use. This led to the development of a tactic called "cleaning your deck," where you understood what events were important to play as events and what events it was important just to remove from your deck. If you were skillfull at this, you saw certain 3, 4, and 5 Ops cards again and again, and drag was not created in your hand by the continuous drawing of 2 Ops cards.

In a lot of ways, this marks the beginning of the deck-building game. It was rather simplistic, with a War Status value that increased as certain events were played. As this War Status hit certain levels, new cards were shuffled into your deck. Your deck became larger as the game continued. But you also thinned your deck whenever possible, and chose carefully what to play as events and what to play as Ops. So, in the end, the most effective deck was the thin one where all weak cards had been culled and only a series of strong cards that you kept re-drawing remained. That sounds awfully similar to deck-building to me.

I'm not sure that this deck management system has ever been surpassed. Heck, I would say it hasn't even been matched. People have tried and tried, but the fine balance of what each deck and sub-deck should have, along with the relative importance of each event, has been something of a nightmare, it seems. It has led to some interesting games, but many of them seem to have flaws that, for whatever reason, Paths of Glory has avoided.

After Paths of Glory, there was very little innovation. The most remarkable was the "split ops" system that Napoleonic Wars employed and which grew into the system used by the very successful Here I Stand. But very little has been done in regards to deck management. Twilight Struggle has an interesting shared deck system where there are sub-decks and where, when you receive your opponent's events, you use the Ops and your opponent gets the event. This leads to an interesting management strategy where you play your own events for Ops so that they will, at some point, end up in your opponent's hand where he will be forced to allow you to play your own event.

It should also be noted that, as far as deck management goes, The Hammer of the Scots system of Columbia Games actually takes it a step backwards. In their system, you have a small (25 card) shared deck with 5 or so events. Also, in this system, each card represents an operations value OR an event, not both. It goes back to the We The People system in many ways but leaves us even more in the throws of randomness where I could have, turn after turn, a fist full of events or a fist full of 1's, while my opponent in moving his armies all over the board. The game works, and works well, but it is in spite of its overly simplistic deck management system.

But I digress...

For me, the next interesting refinement in deck management in wargames is Martin Wallace's A Few Acres of Snow. I won't debate whether it is a wargame or not; I certainly enjoy it and find the conflict satisfying, which is enough for me. What I really find interesting, though, is the system of deck management that the game uses. Wallace's design really doesn't trace a direct lineage with the CDG system that Herman developed. It draws its inspiration and lineage from eurogame mechanics, in particular the "deck-building" mechanism used in a game like Dominion.

Wallace has each player start with a minimal deck. Every turn, each player has two actions, which may use some, all, or none of the cards in his hand. The player then replenishes the deck up to his hand of five. The cards in this very small deck appear again and again, but they are limited in possibility and in power.

But each player has two larger decks which can be added, piece by piece, into his personal playing deck. We are already beyond We the People at this point in that each player has his own two decks to draw from (along with a very small shared deck). Add to this the characteristics of the two decks that each player has. Each player has an "empire" deck, where such imperial resources as military units, native american recruits, and even a governor can be brought into your playing deck. As an action, you simply add one of these cards to your deck (sometimes paying a cost in gold).

The second deck is a deck of locations. As you build a settlement in a location, you gain that card's location card. Most cards will allow you the possibility of exploring a few new locations. Many times, these location cards will give you more resources. Sometimes, it may be a "bateau" symbol allowing you to populate further down the map's rivers. Sometimes, it may be a ship, giving you a number of possibilities including piracy. Sometimes, it might be a military unit. Many locations give you multiple options of how to use it in a particular turn.

Sometimes, the location card may not be useful at all.

Two interesting advancements are presented here. The first is the idea of choice. You are choosing, through settlement of a location or simply purchasing an empire card, what you are adding to your deck. Each choice defines your power, rather than having your power defined by the dictated next deck in line. Broadly speaking, each card you choose pushes you down a path of being an offensive military power, a Native American-allied raider, or an explorer and settler. You decide which military units you add to your deck, defensive units such as fortresses and militia or offensive units such as infantry.

And every choice you make causes your deck to become thicker. This is the second advancement. As your empire grows, if you're not careful, it will become bloated. You may end up having to add useless cards because the location had some other use for you (like a spot from which to launch raids). But while the location is useful, the card may becomes dross in your deck and hand. It models very nicely the effect of having a bloated, growing empire actually limit its own power through its inability to streamline operations. It also models nicely the escalation of war where, with enough escalation, your decisions become dictated by the resources that you have made available. You get into conflicts and situations that you cannot get out of because of the way that your empire expanded.

With these deck-building mechanics, A Few Acres of Snow represents the next logical step in the evolution of card driven wargames. The cards give the players the difficult choices we all crave. They also model very nicely the escalation of responsibility that comes along with an escalation of power. The idea of "a clean deck," discussed so often in Paths of Glory, is a key function in A Few Acres of Snow. Every card you add to your deck causes you to have to think about its thickness. More cards (the Governor or the Trader, for instance) will be added to your deck in order to streamline it. And, of course, each choice you make to streamline your deck involves taking an action in order to do so.

