For a long time, Susie and I have been interested in a game called Battle Line. It's two-player, which is something we're always on the look out for. It's also based around set-collecting and push-your-luck mechanics. We tried it a few times back when we were in Japan using a Sticheln deck, but it felt dry and the lack of any special moves in the form of Tactics cards left it without much in the way of unexpected plays.
Recently, on a trip to Indianapolis, we stopped by the Game Preserve to take a look at their new location (which, by the way, is much larger and has more room to play). We spotted a copy on the shelf and decided that after three (or more?) years of wanting it, we ought to just give in and pick it up. We got around to playing it today.
The theme of a Greco-Persian war isn't extremely strong, but it is present. You have a line of "flags" which you can take, either three in a row ("breakthrough") or any five ("envelopment"), in order to defeat your opponent's armies and win the game. You send out your forces by way of individual cards (like cavalry, hoplites and javelineers) which combine to create three-card battle formations (such as wedge/straight flush, phalanx/three of a kind and skirmish line/straight). So, the intellectual dryness of just playing with Sticheln cards was overcome by the pseudo-authentic artwork and tying of play concepts to warfare nomenclature.
The game play is pretty straight-forward. Each turn you play a single card, either a troop or tactic. Troops are all numbered 1 through 10, representing the general strength of the troop, and colored one of six colors, representing those troops that... I don't know... have the best working relationship? Tactics cards alter the play environment or your opponents cards, but you can never play more than one more than the other player. After you play your card, you draw a new one (your choice, troop or tactic) and it becomes your opponent's turn. Gradually, this allows you to build up formations on your side of a flag, and when you can prove your formation to be stronger than your opponent's, you get that flag. This last bit is a key part of the game. Even if your opponent has played some cards to their side of the flag, if you can show by pointing out other cards in play that their formation cannot be stronger than yours, you can win right then.
As I mentioned, tactics cards really help with the Greco-Persian war theme. You have cards like Alexander/Darius as leaders who can serve any role in any formation (i.e. wild cards), Fog which prevents formations (only highest total matters), or Traitor which pulls one of your opponent's cards to your side. There are only 10 of them, but they inject some much needed flavor and options. I'm a sucker for games that involve periodic rule-breaker options, so I needed these to make the game work for me. Susie, on the other hand, was frustrated by a couple of plays I made with them, effectively making three or four of her turns worthless with a couple of timely blocks.
The game really revolves around knowing when to go for particular sets from your hand, when to draw tactics cards, when and where to play them, and how to keep your opponent in the dark so they can't claim flags even if you know you can't win. You have to be very conscious of what cards are still available in the deck, what cards have been played, and what tactics cards might be able to help you out of a tight spot. But all of that really mixes well together to make a nice little card game with some tactical brain-burning and a fun theme.
In our recent game, I was able to eke out a win by getting the right mix of tactics and holding my wife's ridiculously powerful formations at bay long enough to get the cards I needed. The game seems to always be pretty tense, especially towards the end when each person has nearly the flags they need to win but no one can get the last cards they need. I'm interested in keeping this one out for when we are looking for a two-player game longer than Court of the Medici or Hive but not quite as expansive as 1960.
The only thing bad I have to say about it really is that it takes up more room than you might expect. There are 9 possible flags and you need them to stretch across the table in a single line, plus have room at the ends for the decks and on both sides for the troop formations. It's not too big, by any means, but for a game that consists only of wooden "flag" pawns and a deck of cards, it gets kind of spread out.