Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Review: End of the Triumvirate

My biases first: I am a big fan of theme in games and do not mind reaching through piles of chits if the theme and game play is good enough. While I do favor confrontation, chits, bits and polished pieces of AT games, there are still a large number of Euros that I'll build my farm on or attend auctions at and be quite content at the end of my experience. Also, while not a huge Roman history buff, I still am cringing at the thought of Titus Pullo sinking down to play Frank Castle.


The Overview:

End of the Triumvirate is a three-player quick, light war game set during the late Principate era of the Roman Republic where Gaius Julius Caesar, Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (Pompey) and Marcus Licinius Crassus had formed an unofficial triumvirate of power. The game plays out the break down of the alliances in the first Roman Triumvirate and represents a three-way civil war between these figures (a historical "what if").

The players represent one of the members of the Triumvirate, either Caesar, Pompey or Crassus. Each of the players is trying to obtain one of three possible victory conditions:

1. Political Victory: A player is elected Consul twice (elections are held at the end of every "year" or 8 turns. Or a player has been elected Consul prior AND has 6 citizens supporting him in his Forum section.
2. Military Victory: A player controls 9 Provinces.
3. Competence Victory: A player has his Military and Political competences each up to Level VII.

The map is laid out to represent 15 provinces of the Roman Empire around the Mediterranean and at the start, each leader controls 5 of the provinces. The provinces are broken down into three types Political, Military and Competence. The type dictates what resources will be gained there. Resources are generally gained every other turn of the controlling player (based on the governor's position) and the resources are placed in the province it is gained in. A large flat wooden square represents the position of each character on the board.

There is also a "Battle Bag" which is seeded with 2 weapons from each player. Weapons are represented by little colored cubes and really only signify a battle advantage. During the game more weapons can be seeded into the bag from a player, giving them more of a chance of drawing their cubes in battle, giving them more of an advantage.

Each player's turn is broken into three phases:

The first phase is Supply. Each territory that a player controls has a governor marker in it the same color as the player. If the governor is inside the supply box, it is moved out of it. If the governor is outside of the box, it is moved into it. If there is a Civil Servant chit in the province, the governor does not move and remains outside of the supply box. A Civil Servant essentially ensures that the province will be supplied every round instead of every other round. Then, any province that has their governor outside of the box (so that the supply icon is visible) receives supplies to that territory. Political provinces give 2 gold, Military provinces give 2 legions and Competence provinces give 1 gold and 1 legion. Afterwards, the player gets supplies from Rome in the form of either two gold, two legions or one of each.

The second phase is Movement. Each player gets 4 movements. Legions and Civil Servants cannot move on their own, but can be taken along for free with the character's movement. Each movement into an adjacent province or sea zone costs one movement point. If a character moves across a sea zone without legions, it costs a total of one movement point less. If you have a Civil Servant with you, you can leave it in the province, and the governor immediately is placed on top of it. If you enter a territory that you control that has gold in it, you pick up the gold and place it in your reserves in front of you. You can only enter a province controlled by another player if you have at least one legion with your character and you initiate an attack.

Attacks are resolved by the following: Weapons are drawn from the battle bag. You draw a number of cubes equal to the number of legions that the weaker side has, to a maximum of three cubes. For each color of the attacker drawn, a defending legion is eliminated. For each color of the defender, an attacker is eliminated. If a neutral color is drawn it counts towards the number pulled, but is placed back in the bag. If the defender's character is in the province, then the attacker loses 2 legions. Then, finally, an equal number of legions are removed from both sides until at least one side is reduced to zero legions. If there are any attacking legions left, the attacker controls the province and replaced the governor with one of his own.

Compensation is given to the defender if he lost a province (seeding the bag with more of his weapons, or, if multiple provinces are lost, adding to their military or political competence track). This actually strengthens a character in some ways, so it makes choosing your attacks a much more strategic decision since you could be pushing your enemy towards victory.

Because each player gets four movements, they can attack up to four times each round.

The third phase is Actions. A player can take up to three actions. The first one costs 1 gold to execute, the second costs 2 gold and a third costs 3 gold. So it would cost 6 gold to execute 3 actions.

