That Caribbean Island Euro-Game

April 30, 2014

I recently picked up a copy of Puerto Rico and (finally!) had a chance to give it a try. One of my favorite games is Cuba so I wanted to see how it stacked up and if one was really better than the other. Let’s take a closer look at each game.

A Brief Description
Puerto Rico involves producing goods – like sugar and tobacco – and then trading them in for money or shipping them for victory points. The game consists of individual player boards that represent plantations that produce the goods and hold buildings. Erecting buildings will bend the rules for the owner to give them a strategic advantage over their opponents. For example, if a player has a Warehouse, their goods won’t rot allowing them hang on to them to use in future rounds. However, to get goods or have the building effects occur, there must be a worker in the right spot to activate those spaces. Building also are worth points at the end of the game. Players carry out the various actions – like building, producing, trading and shipping – by selecting roles. Knowing when to choose each role is crucial to your overall strategy. If timed properly you can score big and prevent your opponents from doing the same.

Cuba involves producing goods – like sugar and tobacco – and then trading them in for money or shipping them for victory points. The game consists of individual player boards that represent plantations that produce the goods and hold buildings. Erecting buildings will bend the rules for the owner to give them a strategic advantage over their opponents. For example, if a player has a Warehouse, their goods won’t rot allowing them hang on to them to use in future rounds. However, to get goods or have the building effects occur, there must be a worker in the right spot to activate those spaces. Building also are worth points at the end of the game. Players carry out the various actions – like building, producing, trading and shipping – by selecting roles. Knowing when to choose each role is crucial to your overall strategy. If timed properly you can score big and prevent your opponents from doing the same.

Gaming in the Caribbean

Gaming in the Caribbean

“Wait a second…” you say. “I just read the same thing twice!”

Yes. Yes you did. The similarities between the two games are striking.

“So which one should I buy? I clearly don’t need a copy of both games on my game shelf, right?”

Well, let’s take a look at the differences.

Role Selection
In Puerto Rico, the main strategic decision to make each turn is – which role do I pick? There are 7 roles for all of the players to choose from each turn. Each player at the table will only choose one of those roles. The person that chooses the role will get to carry out that action first and get a bonus for choosing that role. The other players will also get to take the action, but without the bonus. This means a couple of things.

First, not every role will be used each turn. You need to know which will help you the most and your opponents the least. Secondly, you need to try to figure out which roles they may choose and make sure you are able to capitalize on the actions they chose as well as your own.

Cuba is quite different. Each player has a personal hand of 5 role cards to choose from. Each player will play 4 of those roles in any order they want. Timing which role to choose is still important, but you are no longer forced to take an action that you didn’t want to take this turn.

In Cuba, role selection is part of the overall strategy, but it isn’t the main mechanism that is driving the hard decisions in the game like in Puerto Rico.

In Cuba there is a deck of ship cards with 3 available to load for VP each turn. Every ship has 5 spaces to hold 3 different types of goods (2 of one type, 2 of a second and 1 of a third). The ship in the 3rd dock gives you 3VP per good placed on it. The ship in the 2nd dock gives you 2VP per good and the final ship is 1VP per good. The shipping strategy is basically to fill up the most valuable ship before your opponents so that you score more points. The ship in the 3rd port leaves each turn offering players plenty of options for shipping. Although certain buildings will allow players to turn goods into point directly so shipping isn’t even necessary for some players.

The 3 ships available in Puerto Rico just show a number of spaces on them. When a player ships goods they must place as many goods of the type they’ve chosen to a ship gaining 1VP per good. Once a ship has a good type on it, it can no longer carry any other good type. This means it is possible (and wise!) to load a ship with a good type your opponents don’t have. Preventing them from utilizing that action and from scoring points. This really is a big key to victory – if you aren’t able to ship your goods you likely won’t generate enough VP to win.

Player Boards
The plantations and building you gain in Puerto Rice go on your player board, but it makes no difference where you place them. You do need colonists on the buildings and plantations to have them activated, but it’s not too difficult to put them where they are needed.

