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Subject: An enthusiastically positive review after quite a bit of play rss

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Jeff Burdett

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For those looking for the bottom line up front, here it is - "Balance of Powers" (BoP) is an excellent strategic level WWI game in all the categories that matter most to me: playability (and replayability), interesting mechanics, works well PBEM, and it's all backed by a designer who has obviously put a lot of research into the game. I'm involved in 3 PBEM campaign games (including one with the designer, which is always fun), all of them stretching into late 1915, so I've had quite a bit of experience with the game. Hoping to get a FTF game in soon, maybe at WBC. Now, for the rest of the story....

Playability: At first glance, this is a monster game both physically and mechanically. It seeks to simulate WWI on land, at sea, in the air, with a healthy dose of economics and diplomacy thrown in. However, the separate parts are easily grasped and you can jump into a game and learn them step by step. For example, the Sequence of Play includes different phases for aviation and naval actions and once they are done you don't have to worry about them anymore (beyond the consequences of those moves!). In addition, there are optional rules that eliminate naval and diplomatic phases and replace them with simple mechanics to simulate them if you want to concentrate on the land action (not that I would recommend this - naval and diplomatic maneuvers are some of the best parts!).
Of course, land actions are the meat of the game and the rules represent a playability factor that I like - you activate stacks/forces individually and do combat and movement for as long as there are MP or a battle doesn't end with everyone entrenched (more on that later). This allows for quite a bit of interaction as the non-phasing player (retreats, reactions, etc.). I prefer this to "move everyone and then attack with everyone" mechanics, but that's just a matter of taste.
The detailed SoP lends itself well to multiple sessions if you don't have the time to commit for what is likely a 12-18 hour campaign. The mechanics also add a high degree of variability that will make every game different - you could certainly fight a war similar to the historical one, but can explore different options through the naval, economic, and diplomacy rules. Hence, the high "replay" value.

Cool Mechanics There are a bunch, so I will discuss them individually:

- Tactical Innovation (TI): One of the hardest things to game in WWI is the development of tactics that can break (well, soften) the trench stalemate. Most games I've seen introduce storm troops, gas, and tanks later in the war that give mods against trenches. In BoP, you have to bleed A LOT before your side is allowed to access those improvements. This is achieved with a brilliant and relatively simple mechanic - in order to achieve the tactics necessary to perform better against trenches you have to do 30+ attacks that result in major battles (i.e., at least 2 corps on each side, so you can't just sacrifice worthless units on the periphery to drive up your TI level). Each of these attacks increases your TI by one point, until you get to 36 when you can start rolling for TI prior to battle. At 40 you just have to roll less than a 6, so it's never guaranteed. Only ATTACKS that result in major battles count, so you just have to do it. Of course, major battles can also end with a demoralization point, so it's risky...More on that next.

- Demoralization and Revolution: Another tricky thing to game, but I think BoP gets it right. I always hated how some games make it impossible to avoid the Russian Revolution even if the Russians are doing really well. In BoP, each country has a political crisis level that could potentially trigger revolution. That political crisis level is reached by incurring demoralization points through major battle losses, electing attrition to soften the losses in a battle, and for Russia by losing fortresses (war weariness sets in later, and everyone gets a point in the winter season). Ottomans and Italy are brittle politically, while the Germans take a lot more demoralization before facing revolt. Of course political crisis and revolution are bad, so you want to avoid them.

- Diplomacy: there are a limited set of "opportunistic neutrals" that can be swayed by each side. In BoP, you can also offer "bargaining chip" cities that are within 3 hexes of the neutral in order to get modifiers to die roll. Those BC cities can only be used once successfully, so if the CP uses Nish to sway Bulgaria they can't use it to try for Rumania later. Also, if you control those BC's (i.e. Austria has taken Nish from Serbia) the mods double. The die roll is razor thin (need a 1 or 6 depending on side) so any mod could make a huge difference. Finally, the Germans can avoid a USA entry by limiting their "Unrestricted Submarine Warfare", which is a hard decision indeed.