The actions you can take are dependant upon which kind of territory you end up in (adding to the strategy of your movements and possible conquests). If you are in a Political Province, you can either move your Political Competence up the track by one or you may EITHER move one Citizen into your support area in the Forum or move Citizen out of the support area of another player (moving Citizens costs two extra gold if you do not lead in the Political Competence track). If you are in a Military Province, you can either move your Military Competence up the track by one or seed the battle bag with two weapons of your color (this option costs 2 extra gold if you do not lead in Military Competence). If you are in a Competence Province, you may either move your Political or Military Competence up one on their respective track.

Finally, when the calendar marker reaches Elegio (after 8 turns), a Consul is elected. Whoever has the most Citizens supporting them in the Forum wins. If it is a tie, then the player who had their turn least recently is elected Consul. Since being elected Consul twice is a victory condition, the game will never continue past 4 years. After the Consul is elected, they give a short speech to herald in the new year, remove three Citizens from their support area and the calendar marker is returned to the beginning and play continues.


The Theme:

This is a light war game with different victory conditions giving a range of strategies to employ to try to win. It presents a three way civil war with a very interesting dynamic with the different objectives to victory. As a result, each player will most likely have to ally with the other players at least briefly from time to time throughout the game to ensure that another player does not pull ahead and win. At the same time, they have to be sure that their own attempt to stop another player does not aid the other one too much, giving them an advantage or chance for a quick win.


Learning the Game:

The learning curve of this game is very easy. The rules are short and simple. In fact, in my habit of being overly verbose with rules, I pretty much laid out every thing you need to know to play the game in the Overview. There are a couple of little things that can easily be over-looked for a new player, such as remembering your reinforcements from Rome, knowing that at the end of your turn you may only have 6 legions in any province and realizing that attacking does not necessarily end your turn, provided that you still have movement left. The only other thing that may take a little bit of time to fully grasp is looking at how close each player is to fulfilling any of the victory conditions. Sure, there are three ways that you can win, but since it is a three-player game, you need to be fully cognizant at all times that there are six ways for you to lose.


The Components:

There is nothing overly fancy about the components, but they are solid and excellent for what they are. For the most part, you are dealing with colored wooden cubes (legions and weapons), colored wooden cylinders (for the governors and smaller ones for the Citizens) and colored wooden planks (for the characters). There are a few markers which are thick, sturdy cardboard (for the calendar / turn marker and gold coins). And the reference cards for the game are all of a sturdy thick cardboard (character cards, Compensation cards, Consul cards and Escape card).

The board is small, but not too small. It is really an efficient and elegant set up. I like the look and feel of the board a lot. There really isn't the need for a bigger board for this game.


Playing the Game:

The game is a rather interesting strategy game. It is looking for the opportunity to get ahead along one of the victory routes while at the same time, watching both of your opponents to ensure that they do not get ahead as well. The game is designed to avoid bashing too much on one player, since there are some rewards to losing provinces.

I am sure that the game can lend itself to those who would play kingmaker, but with the different paths to victory available, I think it would be a more rare game in which someone felt that they were so far out of it as to not have a chance. It is a very interesting concept to be playing for both balance of your opponents while at the same time moving ahead yourself.

I have not played this game enough to really delve too deeply into differing strategy, but I have already gained enough of a respect for the game that I wanted to talk about (and recommend) it. I think that it fills a niche very nicely as well. It is a three player strategy/light war game that is played in an hour. Plus, it does it well and entertainingly.

I think that the three different victory conditions are all achievable as well, giving the game a lot of variety when it comes to strategy. However, while this opens up a lot of strategy, it still may not be filling if you are really looking for a war game. While at the same time, it may have too much direct conflict and "screw you over" moments to really appeal to someone looking for a strategic Euro game.


Scalability:

The game does have the option to play with just two players, changing the initial set-up and removing Crassus from the game. Don't do it though. The game is easy enough to learn that I would not waste the time to play it with just two-players just to learn the rules. The game is meant for three players and really does not scale well otherwise.


Does the Wife Like It?:

The most important category. I play games without her, but she's an integral part of my core gaming group. Despite being a cunningly deceptive strategist, she tends to not like war games or games with too much overly direct conflict. Alas, this game falls into that category. She does not hate it, per se, but she is by no means a fan of it. Fortunately, the game is short enough that she can be persuaded into playing a game of it, though it means that she has more leverage in whatever we pick to play next. And it isn't like she doesn't "get" the game. She has won and has employed different strategies to try to fulfill different victory conditions. But ultimately, this is a game where you will get directly attacked and screwed over by other players, so I think that turns her off from it, no matter how good she really is at the game.


