Friday, September 28, 2007

The problem with card games... (Naval Battles, Plunder)

... is that their inherent randomness can bite you.

We played a couple of card based games this week, Naval Battles and Plunder.

Naval Battles is a game which reminds me of many other battle games, like Zero!, most CCGs and many take that! style games... You have your assets (the cards in play in front of you) and you use them as the vehicle to play effects on other player's assets. They might counter with a card of their own, you might modify your effect, etc, etc. In this case, we are dealing with WW2 naval warfare and each player controls a fleet of ships. Each ship has particular weapons. Players essentially take shots at other boats by matching the cards in their hands with the size of the guns they have available. The theming is further enhanced by 6 decks of nation specific ships (each reflecting the relative strengths/ weaknesses of the nation in the naval arena), a few nice formation vs weaponry rules, by an "air raid" mechanic which plays a significant role in the game and reasonably evocative card art. It's not too long, accomodates 2 to 6 and seems to play well. I was a little lukewarm to it, as I often am with this type of game, but all in all I would happily play again. One small complaint: The game forces players to do a lot of cross-referencing between the attack cards in their hands with the guns on the ships they have available. Unfortunately, the card design places this frequently used information on the right side of the card... and therefore hidden if you hold you hand of cards normally. Pretty small complaint. There is a partnership variant that sounds interesting.

If memory serves me well, Shemp and Luch each won a game. I played the French and did nothing to alter their reputation in naval warfare expertise.

Plunder is a game where everyone is a pirate looking for treasure. the cards are used to create an ever expanding play area. Pirate move along between ports, coastlines and open sea. Cities get sacked and ships get boarded. Sadly, our game this week was so full of highly improbable combinations of events that I can't help but feel I have no idea how it should play normally. It took a long time for any of us to draw any cards which opened up the starting layout. Shemp drew a ridiculous amount of "storm" cards (there is only one in the deck, but it is potentially disastrous and is the reshuffled into the deck) Luch got stuck in a corner, having a very difficult time getting out. On one turn, I drew 7-8 open sea tiles, making an enourmously long sraight which was difficult to navigate because of the movement mechanic.

It seemed to have nice ideas. Goods can be purchased at one port and resold at a profit. Enemy ships that get boarded yield big treasure, but you need a "friendly place" to trade it for cash. Ships can be upgraded, etc. For whatever reason, though, our session was surely far from ordinary. I will reserve judgement until I play it again at least once. At the very least, I think we should double the number of sea card used in the begining.

1 comment:

  1. I wrote up a session report and some general comments/crtiques at BGG. I'll repost them here for reference, but here's the link, since the designer responded directly:

    =-=-= BGG POST FOLLOWS =-=-=

    I bought the game with much enthusiasm and set down to play it with my gaming group last night.

    The game was... problematic.

    Four players, standard set-up. We played rules as written, with the following modifications since they are strongly recommended by the designer:

    1. Play encounters face down on any player, any encounter already there shifts to next open slot.

    2. Open Sea, Coastline, Port played as encounter may be placed in any legitimate adjacent location to acting player.

    We did not use the other encounter modifications suggested by the designer in this thread: this was our first game.

    Okay, set-up, no problem. I shuffle the deck thoroughly, knowing that the cards are completely sorted when you get it out of the box. I hand the deck to someone else to shuffle, just in case (this is important later) Players look a bit glazed after the rules explanation (especially re: scouting/moving), but that happens too sometimes.

    I draw first captain. No open sea cards, one port in my hand. No point in playing the port yet, so I sail one space west and play an easy mark Dutch Brigantine out of my hand. The player to my left plays voodoo curse on me right off the bat. My ship goes down. Bad start. *shrug* No problem, bad luck, right? At least they've grasped the concept of the Voodoo Curse.

    Next player. Sails south. Draws a card. Stops. Does not scout. I ask the player, "Don't you have any open sea, port or coastline cards?"

    "No," he says.

    He encounters a ship, defeats it. Meh, no problem.

    Next player - sails east, draws a card. Draws a card. Stops. Does not scout. I ask the player somewhat incredulously, "Don't you have any open sea, port or coastline cards?"

    "No," he says.

    Fourth player - sails north, draws a card. Draws a card. Stops. Does not scout. I'm not believing it at this point, "Tell me that you have an open sea, port or coastline card?"

    Fourth player just shakes his head.

    Obviously, since none of us are moving very far, we're only drawing one card. None of us have drawn a card we can use. Back to me.

    I buy some goods with the silver I already have and sail north on the next turn. I have one Open Sea card so I play that. I move in there, but don't draw another "terrain" card. I stop.

    I look at my hand. I want to keep all of the cards... the only one I don't really want is "Crew is Drunk". Knowing that it forces a skipped turn, and no one has really done anything yet, I regretfully play it on the third player.

