Battle Line is a 2-player card game that plays in about 30 minutes. It is published by GMT Games, a wargame company, but is derived from an earlier Eurogame, Schotten Totten. The mechanics are roughly similar, but the theme is now war-related: a battle between Alexander the Great’s forces and the armies of Darius of Persia.
Theming and the Battle Cards
There have been some criticisms that the game’s theme is thin, and I agree. You don’t really get the feel that you’re forming lines of troops and attacking your enemy when playing. You’re just calculating the odds, trying to outguess your opponent as to where he’s going to put his cards etc. But I also think that criticisms that this game is dry are overdone. I’m not sure if this is because buyers are mostly grognards who have come to expect a certain level of ‘chrome immersion’ from GMT Games and thus were disappointed. Battle Line is derived from a game about Scotsmen fighting for boundary markers and there’s only so much you can do with the mechanics and theme. But I think Knizia and GMT Games have done a pretty good job to inject theme, primarily through the Battle Cards. After a game, I do look at the final layout of the cards and think, “Oh, this line was lost because fog descended and the Persians took advantage of the confusion and chopped up the Greeks.” Or “Alexander led the fight here and broke through against the Persians.” Granted, you don’t actively think about this during the game, but the Battle Cards do add enough flavour to make for a more interesting AAR. For a wargamer like me, that’s what makes Battle Line sufficiently interesting.
There are Eurogamers who think that the Battle cards unbalance the game. Well, if you’re looking for a straightforward card-counting, hand management exercise, then the Battle Cards would not be ideal. But to me, using the Battle Cards is always a trade-off. Having one in your hand means one less Troop Card you can hold, and the Battle Card might not be of great use to you. Thus, you are wasting a card space in your hand. IMO, the best move usually lies in drawing the Troop Cards, both to maximise your own possibilities while depriving your opponent of cards he might need. But there might be just that moment when you absolutely need the lifesaver to pull your bacon out of the fire or when a critical breakthrough is looming and you don’t have the card needed – that’s where you find yourself toying with the idea of going for the Battle Cards. And if you manage to pull that Alexander or Darius out of the hat, it’s a good feeling! And seeing the dismay on your opponent’s face! You can imagine Alexander or Darius riding to the rescue to shore up a shaky flank or leading the charge into the enemy. (Cue martial music.)
You can expect Knizia quality with respects to game play in Battle Line. Like the original Schotten Totten, the design is quite clever. Just a quick explanation of the rules. There are 6 colours, each colour having 10 cards numbered 1 to 10. There are nine flags laid out in a row. Players capture flags by playing cards on their respective side of the flag, forming card combinations. The card combinations work similarly to poker, except they consist of only 3 cards. So you have the straight flush, flush, straight, 3-of-a-kind etc. And the combinations’ powers are ranked similarly to poker. During their turn, players play a card on their side of any one of the flags that has not had all three cards played yet and draw to replenish their hand back up to 7, either from the Troop Deck or Battle Deck. When it becomes logically clear that one side that won the flag, the player captures the flag. The first player to capture any 5 flags or 3 flags side-by-side wins the game.
One thing I’m impressed about this game – it’s not a complete random-fest. Skill in Battle Line is rewarded. Players must learn to optimise the most probability of getting the cards they need to win a flag based on what they see as available in their hand, as well as on the ‘board’. And layers have to learn to guess from an opponent’s play what cards he has and thus precluding what future options is available to the player. And when the options close out, a player must learn to cut losses and seek victory in other areas – a job made much more easier if he had done his homework and left areas to expand to. I guess at the end of the day, Battle Line is all about maximising your options. Yet, as cards are played every turn, both by you and your opponent, the options shrink. I think the best player is basically the one who can get the mostest from the leastest!
But Battle Line is not a ruthless, brain-burning game. There are 9 flags, and thus a lot of places to put your cards. So there’s room for error if you make a bad card placement. You can write off that flag and move on to try to capture other flags. In other words, it’s not as harsh as Lost Cities, where bad play is quite obvious and almost unrecoverable!
Compared to other more wargamey card games like the Lightning series, Battle Line stands head and shoulders above these games. Sure, the Lightning series looks (I stress, only looks) more thematic, by which is defined by most grognards as chrome. “Wow, it’s got a picture of the Enterprise!” “It’s got cards like Sea Mines and Division Cohesion! That’s really thematic!” But in D-Day, if the Germans activate a unit with "free attack" on the first turn, the Allied player is screwed. And how’s that historically thematic, since the Germans were caught by surprise and reacted only when the Allies landed on the beach? And in Midway, the whole game turns upon getting No Target cards. The player who draws more of them in the game wins. Piffle.
Lastly, on the issue of components, let me just get this out of the way: is the quality of the cards bad? Yes, they’re thin as thin can be. If you want to enjoy the game, get card sleeves (the cards are the same size as Magic: the Gathering cards). If you just want to gripe, don’t buy the game.
Overall, I like Battle Line. It’s got sufficient theme for me (but if you’re a grognard with an over-attuned sense of chrome, you might be disappointed). And it’s got pretty good game play – random enough to be variable but not a total crap-shoot, and rewarding skill but not harsh to mistakes in gameplay. I don’t play 2-player fillers much but I’m glad I have this in my collection.