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I am almost exclusively a solo gamer and look at the gaming scene seen through those eyes. I also literally like alliteration. TWITTER: @onesuponagame

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Preparing to get Ambush!ed

Kevin L. Kitchens
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Ambush! is one of those OLD wargames. So it can't be any good right? I mean it's got cardboard counters, a paper map, and cards. Nothing like a new wargame that has cardboard counters, paper maps, and cards.

Oh wait.

Actually Ambush! is supposed to be a classic, grail game for the solitaire wargamer. Happy I was able to pick up a copy in a recent US Math Trade (for a copy of Paths of Glory which I just couldn't see myself playing solo).


All set up and one place to go: the rules!


Took the counters through their requisite visit to the Oregon Laminations 2.5mm corner rounder, printed off the squad record sheets, as well as the updated rule book. Now I'm reading through the rules getting ready for the first play of this classic.

Rolled my squad, took the gear from the demo squad as required.

More as I go...



Squad (with their fresh 'cuts) is chomping at the bit to get onto that plexiglass!
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Wed Feb 11, 2015 5:03 pm
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Across 5 Aprils - A Very Solitaire-y Wargame

Kevin L. Kitchens
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Back in 1992, Bill Clinton was about to be elected the United States' 42nd president, my son had not even been born yet, and Victory Games released the multi-battle civil war wargame game Across 5 Aprils.

Had not heard of this one until it was mentioned last year in a video by the Hamtag Trio (tried to locate the video and couldn't find it). So when I saw a copy up for auction recently, I was able to grab it. Excellent copy too, completely unpunched. More on the game components itself in a full review.

The game is by noted designer Eric Lee Smith, now of the digital Shenandoah Studio and co-creator of the classic WW2 solo game Ambush! (with John H. Butterfield which I also just acquired and cannot wait to play).

The only other Smith title I'd played before was 1985's Mosby's Raiders which I bought new in 1988 or so and carried around with me for over 25 years before finally playing. Did not find the experience all that enjoyable however. But A5A is a different story.

It's a two player game, or should I properly say, it's a two-sided game that can be played by one or two players (or more I suppose if you're into committee decision-making, ick).

Each turn, all active formations have 1-2 chits put into a draw cup along with a combat marker for each side. You draw a chit, activate that formation and move all its units. However combat only can occur each turn when the combat chit is pulled. So many times you won't in position or fully in position to get the outcome you want. It's a great system that makes the game fully solo friendly. 99% of the time you can simply decide "what is the best move for this unit at this time". I only had one time where I had a plan for the Rebels that might be undone by the Union if they went a certain direction. But since I knew what both sides were going to do, I wasn't sure how to resolve the problem. Fortunately the order of the chit pull took care of that for me and it was a moot point.

The Rebel was trying to reclaim a second objective just before the end of the first day which would have meant a victory. He made it to the point where he could try, but lost the skirmish and had to retreat.

This was all in the Battle of Pea Ridge, which took place in March 1862. It's one of the game's smaller battles of the five included.

So, while I'm not big on writing AARs, we now join the conclusion of Pea Ridge, already in progress.


Prior to Turn 13:



After an early capture of two objectives, I realized the confederates were not built to steamroll over the much larger Union forces. They held the easternmost objective of Elk Tavern, but quickly lost several skirmishes and the forces were reduced to two formations: The Missouri State Guard and McCullough's Division. The union aggressors forces were still comprised of the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th division as well as the Right Wing and Independents.

McCullough on the run and the Mo Guard holed up in Elkhorn Tavern.

Turn 13 (9:00 am):
Missouri Guard - Shores up for the upcoming assault.
CSA COMBAT! - McCullough doesn't like his chances alone against the 3rd Division, so he retreats. No pursuit.
Union 2nd - Stays put on the Union HQ to prevent any takeover.
Union Right Wing - Advances up road to just outside Elkhorn.
McCullough - Skirts the union defense to the north road hoping to reach his Confederate confederates at Elkhorn.
Union 4th - Advances into the woods south of Elkhorn.
UNION COMBAT! - No engagements.
Union 1st - Advances to cut off McCullough to prevent reinforcing Elkhorn.
Union 3rd - Pursues McCullough up road and catches him to his rear.
Union Independent - Advances to the adjacent west of Elkhorn.

