Sunday, February 12, 2006

Got game

Clash of the titans(?!)
I was graced for a couple of days earlier this week with a visit from my old gaming buddy "Uncle" Martin Lumsden, a man who fears nothing in gaming save dying in the Warhammer Old World... :p

Martin was one of the band with whom I whiled away my student days playing games when I really should've been studying. His timely arrival gave us our usual feast of gaming and raised my spirits immensely.

Our mammoth session began with Roborally, Richard Garfield of M:tG fame's wacky boardgame of robot racing. Rereleased last year by Avalon Hill in a shiny new edition, we were playing the 1994 WotC 2nd edition. I don't have the new edition myself, but in any case, Martin and I prefer the old edition because I do have 2 expansions: Armed and Dangerous- which brought in new options giving a host of new ways to cause damage and other goodies; and Grand Prix- which provides new board elements to torment players, including Martin's favourite, the Chop Shop.

Roborally is a game that has had something of a mixed reception, by which I mean some people really like it, others just don't take to it (well surprise, surprise!). The basic concept is brilliant: a bunch of control computers in a vast automated factory get bored with their lot, and decide to liven things up by running races across the factory floor with the factory's service bots.

The basic mechanics are great too. The factory floor is littered with a variety of elements that can help or hinder your bot's advance. There are a host of option cards which give your bots all sorts of special abilities, from more powerful lasers with which to damage rival bots, to gyroscopic stabilisers making it easier for a bot to negotiate the maze of conveyor belts and gears that litter the typical factory layout. And then there are the program cards.

The program cards are Roborally's most interesting design feature. Each turn you are dealt a hand of 9 program cards with which to program your bot's movement. The cards are 4 movement cards- backup 1, and forward 1, 2 and 3; and 3 rotates- left, right, and u-turn. You have to program 5 cards, which will be revealed and executed one-by-one during the turn. It is, of course, the unpredictability of the cards that is the true source of Roborally's fun: no matter how simple the move you need to make, you can never be 100% sure of making it. In fact, you can be sure that the cards will screw you over frequently.

The randomness of the cards might be one of the reasons for Roborally's mixed reception, since some people just don't like that kind of gameplay. Another reason is likely to be the vagaries of board design. In Roborally you see, race layouts are designed by placing checkpoints around the board(s) which have been selected as the racecourse. The placing of checkpoints can be of tremendous consequence, especially in a game with many players. Checkpoints placed in inaccessible and/or dangerous locations can result in carnage as several bots rush towards them all at once. This can give rise to a game in which the outcome is more or less decided after the 1st or 2nd checkpoint, which is obviously not much fun for those who are bringing up the rear.

These caveats aside, one thing that has to be said about Roborally is that it has some of the best written rulebooks I have seen. The interaction of the wide variety of elements in the game can give rise to all sorts of weird effects. In all the games I have played, nothing has ever come up that couldn't be resolved by reference to the rulebooks; there has always been a qualification of or exception to the general case noted somewhere or other. This is pretty impressive for rules that only cover some 60 A5 pages of large, well-spaced print with lots of diagrams (and that's including an expansion too).

All the same, no matter how much I like Roborally, my heart always sinks when Martin suggests a game. Why? For the simple reason that he always wins. I like a challenge as much as the next guy, but there seems to be a hideous inevitability to my defeat at Martin's hands in games of Roborally: I don't think I've ever beaten him, although we did have a draw once.

So, having felt that there was nothing for it but to accept the challenge Martin had put down, how did I fare?

I began our 1st game well: I declined the chance to begin the game with an option called 'The Big One'. The single most dangerous device in the game, The Big One a bomb that can do damage up to 8 squares away, and which can total an intact bot up to 2 squares away. The Big One has long been my favourite option because I can always have fun causing a huge explosion no matter what is happening in the actual race. The problem is that this fun is usually at the expense of my own bot. So this time I decided not to tempt fate by loading my bot up with this massive instrument of (self-)destruction.