The plantation in Cuba is a 3×4 square grid already populated with your production capabilities. To gain any resources and goods you must have a worker in the right spot. The worker only activates the squares in his row and column. So placement of the worker each round is critical. On top of that, when you add a building to your board you cover up a resource or good square with the building. And to activate those you again need your worker in the right row or column. This means placing your buildings is a tough decision during the game. Placing that worker each round will also make for interesting choices – gain more resources and goods or put him in the right spot to capitalize on the buildings. I find that this spatial puzzle mechanism that gets played during the game is what really makes Cuba interesting for me.

What Else?
The other component that sets Cuba apart is the Parliament phase. At the end of each round the role card that wasn’t used to carry out actions is used for votes here. The players are also allowed to buy votes in simultaneous secret bidding. The player with the most votes will then choose 2 of the 4 possible bills and enact them into law. These bills may change the rules slightly for each round but more importantly will change how bonus points are awarded each turn. Preparing for the possible changes is helpful, but sometimes it is important to win the vote and enact the bills that will really help you while hurting your opponents.

Cuba has multiple paths to victory points through shipping, the use of certain buildings and making sure the laws that are enacted help you. Cuba is a bit more forgiving if you don’t make the perfect play because of these options. The spatial element also adds an interesting twist that I enjoy.

Puerto Rico is less forgiving. A couple of bad plays can really take you out of the game. But it’s great when you can pull off a turn where you score big and your opponents are left with nothing to do.

Although the overall themes of the game are identical, the differences in strategy and gameplay really set them apart. And so my game shelf will contain both Puerto Rico and Cuba.

Lord of the Rings LCG: Card Draw, Deck Thinning

November 26, 2013

Having not played a CCG or LCG in a while, when I first started playing the Lord of the Rings LCG, I was stumped about deck composition. Eventually I found a few good blogs that offer strategy tips, and my rule of thumb was simple: build decks that are roughly 50% allies, 25% events, and 25% attachments. Now I stray widely from that general rule, but when I’m building a brand new deck, I usually start with those ratios.

But early on, I still found I was running into problems. For instance, I would include three copies (the maximum legal number) of a card that was really important to my strategy. However, if I didn’t draw it in my opening hand or my mulligan hand, I would be despondent, my strategy wouldn’t get off the ground, and I’d lose. How can one overcome such a problem and the accompanying (incorrect) judgement that this game is mostly luck-based? Really, two techniques come to mind:

  • Card Drawing: Utilizing abilities that let you draw more than the required one card per turn, thus allowing you to increase your hand size and increase your options.
  • Deck Thinning: Utilizing abilities that let you hunt for certain cards, draw, or discard in order to decrease the size of your deck and thus increase the chances that you will pull the cards you need later.

There are a few things I’d like to say about how to achieve success when it comes to both of the techniques. First, I  almost always include three copies of a card in my deck. If I included it in a deck in the first place, I think it’s important to have, so why decrease my chances of drawing it by including less than three copies? Second, I play with as small a deck as possible. The “tournament legal” deck in LOTR:LCG is 50 cards. If I play with 51, I can get in three copies of 17 different cards. If I play with 60 cards, I can get in 20 different cards at three copies apiece, but my chances of drawing the card  I need at the right time are drastically reduced. Third, find a way to make multiple copies of unique cards relevant. This is why I love the ally Erestor, because I can essentially use his ability to get rid of extra copies of unique cards and fuel card draw at the same time. This gives value to previously “dead” cards.

One problem I’ve seen in co-op play is players who are afraid to discard in order to cycle through their deck. They pass over King Under the Mountain or A Very Good Tale because it forces discards. I think that’s a mistake. First off, if you have no card draw, you’ll never dig through your whole deck in one game anyway. Second, even if you drew your entire deck into your hand, you’d never have enough resources or time to put everything into play. So don’t sweat the small stuff: cycle through the deck and discard a bunch in order to gain an advantage on the encounter deck.

