One-Player Only · Review for One · Wargame Garrison

Review for One: Field Commander: Alexander

Thank you for checking review #128 by Cardboard Clash. My aim is to focus on reviewing board games and how they play for two people and, on occasion, how they play for one person. Because my wife is my primary gaming partner, a lot of consideration goes into finding those games that play well with 2 players, and we typically prefer to find those games that do not require a variant (official or otherwise) in order to play it with just the two of us.

***Note: A copy of this game was provided in exchange for an honest review.

An Overview of Field Commander: Alexander

Field Commander: Alexander is a wargame designed by Dan Verssen that is published by Dan Verssen Games (DVG). The box states it plays 1 player and has a playtime of 90 minutes with a weight rating of 2.31.

Description from the publisher:

You take on the role of Alexander the Great in his world-conquering quest to extend the Macedonian empire and achieve personal glory.

When playing the game, you are placed in Alexander’s footsteps when he comes of age in 338 BC, just before the battle of Chaeronea. From that point on, you get to decide where to travel, when to battle, when to negotiate, and when to seek out divine prophesies to guide your actions.

You are supplied with soldiers and advisers to help you navigate the dangers of the battlefield and the negotiating table. These include Infantry, Archers, Phalanxes, Cavalry, Advisers, Scholars, Courtesans, and Spies. You will craftily combine these resources with your own plans to achieve victory, and glorification. And if you do well, you will be remembered as one of the greatest leaders ever to walk the earth.

The life of Alexander is divided into several campaigns, each spanning several years. During each campaign, you are given goals, but how you achieve those goals is up to you. Do you enter into battle? Or negotiate? How strong are you? How strong are they? What can you gain? These are all decisions you get to make, and must make well, if you are to live up to the immortal standards set before you.

The campaigns can either be played stand alone, or linked to play through his entire life. When played as one on-going life, the outcome of one campaign affects your starting situation in the next campaign.

My Thoughts

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 I love the idea of having a string of battlefields to play through, each representing a different timeline in the career of a historical figure. The sheer number of brilliant field commanders in history opens this system up to be able to deal with a broad range of history, and you can see this already with the release of a game in Ancient battle (Alexander), Napoleonics (Napoleon), and WWII (Rommel). Having a different map for each battle within the box, each containing its own quite unique setup, win condition, and obstacles to overcome means you can have a lot of variety across several games, and that is definitely the case here with Field Commander: Alexander.

 I am always a fan of player aids, and I like the combination of having the relevant information present on both the map (unique setup instructions along with the turn structure) and the score sheet (which doubles as the place for your army, battles to occur, and more). The less I need to open the rulebook, the better the game experience. I wish the prophecy info wasn’t something I need to cross-check in the rulebook, but since you are looking at only 1-2 of them per map they aren’t that terrible to deal with.

 Speaking of the rulebook, it was done really well. It has good visual examples and a nice layout. It is presented in a way that makes it great for those not as accustomed to wargaming, as I was able to dive in and grasp the game with minimal issue. The visuals, especially, are helpful here in getting a new player up and playing in a short amount of time. The most confusing thing comes with the Cavalry units, as the have the same battle value printed on them twice (representing if they hit, it is always dealing 2 hits instead of 1) and it isn’t explained as well in the rules for them, but there’s enough to make the correct connection.

 While I wish they offered a little more, the battle system here is extremely simple to grasp and flows well. There are a few nuances to remember, such as cavalry only attacking every-other turn and Phalanx units getting to attack multiple times if they hit, but for the most part you can line up the units and start rolling. As the player, it makes you feel in power to be able to allocate hits on both sides of the battle as you see fit. Faster units attack first, and same speed units attack at the same time, meaning you can make decisions that impact units still to attack for the round. A better field deployment, where formation mattered, would have been nice but this method keeps the game system approachable for new players and interesting enough for seasoned veterans.

 Going with the above, I enjoy that the unit types are different enough to provide strong merit to considering them each individually, as they provide a benefit “unique” to them. Archers and Light Cavalry are fast to act, but have a lower hit ratio (33%). Heavy Cavalry have a better hit ratio (50%) but cavalry units (Light or Heavy) only attack every-other round which offsets their stronger 2-hit attacks when they do connect. Infantry are unremarkable in speed and strength, but can take more hits than the Archer or Peltist (the latter of which is the one unit I find least useful). The Phalanx unit is really slow, but has a strong hit chance and can do multiple attacks in a round if they continue to hit. The variety of units are great and let you customize your team.

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 Let’s talk about the glorification system for Alexander. Essentially he starts off as a really, really weak unit in your army. With every completed prophecy along the way, he gains Glorification, which can let him “level up” to the next higher version of his unit (I think there are 8) which is going to increase his speed, his base attack, or his double-hit chance. And that aspect I really like. What I dislike is the battle where an opposing leader is involved. Alexander can either attack the regular army units, or he can attack their leader. If he attacks the army, their leader also attacks your army. As soon as Alexander attacks the leader, from that point on those two leaders only attack each other. Kill the leader and you auto-win the battle. But every time Alexander gets hit, he drops 2 Glorficiation levels. That is a HUGE penalty, meaning there’s rarely a strong incentive to choose to attack the leader – especially in battles where they have the Battle Plan that ignores the first hit on the leader – making it so you can’t even gamble to try and one-shot the leader (and later maps make it so that Battle Plan is always present in the leader battles). If it was a little easier to gain those levels, or if you lost fewer per hit, the motivation might be there to attack that leader and hope to end things early.

 The most “interesting” battle in terms of potential also turned out to be a dud in my playthrough of it. The siege of Tyr is full of historical flavor, and is unique because you can pay to manipulate several tracks to try and control the enemy resources, increase your own resources, and try to destroy the walls enough to break in and conquer the city. Unfortunately, what this amounts to is 6-8 rounds of standing in the same location on the map, making decisions on how to spend your gained gold this time and hoping the dice don’t move you too far backward on your progress at the beginning of the next round. It never really felt like a dynamic siege, but rather a waiting game to see what would break first.

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 The difficulty is something I want to discuss in brief here (as I go on more about it in the Final Thoughts). The first two maps felt extremely easy, lacking challenge as I powered through the countryside and took down the opposition with minimal loss to my own forces. The third map came into play and, rather than providing a challenge, simply forced me to sit and wait longer amounts of time to make forward progress – but it was never challenging, either. The last map…let’s just say it is extremely unfair, although it has forced me to evaluate the value in retreating from battle, purchasing Insights with my Glory, and more. The one thing preventing this from being a  point is that every map has optional changes to increase the challenge at the reward for more VP awarded at the end. And the more I think about it, the more I like that approach because you can have the game “grow” with your skill.

 I’m not a fan of roll-and-move games, and I am less of a fan of the roll-to-move concept. You roll and compare the result with the size of your army. If you roll lower, you have to pay gold equal to the difference in order to move. If you roll higher, you take hits on your army equal to the difference. If you roll exact, you can move with no downside. That means there is a 16.6% chance of moving without penalty. Yes, you can voluntarily lose units after the roll to decrease the cost in gold to move, but most units will cost more than 1 Gold to recruit back into your army. And taking hits are worse, as it costs 2 gold to get a unit back to full health. The only saving grace here is that you can choose, after seeing the roll, to not move and end that portion of your turn. This is the engine that determines how far and fast you can conquer the map and, tied in with that, how many points you earn at the end of the map. My 2-turn victory conquest on the 2nd map? Almost every move roll was perfect, and the ones that weren’t were under by a single pip. My miserable experience on the 4th map? See more about that below…

 This is another thing covered more down below, but the game is extremely linear in progression. The location of enemy forces never changes, nor does your objective (conquer all key areas) change – and that’s fine. But so many other aspects of the game either felt like there was no need to change my approach (why fix what isn’t broken and already feels like the best choice to make?) or that it would all come down to sheer luck of a d6 roll. Maybe I was just spoiled early from two other brilliant solitaire wargames (Agricola, Master of Britain and Charlemagne, Master of Europe), but so much of the game feels like it is on autopilot and I’m just along to decide how to allocate damage in battle.

Final Thoughts

This review was ready to look quite different after playing the first three scenarios of the campaign. I was ready to join others in proclaiming this game far too easy, at least without the addition of extra challenges unique to each map, as every game played proved to be minimal in challenge. I had come off the second campaign map with a strong victory in two rounds of play, and the third required a lot of just idling in Old Tyre until that nut could be cracked and then breaking through afterwards. The lack of challenge had been a little frustrating – I always prefer a challenging solitaire game experience over a cakewalk. But I couldn’t stop without seeing the final series of battles for the end of the campaign.

And boy, what a kick in the pants that map turned out to be.

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But there’s still an issue here. The difficulty spike was more from the increasing mass of an army placed in your path at the start. Even with the -3 Enemy Orders from my advisor, they still drew EIGHT orders. My army of six was outnumbered 2:1 and I did a soft reset on the battle three times before finally weathering the obscene number of die rolls enough to take a few of the enemies out and retreat from the battle, allowing me to replenish and finally break through the enemy force. Prior to that last attempt, every single battle ended Round 1 with just a reduced Alexander remaining, and with only a single loss on the enemy side. The dice were NOT my friend that morning. I figured from here it would be smooth sailing, as I would be able to sweep up north and take down a few strongholds to replenish the coffers but, alas, another string of terrible luck left me bereft of gold two spaces from any battle spot. Several straight rolls of 1-2 and I did another soft reset to the end of the battle, keeping the needed Raze intact (because the funds were needed to recover) but also reserving what I hoped was enough to travel through the desert. No luck, I got stopped at the same exact point without funds and with the same ridiculous run of low rolls – to be honest, I rolled that die another half dozen times in frustration and never saw anything higher than a 3. So I “allowed” myself a free move each turn rather than a reset again to simply move. And, well, money remained an issue. I was locked into a cycle of frustration, because it felt like random factors, sheer numbers in the opposing forces, and diminished return on money were grinding the game to a halt rather than poor play on my end. It stopped being fun in any sense of the word. It wasn’t a challenge. I wasn’t being expected to discover some clever way to circumvent things and find success, but rather battle against improbable odds.

