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Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Prague games roundup #1: the family front

Ivanhoe
Hogmanay's Settlers was soon followed by a session of this stalwart. I was hoping to repeat my previous feat of winning on both Catan and Ivanhoe's field of honour. It was not to be.

Our 1st game started in a fashion that was to prove to be typical on the night: Bill leading the charge in a bout he ultimately lost. Bill's sitting on Radka's left made this so typical, because she won 3 out of the 5 games we played. Some of these were the closest possible, with all 4 of us sitting on 3 of the 4 tokens needed to win. Radka's victory on the night was complete though, as she won both more games, and more tokens overall (Daniel was keeping count). Bill and I trailed on 1 game each, with me pipping him by a single token.

The manner of my lone victory was pleasing, winning as I did with an uncontested 4-card purple laydown which had left me with an empty hand.


Warcraft: the Board Game
Readers might remember last year's big announcement that I'd finally taken my first hit of the ecrack that is Blizzard's World of Warcraft. Bill and Daniel are both big fans of World of Warcraft, so I got to see a lot more of the amazing sights the game has to offer. This is a truly stunning gaming environment, an internet playground of the fantastic lacking only the direct neural jacking that made the cyberspace of William Gibson's 1980's Neuromancer trilogy literally immersive. But in an ironic twist my first genuinely lengthy visit to Azeroth turned out to be a play of FFG's Warcraft: the Board Game, based on World of Warcraft's ancestor, the Warcraft RTS.

Warcraft: the Board Game is "fantasy Settlers with combat"; that is to say, another game in which mighty empires are locked in mortal conflict, a genre my collection of which I want to expand, as regular readers will know. Published in 2003, Warcraft isn't FFG's oldest boardgame (that's Twilight Imperium AFAIK). As far as I can tell, it was the company's first big licence though.

As a candidate for my wishlist therefore, Warcraft was a boardgame I very much wanted to like. I do, enough seriously to consider investing in a fully expanded set sometime.

Components
These are up to the high standard to be expected from FFG - bright and durable playing pieces, boards, cards and counters, filling their basic 30cm-squared by a quarter's-depth box with a satisfyingly various pile of stuff.

The board pieces are double-sided tiles of various configurations of hexes which allow for different maps to be put together. Unusually for FFG, the army pieces are euro-style wooden blocks, but these suit the fantasy theme exactly as the wooden blocks of GMT's C&C:A suit the ancients period in a way that the plastic army men of Memoir'44's WW2 wouldn't've. The 4 races these pieces represent are:
  • Night Elf.
  • Human.
  • Orcs.
  • Undead.
The basic scenarios provided for 2, 3 or 4 players set different combinations of the sides against each other across maps of different shapes and sizes. Perhaps most noteworthy is the 2-way alliance in the 4-player game, between the humans and the night elves on the 1 hand, and the orcs and the undead on the other. The effects of this are seen most interestingly in combat, though their effects are a bit wider than that.

Rules
These are as straightforward and as clear as any FFG game I've played so far. Reading them to the point where I could set the game up and get it running with 3 seasoned but rusty players didn't take long, although there were the all-too-common clunks due to rules checking and communications breakdowns. There is a nice little economic system using workers to harvest gold and wood, with the neat twist that resource bases can be exhausted. This has the effect of imposing a very definite limit on how long the players can sit back and just build up their armies.

Towns are another key feature of the economic engine. Each player has their own town, which is located on the board, and which is represented offboard too by the Town interface. The interface tracks the buildings which are needed to produce workers and military units. The 3 kinds of units - melee, ranged and flying - all have their own kinds of building that must be built before they can be trained or upgraded. I liked the economic engine because it did seem to recreate the style of the kind of development I remember from my few games, several years ago, of one of the games in the Command and Conquer series, eg. there is a production lag which can lengthen if you neglect to make room for new workers or units to enter the board.

Combat is nice too. Battles must be fought between opposing units in the same hex plus units in adjacent hexes. Allies may choose to join in. Joining in and winning battles give players access to cards which are useful in battle and elsewhere. Each of the 3 unit types is defined initially by the order of attack in battle (ranged, then flyers, then melee). They are also represented for each of the 4 races by a pile of counters which give their various stats, eg. their level, to-hit number for battles, or special power. The numbers of these counters and the values of their stats varies for each side so that the armies all have their own character.

What went down
Random selection of sides left Bill's and my humans and night elves against Daniel and Radka's undead and orcs; apt we thought. The early game was dominated by Radka, who enjoyed a seemingly inexhaustible resource stream despite the number of 3's she'd had to roll to garner her piles of gold and wood (it's rolling a 3 on the 1,1,1,2,2,3 resource dice that depletes a mine or forest; deplete twice and it's exhausted for the game). There was an ominous horde of Radka's red orc pieces as our expanding empires started to bump up against each other in the middle of the map.

Deciding to get them before they got me, I launched the game's first attack, against Daniel's undead. Daniel's first card gave him a nasty trick up his sleeve, which he used against me immediately, naturally enough. To save the day and retain possession of the battlefield for the sake of a victor's boon (ie. another card) I was forced to sacrifice a valuable flying unit (inevitably christened 'dragons' around our table). This decision stung I can assure you.

This first battle set off a significant war, as you'd expect. The eventual outcome after a few turns was that Bill and Daniel had taken some serious lumps out of each other, but that Bill was looking even worse off because he'd been squeezed between Radka and Daniel. I'd taken some knocks too, but had withdrawn from the last phase of that first war so that I could recover and regroup. IIRC, I had a plan.

It was a schoolday for Daniel the next day, so the game had to stop there. It was Radka's suggestion that we leave it up to be finished the next day. I confess I enjoyed the day's fretting and scheming that this gave me!

My plan was based on a card I had enabling my army to leap unexpectedly across the map to attack Daniel's town. If I could hold it for 2 turns then it'd've been effectively ravaged, so knocking Daniel out of the game, which is the commonplace victory condition in the 4-player alliance game. I'd been planning on this for a little while, but I delayed it for a turn to see if Daniel's army - whose move to reinforce his town could easily've destroyed my expeditionary force - could be taken down a bit by Bill. It was, although Bill was in dire straits by the end of the battles. So I had to go in next turn.

I didn't have everything my own way, but I managed to hold on. Daniel's town was duly ravaged and good triumphed over evil!

Afterthoughts
As I said, Warcraft: the Board Game is something I'd definitely think about buying. I'd even think seriously about buying the expansion set. And that's my only cavil by the way. There is a variable board in the game, but it's not as freely variable as that in, say, Settlers. More than that, the game is built around predesigned scenarios rather than randomly setting up a board - Settlers again. There are only a handful of scenarios in the rules, and fewer still online. These features feed into aspects of the wider gameplay to make me wonder about the long term replay value of this game. Not that much of a complaint really. ;)

Score
Bill
2
Daniel 0
Radka 3
Me 2
;-|
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