Monday, August 20, 2012

Gaming with Owen: War of the Ring

My son Owen and I have continued our series of plays, but this is the first time I've blogged about it. However, I hope to make "Gaming with Owen" a regular segment in this blog.

Right after WBC, Owen indicated to me that he wanted to play War of the Ring again. It was something of a revival of a game that Owen had cut his gaming teeth on. I was interested in teaching him Titan (because of the free-form nature of the WBC tournament, which would mean he could jump in at whatever time he pleased), but for some reason (maybe the 2nd edition "upgrade kit" I bought, maybe seeing others play it in open gaming), he was more interested in WotR. We decided to try out the new upgrade (but that meant no expansion! -- well, not yet). 

We also had to work this into a schedule involving a return to soccer and a return of the 9pm-11pm open gym sessions at his high school. Oh, and I'm back at work, too (for those of you not in the know, I'm a high school English teacher). So, while we were interested in playing right after we got back from WBC, we didn't actually end up playing until this past weekend.

We played two games of War of the Ring, one on Friday night and one on Saturday. Both were Shadow player wins, probably due to the inability to get the Fellowship up and going. When I defeated Owen as the Shadow player, it was a military victory, with orcs trundling out of Mount Gundabad to add Bree, The Shire (Shire...Baggins...) and the Grey Havens to the already taken lands in Gondor. When Owen won, it was due to Frodo succumbing to the One Ring's corruption at the foot of Mount Doom. Oh well. 

On my BGG profile, I have War of the Ring listed as my number two game (ASL is number one). I don't see it moving down any time soon. Our two plays were great and really highlighted the game's key positives for me.

First off, the action dice. I find dice in general problematic (look out, sounds like a blogging topic). They seem to add randomness and "spice" to games that would be decidedly uninteresting otherwise. Not so with War of the Ring. In general, you can use all of your action dice for something. The Shadow player may get a number of "Eye" results, crippling his armies, but this usually will slow down a Free Peoples player significantly in their quest to destroy the One Ring. The Free Peoples player may get too many military results, but the most militaristic result gives him the option of moving armies OR mustering more forces, which he is always in need of doing. Add to this the ability to add more dice and more actions to the game by meeting certain conditions and the adding of minions for the Shadow player and the adding of the more significant characters (Aragorn the Heir and Gandalf the White) for the Free People. 

Another factor limiting the wild randomness found in many other dice games is War of the Ring's inclusion of the Elven Rings. For each Elven Ring,  you can change the result of one action die. Carefully and strategically used, the Elven Rings can change disastrously bad rolls into tactical opportunities.

I think my favorite part of War of the Ring, though, is the two sided gameplay. The Free People play entirely differently than the Shadow. As Free People, you need to advance the Fellowship. As the Free People, you need to be careful with your troops because, if they die, they ain't comin' back. As the Shadow player, you need to be an offensive juggernaut, while protecting Sauron from those nasty Ents that can pop up.

The hand size limit is also an simple but interesting factor in the game. There is a "use it or lose it" feel to the card play many times (although, late in the game, I may come close to running out of cards). The cards can be used in two ways (as an event or as a combat card), and it can be a somewhat agonizing decision as to how to use them. Many times, the most useful combat card is also the most needed event in your hand (for instance, one for the Free People that allows you to force the redraw of a Hunt Tile, but also can be quite powerful if used appropriately in combat).

So the game plays out with you trying to:

1. Get the Fellowship to Mount Doom (or prevent that!).
2. Take Victory Point spaces while protecting your own.
3. Moving your nations up on the Political Track so that you can eventually build troops.
4. Manage your hand of cards (and manage your decks at some level - I hate to have the trek up Mt. Doom start without all of my special Hunt Tiles in play!).

The rules are so simple, yet I love the feel and play of the game. I've recently had something of a love affair with Middle Earth Quest, but Owen's insistence on playing War of the Ring recently has really reminded me of how superior a game it is.