And yes, history. I get that and I don’t hold a grudge against the game for trying to make it a tough map to overcome. But at the same time I want to feel like there’s a way I can do better, apart from “roll better”, and I couldn’t see it as possible, unless I knew to spend my Glory and Gold better at the end of the previous scenario in the campaign and, well, how could I know that going in the first time? The next campaign, perhaps, I could make different decisions leading into that game but not this time.

I know it sounds like I am venting out frustration here, and maybe part of me is doing just that. But I also want to make sure it comes across clearly: the game goes from super easy in the first two maps, to being a “battle of attrition” in the third map as you stall for turn after turn waiting to break the walls, to being a completely hopeless affair in the final act. And, ultimately, my biggest disappointment in the game overall is that it feels mostly like it is “on rails”. The map has set army sizes that appear in set locations, and your goal is to conquer all of those locations as quickly as possible (and then depending on die rolls, your location, and Operation draws they might get bigger). Battles are “line up” both sides by speed and like speeds attack simultaneously. But my Archer way over here in the line can hit, or be hit by, anyone else in the line on the opposing side. Sure, I get to at least determine who takes hits (both enemy and friendly units), but I don’t have to agonize over how to deploy my units to minimize risk. Even the Battle Tactics I employ feel like there’s little choice required: regaining a force after battle is essential to save Gold, canceling a hit is equally essential, and assuming I have Cavalry the tactic allowing them to not wait to attack again (up to 6 times) is the other must-use to make the battles go well. The maps were relatively linear, with a clear progression from the start to the end. Even my force never really seemed to need to change often: a Siege Engine to minimize Wall frustration once those became a factor, an Archer to fire early, a Light Cavalry to strike early as well, a Heavy Cavalry to deal big damage, Alexander, and a Phalanx for the multi-hit opportunity. Advisors? The one who reduces Battle Plans for the enemy by 3 and the one who allows you to do multiple purchases at the end of a Round to get both a City and units back into your force.

There are decisions in the game but, looking back, it felt like there were rarely good reasons to do something different. The good news is that, for three of the plays, I didn’t notice and greatly enjoyed the gameplay in spite of its linear path – enough that I plan to revisit the campaign with a difficulty+ attempt through the first three maps and to work to set myself up better for the fourth map (which will NOT get any added benefit). The fact that I am wanting to revisit it again is a testament to how much I did enjoy the game until that final play, where I even texted a friend of mine with a knee jerk reaction that was extremely negative reflecting my bitterness over that final map. But I like challenges and I enjoyed this game more than the level of frustration experienced at the end, and so it’ll remain a staple to revisit when I am ready to string together another four plays – ideally across an entire afternoon – and see what else this game might have to offer.

And so while Field Commander: Alexander isn’t my favorite solitaire wargame to pull out and play, it definitely was worth exploring and is one I intend to revisit again when I’ve had time to let the scars heal from that last beatdown. And if DVG releases another Field Commander title in the Ancient, Medieval, or Renaissance timeframe you bet I’ll be lining up to check it out because, in spite of my aggravation with parts of the game system, I did enjoy the experience as a whole enough to want to try more.

One-Player Only · Review for One · Solo Gaming · Wargame Garrison

Review for One: Charlemagne, Master of Europe

Thank you for checking review #127 by Cardboard Clash. My aim is to focus on reviewing board games and how they play for two people and, on occasion, how they play for one person. Because my wife is my primary gaming partner, a lot of consideration goes into finding those games that play well with 2 players, and we typically prefer to find those games that do not require a variant (official or otherwise) in order to play it with just the two of us.

***Note: A copy of this game was provided AGES ago in exchange for an honest review. More on the delay can be found in the Final Thoughts section.

An Overview of Charlemagne, Master of Europe

Charlemagne, Master of Europe is a board game designed by Tom Russell that is published by Hollandspiele. The box states it plays 1 player and has a playtime of 180 minutes.

Description from the publisher:

At the age of twenty-nine, Charles I became sole ruler of the Frankish Empire. What he did with that power over the course of the next forty-plus years is the stuff of legend. His unparalleled achievements in warfare, diplomacy, administration, and culture led to the sobriquet Carolus Magnus: Charles the Great: Charlemagne, King of the Franks and of the Lombards, and Emperor of the Romans.

In this solitaire strategy game, you assume the Frankish throne, and seek to duplicate – or exceed – Charlemagne’s singular genius, while hopefully avoiding some of his mistakes, such as the famous defeat at Roncevaux (immortalized in the Song of Roland). As you conquer new territory and incorporate it into your empire, you’ll need to contend with rebels and palace intriguers. Building public works and patronizing the Carolingian Renaissance will increase your prestige and wealth. Along the way you’ll need to win the support of the papacy, buy off Viking marauders, convert the pagans in Saxony, contend with incursions from Al-Andalus, build a powerful army, and maintain detente with the Byzantine Empire.

Gamers who are familiar with the game Agricola, Master of Britain will find many similarities between it and Charlemagne: Master of Europe, though this is a longer and more complex game, with its own nuances. The core mechanism of cup adjustments is of course alive and well. Chits representing enemy units reside in one of three cups representing how they feel about your rule: Friendly, Unfriendly, or Hostile. Chits are drawn from the hostile cup and placed on the map, manifesting themselves as overt challenges to your rule. Every action you take will subtly change their stance, blindly moving chits from one cup to another.

My Thoughts

 This game is epic. I mean massively huge in feel. Four times the size map from Agricola, Master of Britain, and so many other things to balance apart from controlling the spread of forces which, as you might imagine, is a bit more difficult with the larger map. Thankfully you get Marquis folks, who can help stamp out the tribes with less effectiveness and who can someday aspire to have roads built through their part of the map. There are so many little levers to see in action here, and it makes the game feel massive, impressive, and wonderful. And, well, potentially overwhelming. But believe me, friends, when I tell you it is absolutely worth blundering through.

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 Just like in Agricola, Master of Britain, this one has a nice ramping up of things to teach you some of the things to watch for: army strength, VP total, money, etc. Each round you need a little more, meaning you need to continually be making forward progress. And paying attention to the things that increase your wealth-making and VP-making potential. And keep an eye on how many forces you are actually losing, because at some point in time you’re going to need to be buying more replacement troops and promoting troops beyond the 1 per round if you want to keep up.

 Which is where the best part about this game comes in: there is only one way to win, but half a dozen ways to lose the game. This will probably drive as many people away as it draws in, but I am well documented as a person who really loves a solo game with a challenging experience. I don’t usually enjoy the easy win games that are “for the experience” – there are exceptions, but in general I want to feel like I earned it. The downside here? You could literally lose at the end of the 10th round unexpectedly through a chain of events unraveling your cushion. More on that later. And those 10 Rounds? Yeah, it took several hours to get there…but it was 100% enjoyable the entire way, even in the bitterness of defeat.

 While everything else got bigger and more inflated, the combat system here got simplified to smaller battles that follow the same flow, just fewer units overall but at the same time more tactical decisions, such as two wings of combat and how your Scara have a strong advantage during the first round of attacking. Even after the battle, deciding which unit on each half should get promoted, keeping in mind that you’ll get a VP but also lose that strong Level 4 unit if you make that final bump…so much to enjoy here.

 I absolutely love the chit pull system employed, and how every action you take leads to reactions in the cups and the deployment of more forces. Most of the time you feel like you are treading water, trying to keep one or two areas under control and then swooping up to deal with the heathen armies as they get out of control or, more likely, when you want some cash for churches and roads. I never feel like I am fully in control of the board state in the game, and only rarely do I feel like things are spiraling out of control. Do I sometimes suffer from a terrible pull or two in a row? Sure, that can and will happen. But it isn’t the norm.

 Knowing that a single round can be the difference between winning and losing provides an insane amount of tension for the player in the game. The closest I came has been losing via VP in Turn 10. That game I had a good cushion all game on VP, even racked up 5 EVP early on. Turn 9 I lost points due to Army Strength, which that was as much on me as the bad losses I took in battles that round. Next round? Three actions, four Byzantine pulls costing me 6, 7, 8, and then 9 VP. Next action? End of round. Oof. Even with the EVP paid out, I was 2 points short of the threshold when I had been at the 11th round goal before that army strength loss. I couldn’t have prevented it. The turn ended by the time I got to where I could start clearing off leaders. Yet earlier in the game, I had a fun round of tension where I was trying to weigh between waiting in Rome to get crowned or going to deal with the Moor threat. And boy, was it nerve-wracking pulling Hostile Reactions knowing that one more Moor would end it…

 This game goes from feeling like you have all the time in the world to scrambling to keep up. The first four rounds, before a 3rd End Turn chit is added to the cup, can literally take until the entire Hostile cup is empty. In my experience, at least one of those turns will come close to that point, and it can seem like you are floundering about, trying to come up with meaningful things to do that aren’t moving you backwards (like losing forces in battle). Once you finish the 8th turn, now there are four of those chits in there and getting two pulled can happen WAY sooner than you want. Again, speaking from experience here. I enjoy the fluid turn lengths, but man it can bite you sometimes.

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 I hate the condition for building the roads: completed church, Marquis present, no enemy units or Vikings. That last one, that’s the rub. You want to know how many turns in a row that was foiled by a late pull of a single unit to the area, several spaces from the Marquis of the area, that was followed very soon after by the 2nd Turn End chit drawn? And I need to do this THREE different times? In my best showing, this was what I was convinced would cause me to lose because I needed 2 more and there was just no way it was coming together in time.

 I know it is the Hollandspiele standard, but I am pretty sure my map will never, ever be remotely flat when on the table. I’ve stacked books for several nights, and no success. I’ll either have to luck into a rare mounted version of the map some day, put it in a frame of some sort on my wall myself, or just accept that there will be parts of the “board” that the chits just won’t like to stack well.

My biggest nitpick on this? There’s a wonderful player aid, four pages long. And I can deal with the inside being flipped upside down from the outside. But honestly, what is the reason to not include how many Hostile Reactions come from each different action? Everything else about your actions are listed, and yet the most important one is not mentioned! I had to tarnish my player aid by marking it up with a pen to correct this mistake, as it had to be a printing error… Note: It turns out mine must, indeed, be a fluke of a player aid. I gave photographic evidence that what came in my box was an anomaly. So rest assured, your player aid SHOULD have those Hostile Reactions, and the inside shouldn’t be flipped upside down.

