C & C: Napoleonics: Salamanca (Right Flank)

July 30, 2012

My brother Mike came over on Friday night and we did battle in Commands & Colors: Napoleonics once again. Like last time, Mike took the redcoats while I took the forces of the Emperor in the Battle of Salamanca (French right). I again enlisted the help of Napoleon’s wife, Josephine, who through some zany time machine plot I still refuse to go into, was now three months old and giving me strategy tips. You may remember that last time I won by s sizable margin; I was looking to repeat.   Here’s the layout of the map at the start:

17 Allied units v.s. 14 French units.

 With one game under our belts relatively recently, we had to look up no rules and cruised right along. My plan was to simply wait behind the hills in front of my lines and use timely bayonet charges to rip the British to shreds. Unfortunately, it did not turn out that way in the end. Mike got a great starting hand with a lot of center activation cards and began advancing his line. (Apologies for the cell phone pics that follow)

They’re fording the river!

However, the action began in earnest on the right, where my impetuous French cavalry mixed it up with British artillery. This did not go well:

Horses and canister do not mix.

“Let’s just quit while we still can,” General Josie suggested. “I need to get to bed anyway.” “Nev-ar!” I retorted in my worst French accent, and ordered more units.

“It looks bad for us, Dad.”

The British continued to exert pressure on the French right, bringing up heavy and light cavalry to mix it up. I was forced to form square, but to no avail. Meanwhile, British riflemen had taken the town in the center of the map and were peppering my infantry at the same time:

“Never surrender!”

While the center lines traded potshots, I finally got some cards to activate the French left and drove back a strong force that was advancing toward the hills. I gently reminded Mike of how combined arms attacks work when I rolled eight dice in one attack:

“See? No way you can win.”

As Mike brought more crack troops up on the left and the right, I began shifting forces away from my center to reinforce those flanks. However, the cards were against me. We were both losing units at a quick clip, and were tied at 5 banners apiece.

The map quickly empties out…

The tension in the air increased dramatically as we both realized the game was nearing its end. Mike made what I thought was a dumb move, manoeuvring a unit of Guards Grenadiers into a river on the French left within easy range of my cannons. At the same time, I didn’t actually have the cards to destroy it, and when the redcoats swarmed my last block of artillery, it was all over.

What I had to endure as my opponent gloated.

And with that, the British won, 6-5. In truth, I learned quite a bit in this scenario. First, as I only had been given one unit of cavalry, I should have done a better job of protecting it. It had far more value as a potential threat, and its presence throughout the scenario would have made Mike think twice about advancing infantry on my right. However, once I got them beat up, he had no reason to hold back from sending cavalry across the river. This forced my infantry on that side to form square and eventually get destroyed by musket fire.

Also, I’m starting to see a pattern in how our games develop. Usually we are reluctant to get involved in the center of the map because it  comes down to who has the better dice rolls and cards; in short, it gets really bloody and chaotic in the center unless you’re cautious about it. This reluctance means most of the action gets driven to the flanks, where we often have fewer units and thus more room to manoeuvre. Once those flanks are decimated, the game is almost over and we’re more inclined to activate units in the center. (This, by the way, is not something I think I would have ever caught on to if I didn’t blog about these sessions…maybe all this writing is actually making me a better player?) Anyway, I need to think about this a little bit more and see if this realization can be somehow turned to my advantage in the future.

Now that summer school is over and I have a little bit more time off, expect new sessions reports soon!


Inside the Box: Here I Stand, Second Printing

July 16, 2012

Inside the Box is an in-depth look at the contents of a board game. It covers the quality, quantity, and aesthetic value of what is found inside the game box.

Here I Stand (HIS) was originally released in in 2006 by GMT Games. Four years later, the second printing came out, and recently I was lucky enough to get my hands on a copy and have been largely impressed by the value of the contents. It currently retails for $85, but can be purchased for much less through the usual channels. HIS, like its sequel, Virgin Queen, is a card-driven game of war, diplomacy, discovery, and religion.

As with all GMT games put out in the last few years, the 3 inch deep box is incredibly sturdy and heavy. Upon opening it, I realized I was getting a lot of material! 4 counter sheets,  a rule book, a scenario book, a fully mounted game board, two decks of cards, dice, two player’s aid sheets, two sheets for sequence of play, and six power cards. 

Wow, that’s a lot of gaming stuff!