I cannot wait to see how else the deck-building idea can be incorporated into wargames. It means choice in how you build your power base and it means there is no one, in the end, to blame but yourself when your power structure becomes bloated and inefficient. A year ago, I could have written this blog entry and declared the Card Driven Wargame dead. Today, Martin Wallace and A Few Acres of Snow (with a nod to Dominion) have breathed new life and new possibilities into it.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

My Family and Bergman's Seventh Seal

I think I'm dumb...
or maybe just happy...

Well, I said this wouldn't be solely about games, so let me start off with movies...

Over the holidays, I had the opportunity to re-watch one of my favorite old foreign films, The Seventh Seal, by Ingmar Bergman. The circumstances were, as is usual in my life, interesting. It was approximately 10:30pm on my son's eleventh birthday, my parents and my in-laws were over to celebrate, and my son was  downstairs enjoying those first few hours of being officially eleven by playing his newly acquired game, Skylanders.

My sister-in-law, a film buff of sorts, was lobbying to watch The Seventh Seal with her daughters. Their birthday present to her was to allow her to pick three movies that they would watch together, no complaints. She had decided to explore how far this could be pushed by watching Bergman's film, black and white and in Swedish, along with a french film, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. I'm not sure what the third movie ended up being, but I like to think it was equally painful to the 21st century adolescent mind.

I mentioned that I owned a copy of The Seventh Seal on DVD. It is actually one of my favorite films and I used to show it to my students in a World Literature class. (A side note here - The millennials do NOT like black and white, and they do NOT seem to like subtitles. I usually had to talk them through a great deal of the movie, explaining this, asking that, and that skill served me well in our little family viewing session).

A surprising groundswell began that culminated in my going to the basement to The Vault (actually a tupperware that contains my DVD's-for-school collection). The crowd thinned out a bit, with siblings-in-law and cousins deciding that the transition from birthday cake to Bergman was a bit much. When the film began, Bergman's 21st century audience turned out to be my two older children (a sixteen year old daughter and a fourteen year old son), my parents, my in-laws, my sister-in-law, her two daughters, my very tolerant wife, and I. Quite a diverse crew: three generations with tastes that ranged from The Umbrellas at Cherbourg to Toddlers in Tiaras.

From about 10:30 until about 12:30, I had one of those surreal experiences that can only be blogged about. My daughter almost immiediately fell asleep. In her defense, her favorite element of television dialogue seems to be the "bleep" sound that goes along with expletives. I swear sometimes it sounds like her shows are broadcast in Morse code. She said afterward that she "heard them talk about horses eating each other and that was it." The dialogue in question was in the first ten minutes or so of the movie. Oh well, she's young. Lots of time left for culture.

My parents watched dutifully and discussed symbolism. Half of me was proud. The other half realized what had made me an English teacher. Thanks, mom and dad.

My sister in law noted the humor (in some interesting places - more on that in a moment). And my in-laws slept some and watched most and, in the end, seemed to enjoy the experience.

What was my impression? I have seen the movie in the neighborhood of ten times. I have shown and talked generations of high schoolers through it. And, every time, I am struck by how profound and beautiful it is.

Let me start off by addressing the humor. There is definite humor in the film. Plog the Smith is at least funny. And Jons the Squire, while dark and cynical, definitely has his moments, my favorite being his narration of the conversation between Plog and his promiscuous wife, predicting the lines of each as the wife slowly seduces Plog back to her arms. But that's it for me. I find, contrary to my sister-in-law's interpretations, the rest of the movie a sobering exploration of the meaning of life in the face of the inevitiability of death.

For me, the movie is about the existential questioning of Antonius Block. Block left ten years before the action of the film to reclaim the Holy Lands in one of the crusades. He has fought for God and has returned disillusioned. And his return is to a land ravaged by the Black Death (a strange Black Death where people die sitting against a rock, tending to their livestock in a barn, or even overacting in a forest - but I think I have to give Bergman some artistic license here). Twice in the film he tries to pray and finds he cannot. He constantly looks for consolation and proof of God's existence. He asks Death about what answers he holds (Death claims to have none). He asks a girl about to be burned at the stake for "consorting with the Devil" if she can direct him to said Devil so that he can ask him about God. He wants the answers. He wants something more than faith. And, in the end, he is given nothing.

The central image of the film is Block's extended game of chess against the physical embodiment of Death. Block claims to play chess with Death in order to have time for one significant action. And in the final moves of the game, Block claims that the small amount of time he bought with his skill at chess was worth it. Death asks him what he has gained, and Block's response is, "that's my affair."

So, what did he do in that time?