Final Thoughts

This game has been my source of shame as a reviewer for a year. Typically I aim to turn a review around in a few months, and I was successful in doing that for Agricola, Master of Britain which they also sent at the same time. Agricola hit my Top 20 countdown, in fact, because I was absolutely in love with the game and it gave me hope that I could find solitaire wargames to enjoy. And then I tried playing this, which was Agricola+ – taking the system and expanding everything for a more epic, grand scale. And boy, was it ever larger. So much so that I positively failed to get any kind of traction on wrapping my head around the game. I got it to the table two different times and had to put it away mid-2nd turn because it just wasn’t clicking for me. And so onto my shelf it went, taunting me every time I looked at that bright orange box and making me also keep away from Agricola, Master of Britain for a whole year because, well, why should I play the smaller game when the larger one still very much needed played and reviewed.

Enter 2020. A friend of mine convinced me to play 13 Days: The Cuban Missile Crisis with him in January. Which led to Twilight Struggle. Which led to Watergate. Which led to Sekigahara, Meltwater, Commands & Colors: Ancients, Nevsky…and down the wargaming rabbit hole we both fell. So the next time Charlemagne looked at me, I stared right back and swallowed my pride, pulling it off the shelf and setting it up and revisiting the rulebook.

That next play? It went so well in terms of flow and understanding. I was FINALLY ready to graduate up to a bigger wargaming experience, and for that I apologize wholeheartedly to Tom and Mary, because it should never take a full year to get around to reviewing a game. However, had I forced myself to suffer through more plays last year, I am convinced that my review would have been a gross disservice to the game, the designer, and the publisher because it just wasn’t the right fit for me at the time.

The good news is that now IS the right time for me as a gamer to return to this one. And whoa, what a game this is. Once it all fell into place for how it all connects, this is an epic, incredible game experience that progresses at a slow burn, but once things start to boil then it really takes off in a way that blew me away, even above and beyond what I enjoyed from Agricola, Master of Britain. Both games will place really high on my Top 100, I believe, and I had to play Agricola again after some plays of Charlemagne to make sure I knew which I loved more. However, there’s room for both, because Charlemagne is definitely not a game you can finish in a single sitting unless you get unlucky and lose early…or have a really long, uninterrupted sitting.

There are SO MANY things going on in here, and they help to highlight the best of the chit-pull system for this solo game. Places where you have control can rise back up in rebellion and need stamped out. Every action you do has a reaction, usually greater in number than what it is you did, meaning you’re never going to feel like things are under control. And even when you manage things well, the unpredictable nature of pulling the Turn End chits, as well as the wild card units of the Vikings, Moors, and Byzantium mean there are more wrinkles that can make your best-laid plans unfurl (I’m looking at you, Byzantium!). It all comes together in a beautiful, glorious mess of a masterpiece that I probably will never play as often as I want, but like my perennial favorite, War of the Ring, I will make a conscious effort to get it played a few times each year going forward.

I’m glad I didn’t give up on this game. I wish I had been able to enjoy it properly a year ago, but some games just need to come along at the right time in order to get a better appreciation. And with more time at home right now, there is no solo game on my shelf that I have enjoyed playing more this year than Charlemagne, Master of Europe outside of the Lord of the Rings LCG, which speaks a lot to where this game can ultimately fall for me, both on my solo list of top games and for my overall.

At least until the next game in the series, Aurelian, Restorer of the World comes out. In case you didn’t guess, that will be an instant buy for me, although I am guessing it will be coming out AFTER my birthday in June. If it is half the game that Charlemagne, Master of Europe turned out to be, it’ll easily earn its home in my collection.

If you are newer to wargaming, start with Agricola, Master of Britain. However, if you are an old hat to wargames or have some experience under your belt and are looking for a satisfying, lengthy solo game to play there is no game I can recommend more strongly than this one. It’ll be the best $50 you could spend on a game, in my opinion.

Review for One · Wargame Garrison

Review for One – Vikings: Scourge of the North

Thank you for checking review #126 by Cardboard Clash. My aim is to focus on reviewing board games and how they play for two people and, on occasion, how they play for one person. Because my wife is my primary gaming partner, a lot of consideration goes into finding those games that play well with 2 players, and we typically prefer to find those games that do not require a variant (official or otherwise) in order to play it with just the two of us.

**Note: A copy of the game was provided in exchange for an honest review.

An Overview of Vikings: Scourge of the North

Vikings: Scourge of the North is a board game designed by Christopher Cummins and Joseph Miranda that is published by Decision Games. The “box” states it plays 1 player and has a playtime of 60-90 minutes.

Vikings: Scourge of the North. Europe in the last centuries of the Dark Age was beset by Scandinavian raiders. Their longships sailed the high seas, reaching lands as far as the Volga and North America. While mainly known for their pillaging, the Vikings were also explorers, traders, and colonists.

This is a solitaire game. You lead a band of warriors with their ships and weapons. Units represent historical Viking leaders such as Leif Erikson and Harald Hardrada. You can recruit elite huskarls and fanatic berserkers, and build more longships. You are in pursuit of gold, glory, and new lands to settle on a map running from Russia to Vinland, from Scandinavia to the fabled lands of the Byzantine Empire.

Saga cards send you on four different voyages of discovery and quest fulfillment. Voyage cards bring in special actions such as forming a shield wall in combat and ending the game with a Viking funeral.

—description from the publisher

My Thoughts

 This game has a quick playtime once you get into the flow of the game and its nuances. More on that later. But as a whole, this one plays quick which is exactly what you would want and expect from a Mini Folio game. If you are seeking lengthy gameplay and strong replay value, you might find just one of those here. To give you an idea, I played through all four games of the campaign in under 2 hours, which includes both setting up initially and doing the cleanup between each sequential game.

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 Everything in the game flows so well because of the overall simplicity of the game system. Once the rules are out of the way (again, more on that later), this has a nice rhythm to it. Turns are usually spent making a move, drawing a card and resolving it, and then doing stuff related to your new space if desired or mandatory. Battles are easy to resolve as well, especially if you have the Jarl who gives you the initiative in battle automatically. While you might sometimes stop to puzzle out the best path to take, most of the time you have clear ideas what the likely destinations are (based on the Saga card in play and the location of the Quests, usually). This means most of your time spent in the game is engaged time, which is valuable to have in a game like this.

 The map is done really well, and has some excellent reference tables on there to assist you during the game on what certain things mean, the impact of various colors of spaces, and more. Beyond that, everything else in this package might not be top-tier quality (as you would expect in a game of this size and price) but it is all really solid. I have no complaints at all about anything that came with this one, and it does look pretty good while on the table.

 The campaign is designed well enough to provide an engaging multi-play scenario in the game. The order of the first three Saga cards is random, and you’ll always play the same card as the last one. Once I got to that card, I understood why. While there is one part of that final Saga card I have an issue with (you need 5 Edda? Really? Come on, be real!) the rest of it flowed really well and I felt the pressure to preserve my Jarl, conserve Gold, and to gain Edda as much as possible. As a whole, the campaign provided a nice, decent-length set of games to play in one sitting.

 Berserkers are fantastic. They can ignore the first hit during a battle, meaning they are likely to survive longer. The real tough decision is whether to put them on the front of your queue or to put them 1-2 spots back. Because inevitably, when I put him on the front I get back-to-back damage to destroy him. And when he is back a space, I take only one hit which kills off my Huscurl instead. It feels like a lose-lose sometimes, but having the decision space (and where to put units like the ship and your Jarl) in the order makes a difference – sometimes.

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 A lot is going to depend upon the location of the Quest markers, which is variable from game-to-game and they get placed based on rolling 2d6 and consulting a chart on the map. When you are lucky, there will be 2-3 of them within a space or two of a homeland. When unlucky, you might need to spend 4-6 turns sailing/trekking inland to get to where you need to go. Luckly, most quests only require completing a few of these, but they all require you to complete some of them. The other downside is moving into a Quest space provokes a battle guaranteed, and depending on the Journey card flipped, you might be doing a back-to-back battle.

 I understand a need for “increasing difficulty” in the campaign, but as a whole it never really feels like you get stronger. Yes, you can keep some settlements on the map (which can help or hinder your next quest, potentially) and the money you have. But if you have a near-wipe of your warriors to end the previous Saga, you will potentially have no funds to replenish your force apart from the 1 Gold per settlement you ended with. Hopefully it’ll be at least 3, to get a new ship if needed. And then, to boot, your battles pull an extra chit to face per Saga you’ve completed which means your force, which may or may not be weak (I couldn’t afford more than 4 total units until almost onto the 4th Saga), is facing a larger army that can be stacked with big hitters or lucky weaklings, setting you back more. It works, sure, but it never felt like my side was getting stronger – I was just facing more enemies and having fewer total resources to overcome the obstacles presented.

 My initial impressions were that this game was pretty luck-heavy as the die is rolled with high frequency. And that didn’t really change over the course of additional plays of the game. However, when I realized that I was able to get 4 plays in of this in 2 hours, it wasn’t as big of a sticking point. I’ll play and enjoy a game with some interesting decisions that uses randomness if it hits that timeframe for a single play of the game. So while it is random-heavy at times, it still provides a fun experience with good decisions along the way to where I enjoy it in spite of that randomness. And depending on your Jarl, you’ll have a chance to impact at least some of that randomness in the game.

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 Let’s not mince words here, the rulebook is not good. The majority of its errors can be forgiven, as the player can still make intuitive connections about what is intended. Unfortunately, the biggest issue comes in the form of omissions. For instance, never tells you what your starting Edda value is for the game, campaign or otherwise. It also doesn’t do a good job at telling you the full steps to follow for setting up a consecutive game in the campaign. Do your troops remain on the map where they are located at the conclusion of the previous Saga, or do they depart once more from one of the Viking homelands? These ambiguities tell me that it probably didn’t go through much blind playtesting, as these are questions that were obvious from the start of setup, and from the beginning of the 2nd Saga card in the campaign. There is no answer in the rulebook – so the assumption was made that you start with 0 Edda and that you always depart from a Viking Homeland at the start of a Saga.

Final Thoughts

It might seem like I was pretty harsh on the game and thus didn’t like it. However, that couldn’t be further from the truth: I genuinely enjoyed the game in spite of its flaws. And while I wish some things were different – the sea movement not being dice-dependent, the feasibility to mustering and voyaging with multiple forces, a more immersive campaign with a sense of progression – this game delivers a really fun experience in a small and inexpensive package. At least once you get past the rules.

