Fire in the Lake – Charlie was Everywhere

There are a fair few games that I hate to love. They could be devouring my life, wallet and happiness like Netrunner. It could be a game that I love to play but know in my heart is bad like Betrayal at the House on the Hill. Or it could be a game so mammoth that I never get to play it with anyone, and that is Fire in the Lake.

Fire in the Lake is the latest in the COIN, or counterinsurgency, series, these games are slightly abstracted large scale wargames set in a historical counterinsurgency. Past games have been set in Cuba or Columbia but Fire in the Lake takes on the Vietnam war. Players have the choice of four factions , the NVA and Viet Cong or the US and ARVN, these factions all play quite differently and actually have different win conditions too.

All the action in the game is driven by the massive event deck, this determines the turn order and the players can in turn decide whether to execute the event’s effect or take one of the many actions available. These events are incredibly thematic representing real historical events, personalities and equipment, and provide some nice simplification as well. Only two players can act each turn then sit the next one out so as a team there is some serious decision making to be done, if presented with the opportunity do you both act but give the enemy a free turn next and who of you should wait if not. You also play with the next turn’s event on display so you might want to forgo action to have first dibs at a powerful event.

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The insurgents and the counterinsurgents play totally differently, with the insurgents being much worse at direct combat but requiring the conventional armies to root them out before they can attack. So you end up feeling very much like General Westmoreland, watching tiny groups of guerillas pop up all over South Vietnam and not really wanting to put in the effort to clear them out, while the vast conventional armies of the north mass over the border. By contrast the insurgents’ task also seems daunting, your forces grow much more slowly and are significantly less good in a fight, but that’s usually not your goal, you might be happy sneaking in one guerilla unit to sow havoc in the enemy rear areas.

Even within the teams each faction has different objectives and means of achieving them. The US army is an efficient mincing machine in combat but it is small in number and only gets reinforcements rarely, this problem is compounded by their victory conditions since they win by bringing the boys home alive and not escalating the conflict. Also they want to build support for the South Vietnamese government among the populace so this compels them to maintain a presence in as much of the country as possible to stomp out VC agitators wherever they appear. By contract the ARVN faction couldn’t give a toss about being popular and just wants to control territory, which they can do with their large but comparatively ineffective army, another avenue for victory points is to divert US government aid to the personal pockets of the ruling class however this will infuriate the US player as it both decreases the money available to fight the war and reduces support that the US player has been building up.

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The insurgents get on a little better but still butt heads, both want to build bases to establish a supply line but the VC wants to spread discontent with the Saigon government whereas the NVA are interested in controlling land in the south, in a sense this means the NVA opposes ARVN and the VC opposes the US. I would say the NVA and ARVN are most evenly matched since the NVA use conventional troops as well as their guerillas.

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Since you only do one type of action a turn, albeit several times, it takes a while to put your strategy into action but don’t take too long or you’ll be caught out by one of the games fantastic coup rounds. The coup cards go into the event deck and provide mini resets to the game. Most importantly if players have enough of their type of victory points they can win the game immediately. If this not occur each side gains money, builds support or opposition in regions they control, then the counterinsurgents redeploy. ARVN must retreat back to the cities or bases as the monsoon comes in and the US has an opportunity to bring in reinforcements or draw back its military commitment in the south.

I love Fire in the Lake, but it’s so intimidating i could never bring it along to a board game evening, the level of rules learning being maybe on par with a miniatures game like Warhammer. However the game does include something rather interesting, an option for any number of the game’s factions to run on autopilot so I can play against the game, referencing the massive flowcharts to see what the non player factions can be a pain, but it is a great way to spend  lazy sunday with some baileys and a stack of war movies. Fire in the Lake is a long game and more than a little confusing, but there’s just nothing like moving a giant pile of those wooden troop cubes around the war map.

Samurai Spirit – Jolly co-operation

Enough about games where we’re either trying to blow each other up or monopolise tulip production in 16th century Holland, there’s a whole world of games where it’s you and your friends working together against a hellish opponent, the game itself. These are excellent games for someone like me who’s constantly trying to ruin other people’s productivity with board games. They are great gateways, unlike competitive games you don’t have to worry so much that the first games will be you pounding them into the floor for the first few games, and you can spread the teaching experience over the whole game rather having to front load it all. Most importantly, they encourage everyone to be chatty all the time.

Samurai spirit is one such game,  with up to seven samurai defending  a village from bandits in the style of the film Seven Samurai. Except the part the movie left out where the samurai occasionally turn into animals. Each of you will be one of the fantastic looking samurai as you work your way through a deck of bandit cards for three rounds, adding in slightly harder enemies at the end of each round.

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Each individual samurai will be playing essentially a game of blackjack, the bandit cards all have a number and you will be deciding to draw and fight a new bandit or pass, taking care to not go over your samurai’s particular ki limit. There are a couple of extra aspects to the game to help you out with this, the samurai all have a passive ability that makes drawing bandits less risky, passing cards off to other players or getting a peek at the bandit before you would draw. Also there are slots to the side of your combat track where you can put bandits without having their number count against your ki value, these slots need to be filled by the end of the round or some bad stuff will happen. Balanced against these helping hands drawing cards is still risky and a constant nag. At the start of your turn you apply a penalty based on the most recent bandit in your combat stack so you want to be drawing new bandits if the effect is particularly painful like dealing damage to your samurai, also remember the need to fill your slots on the side before the round ends.

With that said passing isn’t the worst thing in the world, you let one bandit get past and while these have a chance to do damage to your village it isn’t a guarantee, then you hand off your passive ability to another samurai to use on their turn. This choice to pass or not and who to give your ability to is a major part of the team decision making. It’s definitely a choice I need to take more rather than just rabidly drawing cards in pursuit of the coolest thing in Samurai Spirit, activating my ki ability.