The Rebels hope to hold out this one objective. The union is betting on a full assault to drive them out.



Turn 14 (10:00 am):

UNION COMBAT! - Oh dear... premature to say the least as the forces were not in place! Union Independents don't like their 3:10 odds and thus retreat from battle. However to the west, the 3rd and the 1st have McCullough surrounded. Even so the odds are only 7:6 in their favor. (note: the defender was in an orchard which to me should provide cover, but none was listed on the terrain chart, so it reverted to open terrain). Rolls were CSA: 1 and USA: 6 which modify to 0 and 7 respectively... McCullough is eliminated.
Union Right Wing - Holds position.
Union 2nd - Advances toward Elkhorn since the threat of McCullough is removed.
Union 3rd - Advances to woods NW of Elkhorn.
Union Independents - Advances up the road the east flank of Elkhorn.
CSA COMBAT! - No engagements.
Union 1st - Holds.
Missouri Guard - Units west of Elkhorn fall back behind to force Union to move more to engage.
Union 4th - Advances to the east of Elkhorn.


Elkhorn is surrounded, if the union can close and engage before time is up.


The last turn all comes down to chit pull. I should probably have closed the union ranks a little tighter to force the confederates to possibly retreat should they draw the battle chit first. However, they are holed up with 7 attack and 12 defense, so a full assault was the best option (notes written prior to playing turn 15)

Turn 15 (11:00 am):

It all comes down to this last turn.

Union 2nd - Advances adjacent to SE Elkhorn position.
CSA COMBAT! - Bad for the union, could force the 2nd out of position. 7:3 odds favor the CSA at 2:1 with a 1 column shift left to 1:1. But the rolls don't go the CSA way... their 1 becomes a 0 and the union rolled a 3. The 2nd stands its ground while confederate artillery unit is destroyed.
Missouri Guard - A fortunate pull. They advance a new artillery unit into the tavern, bringing it's now 8 defense up to a 16.
Union Right Wing - Advances to west of Elkhorn prepping for final battle.
UNION COMBAT! - Bad timing again! Not enough forces in play, but there is a slim chance of victory. 5:16 odds for the Union (1:3 with no shift). Union rolls a 1 to the CSA 3, which adjust to 1 and 2, but at 1:3 odds, it does not go the union's way. One artillery unit is destroy from the 2nd and the remaining attackers have to retreat.

The Union Concedes the loss of Elkhorn Tavern (no point in just moving the final units)
The CSA manages a Marginal Victory.



As I said, this is really fun game. Once you know the rules it will play very quickly. The chit pull simulates the fog of war and the ability to command large groups of soldiers during this period of time.

If you get the opportunity, you should check it out. Each battle and the PDF rulebooks are on Vassal as well (http://www.vassalengine.org/wiki/Module:Across_5_Aprils)
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Sat Feb 7, 2015 6:57 pm
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Eminently Racing for the Gathering Domain of the Stormy Galaxy

Kevin L. Kitchens
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Introduction

Being a relatively new returnee to tabletop boardgaming, one benefit is the ability to explore not only recent releases but modern classics that have already gone through their trial periods and proven themselves to be decent games. Such is my situation with two space-exploration card games Race for the Galaxy and Eminent Domain.

From a 40,000 foot view, the games appear very similar in style. Each player uses cards to explore, colonize, conquer planets, expanding their empire. Likewise, each turn a player can choose from a set of actions, knowing that the other players will also be able to take a lesser version of the same action.