The Pros:

*How many other three-player light war games that can be played in an hour are there?
*Different victory conditions offer different strategies.
*Quick, but deep enough to be filling for a perfect gaming snack.


The Cons:

*Perhaps not as deep or lengthy for some gamers.
*May be not meaty enough for war gamers, while at the same time, involve too much direct conflict for Euro-gamers, narrowing the selection of those who would really enjoy it.
*Does not scale, so expect to only play it if you have three players.


Overall: I happen to have found End of the Triumvirate to be a perfect little gem in my collection. Being a three-player game, it will only come down off of my shelf in certain situations, but my core group is small. However, since it is short, it is a great game to get going while waiting for others to arrive.

I happen to find End of the Triumvirate to be an elegant game that gives me just enough satisfaction on the conflict / strategy department to hold me over until I have the time and group to sit down and play something a little meatier.


8/10

Monday, December 1, 2008

Review: Space Alert

My biases first: I am a big fan of theme in games and do not mind reaching through piles of chits if the theme and game play is good enough. While I do favor confrontation, chits, bits and polished pieces of AT games, there are still a large number of Euros that I'll build my farm on or attend auctions at and be quite content at the end of my experience. I am often rather leery of gimmicky add-ons to games as most are more flash than substance. However, that does not mean that I am not won over from time to time on a bit of extemporaneous shiny flash. Oh, also, I do not mind losing games and often times I am very amused and entertained by a massive train wreck.


The Overview:

Space Alert is team cooperative game set in the future where the players are crewmembers aboard a recon space ship that hyperspaces into an uncharted sector, records data and (hopefully) hyperspaces back. The actual mission is played in "real-time" and the sector scan should only take about 10 minutes before you hyperspace back to safety, at which point you evaluate your actions and find out how well you did (and if you survived). My friend describes the game as a classic "communication and command exercise". That's terminology that he picked up while serving in the military. However, his time in the service has not necessarily helped his Axis and Allies game, so I don't know if it is useful here.

The ship itself is broken into three sections. To make it convenient, each section is color coded. The left section is red, the center section is white and the right section is blue. Each of the three sections has an upper and lower deck as well, giving the ship a total of six areas. Each deck section has its own weapon system, most of which draw energy from the reactors. The top decks control the shields for that section of the ship and the bottom decks house the energy required to power the equipment in that section of the deck.

In the game, the players each choose a crewmember pawn to represent them on the board. Then, the players each decide on roles in the game. There is the Captain, who, in theory, dictates the agenda and order of the crew. If you have someone in your group who uses terminology such as "communication and command exercise", he's probably a good choice for Captain. The Captain also is the first character to resolve their actions each round during the evaluation phase. There is the role of Communications Officer who is in charge of managing and maintaining all of the external ship threats that arrive. They should also let people know important things like if said threat can't be hit by missiles or if it is likely to drain all of the shields or destroy the ship by its next move. You know, the minor details. There is the role of Security Chief, which is a lot like the Communications Officer, but is in charge of managing and maintaining the internal threats. Finally, there is the Tactical Officer, which is really just a fancy title for the person who moves the counter during the evaluation phase.

After roles are assigned, everyone is dealt three random hands of action cards (one for each of the three phases of the Action Round). The action cards each have two actions on them, though when you play a card, you only get to take one of the two actions. There are movement actions (left, right and going either up or down on the gravolift) and the other actions are denoted by A, B, C or attacking with the Battlebots. A actions are used for firing the weapons system in whichever compartment of the ship you are in. B actions are used for powering the shields in the upper decks and recharging the power supplies in the lower decks. C actions vary dependant upon which section you are in and range from firing missiles, to toggling the screen saver off, to activating battlebots, to looking out the window. And, of course, the "Attack with the Battlebots" action lets you attack with the battlebots.

Players should then be ready for the start of the Action Phase. At this time, the CD is played corresponding to whichever mission the players have chosen. The CD represents the ship's computer, which announces threats and timing as well as other things that may occur. The computer will announce threats such as a threat appearing along the red trajectory on turn 3. At that point it is up to the Communications Officer to draw a random threat card and place it on the red trajectory and signify that it will not be there until round three. Each threat has its own movement speed, and damage that it does to the ship, as well it's own hit points and shields to determine how, when and if it is destroyed by the crew. And each subsequent round, the threat moves closer to the ship, possibly triggering one of its attacks.

