Thursday, June 21, 2007

Age of Steam

I pushed for Age of Steam again this week since we may lose our borrowed copy. My second session did little to alter my feelings about the game, but some of the warts are starting to show themselves. I'll get to that later.

This was a 5-player game. The cube distribution favored long links; I think there were only 6 initially deliverable on our first builds. Perhaps this is typical, but, in my first game, we delivered a lot more before needing to increase our link capabilities. Urbanization became the action du jour. First Move was more valuable than First Build because there was more competition for cube colors than there was for board space.

Age of Steam is a fantastic game. I even raised my rating from a 9 to a 9.5--a spot which it shares with El Grande.

So what are these warts?

One, towns ruin an otherwise elegant system. You not only have to build track to the town, you must add track in the town hex to connect to the smaller circle within. Also, since track built in the town hex counts for VP's, Urbanizing over a town to kill opponents' VP's become viable. This is way too gamey. Towns should just be full gray hexes with no internal tracks.

Two, the rules are not very good. For all his posturing about the rules, "minimum spanning set" diatribes, and his precious not-allowed-online intellectual property, John Bohrer just makes himself look like a fool. For example, the rules for Unfinished Track, Income Reduction, and VP's for track in towns (example notwithstanding) are all arguably unclear. The point of the rules is to teach the game, not to be as "minimal" as possible. And these rules fail on both counts. They are not terrible rules as rules go; they just do not live up to the hype.

I'm looking forward to seeing what Martin Wallace comes up with for Age of Steam 3rd Edition. I'm hoping that all of the above is taken care of. Mayfair should do a good job with the rules, and they will be posted online. I'm also hoping that they do not go overboard with art and/or graphics. The plain style of the original board is very functional, although the scoring/goods boards could use a better treatment.

Age of Steam image by Nodens77

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Tide of Iron: Scenario 2

Tonight was our second game. We decided that we are going to play all the scenarios each using the same sides all the way through. This way it won't be as easy to remember the mistakes of the opponent from the day before.

With my new cases, setup and cleanup were much faster. We played this scenario in only 4 hours from empty table to empty table. This included many pauses for rules checks. I thought it would be easier than our first game, but many things came up which we just couldn't answer. I posted all my questions to BGG. Mike Z has been great about supporting the game.

I had hopes after the first game that the rules were 99% complete, but I'm starting to see the holes as I try more complicated things. By holes, I mean 2 things: ambiguous or unaddressed issues, and touches of inelegance. Examples of the latter are assaults from razor wire, and assaults against vehicles. Granted, the system is simple and abstract, but a more realistic system (mostly small tweaks) would be so much more elegant. Most of the issues I have are small.

Setup is getting to me. I simply can't stand putting 36 tiny infantry figures into 9 bases. Since most of them are filled with regulars, I simply adopted the convention that an empty base is full of regulars. If it takes hits, I add figures. This saves about 15 minutes.

I played the Americans, and made a lot of silly mistakes, like not playing the command card that dropped in a "Neutral 2" marker, and then when I did do it, I forget to occupy it. Several times, I moved units one less than their full movement and didn't think to fire at half. With all my mistakes, I easily overran the German defenses, occupying 5 of the 6 buildings on turn 7. The Germans had a single squad left at that time. We couldn't come up with a better way for the Germans to play other than to throw everything they have at holding the bridge.

Tide of Iron image by earache

Friday, June 08, 2007

Tide of Iron!

I played Tide of Iron tonight. Where do I begin...

We started at 7pm, opened the box, laid out all the components, punched and punched and punched, setup the first scenario, played it, put it away. And it was barely 3am.

Punching and organizing the bits took about an hour. Putting the game away took about 20 minutes. See those cases in the image? I need some of those. That would easily save 45 minutes per session.

Setup was about an hour, but only because I had to describe some of the rules to make the decisions meaningful.Then another 30 minutes to go over command, cards, turn sequence, movement and combat. The first game turn was about 90 minutes. Turns got progressively faster--maybe as fast as 20-30 minutes.

In the first scenario, the Americans are holding a line on one end of a 9-board map (3x3). The Germans must occupy 3 hexes of this line at the end of any game turn to win. The Americans must prevent this. The Germans get the use the Command and Morale decks, but the Americans get Reinforcements and Support. It really looks bad for the Germans, but my opponent was up for the challenge.

I lost a double machine gun squad early on. I really thought I would be overwhelmed, but my stream of reinforcements--albeit regular infantry--was enough to fill the gaps the Germans were blasting in my front lines. My favorite move was to use combined fire (4 squads) against the mighty Panzer (in open ground) which resulted in heavy damage. It could no longer move, but it could fire at half firepower for the rest of the game.