Both games are also not acceptably playable in solitaire mode without additions. For RFTG there is the Race for the Galaxy: The Gathering Storm expansion (separate purchase sadly). For Eminent Domain, you have several fan-created solo variants, including "Eminent Domain Solo", the variant rules used for this comparison. While both solo options do an admirable job of simulating a real opponent, do they result in a fun solo experience?

Summary of the Games

In general Race for the Galaxy is a engine-building game where you hope to optimize your empire through developing technologies and settling planets. Through hand management, you use your cards for payment as well as planets and technologies to be played to your empire's "tableau". There are many different strategies to take in the game and none of which can be decided beforehand (like a deck construction game). The game ends when a player's tableau totals 12 or more cards OR the total number of victory point chips is zero or less after the current round completes.


photo by Ralph Severson


Eminent Domain is a deck builder, where you start with a planet pretty much the same as all the other players (in the base game) as well as starting deck of cards. From this you build your deck through your selection of a role each turn. Your hand size starts at five, but this can increase through planet bonuses and decrease as you choose to follow other players lead roles. You are not required to discard your hand after your turn, so you can carry cards until it's advantageous to use them. Planets and technologies are separate decks and are gained via Survey and Research roles. A player first surveys a planet, bringing it into its empire and then settles or conquers via Colonization or Warfare roles. Influence points (aka victory points) are gained via planets, research and selling goods produced on your planets. There is no set tableau size, the game will end after the round all the influence tokens run out or when a number of stacks of the central role cards is depleted (varies by player count).



The games each have somewhat similar "I choose, you follow" mechanisms, however in RFTG all players reveal their selections at the same time. The actions get resolved left to right with all those picking the action getting a special bonus and those who did not get a basic resolution of the action. In EmDo, the turns alternate. The player can play an action alone, then they choose one of the central roles to "lead". As the leader they get a bonus, but all the other players can follow for a basic resolution or dissent to draw a card.

The AI

In RFTG, the "bot" is different each time based on the starting world randomly assigned to it. The AI card has locations for putting various chits to change the programming of the bot and this presents a unique challenge each game. The player will roll two special dice for the bot to select their actions for the round. The AI card shows what the current programming for the bot is for this game based on whether they selected the action or are taking the follow action.


photo by 'Sothis'


In the EmDo variant, the bot uses a pre-defined deck of starting cards (different from a player deck) and draws two of those each time it's its turn favoring the one that appears leftmost in the central draw area for all players. The variant rules describe what the bot does for each role type, whether leading or following and they are for the most part very clear and easy to understand.

While neither of the AI actually play the game like a real player (they are not building a real tableau or following the exact rules as the player does), the effects produced by each bot as it relates to the player are quite realistic. There is enough randomness with the die rolling and card drawing that is tempered by the programmed bias toward certain roles and actions to keep things intelligently variable. Kudos to each of the developers of the AI systems, they've done a great job in that regard and I'd love to see more games produce intelligent AI opponents.

But are they fun?

Race for the Galaxy is incredibly fun to play, against a real opponent or an AI. About the only problem with it is that it's so fast that setup takes almost as long as the game itself (exaggeration). There are several starting planets and after you and the bot each get one at random, the rest are shuffled into the deck (100+ cards). To play a new game, you have to sift through the deck, pull all the starting worlds (clearly marked), randomly assign, and then reshuffle. The cards are used so much, it's the first game I ever sleeved. But yes, the game is a blast to play solitaire and it's clear why it ranks so highly on BGG (22 as of today).

Unfortunately, Eminent Domain pales in the shadow of RFTG. While many find Race difficult because of the iconography on each card, EmDo is much more accessible and clear on what each card and action does. Don't get me wrong, EmDo is a great game and deserves its excellent ranking (290 as of this writing). However, playing it solo feels more like training for a real game rather than a real game in itself. While other variants simple create a scenario in which you try to best your high score, this variant at least simulates a real opponent. However it is only for the base game and as such the base game becomes a bit long and boring. You can get several rounds into the game and have barely a dent in the influence token pool or depleting any of the stacks. The expansions add a lot more flavor and variability to the game that I'm sure keep it fresh and interesting when playing with real opponents.

