Tuesday, March 30

Two Tactical Card Games: Battleground: Fantasy Warfare and Summoner Wars

Good times at PAX East this weekend. I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of board gaming that went on there, since I was expecting things to be pretty exclusively about video games. Other than the lack of adequate table space (even given the eight or so available rooms), things were good.

I got a chance to get demos of two very similar games at publisher booths: Battleground: Fantasy Warfare (from FLGS Your Move Games) and Summoner Wars (from friendly but not local — and AFAIK not a games store — Plaid Hat Games). Given their common mechanics, distribution, and that I demoed both last weekend, I thought I’d write them up as a comparison.

Both games are tactical card games. Players control cards that represent units, and they move them around on the playing field, fighting nearby cards by rolling dice. Each player also draws from a deck into a hand of cards that can help them out in battle.

The representatives from Your Move Games and Plaid Hat Games were each very careful to note that their games were not collectable card games. Each game has a set of armies, made available in pre-constructed decks. Battleground also has pre-constructed reinforcement packs for their armies to add options for deck-construction. The longer-term business model of each game is to make you want to buy expansion armies for new variety. This model is reminiscent of Blue Moon — though, except for the Buka Invasion, that game was limited to the eight races that were designed together before any were released, a limitation that I don’t think either of these games intends to replicate — which is appealing for its convenience and value.

So, what are these games, and how do they compare?

Back and front of a unit card, and an action card
Battleground is essentially a miniatures war game without the miniatures, which I understand is appealing from a cost and effort standpoint. As a consequence, though, it runs on the complicated side. To give you a sense of the detail, here’s how one side of a battle is resolved:
  1. Optionally play a card from your hand, which may modify the values on the unit cards.
  2. Determine if the attacker has any modifiers due to its position relative to the defender, such as attacking the rear, attacking to its flank, attacking while another unit is on another flank (“pinching”) and so on. These stack.
  3. Look for any asterisks next to any of the card’s numbers. If there are any, pick the card up and turn it over to read the special instructions for that number. Flip the card back over so that you can read the base stats. Try not to forget those special instructions.
  4. Starting with the (modified) number of dice listed on the attacker card, roll to see if the attacker lands any hits, which means rolling less than the attacker’s (modified) offensive skill minus the defender’s (modified) defensive skill.
  5. Re-roll the dice that hit in order to determine damage, which comes from rolling less than the attacker’s (modified) power minus the defender’s (modified) toughness. Each die that comes in under this value causes the defender to lose a hit point.
  6. If the defender loses all of its green hit points or is taking red hits, roll dice against its courage to see if it’s routed.
Though the number of different stats available could lend itself to unit characterizations, at least in the Men of Hawkshold deck I have, offensive skill and power tend to be the same for a given unit, as are defensive skill and toughness, making the distinction come across as redundant. Though rolling lots of dice lots of times can be fun and suspenseful, this mechanic unfortunately treads pretty far over the line into fiddly. Keeping track of all of the various +1/-1 modifiers to all of the different numbers is just a pain.

Nevertheless, Battleground has two very clever, very nifty aspects to it:
  • The cards are laminated so that you can write on them with dry-erase markers. Not only is this perfectly convenient for keeping track of damage and other modifiers, it enables…
  • Orders given to each unit when it’s deployed, such as “charge,” “get in range,” “go to position #2 and hold there,” &tc. In this way the player is cast in the role of a physically-constrained general, who can only give his units basic direction and must otherwise let them operate autonomously. While you can change a unit’s orders or control it directly for a turn, doing so is charged to your limited supply of action points.
I found the orders mechanic to be very intriguing, and I wish that the rest of the game was accessible enough for me to enjoy it.

Unfortunately, in the demo game that I played, figuring out how to actually interpret the orders was frustrating. Neither the initial instruction that we got from the demoer nor the on-the-fly rulebook flipping resolved the questions we had, such as, “what happens if a unit is ordered to charge a specific target, but a different unit gets in the way?” “can units overlap and by how much?” and so on.

Complicating the situation was the physical surface area of the cards and their freeform, non-orthogonal, length-based movement. While all distances are measured in multiples of short and long sides of the cards for convenience, actually doing the measurements and trying to follow the written orders honestly (without imbuing undue foresight or discretion) bogged things down immensely.

While I grant that it’s unfair to fully judge a game after an aborted match between two players who had never played before nor read the rule book (wow; saying it in those terms makes me think that I shouldn’t even try to judge it partially!), my experience with Battleground nevertheless did not inspire me to pull it out again to teach Cait.

I have faith that having to manage orders (rather than controlling units directly) could give the right game  a lot of strategic depth (RoboRally, anyone?), but I fear that Battleground has too much fuzziness in the way that the units move around the table to make orders-following appropriately objective. (Nevertheless, the friendliness and localness of Your Move Games may entice me down there some evening when folks gather to play, if I can spend some time getting to know the rewritten rules first.)

Also, book/cover and all, but the 3D-rendered art on the cards holds zero appeal for me. It takes very very well done 3D work to not come across as amateurish, and this is not very very well done.

Action card, wall, common unit, and summoner
Summoner Wars, by contrast, is in every way a simpler game than Battleground, and that works almost universally to its advantage.

For example, Summoner Wars’ battle resolution is:
  1. Apply the effects of any cards played from the players’ hands.
  2. Read over the nicely-written special abilities on the front of the cards.
  3. Roll as many dice as the big number in the upper left of the card. Anything 3 and above hits for one damage per die.
That’s it.

Instead of traipsing willy-nilly all over the table, cards move orthogonally on a grid, which is printed on the included paper board (which, I can only hope, will one day lay flat). There’s no need to measure or deal with overlaps or turning or anything like that. While this does mean that Summoner Wars is missing a degree of tactical richness relative to Battleground, the tradeoff in ease of play is worth it. “Move two spaces orthogonally” will always be faster to resolve than “move 7" according to the card’s orders and the poorly-defined algorithm for interpreting them.”

Though Summoner Wars has nothing quite so compelling as giving orders, I did find its magic pile to be an appealing element. Magic is used to pay the cost of deploying new units, and you acquire it by either discarding cards from your hand or killing enemy units. This adds both the tension between using cards for their abilities versus as a resource, and a scale-tipping extra reward for winning a battle.

I’ve only played two games of Summoner Wars so far: once at the publisher’s demo station and once with Cait. Overall I feel positively towards the game, as the tactical fighting is satisfying, but it does feel like the games lasted maybe five or ten minutes too long, devolving into a war of attrition as we ran out of cards. That aspect will probably improve as we get more experience, though.

For now, we’ll probably just play more Summoner Wars. I grabbed both starter packs at PAX (c’mon, there was a discount and promo cards), so we have access to four armies, each with its own distinctive style. Word is that the publisher will be releasing two more armies later this year.

Nevertheless, if you’re coming at these games from a more wargaming / miniatures angle, the level of intricacy in Battleground may be more alluring (and the need to measure not so annoying) than it was for me. For us, though, it’ll likely sit on the shelf. I would like to thank Your Move Games for running demos at PAX, however, and for giving out the free starter deck.