With all this in mind, here’s a mono-Leadership Outlands deck I built recently that utilizes every bit of card draw available to that sphere:

Hirluin the Fair
(Threat = 25)

Allies (27)
Gandalf x 3 (draw three cards upon entering play)
Erestor x 3 (once per round, may discard one card from hand to draw one card)
Forlong x 3
Anfalas Herdsman x 3
Hunter of Lamedon x 3 (upon entering play, discard top card of deck. If it is Outlands, put it in hand.)
Ethir Swordsman x 3
Knights of the Swan x 3
Warrior of Lossarnach x 3
Snowbourn Scout x 3
Envoy of Pelargir x 3 (if solo) OR Errand Rider x 3 (if multiplayer)

Attachments (9)
King Under the Mountain x 3 (Exhaust attachment to draw two cards. Put one in hand, discard the other.)
Lord of Morthond x 3 (Draw a card every time a Spirit, Lore, or Tactics ally is played.)
Steward of Gondor x 3

Events (15)
A Very Good Tale x 3 (Exhaust two characters. Add up their cost, then discard the top five cards of the deck. Place two allies in play whose cost does not exceed the cost of the two exhausted allies.)
Sneak Attack x 3
Strength of Arms x 3
Valiant Sacrifice x3 (When an ally leaves play, draw two cards.)

It’s very easy to draw through this deck in 5-6 turns. I never hesitate to sneak attack Gandalf into play in order to exhaust him to fuel A Very Good Tale. (Essentially you’re paying 1 resource to gain 5 threat reduction, 4 damage on an enemy, or 3 cards + two free Outlands allies.) The first time I trotted out this deck, I played this combo in the mid-game: Sneak Attack + Gandalf (3 cards) + A Very Good Tale + 2xValiant Sacrifice once Gandalf left play. That’s seven cards drawn into hand, 3 discarded from the top of the deck, and two brand new allies in play…all for the cost of three resources and two exhausted characters. (Interestingly, that’s drawing/discarding your way through 24% of your deck!)

Erestor is also critical in the mid-game, because he lets you sluff those extra unique attachments in exchange for more card draw.

Mid-game it’s not unusual to see this deck draw 1 card in the planning phase, draw/discard with King Under the Mountain, then play an Outlands character, which triggers Lord of Morthond, which allows 1 more card draw, and then get rid of/draw a card with Erestor. (That’s digging through 10% of the deck in one round.)

So, my final note to new players: draw cards, draw cards, draw cards! You can’t do nuthin’ if you ain’t got nuthin’ in your hand.

Infiltration: A Few Zettabytes Later

February 6, 2013

Gabriel at work.

Gabriel finally found the motherload – Cyber Solutions, Inc sever room. He jacked in and started extracting zettabyte after zettabyte of data files, knowing Hugo was right behind him. He pulled up an augmented reality screen during the download and checked the alarm level. Still at three, he thought, although the security will be here soon. Gabriel scratched at his shoulder where his cybernetics attached to flesh. Something wasn’t right, Hugo should have burst through the door by now and started his own download. He pulled up surveillance feed of the facility. He found Mr. White had dispatched James Harris, Cyber Solutions in-house security, with a well placed shot from his flechette pistol but was wounded and slowly making his way to the exit. Gabriel continued scanning, the itch getting stronger. There was Hugo, in the shipping yard, he had accessed a terminal and was talking to an AI secretary. Yes, Hugo, thought Gabriel, get her to turn down the alarm and we’ll clean this place out! The alarm monitor spiked and raced up to five. “Hugo, you jerk!” Gabriel shouted. He should have know he’d be double crossed.

Infiltration is semi-cooperative game of a cyberpunk styled cooperate heist. Having a fondness for books like Neuromancer and Snow Crash and games like Shadowrun or Syndicate, Infiltration was a must buy for me. While the game is fun, has a strong narrative, and builds tension nicely, it isn’t without its faults. Most games end far to early. The game is divided into two “floors” and most of the second floor often not seen as the proximity dial (the timer for when the game ends) advances faster than the operative can move through the building. And items, while, interesting often go unused because they are too situational.

It is often all to easy to point out the faults of a good game. When everything else stands out as fun, the lees fun parts become more apparent. Fortunately, Infiltration lends itself to variants very easily and even lists a number of them in the rulebook. Here’s what I’ve found makes the game more fun:

  • Use the “Extract” cards rather than the download cards, this makes the player spread out a little more and increase the risk/reward factor.
  • Consider starting the alarm timer at -1 for the traditional 2 floor layout to let operatives get deeper into the facility.
  • Use 6 items rather than 4. This give people more opportunities to use their items and provide greater variety in actions taken.
  • Try a 4 x 4 grid layout where there top two rows are floor 2 and the bottom two rows floor 1. Advance lets you go forward or right. Retreat goes back or left. Adjacent means only those cards in the same row.

