Sunday, August 4, 2013

Field Commander Alexander Review

It's been hard for me to have game nights this summer.  So I decided now might be a good time to get over my hang ups with solo board games.  Two of the games that really came to the top of my list after a little research are Field Command Alexander and Field Commander Napoleon.  Today I'll be reviewing Alexander.

Field Commander Alexander was published and designed by Dan Verssen, and was released in 2009.  In it you take control of Alexander the Great and his army as you conquer your way through the known world.  It's designed as a purely solitary game, where you compete against an loosely directed AI.

It includes 4 scenarios, Granicus, Issus, Tyre and Gaugamela.  You can play them individually or as a linked campaign, and they even have additional challenges you can include for some extra difficulty, and a chance at higher scores.

Rule Summary

To start any game of Field Commander Alexander, you must select the scenario you are going to play.  There are 4 scenarios included in the game, and each has its own mounted board.  Printed on the board are the setup instructions for that scenario.  These usually include the composition of Alexander's army, forces currently on the map, and any Advisors, Insights or Gold you start with.  There is usually also a stack of enemy Operations counters that you will randomize.

All set up and ready to play!

On a player's turn, they will first advance the turn counter.  They may then refit any reduced strength units for 2 Gold.  After this, the enemy gets to go.

For each enemy Stronghold on the map, you roll for their orders.  You take the number of spaces between the city and Alexander, and you add the die roll.  You then consult the chart printed on the map to determine what the city does.  Low numbers typically result in extra walls and garrisons being built, or your army suffering hits.  Higher rolls sweeten the pot for taking the Stronghold with additional Glory or Gold.

The enemy orders table from Issus

After the Strongholds have received their orders, you flip the top counter off the Operations stack, and see what it says.  These typically add units or walls to a deployment stack.  Once the "Go!" Operation counter is revealed, all the units and walls on the stack get deployed to the location specified by the scenario.  Sometimes it's a specific Stronghold, sometimes you roll once for each unit to determine the Stronghold it gets deployed to.

I have to add 3 Forces to the operations stack, or pay 6 Gold

Now you finally get to command Alexander's army!  To command your army, you must decide where you want to move them to, then make a Scouting roll on a D6.  If the roll is less than the number of units in your army, you must pay the difference to keep them supplied.  If the Scouting roll is higher, you've encountered resistance, and must take hits equal to the difference.  Then once you arrive at your destination, if there is an enemy army or Stronghold at your destination, you must confront them.

In order to do battle, you arrange all the units by their speed, with higher speed acting first.  You then randomly draw Battleplans for the enemy equal to the number of units they have.  You may then select Battleplans for Alexander up to his attack strength.  You can also spend 1 Gold for 1 additional Battleplan.  Once you have selected all the Battleplans for both sides, you resolve any pre-battle Battleplans, such as Raid, Deploy or Confusion.

A rather epic battle between Alexander's bruised army and Memnon

Now you get to the fighting.  All units in a speed group act simultaneously.  For each unit you want to roll equal to or under their attack strength on a D6.  You are allowed to allocate attacks however you want, both to yourself and the enemy.  There is no priority of targets you must follow for the enemy.  Most units have 2 sides, a full strength and a reduced strength side.  They take 2 hits to destroy.  Some units only have a full strength side though, and are destroyed after 1 hit.  When units are destroyed, they get added to your resupply area for later reference.

Once all enemy units have been destroyed, or you decide to retreat, the battle is over.  If you won, you now choose to Raze or Govern the area.  If you Raze it, you gain 12 Gold immediately.  If you Govern it, you gain 5 Gold every turn during your resupply step.  Either way, you also gain 2 Glory for your successful conquest.

At a Stronghold, instead of doing battle a you can attempt to Intimidate them into submission.  In this case, you are trying to roll 11 or more on a D6.  The roll is modified up by the number of Forces you have over the enemy, how many area's you have Governed, and any Glory you choose to spend.  The roll is hurt by having Razed areas, and if the enemy has more Forces than you do.  If the roll succeeds, you conquer the Stronghold without any bloodshed, and may choose to Raze or Govern it and gain 2 Glory like usual.

The Intimidation table and modifiers

Players can repeat the Scouting and battle part of their turn as many times as they choose.  However, once they make a Scouting roll they can't afford, or simply don't like, and choose to stay put, their turn ends.  They now move into the Resupply part of their turn.  They gain 1 Gold for each Force they destroyed and moved to their resupply area.  As well as 5 Gold for each area they Govern.  They get nothing for Razed areas, since they got that Gold immediately when they Razed the area.

