Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Empires in America

The next random game from my collection is Empires in America, part of the States of Siege series of solitaire games by Victory Point Games.  Back in 2010 I wrote about another game in the series, Zulus on the Ramparts, also by designer Joseph Miranda, as fate would have it.  Empires in America deals with the French and Indian War, and puts the player in charge of the French forces.    Like all "States of Siege" games, the player is defending a central location (Montreal, in this case) while the opposing forces (British) are moving in along different tracks.  There are some differences, though, as is the case for all games in the series.  Where "Zulus" had the player randomly drawing counters from a cup to determine which attacking force gets closer, "Empires" has each army with a leader advance every turn.  This can turn ugly in a hurry.  To counter this, the player can use his French leaders to attack British armies and, if successful, force them back.  Of course, the player can't have it all his way, so you are limited in what you can do each turn by only have a few action points.  Want to launch an attack?  That takes an action point.  Want to play a card from your hand?  That takes an action point?  Want to build a fort (which helps slow down British armies)?  That takes TWO action points.  And on, and on.  You usually don't have enough actions.

The pace of the game is determined by drawing "historique cards."  Three per turn until the Seven Years War kicks off in Europe, and then four cards per turn.  The expansion set (which I have!) adds more cards, so if using that you draw four / six cards, instead.  Cards can provide new leaders to the French and British, militia or indian allies to either side, or world events, which change events some how.  There is serious randomness to the cards, and I have lost games because I drew a bunch of British leaders and not enough French leaders (the games rules mitigate this somewhat by not allowing any side to have two or more leaders than the other side, but some of those British leaders are nasty).  Thus, I have had British just march up the map and lose the game in five turns flat.  Granted, I've also had a game where I just stomped the British into dust every time they poked their heads out of their home bases, so that's how it goes in a card-driven game.

Even with the inherent randomness of the cards, I really like this game.  It captures the hard time that the French had in the war once the British really committed, and I like that feeling of needing to do five different things, but only being able to do two or three.  Solitaire games live and die by the decisions the player has to make, and this game provides good tension and decision making.  Also, how many games of the French and Indian War are out there?  Not many.  This game has earned its place in my collection.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Star Explorer

This time on the random walk through my game collection we come to one only recently acquired, Star Explorer.  There are two editions of this game.  The original, published in 1982 by Fantasy Games Unlimited; and the current version, published by Goblinoid Games as either a "download to play" digital copy, or as a print on demand title from The Game Crafter.  I have a print on demand copy, more on which below.

The basic game is essentially a Star Trek: original series adventure game.  Each player has a heavy cruiser that they use to visit planets on the galactic map, where they send down away teams to have adventures.  You have ten different types of crew, from navigators and fire control teams, to botany and geologic experts, to those poor saps in the military teams that die in droves (yep, you've got redshirts!).  Of course, it isn't actually a Star Trek game, because Paramount pictures won't just give that license away for free.  Because Fantasy Flight Games never got the license, they changed just enough things to give them plausible deniability if the lawyers ever came calling.  For example, the Klingon analogue is the "Zangids."  They are obviously Klingons, of course, right down to the artwork on the counters.  So you can easily just overlay Star Trek stuff onto the game if you prefer.

From a mechanical standpoint, this is a resource management game.  You start the game with a heavy cruiser with a basic equipment layout, as well as a complement of 25 crew teams.  You have some customization options with the specific crew you have, but you must have at least seven military teams and no less than one of the other nine types of crew teams.  You then get five "points" to spend to customize your ship, which can be extra crew, extra fuel (highly recommended), extra armor, extra weapons, extra transporters, etc.

Once your ship is equipped you fly it to one of the four planets on the map to have adventures.  One of the planets (randomly placed based on die rolls) has your primary mission on it, which you know about before the game begins.  All of the other encounters are randomly determined once you arrive at the planet.  Of course, sometimes getting to your destination is an adventure on its own.  To reflect this, each hex a player's ship moves on the map requires a roll of a six-sided die.  On a "6" you roll on the space encounter table to see what happens.  Sometimes it is a navigational hazard, sometimes it is a pirate or Zangid warship, and sometimes it is just news of something important that changes the game.  For example, in my first game, ON THE FIRST MOVE, I got a special event of increased Zangid activity, which meant that if I rolled a "1" while travling in a hex I had a 50% chance of encountering a Zangid warship that turn.  I ran into a lot of Zangid that game.

