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Thursday, July 30, 2009

A low and dirty business

Andy, Donald and Gav were round for games on Sunday. I'd asked for requests and Gav had suggested Risk or History of the World. I played HotW for the first time last April and am certainly keen to play it again, but on Sunday still laboured under the lassitude of the same vicissitudes which had occasioned Badger's and my recourse to Ivanhoe on Friday, instead of the habitual Combat Commander. So I plumped for Risk and a consensus in favour soon followed.

Risk
Celebrating its 50th birthday this year, Risk is a hardened veteran par excellence of modern gaming and is surely the closest thing to a board wargame most casual family gamers will experience. It's certainly the first game of its ilk I ever played: we got the edition with the cylinders and triangular prisms for playing pieces for xmas when I was 10 or 11. In our first game that xmas day I was well on my way to victory- I'd secured Australasia and Asia, and had just captured Europe; when we had to clear the table for dinner. Were Napoleon's world-dominating designs ever similarly foiled I wonder?

My current copy of Risk is the modern edition which includes the little Napoleonic period models, and the Mission cards. Risk has been very well served by this new edition. The key changes to the game I remember from the 70's are:
  • The Mission cards give each player specific geopolitical objectives instead of them all sharing the same objective, which was simply to take over the entire world (this is still a variant in the Advanced Rules).
  • Setup is easier because the initial phase is determined by the deal of the Risk cards.
Between them, these 2 changes provide for a game that can easily be played to a conclusion in a couple of hours, which means that it's more likely to see action on the table. This I like.

What went down
Sunday's game saw me lumbered with the Mission to conquer Asia and Africa and a setup which saw me start with a mere 3 territories- all in Asia, in my objective continents. I used the buidup to reinforce my positions in Europe and South America, which were to be the jumping off points for my attacks on my objectives.

Donald delievered the first blow to my plans when he attacked and conquered Brazil, where I'd stationed my initial African expeditionary force. IIRC I was never able to mount a serious attack on Africa for the rest of the game. Elsewhere Donald and I spent a long time fighting back and forth across central Asia as I tried to stabilise my holdings there towards meeting my Mission objectives. My European armies just sat around doing nothing in particular until they were squeezed between other powers.

With my plans coming to naught and my visions of global domination fading fast, I was holding on grimly in the hope of an upturn in my fortunes. I was eventually put out of my misery by Donald. In one of those turns which will be familiar to fans of Risk, his armies swept across the board until, with a final dice roll of 2(!) he'd conquered the 24 territories which we already knew were his Mission objective. The final positions were:
  • Andy: 3 (18 territories w/2 armies in each).
  • Donald: 24.
  • Gav: 8 (Conquer N. American and Africa).
  • Me: 7 (Conquer Africa and Asia).
Donald was especially pleased at his victory: he'd not played Risk in decades, and had never won either.

Score
The 'Old Man' 1
The young Turks 0

Afterthoughts
Grognards and other hardcore adventure gamers use all sorts of metaphors to encapsulate their enjoyment of the simplicities of Risk as opposed to the complexities of other games. On Sunday, I was happy to play as a bit of light relief. I enjoyed the game a lot and look forward to playing it again sooner rather than later. Risk is a classic for the simple reason that it's a very good game.

As already noted, I like the effect of the Mission cards. As well as shortening the playing time, they also open up more diplomacy, because judging your opponents' missions by their actions becomes an important part of the game. On Sunday Gav soon tidied up Australasia, whereupon I announced that he might be going for the Australasia and North America mission. Gav demurred, noting that he might equally just be exploiting a local advantage.

More than that: after I'd mistakenly singled him out as the Cylon in our last Sunday session's game of Battlestar Galactica, Gav suggested that he was the victim of some kind of personal vendetta. He was wrong of course; he was just the victim of my mistakes! Still, I liked the way that the mission cards opened up new layers of strategy and accompanying tabletalk which I don't remember from the games of my youth.

