Friday, April 20, 2007

Fire and Axe: A Game-Balance Wimp's Perspective

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a guest essay for Boardgame News in which I discussed game balance in War of the Ring, and my hope that the designers address this issue when they produce the War of the Ring Collector’s Edition. To my surprise, my essay generated a rebuttal essay from Michael Barnes, the leading light of the Fortress Ameritrash website. Mr. Barnes saw no need for a balanced War of the Ring and implied that only effete Euro-gamer game-balance wimps would whine about such a thing.

As the founding member of the Effete Euro-gamer Game-Balance Wimps Association, let me discuss another game with an interesting game balance issue. I’m talking about Fire and Axe.

I played my first game of Fire and Axe, the game of Viking raiding and trading, last night with the Appalachian Gamers. Fire and Axe has gotten a lot of praise, and I can see why people like it. It is a very pretty game with a big fat colorful mounted game board and lots of fine plastic pieces (the Viking warriors look macho enough to appeal to guys who aren’t happy seeing the words “game” and “pretty” in the same sentence). The rules are fairly simple and easily grasped, and we had very few questions as the game went on.

The best thing about the game may be the elaborate scoring system which seems to have been designed by a Knizia apprentice. Players get points for trading, raiding, and settling the various cities, and there are always clear objectives to focus on. This is not a game filled with Goa-like subtleties; you pick a city and try to squeeze points out of it. Adding to the fun are various bonus-point opportunities. The player who sacks the most cities gets a big bonus. Other bonuses await those players who can complete various missions—called sagas—and who can then claim the cards associated with them.

Usually when playing a game for the first time, I do not win, and last night was no exception. While the other players were sailing west, I went east and pursued an aggressive settlement strategy. I may have scored more points for settling than any other player, but I did not capture a single saga card. Brent went after the saga cards with highly-focused discipline and he won the game with a top score of 207. My own score was only about 120.

But the player who came in last (with a pathetic score of 70) was Dave, the owner of the game and the person who had played it the most. Is Dave simply a lousy strategist? Not at all, there have been nights when he has won every game we played. But last night the dice gods were against him, and Dave lost Viking after Viking assaulting the kind of small towns that the rest of us captured with ease. I don’t know what Dave did to get on Lady Luck’s hit list, but she slapped him up, down, and sideways, and then kicked him as he crawled away.

I might have regarded Dave’s problems last night as just an example of freakish luck, except that Tony had a similar problem the week before. A few truly bad die rolls can cause players to waste valuable turns. A little bad luck and winning the game becomes impossible.

Michael Barnes and his Ameritrash cult members would doubtlessly suggest that a real American gamer should suck up the pain and then get back on the horse that threw ya at the first opportunity. And there is certainly something to be said for fortitude, and the knowledge that the laws of averages pick on somebody every once in a while, but that they change victims regularly.

On the other hand, there is a simple fix that doesn’t seem too unreasonable. Have the players conduct raids and settlement attempts the same way. The player rolls his dice in sequence, and every failed die roll not only kills a Viking, but adds “1” to the player’s next die roll. Lady Luck can still pick on somebody, the extremes of luck that we saw in last night’s game are less likely to occur.

I haven’t checked on the Geek to see if anyone has made this suggestion already, so it’s possible that I’m not being very original here. My suggestion certainly seems like an obvious fix that would occur to lots of people simultaneously.

Regardless of how you feel about luck and the desirability of mitigating it, you might want to check out Fire and Axe. It’s a fine game, and one that I would be happy to play again.

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