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.

1 comment:

  1. I've been playing a ton of AFAoS over on Yucata. Great game.

    I love the deck-building aspect, but I also really enjoy the other CDG systems you mentioned. The Twilight Struggle system really models the tit-fot-tat seesaw conflict of the Cold War. And the common deck of Wilderness War puts you in the shoes of a theater commander rather than an overall commander-in-chief. So maybe Amherst would have liked some more Highlanders, but they were needed on the continent or wherever - he had to work with what he could get, and so do you.

    Horses for courses.