War on Terror
Denounced sight unseen before its publication by Tory MP Andrew Lansley as "in very bad taste... as though somebody has gone too far"; and seized by police because the balaclava the game includes "could be used to conceal someone's identity or could be used in the course of a criminal act"; War on Terror is a game satirising 21st century geopolitics. It is one of the games I picked up at UK Games Expo'09.

Personal apology
Regular readers who remember my fondness for the great grandaddy of satirical adventure games- Nuclear War, might wonder why it has taken me nearly 3 years to get my hands on the most up-to-date addition to this noble gaming tradition. I have no satisfactory answer to this question. I guess I'll just have to promise to do better next time.

Official disclaimer
Before going on to to look more closely at the game, I feel compelled to make this disclaimer:

War on Terror: the boardgame is a boardgame satirising 21st century geopolitics. It does not attempt to be a simulation of its subject, and as such bears the same relation to the actual ongoing War on Terror as do the comedy stylings of any edgy standup comedian; that is to say: tangential at best.
Thank you for your attention dear readers, I can now return you to your scheduled article.

In the box
For those of my readers who've never seen WoT, the game can aptly be described as a mashup of Risk and Settlers of Catan, with dashes of Nuclear War and Apocalypse: the Game of Nuclear Devestation thrown in for good measure. So there is a map on which all the continents of the world are broken down into countries over which the players - the Empires - will fight the good fight while garnering themselves their own little bloc of oil-rich real estate. The oil is represented by oil tokens randomly distributed across the map; these have numbers which generate oil wealth as do the tokens in Settlers, except that the currency of WoT is cold hard cash.

The playing pieces are colourful (and durable) plastic tokens of 3 kinds; 7 sets, one for each of up to 6 players, and another for the terrorists (in black). These represent (in increasing power in game terms):
  • For the Empires:
  1. Villages.
  2. Towns.
  3. Cities.
  • For the terrorists:
  1. Vanguards.
  2. Columns.
  3. Cells.
In addition there are:
  • 2 sets of action cards- Empire and Terrorist cards, which are the core of the players' actions and finkery (well, there just had to be finkery, didn't there?).
  • 3 dice:
  1. 1 Action dice, which determines the players' development opportunities each turn.
  2. 2d6 to generate those ever-precious oil revenues.
  • Cash (Settlers' resources work very nicely, but yer actual filthy lucre is always fun).
  • A pad and pencil for sending secret messages.
  • Handy reference cards for each player.
  • And the already legendary 'Evil' Balaclava which Kent police found so threatening nearly a year ago.
Most of these parts are very nicely produced. That "most" is because the Empire and Terrorist cards are a bit flimsy; and the Action dice isn't engraved, so that it had started to wear even during our first play of the game. Those complaints nothwithstanding, this box of stuff represents good value for your £29.95 (perhaps those Kent coppers recognised a good bargain when they saw one?).

On to the game
So WoT finally appeared on the table last Sunday. I'd skimmed the rules, although I can't claim thoroughly to have read them let alone studied them. Nor had I set the game up the better to familiarise myself with its workings. I think therefore WoT deserves good marks for conceptual simplicity and clarity of rules exposition because the 4 of us were able to get our game up and running with the minimum of fuss.

The aim of the game in WoT is to secure a certain number of Liberation Points. Liberation Points are awarded as follows:
  • Empires:
  1. For control of each continent (similar to Risk, but VP and not extra armies).
  2. For each city.
  • Terrorists (yes, players can turn terrorist- more below):
  1. For each continent free of Empire developments.
The LP required for victory depends on the number of Empire players in play. This is a neat twist because it makes the game easier to win for all sides the more players have turned terrorist.