Give them a try and let me know what you think. I’ll keep experimenting too.

Is Needing to Know the Deck Good or Bad?

June 17, 2012

[Note: Obviously I’ve been away for a while. My wife and I welcomed our second child into the world on April 4. Since then, gaming has been a little sparse!]


I committed a major error recently in my online Twilight Struggle game with Rick, and it got me thinking about card-driven games in which knowing exactly what’s in the deck is a requirement for even mediocre play. I call these games “deck knowledge dependent,” and since I’m coining a phrase, let’s offer a definition.

Deck Knowledge Dependent: A game in which knowledge of particular cards, card combinations, or card/rule interactions is necessary to even achieve a mediocre level of proficiency in friendly play.

Ex: “I tried to teach my brother Twilight Struggle, but he’s a casual gamer, and it’s just too much of a deck knowledge dependent game for him.”

A good example of a deck knowledge dependent game is, in fact, Twilight Struggle. There are many, many cards that one simply must know about in order to compete. This makes the game rather hard to teach, because while the rules are simple, there is a rather lengthy checklist of things to “keep in mind.” For example, in the Early War a U.S. player has to be aware of the effects of Blockade, Korean War,  Nasser, and DeGaulle Leads France or risk losing a key battlegrounds in Europe and Asia through suboptimal card play.

However, I wouldn’t consider a game like Wilderness War to be very deck knowledge dependent. Sure there are a couple of “gotcha” cards like Ambush! and Smallpox, but you usually can’t do much to defend against them anyway, so you just take your lumps and a single play of either card isn’t likely to cause one to lose the game.

I have found over the years that I have very little patience with deck knowledge dependent games unless I really enjoy the theme. I simply love learning the ins and outs of the Cold War through vacations, books, movies, and games, and so I am willing to put up with the complexities of Twilight Struggle, but if I needed that much “deck knowledge” in a game where the theme didn’t interest me at all, I don’t think I’d play it very regularly.

What about you? Do you enjoy games where mastery of particular cards, card combinations, or card/rule interactions is a huge part of playing? Or do you prefer to stay away from them? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the combox.

Manoeuvre with Chess Clocks!

January 12, 2012

On the first day of the new year, Sara and I sat down to play Maneouvre. After losing to her on December 23, I was out for revenge and we chose the same sides; she played the Americans and I played the Spanish. But there was a twist on our game this time: We used a chess clock. Here are the rules we used:

  • 25 minutes allotted to each player
  • Pauses are allowed for rules clarification
  • Your timer will run during your entire turn (including resolving battles, etc.)
  • The penalty for going over your allotted time is 1 “nightfall point” for additional 30 seconds you need
  • Be gentlemanly/ladylike: no hemming and hawing during your opponent’s turn to run down his/her time

Sara was a real sport about trying this out, as she usually takes much longer than I do during her turns. By the time we finished, however, she stated that it was a lot of fun and she’d try it again. (I think winning 8 to 7 in nightfall may have had something to do with this!) While neither of us felt that the addition of the clock had a huge effect on the game, knowing that the clock was running did put a bit of pressure on each of us. It also made this very abstract game feel just a little bit more like a war game. I will admit I did think, “Gosh, I need to get my objectives quick…I’m running out of time.” The clock also meant that each of us had to use the other person’s turn wisely, planning out discards, potential moves, etc.

This addition of the chess clock may have been a bit redundant, especially when you consider that the rules about deck reshuffling and the endgame already act as a time constraint of sorts. At the same time, I do believe that in friendly competition, it might provide a bit of added excitement.

(Note: There are many chess clock apps available for smart phones and laptops. We used this site.)

Game does not come with Wifey, baby bump, laptop, or fireplace.

We just used a simple online chess clock application.

Four minutes into our game.

I lost at nightfall, 7 to 8.