That opinion of it being a fun experience is quite the turnaround from the end of my second play of the game, at which point I assumed it would be voyaging out of my collection as soon as I got enough plays to review the game. Like most games, first and second impressions may not be able to provide an accurate representation of the long-term impact of a game which is why I never believe in doing a review after just that first play and have made careful steps to clearly identify my wargame impressions posts as first impressions rather than reviews. This game here is a case study in why.

It has good decisions, although your objective tends to give you a clear idea of what to do there are multiple ways to get there. With four different Jarls and four different Sagas to play, there is enough variety in here for a small game like this. It isn’t a perfect game, and it isn’t setting out to be your favorite game of all time. Yet this one is fun, fast, and will be sticking around in my collection and, soon, getting some other Decision Games titles to join it on the shelf based upon the merits of this first experience into their catalog of games.

First Impressions · Wargame Garrison

Insights and Impressions from Nevsky: Teutons and Rus in Collision, 1240-1242

We’re nearing the conclusion of the month of March, and I’m nearing the end of my backlog for these first-play session/impression reports. In case you missed it, today’s game of Nevsky made the cut for a 2019 Game-of-the-Year finalist – and part of me was secretly glad to find a Wargame that was able to make the cut (assuming you don’t count Watergate as a Wargame) in spite of my very recent plunge into those games. And this game is certainly one of those “hidden gems” of a game, with such a unique approach that I found myself really digging.

But this isn’t a review (yet) of Nevsky. No, I need more plays to get to that point and hopefully April will bring enough of those plays to get it there. Instead, here are some of the things I learned from my first success at Nevsky: Teutons and Rus in Collusion by Volko Ruhnke. Full disclosure; I still have not played a COIN Game, something that will be remedied at some point this year, so don’t expect there to be any comparisons between this and the other game system he made popular.

Insight #1: Feeding is going to limit the expenditure of your actions.

Right from the start I picked up on something: feeding my troops isn’t going to be an easy task. I should have known that my background playing Uwe Rosenberg euro games would come in handy eventually, as that is also a really common aspect in his worker placement games. Here in Nevsky, any movement or combat activation is going to require a feeding of your troops – even if your opponent is the one to trigger the combat against your army! I cannot overstate the importance of being able to feed your guys, as the impact of not feeding them is the associated marker will slide backward on the calendar track. If that Lord’s disc aligns with the current part of the calendar you are in (i.e., the turn track), that Lord and his troops are packing up and heading home for the time being and you’ll be stuck trying to pivot to figure out how to make it all work from there. And depending on when that happens, it could have all sorts of nasty ramifications that ripple down from there. Bottom line: feeding is very important. It is the economy of the game that will drive everything else along the way, and will dictate how you use your actions and even who you will be willing to activate.

Insight #2: Program carefully, and triple-check to make sure you have the right Lords in the right order

I blundered here on the second round, and fortunately it didn’t hurt me in the long run. Let me back up a moment: during the activation phase you are taking a stack of cards (there are 3 copies for each Lord, and 3 No Activation cards for each player) and choosing a variable number of them (for us, it was 6 because it was summer) and putting them in a face-down stack. So basically you are pre-planning which Lord to activate and when, as well as how many times. Choose poorly and you might be activating the wrong Lord at the wrong time (like I did), and be left trying to figure out how to do what you wanted. Not only that, but your opponent will get to activate a Lord after you activate a Lord, going in an alternating activation order, so what they do could drastically alter what you are faced with, meaning your initial plan for a Lord might have to change. Oh, and plan poorly (like I also did) and you might find yourself being unable to feed a Lord at the end of a movement or battle, forcing him to slide backwards. This could happen from using him too many times, taking movement that places you in an isolated spot you cannot leave, or even from your opponent initiating a battle against you so that you expend that feeding you needed for your own turn.

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Insight #3: The calendar track sounds quite daunting at first, but ultimately is really simple and is one of the highlights of the game

There are aspects of the game that, in the abstract, sound confusing and daunting. Sometimes reading the rulebook doesn’t give a clear enough picture of what a thing does, how it operates, etc. The calendar sounded like it was going to be one of those really confusing things, and we genuinely expected to have it be a stumbling block. Setting up didn’t help either, as we set up for a 2-round scenario and it had us put things into spots on the calendar that were beyond what the game would last. It simply wasn’t adding up…until we started playing. Suddenly it became a lot clearer about how said calendar would operate, giving both a turn track and letting us know who we could recruit and see how long some of our current Lords would be in service. Once we realized the manipulation of those Lord markers on that track, it really clicked for us. The key here: you do not want a Lord’s marker to be on the same place as the Turn Marker, because then they leave and take their army with them. Not feeding = moving toward the Turn Marker. Giving excess Loot = moving away from the Turn Marker. Simple, right? The further you can push their marker, the longer they would stay (or the more you can “skip” feeding their army).

Insight #4: Being the defender in battle is nice. And, as always, the dice can rule everything

I genuinely felt bad for my opponent. I was stationed outside of one of his fortresses with two of my Lords, and was preparing to take it forcefully. He moved his Lord to stop me, initiating a battle. What happened from there was nothing short of a massacre. As the defender, I got to attack his army first which was a really nice perk that I wasn’t expecting. Well, I rolled well and he rolled poorly to save, and by the end of the battle he was down to 2 troops retreating away and I think I might have lost 2 total. It was a bloody massacre, and his unfortunate luck of rolling high to defend caused him to get completely crushed. I assume most Wargamers are used to the kiss of Lady Luck via die rolling – those bouts of bad beats are bound to happen – and unfortunately the scenario wasn’t quite long enough for him to recover from that blow. However…

Insight #5: There is more than one way to earn points

The scores are lower than you’d think. Ultimately, the introductory scenario ended with a crushing Teutonic victory at 2.5 points to 2 points. That’s an average of 1.25 points per round for one side, and 1 point per round on the other. In other words, every little point seems to matter here. And the MVP for the Russian side of things? Ravaging. It isn’t glamorous or anything, but it wastes away the opposing landscape, gets you a Provender for feeding your troops, and gains you a ½ point. After his horrible defeat, the rest of his actions were spent destroying the Teuton landscape and it came close to paying off, especially as a misplay on my part saw my highest-activating Lord stuck due to arriving at the wrong port – seafaring is a horribly expensive way to travel in Nevsky and one small mistake there can be costly (and nearly was!)

Insight #6: Prepare for a slog for the first Levy, but the game has flow after that

The first “half” of the first round took ages. Like, every time we had a glimmer of forward momentum, one or both of us would realize ramifications of how X affects Y, or that we could have chosen Z. For instance, I was the first to Levy and so I used almost all of my points to bring out their full continent of troops via the available Men at Arms. Then, as my opponent was working through his own issues, I saw that I would need to spend even more ships to transport a key Lord via the ports, meaning I couldn’t do what I had anticipated. Cue subtle rewind to take a card instead of one of those forces. And then the moment of “what do you mean I had a Lord I could have tried to muster onto the field?” realization which I didn’t opt to “rewind” to correct, but he did. So many little things can tie together and, on the very first turn, there are so many unexplored paths of what you can do and restrictions that you may not catch until later. The only reason we didn’t force a “too bad, you’re stuck” situation is we hadn’t actually left the Levy phase at any of those points, and it was very much our first go at this slog of a set of ideas – our heads weren’t completely wrapped around it yet. Once we hit the Campaign phase, it was half-speed ahead from there, with slowness due to thinking through options and consulting our player aid charts on what to do, etc., but that second Levy phase went nice and smooth because we had a better grasp on things. The first half of that first round took close to 45 minutes. The rest of the game took about the same time.

Wrap-Up

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There is so much more I could mention about Nevsky, but I need to hold things back for an eventual review (right?) and these are the big lessons I learned from the initial experience with the game. There is a lot in here, but once you get the basics down there is a nice flow to things. It has some outstanding player aids, and there are counters to use instead of wooden bits if you want an easier reference on your mats/board. This feels like a really polished, highly replayable design that has me excited to visit this one more AND to be on board for the next upcoming titles using this system. That COIN system spawned a lot of games using a common system, and I imagine this could do the same. And as long it it stays in the Middle Ages or sooner, I’ll be 100% on board with checking them all out along the way based on my thoughts so far toward Nevsky.

First Impressions · Wargame Garrison

Insights and Impressions from Peloponnesian War

We’re creeping ever closer to getting current on the First Impression-style session reports for Wargames played this year! I think three more to go after this one..for now (Charlemagne Master of Europe, Commands & Colors: Ancients, and Nevsky are yet-to-come!) and with the chaos of moves going on for both myself and my Wargaming opponent, well, I might actually get current before adding to the lengthy list of games needing these reports. I didn’t expect that to be a possibility about two weeks ago!

This one is really unique, being designed as a solo game with a MASSIVE board that has far fewer troops on there than you’d expect. Of course, there are several different scenarios to play, and there is a pretty lengthy example of play to “play” through to get that first turn of the massive campaign finished. I started by going through that example, moving pieces around the board step-by-step as it walked me through everything. And then I had to tear the game down, as a friend was coming over and we needed the table space. But the next day, back out the game went to restart that same scenario and try to run through things from Turn 1, making my own decisions.

And boy, it lasted far longer in terms of time than I expected. Those first two Rounds took about an hour each, as I still had to stop and reference the rulebook frequently to make sure I was doing things properly. But by the time I hit Rounds 3-4, at the end of which the game concluded (I conquered Sparta!), it was moving at a clip of closer to 30 minutes per Round. Of course, with each Round lasting a variable amount of turns per side there could be both really short and really long Rounds. I found the shortest to allow 2 turns per side, while the longest had one side get a 5th turn in there. And, well, let’s just get right into the series of insights on this one because I really wish I had been able to understand this first one better before I played.