Conclusion

For good or bad, I play the majority of my games solo (my scores are "so low" too). A multiplayer game that can deliver a solo mode that captures the excitement and strategy of a live opponent is a treasure to the solitaire gamer. In this case, Race for the Galaxy (with Gathering Storm) is the clear winner. I do wish that they would market an RFTG solo version that includes only the cards and components necessary for playing the AI. Even if they simply bundled the expansion into a single product. While it wouldn't reduce the footprint of the game too much in terms of the total cards you use, it would certainly be of benefit to those only buying it for solitaire (rather than having to make two separate purchases).
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Thu Jan 29, 2015 4:42 pm
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War of the Ring: Pre-emption of the Fellowship

Kevin L. Kitchens
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Did not finish the game.

This has definitely got to be better with two different people playing each side. It might be ok solo if you have larger time blocks to play. But in the end the playing a couple of turns, then leaving it for 24 hours was just getting old. Finally last night, I decided that I'd had enough of the delay. It'd been on the table for 8 nights, over 1/4 of the month and I was ready to move on to something else.

I love playing the game though and developing a strategy for each side. But trying to play it out schizolo just was not working for me. I can see why it's so highly ranked for sure and would love to play against a real opponent sometime (and will try the Java client).

But as my chances to play physically against another player are rare, I see no need to hang onto this one. Bittersweet for sure, but I listed it on the BGG Marketplace so hopefully it will find a good home with someone who can play it regularly.
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Sat Nov 29, 2014 2:25 pm
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War of the Ring: More Corruption Than Washington, D.C.

Kevin L. Kitchens
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First off, thanks to everyone who has commented on these posts, offering advice, wisdom, and sometimes wise advice. It's much appreciated and helped me to see how this should be played and some strategies to employ.

That said, over the last few turns, Rivendell has falled to Saruman's forces (!!!), the Fellowship has completely "breaked", and Gollum is now in the driver's seat. I was down to just Strider when the Fellowship was revealed and I neglected (as the FP) to hide them, so the SP (also me) played the card which broke the Fellowship completely and he was out and Gollum took over. The plus to being down to just one companion is that the SP could only ever choose to add one die to the Hunt which gave me the opportunity to move a little more ("Eye" rolls were still added of course)

But I got greedy and got caught and the corruption has climbed to 8 or so now, so it's not looking good for the good guys.

I did learn the value of certain card combos. I got Gandalf the White into a battle with Orthanc with Merry and Pippin in Fangorn and had one of the Ents Awaken cards. Sadly I'd just discard the previous turn the other two Ent cards after the draw phase to make room. Had I kept them, I could have done a 1-2-3 punch as each card lets you play another card of the same type. Stupid stupid stupid.

This game would definitely (as many of you have stated) play far better with two real players. Just the difference in how the action dice would be used to fulfill a plan from a different mind would be awesome. I will have to try the online client if I can find players who will be patient with a newbie.

But it does play well solo and again, there are very few rules lookups and the resources in the file section help tremendously.

The bigger problem I have with the game's length as it relates to my gaming time. I understand that 1:1 games will go faster as each player already has plans, knows the rules, and can just execute based on their action die. But for me the overall time is chopped up into slices (and this is true with any long game) over many many days and I get impatient ready to move on to something else. Not out of dislike for the game at hand (not at all in this case), but for the time it takes to play in calendar days. So when the game ends, I tend to put it away to play something quicker... then it sits on the shelf as I ponder if I want to get it out again, knowing it will occupy the table for nearly a week.

First world problems I guess.

Anyway, it looks like the end is near, one way or the other. I do think I understand the rules well enough to now try the solo AI for the SP, so I hope to get to that very soon.
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Wed Nov 26, 2014 1:03 pm
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War of the Ring: You Thought the Movies Were Long!