Can't wait for the new expansion (Lords of Middle Earth). I would put it on my BGG Secret Santa list, but, come on, can I really wait that long??

Upcoming Topics: Titan, Dice and/or Randomness in games.

Friday, August 10, 2012

AAR: Weeknight Game Session with Hearts and Minds and Summoner Wars

Last night, Tom Grant of the excellent I've Been Diced podcast came over and we played a couple of games.

The first game we played was Worthington Games's Hearts and Minds. What happened to the components here?  I look at Worthington as the "little company that could," and back when Cowboys came out, they had really upgraded their components. Linen finish on the board and counters and thicker counters were the component highlights of the -- in the end -- underwhelming cowboys. Similarly, Prussia's Defiant Stand, a worthy addition to the block game lineup had very nice components, and the minis in Napoleon's War were a nice addition. But Hearts and Minds' components are a real shame. The map is too small and the control counters are too big. The cards are of the quality of the Jim Palmer baseball card that I tore off my Hostess Cupcakes box back in 1973 (or the quality of the first edition of Talisman, whichever you prefer). Too bad. It is a high profile blemish on what I actually think is a very good game.

There are a number of things going on in Hearts and Minds that I like, but I'd like to focus on the card play specifically. There are two innovations here. A number of games have the "event or ops" choice, with some notable cards allowing both. ALL of Hearts and Minds's cards offer both options. In H&M, you pay some or all of a card's ops (or even, in some rare cases, more than a card's ops, more on how to do this later) in order to activate the event. This in a lot of ways makes the choice a bit harder because now you know you're going to do something with the ops and the question becomes how many do I really need and is this event worth the price paid?

In addition to this is the idea of stockpile ops (in game parlance RPs). You can squirrel away the unused ops of a card in order to use them later. Most of the time you can add only 2 of these ops to enhance the ops of your card. Sometimes, the event of a card (usually in campaign cards) will allow you to spend more of these stockpiled ops. And sometimes, like in the case of the Tet offensive, you need to cash in a number of these stockpiled ops in order to activate the event on the card.

The game also comes with a red deck and a blue deck, with events uniquely advantageous to each side. But, interestingly, H&M also adds a third deck of black cards which are divided equally and shuffled into each deck, making these decks consistently unique.

I also love the "spend ops for combat" rule, which means that you can keep a battle going in the same turn, the ability of enemy units to occupy the same area on the board, and the ability to move through enemy units, paying an extra movement point to do so if the units qualify as hindrances (if they are veteran units).

The game was Tom's first, and my first in a long time (I think over a year). Tom was a novice and asked me about which side to play and, for some reason, I thought the Blue (US and allies) side was the easier to play. Ummm...I was wrong. The Red player just has so many opportunities to cause havoc and responding as the blue player is a daunting task. Needless to say, the Tet Offensive was overwhelming and in our 1967-1969 playtest, I was able to AV in 1968. (Note: another interesting thing about this game is its ability to be adapted. You choose the start year and the finish year and setup and victory conditions scale accordingly. What a clever idea!).

Even with the lopsided results, our play of the game only reinforced my belief that this is one of the best games published recently. I love new ideas and mechanics (or at least new combinations or approaches to these) and I think Hearts and Minds fits the bill nicely. It is definitely in my Hot Ten again and may be moving into my Top Ten in the near future.

Then we played another one of my recent favorites, Summoner Wars. Summoner Wars is another fascinating game. It has the limited units and board spaces of Manoeuver, along with the cards-as-units aspect of Battleground: Fantasy Warfare. I love the unique aspects of each army. My army last night, the Sand Goblins, were able to get to the board fairly quickly and while they were not very powerful offensively, they had very nice hit point values, making it more difficult to kill the little bugbears. Tom's army was the darkness-themed Shadow Elves, which played entirely differently. I would also like to note my personal favorites, the armies of Ret-Talus, the undead army, which plays so differently due to its units consistently rising from the dead. Tom and I split, with me winning the first game in a war of attrition and him completely outmaneuvering then assassinating my summoner in the second game.

