Recommend
33 
 Thumb up
 Hide
11 Posts

Battle Line» Forums » Reviews

Subject: As I See It: The tensest 30-minutes of my life rss

Your Tags: Add tags
Popular Tags: well_written [+] [View All]
James Fung
United States
San Diego
California
flag msg tools
designer
badge
Avatar
mbmbmbmbmb
('As I See It' are game reviews from the perspective of a gamer who is short on time and attention span. My favorite games that are fun and interesting, where the mental load is on making decisions not bean counting or fiddliness. Therefore the review spotlights innovative, clean, and elegant mechanics that work toward the above and key decision points. I play both eurogames and wargames, but since eurogames tend to be well reviewed in BGG already, I'll be mostly be reviewing wargames.)

Introduction

The first time I played Battle Line, I noticed I was fidgeting my leg, as I unconsciously do when I'm nervous. The second time I played, I did it again. And it continues to happen every time I play. My palms sweat, I have mop my brow (okay, just kidding). Battle Line has its roots in Rummy, and it's also one of the tensest games I've ever played. Do you associate "tense" with "rummy?" I know I don't. That's why Battle Line deserves mention.

Note: I haven't played with the Tactics cards in Battle Line in years; I much prefer the game without them. So really this is a review of Schotten Totten. But Battle Line is easier to find, and I'm an ardent GMT Games fan. From design to development to graphics, you can count on them to deliver good, solid wargames. (Yes, Gene, direct deposit is fine.)

Components

courtesy of IronMoss

Cards: 6 suits, 1 through 10 in each. There are also 10 Tactics cards. The cards are a bit thin, but I don't notice when playing. Rodger MacGowan's artwork won't win awards (at least not here), but it's never ugly.

Flags: 9 red wooden pegs. I honestly don't know what else to say as I'm not a bits man.

Rules: One 8.5" x 11" sheet folded in half. No examples, but nonetheless clear and complete; I'd expect nothing less from GMT. (Gene, I also take kickback in the form of games.*)

* I don't actually know Gene or folks at GMT personally, but that would be cool.

Gameplay

Other reviews describe the mechanics of Battle Line quite well, so let's cut to the chase: how is Battle Line different from any other Rummy variant? For starters, let's compare Rummy and games with similar sequences of play:

Quote:
Rummy: Draw 1, Discard 1
Battle Line: Play 1, Draw 1
Wyatt Earp: Draw 1 or 2, Play, Discard 1
Lost Cities: Play or Discard 1, Draw 1

Okay, Lost Cities is a bit of a stretch, but it has a similar sequence of play, similar player interaction, and you are building melds (just monotonically increasing). Anyway, putting aside whether you draw or play/discard first, Battle Line differs from all the other games in one crucial respect: you don't discard. This may seem like a small detail, but hopefully by the end of the review I can convince you otherwise.

The second difference in gameplay I wish to mention is that players are pitting their melds against their opponent's in a battle over the flags. This is not quite like Wyatt Earp (Lost Cities even less so) where players compete over different suits. Instead, there is a hierarchy of melds in Battle Line. From highest to lowest, they are: straight flush, 3-of-a-kind, flush, straight, and high sum.

And here I must applaude Knizia on hiding a very neat subsystem within the game. Let's say your opponent has played 2 cards threatening a straight flush. If he can't get the 3rd card to complete his meld, the best he can hope for to complete a flush or straight. Given this, you have two options: you can try to beat him with a better straight flush (chancy); or you can bet he fails and go for a 3-of-a-kind, even a weak one. However, if you fail to complete the 3-of-a-kind, the best you can then hope for is a high sum. Not only do you have to consider the meld hierarchy when deciding your battle plan, you also have to keep it in mind when the plan doesn't survive first contact with the enemy. (That about as close as this game gets to a wargame; the theme is purely decorative.)

As I See It

First, an aside: The fact the you don't discard has at least one important effect, namely there is no discard pile to draw from. In other Rummy-like games, there's at least the perception that, if your opponent draws the card you need, there's a chance he'll discard it and you can then pick it up. There's even a (possibly false) perception that you can trick your opponent into it; I can sometimes do this early in Lost Cities, but not in Rummy. Then again, I'm pretty bad at Rummy. I'm pretty bad at Battle Line too, for that matter.

