Friday, January 19, 2007

Investor Wargames

The Appalachian Gamers played Britannia last weekend, and while we all enjoyed ourselves, when we next met, some of us talked about how unenthusiastic we were about the game once we had some perspective on it. There seemed to be few interesting decisions in Britannia; the game lists which territories provide each tribe with the most victory points, and so each player’s course of action is programmed into the game. This might have been alright if the game had a complex combat system or a production system in which a player chooses which type of unit to create. But combat in Britannia is plain vanilla die-rolling, and only a couple of nations have anything other than simple infantry units.

For us, Britannia pales when compared with two new sophisticated euro-wargame hybrids that share similar mechanisms: Perikles and Imperial. Both Perikles and Imperial are what I call investor wargames because players are not assigned nations or forces at the start of the game. Instead, players use mechanisms to gain influence over nations in the game, and they only control armies once their influence dominates a particular nation. Control of nations can shift during the game, and the games treat nations like companies that players can invest in to get a payoff.

Perikles is Martin Wallace game, and it is a rather abstract version of the Peloponnesian War that is played in three turns. Each turn, players place influence markers in various Greek city-states. Once leadership in each city has been determined, some random tiles are drawn that represent contested areas in the war. Players then use the armies they control to attack or defend these tiles in order to get victory points. In the subsequent round, leadership of each city-state is likely to shift, although players still have a sort of investment in the success of cities they have once led. Perikles has a mounted game board, but it is not a map. Armies do not maneuver; they are simply placed on opposite sides of contested tiles.

At first glance, Imperial (from Mac Gerdts who also designed Antike) looks like a conventional wargame, or maybe a redesign of Diplomacy. The mapboard shows Europe and North Africa in the pre-World War I era divided up into six super-power nations and several smaller countries that are available for conquest. Players represent international financiers who loan money to the super-powers, and who then take control of the nations where they are the biggest investor. A rondel gives players a choice of actions that can be taken each turn; the main choices are production of armies and navies, maneuver, taxation, and investor payout. Nations that grow and conquer gain power points that increase the value of investments in these nations.

The Appalachian Gamers played Perikles a couple of weeks ago, and we played our first game of Imperial on Wednesday of this week. (For Imperial, we used a much-discussed variant I spotted on the Boardgamegeek that gives any player who doesn’t control a nation one million dollars when the Investor card is activated. This variant makes it less likely that a player will be stuck without control of a nation for long periods of game time. I recommend it). Reaction to both games was positive, although Imperial garnered the most praise. I can’t remember when our group has responded so enthusiastically to a game. In spite of my dismal performance in Imperial (I came in dead last in a six player game) I enjoyed Imperial immensely, and it may become one of my favorite games.

How do Imperial and Perikles differ? Possibly the biggest difference is that Imperial is a luckless game with no dice and no cards and with perfect information available at all time, while Perikles has a good amount of randomness built in, and hidden placement of armies. Gamers who prefer to avoid luck-factor games will enjoy Imperial more than Perikles.

For me, another thing that Imperial has in its favor is the conventional map board and standard army units. It looks and feels more like a wargame without the complexity that usually drives euro-gamers away from wargames (in combat, units simply eliminate each other in mutual destruction on a one-to-one basis). This is not to say that conventional wargame tactics are the path to victory in Imperial. My attempt to use to the might of the British navy to conquer the northwest corner of the board wasted huge amounts of time and resources while other nations used taxation to gain the power points that made their nations triumph.

Although some of the gamers in my group may prefer Imperial to Perikles, I’m not going to claim that Imperial is a better game. At least one member of our group said that he liked Perikles more, and it is possible that even those who liked Imperial more may be expressing a slight preference, not a large one. Ted Cheatham said that Perikles reminded him of Liberte, another Martin Wallace design, in that he finds it hard to devise a strategy in a game where armies or political parties shift from one player to another. But this very difficulty may appeal to gamers who enjoy the challenge of games with depth.

In one of my first essays for Gone Gaming, I wrote how the blending of wargames and euro-games are resulting in interesting hybrids. I think that both Perikles and Imperial are good examples of this trend. I hope that more designers will go down this road. I hope that Perikles and Imperial are merely the vanguard of an approaching army of interesting hybrid wargames.


TrimChris said...