This decision surprised Martin. It didn't help me win the game though: I was pipped at the post when Martin's bot sneaked into the final flag right in front of me. Still, it was close, perhaps as close as we've ever been (apart from that draw, but more of that anon).

Thus encouraged, I accepted Martin's challenge to another game. Oh the folly of optimistic self-deception! Although a titanic tussle, this game followed an all-too-familiar pattern: I fell so far behind after just 1 flag that I had no chance whatsoever to win the race. So I had to resort to interception tactics.

I first tried interception tactics a few years ago, when I was again too far behind in a game to catch up. Unwilling simply to give in I realised that my only chance of winning was to lurk near the final flag, tooling up with options as I did so, in the hopes of getting some useful instruments of destruction with which to destroy Martin's bot before he got to the flag. I almost did it that first time too: I actually took Martin's bot's 3rd and last life as he made his final run for victory. Unfortunately Martin's bot had pushed my own by a measly single square, which resulted in its destruction mere moments after Martin's. That was our draw.

With only 2 avenues of approach to the last 2 flags I was in a very strong position to use interception tactics, able easily to move to the appropiate side once Martin was commited to an approach. Once I almost took 1 of the bot's lives as I treated it to a barrage of laser fire and rams. Two other times I caught him with an option which forced him to draw his next program card at random instead of playing the one he had programed at the start of the turn, and each time a bad draw would've sent his bot plunging to its doom. These efforts were to no avail. Fortune was with Martin each time and he escaped.

The game ground on and on for several hours. By this time I had laid goo and mines to cover one of Martin's approach routes. Then I tried an audacious plan to sneak the 2nd flag and return before Martin could react. Unfortunately I made one of my classic stupid mistakes: I set off all the options (4 of them at once!) that were utterly crucial to my plan a phase too early, meaning that the key options- the ones intended to delay Martin long enough for me to get back across the board before he nipped in and reached the final 2 checkpoints- proved to be quite useless. And of course, this just happened to be the very turn in which Martin chose to make a break for a flag instead of trundling around biding his time in a search for options himself.


Much later, after we had chilled out over a few other games, we had a 3rd game of Roborally. I lost that one too, without touching a single flag, and to a bot that hadn't even taken a single point of damage. At least this one was mercifully quick: it was essentially all over after I made 2 classic stupid mistakes approaching the 1st flag, the 2nd of which cost my bot its life and sent me back to the start. My attempt at interception tactics proved futile and Martin's bot cruised in to an easy victory.

0-3 :(

We managed 4 games of this little gem in the day and a half of Martin's visit. The first 2 followed on from the epic tragedy that was the 2nd game of Roborally, the remainder were the following day, in a quick bash before Martin had to make his departure.

These games reminded me of one of Ivanhoe's abiding merits: it is a great filler game, ideal for those times when you're too fragged to play anything else- eg. you've just lost a brain-numbingly intense game of Roborally lasting 3 hours or more (sheesh); or you've only got a wee while at your disposal and you fancy a genuinely challenging game that you can pick up an play in a minute or two.

The honours across these 4 games were even although- surprise, surprise!- I lost the first two we played.

2-5 :(

As inevitable as Martin's desire for to play Roborally was my own to play Memoir'44. Random selection of scenario and sides gave me playing the Germans against Martin's Yanks in Operation Spring.

The 1st game began with Martin probing on each flank for a bit, then launching a big assault up the centre. Meanwhile I had pulled my armour facing Tilly-la-Campagne into the centre. When Martin's attack stalled on and around Verrieres Ridge, I was able to launch a counter-attack which included a rolling armoured assault which crashed all the way through to the US deployment zone beyond Verrieres Ridge in a series of deadly overruns.