The basic rules of play are admirably straightforward. Each turn comprises the following steps:
  • Roll the Action dice to see how many developments you'll be allowed that turn: ie. how many villages to build or villages/towns to upgrade.
  • Take your allocation of Empire and/or Terrorist cards: usually 2 of the former, but this can vary.
  • Play your turn: buying and selling developments and/or cards; playing cards to wage war, make terrorist attacks and other stuff; bribing and cajoling other players; cackling with manic glee; and so on.
  • Roll the 2d6 to see who gets oil revenue that turn.
This simple turn structure meant that we got our gaming rolling every bit as quickly as we'd set it up. The Empire cards allow for all sorts of dirty tricks and soon we were expanding our oil empires- erm, negotiating trade agreements; launching terrorist attacks- supporting freedom fighters against brutal dictators; fomenting terrorist infighting; and waging war on recalcitrant terrorists with gusto.

Another already infamous feature of WoT is the Axis of Evil: the spinner used every so often to single out one player as the Evil Empire. After a few duff spins (ie. colours not in play were selected), Andy finally enjoyed the honour of being our first Evil Empire. We just had to mark the occasion with a photo. As the game progressed we all enjoyed our turn as the Evil Empire, and so...
The Brotherhood of Evil

And when I say "enjoy" I mean it: one of the perks of being the Evil Empire is that you get 2 free Terrorist cards as well as the normal 2 Empire cards; and these cards are the driving force behind all the fun in WoT.

Another source of much entertainment in WoT is the peculiar dynamic of the terrorist pieces:
  • They are the primary means of attacking your opponents' developments (villages, etc).
  • They are cheaper investments than development, although they deliver no income.
  • But (and here is where the real fun begins), any player can use them once they are on the board.
This means that the terrorists in WoT are a double-edged sword at best; and your nemesis at worst.

The terrorists provide another entertaining twist in WoT (nah, who'd've thunk it, I hear you cry): players can 'Turn Terrorist'. This can be forced on you by circumstances- ie. bankruptcy or losing all your developments; or you can choose the option at any time. Terrorist players play as a team, sharing one turn, and no doubt falling out with each other as regularly as their schismatic realworld counterparts.

As if all the foregoing horrors weren't enough, there is the nuclear option. This is provided by Empire cards (the Terrorist deck provides WMD's: less devestating but still powerful). I deployed the first pair of nukes in our game on Sunday, wiping out at a stroke the extensive developments in Africa and Latin America which'd put Andy within a single good turn of victory.

What went down
We all had our turn at the Evil Empire. Andy got a double first when I hit him with those nukes. The game ebbed and flowed for quite some time as we found out that it's much easier for the terrorists to take your developments down than it is to build them back up again. Eventually, reduced to a mere 3 countries, and just plain curious, Donald decided to turn terrorist.

Later I noticed something that had come up before: that if I got my move right and then turned terrorist, I could declare a terrorist victory. I'd offered this deal to Andy earlier, only for Donald and Gav to announce that they'd immediately do the same so that we'd all win. My offer was promptly withdrawn. This time I just made the move and declared the victory, leaving the others to... to, well what exactly? Squabble over who had the next biggest share in the victory? I'm not really sure, but I think we all found the outcome strangely fitting.

Score
Evil Donald 1 and a bit
Heroic liberator me Another bit (plus the moral high ground?)
Evil empires A bit each? Nothing?
:-/

Afterthoughts
I had mixed feelings about this game as we were playing it. It is fast and fun to play, but I was left for a long time with the feeling that it was a game which had some good ideas that were insufficiently developed. I said even as I voiced those feelings that I knew a single play was too early to be sure of such a judgement, an opinion of which I am more sure now than ever.

Those thoughts were based on seeing how dynamic the game can be, now easy it is to knock players down. This left me wondering if WoT might not be one of those games you wouldn't play that often because it just takes too long to play.

It was Gav who first suggested that there were depths to the gameplay requiring strategies which were opaque to us. He later added that he reckoned that one of us should've turned terrorist much sooner. Whether or not he's right about the latter, I'm sufficiently persuaded about the former to have WoT high on my list of 'must plays'. And that even if it does turn out to be just one of those long games, ideal for a Sunday afternoon, say. ;)
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