I haven't played Pericles yet, but I find Britannia to have much more interesting choices then Imperial. Also, I don't find Imperial to be a wargame hybrid at all. I see it more as a pure stock market game with a wargame veil obscuring the market manipulation mechanics. The units dying in combat by simple elimination strips away this veil rather quickly. Sophisticated is the last word I'd use to describe Imperial.

After one play of Britannia, it may indeed seem that your actions are preprogrammed, but there is much more depth that only multiple plays will reveal. Your objectives in Brit is going to overlap with the objectives of other nations. So do you fight for those objectives at all costs and sacrifice your long-term potential or do you negotiate a deal that gives you less than you'd like? Do you sacrifice memebers of one of your nations (and thus losing some of its scroring opportunity) to better set-up one of your other nations? When you choose to fight and when you choose to retreat will have significant impact.

To truly enjoy Brittania though, you need some appreciation of watching how history will unfold in one game vs. the last. I think this is true for most wargames. And Britannia does this well. After a dozen games I have not yet seen a duplicated result. I like well made hybrid games for their mechanics, but this "sweep of history" impact is still missing from most.

dgilligan said...

One of the biggest problems I had with Britannia was the length of the game. I takes 4-5 hours to play and after a few hours it seemed extremely repetitive.

Yes, I can see how the game could unfold differently with a different set of choices but I don't find the choices to be terribly difficult. As the last poster said, do I score with this nation or do I use it to set up a future nation. I base that upon who I see as doing well or poorly (try to score if I'm leading...try to set up if behind and preferably set up by hurting the leader.) Decisions around fighting or retreating seemed to be no brainers most of the time.

In Imperial, I found the choices to be much more varied. Here are some questions I see in Imperial:

What country do I want?
Why do I want it?
What will I do with it if I get it?
Will anyone else want it forcing me to increase investment?
What is my best choice on the rondel given the current situation? Which country should I work with? Which should I destroy?
Should I milk this country for all its worth and leave it a lifeless husk or ride it out for the long haul?
If I do milk it dry, where do I go next?

And so on, and so on.

Perikles also has a wide variety of choices and ways to score victory points that lend it to being a much deeper game than Britannia in my opinion. To me, one of the best aspects of both Imperial and Perikles is that they can be enjoyed in a couple of hours or less, given experienced players, allowing for more gaming goodness to take place!

I would agree that they are not wargames in the classic sense but they do have a wargame aspect to them, in addition to other mechanics. All said, I will gladly play either Imperial or Perikles again before even considering another marathon session of Britannia.

TrimChris said...


Your list of questions for Imperial may be longer, but I think most of them are easier and quicker to decide than the problems you need to solve to play Britannia. If someone disrupts your strategy in Imperial, too often you can just shift your investment elswhere and barely skip a beat.

I find the repetitiveness of mechanics in Britannia and Imperial to be the same.

And when did two 2 hour games become more gaming then a single 4 hour game? I see this as a fallacy. I'm always of the opposite mind. The two hours I spent on a filler could have been better invested into a game of more consequence.

dgilligan said...

I agree the length or shortness of a game isn't the final arbiter of goodness. I think it would be fair to say, however, that there are some games that are good for their particular length.

To me, Britannia was much too long for what I get out of it. I wouldn't mind playing a 5 hour game as long as it is engaging for me. As a matter of fact, I'm going to be playing Die Macher with Kris this weekend and will see if the reviews for that game are correct...they essentially say it is 5 hours well spent and the time goes by quickly.

Imperial and Perikles, on the other hand, work well for the time it takes to play those games. 2 hours or less. I get more enjoyment out of one two hour game of these than a 5 hour Britannia session. If you think Perikles and Imperial are fillers then I don't think we could ever come to any sort of agreement on the relative merits of these games.

TrimChris said...

Calling a 2 hour game a filler is equivalent to calling a 5 hour game a marathon. There are games out there that take more than a day (or even a week - Gulp!) so that's the perspective I'm coming from. But I rarely associate the quality of a game to its length at all. If there's a great game that only took two hours to play, I'm the first to suggest we play it again (later that day if not immediately). It's the only way to truly discover the depth of a game and all it has to offer.

Five hours do seem to fly by when playing Die Macher. My group feels the same way about Britannia, because there usually isn't a lot of downtime before you have to make decisions again. We're usually engaged throughout. Compare this to History of the World. Now there's a 5 hour game that seems to take longer than its duration. Despite that downtime, I still like it too. But I recognize that design will turn off some gamers.