Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Review: Mare Nostrum

Mare Nostrum is Serge Laget's grand opus.

The story goes that for years Serge had dreamed of a grand game where players would control civilizations, raise mighty armies, exploit the natural resources of the land and advance through the ages in a grand quest to conquer the ancient world. All of this would be accomplished in a simple game that could be played in an evening.

Over a period of two decades, he worked on this game. It was his pet project and he continually refined the prototype. Eventually, the game was finally published as Mare Nostrum.

Latin for "our sea", Mare Nostrum is the Mediterranean, the ocean of the old world which forms the center of the game's beautiful map and was the central geographical feature of so many ancient civilizations.

In Mare Nostrum, each player adopts one of five civilizations: the Babylonians, the Romans, the Egyptians, the Greeks, and the Carthaginians. Each civilization comes complete with a compliment of caravans and cities as well as its very own hero. Heroes bestow their civilization with unique special abilities. For example the Roman hero, Julius Caesar, allows the Romans to build military units at a reduced cost. Caravans grant their civilization access to natural resources. Cities raise taxes for their civilization.

The goal of the game is either to be the first to build the pyramids, or else to be the first to purchase a total of four heroes (including the one you start with). To accomplish this, players must gather resources and taxes which they can use to improve their civilizations. To build the pyramids a player needs to be able to gather one of each of the twelve resources. Of course, this is no easy task.

Each game turn is divided into three distinct phases: Commerce, Political and Military. Each phase is controlled by a different leader. Each leader is determined by meeting a specific criteria. The Leader of Commerce is the player who has the most caravans and markets. The Political Leader is the player who has the most cities. And the Military Leader is the player who has the most military units.

In the Commerce Phase, players collect one resource card of the appropriate type for each caravan they have on the map, and one tax card for each city they have. Markets double caravan output in a province and temples double city output. After the resource cards have been distributed, the Leader of Commerce decides how many resource cards will be traded that round and then he supervises the trading. Players select the required number of cards from their hand, place them face up in front of them and then, beginning with the Leader of Commerce, they trade cards. The Leader of Commerce selects one of his opponents cards, then that player chooses a card from one of her opponents, and so on until all the cards are taken and everyone has swapped cards. A successful trading session will leave a player with as many different resource cards as possible, ready for the next phase.

In the Political Phase, the Political Leader chooses the order in which each player will spend his resources. Resources are spent in sets of three, six, nine or twelve. Sets are either made up entirely of tax cards, or they are made up of unique resource cards with no duplicates. If you can assemble a set of twelve, you can build the pyramids and win the game. A set of nine will buy another hero and the special ability that comes with him or her. Six will get you a temple or a city. Three is enough for another caravan, an influence marker (used to control a province on the map), or a military unit. But don't think that you can simply hoard your resource cards. Unspent resource cards are lost at the end of the turn and only two tax cards can be held over to the next turn.

At the end of the turn comes the Military Phase. The Military Leader decides the turn order and each player in turn moves his or her units and resolves combats. Combat is a very simple affair. Any province with more than one player's military units is "at war" and must fight, but unlike most games of this sort, combat doesn't continue until one player is victorious. Instead, each player rolls one die for each military unit in the province. Sum up the dice you've rolled and divide by five (rounding down) and that is the number of units your opponent must remove. And that's it. Combat is over for that round. Either one player wins, or he doesn't. If a player wins, then he can occupy or sack the province; but if not, then the province remains at war until the next round.

In Mare Nostrum, combat is often a poor choice. Generally, combat should be left for a last resource. It's so costly that to rush too soon into a war with a neighbor almost always spells doom. But because there are limited resources in the game, sooner or later you will be left with little choice. You're going to have to take what is "rightfully yours". Like all good multiplayer games, you might be wise to make some prudent alliances early in the game which you can disregard later when the mood suits you. Nothing satisfies like a good backstabbing.

Mare Nostrum nearly succeeds in its grand design. The rules span only four pages. The cards, markers and board are all first rate. The game is elegant, sweeping and simple all at the same time. And for a civilization-style game, it plays very quickly: typically under three hours.

There are a few flaws. While the game is well balanced for a full compliment of five players, it's not quite so nice with less. As is typical with games of this type, it suffers from a bit of a runaway leader problem. Fall too far behind and you're liable to stay there. There are places where the game mechanics don't really fit the theme. For instance, using livestock, fish and olive oil to construct a city doesn't really fit. In some ways it's an abstract game with a civilization theme tacked on. Also, trimming the rules down to four pages was perhaps a bit too ambitious, leaving a few too many rules inadequately explained. Players will probably want to read the FAQ, available on line at http://www.sergelaget.com/Anglais/SL/MareNostrum/MNFAQ.htm.

For me, those are all minor points. The question that really matters is: "is it fun?" I definitely think so. I can't think of a civilization style game I'd rather play, with the possible exception of Vinci.