Kevin L. Kitchens
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Over the past couple of nights, got in a total of three more turns. Weekends are a bit busy, so I hit the gaming later in the evening.

When I'm already tired.
And not thinking well.
And WOTR requires a lot of thinking.

I will say that the turns have become easier to move through. The rules really aren't all the complex. Just deciding how to spend your actions is the mental part.

My Shadow side is concentrating hard on taking Minas Tirith. Why not, it was right there. My other armies have been positioned to block progress of reinforcements coming from the north.

My Free Peoples side is concentrating on just surviving. They've held Minas Tirith pretty well without retreating into the stronghold... but that's required precious (ha!) actions to bring in reinforcements. I did mess up and bring two regulars into the same location and didn't realize it until after the battle and wasn't about to try to reset and do it again, so oops.

I'd heard this game was weighted in favor of the Shadow Player and I can see that's true. More dice, more actions. I've managed to move the Fellowship once without getting revealed (did take a damage though). It's very hard spending those limited action as you cannot always do what you want to do. Cards help, but you spend an action to use those too. In addition, when the FP player loses forces, they are gone. The SP gets them added back to their available pool. Ouch.

The cards too are the first main area that make it hard to play both sides. It's very hard to be objective and choose cards to use in a combat when you know what's coming. Unlike Combat Commander: Europe where cards are played in response, these combat cards get decided upon in secret then revealed. So when I pick one for either side, I now know what's coming when I'm choosing for the other side... so the choice isn't purely blind and not necessarily one I would have made were it blind. It's doable, but is a bit of a hurdle.

I pondered for the longest time what the point was of all the armies initially placed in the northern regions. There is no way they'd be of benefit in the South because moving them would take forever to get them to a point of help. However I remembered that the SP side can win with just 10 victory points, so keeping those armies and building them up helps to protect locations from a strategy of just taking out strongholds.

It's still a fun game, however I do find myself saying "I'm going to do this" for the Free Peoples and "They are going to do this" for the Shadow, so I cannot help but wonder if I'm a bit biased. But I am setting sort of ground rules for when to attack and stop and attack (I try not to attack when only one unit is present for example, so as not to lose the leaders in a defeat). The solo rules I noted only has attacks with large 8+ unit armies (IIRC) so that might be the better idea. Build up forces, then attack.

Anyway, enough of my ramblings... the game is progressing. I don't hate it and I don't find the turn decisions to be too tough. Just not enough decisions for the Free Peoples.

On a related note. I found a great Plano-like box to hold all the pieces that will fit into the game box. This requires tossing the existing tray. Were it generic or cardboard, I wouldn't have an issue... but I wonder if getting rid of it would be detrimental. Have any of you replaced the provided tray with another solution?
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Mon Nov 24, 2014 3:43 pm
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War of the Ring: The First Two Rounds

Kevin L. Kitchens
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Yesterday I read through the rules for the actual game to familiarize myself with them before embarking on the solo variant. As I read the solo rules, it became clear (to me) that they are best used by someone who has played the game already and then is making tweaks or modifications to have an AI Shadow Player to go up against.

In other words, I was a bit lost.

So I decided to just do an "I play both sides" session and get through the mechanics. The downside to this coming in new is that I have no concept of an overall strategy for either side.

Why and when do I want to move Nazgul from one Army to another?
Why do I want to separate companions from the Fellowship?
Should I move all the nations to war as soon as possible to get them in the action?
Is this card better for its event or for combat?

But still, I'm a big boy and can do this.

At the end of the two rounds, Saruman is now in the game, Osgiliath has fallen to Sauron (and thus brought Gondor into war). Gandalf, Merry, and Pippin have split from the group to head south. The Fellowship was uncovered in the first round, took damage, took damage again via an event card, but healed again via event card.


Knock, knock, knockin' on Gondor's door...


I have to tell myself that I will be less lost the more I play. I'll see what works and what does not and learn for the future. It's not unfun, it's just remedial me is being schooled.
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Sat Nov 22, 2014 3:15 pm
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