Combat is actually pretty fun and strikes a nice balance between simplicity and having to make strategic choices.  Before a battle starts you can choose to fight, parley/bribe, or attempt to run away.  If you successfully parley, you get full victory points without even having to fight your enemy, which is pretty awesome.  Of course, if you fail, they attack you at shorter range.  Running away loses you victory points, but sometimes you will die horribly if you don't.  Fighting uses beams and missiles to try to destroy the other ship's armor (though when you get it down to 25% they automatically run away).  Beams have a longer range but do less damage, while missiles are the inverse.  Every turn you choose how many shields to use and how many weapons to fire.  You can do critical damage that knocks out a ship component, and you can injure or kill crew, as well.  Whatever you use, it costs fuel, so you can't always just go in guns blazing.  I liked the decision making each turn to try to maximize your effectiveness while saving fuel.

On each planet you randomly roll a terrain type, and then you have up to three encounters (always a chance for three, but sometimes you will get a disaster instead, which is just something bad that happens).  You assign away teams to conduct each mission, and then you roll on the mission-specific tables from the rulebook to see what happens.  Success or failure, you are most likely going to lose some red shirts, which is thematically appropriate.  Good thing you have a lot of them!  I found this to be the most drab part of the game.  You can quickly figure out the optimal choices to make with your teams, and then it is just down to whether you get your die rolls or not to succeed.

You have to complete all encounters on all planets (or take a victory point hit for abandoning them) and then return to home base in 20 turns.  Completing things early gets you bonus points, while returning late costs you a points penalty.  While this game has counters for up to four players, I think it probably works best as a solitaire game.  Each player is really doing their own thing, as there is little interplay between the characters.  The only impact that having multiple players brings is that any special events rolled during space travel impact all players equally, and that if player one completes an encounter on a planet nobody else can complete it.  So there is a race going on for victory points, but if a player pulls ahead other players can't really do anything about it other than hope for a change in lucky die rolls.

Lastly, let me comment on the game components of the print on demand game.  Overall, I am not impressed.  The 20 page rulebook is 10 pages of double-sided laser-printed paper, with no binding at all.  The counter sheet is thick card laser printed, so you have to cut the counters out with a pair of scissors.  I personally find the counters too thin, and if I play this game in the future I plan to raid my Federation Commander game for counters.  the map board is also just laser printed card, and honestly does not look like it will hold up to a lot of play.  At least the dice are decent.

Overall, this game is okay.  It is fun, but the planetary missions get dry with the endless die rolling and looking up results on tables.  "Role-playing" it by coming up with personalities to be on each team would likely help in that regard, but at the cost of making the game take longer.  I do like the simple but effective space combat system, and blasting stupid pirates is fun, especially when you have shields and they don't.  Still, I'm not sure how much play this game will be seeing in the future.  It will probably only hit the table if I'm in a real Star Trek mood, which doesn't happen very often.

Friday, March 01, 2013

Blood & Thunder

The wargame Blood & Thunder was published 20 years ago (as of this writing) by Game Designers' Workshop.  Its theme and focus is warfare on the Eastern front during World War II.  The game includes close to two dozen scenarios, rules to design your own scenarios, and many different maps that can be combined in different ways, so there is a LOT of game in the box.  In fact, when I started reading the rules and looking at how the game was designed, I could not help but think that the whole project came from someone thinking that they liked the game Panzer Blitz, but felt that they could do more with it.  I was surprised at how similar some of the rules were, but where Panzer Blitz goes for simplicity, Blood & Thunder adds complexity on top.  Not a lot of complexity (the "rules" part of the rulebook doesn't exceed 16 pages), but enough to make me long for the simple yet effective mechanics of Panzer Blitz.  I also feel that this game suffers from a common problem with wargames of its era, where maps that aren't very large get filled by dozens of stacks of counters, such that you have to break out your tweezers to carefully lift counters off of stacks to see what is all in the stacks.  I quickly soured on games like this back in the day, and did not enjoy having to relive the situation.  Admittedly, you shouldn't have more than five counters in any particular hex on the map, but it still drove me to distraction.  Maybe I am just less patient about things as I advance in years.

Bottom line, I did not enjoy this game.  That may have as much to do with me as with the game, but there it is.  I am sure there are others who would enjoy this game, but it is not for me.  I have never cared much about gaming the Eastern front in WWII, and this game does not change that fact.