As is done in ASL, we decided to create a verbal notation for attacks. A normal attack with 4 black dice and 2 red we called a "4-2". A long range suppressive attack with 5 black dice and 1 red we called an "L-5-1-S". The above combined fire attack on the tank was a...oops! As I am typing this, I realized we played that wrong. Infantry has a range of 1 against vehicles. We did, however, remember that all the supporting units fired at half firepower. This kind of thing will likely happen often in your first game. There are quite a lot of rules to wrap your head around. Not really exceptions. Each unit type just has its own characteristics in various situations.

Contrary to all expectations, I didn't have to run to the computer to check BGG for a rules question once. The rulebook isn't perfect, but we managed to figure out stuff that wasn't 100% clear.


The boards are so warped! Just kidding. They are solid and flat. Did I mention they are flat? The map graphics are kind of low-res and blurry, but at least they are very functional and not harsh in the least. All the cardboard bits are thick and colorful--very nicely chosen icons and colors to contrast the boards and plastic. The men were a little smaller than I expected, but after handling them, I don't know how you could make them bigger without making everything else bigger. I didn't have much trouble fitting infantry into the bases, but it does take a while. All in all I'm pretty happy with the production.


This is a solid game. You are playing not only a positional game, but also a game of management of command (which lets you buy initiative and cards that give you cool benefits), unit composition, using special abilities, careful timing, misdirection, and risk. For example, mortars can only fire at enemy units that can be seen by one of your non-fatigued units. If you wait too long to use them, you may have no "forward observers" left. Units in Op Fire mode (waiting to shoot at moving enemy units) become fatigued if they get pinned or disrupted, and a savvy opponent will know when to take advantage of this.

The normal/suppressive fire concepts really work well. In fact, suppressive fire can be deadlier than normal fire. If you are will to use up 3 units (and 3 actions), you can take an enemy unit from normal to pinned to disrupted to routed (eliminated) with only 1 resulting hit each attack. Leaders play a huge role, especially in their ability to remove disruption markers, and to allow pinned units to fire. Leaders and elite units increase effective cover against suppressive attacks. Squads with medic specialization increase effective cover against normal attacks, and can heal (replace) lost men.

I really felt like I had complete control over my fate, and many ways to accomplish my goals. In fact, the more I understood how the mechanics worked together, the harder it was to decide what to do. I really enjoyed this first game. The only thing that might give me pause to "whip it out and play a quickie" is the setup time. It really is a beast. When we play it, it will likely be the only game we play that session. I expect our next play of this same scenario to take about 3 hours.

I'm probably ordering Descent with my next game order. I now need more space for my games! Maybe I can get by without a bed?...

Tide of Iron image by WhereAreTheBlackDice

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Age of Steam!

Tonight was the night. A lost, found, borrowed, and transported copy of Age of Steam arrived amidst our game night. We had 7, and were eager to split into 2 groups: those who wanted to play AoS, and those other losers (I forget their names).

I've played Railroad Tycoon once. I heard that AoS is a heavier and less forgiving version of RRT. I expected very bad things if I made the slightest mistake. I expected at least 1 of 4 new players to go bankrupt before the end.

In reality, AoS is more elegant. The only nasty thing about it is that you can only issue shares at the beginning of each turn. This forces you to plan...and plan...and plan. You may want to build a certain link. What if someone builds it before you? Where will you build next? How much will it cost? What if you have to bid more than you expect?

From what I could see, there are two extremes. Either you decide to hold yourself to a fixed amount of cash and deal with shortages by building less or in a different location, or you plan for the worst case so you can do something good no matter what happens. I didn't plan everything, and I didn't examine contingencies too much. I always made sure I'd have enough cash to build the minimum of what I wanted (and expenses after income), plus a little slop. This worked well for me, although I did not win.

I wouldn't call the game forgiving, but there seems to be plenty of room for many different styles of play. I did not miss the cards found in RRT, but I did miss the 3 rounds of building track. I liked that I could focus almost exclusively on building and shipping.

As the game reached the midpoint, the number of possibilities became large. Each turn began with several minutes of silent calculation. The one part of the game that is opaque to me is turn order. If I'm not going first, how can I have any control over what action I select? If I allow myself go 2nd, I might not get what I need. Do I take a chance? Should I be able to figure out what the player who might go first will select? Maybe that will come with experience.

The board is a minimalists dream: bold, solid colors, very little artistic license that confounds playability, and simple discs and cubes (ie no silly plastic trains or empty city markers). The only negatives are the horrible rules (we were eventually able to figure out what they meant by inference and common sense) and the cheap plastic coins.

I like AoS slightly more than RRT after this one play. I might actually try to pick up a copy some day.

Age of Steam image by Nodens77

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Yet Another Game Order

Tide of Iron seems to be in short supply despite the thousands of copies pouring into the US. So when I saw only 8 left at Game Surplus, I didn't waste any time. It will be mine.

And while I was at it, I added a couple more games from my want list. I was inspired by Mark Haberman, one of my co-hosts from The Metagamers podcast, to give Fjords a try (during the show no less). And, of course, one of my recent favorites, Notre Dame.

Many, many pages of rules to read this month...