Insight #1: Your Operations can be anything you desire, and the game doesn’t really make it clear what you SHOULD be doing with them

Boy, this was a sticking point for me. I even went onto BGG after that learning turn to figure out what I was trying to do. I mean, I knew the win conditions for the game but had no frame of reference for what I should be trying to accomplish in order to get closer to those objectives. Ultimately, my first Round was spent closely mirroring the actions taken in the example game because I still didn’t grasp what was worthwhile, but figured there must have been reasons for those things. Fortunately, my Round ended on the earlier side, so I didn’t need to flounder for too long, and as things slowly began to resolve (poorly) I had the first moment of revelation: the AI opponent was spreading Rebellion across the map, and so I could focus the next turn on trying to stamp some of those down.

The next Round saw the AI get a unit stranded really close to my units, so I had my second moment of clarity come really early: I should send a stronger force to attack that stranded unit, and so I divided my efforts between mustering a slightly stronger force to go and attack the smaller armies around the map while also sending expeditionary forces to stave off the further spread of rebellion. Well, neither of those went well for me. My die roll in the battle was horrible, and so my marginally stronger force with a leader lost to their single Hoplite and I lost the entire stack. And most of my expeditionary forces were intercepted and suffered from the removal of a unit which left my leader stranded because I didn’t send him in anything more than a single boat. Also during this resolution I saw, in a negative way, what those Rebellion and Ravaged markers could do as it reduced my income for the next turn and dropped my SPI value…leading to my third moment of clarity: sending out a force to raze the land is a key way to chip away at the opposing force’s funds while also bringing them closer to a loss. Equipped with those three revelations, I had a much better time of planning out my Third and Fourth Rounds where the momentum shifted in my favor.

Insight #2: Luck can swing the tide in a hurry

My play was a tale of two halves to the game. In the first two Rounds, everything that could go poorly seemed to go poorly for me. No big deal, I thought. I’ll be in a great position once the game has me switch sides, opening the door for an easier victory. Well, no such luck was in store as I didn’t get to switch at all for the game (even on the 3rd Round when I had a +3 modifier to that roll!). But seriously, I was losing battles, losing troops during interception skirmishes, and overall doing a great job of losing the game. I’d like to think it was my better understanding of the game which changed the outcome in those last two Rounds, but it was mostly that the d6 stopped going against me every step of the way. Sure, I did plan things better to where I had better modifiers in small-scale battles, but I also saw my share of rolls go my way – especially at the very end as I tried to take down Sparta with their +4 modifier versus my +2.

Any time that luck plays a factor in games, you’re going to hit situations where you lose when you expected to win and times where you win when you thought it might be completely hopeless. Since you’re rolling a single d6, it has that room for swingy effects, as there aren’t buckets of dice to flatten the curve of chance. Just know that there’s a good chance, when things are swinging hard your way, you are opening yourself up for a greater chance of being forced to change sides.

Insight #3: The losses from a defeat can be absolutely staggering and change the landscape of an entire turn.

If you thought the dice had power before, it has staggering power when you consider the ramifications of a battle outcome. See, the winning army stays where they are and has you lose/gain VP and affect the SPI track. The losing army likely goes down on that SPI track and, even worse, loses their entire army to the Going Home box after taking permanent losses. Yep, even if they outnumber you 10:1, if you manage to win they lose everyone off the map. Huge. This could cause a massive swing in the board. In fact, this was the very thing that caused me to consider going for victory in Round 4. See, on my 3rd Operation I was on my way to squash Rebellion in the north and the nearest path took me right past a large enemy force in Corinth. Sure enough, they intercepted. Skirmish ensues, and the armies are large enough it goes into a land battle. A very close-in-size land battle that I won, wiping that space free from enemies. Well, that left a wide open path down to Sparta that I couldn’t pass on. Thankfully, my next activation happened and I was able to trek down and overcome the lopsided multiplier to pull off an unexpected victory.

Just know, those losses go both ways…and when you lose, you also suffer a -15 VP hit which stinks, since you only get 10 VP per victory.

Insight #4: The worst part of this game comes in calculating the route an Operation will take

It isn’t even close. My least favorite thing to do is to count out 8-13 spaces over and over again, taking slightly different paths, to figure out which path the force should take. Because the rules state they must take the shortest route, and when two (or more) are equal, you roll a die to determine which branch they take. Well, this really sucks to do. I’m pretty sure I managed to recount the same route accidentally at least once every time I had to math out paths, and there were several times when I couldn’t remember what a route counted as so I would have to count it again. Take this out of the game and it shaves at least 45 minutes from my overall play time. I’m not exaggerating here.

But I do understand the importance of this in the rules. After all, it prevents you from strategically making decisions to avoid – or encounter – specific spots on the board. All you can do is pick the destination and “chance” determines the rest if there is more than one good way to get there. It is how I wiped out Corinth, after all, so I can’t be too upset about the process. But this is easily the most frustrating part about the Peloponnesian War.

Insight #5: The AI only changes tactic if you put it on the defensive or if you do well on a turn. So when you suck, you can use that to your advantage.

All things accounted for, spreading Rebellion isn’t such a bad thing to see your opponent do for 3 Rounds in a row. It sent them off to distant parts of the map (and yes, it Ravaged pretty effectively along the way), but the forces sent were really small and vulnerable to attack. Rebellion is easy to remove, just needing a friendly force adjacent to the space. And for the most part, it keeps your own forces intact. Once I started to see the advantages it gained me, I was able to leverage that to a strong Round 3. And next time I hope to be able to analyze the board, and the action’s intentions, much sooner to be able to exploit that early on to my benefit – although not too strong of a benefit in case I get forced to switch sides.

Insight #6: The threat of changing sides is always in the back of your mind.

This game has that really cool and interesting approach where you can be forced to switch sides, which is a bigger threat based upon how well you do in the previous Round. Yes, it is a d6 roll, and every step on the positive direction for SPI adds to your roll. A 6+ makes you switch sides, and suddenly all that work you did to deplete the forces of the enemy becomes what you have to work with as you try and strike back and bring the game to a successful conclusion. And this is always on the back of the mind, especially as things go well for your side. There’s always a temptation to hold back just a little bit, in order to minimize the disadvantage you could possibly inherit. It seems like a game where you want to take small steps toward victory, until you can have one big turn to sweep the board into a victory – and it certainly played out that way for me unintentionally. However, my victory was not strong enough to lock up a decisive victory, something I may come to regret later in the campaign…

Wrap-Up

I sure had fun with this one overall. It helped to reignite my desire for a nice, sprawling epic of a solitaire experience while I was borrowing it from a friend. And we’ll have to definitely try out the 2-player scenario in the game at some point. While I’m a little sad that I never had to flip sides, I still learned a lot from the game as it gradually unfolded. Which means my next game should start off a little better, at least in terms of how I approach what I am accomplishing on my turns. That understanding may also come to be a strong disadvantage, should I find myself needing to defend out of the hole I dug for myself. Which is why I am excited to revisit this one sooner than later, before these lessons fade into the past. If you like solitaire wargames but dislike playing both sides against each other equally (I’m definitely not a fan of that approach), take heart: the inactive side is fully automated with tables and dice rolls. You might really dig this one, just like I did.

First Impressions · Two-Player Only · Wargame Garrison

What I Learned in my First Failure at Meltwater: A Game of Tactical Starvation

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.

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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.

Wrap-Up

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?

First Impressions · Two-Player Only · Wargame Garrison

Watergate: First Impressions and Lessons Learned

Hoo boy, the session reports are coming out of isolation now! Two of them in two days! Well, killing off the commute from work definitely gives me a little more downtime to work on things like this, and so I’m trying to get caught up a little on these before plunging back into my normal set of reviews (which are coming! And I’m hoping to get my first wargame review for 2020 up this month as well). This particular title is one of those interesting ones, as it isn’t really a wargame. Yet it has strong influences from the Card-Driven Game system made popular in games such as Twilight Struggle.

When Capstone Games first announced Watergate, I was excited and disappointed. Excited for a 2-player only game from one of my favorite publishers. Disappointed because I was almost positive my wife wouldn’t even give it a try if I set it up on the table. Political themes turn her away from a game, and I can’t fault her for that. The Watergate scandal doesn’t exactly make me excited for the game, either. However, I finally got a chance to try it back in the beginning of February and enjoyed the game tremendously. As per the usual cycle, here are some of the insights I learned from that first play as the journalist:

Insight #1: The board is small. Really small. Which keeps things as tight as a string.

The board is going to deceive you. After all, you’ll count spaces and realize you need to connect the center to one of six spots on the outside, and each of them is only a few spaces away. Piece of cake, you might say after the first round of the game. After all, it can’t be that hard to make the proper connections, especially since each person has several branches to get there. Enter the opponent, who has an easy time blocking your path since, of course, they can see where you want to go and cleverly block them. That straight path is suddenly doubled in length and, of course, they will be able to block that as well. Because when the map is this small, every placement can have a strong impact.

Insight #2: Hidden Information Holds Power

Nixon is on the defensive for most areas of the game, but that doesn’t mean he is without his resources. Most importantly, he knows what is pulled from the bag each round. That means he can be aware of what is movable and can plan accordingly, while the journalist hopes to strike “gold” with some impactful guesswork. Thematic, sure. But there are definitely times I felt like I was grasping at straws hoping to get momentum, coming up short as often as I got exactly what I needed.

Insight #3: For Every Card, An Opposite Reaction

Oh man, I got burned so often by the cards in this game. It didn’t leave me in a winless situation by any means, so they aren’t the only factor at play in the game, but it felt like I could never get things going. My opponent closed off four of the targets early in the game, and every time I had a good card to play it seemed like he could cancel it – yet every time he had a powerful card my hand was absent any counters to it. This game is so tight, especially when you trim out one-time events, to the point where it feels like there is a chance to fine-tune your “engine” of a deck over time. Learning important early plays, and which events are better to play the 2nd time you draw them, leaves me hopeful that this game has long staying power.

Insight #4: Focus on the informants early

One of the things my opponent did well was closing off my early paths. Yes, I nailed down an informant really early, but before I blinked there was only one other I could gain and I was forced to play that one as soon as possible in order to avoid an even more difficult battle. Yes, there are ways to get them back in play (something I was forced to attempt), and ways to open paths up that had previously been closed, but you don’t want to be forced to rely on getting those avenues. What you want is to have options, and to keep Nixon guessing. I failed at this, partly because of a completely lackluster card draw which saw me getting those removed informants near the end of my deck, and then again early after the reshuffle. By then, it was too little too late and I was stuck trying to pry things back into play so I could pounce on the opportunity. In such a short, tight game that is a formula which will lose more often than it wins.