    Since the other players save one have all gone in different directions than north, they have been forced to move one, back to Tortuga, drawing only one card. Except the player whose crew gets gets drunk. That player plays "Scurvy" on someone else who has moved back to Tortuga.

    So in the first four turns or so, two people have already been forced to skip turns and I've lost my ship. The "map" is currently one solitary open sea space larger than the starting configuration.

    This goes on for a few more rounds. No one is drawing open sea cards, so people sail back and forth from Tortuga, occasionally bagging prize ships and selling the plunder for minuscule profits there. Finally, a port is played. People sail north for that port, picking up a few cards in the process.

    That opens up play a little bit, but our drought of open sea cards continue. In desperation, we start playing coastline and port cards very close to each other, forcing additional movement stoppages but at least expanding the map. Once in a while, someone plays an open sea card, but often in inconvenient places due to the existing cramped conditions. One player plunders a port on a westernmost arm of exploration and then sails east to open sea of out it, essentially "trapping" himself from the rest of the board. He gets a port, but is then trapped in an similar situation to the rest of us in Tortuga at the start of the game, but worse, because there is only one port available to him, and he doesn't have a letter of marque there. He unfortunately spends much of the rest of the game sailing in a pointless L-shape that he manages to create with many turns of one space sailing.

    The rest of us sail around, but there is still no stretch of open sea longer than two cards. The rest are ports and coastlands, two of which are the ones which require high crew or card draws to enter - Dread Coast of Doom (or whatever it's called) and the Isle of Bones (?).

    Needless to say, the players are restless at this point, especially the player who has unwittingly trapped himself up in the northwest. Meanwhile I'm sailing around, buying from Tortuga and selling elsewhere for small profits. The others are doing similar low-key activities.

    One player gets hit with the storm three times in five turns (!). He and his ship survives, but he's essentially motionless for ten minutes of play. Before you ask, yes, he shuffled thoroughly each time! I watched.

    Finally, one player draws six open sea cards in a row(?!) (starting with none in his hand) and opens up a long sea route to the south. I beeline there, picking up a lot of cards in the process.

    Eventually the game starts to come back to normalcy as the open sea lane south of Tortuga bears fruit. Eventually I've made about 54 silver (most of the other players range from 10-30), but we've run thirty minutes past our usual end time of 11 PM and everyone is frustrated after an hour and forty five minutes of play. I call the game, saying that we must have drawn all of the possible bad breaks in terms of card draws.

    All of the players seem willing to try the game again (the one guy who trapped himself in the northwest is leery, though), since we all agree that it was a horribly unlikely stretch of bad luck (especially the three-storm guy and the almost complete lack of open sea cards in the early game).

    Anyhow... I have a few comments, suggestions and questions:

    The Tortuga Fishbowl

    I know it says it pretty explicitly in the rules... but is moving truly the only way to get new cards? Was any other method tested or considered? We were completely trapped in the Tortuga Fishbowl for several pointless rounds as a result of no open sea draws on the first couple of turns. Has anyone considered variants for getting cards in lieu of doing something else?

    Eight Open Sea Start

    Why isn't the eight open sea card configuration as used in the two-player game used for all games? Seems like it would get things off to a much speedier start. I'm sure it was playtested thoroughly so there must be a reason. We're going to try the rules-as-written set-up once more, but the eight card set-up seems like it would be much better in almost all cases.

    Sure-Thing NPC Ship Combat

    Yeah, I know that others have commented on this before. I know there is a "Additional Ships" rule in the Commodore's game. But it really does seem dry to have NPC ship combat when the only chance of failure is the Voodoo Curse or the traitor. Was any variant tested where the top card in the deck is flipped to add to the NPC's combat values (sail, cannon, crew)? One thing that occurred to me is that you could use standard combat for cards played out of your hand, but when a enemy ship is fought as an encounter, it uses random cards to augment its score. Still too dangerous?

    Larger Ports Not Worth Sacking

    A few players commented that in many cases a larger port would not be worth sacking - sacking the smallest port potentially yields just as much booty as sacking Havana or Port Royal. Could added incentive for sacking larger ports be added? Silver, related in some way to the cannon or garrison strength or trade prices? Just a thought.

    Storm Card

    Now, I know that it was just dumb luck that the player got that storm card so many times in one game. ~1/108^3 (or so, minus cards on the board and in hands) but man, that was tough on the guy.

    Tiny Hands

    After fighting a larger ship and ending your turn, you're often down by as much as four cards; usually at least three! (Sail, cannon, crew + encounter card that must be played). In our game, combined with poor open sea potential, this meant that we were often playing with zero, one or two cards. As anyone who plays card-driven games knows, lack of choice is extremely frustrating. Were any proposals for replacing combat cards or drawing more cards (see above) given in the design process?

    Final Thoughts

    Anyhow, I can see that this could potentially be a good game with better card draws and smarter play on the part of some players, but it's unfortunately left us with a bitter taste. I hope that others can add some comments that would aid us in better play and game understanding in the future.