Dirty Hippy Win Criteria Makes Russ Rage

September 30, 2011

A while back, I had the pleasure of learning a new game, Shadow Hunters. Shadow Hunters is a bit like Werewolf or Mafia in that the players are out to determine who is who and eliminate their opponents. Stacked on top of that are items and special powers and a theme that’s a bit like Witch Hunter Robin meest Arkham Horror meets a number of anime tropes. I mean, what’s not to like about playing a horror of the night killing off the forces of light and neutrality?

Easy answer. Win criteria that results in just about everyone at the table winning, that’s what! At a seven player game, we had four people win. Then in the follow up game, we had five people win. People were flipping over their character cards, looking at their win criteria, checking the board, and then announcing, “I win too!”

What are we, a bunch of dirty hippies that need to have everyone win? We can just ride the coat tails of others to success? What’s next, games that give me a participation trophy for “doing my best?” Bah, count me out. I play King of the Hill, not Committee of the Hill.

I want competition in my board games. When playing Twilight Struggle, I want the Soviet player to announce his play of “We Will Bury You” with conviction. In Here I Stand, strained voices and beads of sweat means you’re playing it right. Shaking your fist at attack helicopters as they chew up your tanks in World at War, drives you beat your opponent next time.

The big problem is that when everyone wins, no one wins. There are lessons to be learned in loss and no pride to be gained in victory.

Commands and Colors: Napoleonics—The Best C&C Game Yet?

September 25, 2011

(Folks, let me open by stating emphatically this is not a review. We don’t do reviews at Margin of Victory. Rather, this is a simple explanation of why I believe Napoleonics to be the best Commands & Colors game yet published.)

I’ve only played five games of Commands & Colors: Napoleonics. And yet already I know it to be a more interesting game than its cousin, Commands & Colors: Ancients, which I played the heck out of between 2005-2008.

The same card-driven mechanic is in play here, as are the left, center, and right divisions of the battlefield. Light, medium, and heavy units are now infantry, cavalry, and artillery units (all of which have some weaker and stronger versions). So on the surface, it’s basically the same game, just with a few tweaks. What’s amazing is that Richard Borg gave players more choices in Napoleonics without making the game much more complicated.

Look familiar to some other games you've played?

The three important additions are Napoleonic-era tactical decisions:

Cavalry Retire and Reform: In the face of an infantry melee attack, cavalry may evade. This works exactly the same as evasion in Ancients, it’s just that only cavalry get this option now.

Form Square: In the face of a cavalry melee attack, infantry may assume a square formation. The defending player must have a random card taken from his hand, which is then placed out of play until his unit resumes its usual formation. Attacking cavalry may only attack with one die, regardless of other benefits. The infantry battles back with one die, but if they score a retreat result on the enemy, the cavalry must move one hex away from the square (a “bounce flag”). This formation is great if your infantry get cut off and are on their own. It’s a very tough choice if they are facing both enemy cavalry and infantry, as their ability to defend themselves against the infantry is vastly reduced.

Combined Arms Attack: While attacking, you may order one cavalry/infantry AND one artillery unit to attack at the same time. You roll the normal melee dice for the cavalry or infantry unit, but you also get to add the ranged combat dice of the artillery unit in the same roll. Yup, you might be rolling 8 dice in a massive assault.

On my first read through of the rules, I didn’t think these tactics would change the flow of the game much. But about halfway through my first game with General Rick of the allied army, it was clear they were going to matter quite a bit.

In the Rolica (first position) scenario, a unit of my French light infantry found itself way out ahead of the rest of my army. Having taken earlier losses, they were at half strength and facing British heavy cavalry and line infantry. Rick ordered both units and chose his cavalry to attack first. I formed square, knowing I would likely survive the attack but also realizing that my troops would get cut to ribbons by the line infantry attack a moment later. However, if I had not formed square, his cavalry likely would have destroyed my unit, received a bonus move, and received a bonus attack against another unit. So while I lost the unit to the second attack, I denied him a breakthrough.

The game ended when General Rick executed a perfect combined arms attack. Using cards that allowed his units to move extra hexes, he arranged it so some British artillery was on a hill, firing directly down on my troops (whoops!). Then he brought some line infantry up, ordered both units, and crushed my line in a devastating combined arms attack. He rolled 8 dice in one mighty attack (4 for the line infantry + 4 for the artillery firing at point blank range). Needless to say, this caused one of my full-strength units to magically transform from neat rows of blue-coated musketeers to a pile of corpses and, alas, my French lost the battle.