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Insight #5: That Research Track is Where (most of) the Game is Won or Lost

I love multi-use cards, whether we’re talking Euro games or Wargames. That’s probably why the CDGs were the perfect gateway drug for me toward the Wargaming side of the hobby. And as much as I love the multi-use cards here in Watergate (in typical fashion, used as either an event or for its Value to shift things along the Research track. What sort of things? Well, I’m glad you asked! Most obvious is the three Evidence tokens that are randomly drawn and placed on there each round. You have to match its color to move it, which means as the Editor you need to ask Nixon if a face-down token matches and they will either flip one up that matches or tell you there are none that match among the face-down tokens. These are what get placed on the main part of the board, connecting the center toward the Informants or blocking those paths when Nixon wins them. They are gained by either reaching the 5 on a side during the round, or get placed by whomever they are closest to at the end of the round.

The other two things are almost as important. The Initiative marker is on there, and whomever holds initiative gets to draw an extra card and play first on the next round. Yes, that can be extremely powerful. The other thing is a Momentum token, which is up for grabs every round. Nixon needs to get 5 of them to win the game. Easy, right? As the Editor, you also want them to prolong the game as well as to trigger powers as you gain more of them – some of those powers are really, really impactful to flip the board.

All of this combines to give you 5 things to possibly move in a game where you are playing either 3 or 4 cards in a turn. You can’t do everything or win everything. You need to decide what you need and whether or not it is more important to prevent your opponent from getting what they need that round. Oh my, the decisions abound here! I absolutely love the decisions here, and the way in which you need to decide how to spread those plays. The push-and-pull here is powerful, and there are cards which will make your head spin in this part of the game.

Wrap-up

Let’s start by saying that Watergate makes the short list of 2019 titles that are in the running for my game-of-the-year. Had you told me that at the time the game was announced, I would have remained unconvinced. I expected it to be good, since Capstone was publishing it. I had no idea it would be this good.

And so now I have a conundrum: to purchase the game in the hopes that my wife will play it, or just force my friend to play his copy with me a lot more times. The more I think about, and write about, this game the more I am convinced that the game deserves a spot on my shelf, even if only for an occasional play or two every few months. I have far bigger games that see far fewer plays, after all, and this one is just as good (and sometimes better than) those ones. And all this post has accomplished so far has been to make me itch to play Watergate again. I think this needs to become part of my COVID-19 survival package…assuming I can find a copy locally.

If you have a copy and have been waiting to play it, don’t delay any longer. This game is good. Really, really good. It is one of the best titles in Capstone’s gaming library, and one of the best titles released by them in a year where they also released Pipeline and Maracaibo.

First Impressions · Gaming Recap · Wargame Garrison

Session Report – 13 Days: The Cuban Missile Crisis

This is the one. The game that began the very deep hole my friend and I have plunged into. Exactly two months ago from this day we played 13 Days: The Cuban Missile Crisis at a local game day. Was it relatively “antisocial” to play an exclusively 2-player game at a regular gathering of 20-30 gamers? You make that call, but as a result we’ve been antisocial many more times, playing titles from Twilight Stuggle to Watergate to Sekigahara to Nevsky. Both of us have read about wargames, obtained new wargames, and played plenty of wargames since that fateful evening. And if I’m honest, without the opening plays of 13 Days, we might still be quite content exploring heavy euros in larger groups – and let’s face it, we both still greatly enjoy said heavy euros and will mix those into the cycle.

But this third Session Report of 2020 is on the game that started it all. Because of the time that has elapsed, combined with the shortness of the game itself, this will be a lot more abbreviated than my Twilight Struggle and my Sekigahara ones. There are a few things I do recall from the plays (we played it twice in succession), and while they didn’t translate into success at Twilight Struggle later on I think that I did pick up on some valuable insights.

1) Points don’t matter until they do.

There is a fancy little point track on the board that shows who is in the lead on the score. Only one side can have points at any given time – something players of Twilight Struggle will find to be very familiar. However this one has a limit: 5 points. That’s the hard cap. Unless we completely overlooked a key rule, getting to 5 points accomplishes absolutely nothing during the game. Getting beyond 5 points is wasteful, because your score remains at 5. The first game we played? I’m pretty sure if the track had allowed I would have been losing by at least a dozen points. The track was stuck at 5 for the Russians and I couldn’t do a darn thing about it. Until the final round of the game, when a clever set of plays (I wish they had been clever…I am positive it was more luck than anything) scored me 6 points for the round while he scored none. Just like that it went from down by 5 to winning by 1 as the game came to a close. It didn’t matter how many points he kept tacking on, they were a waste. Does that mean to completely ignore the points? Absolutely not! I doubt I could get such a perfect storm of a final turn ever again. But at the same time, don’t focus too hard on the score during the game. Focus more on setting yourself up for the final round.

2) The Defcon track will sell you out

There is no loyalty in the Defcon track. It will go from rewarding you with points in the Agenda phase to threatening to cause you to lose the game by getting too many markers in Defcon 1 or sneaking one up into Defcon 1. We both played far more aggressively on this area of the game in the 2nd play, and it very nearly cost me the game on two occasions. In fact, my final turn was spent exclusively toward making sure I didn’t automatically lose because my opponent played extremely well and put me in a place where I had to work to undo everything he did to force me up.

3) Agendas bring the Jedi mind trickery

You each get three cards and choose one of them for the round. And the problem is that you also mark the three “areas” you had in hand. This leads to a lot of guesswork about what Agenda you should play, as well as how to focus your own turn. Ignore the wrong thing and points flow freely – I should know, I bled points in that first game. Time and again I failed to choose wisely, getting no benefit from my own agenda while losing ground on his because I picked wrong – until the final round of that first play. This is a very small thing, but I think it might be my favorite part of 13 Days because of the way it can impact your decision-making.

4) Don’t overlook the Aftermath

This was a “learn from the mistake of my enemy” moment, as the first game I grasped the importance of the Aftermath while he used it to avoid playing cards with my events on half of the turns. 2 points may not sound like much, but it was the difference between losing by 1 and winning by 1. In a game with a hard cap at 5 points, that 2 is extremely powerful for the end of the game. Yes, it can be painful to toss a good event in there, or to toss an affiliated card with a lot of command cubes. But unless that card can earn you guaranteed points, it might be better long-term in the Aftermath.

5) World Opinions Matter

It would be so easy to focus solely upon manipulating the Defcon track and jockeying for control of areas of the small map. But there are three World Opinion spaces and, honestly, they matter. Mileage may vary here – for instance, the United Nations feels a lot more important to gain control of at the end of the game for that 2 points than for the +1 Influence that the Personal Letter provides. Television is important, allowing you to either escalate on a track prior to resolving your Agendas and thus add (or reduce) the points to be gained by the Agendas, or to deescalate a step in order to keep yourself out of danger. But perhaps most important comes in the Alliances space, and here’s why. It lets you have control of the extra card, adding it to your Aftermath pile for the extra cube advantage for those final 2 points at the end, or letting you discard it. And if you are discarding, odds are that means it was affiliated with your opponent and thus you get to deny them the use of that event on the card. Power. This could arguably be the most important space to control on the board.

Wrap-up

As promised, this was a bit shorter than the others but this is a far shorter game. I did win both games we played that night, although they followed very different paths. The first I won because of a perfect series of scoring my Agenda, not letting him get anything on his Agenda scoring, obtaining the United Nations points, and getting the Aftermath points. The second game was far closer, with it being a tug-of-war around the 1-point mark on either side. Ultimately I walked into the final round with the 1-point advantage and broke even with him across the scoring in spite of having spent the entire round mitigating my earlier aggressive plays on the Defcon track. It has been 60 days since our double-header on 13 Days. It won’t be too many more (I hope) before we get a rematch and a few more plays so I can collect these thoughts into a full-fledged review, although I am at my friend’s mercy since we must play his copy since I don’t own one yet.

But here’s tipping my hand a little: this game is pretty great as a short, quick-playing game with tense, interesting decisions and a nice tug-of-war over area control and Defcon leads. Which is pretty much all I could ask of a game like this one. I strongly recommend getting this to the table if you haven’t already.

First Impressions · Wargame Garrison

A New Wargamer’s Reflections on Sekigahara: The Unification of Japan

Greetings Grognards! Once again I hope, in spite of my pending application for status as a certified newbie wargamer, I can use that term in such a familiar fashion. I covered my wargaming background, little as it is, in my first post where I provided some insights based on my spectacular failure in my first play of Twilight Struggle. If you haven’t read that one, then allow me to lay some background about me for you. For years I’ve danced around wanting to be a wargamer. I’ve played a lot of War of the Ring, which has been my absolute favorite game for half a decade (which is about as long as I’ve been consistently playing modern board games). I’ve dabbled in a few games here and there, even going as far as to review a very small selection on my blog (Stamford Bridge: End of the Viking Age and Agricola, Master of Britain and 878: Vikings – Invasions of England) and post a few articles for the early wave of GMT Insider a few years ago based around 1960: The Making of the President. But so far my experience with wargaming has been more of a “I’d like to play more of those” without any real progress on actually playing any of them. And in the past two months, that has started to change because I have a good friend who loves playing wargames and is a willing opponent. We’ve played matches of lighter fare, such as 13 Days: The Cuban MIssile Crisis and Watergate, and some of longer affairs, such as Twilight Struggle and Sekigahara: The Unification of Japan. I’ve even borrowed his copy of Peloponnesian War and recently brought the campaign battle to a successful conclusion for the Athenian army. And so, with this brief introduction out of the way, let me dive into the second of what I hope will be a semi-regular occurrence going forward at Cardboard Clash: a focus on wargames!

This time I’m going to reflect back on a Thursday night several weeks ago, shortly after the failure in Twilight Struggle, when he brought out Sekigahara: The Unification of Japan for us to try. I had heard a lot of buzz about block wargames being great games, and this was commonly mentioned as one of the better ones to explore. While this game is slightly later in the timeline than my preferred Medieval period of history, it is still relatively close at 1600. The historical setting of the game interests me quite a bit, actually, and I’m looking to find a book or two in the area at libraries to dig in more about the historical Sekigahara. I’d love to get recommendations!