Of course, I am able to compare it against the first printing on my game shelf, and I am impressed by the choices GMT made. The most visually appealing elements are the new mounted board and the thicker counters. There is a lot of text on the board, but it is all easily readable. Also, there are several charts that are fit on the board, which means less supplementary charts lying around like in Virgin Queen. No more putting plexiglass over this gorgeous game–you can just setup and enjoy. I also appreciate the thicker counters. I remember punching the counters in the first printing and having some tear at the corners–no problems this time around.  

I am also very happy to have a completely updated rulebook in my hands. Unfortunately, GMT decided not to go to a color copy, but it’s not that big of a deal. The scenario book also has rules for how to play the two-player variant, which originally came out in C3i magazine some years ago and had to be purchased separately. The two-player diplomacy deck has also been included right out of the box, which is a huge bonus. I feel like I’m getting a lot of goodies for just a modest increase in pricing.

An example of a card from the two-player diplomatic deck.

Another excellent addition is the turn sequence sheets. There are two of these (full color), and they include a multiplayer side and a two player side. No matter what version of the game you use, you’ll find them helpful, as they provide a convenient chart on which to lay out the various cards and game pieces that are added to the game turn by turn. This was one of the biggest hassles of the first printing–separating out the deck and pieces and trying to figure out what came in when. Now you can just lay it all out on a side table and refer to it once you wrap up a turn. Simple and effective. This is another case of GMT listening to its customers, as I think they figured out everyone was downloading turn sequence aides on Board Game Geek anyway.

The new turn sequence sheet.

Here I Stand, second printing, is a great example of how GMT’s production values have improved over the years. They’ve also included enough new material to make this worth picking up for people who own the first edition. With a mounted map, thicker counters, and a useful turn sequence aide, the game is pleasing to the eye and a blast to play. And now…with a nice looking board, people will definitely be eyeing this from across convention halls all over the world.

Saint Petersburg Strategy

July 10, 2012

Before there was Dominion or 7 Wonders, there was Saint Petersburg. A game for 2 to 4 players that had you purchasing cards to rebuild and expand your part of the Russian city. Those card purchases created your own economic and point engine with whoever doing this the most efficiently being the winner. If you’ve played the more recent games, you can certainly see the inspiration that Saint Petersburg had on those – although all three are very good in their own right.

But today I want to break down this fantastic game a little bit. Essentially on each turn your decision is to either 1) buy a card 2) hold a card now to buy later or 3) save your money and pass your turn. The main action used being “buy a card”. Each card has a cost in the upper left and the benefits you’ll receive from that card each round on the bottom. Below are three card examples showing their costs and their benefits of money and/or points.

Example Cards from St. Petersburg

The early game of St. Petes is to create an economic engine. You want cards that will give you cash to buy more and better cards later. Also, the sooner you buy a card the sooner it pays off. Take the Fur Trapper in the cards above. It costs 6 Rubles now and only pays out 3 per turn. So it’ll take 2 turns for this card to pay off. If this is the first card you buy in the game and the game lasts 7 rounds you’ll be ahead 15 Rubles by games end. So buying as many cheap Workers as possible early in the game is ideal.

For each card of each type you already own you also get a discount the next time you buy that card. For example, if I buy the Fur Trapper for 6 Rubles, the next time I buy one it’ll only cost 5 Rubles, the next one 4 and so on. Buying the same type of card over and over again is good and helps to get a faster return on those investments.

The orange Aristocrat cards also pay out cash, but usually at a slower rate. The Warehouse Manager will take more than 3 rounds before he starts earning his keep, but some money is better than no money. With four phases in each round having cash payouts every other phase (the green Workers in phase 1 and orange Aristocrats in phase 3) you’ll get a steady stream of income to buy the cards you want.

The blue Building cards are the main ways to earn points. Early in the game I generally avoid buying too many points though. While points are what determines who wins or loses, investing in points early will take away your buying potential. In the first few rounds of the game avoid buying any expensive buildings. One early cheap building, like the Customs House shown above may not be too bad an idea. After 7 rounds those 8 Rubles will have earned you 14 points and there are 4 more in the deck so future purchases of this card can be discounted. Only towards the end of the game when money isn’t as tight is buying those higher point buildings a good idea.

However, don’t neglect the points on the other cards. Three of the Aristocrats and many of the Trading (or Upgrade) cards have points as well as money on them. These cards can offer you the advantage of an income while gaining points at the same time – the best of both worlds.