Future topic: War of the Ring with my son (being played tonight)

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

WBC 2012: AAR

Well, I'm back from my annual pilgrimage to Lancaster, PA. After having to prepare for meetings today and tomorrow, I have some time to blog a quick AAR. Of course, the many discussions at WBC make me want to blog more extensively about some topics (ethics in gaming, for instance), but we'll see what chaos the school year brings.

I used to leave whoa early in order to get to the Wilderness War tourney on Wednesday. But the last few years I've ponied up a bit more and paid to stay on Tuesday night. So I usually arrive around dinner time on Wednesday, eat something fast and crappy (I'm looking at you, Wendy's!), then check in and get to gaming.

A change in plans this year was that we decided to stay on site for the con. I do have some quibbling, but, overall, I really enjoyed staying at the host. First off, we had room 206, which is now my favorite room in the whole place. It was about 3 rooms away from the lobby, as opposed to the last time Scott and I stayed there where I think we had to literally walk a quarter mile to get to the room. And, of course, it was better than staying off site.

My quibbles are few, the major one being that the bar no longer serves food! I loved getting a burger at the bar at off times, as opposed to eating the convention offerings (not bad, just not as good in my opinion). But this year, I lost that option.

I arrived on Tuesday night after a record setting drive of 2 hours and 15 minutes. I don't think I was going particularly fast, but I think my departure time (closer to 2 than to 4) really made a difference as traffic was light the whole way. I must have missed that New Oxford rush hour this year.

After arrival, Owen and I were invited by a young man (about 14 by my estimation) to play Stone Age. I am not very experienced at this game, but I have played a few times. One very nice thing was getting a chance to play with a veteran and getting to play a practice turn before actually playing the game. Got it. Take a farm on your first placement if possible. Due to some mistakes and some luck on rolls, I ended up jumping ahead in farms and, when we had to quit a little early (I would estimate about 3 turns left), I had a lead and was counted victor! A win! A very palpable win!

My friend Kevin then joined Owen and me for a game of Middle Earth Quest. Our little group has gotten way too good at Sauron so the evil one, this time being played by Kevin, absolutely crushed the forces of good. I blame myself for my ineffectiveness. Oh well.

After this, Kevin taught us Cargo Noir, which, while being totally in the Euro category, was not a bad way to pass an hour. Kevin won again.

On Wednesday, my cycle of scheduled open games began with a Space Empires 4x game against TJ. I'm pretty sure I've chronicled my change from tournaments to open gaming and my further change from open gaming to scheduled open gaming. Any way, TJ and Space Empires was first up.

It was my first time playing the game. I was a big fan of Stellar Conquest when I was in college (a LONG time ago) and I found this game an able successor. There was a great deal of bookkeeping in the game, but I did enjoy the customized ships and the discovery aspect of the game. Random initial placement seemed to have caused some problems. In particular, TJ's colonies all seemed to cluster around his homeworld, allowing his income to escalate rapidly to the point that, when I discovered his ships finally, he had built more ships and they were more technologically advanced. This could be an impediment to competitive play, but the experience of exploring and building fleets and colonies were quite enjoyable. I do have some issues with the whole 4x phenomenon (Eclipse, Twilight Imperium, etc.), and concerns with the end game (capturing an opponent's capitol planet), but I think that Space Empires actually is a simple game on the whole which plays relatively quickly. I will be giving it another play.

After Space Empires, I played a game of Kingdom of Heaven with my friend Paul. We played the intro scenario. I am not thrilled with the graphics on the counters, where the stylized "medieval" font is practically illegible to aging eyes. I also find that the CRT, which many times is used to balance out the crazy randomness of a straight die roll, actually seems to do the opposite at the higher levels. I also am concerned at the possibilities of having "dead cards," unplayable in any practical way, in your hand. But for some reason I did like the event cards and the entire feel of the game. I like the diplomatic rules and the harrowing rules which allow a smaller army to cause the larger one to attrit more often, a seeming necessity for the Muslim player. I also really like the variety of scenarios, including one pitting the Mamluks against the Mongols, a fascinating moment in history that I really cannot wait to play out. We were both inexperienced so my Crusaders quickly ran the Muslim armies off the board. Wait. Is that two victories in two days? Wait for it, my friends, you may see a trend.

