Since my friend added yet another game to our growing list of games needing a session report after the first play, it became apparent that I needed to hammer out another one quickly. This time the focus is on Meltwater: A Game of Tactical Starvation from the delightful Hollandspiele Games. Wow, this is a game that came out of nowhere for me, as I hadn’t even known of its existence until my friend told me about it. He kept trying to lure me with the name which, admittedly, is pretty fantastic. And tactical is definitely the name to suit the game, as there is a lot of short-term planning pivoting going on in this one.
After plays of games like 13 Days: The Cuban Missile Crisis and Twilight Struggle, we were ready for the standard factions of U.S. vs U.S.S.R., and per the “norm” my friend randomly was given the Russians. After his crushing victory in Twlight Struggle, it seemed like it would be time for him to ride that momentum to another victory. The first 1/2 game we played we missed a critical trait regarding the Dead hexes and how all adjacent hexes become Dirty – it explicitly states that when talking about the Attack action, but not when discussing the Doomsday Phase. However, back in the Overview it does mention that every adjacent hex to a Dead hex is Dirty, so we missed it. Still, I think an addendum in future printings would only benefit. After that missed rule was discovered, we reset and started over for real.
And, well, I learned a few insights from that play.
Insight #1: If you fail to plan, you can plan on failing
The game might be tactical in nature, but you can still plan for the long-term. I did some really good things early in the game that I think were a strong benefit, but the real turning point came when I had too many people isolated and, ultimately, they got consumed by the overrun of Dead and Dirty hexes filling the board. I stopped having answers for anything the board, or my opponent, were doing and became completely reactionary in my efforts to stay alive longer. It is no surprise, therefore, that the game ended poorly for me even if it was “closer” than it probably should have been. You have plenty of open information in this game, and can see how the board will change at the end of your turn AND at the end of your opponent’s turn. Use that to your advantage for the entire game, not just the first 50%.
Insight #2: No Man is an Island, so Don’t Treat them as Such
This ties in strongly with the above point, but is a bit more specific. You see, the U.S. player has the distinct advantage of having 2 civilians start the game on the far western corner of the map, 3 hexes away from the nearest Neutral civilian and 4 away from the nearest Friendly and Unfriendly units. This seemed like a strong advantage at first, as they were safe from anything my opponent could do. And then the map started shrinking fast, and it became clear that they were going to get pinned in and, eventually, wiped off the map without doing anything useful ever. Far too late, I started trying to move them across the map. One of them made it, but at a high cost because during those 2-3 turns spent trying to move all of those guys out (by that point in time we had Pressganged a Neutral into our side, making it so I was trying to move 3 units and failing spectacularly) and across the map, my opponent was positioning himself for a victory by upgrading to Soldiers, killing off my guys while shrinking the map in his favor, and taking my Stockpiles. I should have cut my losses sooner, yes, but I also could have been slowly moving them across much sooner to get a stronger numbers advantage.
Insight #3: Don’t Underestimate the Usefulness of Militarize
It seemed like a complete waste. Spend all four of your actions to do ONE thing, upgrading 1-2 units to Soldiers. Except it became clear, far too late, that the Soliders are the key in the late game to controlling the board in your favor. Shoot, even early on they are useful. They make Threaten easier to accomplish, block your opponent’s attempts to Threaten, and do the same on Pressgang. We used them far too quickly for Attack, which is probably why I undervalued them since they were quickly removed so the cost of a turn to lose them again in a single action felt ridiculous. Little did I know, they would be really, really useful in the late game – even if for nothing more than being able to move through Dead hexes.
Insight #4: Be a Bully and Push People Around
Normally I wouldn’t advocate something like this, as I personally suffered from bullying most of my school years. However, the imagery is suited for this one with the use of the Threaten action. There are a lot of things you can do in Meltwater to change the position of things, but one of the most important things you can do is to be vicious in Threatening your opponent – or neutral – civilians. Not to your advantage, but rather to your opponent’s disadvantage. Especially as hexes get Dirty, start trying to overcrowd an area and fill in the hexes around it with your own units – or empty them of units. Because, as you will notice, the units cannot Flee OR Defect into an empty hex in the Starvation phase. Which means that if there is nowhere to go, units start to die. The faster you can begin to deplete their numbers, the better it will go for you because then they NEED to make Soldiers to Threaten or Pressgang, or to cluster into small areas to have large enough stacks to use those actions.
Insight #5: Wage War Over Those Stockpiles
This game is all about numbers. You will be counting time and again how many units can be supported on a hex, to make sure you don’t need to send anyone packing (or worse, your opponent chooses where to send your guy packing). Which means those Stockpiles, which you both begin with two of, are essential to control. Wresting control from your opponent is a key to putting them at a disadvantage. Unfortunately, I waged war on them far too early, when the map was still relatively open. So while there was a good time where I held 3-4 of them, my opponent could survive because there were places to spread out. Later in the game, when I was struggling with Insight #2’s problem, he reclaimed some of these and took some of mine away, putting me in a critical bind to compound my other growing list of problems. If you take it, make sure you can keep it, and redouble the efforts later in the game as that map shrinks.
Insight #6: Expand early and often
This might sound like an interesting thing, but there are two key reasons for this. First, the Doomsday spreading of Dead hexes ignores any hex with a unit on it (until it no longer can), going instead to the nearest Dirty hex that isn’t occupied. So if you have a lot of space you control, you are maintaining a lot of areas that might become Dirty, but will remain free from becoming Dead. Second, during the Starvation phase a unit cannot move out of a hex into an empty hex. I know, it sounds crazy that they can’t go where they could live, even if it is there, but that’s the way it goes. This is Antarctica, after all, and an isolated civilian fleeing to an isolated location would be as likely to starve or die of hyopthermia, or something equally cheery. So the more hexes you occupy, the more places you can shift into when needed – especially if you control those Stockpiles along important areas.
What a cheery game, right? I thoroughly enjoyed the first full play we had of the game, and it cemented Hollandspiele as a publisher I need to play more often. Since then I’ve pulled back out my copy of Charlemagne, Master of Europe (review on that coming hopefully sometime this month!) and might have placed an order for The Great Heathen Army. Not all of their games are for me – anything needing 3+ is likely a hard pass – but I will be expanding my adventures into their lineup. And eventually I’ll coerce my friend into playing his copy of this one 4 more times so I can get a full review in of Meltwater: A Game of Tactical Starvation in as well. Because who knew it could be so much fun forcing your opponent to die of starvation until you have the last man or woman standing on the map?