I enjoyed Ancients, but I like Napoleonics even more. I feel like I have more tactical decisions to make, and thus more control over the battle. Once I factor in the varied landscape in each scenario (no more featureless plains like in Ancients) and the specialized units (rifle infantry! horse artillery! cuirassiers! oh my!), I think I’ll be playing this game for a long time to come.

"Uh oh. Form square? Stay in line? Either way, I think we're screwed, guys."

World at War: Blood and Bridges — Air Asset Imbalance?

March 22, 2011

Russ and I are both big fans of Mark Walker’s World at War series of games. We love us some Cold War gone hot, modern tanks rolling through the countryside of Western Europe, anti-tank missiles screaming down range, artillery strikes…it’s all good. We also like how World at War mimics the “organized chaos” of modern warfare (check out a great post on it here). But recently I thought I had found one sticking point, one thing that lessened my enjoyment of this series of games a bit. And that was the proliferation of air power in Blood and Bridges scenarios, especially when compared with the paucity of anti-aircraft weapons.

Playing the scenario “Separation,” I wondered how the Germans could win given their one SAM weapon v.s. two Hind helicopters and a Soviet airstrike. I wondered the same thing again when one blunder on Russ’s part (moving a self-propelled anti-aircraft unit so it was “ops complete” when my airstrike arrived on the scene) in “Calm Before the Storm” led to the total obliteration of two Chieftain platoons and their headquarters unit.

Burn, baby, burn!

After tallying up the aircraft and anti-aircraft assets used in the scenarios, it comes out pretty evenly: 27 v.s. 26. However, we must keep in mind that the aircraft are vastly more powerful than the anti-aircraft assets, with helicopters and airstrikes obliterating enemy targets relatively easily and surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) missing quite often, especially if the other player is careful to keep his valuable aircraft out of the way.

In most scenarios (but not all), the power of aircraft is mitigated somewhat by the inclusion of rules regarding missile depletion in helicopters. Also, some scenarios include the possibility of an air cover event, which allows a player to pounce on an enemy airstrike or helicopter when he chooses. However, these are determined randomly, as opposed to on board anti-aircraft assets like SAMs and self-propelled flak guns. Though I thoroughly enjoy the organized chaos of the World at War series, I think powerful helicopters and airstrikes aren’t always properly balanced out by anti-aircraft assets in scenarios like “Separation.”

Mind you, I’m not calling for fewer aircraft, but rather more SAMs and flak guns to oppose them! This will mean that players will feel less like they are at the mercy of the dice, praying for missile depletion or air cover, and more in control as they strategically place SAM teams and flak guns in woods, etc. As Russ and I play the series more, I’ll look for opportunities to tweak scenarios that seem a little off balance.

Yup. More missiles for our poor grunts.

So, have you seen an imbalance when it comes to aircraft v.s. anti-aircraft assets? What have you done to correct this? Or do you feel this perceived imbalance fades when playing point-based victory conditions? (Heck, those helicopters are worth quite a few points!)

Not All Card Driven War Games Are Created Equal

November 8, 2010

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that not all Card Driven War Games are created equal, that they are endowed by their Designer with certain unalienable Mechanics, that among these are Operations, Events and the pursuit of Victory Points. — That to secure these mechanics, Games are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the players, — That whenever any Form of Game becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the Players to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Games , laying their foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Hand Management and Victory.

Whew! Working board games into the Declaration of Independence was getting a little tough there. But did you like the part about “Operations, Events and the pursuit of Victory Points”? I’m quite fond of that one.

I’ve been spending a lot of time pondering Washington’s War and whether I really like it as a game. Or if I just keep playing it and saying to myself, “That was fun,” it will one day come true.

Card-driven war games seem to fall into two camps with card design. In one camp is the likes of Washington’s War and Wilderness Wars (despite overwhelming evidence, you do not need to have two words starting with W in your title to fall into this camp). In the other are the likes of Twilight Struggle and Here I Stand. In the former, card are either event cards or operations cards, we’ll call these isolated cards. In the latter, cards are both event cards and operations cards, we’ll call these combination cards.