This post is an attempt to collect some of my initial impressions of the game and theorize on what I might do differently the next time I play Sekigahara as the Tokugawa side. Which might not happen for a long time, as we randomly select who plays on which side of the battle (and that randomization has ensured his placement as the Soviets every time we’ve played a U.S. vs. U.S.S.R. game!). In fact, this may come back to haunt me if he reads these and implements them against me or, worse yet, feigns the use of these things against me and I overreact based upon my own intended strategies. This post is not intended to provide high-level strategy tips, as it will require more plays to arrive at that point to where I could even pretend to provide that level of insight. This game, at least on the surface, is extremely simple and straightforward, and many of you Grognards probably consider this more along the lines of a gateway wargame, not something worth replaying frequently because of its limitations. That’s fine, this post isn’t going to provide anything more than entertainment value for you. And yet for the sake of others who, like me, might be on the verge of their first plays and are not quite ready to grok some high-level depth in strategy, this can hopefully provide some insight so you can learn from my mistakes and have at least some idea of what to attempt to accomplish in the game.

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Insight #1: Rules Are Important. Don’t Miss Rules.

You may be wondering how, with such a simple overall ruleset, it would be possible to miss rules. I think we actually played this one really well overall, considering I came in knowing nothing for the rules of the game and the chaos of noise going on around us during the rules explanation. We even took our time to look up key things several times, and I pulled open a player aid on my little smartphone as a reference (Update: The game did have player aids, but they were apparently in my friend’s car and not in the box, so we didn’t have access to them because we didn’t know they existed!). Yet we both completely missed one key thing that I didn’t discover until I watched the Heavy Cardboard teach & playthrough afterwards: you are supposed to redraw cards after a battle based on the ones you played. We redrew cards for losses, but not from the battle itself – this made it a more challenging decision in a battle as to whether to play cards to gain Impact or save those cards for what you wanted to do on your turn. Suddenly movement isn’t quite as costly, and multiple battles during a round aren’t as likely to be punishing to a player who used more cards during earlier battles.

What this taught me, ultimately, is that it never hurts to plan ahead on what game you want to play. We’re trying to do better at this, so we can both come prepared having read rules and, if possible, watched a teaching video ahead of time to assist in capturing as many of these little details as possible from the first play. I still will continue my habit of doing the same things after the first play – shoot, I’ll admit there were little things in my favorite game, War of the Ring, that I was discovering after many plays of the game. It is easy to overlook rules. Player aids help, but aren’t foolproof. And yet sometimes even the smallest of rules can make a huge difference in the overall game experience. We enjoyed our first play greatly, in spite of this missed rule. I have a feeling it will change things a little during the second play.

Insight #2: Resource Locations Hold the Early Key

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They are small red dots along the paths of the map, but don’t let their innocent appearance fool you: they are vital, especially early in the game, to gaining an advantage. A small one, yes, but an important advantage nevertheless! Don’t be fooled by these being an end-game scoring factor, they have incredible value long before the end of the game arrives and, ultimately, you want to end the game with control and try to trigger an early conclusion anyway. One of the best ways to do this, regardless of your side, is to control an advantage in army size. While you cannot influence what blocks get drawn for your reinforcements pool, you can impact how many blocks you get to pull out of that bag. These resource locations hold the key to getting more blocks than your opponent, meaning your forces are capable of being replenished better and you have higher odds of getting stronger blocks or the blocks you need.

The check for this comes at the beginning of each new round, and it simply is determined by who controls more of the resource locations. If both of you are gunning for these, that means there might be some heated battles over these spots on the map which could possibly play into your hand – assuming you have the cards to deploy the army you’re moving to capture or hold those locations. These locations also provide good targets for the Tokugawa armies that start the game far away from the ultimate target of Osaka, giving you meaningful objectives as those troops try to march across Japan. One additional block drawn may not sound like much, but it can be a significant advantage. Worst case scenario, you want to at least be playing to a tie on this to prevent your opponent from getting that extra block.

Insight #3: Going Second Can Be Very Important

The turtling strategist in me is delighted to come across a wargame where going second actually holds a good advantage in the game. It may not seem obvious, as there is still the common benefit to being the aggressor and going first to impact the landscape and force your opponent to either lose troops they didn’t want, to play cards they needed to hold for their own turn, or to get them to change their plans in a reactionary way. Those are all still very viable reasons to want to be first, and the Tokogawa faction holds an advantage in having the higher value on their cards of similar markings so they can easily choose their position on the round when they want, so long as they are willing to part with a more powerful card to ensure they are the ones making that choice.

There is an undeniable advantage to going second, because your opponent can end up helpless to respond to the final board state of the round. A well-timed sweeping through to snatch the advantage in Resource Locations or Castles in the second half of a round can lock up both an extra reinforcement and an extra card, both of which can be quite powerful advantages in the following round. Being able to see how they end their second half of a round, and then determine how to ensure you get one or both of those – or at the very least, how to remove the reinforcement advantage from their grasp – can be crucial in this game. This is especially true in the final round, assuming the game doesn’t end with an immediate victory condition. The reason I won my first game of Sekigahara boiled down to late control of those key spots on the map, something I believe I understood a little sooner than my opponent. I don’t anticipate it being as easy to pull off the second time, but going 2nd will definitely help to ensure that control – although going 1st will help to obtain it first if an area is currently uncontrolled.

Insight #4 – Move Early, Move Often, Muster Mercilessly

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I was faced with an undesirable realization about halfway through the game: all of my armies of any significance were way too far away from Osaka to make any meaningful push. And, of course, the majority of my reinforcements drawn were tied to those distant locations. For the first half of the game, my time was almost always spent doing the 0-card movement or mustering because it seemed like the best plan was to horde the cards for battle – this may have been exaggerated a little because of our misplay (not drawing cards to replace those used in battle), which is why I can boldly state that it will probably be more advantageous to spend at least a single card for movement/mustering to move 2-3 armies than to save that card for its potential usage. Unless your hand perfectly aligns with an army you have and could be the difference between winning and losing, in which case hording that card might be the best play – especially if moving a space or two is all that army needs to cause a battle.

I find the strong appeal in being able to move 2 armies AND muster 1+ recruits onto the board. Better yet, if going last, I think there is good value in tossing two cards to make significant movement around the board with all armies and the muster action. I waited far too long to begin moving those distant armies, and once I did almost all of my efforts were spent ensuring one particularly large army kept soldiering onward toward Osaka to try and crack that nut before the game reached its conclusion. Staggering several smaller armies along, taking branching paths even, could allow a maximum of force taking fortresses and resource locations along the way while bringing them closer, one turn at a time, toward the end game condition of conquering Osaka. Had I moved the army one turn sooner, I could have taken the victory via Osaka instead of via Victory Points.

Insight #5: Conquer Castles for a Late Card Advantage

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There are an odd number of Castles on the map, meaning someone is always getting an extra card drawn. This is always something that will be an important advantage, and not just for the card. However, the Castles increase in their importance as the game winds down to an end. First of all, your armies are getting into position and, in some cases, might be quite a bit larger. Having enough cards to deploy as many blocks as you can is something you’ll want to value. Not planning on conquest this turn? There is still value, as that extra card can be used for a better movement action (such as tossing 2 cards to move ALL armies and muster) or to toss for a forced march to move a single army one extra space. This right here would be enough, however…

Castles can be difficult to conquer. Your opponent loses the chance to make you automatically lose a block when you lose the battle, and thus must hit at least 7 Impact to get you to suffer a loss – this is balanced by your 2-block maximum to retreat into said Castle and an inability to play any cards in response. It also nullifies the use of guns and cavalry, making those special forces ineffective which makes the higher impact a challenge. And, of course, the most important reason is that every Castle is worth 2 victory points at the end of the game, which is a significant value considering the other scoring condition, Resource Locations, are only worth 1 each. Having the majority in Castles is the key to having a head start on winning if the game runs its full course, as it means you don’t need to go overboard on the Resource Locations – just keep within 1 of your opponent.

Insight #6: Feint the Early Conquest of Osaka

This one is probably tipping my hand more than anything else, but it is a vital thing to consider. I waited too long to consider the conquest of Osaka, and when I did it was delayed further by the impending threat of the Mori Mon armies arriving. You see, they get to arrive in Osaka the moment a battle is declared there – and they don’t even require the use of a card to bring them into the battle. Realizing that my opponent was going to get 4 free blocks, each of which chained off the others, brought a pretty strong level of intimidation to the prospect of attacking Osaka. My solution was to spend the second half of the game moving a massive 8-block army across the map and, ultimately, it was able to win the field battle thanks to a perfect hand of cards. However, it took way too long to accomplish and required an obscene amount of my resources that could have been invested elsewhere, or at least diversified.

The biggest issue is that free deployment of Mori into the battle from the recruitment box. However, if one could send a suicide squad in early to trigger them, it would balance out the challenge for Osaka. At least in theory, right? Because that would force the armies to appear, and you could viably hope to take out 1-2 blocks in the process since your force would need to be large enough to prevent the Overrun from happening. But an early pincer attack from two smaller armies converging on Osaka might just be able to bring about a strong impact while at the same time triggering the trap, making Osaka a little easier to take in the late game.

Wrap-Up

So there you have it. Straight from the fingertips of an amateur, both in Wargames and to Sekigahara: The Unification of Japan. I’d like to think that I’ve given a fair amount of consideration with my reflections. These aren’t high-level tips or strategies. They aren’t intended to be, although I really hope the triggering of Osaka turns out to be as insightful as I theorize. I’m intentionally avoiding reading up on other folks’ strategies in the game, as the exploration is half the experience and I want to see how good, or bad, my approaches fail as I consider them for either side. Regardless, I honestly cannot wait to play Sekigahara: The Unification of Japan again soon. In fact, I think my wife would probably even enjoy this one (and, knowing her, she would absolutely slaughter me in the game).

My hope is that you found some enjoyment here, even if you are a seasoned veteran of wargames who has moved on from the simpler block wargames like Sekigahara. Even if it is at the expense of an amateur who may be in for a rude awakening if he realizes these insights are completely off the mark during that rematch, getting devastated by an opponent who capitalizes upon the mistakes I make with brutal efficiency.

And I hope this is a continuation of what will be many contributions to GMT Insider in the future as I explore more games within their lengthy catalog.