- Infrastructure: This is another simple mechanic that combines a bunch of ideas into one chit. Each month CP and EP can buy one infrastructure marker (just one, not per country). Even though it looks like a rail link, it acts to provide supply, increase stacking in difficult terrain, and can be used as a +1 drm if used as the attacker (tough decision though, since it goes away if used for drm). When your opponent plops one of those down on your front line, you can be pretty sure something big is coming (like a Somme or Verdun). It also allows you to build the Berlin-Baghdad or Suez railroad if you want to, or to extend supply to areas in Russia and Turkey that are cut off otherwise. For example, a Russian march on Erzerum requires expenditure of 2 infrastructure markers over two months.

- Entrenching and breakthroughs: Any unit can entrench as its only move that turn, and attacking trenches is difficult. Not only is there a stiff drm, but when you attack entrenched defenders your units will be automatically entrenched at the end of the battle. Also, entrenched spaces can only be attacked once per turn, and the units in that space are frozen from moving or attacking (simulating the difficulties of negotiating a trench battle). More importantly, if you achieve a partial success (i.e. you don't kill all the defenders) you get slapped with a breach marker that will HURT your attacks from that direction in the future. I really like this idea, since a partial success would usually hurt the side that achieved it - they broke through along a thousand yard front and then had to deal with counterattacks from all sides. TI will help solve this problem, but you have to bleed a lot to get there. Of course, there were some spectacular breakthroughs despite the trenches earlier in the war, but you have to be really lucky with your drms and dice to get it. Very rare.

- Attrition: The CRT is heartbreakingly painful on the extremes, but you can usually choose attrition to save one of the losses. It costs money, and more importantly you incur a demoralization point 1/3 of the time, but it can help you stand fast in a crucial space.

The game has a lot more chrome like leaders, naval war, sub warfare, aces, and a separate African front, but I won't go into those since most wargamers would find them typical.

PBEM - there are Vassal and CB modules, and even though both could use some adjustments they allow you to play against 1-6 other players by email or live on vassal. I've found that the file exchange is reasonable given the higher level of interaction - most times you can run battles without sending file back to opponent.

Design team support: Questions and clarifications are addressed promptly on BGG and CSW. You also get the sense that the design has a lot of research and thought to it, based on answers in the forums.

Problems: From my reading on the forums, the main criticisms are aesthetic rather than mechanic. Many find fault with the colors chosen for each country (AH is pink, for example), and the grognards had a collective stroke over the counter art. Rather than NATO symbols, they went with representative hat shapes for the corps (i.e. the classic Tommie and Poilu hats). I could go either way on the hats, but the counter colors can be jarring. Doesn't affect gameplay in the least though, which is most important part. There is relatively minor errata given the game's size and scope - indeed this is a good example of the designer's research. The map mistakenly places Sarkamish in Turkey at start based on a contemporaneous map the designer used, but in practice it doesn't matter at all. Ottoman units would be OOS there and would have to abandon the city quickly (as happened historically), so the design intent works fine. For me the main irritant has been the skimpy player aides. All of the charts are presented on two pages with no clear organization - it would be helpful if the CRT and some other information were on the map.

In conclusion, I'm having a ball with this game. I jump at any strategic level WWI game that comes out (PoG, PuG, Great War, PC games, Storm of Steel, etc.) and BoP has the best mix of playability and historical accuracy I've seen yet. Time will tell whether there are elements that ultimately damage or even break the game, but it hasn't happened yet and the mechanics seem sound. Compass Games aren't as widely played as GMT or MMP, but you are really missing a gem here if you haven't checked it out.
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Scott Henshaw
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East Bridgewater
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Thank you for the in depth review.
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Captain Nemo
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Very helpful; would you say it plays the full war to a conclusion in 24 hours?
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Jeff Burdett

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Unsure how long it would take - it definitely goes faster after the first year when half your guys are in the dead pool I would say two full days at least.
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Jon Karlsson
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Linköping
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How heavy is it? Say, on a scale from World in Flames (or La Grande Guerre, which I would rate about the same as WiF) to Paths of Glory?