There are two point adding bonuses at the end of the game: money and Aristocrats. You’ll get 1 point for every 10 rubles you have. This is hardly something to consider in this game. Spending money on any card with points on it pays off at a better rate. But the the Aristocrat bonus can be huge. The bonus pays off 1 point for 1 different type of Aristocrat, 3 points for 2 different types, 6 for 3, 10 for 4 and so on, until you get 55 points for 10+ different types of Aristocrats. A different type meaning each orange card with a different name. In a two player game you should strive to get 8-10 different types of Aristocrats in front of you for a nice end game bonus.

Holding Cards
Often it is in your best interest to just buy cards you need as they show up. But sometimes it is better to grab that card and just hold it – usually because you can’t afford it now. This can be a good strategy when you don’t want your opponent getting a certain card. Another reason to grab a card is to free up space for the next round. Each round only 8 cards are ever on the table. For example: it is the end of the Upgrade phase and only one green Worker card will be coming out next round due to lack of open spaces. If you go first in the next round this is fine, but if you aren’t, then you will lose out on the opportunity to buy another Worker to gain even more money. It may be wise to put a card in your hand to free up another spot on the board. Don’t be afraid to put a couple cards in your hand, but make sure you buy them soon so that you can get the benefit from the card as well.

Specific Cards
Some cards in the deck just hardly ever seem worth grabbing while others I grab without hesitation. Here are some specific cards you’ll want to keep in mind while playing.
Czar and Carpenter – This card pays out like all the other workers and can be upgraded to any of the green Upgrade cards. Unless he comes out in the very early rounds though he usually doesn’t pay off since he costs 8 and there’s only one so there will be no discounts for future Czars. I usually avoid him, but he’s not terrible. Just think through his payoff and consider many of the green Upgrade cards cost less then he does so you aren’t saving any money that way.
Mariinskij-Theater – Every upgrade card is usually worth grabbing – they rarely stay on the table long. However, this upgrade card usually ends up in the discard. It gives you 1 Ruble for each orange card you have down. While money is good in this game, by the time you have enough Aristocrats to have this building pay off, you’ve usually switched your buying strategy from money to points. I rarely ever purchase this card.
Pub – This is a nice blue card to grab as costs only 1 Ruble. During the last building round you can use this card to cash out 5 points for 10 rubles instead of the normal 1.

Cards to Keep in Mind

Potjomkin’s Village – This card is used only as a blue building card for upgrading. It costs only 2 Rubles and then saves you 4 when you upgrade it. I really like having this card available for upgrading later in the game.
Observatory – This card gives you the ability to use it during the blue round to grab a card off of any deck. This is great early in the game to get more Workers or later in the game to get more Aristocrats or Upgrades. Don’t be afraid to forfeit the free card draw though to just take the alternate benefit of 1 point that round though. Going fishing for a specific card can often lead you to hold more cards than you’d like if you can’t afford the card you just randomly drew.
Mistress of Ceremonies – 6 Rubles and 3 Points every round – this is my favorite card in the deck. If I know I’ll be going first in the orange Aristocrat phase I make sure to save 18 Rubles just so I can grab this card. It pays off in three rounds all the while gaining you 9 important points. What’s not to like? The Judge and Controller are good too, but don’t quite have the appeal as the MC.

So with a few simple things to keep in mind you are ready to play Saint Petersburg:
– Get lots of money (green and orange) early
– Go for points (blue) later
– Upgrade to get the best of both worlds
– Hold cards to your advantage
Now, who’s up for a game.

Also, if you’ve never played and want to try to game. It is free to play against other people on Yucata. [And that’s not an advertisement of any sort. It’s just a website with a few dozen board games that the publishers have allowed online free play. It’s a great site and they’ve done a good job with the games. Just another way to get a gaming fix in if face-to-face isn’t an option.]

Inside the Box: Virgin Queen

July 9, 2012

Inside the Box is an in-depth look at the contents of a board game. It covers the quality, quantity, and aesthetic value of what is found inside the game box.

Virgin Queen (VQ) was released in May by GMT Games. I was lucky enough to get my hands on a copy recently and have been largely impressed by the value of the contents. It retails for $89, but can be purchased for much less through the usual channels. VQ is a card-driven game of war, diplomacy, science, discovery, and religion. It is a monster like its predecessor, Here I Stand (HIS), both in terms of complexity and playing time.

As with all GMT games put out in the past two years, the box is sturdy and colorful. The cover paintings, an official portrait of Queen Elizabeth I atop The Decisive Action with the Armada off Gravelines, catches the eye, as does the subtitle: The Wars of Religion.