There's no possibility of that here. You will never have access to at least half the deck. Accept it, move on. As I will get to in a second, I feel this actually adds to the game rather than detracting from it. And 50% isn't that bad. Think about it this way: say you already have two consecutive cards in a straight flush. To complete the meld, you can use 2 possible cards, so the probability you'll draw at least one is about 75%. It may take a while, and you may sit there the whole game kicking yourself and cursing the card that never turns up, but I think 75% is just about right. Note that you only need 5 of 9 flags (~56%) or 3 adjacent flags to win. 75% is high enough to be worth the risk, but low enough that it'll probably come back to bite you at least once a game. What if you have a pair? My back of the envelope estimate is that you'll complete the 3-of-a-kind 15 out of 16 times, pretty good odds. The lower melds are increasingly easy to complete but you rarely aim for them because they're too weak.

Oh, if you're wondering what happens to player interaction now that the discard pile is gone, you get it in spades through the simultaneous contention over the 9 flags and the nifty meld hierarchy subsystem.

With that aside, I'm going to get a little philosophical. As has often been asked on BGG and other gaming sites, what exactly is a game? One that I hear often is "a series of meaningful decisions." And then what is meant by 'meaningful' depends on the game. For games with victory conditions, usually that means decisions which bring you closer to victory than your opponents. For something like a roleplaying game, perhaps it's doing what fits the persona of your character or furthering the storyline.

How about what makes a good game? Based on the above definition, that would be a game where you spend most of your time making meaningful decisions. Okay, so if I think Battle Line is a good game, and I feel it is a tense game, how does tension contribute to a game? What is tension anyway?

I ballroom dance in what little spare time remains after work, friends, and games, and we also have the concept of tension (and its counterpart, compression). Tension is what happens when both partners are pulling on the connection between them. (Typically, connecting their center of masses via the follower's right arm and hand in the leader's left. Anyway...) If you've danced before, you'll know this is a good feeling: you are more aware of your partner's presence, and they are the same, allowing you to be more responsive and to play off each other. And rather than a futile static struggle against each other, building tension is like storing potential energy in a spring: you can use it to create more dynamic, more natural movement.

To bring this back on topic, I liken tension in games to this: all the players are pulling against each other, all of them are still in contention for the game. However, the game is poised such that you cannot let up the pressure or your opponent(s) can take advantage of the opening and create a dynamic swing in the game. Each decision counts because a bad move means lost ground you'll have to make up the hard way. This feeling starts around, oh... the second card play for me. That's why Battle Line is the tensest 30-minute (card game) of my life. I've heard someone describe tension as both players feeling they are losing; rather I think it's the sensation each player feels defeat is looming before them... if they slip up.

How does the game achieve this? I will tell you in one word: commitment. The other effect of not discarding is that, every turn, you must play a card. Every turn you must commit more of your forces without any hope of recalling them. In Rummy, you can hold cards in your hand until you play them or choose to discard them, so you aren't permenantly committed to them. In Lost Cities, if you don't feel like starting or adding to an expedition, you can bide your time by discarding instead. In Wyatt Earp, is there any time you don't want to play a card? But in Battle Line, you must play a card, and almost always you just don't want to.

I'm not talking about some esoteric zugzwang chess position, this happens all the time in Battle Line. The first card in each flag prevents you from using a better/more likely meld should the opportunity arise and limits your highest possible straight flush (it's rather galling when you play a medium or low card and your opponent immediately responds with a higher card). The second card is the worst because you've committed yourself to making one of the big 2 melds (straight flush or 3-of-a-kind). And you do all this with a lot of imperfect knowledge: all the information you have is what's been played and the 7 cards in your hand. 7 cards is enough to piece together two cards in 1 or 2 such melds, but rarely will you have the luxury of having a whole meld in your hand and the choice of which flag to commit it to. As such, you're forced to play card after card and just hope the deck provides what you need or that your opponent can't counter. Really, the only card you ever want to play is the one that irrevocably claims a flag. That is why the game is so tense.

That is also why I don't play with the Tactics cards. The deck can be harsh, and the limited information forces you to take calculated risks, but that's why it's so fun! Allowing the players an backdoor feels like a cop out. Back when I played more wargames than Eurogames, I thought more was better: whoever could grok the game with the additional complexity of the Tactics cards was the better gamer. But now that my tastes have turned more toward elegance of design, I find that less is more.