TJ taught Dominant Species the Card Game to my son and some others while I talked my nephew through the confusing googlemaps directions to the Lancaster Host. After his arrival, we ended up playing a couple of quick games before turning in for the night. The first game up was Cargo Noir, which Chad won. then Owen, Kevin and I lost a game of Battlestar Galactica to Brian and Chad's Cylons. The most notable part of Battlestar (other than another game where all the humans died) was my inability to keep my eyes open. Kevin at one point noted that "In space, no one can hear you yawn."

Thursday morning started with Rune Wars, fast becoming one of my favorite go-to games. I find it the best balance between adventure/dungeon-crawl games and wargames. I like the six rune autovictory and the five year time limit. I also find that while it is easy to make yourself irrelevant (which I have done on occasion), it is also possible to fight your way back. Hemmed in by massive armies? Have your heroes go out and succeed in quests. Out of heroes? Build a massive army and take someone else's dragon runes. I also love the variety of ways to gather resources, both through expanding your empire and through carefully occupying key cities. Any way, the forces of the Uquar the Undying ended up winning in the end through finding a hidden passage through the careful building of armies and playing of tactics cards to go from 3 rune wars to 6 in two seasons. And guess what? I won! Again!

We followed this up with a quick play of Richard Garfield's King of Tokyo. Man, that was a fun game. It was quick, entertaining, a little funny, and very light. If it weren't so expensive, I might just buy it. It's based on Yahtzee with a nice system of spending on power cards layered into the game. But it is a lot of price for such short game play. Did I mention that I won this too?

The next game I played was one that is fast becoming one of my favorites. TJ, Tom the Tinker, John and I played a game of Imperial 2030. While I think I enjoy the original more (especially since there's an app for that), I do enjoy the interesting interplay of investing in a country and actually running it. This also takes care of the "gang up on the leader" phenomenon, this time by having the thematically odd investments in different countries. You can get ganged up on, but it is more important that you take advantages of your opportunities to invest in what will become stronger countries. The 2030 variant seemed to have less of countries changing hands than its ancestor, but the key continued to be investing, not military might. I ended up winning in a slightly controversial way (is a lie really a lie when you meant what you said when you said it but circumstances seemed to dictate that when it came time to honor the deal it no longer made sense -- okay, rationalizing much?). Wait. Is that three wins in a row?

We ended the night with a session of Last Night on Earth, my second game and, by far, the most fun I have played. The game is pure silliness. Roll for move. Lots of crazy card plays. An almost impossible situation for the humans. But if you ham it up enough and take it for what it is, it can be a real blast. My zombies won against TJ, John, Brian and Owen's humans. Highlight? Hard to say. Was it Johnny the former quarterback getting a death hug from the zombie hero Jenny?

Friday began as Thursday ended. With a win for me. What kind of surreal week was this? I played Successors against Larry, Chad, and TJ. The part of the game I most enjoyed was definitely the fact that we all came to the table playing a game we didn't know, but to which we had read the rules. No one was teaching and we all clarified points for each other. Honestly, I'd rather have all my learning sessions go this way in the future. Any way, I like Successors, but it definitely has some Bergish elements. Richard Berg has really great ideas that either end up being overdone in the rules or are cancelled out by other parts of the game that, in the end, make it unplayable. The mess that became Medieval was, at its core, a really interesting game, but it really needed more components and more playtesting. Successors is a much better game. Consider it the proto-Sword of Rome. I like the unique setup of having randomly drawn generals. I also like the extension of the Hannibal rules into a multiplayer format. I further like the tactics rating being the lowest number you can roll on each die in a 2d6 combat roll. Really! A LOT is right about this game. But then there are the parts that are just overcooked (as opposed to the undercooked Medieval). You have Victory Points you're tracking. Okay, I'm with you. You also have Legitimacy Points, indicating the perception of your fit to be Alexander's successor. Still with you. Layered on top of LP is Prestige, a number that you add to your LP in order to find the temporary legitimacy of a particular general  (as opposed to LP, which applies to an entire faction) when things like who the Royal Macedonians will fight for are figured. What? That's just unwieldly. Add to this the problems that all random setups have, that you may end up with a highly unbalanced setup. And, lastly, you really need to understand how powerful certain generals and certain areas of the board are before you start playing. I won with Antipater at 23 VP on Turn 2, but it was probably more due to an inability to recognize how powerful this general and his advantageous position in relation to Greece was. Still, I'll take the victory!