Strategy · Two-Player Only · Wargame Garrison

A New Wargamer’s Guide to Failing Spectacularly at Twilight Struggle (i.e. Lessons learned from my first failure)

Greetings Grognards! Hopefully, with my pending application for status as a certified newbie wargamer, I can use that term in such a familiar fashion. For years I’ve danced around wanting to be a wargamer. I’ve played a lot of War of the Ring, which has been my absolute favorite game for half a decade (which is about as long as I’ve been consistently playing modern board games). I’ve dabbled in a few games here and there, even going as far as to review a very small selection on my blog (Stamford Bridge: End of the Viking Age and Agricola, Master of Britain and 878: Vikings – Invasions of England) and post a few articles for the early wave of GMT Insider a few years ago based around 1960: The Making of the President. But so far my experience with wargaming has been more of a “I’d like to play more of those” without any real progress on actually playing any of them. And in the past two months, that has started to change because I have a good friend who loves playing wargames and is a willing opponent. We’ve played matches of lighter fare, such as 13 Days: The Cuban MIssile Crisis and Watergate, and some of longer affairs, such as Twilight Struggle and Sekigahara: The Unification of Japan. I’ve even borrowed his copy of Peloponnesian War and run through the introductory part of the scenario in preparation of playing out the rest of that solitaire experience. And so, with this brief introduction out of the way, let me dive into the first of what I hope will be a semi-regular occurrence going forward at Cardboard Clash: a focus on wargames!

This time I’m going to reflect back on a fateful night nearly a month ago, when I sat down across from my friend at about 10pm at night to learn Twilight Struggle together. In keeping with 13 Days, I was the U.S. and he played as the Soviets. It was probably closer to 11 by the time we got it all set up, walked through the rules, and finished that very first round. Two hours after that, the Soviets won a hallmark victory in the final round by bringing the game to a premature close…and the contest wasn’t ever really in question from the start. He anchored in an early advantage in key areas, holding a strong VP lead throughout almost the entire game as I flailed about and attempted to decipher how to best utilize my cards and where to value using Ops points.

There are innumerable resources out there for those looking to sharpen their Twilight Struggle game, and this isn’t intended to replace any of them, or even to try and supplement them. This is simply a player reflecting back upon some of the things I learned after that first game, in which I entered the game knowing very little apart from how a CDG system operated (from playing 1960: The Making of the President and 13 Days: The Cuban Missile Crisis prior to that Twilight Struggle game). Part of me hesitates to even put this out so soon, as my opponent will undoubtedly read this and be able to prepare counters to any semblance of strategy I might muster. And yet for the sake of others who, like me, might be on the verge of their first plays and are not quite ready to grok some high-level depth in strategy, this can hopefully provide some insight so you can learn from my mistakes.
Insight #1: The European Power Struggle, or Lack Thereof

My opponent opened up the game in a very big way, leading to a theme that encapsulated much of our entire play: a struggle for power in Europe. Or rather, a struggle to weaken the Soviet stranglehold in Europe, something that I was wholly unable to flip over the course of the game because every time I took a step forward, it seemed he had a way to move my progress back and cement a stronger hold on Europe. Early in the game I spent far too many resources trying to keep a foothold in there, and for a good portion of the game it was able to remain in-tact. A late-game push for the auto-win condition of controlling Europe during scoring by my opponent made me dedicate even more resources into Europe that I wasn’t really able to spend in order to hold one final Battleground.

What this taught me, ultimately, was a lesson that also ties into a later point: the map is big. Really big. There is a whole world to fight over in order to gain control of territories! Yes, Europe is an easy one to fight over because you both start in that same sandbox. But just because there is only one shovel in that sandbox doesn’t mean you should fight over it – go pick up a rake or a bucket instead and use those to your own advantage instead of dedicating too much effort to one thing. I’m not advocating a complete ignoring of Europe on the map, as it does provide some good points and that auto-win potential. But investing too much into one place, especially on the defensive, puts you in the role of the tortoise rather than the hare as the game gains momentum.

Insight #2: The Overpowered Might of the Space Race

Oh the Space Race. It felt like a great thing: toss a card with an opponent’s event in here and you are safe from said event firing off, AND you get the bonus of possibly moving along a track. And early on in the game, I really enjoyed the Space Race. One might say I emphasized on it too much, actually, taking an early lead along the track thanks to a well-timed event and some die rolls that went my way on both sides of the Space Race. Especially once I got to where I could toss 2 cards into that Space Race! Everything felt wonderful surrounding the Space Race. Except…

Well, that early lead disappeared eventually as he got some clever plays in as well, swinging it back in his favor at the end. Not to mention that those bonuses only last until he reaches that point on the Space Race track which, unfortunately, was never as long as I wanted. And this board created a different problem, something I’ll be expanding on with a different insight: tempo. I got so caught up on maintaining the Space Race advantage that I was using my first play(s) of the round to toss cards into the Space Race, meaning he got to use 2-3 events or OP Cards sometimes before I was making any difference on the map. And in Twilight Struggle, I’ve found it is far easier to be the first to impact an area of the map than to try and flip an area your opponent already controls. So I spent the middle of the game focusing first on a track that provided diminishing returns while allowing him to make far-reaching impact that I had to fight hard to undo later.

Insight #3: Dogs Chase Their Tails. Don’t Be a Dog.

A common theme you may have noticed has been regarding being behind. And this isn’t really bringing about anything new with this insight, but rather expands it in a new way of looking at things. We’ve all watched dogs chasing their tails, spinning in endless circles as they attempt to catch that just-out-of-reach tail. Most of us find some humor in the scene, and know better than to do that ourselves. It becomes easier said than done sometimes in the context of a competitive game, though. Which brings about the biggest issue I probably had in my lack of strategy for Twilight Struggle: I spent too much time chasing things that were providing little, or diminishing, return for my efforts. On occasion I was able to make a proper read and determine what scoring card he just drew and make a strong drop that forced him to abandon the dominance he dreamed of in the area. But far too often, I was chasing after phantom points.

It is almost a knee-jerk reaction to try and “fix” an area of the board right after it scores in their favor. After all, if there is any amount of time still remaining in the game it is pretty likely that scoring card will come back up at least one more time, and you will want to make sure it scores more favorably the next time around, either by reducing their points scored or by flipping it to where the net gain goes your direction. The problem is that most of the time, the card won’t come back out for at least a few rounds and, by then, so much can change to where your efforts are not really needed right now. They would be better spent focusing on the areas of the map which haven’t scored yet this shuffle, so that you can be a step ahead when that card does come into play.

Insight #4 – Don’t Chase Squirrels, Either

A correlating concept to the above involves the Squirrel concept: i.e., getting blinded by that scoring card, or that shiny event, in your hand that you focus on working around that for an entire turn. Which may not seem like a bad thing in itself, especially if it does help you take steps forward. The problem comes when you ignore everything else your opponent is doing, allowing them to also move forward unchecked. This may not be a bad thing if your combination of plays reaps stronger rewards, but most of the time it feels like the best play of a hand of cards is to do a little bit of combo-chaining combined with a little map control and a little countering the directions of your opponent.

Twilight Struggle, reflecting back on the experience, felt more like a game of a thousand papercuts than a game of powerful shifts in power. Dumping half your round into flipping Italy might feel a worthwhile use of those cards, but it seems like dispersing your influence across several smaller locations, spreading control across the entire map, rather than focusing hard into one area is the better way to go for the long run. The same goes for those juicy card combinations: sometimes it might be better to use the Ops points than the action off the event. Don’t let the game’s cards or your opponent dictate your strategy in a reactive way.

Insight #5: Lead with a Haymaker, not a Whisper

And that kind of leads into the final insight I’m sharing here. Honestly, so much is closely related to where it probably all can be summed up with this thought: be proactive, not reactive. Too often the “turtle” strategist in me wanted to rise to the surface, slow-playing the things in my hand with the intent of using the stronger stuff a little later in the round, when I could see the direction things were heading. Twice my opponent completely burned me with reducing all of my Ops points by 1, leading me to strongly regret not playing key things earlier in the turn. As mentioned before, it is far easier to stake the first claim than to flip it. You already know you will be forced to play almost your entire hand. You have a good idea about what you will need to try and accomplish with that hand, and can prioritize from there what should happen first, before they can interfere with your plans. Lead with strong plays, whether in the form of events or in Ops, in order to make them sweat and potentially spend their time trying to counteract your moves instead of fulfilling their own agenda for the turn. And if that isn’t motivation enough, that Defcon track ought to inspire you about where to focus your early efforts in an attempt to lock down key areas of the map before they get restricted.

One of the tendencies was also to lead with non-Soviet cards and save those for the very last cards. I think this is likely a very common tendency, too, as they are the ones that can hurt back. One you can discard into the Space Race location, and that should be the one with either an event you cannot really weather or with diminishing returns on the card value. Far too often I was tossing the highest Op Point card for my opponent, but what if that card’s Op Points were enough to make it a better play overall than that 1-Op card which gave them a far better event than I could earn with that single Op? Better yet, what event, if played early, might make their focus shift to somewhere less important for the round and thereby open the door for a stronger play when getting to my other cards? Either way they were getting to play one of those events since I had those cards in hand, and if I can get them to play into my hand (or lose sight of how to optimize their own hand) by throwing them off-guard a little early in the round, isn’t that a sign of a small victory in Twilight Struggle?

Wrap-Up

So there you have it. Straight from the fingertips of an amateur, both in Wargames and to Twilight Struggle. I’d like to think that I’ve given a fair amount of consideration with my reflections. These aren’t high-level tips or strategies. I’ve tried reading and watching some strategy tips out there and most, honestly, go over my head so far because I am not nuanced enough in the game to catch the subtle references and the X counters Y layers. It’ll take many more losses before I get to that point. My hope for the rematch isn’t even to win, but to do better than the last game where I moved the VP into my side only twice, both fleeting “advantages” during the middle of the game where I actually was playing decent in terms of strategy.

My hope is that you found some enjoyment here, even if you are a seasoned veteran of Twilight Struggle. Even if it is at the expense of an amateur who may be in for a rude awakening if he realizes these insights are still off the mark during that rematch.

And I hope this is the first (recent) of many contributions to GMT Insider in the future as I explore more games within their lengthy catalog.