Conclusion

With a couple changes to the basic structure of Rummy, Battle Line has turned it from a simple game of hand-management to a simple game of calculated risk taking... with infinitely more tension. That is elegance in design. Battle Line is my favorite 2-player game, competing with the likes of Hive and Lost Cities. I still use Lost Cities as a gateway game, but it doesn't embroil me from start to finish like Battle Line. Lastly, I know a number of math majors, and they simply love that logical proofs are built into flag claiming. laugh Finally tally:

d10-8 - Very good game. I like to play. Probably I'll suggest it and will never turn down a game.

Which makes me feel I'm being stingy with my ratings (haven't rated anything 9 or higher yet); I simply prefer my euros to have a couple more players.

Oh, and if anyone has feedback/comments/critiques on my analysis of tension, feel free to discuss. I'm still trying to figure out what it is about games that makes them so addicting.
17 
 Thumb up
1.25
 tip
 Hide
  • [+] Dice rolls
Chris Okasaki
United States
White Plains
New York
flag msg tools
badge
Avatar
mbmbmbmbmb
Quote:
To complete the meld, you can use 2 possible cards, so the probability you'll draw at least one is 75%.


For what it's worth, the probability is actually quite a bit lower than 75%. Just consider one of the cards. In this situation, you already know that the card is not in your hand. Where could it be? It could be in your half of the remaining draw deck or your opponent's half of the remaining draw deck, or it could already be in your opponent's hand. The closer you are to the end of the game, the greater the chance that it is in your opponent's hand. So the chance of getting one card is less than 50%, which makes your chance of getting one of two cards less than 75%.

In fact, the chance is even worse than I've just described because the game might end before you get all the way through the draw deck, which means you also have to account for the probability that the card will never be drawn at all.

All of this contributes to the tension. You don't want to commit to particular melds because you know that, once you do commit, there is a substantial chance that the meld will fail.
3 
 Thumb up
 tip
 Hide
  • [+] Dice rolls
James Fung
United States
San Diego
California
flag msg tools
designer
badge
Avatar
mbmbmbmbmb
cokasaki wrote:
For what it's worth, the probability is actually quite a bit lower than 75%.

Quite right, I left out a numerical estimate qualifier, though I'm not sure it's that much lower than 75%.
 
 Thumb up
 tip
 Hide
  • [+] Dice rolls
Andrew Prizzi
United States
West Newton
Pennsylvania
flag msg tools
Avatar
When you say that you don't play with the tactics cards, do you mean:

A) You simply choose not to use them, but they are still available to your opponent if he wishes- giving him a max of 1 he can use since you aren't playing any.

or

B) You don't include them as an option at all.

If you're doing option B do you play with a smaller hand size? The reason I ask is that I had always heard that Battle Line is just Schotten Totten with tactics cards added in. I recently found out that is not quite exactly the case, since Schotten Totten has a smaller handsize as well as no tactics cards.

I've only played Battle Line of the 2 games. We always include the tactics as an option, but there are many games where nobody plays or even draws one.
1 
 Thumb up
 tip
 Hide
  • [+] Dice rolls
James Fung
United States
San Diego
California
flag msg tools
designer
badge
Avatar
mbmbmbmbmb
prizziap wrote:
B) You don't include them as an option at all.

At first, I didn't include the Tactics cards when teaching the game because they increase the learning curve of the game, thinking I could add them in once my opponent got the hang of strategy. Then I realized I liked the game more this way.

I feel that, if Tactics cards are allowed, people will probably use them. They are strong enough that they will likely claim a flag or stop your opponent from doing so, which outweighs cramping your hand a bit. But the safety net of the Tactics cards weakens the tension of the game, which I feel is its greatest draw.
 
 Thumb up
 tip
 Hide
  • [+] Dice rolls
Josh Goodall
United States
Oregon
flag msg tools
badge
Avatar
mbmbmbmbmb
fusag wrote:
prizziap wrote:
B) You don't include them as an option at all.

At first, I didn't include the Tactics cards when teaching the game because they increase the learning curve of the game, thinking I could add them in once my opponent got the hang of strategy. Then I realized I liked the game more this way.

