Monday, March 4, 2013

Battle Line Review

Battle Line was released in 2000 by the ever fantastic GMT Games.  It was designed by the illustrious Reiner Knizia, although it was a retheming of a game called Schotten-Totten.

Battle Line is a very quick two player card game.  It falls in the same category as Lost Cities and Dragonheart among others.  In theory it is set during Alexander the Great's conquest of the Persian Empire, but you'd only know it because two of the special cards in the game are Alexander and Darius, and they cannot be played by the same person.  So here is what I think of it.

Rule Summary

To set up the game you shuffle the troop deck of 60 cards, the tactics deck of 10 cards, then set out the 9 wooden "flags".  The troop deck is made up of numbers 1 through 10, in 6 different colors.  The tactics deck has numerous special actions and wild cards.

Each player draws 7 troop cards, and then play begins.  Players will assign a card to a flag, and then draw a card.  Players have the option of drawing between the troop deck or the tactics deck.  Once a player draws tactics, they can choose to play a tactic card instead of a troop card.  However players may only play one more tactics card than the other player.  For example, if I have played 2 tactics cards during the game, you may play up to 3.

The objective of the game is to construct poker like hands of 3 cards next to each of the flags.  Once both players have played 3 cards under a flag, you decide who won using usual poker rules.  A straight beats random cards.  A flush beats a straight.  Three of a kind beats a flush.  And a royal flush beats three of a kind.  You can also claim victory at a flag by being able to prove, given the cards that are out, that the other player cannot possibly win.  You may think this won't happen often.  I did at first.  But this ends up being probably half the game.  Once a player has captured 5 flags, or 3 adjacent flags, they win.

A timelapse of play

How accessible is the game to new players?

The formations.  These are your weapons

The game revolves around poker hands, and involves only a slightly modified poker deck.  This makes the game enormously accessible.  Most players get the basic premise immediately, although they may need some slight reminding of which hands beat which.  I've really yet to see a player stumble in this game.  In fact they usually have numerous "Ah ha!" moments even during the first game.  Which is always fun to see in new players.  It's usually not long before new players are up there with the best of them.

What could have been done better?

Not a lot.  There aren't a lot of rules to remember.  You can choose to play without the tactics if you want to lighten things up.  I would have liked to see perhaps a reference card showing what hands beat what.  It's a small thing, and most players don't need it.  But reference material is always fantastic, even if the game rules are only 4 pages long.

This could have fit on a card

How does the new player old player match up go?

The new player old player match up goes remarkably well.  There is very little an old player can do that isn't immediately obvious.  The new player can pick up very quickly on any tricks the old player tries to pull.  They may not win the current game, but I've almost always seen them ask for an immediate rematch.  It was only 3 or 4 games in that my girlfriend began beating me at this regularly.

What could have been done better?

Honestly I have to say, nothing.  I know that's boring, but this game covered it's bases quite well in this regard.  There is no hidden information in this game.  Absolutely anything that a player does, the other player can learn from.  The consequences are usually somewhat immediate.  And when players make mistakes, they know it.  The game gives you a lot of feedback to learn from which is key.

What are the feelings the game evokes?

Once both players get up to speed on the game, you really do begin to feel like a general directing your troops.  Oh sure, some people say the theme is pasted on.  And maybe I am a sucker for ancient battles given that Commands & Colors: Ancients is my favorite game.  But you really will be inside your opponents head, probing for flags they simply don't have the cards to support.  You'll test the key positions, maybe trick him into putting down more cards, when you know he can't finish the hand because you have the key cards he needs.  This causes the game to have an incredible tension.  It truly does feel like a stiff battle of wills.

Why is the game so enjoyable?  What could be improved?

For what this game is, I think it achieves it perfectly.  There really isn't anything I would add to it to make it more enjoyable.  I'm actually quite shocked.  This is a retheming of a game called Schotten-Totten but you'd never know it. Honestly I think the ancient battles theme fits even better. What is truly amazing to me is how even though the gameplay is rather abstract, it really nails the feel.  I've gotten over 50 game of Commands & Colors: Ancients in, and yet when I play this game, I get an almost identical feeling as when I play that.  Just much shorter, and accomplished entirely with cards.  I don't know how they did it.  Pure dumb luck maybe?