How would it play with six players? My impression from LGG is that WW1 is a four-player war; there is just too little for any powers that aren't France, Russia, Germany or Austria to do and affect to motivate them having an own player.
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Mike Oberly
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Thanks for the excellent review. I have had my eye on it...my only worry is that it might be too much for me. (And I don't have a lot of room right now to keep something set up)
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John Gorkowski
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Jon Karlsson wrote:
How heavy is it? Say, on a scale from World in Flames (or La Grande Guerre, which I would rate about the same as WiF) to Paths of Glory?

How would it play with six players? My impression from LGG is that WW1 is a four-player war; there is just too little for any powers that aren't France, Russia, Germany or Austria to do and affect to motivate them having an own player.


Jon

BoP weighs in half way between Paths of Glory and La Grande Guerre (or WIF). I think it's comparable to the old World War II: European Theater of Operations.

No doubt, two player works best. But, you could have up to seven: Austria-Hungary, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, the Ottoman Empire, and the United States. But, a reasonable multiplayer game would combine the U.S. and Russia under one player, since one fades as the other emerges, for a limit of six players. The "less meaty" Italian and Ottoman OBs can be supplemented by giving those players dominion over same-side minors.

Thanks
John
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John Gorkowski
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MikeOberly wrote:
Thanks for the excellent review. I have had my eye on it...my only worry is that it might be too much for me. (And I don't have a lot of room right now to keep something set up)


Since there are numerous one map scenarios one needs only a 36 inch by 24 inch (3 feet by 2 feet) playing surface to actually play the game. And most of those one-mappers can be played in a single evening of 2-3 hours.

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John
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Mike Oberly
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Thanks for the reply, John. I wasn't certain how much space was necessary, even for the smaller scenarios. You probably have made a sale, at least in the near future. This one looks too good.
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suPUR DUEper
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This may sound like a silly criteria but.... How deep are the typical stacks of units? I am not interested in hexes piled 17 units deep (I am looking at you Fire in the East). In fact, more than two on average will be a turn off. Thx.
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John Gorkowski
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TedW wrote:
This may sound like a silly criteria but.... How deep are the typical stacks of units? I am not interested in hexes piled 17 units deep (I am looking at you Fire in the East). In fact, more than two on average will be a turn off. Thx.


Good question, others can confirm (or contradict) my experience.

Most stacks are two or three units deep and get up to twice that in the one hex leading a major offensive. In remote regions, Iraq, Sinai, Ukraine, you often stack one per hex.

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Michael Longdin
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Thanks for the insightful write up.
Do you have a view on optimum numbver of players. "1-7" is usually not a good indicator for me.
Also, how good is it solitaire
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chris yates
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good review, one point I didn't get was

'and for Russia by losing fortresses'

I thought all nations lose demoralisation points by losing non-frontier fortresses?

Chris
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John Gorkowski
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chris yates wrote:
good review, one point I didn't get was

'and for Russia by losing fortresses'

I thought all nations lose demoralisation points by losing non-frontier fortresses?

Chris


They do. I think the point was that the Russians are particularly vulnerable to that threat; it's a big part of taking them down.
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Lawrence Hung
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Great stuff. I have the game at hand and this review take me off again with it. I should find the time to get it a go as it is hard to find good strategic-operational level WWI game. Compass Games is beginning to have a place in my heart as I had good deal of time with their games like Red Storm over the Reich and Silent War, better researched, better play-tested. How would you guys compare Balance of Power to the recently upgraded SPI World War I by Decision Games in Magazine: Strategy & Tactics?
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Dave Shane
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And you don't even mention Crusade and Revolution, which is Compass Games' point-to-point movement game of Spanish Civil War. I have played it more than any other game since receiving it last December.
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