During this step, players also get to spend Gold on Forces, Cities, Temples.  Players may buy any number of Forces, or 1 City worth 5 VP, or 1 Temple which allows you to reroll a die during battle.  Players also get to spend their Glory on Advisors, which offer powerful permanent bonuses, or Insights which provide game changing one time effects.

The last thing I want to mention which doesn't really fit anywhere else is Prophesies.  If Alexander moves into a spot on the map with a Prophecy, he can accept it.  If he does, it gets placed on the turn track a set number of turns ahead.  Alexander has until that turn to satisfy the Prophecy.  Sometimes he must Govern or Raze an area.  Other times he must discard Gold, or more painfully an Advisor.  If Alexander satisfies the Prophecy, he goes up a Glorification Level, improving his speed and attack strength.  If he fails, he must discard an Advisor, or lose a Glorification Level.

Flipping a prophecy and adding it to the turn track

The scenario ends when the player satisfies the victory conditions of the specific scenario.  They are usually to have conquered all the battlegrounds and Strongholds, and brought Alexander's army to a specific location.  Players lose the scenario if Alexander is ever killed, or the turn counter advances past the last space on the track.  The quicker players win, the more points they score, so it's mostly a race against time.

Timelapse of play

How accessible is the game to new players?

The sequence of play
summary is printed
on every map
Field Commander Napoleon has a very strong core set of rules.  For a wargame, there are very few exceptions to keep track of.  Just the rule about Cavalry only getting to attack every other turn.  And the rule about Phalanx getting to keep rolling for hits until they miss.  Those are about the only two exceptions you need to just memorize.  Everything else is printed on the map itself, or on the player aid.

The player aid is fantastic as well.  It has space at the bottom to keep your army and fight battles, and a log at the top to record all your mission results.  Sandwiched between this is all the reference information you need for the game.  Anything that isn't on the player aid is printed on the board, like steps of a full turn, or the steps of battle.

What could have been done better?

As good as Field Commander Alexander is, it's not perfect.  For whatever reason, I find it's a game that's just easy to play incorrectly.  There is no mechanism in the rules to keep track of your cavalry skipping turns.  So I consistently forgot to do that, both for myself and the enemy, until I began turning them sideways to attack one turn, and then back upright the next.

It's so easy to forget all
these dates
Numerous scenarios have special events happening on certain dates.  However the turn track makes no mention of this.  So you read the special rules for the scenario, go to the start playing, and by the time you get to that date, you've forgotten you had to do something.  I began placing whatever spare counters I had on had on those dates as a reminder.

In one scenario, purchasing units anywhere except 2 port spaces makes them more expensive.  Except this is presented as a weird sort of double negative that is easy to forget.  I think what I'm getting at, is I would have preferred if the rules had more explicit mention of some tracking tips to help play the game correctly.  They aren't hard to come up with on your own, but you will have played the game incorrectly a few times before you realize you need them.

What are the feelings the game evokes and why?

The mechanic of trying to move and battle as much as possible per turn captures Alexander's go-go-go mentality.  You get a good flavor of what it was like to be Alexander the Great, and what drove his conquests.  Sitting still for any reason is usually a bad thing.  You really feel the need to capture towns by surprise before they have time to prepare.

The game can seem entirely too easy starting out.  As I already mentioned, it's very easy to forget rules.  And every time you forget a rule, the game tends to get easier.  I've yet to forgot a rule that made the game harder.  Everything you lose track of is usually a negative effect.

You really need to play with one or two
of these if you want a real challenge

So there may be the illusion at first that this is a very easy game.  Then as you get "better" at the game, and follow the rules more closely, it gets a lot harder.  Then you try the campaign or the difficulty modifiers and it feels like you are playing a real game against a tough opponent.  To get a taste of how difficult it can be to play with all the difficulty modifiers, see my session log of Granicus.

What could have been done to make the game more enjoyable?

Played on their own, the individual scenarios feel somewhat simplistic.  The urge to finish them as quickly as possible tends to promote razing cities to finish on time.  All that matters are your victory points, which are earned primarily by meeting the victory conditions as early as possible.  Building cities can help, but each city only mitigates one lost turn.  So it's almost always better to spend the money to move and conquer over spending it on a city.

I will say however, that the Immortality system works a lot better as a scoring mechanism.  It rewards earning VPs the least, followed by unspent Glory, then Governed areas are rewarded the most.  It provides a richer set of incentives to play against, and I prefer it completely over the bare VP system.

Lastly, the scouting rolls can feel extremely arbitrary.  It's one of the only rolls in the game that has no way to mitigate the luck.  No Advisor, Insight or Battleplan can affect it at all.  As such, it's one of the most frustrating parts of the game.  You may be trapped, rolling poorly turn after turn after turn.  About the only thing you can do is try to gather resources further away from enemy strongholds, and hope you can blitz up to them quickly.  Because you really don't want to roll poorly, use up all your gold, and burn out at the gates to a city.  The likelihood they will start throwing up extra walls in front of you is high, and you really don't want that.