Otherwise known as a "wedge"

One thing that could have been done better, is if reference material was provided.  Then players could get used to the names of the troop formations.  One thing that breaks immersion quickly is when we revert to saying "My three of a kind beats your straight" because that is the language we are used to using.  I would have loved reference cards that actually describe the hands as a Wedge, Phalanx, Batallion Order, Skirmish Line and Host.

Long term strategy, short term tactics, both or neither?

Battle Line certainly has a good mix of strategy and tactics.  At least as much as a random card draw can allow you.  Played without the tactics, I do feel the game does come down to luck a great deal more.  If the other player draws the cards you need, you are just straight up hosed.  However when you play with tactics, the game truly comes alive.  I have frequently drawn up to 2 or 3 tactics cards in hand, as has my opponent, and then waited and schemed and plotted for the exact right time to play them.  The tactics cards afford you more contingencies and back up plans than playing the game with straight up troop cards does.

Why is the depth of strategy and tactics so good?

These will unleash havoc

The original game Schotten-Totten did not have tactics cards.  They were added for the American audience because they thought the game wouldn't fly in American without them.  Keep in mind Battle Line was first published in 2000 if Board Game Geek is to be believed.  "Ameritrash" dice fests reigned supreme back then.  At least that is the story I've heard.  But I believe it is the tactics cards which truly raised this game to another level and gave it the depth that impresses me in such a simple game.

Are the dilemmas the player is presented with of sufficient quality?

On their turn, players will weight many factors.  They will have to prioritize which flags are more important to capture, and which they can forfeit.  They will have to manage which formations they want to use commit their limited cards to.  You will routinely possess only a single card which is perfect in two formations, and you must decide which formation to let crumble.  You will constantly find yourself counting up the cards already out, trying to judge if the formation you are attempting is even possible any longer.  Every card you draw, you will be praying to see something useful.  You will constantly be scheme about how to beat your opponent with the weakest formation possible so you can save your best cards for the more important flags.  So yes, I'd say the dilemmas are of sufficient quality.

Why are the dilemmas so very good?

I've said it before, but the tactics really make this game.  But I think I need to focus on the key rule which makes the tactics cards so very intriguing.  This game could have easily failed to be anywhere near as good without this one key rule.  You can only play one more tactics card than your opponent.  This serves so many purposes.  Tactics cards are so powerful and so disruptive, you will often hold them back just to prevent your opponent from wrecking your carefully laid plans.  You will meticulously and carefully pick and choose exactly which tactics to play, because you may never get to play another one if your opponent refuses to let you.

Physical component design and limitations?

I appreciate the ancient style artwork

There isn't a great deal to say about the components.  The artwork on the cards is of an ancient style, which helps you get into the theme.  They are labeled after the various members of an ancient army, like Elephants, Chariots and Skirmishers.  The flags are solid wooden tokens, and the cards in my edition are thick and substantial.

What could have been better?

Occasionally these colors baffle me.  Especially in poor lighting.

Like many people I am color blind.  Sadly the one drawback of this game is that the cards are color coded, without symbols as a secondary identifier.  Now the colors are especially bright, which helps my particular color blindness.  But I have a few friends who are even more colorblind than me, and the game presents an issue in certain lighting conditions.  Generally the more well lit the room the better.  Sometimes to an overkill degree to differentiate the colors properly.  It's possibly the only thing marring this otherwise great game.

Long term prospects?

I've gone through a lot of quick two player games trying to find a good one.  So far this is the best one.  Not only is it possibly the easiest to teach, but I think it's the one with the most depth as well.  Which is quite an accomplishment when you are trying to pack the game into as simple a format as possible, and have it played in 30 minutes or less.  This is my go to game that fits those constraints, so much so that I don't even look for other games.

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