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When your combat line hits exactly your ki limit you remove the top bandit from your line, allowing you more room to fight, and use your very powerful ki ability. This might be killing two bandits straight off the top of the deck or removing the bottom bandit from a player’s combat line. And I haven’t even mentioned the animal forms. When your samurai has taken two wounds you will flip over your board onto an incredibly cool looking animal samurai, your ki limit increasing so you can fight more enemies and also upgrading your ki ability. But you need to be careful since four wounds will see you dead.

Speaking of dead that is one of the ways for you to lose Samurai Spirit, if any one player dies you all lose. You will also lose if at the end of any round you have either no farms or no families left, these can be lost through bandits burning them down or if you fail to put bandits in your farm/family slots. Difficulty wise I have only beaten this once but it’s quick and light enough a game that I don’t mind losing and playing again. It’s certainly rough but not so bad I don’t get to the final round. I think over several games I’ve got my head around the balance of deliberately taking wounds to activate your animal form and accepting some barricades and farms getting burned down to avoid getting overwhelmed.

The main problem this kind of game can have, Samurai Spirit being no exception, is when a more knowledgeable player railroads the group into set decisions. This can take other players out of the action and in the worst cases have one player constantly passing because handing their special ability off is more efficient than them actually doing anything. This is a fault that is by no means unique to Samurai Spirit and somewhat inherent to the genre, but it is always worth trying to restrain yourself for the benefit of less experienced players, I for one should be doing this more.

So Samurai Spirit get a wholehearted thumbs up from me, its small-ish and quite cheap but will probably get you quite a bit of play time. The quick pace will see a game completed in less than an hour so it’s also good for play on a train or similar situation. It also goes into the small group of games I’ve managed to play while quite hammered, which always earns a game points from me.

 

Splendor – Splendid

I’ve never really enjoyed super hardcore euro games like Agricola and its ilk and this has always seemed to me like a serious character flaw as a board gamer. To not get on with some of the hobby’s sacred cows was largely due to my own idiocy, way too much maths which gets exponentially worse when considering turns after the current one and the actions of other players. I can respect these games as fantastic interlocking systems and I won’t lie and say it isn’t satisfying when a year ends and all my lovely sheep start having babies (and all my actual babies eat my goddamn food), but it doesn’t get my blood up as much as a game where I can use an army to crush people with my tactical brilliance.

However if there were any game in the genre that you could get me to play regularly it would be Splendor, because it takes the principles of the genre and removes 99% of the extra stuff. Splendor will see you and your friends trying to create fantastic renaissance artworks to build your reputation and impress European nobles (Wait, no! Come back!). And how do you do this? With victory points, obviously.

The game play of Splendor is excellent in its simplicity since on your turn you can do one of only four actions. Two of these actions are about collecting what may be the greatest board game currency I’ve ever played with. Five different coloured gems represented by weighted plastic poker chips, which are lovely to hold and make a fantastic sound when you are stacking them to intimidate your opponents. For your actions in game you can take either three different coloured gems, or take two of one colour if four of that colour remain in the supply. The supply has a quite limited supply of gems is just the start of the passive aggressive interaction of Splendor. Diversifying the gems you take is very important to both leave your options open and to disguise your plans from your opponents, or you could hoard one colour if an opponent desperately needs it for something, although this is thankfully limited by the cap of ten gems you can hold at any one time.

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Easily in my top 10 board game components.

Two more actions you can take relate to Splendor’s set of cards covered in amazing artwork. These cards have two key attributes, some victory points that inch you closer to winning, and they also reduce the cost of all future purchases by one of a particular colour. There are three tiers of cards, the first with few if any victory points, the second tier provides a few more points with the juiciest prizes reserved for the third tier. Each of these groups of cards is more expensive than the one before it and you will not be able to afford any but the first group by only amassing gems. This means you will spend some of the game building up an economy of tier one cards but at some point have to switch to grabbing tier two and three cards, whether you do that by buying more cards for discount or taking gems is a decision you will have to make. There are actually two ways to acquire these cards, either buying them with your gems and discounts, or you can reserve a card for purchase on a later turn. This has the excellent dual use of taking something you want and denying options to your opponents, with the added benefit that you can take a special gold gem which can be used as any colour you like.

Beyond the gems and the cards is one final element to the merciless economics of Splendor, the nobles. Yet more gorgeous art will see figures such as grumpy Henry VIII glaring down on you from the top of the marketplace. The nobles are tied in to the mechanic of the discounts on the cards you have purchased. When the collection of cards you have amassed matches the discounts shown on the nobles, one of them will wander over to join you and give you another sweet hit of victory points. Since only one of you can take each noble and they do not re-stock you end up faced with a dilemma, do you race with your opponents to cut them off from the nobles they’re aiming for, or save your efforts and pursue other nobles or none at all.

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So stern, makes you want his victory points all the more.

This limited set of actions that interact to form many possibilities, with the need to consider opponents moves but not direct confrontation, gives all the hallmarks of a solid euro game, one that i have found easiest of all to teach. This puzzle still has a serious flaw, it’s very hard. Never in a game have i seen so much silence, players staring at their cards and gems with gears visibly turning. I’ve played a fair few complex games, but there is usually a lot more action to chat about and threatening trash talk, in Splendor all your mental energy is thinking what will be a good move and maybe 5 seconds to actually take it. For this reason i feel Splendor is a game i can respect but not wholeheartedly recommend. I’ll definitely try out other games of this type, my eye is particularly drawn to Machi Koro, but for now I’ll stick to making pew pew noises as spaceships blow up over calm graceful economics.