Opening up the weighty box, you’ll find…well, a lot. Five full sheets of counters, 134 playing cards, a sturdy game board, six half sheet ruler cards, two 8.5 x 11 reference cards, four 8.5 x 11 supplementary sheets with various trackers on them, a rule book, scenario book, and ten dice. Whew. I’m familiar with HIS, but this game has got a lot more moving parts. It’s going to take me a while to figure out how to even bag and store this thing. 

A huge amount of game stuff.

All together, I would say the components are a big step up from GMT games before 2010. The mounted map is gorgeous, the cards are thick and glossy, and even the cardboard counters are thicker than they used to be (by about 33%).

Left: Counters from the first edition of HIS. Right: An equal number of counters from VQ.

One new addition in VQ is royals, who you can marry off to each other in the diplomacy phase (frankly, this is awesome and hysterical). I was interested to learn each royal has its own card instead of a cardboard chit. The front side includes game information and a portrait, while the back tells you their historical fate.

Be still, my beating heart.

Each player also gets a nice power card which explains all the actions he or she can engage in. I wish these had been a little thicker (perhaps as thick as the board?). However, they have a clean layout considering how complicated the game is.

Again, a lot going on.

I have only found three minor things to complain about with regards to the components of the game. First, there is a lot of dark text on the game board, which makes some of it hard to read. I would have preferred white text on the board instead. Second, there are a few cards in the main deck that have some pretty poor art on them. If every card was as bad, maybe it wouldn’t be so noticeable, but look at the English home card v.s. Scurvy:

Beautiful card…

…and clip art.

Last, the number of supplementary charts that you need to lay out around the game board is rather annoying. In Here I Stand, they managed to fit the turn track, VP track, New World map, New World riches table, diplomacy chart, and the Henry’s Wives table all on the main board. Almost nothing gets on the Virgin Queen main board, which leads to the marked increase in supplemental charts. You’ll need a monster of a table to fit it all on the table, that’s for sure.

The rulebook and scenario book are definitely as good at the Here I Stand ones, and again Ed Beach gets the rules right by making them procedural. For such a complex game, the rules are remarkably easy to understand. A big bonus is that both the rulebook and scenario book are in full color, which makes the examples much easier to read.

All in all, I would say this is a success in terms of its production. When this hits the table in my Church History class in March, my students are definitely going to be wandering over to check it out.

C & C: Napoleonics: Salamanca (Left Flank)

July 2, 2012

After a long hiatus during which my second child was born and my seventh year of teaching came to a close, my brother and I finally sat down on the eve of my birthday for another match up in Commands & Colors: Napoleonics. After my loss at Redinha in March, I was spoiling for a good fight and got one.  Mike took the redcoats while I took the forces of the Emperor in the Battle of Salamanca (French left). I also enlisted the help of Napoleon’s wife, Josephine, who through some zany time machine plot I won’t go into, was two months old and sleeping against my chest in a baby sling.  Here’s the layout of the map at the start:

15 Allied units v.s. 13 French units.

My initial plan was to use the two diagonal lines of hills in front of my troops to funnel the Allied troops towards me, unable to support each other, but “no plan survives contact with the enemy.” The early action took place on the French left, as I advanced some light cavalry and infantry to tangle it up with the Portuguese heavy cavalry:

What a mess!

My light troops quickly got in trouble and had to form square (I’m a little rusty!), but a few well-timed cavalry charges and volleys sent the Allies a-running:

Better luck next time, guys.

We skirmished a bit on the French right as we refreshed our hands, and then the action began again on the left in earnest. My French lights starting chewing up Portuguese infantry units, and they even killed a leader. In fact, the whole game they never took a scratch and were responsible for earning three banners!

“Apprêtez-vos armes…joue…feu!”

Again the focus shifted to the French right. I had manoeuvred line infantry and light cavalry against the right edge of the map, taking fire from the elite British light infantry. After whittling them down with artillery fire, I was able to use a classic hammer and anvil move. French light cavalry and line infantry both advanced on the British lights, forcing General Mike to decide: form square or not? He did, and while the cavalry inflicted no damage, the French column smashing into his square definitely did.

Caught between…um…a saber and a bayonet.

The end result.

With his right and left flanks battered, Mike tried to adopt a more defensive position, but it was too late. His British light cavalry got caught in between my line infantry and light cavalry on the French left, and it was all over. We finished the scenario in about an hour, with the French taking 6 banners to the British’s 1: 

The face of defeat.

After a three-month absence, we had to look up a few rules, but I was happily surprised at how much we had retained in the meantime. This scenario also reminded me that, when possible, we need to reverse roles and play the same scenario twice in succession. Then we can determine a winner by adding up the total number of banners taken.