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

Individual scenarios are mostly tactical.  There is very little to consider except rushing through them as quickly as possible.  Each city you build basically accounts for one lost turn.  But that is money not spent on troops or movement.  There is also little point in buying Advisors since by the time you can afford them the scenario is over.  It's almost always better to purchase Insights instead.

So I could get an Advisor and an
Insight, or I could hold on to them
for 44 Immortality points.
It is more difficult to manage your resources during a campaign.  You desperately want to build up your Insights and Advisors because they carry over from one scenario to the next.  You also will want to build as many Cities as you can, and Govern as many areas as you can for the points.  However, Governing robs you of your momentum so it's a tricky balance.  It's also much more important to complete Prophecies and build up Alexander, even if it forces you to go out of your way and lose time.  A fully leveled up Alexander with the Lead Battleplan scores 2 hits on a 3 or less, and is always guaranteed at least 1 hit!  Plus you will be regularly fighting armies of 10 or more units, so taking out their leader with Alexander is the surest path to victory.

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

I should not have
camped here
On first playing the scenarios, the dilemmas seemed rather simple.  If you are lucky, it's very possible to just bull rush through everything and succeed.  I beat all 4 scenarios on my first try by razing everything, and travelling as far as I could every turn.  But I was very lucky then, and I didn't even realize it.

If you don't want to count on luck, there is a very careful balance between time and money, and how you want to spend them to maximize your points.  You also need to carefully consider where your army will end it's movement for the turn.  You can always disband Forces from your army to make the trip less costly, but then you still need to defeat the enemy once you reach your destination.  But if you burn out, and camp too close to the enemy cities they may build up past your ability to defeat them!  A very painful event that has happened to me once or twice.

What could have improved the dilemmas?

In the single scenarios, many of the decisions you make can feel somewhat arbitrary.  The highest score you ever achieve will be on a session where you threw caution to the wind, rolled amazingly, and conquered the world in 2 turns with your starting forces.  If you are a masochist, you can go back, make the game harder, and explore the tactical space of the system.  But it's a very unsatisfying anti-climax to just waltz through the game completely on luck, and have that be the best you'll ever do.

Not all the maps are on the same scale.  Does look cool though.

The campaign, and even the single scenarios scored using the Immorality system are better.  But the basic way to play the game that players will first try just isn't that great, and doesn't offer very many interesting decisions.

I think I would have liked to see an AI that is more reactive to your movements.  Instead of just balancing time and money against points, you could have also been worried about enemy reprisals.  Events that get triggered in reaction to you, as opposed to on certain dates.  Something that places a little more emphasis on my decisions rather than my die rolls.

Physical component design and limitations?

I love all the spots
for Advisors
I've had issues with other DVG games.  Down in Flames: Guns Blazing had pretty strange component quality issues, as well as a fairly awful rulebook.  Thankfully Field Commander Alexander has very impressive counters, and 4 high quality mounted boards.  I'm also impressed with the quality of the artwork, and the attention to detail in certain areas.  For example, every Advisor you purchase has a place on the board or on the player aid where you put them.  This is complete with a reminder about what they do printed into that space.  Overall I'm extremely impressed with the quality of the components in this game.  But that could just be because Down in Flames set the bar so low.

What could have been better?

I am somewhat annoyed by a few things.  The six sided die included in the game could have had numbers instead of pips.  Pips are for roll and move games.  Pips are for Monopoly.  Real games have numbers on their dice.

Also, there is no way to track how many of the same battle plan you purchased, for those battle plans which allow it.  They really should have included extra tracking bits for that, like more dice, or duplicate copies of the counters.  Although, DVG hosts an alternate Player Log here which includes some tracks for those things.  So that helps some if you don't mind printing it out.

Long term prospects?

At first I played all four of the included scenarios and figured I was about finished with Alexander.  But for the sake of thoroughness I tried the first scenario with all the difficulty modifiers, and it wrecked me.  Then I tried the campaign.  Then I replayed a few of the other scenarios, losing sporadically.  I immediately began to understand there was more depth to this game than I at first thought.

I ordered Field Commander Alexander with Field Commander Napoleon.  I had intended to blow through Alexander and spend the majority of my time with Napoleon, which seemed to have a richer system.  But I'm actually quite happy exploring Alexander.  As it stands I haven't even touched Napoleon yet.

I'd also highly recommend keeping score, since it really does give you a good measure of your skill over time.  I especially love the Immortality scoring system for the campaign, as well as applied to the individual scenarios.  As far as I'm concerned, it's the only true way to keep score.

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