During this time, the crew will be running around and dealing with the threats by laying out their action cards. Each crew member can take up to twelve actions and timing is important. Threats do not appear until certain rounds and shooting along a trajectory on round 2 when the threat doesn't appear until round 3 is a waste of an action, card and energy. Each player lays their cards face down as well, so you cannot look over at another player's action, you need to be able to communicate exactly what you are doing and when. Also, resource management is key as well. If a section's energy is depleted on round 4 and you try to shoot a weapon or charge the shield on round 5, nothing will happen. Then, insult is usually added to injury as another crewmember then recharges the energy on round 6. That is where communication is very important in this game.

The CD will tell you when the time is up and you hyperspace back. This signifies the start of the Resolution Round. The board is set up as it was when you started and threats are checked to make sure that the Communications Officer and Security Chief set them up right (and along the right trajectory and at the correct time). Then each player goes through and each of their actions are played and resolved in order. The Action Round is kind of the chaotic directing and in-the-moment phase. The Resolution Round is kind of like the movie playback of what really happened. And a lot of the time, what really happened is nothing like what you wanted to happen.

If at any point during the Resolution Round any section of the ship takes 7 points of damage, the ship is destroyed and all of the crew die. If the crew is able to make it back alive, then you award points on how successful you were by determining which threats were defeated and which you survived and so forth.


The Theme:

The theme of this game is communication through pure chaos. The CD and real-time aspect really are immersive as you get a sense of tension and chaos of being a crew in a 10 minute life-or-death situation where every action must be precise and well timed or else you will be responsible for the horrible deaths of yourself and all of your crewmembers.

That being said, those deaths are usually incredibly funny.

It does not matter how well coordinated and what your coolness-under-fire rating was during the Action Round. When you get to the Resolution Round and actually play out your cards and actions, almost invariably, you discover that you or someone else in the crew made even the smallest error which threw everything off. There is nothing better than seeing that a crewmember was in the lower deck looking out the window as their action (to get more points for visual confirmation) when firing the cannons down there would have stopped the threat screaming towards them. Also, I have discovered that I become amnesiac as soon as the Action Round is over. As soon as I flip over my first action on the Resolution Phase, I blink and wonder, "Damn. Did I really mean to do that?" I am surprised every time at what I thought was a well planned round. Even if it ended up being what I had planned to do, that bit of memory is stripped from my mind the second we start the Resolution.


Learning the Game:

The learning curve of the game is not too difficult. However, I would definitely recommend playing through the tutorial missions even if it is a veteran crew with one or two new crewmembers. The tutorials work excellently in keeping the theme while gradually introducing new elements so as not to overwhelm players.

The rulebook is well written and very clear. It is also rather amusing and worth the read on its own. And, for continuity buffs, Space Alert is set in the same game universe as Galaxy Trucker, even though the games could not be further separated in feel.


The Components:

The version that I have is from Essen and has what I believe are limited edition glass translucent colored components. These will be replaced in later editions with standard wooden cubes. They are pretty, but do not really matter much in the long run. It is just cosmetic. I imagine that they will not create anywhere near the same level of desire as limited edition animeeples did.

That being said, the components are good. The board is efficient and the pieces are good. There are a lot of little bits in the game, but I don't have a problem with that.

My only complaints with the components are that the action cards are small and thin and there are a lot of them. This makes shuffling them difficult to do. Also, there are three power markers than are cylinders. The glass ones have rounded, softer edges, so they tend to topple over and roll over the board a lot. I actually think wooden cylinders would have a better edge to stand up better. But those are very minor quibbles on what are otherwise good and very efficient components.


Playing the Game:

The game really is an exercise in trying to control and maintain a chaotic situation. And communication. You need to communicate and be aware of what other players are doing at all times. And it is very, very fun because of that. I happen to enjoy the chaos and destruction and finding out that someone misstepped and threw everything off. It makes the resolution much more entertaining when a player flips over their card and blinks and says, "I move to the lower deck... Wait... Why the hell did I move to the lower deck?!?"

