A good week ago, Ron, Benni, and I sat down for another trans-continental playtest of All Bridges Burning. Ron in Southern California played the blue Moderates, while Benni –the Senator– and yours truly –the Comrade in Red– pulled our respective levers in Northern Germany.
At the time of writing this, All Bridges Burning is on the P500 pre-order list of the publisher GMT Games, and development is ongoing. In the recent times we've been trying out a few tweaks to the Moderates faction in an effort to enhance their interaction with the other factions. This time we tried out an amplified version of the Moderate Special Activity of theirs, and the results were really really encouraging. More of this below.
Over the course of the several playtests we've had together, Benni's got very good at playing the Senate. He's developed a particular strategy that I don't want to flesh out here in detail –for you guys will want to discover it yourself– but a part of Benni's approach is to not hurry too much with triggering Phase II, the war phase, of the game. Rather, Benni methodically builds up his position before unleashing hell when he's ready.
In the shot above from early on in the game, we can see Benni has picked up a capability –see that Cannons marker in Capabilities box; it would enter play in Phase II– and is now in the process of manning up and securing his rear, among others, to discourage any Reds adventures in the periphery.
In the last couple of games Ron has insisted on being the blue Moderates. The Mods are a challenging faction to play well probably due in part to their non-violent role as the faction in between the two warring factions tasked with two quite different kinds of responsibilities. On the one hand, the Mods need to build up their own position, both, politically in the Political Display as well as in terms of getting their cells (octagonal wooden bits) and later networks (wooden discs) on the map. On the other, the Mods will do well to rein in on the excesses of the other two factions.
Regarding the second of the above objectives, in this playtest we tried out a new mechanic: the Moderate special activity was tweaked to allow the Moderates to either shift support or opposition in a space down toward neutral or to replace an enemy cell with one of theirs. A version of this mechanic has been in the game for a while now, but this was the first time we tested, as it were, an undiluted version of it: now the Moderate special activity would be completely free and be available in both phases of the game (previously there had been a resource cost to it and it had been available in Phase II only).
And was Ron making use of this newfound Moderates strength? Oh yes he was! I was, both, furious as the Reds player as well as delighted as the gamer's designer to see Ron's “blue dudes” repeatedly chip off at the Reds position that I was in a painstaking process of building up. In the shot below, a moment earlier Ron has used the said special activity to turn the ideologically less decided Reds (that is, an inactive Reds cell) into a blue Moderates cell in Tampere. This freed him to convert two of his blue cells into a blue network. In addition to being a royal pain in the Reds butt, Ron was actually reaping a handsome reward from it in that the blue networks count towards Moderates victory.
I was loving the interactions my Reds had with Ron's Moderates. I had a foothold in Tampere (namely, passive opposition allowing more efficient Rallying there), but I still had to think twice before sticking my red neck out in that place in order not to give Ron the opportunity to Moderate against me again.
Interestingly, though, as both Benni and Ron were focusing their efforts in particular locations –Ron in Tampere, Benni up in the North– the Reds were having a free-ish rein in turning the rest of the country to opposition. As can be seen in the shot below, during the first Propaganda Round I was able to turn three spaces to passive opposition, by no means a decisive blow, but a good start nonetheless. Note that in All Bridges Burning, with an active cell (star-side showing) and control in place, the Reds may turn a space to passive opposition only, while administration (a red disc) and control is needed to enable agitation all the way to active opposition.
In any case, the Reds continued their project of turning the country to opposition. By the conclusion of the second Propaganda Round I was there: as can be seen in the image below, I had managed to raise opposition plus administrations to 12, which equals the Reds victory threshold. Benni has spread Senate control and active support out into the provinces. At this point the Revolt pivotal event gets auto-triggered by the passing of the second Propaganda card.
Off we went, then, into Phase II, the war phase of the game. At this stage, two new Commands become available to the Senate and the Reds, namely, the Attack and March commands. Until then the red and white pieces on the board have actually not been able to move at all. (Thematically this reflects the largely local nature of the conflict: until the war phase, the conflict was one of local forces versus other local forces, and only in the war phase did we see significant movement.)
In the image below we see a common occurrence in Phase II of the game: the Senate army with its cannons and armored trains is about to roll South, but lucky for me as the Reds, just in the nick of time I get to sabotage the railway connection so at least the sharpest edge of the Senate offensive is gone.
A few turns later, as the image below shows, the Senate army has indeed moved, but instead of pushing through the central town of Tampere, Benni had the Senate army veer off toward the East, then take a detour towards the main kill itself, the sole population-2 space, Helsinki –often the location of the heaviest fistycuffs in this game. At the same time, the German invasion force has also landed, both forces looking to shred the Reds in Helsinki to bits.
Interestingly, even though the Reds were under massive pressure from the Senate and the Germans, at this stage I was still on course to winning the game on the third Propaganda that was only a few cards away.