I feel that, if Tactics cards are allowed, people will probably use them. They are strong enough that they will likely claim a flag or stop your opponent from doing so, which outweighs cramping your hand a bit. But the safety net of the Tactics cards weakens the tension of the game, which I feel is its greatest draw.


I love your using the word "commitment". In fact, when my friends and I play, we use that exact word to declare that we are playing our second card on a given row (commiting to a certain type of hand). In fact, it actually does well with the theme, as you have commited your soldiers to the battle, in hopes that you will be able to communicate to other like-minded soldiers and improve their situation. You take a risk for a potential reward.

I don't really like the tactics cards in general, but I find that they actually do a lot in countering points people don't like about this game. For one, they help you increase the odds of getting the card you might need for a certain area (either by taking it from the other player, using a wild card, etc...). Also, they force the player that may know you can't make a certain goal (i.e. he has the cards you need) to think about playing that card sooner than they'd like to (if at all). If they are worried that you may draw a tactics card and use that to replace the card you're missing, then their advantage is gone.

All in all I think the tactics cards are brilliant for the player who needs to "improve" the odds in their favor, and add even more to the tension.
5 
 Thumb up
 tip
 Hide
  • [+] Dice rolls
James Fung
United States
San Diego
California
flag msg tools
designer
badge
Avatar
mbmbmbmbmb
ptper wrote:
I love your using the word "commitment".

Thanks! My group hasn't thought of a more fitting term either.

I see a lot of people support play with Tactics cards. Next time, I'll run it past my opponent, though I've seemed to have converted all of the usual suspects to the No Tactics Cards side already.
 
 Thumb up
 tip
 Hide
  • [+] Dice rolls
Josh Goodall
United States
Oregon
flag msg tools
badge
Avatar
mbmbmbmbmb
fusag wrote:
ptper wrote:
I love your using the word "commitment".

Thanks! My group hasn't thought of a more fitting term either.

I see a lot of people support play with Tactics cards. Next time, I'll run it past my opponent, though I've seemed to have converted all of the usual suspects to the No Tactics Cards side already.


I have found that this can be the case in many games: I don't like a particular aspect or mechanism, but that's only because it makes it harder for me to play the style or strategy I want to use to win. Sometimes I just have to give the aspect an honest chance (or 20) to see that there could be a purpose behind it. I can then evaluate my stance a little better. I've been quick to judge games in the past, and it's almost always come back to bite me. Sometimes I end up liking the mechanism, other times I still think the same way I started. But now at least I have a reason other than "it messed me up that one time".

Although like I said before, I still try to win w/o Tactics cards if I can
 
 Thumb up
 tip
 Hide
  • [+] Dice rolls
James Fung
United States
San Diego
California
flag msg tools
designer
badge
Avatar
mbmbmbmbmb
ptper wrote:
I don't like a particular aspect or mechanism, but that's only because it makes it harder for me to play the style or strategy I want to use to win.

It's not that we don't play with them because it fits our strategy better. 3 of us played Battle Line yesterday. 2 of us think the game is just plain more fun without the Tactics cards (see review); the third didn't want to bother with the added layer of complexity. Needless to say, I wasn't successful in convincing them to try the game with Tactics cards.
 
 Thumb up
 tip
 Hide
  • [+] Dice rolls
James Fung
United States
San Diego
California
flag msg tools
designer
badge
Avatar
mbmbmbmbmb
ldsdbomber wrote:
Whats the deal with the proof thing, cant you only use cards displayed in front of you (and not in your hand), so how complex can that be? Its not the first time I have read this. I like the game but I am wondering if I am missing something. Isnt it obvious if you have a hand that can only be bettered by another hand or so but those hands need cards already down somewhere else. Arent these obvious?

just curious...

The most elaborate proof I've seen was where someone demonstrated there were no possible straight flushes left, nor any 3-of-a-kind that could beat his, so he claimed the flag even though I had nothing played there.
 
 Thumb up
 tip
 Hide
  • [+] Dice rolls
Front Page | Welcome | Contact | Privacy Policy | Terms of Service | Advertise | Support BGG | Feeds RSS
Geekdo, BoardGameGeek, the Geekdo logo, and the BoardGameGeek logo are trademarks of BoardGameGeek, LLC.