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Subject: Battle the Borg way rss

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Alan Paull
United Kingdom
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We have a mostly men, mostly miniatures Monday evening session each week. This gives us an opportunity to play old favourites with various historical themes, including Napoleonic naval, AK47, Rapid Fire and occasionally Hordes of the Things and DBM. So much, so not really board games. Then along came BattleLore.

Despite the excessive hype I found it difficult not to like BattleLore, and believe me, I tried. In theory this game should not appeal to me; I have a background in military history, I design ‘proper’ board wargames and Eurogames and am usually against d6 dice games, in the fundamental belief that game design can progress beyond the idea that 1 chance in 6 is the best basis for a combat system. But I have a relaxed view about the types of games I play, and sometimes the unwritten rules of our Society of Gamers (™) require eating the unpalatable, in the form of two sets of BattleLore purchased within our group. I was pleasantly surprised.

I don’t think it’s a good idea to approach BattleLore with a ‘historical gamers’ hat on despite the supposedly historical early scenarios. This is a combat based game, but it’s a game first and second, and not a simulation or a model of historical situations. The game is a natural extension of Richard Borg’s Command & Colors: Ancients system, now including fantasy elements, such as dwarves, goblins, monsters and magic spells. The game has tons of plastic miniatures and comes in a very large box with a hefty price tag, but not as big a price tag as conventional 15mm or 25mm miniatures wargaming. So, expensive for a board game, but not for a miniatures wargame. Despite some production glitches (now resolved), Days of Wonder have published a high quality game here, including a beautifully laid out rule book that makes Battle Lore’s mechanics very easy to learn.

I’m not going to do a comprehensive review of the mechanics, which are well known by now. There’s a full panoply of views about BattleLore already on the Geek, so you can take your pick. It’s the card action that’s the core of the game’s interest for me.

The game is fast-paced. The command and lore cards heavily restrict what your forces can do each turn, so you don’t have to concern yourself with large numbers of possible short term actions. In most turns you will only move two to four units, and you might cast a spell every two or three turns. This means that you can concentrate on your broad strategy, how you will deploy your forces to achieve the tactical effect you want.

There is strategic skill in where you decide to concentrate your forces, although implementation of your strategic plan will depend on the command cards at your disposal. Most command cards can be used to move and fight with a small number of units from only the Left, the Right or the Centre of the board. Bear in mind that command cards apply to the area on the board, not any natural division of your army, so if you concentrate all your forces in the Centre, any cards which apply only to the Left or the Right will be unusable. As you cannot replace unusable cards, these cards just take up a slot in your very limited hand of cards (up to 6). These restrictions mean that correct card play is vital to success, and sometimes it may be best to play a poor card just to get it out of your hand, in the hope of replacing it with something better. If you allow poor cards to accumulate and clog up your hand, things will just get worse, as you will get fewer and fewer realistic choices.

Each player has six command points at the start of the game, which allow you to personalise the command of your army to a limited extent, by varying the weight you will give to command cards, wizardry, the priesthood, thievery and the way of the warrior, the last four being types of Lore, which give access to Lore cards (magic spells). You can also spend command points on Monsters, the basic game coming with a Giant Spider. Current promos include a Hill Giant and Earth Elemental, but more will make an appearance in expansions and promotional material.

I am of the view that maximising command cards is best, so, if I have the choice, I’m opting for a level 3 commander every time. Others may believe there’s not much difference between 5 and 6 command cards, but they’re going to get more stuck than I am. Since command cards permit flexibility of actions with troops, while an extra level of a lore school only gives a slight addition to the effect of some Lore cards, I would go with the extra command card.

Having played BattleLore a few times, the scope for tactical finesse is growing on me, and it may turn out to be a great tactical game, even if the strategy is quite confined by the command cards. In common with other card-driven games it is important to know the text of each card, and the potential power of mixing them up. Card combinations can be lethal, for instance by multiplying the power of a key cavalry charge, or unexpectedly boosting the resistance of a key sector of your line. It’s easy to see what your opponent might do with average cards, but the surprise package may win the day.

It’s very tempting to identify the whole Command & Colors, Memoir ’44, BattleLore set as a cross-over genre between miniatures and board gaming. Yes, it’s miniatures with a board, but I think the split is more between the ‘serious simulation’ end of gaming, which historical miniatures players tend to favour, and the social, ‘story-telling with combat’ end, favoured by the more relaxed. Both of these tendencies seem pretty much male dominated, whereas the purest board gaming tendency, European or Anglo-Saxon, can be both sexes. That said, there’s a big market for these accessible, light and short combat based board games, and there will be more. Watch out for a Napoleonic C&C game, and the recently released Tide of Iron, a World War 2 game from Fantasy Flight Games.

For me, BattleLore reaches the ‘highly recommended’ rating.
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