Our group has a good attitude when it comes to losing. None of us mind it as long as the game play is enjoyable, be it a co-op or team or single player losses. However, I could see for win-oriented players how this game would be an exercise in frustration. You will probably lose. A lot. Some times it will be your fault, some times it will be someone else's fault and some times it will be a colossal group cluster-f***. So far my biggest blunder was as Communications Officer, I told everyone that the huge asteroid was coming down the blue sector, when, after the round I reviewed and found out that it was coming down the red. So our crew ran over and diligently fired at nothing on the blue track, while the asteroid hit our red hull and destroyed us. Apparently during that game, I was not a very efficient "Computer Repeater". I could see certain players see someone make a mistake and get angry with the player who made the error. For my group, I giggle when a player inexplicably decides to look out a window or walk into a wall when an interstellar octopus is about to rip through our already damaged hull. For others, it may turn into yelling and harsh feelings. Make sure that you have the right group and attitudes when playing this game!

The game can also play off of those who are perfectionists. Because the missions are short (about 20 minutes for the Action Round and Resolution Round to be completed) you can play a number of games back to back. This may play on those who feel the need to "get things right this time" and play again. And again. And again.


Scalability:

I've decided to add this section to my reviews as a lot of our games get played with just me and the wife, then get played again at our weekend gamer meetings. Anyhow, the game is designed for 2-5 players. I have played it a number of times with with 2, 3 and 4 players so far. When you have less than 4 players, you still play with 4 crewmembers, but the non-player ones are "androids" who are communally controlled, meaning that any player can lay cards on their action spaces.

The game shines with 4 players, as it was designed. There is usually an additional threat or so added in a five-player game (though I have not yet seen how that plays out). Four players seems to be the right amount as well. More players means more chaos and more voices talking over one another (and more people for the Captain to try to manage and maintain), but everything seems to click best with four.

Three people still makes for a very good game, but you have one android player. While it is less to keep track of when it comes to other players, it is actually more confusing since you have three people trying to throw cards onto the android space. While still immensely fun, I think the ordering works out better with four.

Two player games are less chaotic, but still fun and entertaining and worth playing to get used to the rules, but also for fun. We usually have one player each be responsible for one android, so it minimizes the cross-card chaos.

Four definitely is the sweet spot for this game, but it is still very much playable and fun with less.


Does the Wife Like It?:

The most important category. I play games without her, but she's an integral part of my core gaming group. Her level of frustration builds quicker than mine and she is not as big of a fan of laughing at our own train wrecks as I am. Since a good portion of my game playing involves her either 2-player or as part of a larger group, her opinion tends to affect how often I get to play a game on my shelf.

Despite her frustration when she loses, she has surprised me by liking this game as much as she does. She's still not as big of a fan of it as I am, but she's actually been the one to suggest playing it a couple of evenings. She doesn't have that bit of perfectionist that some of our core group does, so she does not want to play various missions one after the other like we do. But perhaps this is for the best. If not for her stepping up and saying, "Let's do something else," we probably would have easily played Space Alert well into 5 am trying to get a perfect mission.


The Pros:

*An incredibly innovative and fun game that pulls you into the hectic chaos of it all.
*Immersive and fun.
*A great atmosphere of tension and chaos.
*Enough variation of the random cards and trajectory tracts to make the 8 supplied mission tracks notably different every time you play.
*Well produced and efficient pieces.
*The CD / real time tracks are innovative and an amazing mechanic.
*With the right group, you will be laughing your asses off during the Resolution as you watch and wonder why the hell you took that action.


The Cons:

*With the wrong group, you may have someone angrily shouting at you at you during the Resolution as they watch and wonder why the hell you took that action.
*Reliance on a CD / real time track can be difficult to play at a convention or another area where you would need a player and have to worry about background noise.
*The action cards are small and difficult to shuffle (yeah, I had to reach that far to come up with another con)


Overall:

I have been very impressed with this game. Reading about it online before it came out, I thought that it might appeal to me and my group, but I had no idea of how good of a game I was going to be getting. It really is an interesting and innovative game and I can see how this mechanic could take games in a different direction. I know that the availability is scarce right now, especially in the U.S., but I would definitely highly recommend this game to anyone who thinks that this kind of communication and chaos would appeal to them and their group.

Even though it is still relatively new, it will take a lot to bring this game down from its position among my favorites.


9.5/10