Next up came Slapshot, which I had just bought at the vendors. Well, it was only 23 dollars. Not bad as a fast paced random game, but it's a little too random and a little too long for me. I hope to pull it out during next year's hockey season and get my Munchkin-playing son to join Owen and me for a game, but beyond that, I don't see it getting too much playtime. Well, at least I got to play it. Owen won.

Next up, we were waiting for people to finish other games and join us, so I showed Owen and Brian how to play Dominion. I like Dominion. It's a little boring now that I understand that it's (almost) "all about the money," but I still enjoy it as a quick filler. I won again, but Owen played very well for his second time.

Next up came what I am willing at this point to call my favorite Euro, Dungeon Lords. This worker placement game really clicks for me. I have always seen Euros as building a machine then watching it work. Maybe you're building a shipping or building machine in Puerto Rico. Maybe it's a Province generating machine in Dominion. But I like the idea of my machine being one to crunch up the adventurers. I'm not very good at it after two plays, but I can't wait to play it again. AJ wins against Owen, Brian and me. He runs away with it due to his ability to amass awards at game's end.

We followed this up with a seven player Seven Wonders, another game I enjoy (largely because of how quickly it plays) and which I thought I wasn't very good at. But I won! Kevin made a little illegal play and undid it at the very end to give me the victory, but I'll take it.

We ended a very long day with a tainted zombie win in Last Night on Earth as Kevin and I defeated Joe, TJ, Owen and Brian, at least partially due to a rules misunderstanding. Oh well. At least it was just Last Night.

I also want to insert here the power of the nap. I forced myself on Thursday and Friday to take naps in order to nip the problem of late night dozing off at the table and it worked like a charm. It's incredible how much a one hour snooze can help when you stay up 4 hours later than normal.


Well, the last day of the con. We started off playing the sequel to Martin Wallace's Struggle of Empires, called (in German) Age of Reason. This changes some things fairly significantly. Now, instead of building armies, your nations have their military forces represented by cards. Also, instead of the tile draw, you can only have special abilities for the current war, then they become available again. I see this as simulating the nature of technology. One nation goes ahead, everyone catches up, then a nation goes ahead in another technological area. All the other nations catch up, and on and on it goes. Any way, I liked the new game. I can't decide whether or not I like it better than Struggle. It's certainly a different game, one that takes different strategies. For instance, you had better know how your forces stack up against others. The British will NOT get traction in the land-locked German States. And the colonies are where you make bank. Like I said, needs another play. Rick wins the seven player game as Russia.

And one more game. Dominant Species the Card Game. I had heard that this was a quicker Dominant Species. Well, after playing it, all I can say is "Did you play an early prototype or something?" This game had nothing from Dominant Species in it, other than the theme and the images. I ended up feeling that the special event cards really unbalanced the game. I will play it again, but I may try it without those events first. Joe won going away and I felt totally screwed by my cards. Oh well. There's always next year.

So, another great time at a great con. I hope that next year I'm ready to delve into tournaments again, but I will still balance that with scheduled open gaming. DonCon, as it has been called, is still my favorite convention, but I have some others on my bucket list. We'll see how they measure up.

Definites for next year: scheduling open gaming, staying at the Host, napping.