Friday, August 18, 2006

The Two-Player IGA Nominees

I won’t make any predictions about who could win or lose the IGA two-player competition because I know nothing about the politics of the organization or what they like to look for. But I’ve played three of these games, and Shannon Appelcline has played the other two, so between us we have something to say about all of them. First, here are Shannon’s comments on Punct and Travel Blokus.

Punct is an abstract game that centers around building connections across the board, with two cool differences that you don't find in most games of the sort. First, you can build three-dimensionally by bridging some pieces over others, and second you can move pieces after they've hit the board.

Despite not liking abstracts in general, I like this one, and would say it's the best 2-player game I've picked up since last year's (very different) Dungeon Twister. On the downside it degenerates into form of trench warfare at the end, with lots of back and forth.

I think Punct has some cachet as the last GIPF game, but I don't think that's enough to offset the non-sexiness of being a pure abstract, and thus I'd rate Punct as a dark horse candidate for the IGA, though a deserving one if it does win. (And I'll comment that Dvonn, a GIPF game, did win in the past, and in the first round of voting even.)

Travel Blokus is this year's 2-player version of the Blokus game, made smaller and more compact for the traveler (though for gamers I suspect its main appeal is the 2-player aspect, not the travel design). As with Blokus you try and get most pieces down through clever play of your shapes to the board.

Like Punct, this is another abstract that I like anyway. It's a very thoughtful game and one that allows for a lot of skill. Sometime's it's even more thoughtful than I'd personally like, but I certainly can't hold that against the game.

However, I couldn't possibly see it winning the IGA. It's a knockoff of an original, with very little to distinguish it on its own. A prize for Travel Blokus would just be a way of saying that the judges regretted not giving Blokus any recognition back in 2000.

Aton is a quick-playing Egyptian-themed gem. Like all gems, it is small, shiny, and highly-polished. Aton is a majority-control game from designer Thorsten Gimmler. It is published by Queen Games, and distributed by Rio Grande here in the USA.

But don’t we have enough majority control games? I mean, with El Grande, and San Marco, and Capitol, and Web of Power, do we really need another one? And what’s so special about this one?

Well, if the games mentioned above are grand but intricate multi-player contests, Aton is a rapier-quick duel. Over a series of turns, two players each allocate four cards to four different spaces to determine their capabilities for that turn. Each card is numbered from one to four. No text, no special abilities. The four allocation spaces determine how many quick victory points are earned that turn, how many opposing markers can be removed from the board, which of four temples your markers can be placed in, and how many new makers you get to allocate this turn.

The game board is divided into four temples, each of which holds several spaces of different colors and some bonus point spaces. Players can earn points for controlling the majority of spaces in one temple, or for controlling the majority of certain colored spaces on the whole board. There are sudden-death victory conditions to keep both players on their toes: if any player grabs all the spaces in one temple, or all the green or all the yellow spaces, he wins instantly. Otherwise, first player to gain forty points wins.

The game supposedly has an Egyptian-theme (two religious factions are fighting for control of the temples) but the theme is paper-thin. As far as I am concerned, this is an abstract token-placement game.

I am not the ideal person to sing the praises of this game because I usually dislike abstract games. And yet I like Aton. It has the elegance of simplicity, and creates dilemmas by offering several alternate paths to victory. Although both players draw cards from their own deck each turn, both decks are identical. Luck is therefore not a huge factor in the game. Aton is simple enough to play with non-gamer friends, but deep enough to intrigue real gamers.

Twilight Struggle is a GMT Games’ grand strategic treatment of the Cold War conflict. Designed by Ananda Gupta and Jason Matthews, Twilight Stuggle has sent Alan Moon into such ecstasies of gaming rapture that GMT now quotes Moon on their website.

What’s so original about this game? Isn’t it another one of those card-driven games that GMT churns out like Cracker-Jacks? And once you open up the hood and take a look at the engine, isn’t it just another majority-area-control game?

Yes, it is both. And yet how else to turn the non-hot-war aspects of the Cold War conflict into a boardgame than with red and blue political influence markers slugging it out in the far corners of the globe? The area-majority mechanism gives the game a simple but powerful engine while the cards provide theme and period flavor.

One of the innovations of Twilight Struggle is that players are usually required to play event cards that benefit their opponent. One or two cards can be allocated to the Space Race each turn where nasty events are neutralized, but usually each player holds too many enemy-benefiting cards for that strategy to work completely. This often makes each turn an exercise in damage control. A Defcon Status track also makes nuclear war a possibility if the players don’t keep tight control of their own worst impulses. (The very first game I played ended after only a turn or two when the Soviet player accidentally triggered a Dr. Strangelove scenario).

While the card-driven wargame genre has of late been producing increasingly complex games (Here I Stand being the prime example), Twilight Struggle has gone in the opposite direction. This is a wargame that is so simple that many non-wargamers enjoy it.

War of the Ring, Battles of the Third Age is both a new mini-game about operational-level campaigns in Tolkien’s Middle Earth, and an expansion for the grand-strategic-level game War of the Ring that won last year’s IGA award in the two-player category.

I can’t give a truly objective opinion of this game because I was one of its playtesters. Probably it’s most unworthy playtester. While playtester Alex Rockwell was e-mailing complex mathematical analysis of all aspects of a new game change to the designers, I was sending statements along the lines of “Sauron keeps winning. Am I doing something wrong?”

War of the Ring, Battles of the Third Age is one of the leading examples of a small trend that is emerging in the gaming field: giving players variant mini-campaigns on the same subject matter as a previous game while simultaneously expanding that original game (The other Fantasy Flight game that does this is the just released A Game of Thrones, Storm of Swords expansion). This gives players a lot for their money.

War of the Ring, Battles of the Third Age contains both a Rohan scenario and a Gondor campaign as well as elements that expand the original War of the Ring game. Both campaigns use army and character pieces from the original game, but have rules that have been adjusted for the operational scale of the scenarios. Combat is handled in more detail, and different kinds of units now have differing combat abilities. These scenarios were designed to have shorter playing times than the original game while still being meaty wargames with plenty of options. Most gamers find the Gondor campaign to be more interesting than the Rohan scenario.

The expansion for the original War of the Ring game includes characters, creatures and military units that only appeared on cards in the original game. Both players get more options at the cost of making the playing time of the game slightly longer. There was some attempt to address the complaints that the game favored the Shadow player, but I don’t think this problem has been completely solved yet (and there are a few players who still insist that the game favors the Free Peoples).

Would the IGA judges give an expansion the two-player award the year after they honored the original game with the same award? I have no clue. I only know that the game is worth buying if you are a War of the Ring fan.

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