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Review: Heroscape Master Set: Rise of the Valkyrie

I must admit that the new Heroscape Master Set: Rise of the Valkyrie took me completely by surprise. Here we have a game by Hasbro (a company that's not exactly known for the deepest of games) that is targeted squarely at 8-12 year-old boys. The packaging reminds me of so many bad Saturday morning He-Man commercials. It just begs to be sitting on the shelves at Wall-Mart or Toys R Us. Surely there couldn't actually be a good game in this box? Right? WRONG!

Before I go any further I must say that if you are looking for a gift for an 8-12 year old boy, you really couldn't go wrong with Heroscape. From the eyes of the pre-pubescent male, this game has it all: ninjas, warriors, dragons, secret agents, dinosaurs, cyborgs and orcs all happily coexist in the silliest mishmash of genres and themes that I've ever seen. What young boy wouldn't love that? All it's missing is pirates!

"But I thought you said that this was a good game?" I hear you say. Yep. Hard to believe isn't it! Listen up.

In order to fully appreciate Heroscape, you first need to know what's in this huge box. Crack open the seal and slide out the cardboard box insert. Inside you'll find a true engineering marvel. Somehow they've managed to cram 351 plastic 1 1/2 inch hexagons arranged into 85 tiles in assorted sizes, 30 exquisite (and large) hand-painted plastic figures, 20 dice, and an assortment of other small counters, cards and such into this box. There's so much in here that it's a wonder they got it to fit. In fact, once you've removed it all from its plastic tray and set it up, you might as well just throw out the plastic tray because otherwise there's practically no hope that you'll ever fit it back into the box. Even then it's a bit of a puzzle to get it all to fit again.

The hex tiles are the heart of the game. Each tile is made up of a number of hexagons (some more than others). Each hex measures about 1 1/2 inch across and about 1/4 inch high. The real beauty here though is that all of the hexes interlock to form a solid three dimensional game board that's different for every scenario. Imagine building a game board out of giant hexagonal Legos and you pretty much have the idea. From these tiles, you can construct mountains, caves, rivers, swamps, etc. Pretty much anything that your mind can dream up. You can even combine multiple sets to create monstrous battle fields.

The figures are every bit as impressive as the board. They range from two inch high humanoid figures to a six inch tall dragon. Each one is a hand painted work of art. Never mind the silly fact that they've got dragons and modern soldiers in the same box. They're really pretty dragons and soldiers.

The game itself goes something like this. First you choose a scenario. You can choose from among the ten that come in the rules, or you can go on-line and download any number of user-created scenarios, or you can just invent your own. Scenarios can range from simple elimination brawls to capture the flag like games to more elaborate goal driven scenarios. Typically a scenario takes about thirty minutes to play but since the system is so open ended you could invent scenarios that go on far longer if that's what you want.

After you've chosen a scenario, the board is constructed and each player drafts an army of creatures based on the constraints of the scenario. Each figure (or squad of figures) has a card that lists its vital statistics as well as its point cost for drafting purposes. Players will want to become familiar with all the heroes and squads because each one has its own special abilities, and that's one of the really fun things about this game. Each character has strengths and weaknesses and the way the characters' abilities interact makes the game that much more interesting.

Armies are then placed on the board in their starting zones and the game is ready to begin. Each player has four sequence markers numbered 1, 2, 3, and X. The sequence markers are placed on each player's cards so that only he can see the numbers. They can be placed on different cards or the same cards at the player's discretion. On each turn, players are going to take turns moving and attacking three times. The figures that get to be moved are the ones that have the appropriate sequence marker; first the 1, then the 2, then the 3. The X is a decoy you can use to fool your opponents.

Movement is a simple matter of counting off hexes until a unit's movement limit has been reached. Moving up hill is slower than moving across level ground or down hill, and moving through water can bring your unit to a halt.

After you've moved, you get to attack. Attacking is equally simple. Check your unit's range. Pick a target that's within range and isn't obstructed from your unit's view. Then roll your unit's attack dice against your target's defense dice. Attack dice are red and show a skull on some of the faces. Defense dice are blue and show a shield on some of the faces. Roll more skulls than your enemy rolls shields and you score a hit and do one point of damage for every unblocked skull. When a unit receives too many hits, it's removed from the battlefield.

This game has several things going for it. First of all, the modular playing surface means that there are an infinite number of scenarios waiting to be created. Each figure has special abilities that make recruiting an army an interesting challenge comparable to building a deck in a collectible card game. Recruitment costs printed on the cards ensure that the armies are generally relatively balanced. The free-form nature of the game play allows for some very interesting tactics and strategies to be employed. And the fact that each player is always going to get to move three units (or one unit three times) on each turn ensures that as a player's armies shrink, they've still got a chance, because they're still getting to move just as many times as their opponents.

This game is very easy to learn, very easy to play, takes only a short amount of time, and offers a wealth of possibilities. And it's just a darn fun game! I highly recommend it.