This is where the aforementioned new tweak to the Moderate special activity came to shine again. Parallel to somehow seeking to ward off the boys in white and grey, the Reds were also having to fight off the Moderates from getting to use the said special activity to lower opposition and pull the Reds below their victory threshold. Thus, parallel to throwing new cannon fodder at the approaching armies, I was somehow trying to find the time to keep flipping the blue cell in Helsinki into its active, revealed state (star-side showing). In this state it was unable to engage in the Moderate special activity against my hard-fought opposition in Helsinki. I loved the tense interactions this was giving rise to in the game, all thanks to the new tweak we introduced to the Moderate special activity.
Needless to say I was ultimately unable to hold on to my victory and the third Propaganda Round passed without a Red victory.
The game was heading toward the fourth and the final Propaganda card. In a neat double-March shown in the image below, Benni moved into Helsinki and Wiipuri with an eye on establishing the necessary level of Senate town population control. My Reds were still in the trying-to-hold-out mode (look at that Red horde in Helsinki!) while Ron's Moderates were desperately trying to scrape together the last bits of resources to meet their 17+ resources threshold –in a future test we'll be looking at how the game works if the threshold is lowered to 15. All the while, all factions faced the need to position themselves for the final Propaganda round.
The game came to a nail-biting end. In his last move, Ron swooped into Helsinki and once again employed the Moderate special activity to bring opposition down to 10, two points short of a Red victory. At the same time, the arrival of the blue cell canceled out Benni's control in Helsinki taking also the Senate below their victory threshold again. With Ron himself just short of resources for a win, we were headed into the final Propaganda round. Only the German non-player power were to act before that. Against the odds, the weakened Germans nonetheless rolled a successful attack against the Reds in Helsinki restoring control to Benni's Senate. A high level of Polarization, however, prevented a straight-up Senate win at the start of the final Propaganda round.
During the final Propaganda round, due to some rather insightful and forward-looking presences he had established very early on in the game, Benni was able to solidify his position and go on to win the game. Well played, Benni!
I have to say this was one of the most exciting games of All Bridges Burning that I've experienced. And what's better still, with the new tweak to the Moderates action menu described above, the game might well have turned a very important curve on our way to finishing up the design!
Be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everybody you meet-Gen. Mattis
Vez did a great job with his session report, but so many things were going on it is to be expected that perhaps a few got left out. Here I will pad out a few of the things that were going on.
In the last couple of games Ron has insisted on being the blue Moderates
In any game, there is a learning curve to playing a side. I personally don't want to play a game where you can discover everything in 10 minutes. My first 3 games of ABB I had the Senate. Once I felt comfortable with them, I've switched to the Moderates. It's been said more than once that the Moderates are the hardest faction to play well. Although I am making progress with them, I believe I can do still better. Therefore, when I get together with Vez, yes, I insist on taking the Moderates.
However, I also told Vez that perhaps I am skewing his data on the relative strength of the factions, and he may want to nudge me aside and let somebody else take the Mods next game we play.
I was, both, furious as the Reds player as well as delighted as the gamer's designer to see Ron's “blue dudes” repeatedly chip off at the Reds position that I was in a painstaking process of building up
There is another way for the Moderates to keep not only the Reds, but also the Senate in check. First, let's look at the Moderate victory condtions:
Moderates: Resources ≥ 17 and Polarization – Resolved Issues + Networks ≤ 0.
The Moderates want low Polarization, for winning and also because the cost of the Politics Command (which helps them to resolve issues, also needed for victory) is tied to the Polarization Track. The Mods REALLY want this track as low as possible.* The Negotiate Command lets them flip an Active Red or Senate cell to inactive (making them less useful to their owner) AND optionally allows the Mod player to lower Polarization by 1. Several times during the pre-civil war phase of the game I took Negotiate Commands to keep Polarization down around 1 or 2.
Looking at the Reds and Senate Rally Command, we can see how low Polarization affects them:
Where: Any spaces up to Polarization (minimally in 2 spaces).
At one point in the game, Vez attempted to Rally in 3 spaces, until I told him that he couldn't due to Polarization being at 2. This brought a string of invective from Vez, something along the lines of 'all this peace is wrecking my chances,' to which I replied in the Vassal chatbox, "Your Reds follow VI Lenin, my Mods follow a different Lennon, give peace a chance!"
A few cards later, Benni tried to Rally his Senate in 3 spaces, whereupon Vez gleefully informed him that "Ron won't let you do that."
While the Mods may be the so-called intellectual faction, and they do not get the armored train, cannon and troops available to the Reds and Senate, they are far from being unable to affect the board.
*There is a cost to the Mods for having low Polarization. During a Propaganda Phase, the Mods get Resources = Polarization / 2 (rounded down). Vez and I have talked about this, he says that the Mod player may WANT high Polarization at times to increase his Resource level. Given that the Politics Command is not available at Polarization level of 6+, there is a limit to how high the Mod player wants it to go. Still, this is another decision point the Mod player has to take into account.