Decks made of isolated cards usually consist of half or more operations cards. The idea being that in any given hand a player  will have enough operations cards to do something. So, even the player gets poor events or the opponents events, the turn won’t be fruitless. However, experience has shown otherwise. And memory seems to latch on to the really bad hands even if they are a small minority of all hands played.

Contrasted with combination cards, even bad hands can be managed or turned out good. Twilight Struggle uses this idea to its fullest. Opponent events must occur, but you get the operations points to manage the situation before or after the event, your choice. Cards with your event may be played for the event or the operations points.

From my play experience, I favor games with combination cards over isolated cards. I prefer the decision making and hand management that comes from combination cards. Every hand, no matter how bad, seems playable. Every hand can build on the last to create a strategy for winning. Isolated cards feel like they take that decision making power away from me. Too much is dictated on the specific hand I am dealt and strategy seems like it doesn’t last much beyond a single hand of cards.

So, will I ever like Washington’s War? I think so. I just need to adjust my play style to account for isolated cards. But, it won’t be knocking Twilight Struggle from it’s throne. And knowing that not all card driven war games are create equal will help when buying future board games.

Disagree? Like isolated cards better? Let me hear about it in the comments.

Edit: It has been pointed out to me that Wilderness War may not fit in the first camp. Until I can verify my original statement, it has been struck out.

Mechanics Mirror Reality in Wilderness War

April 13, 2010

Few games mimic the intricacies of a given conflict as well as Volko Ruhnke’s Wilderness War (2001). The designer uses several simple mechanics to good effect, elegantly showing the frustration players’ historical counterparts experienced in the French and Indian War.

Rivers as Highways: In early colonial America, thick forests and difficult mountain ranges necessitated the use of waterways as roads. Ruhnke emphasizes this by stating that units may move up to nine spaces via rivers, as opposed to the usual four by land. He even incorporates portages, allowing troops to move between rivers. Players quickly find themselves constructing fortifications at the confluence of two or more rivers to control these liquid highways.

A New Form of Warfare: The geographical and political circumstances of the French and Indian War ushered in a new era of warfare that confounded commanders who were stuck in their European ways. Wilderness War utilizes two types of troops, “drilled” and “auxiliary.” Drilled units need to construct fortifications to stay in supply, and suffer penalties when fighting in the wilderness without friendly auxiliaries–light, non-traditional fighters, including Indians, rangers, and French fur trappers.

Dilatory Generals: In this conflict, the British were plagued early on with slow-witted commanders who were unable to adapt to the new modes of warfare mentioned above. This is clearly mirrored in the game, as each general is assigned an activation rating. A higher rating requires players to play a high value card to activate him and his force. I’ve often sat staring at the board, gnashing my teeth as General Loudon and Abercrombie sit snug in their forts, afraid to march into the wild and take the fight to the enemy. No doubt British Primer Minister William Pitt felt the same when reading dispatches from the colonies.

Shifting Alliances and Unpredictable Events: Ruhnke also does an excellent job mixing on map realities with events on cards. For example, both sides’ Indian allies desired easy access to European goods. Thus, if I want an Iroquois Alliance (card #28), I’d better have my troops build a stockade/trading post near their villages! Likewise, if I want to Ambush (cards #11-12) my opponent, I need to have a greater number of auxiliaries than he does. Players find themselves working to maintain control of certain on-map elements to they can access card events later on in the game.

War is Hell: As I stated earlier, the French and Indian War was truly a new kind of conflict, which surprised its European participants with its unpredictability and brutality. This is also reflected in the design. Cards such as Ambush, Massacre, and Coehorns & Howitzers are powerful but rare. When they are used against me, I am surprised, but I never feel “robbed.” Likewise, leader loss is pretty high compared to most other war games, but again, this is in keeping with the historical realities of the war.

Montcalm was one of many generals who met his fate on the battlefield.

In short, these few elegant design choices serve to immerse players in the conflict in a way few other games do. When I’m playing Wilderness War, I don’t feel like a board game player, but a general, tired, bruised, and dirty, urging my motley forces through the forest to victory.