The most significant thing he did was to save a simple family of actors. As my father pointed out, they may correlate to the Holy Family. The man's name is Joph (Joesph) and the woman's is Mia (Mary).They even have their own holy child (okay, Michael is his name - the correlation is not perfect). Joph has visions, but is known to exaggerate them (Mia mentions that he claimed that he had seen the devil paint their wagon's wheels red, but that she then discovered red paint under his fingernails). Mia takes care of the child, is loyal and loving to her husband, and, in one scene, is generous to the stranger Block, his squire, and a plague survivor that Block and he have picked up along the way.

In this key scene, we see what is important in life. Not crusades, not riches, not pride. Block is struck by the simplicity of the companionship of this couple and the simple, sweet meal of wild strawberries and fresh milk. He says that he will carry the memory with him always, and that "it will be sign," a specific and - forgive the pun - significant line that lends a sacredness to the scene. This is worth saving, and Block, who knows that his dark experiences have closed the capacity for this experience off from him at some level (when he sees his wife again after ten years, for instance, they have a strained exchange where they each admit how much the other has changed), saves the holy family by knocking the pieces off the chessboard and leaving Death, who is about to win, to replace them in their proper places. This brief interruption allows the family to escape, where all the rest who travel with Block die in film's final scenes.

So, what has Block gained? What has he saved by saving this family? First, he saves faith. This doesn't have to be a Christian faith, per se, and it's not a faith that Block can share. It is the simple faith of the child, along with the generous faith in other people that Mia and Joph both possess. Mia does not feel threatened by this dark, brooding knight or his cynical squire. Joph has faith in others as exhibited in the naivete that almost gets him killed in a local inn. Joph is also allowed that Christian faith. Of course, the paradox is that it is easy to have faith when you have visions. Or maybe Joph's faith allows him to have these visions? Any way, the film leaves us with the impression that Joph, for all his faults, is worth saving. (Another interesting side note - Block sees Death. He's the only one other than Joph who does see him. So, for some reason, supernatural occurrences are not enough to give Block faith. I guess he knows Death exists and is willing to accept his embodiment, but the idea of a soul or supernatural beings who struggle for them is too much for him?)

Block also saves youth and love. The young couple, with their child, love each other very much. They laugh and play with Michael. Joph composes songs for his wife and sings them. She, in turn, holds and caresses him. And she is concerned and protective of him when he returns from being bullied.

I like the movie for its significance to the history of film and for its existential explorations of the meaning of life. But I love the film for the conclusions that it reaches. Faith and love. I can see that. I am at my happiest with those that I love, my children, my wife, and my family. And, while I am no visionary like Joph, I try to maintain the faith of Mia, a simple faith in the good nature of others and a simple optimism that the stormy night will bring the dawn (which occurs literally in the film). Let's face it; the problems of the world are dark and complex and seemingly unsolvable. But the way we cope with this is to believe in each other, see the good there, and, like Antonius Block, carry each other and those simple, happy moments with us. You know, the viewing was surreal. I alternated between teaching people about how I teach the film and learning from what others said about Bergman and his symbolism. But, when all is said and done, I think it will be one of those moments I carry with me. 

Sunday, January 1, 2012

A New Way to Express Myself

It is with mixed emotions that I start this blog. It means a transition for my podcast, Point 2 Point. From this point forward, P2P will be periodic news and commentary. This will be where I open up and talk about the things I love.

So -- why this transition? A few reasons:

1. P2P had run its course for me. I have said most of what I felt I needed to say. I would have liked to have performed some more interviews, but the coordination of people's schedules (especially mine) and the technological triangulation required for an interview really has become trying.

2. Is Point 2 Point really Point 2 Point without Scott? The short answer is no. I think I did a good job carrying the show through 2011 solo, but it really wasn't the same. Scott came over for our "Micropseudocon 2011," and it was great. He talked trash. He laughed at me (and with me). He won a game or two. He criticized a game and called it "unplayable" (in this case, Middle Earth Quest). He was, in short, everything that made me choose him as a co-host all those years ago. The banter was more fun to record and more fun to participate in than sitting and trying to keep some kind of solo, artificial "dialogue"going. So, I tried, but there really is no Point 2 Point without Scott.

3. I want to talk about things other than games. I love a number of things in my life, and I like to talk about them. And Point 2 Point was about wargames. Period. As it should have been. Here, people can read my thoughts, comment on them and respond to them (hopefully), and ignore the things that don't interest them. And I can express my views on all of the topics that interest me: wargames, science fiction and fantasy, teaching, writing, games other than wargames, role-playing, game design, the English Premier League team Arsenal, and the Virginia Tech Hokies, among other things. So, read what interests you (and, hopefully, a bit more), comment on it, and ignore the rest.

So, what will this blog be? It will be all of the above and more. It will not, at this point, be regular, but I foresee being able to write more than I was able to record (three kids, two of them teenagers -- need I say more?).