As ever, Martin was game for another go, convinced that he could win next time. The game followed a similar pattern to the 1st. The main difference was that I launched an all-out counter-attack almost immediately, and crashed into the American advance with everything I had in the centre (again including all my armour IIRC). My troops seemed to have forgotten how to shoot: at one point I had fired off some 30 dice in 2 turns with little more effect than Martin had achieved with a small fraction of that total! Sheer weight of numbers told in the end though, although the result was much closer than in the previous game.

Undaunted, Martin was determined to try again. The game played out pretty much as before IIRC, with the significant difference that I won by a mere single victory medal. And that was that.

5-5 :)

The Settlers of Catan Card Game
A 2-player variant of the classic boardgame by Klaus Teuber, Settlers cards is another of my favourite games. I can still remember how, the very first time I played it, I felt that it lacked the qualities giving the boardgame its endless replay value. It was later that same evening, somewhere on about game 4 or 5 of the session, that I realised just how wrong I was.

Settlers cards is a fabulous and engrossing game of colony-building and resource management. The card deck is beautiful to look at and the gameplay is simple and rich. The basic game is enough in and of itself, but there are expansion decks that ring the changes and bring new character to the familiarity of the basic game. In addition, the expansion set includes the Tournament Game, in which you can design your own decks, which can be great fun. The link above renders any more words on my part superfluous right now, including as it does pictures, and an interactive online tutorial which will give you an idea of the gameplay. Check it out for yourself!

Meanwhile, Martin and I played 2 games of Settlers cards this time round. It was well into the wee small hours by that time, and I was still reeling a bit from the strain of that grinding game of Roborally (sheesh), so we stuck with the easy familiarity of the basic game. This didn't do me any good though: I lost both games.

I lost the 1st game in the opening game. There are certain cards that are crucial to this stage of the game, 2 particular ones being the Abbey and the Scout. The Abbey increases your hand capacity by 1, expanding your planning options. The Scout, well, without explaining the rules, the important point is that the Scout gives you the chance to make sure that a new settlement offers you exactly the expanded resource base you want. So searching for and getting hold of both these cards (there are 2 of each in the basic game) is typically a significant part of the opening of our games of Settlers cards.

Anyhoo, I quickly came to the conclusion that Martin had grabbed both of the Scouts. It was at this point I made my mistake. What I should've done was press ahead full speed with my road and settlement building. This would've increased my chance of getting hold of some of the choice region cards (these are the cards that generate your resources, a concept with which you'll be familiar if you know the boardgame; otherwise, you'll learn about this if you check out the interactive tutorial linked to above). What I did instead was spend my time building other things, with the result that Martin's resource base was much greater than mine very quickly.

This enabled Martin to build 4 of the 5 expansion settlements in the game, giving him a resource base twice as big as mine. On top of watching Martin build things turn after turn while I eked out a precarious existence saving up for just one build, I was well and truly screwed when it came to bonus and stolen resources. At one point I calculated that, adding up the bonus resources Martin had gained and those he had stolen from me by various means, the result was approximately equal to some 15 turns of my puny average resource stream. And that was before taking into account the impact of Martin's much greater resource base!

The 2nd game was much closer. In fact at one moment I thought I had it in bag, but Martin just pipped me at the post. Really: barring a 1/6 chance on the Event dice, I was guaranteed my winning builds on the very next turn after Martin completed his own multiple game-winning builds. Talk about being robbed!

5-7 :(

We rounded our marathon gaming bash off with a few games of this all-time classic, which is probably the single game I've played more than any other. The final score was 4-4, which made our backgammon session a draw. And that included a game doubled to 4 in which Martin only just escaped a gammon, thus saving himself from losing 8-2. Sheesh yet again.

Final score:

But I take a certain crumb of comfort from 2 facts. First: I recovered from being 7-3 down after the first night. And second: enough of my defeats were sufficiently narrow that the final result could very easily have been 8-5 in my favour. So what about could've beens you might say, but you've got to find crumbs of comfort where you can when you need them I say. ;)

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