As my friends and I get older, it gets more and more difficult to organise one of our favourite leisure activities—the playing of games. Jobs and children take up a lot of time, people move further and further apart, and a date for a game session often has to be set far in advance. Getting five of us together for a session of, say, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay becomes as difficult as the judgement of Paris!
So it was a rare opportunity recently when an old friend and I found ourselves with an entire weekend just to play games. I travelled to his house with a boot-load of games, his wife and kids were away, and we set up a large table, a fridge full of beers, and settled down to enjoy some of our favourite games. Here’s a personal look through those favourites and how the baton of victory passed back and forth over the weekend.
About lunchtime on the Saturday, the first game to hit the table—and I can tell you, this one really takes over a big table—is my personal favourite game of all time, War of the Ring (by the way, there’s a new and improved reprint coming soon from FFG). We were playing with the mammoth, fully-painted Collector’s Edition—not the easiest thing to transport, in its huge and heavy wooden box—but of course you can still get your hands on the standard edition. Personally, I think War of the Ring is one of those games that just has it all. There is the sweeping conquest and mighty battles between great armies, the personal stories and travels of single heroes, the punishing blows of unexpected bad luck and the joy of seeing strategies play out successfully. The way WotR balances the ‘big picture’ of military conquest and the ‘little picture’ of the Ring making its way to Mordor—building up a story all the while—is remarkable, and somehow the games always seem to come down to the proverbial wire.
In this case, after the fastest game we’ve yet played, some four and a half hours, victory slipped from my grasp as the Free Peoples player. Throughout much of the game Frodo and Sam suffered very little Corruption, but on the Mount Doom track in Mordor all the Corruption I’d avoided began coming back to haunt me, and just as Frodo was one step—one step!—from the Crack of Doom, and Sauron was threatening the Dwarven stronghold of Erebor to win, I drew a 3 Corruption counter and Frodo succumbed to the power of the Ring. Curses! A dark shadow was drawn over the lands of Middle-Earth …
After the packup—and the usual long-running jokes about the imaginary games SetUp! and PackUp!—we decided to bring out something a bit ‘lighter’ (in rules complexity, if not in theme). I’d spent quite a bit of time painting the figures for the new Fantasy Flight Game Mansions of Madness, so I was eager to try it out (and give my brain a rest from the more complex games!) It didn’t take long to get used to the style of the game, and I greatly enjoyed playing the Keeper and subjecting my opponent to the horrors of the first scenario. Although he was victorious in the end—just—there were some hilarious moments, notably when a zombie rose from the bed in the main bedroom, and he turned to find all the doors in the room had disappeared. The horror!
Another perennial favourite is the scifi conquest Starcraft: The Board Game, combined with the essential expansion Brood War. However, after setting the game up, re-acquainting ourselves with the rules (here’s where my rules summaries really come in handy), and playing a couple of turns, we realised ‘Gamer Fatigue’ was setting in, and retired to laugh at some old Not the Nine O’Clock News episodes on DVD. Yes, even the most avid gamers can reach their limit!
The next day, after a refreshing dip in the ocean only ten minutes away to clear the cobwebs, we sat down to tackle Starcraft again, clearing away the aborted game and starting again with one of the special 2-player scenarios from Brood War. Unfortunately, it wasn’t long before the game’s complexities defeated us again. Let me stress that this is one of my favourite games, but it does require a clear head and a bit of concentration, qualities that, for the moment, were in short supply!
Obviously it was time for something much lighter, and what better than a good old dungeoncrawl—Claustrophobia perfectly fit the bill. This game brings a bit more to the genre by making players assign dice rolls to their choice of statistics (for the heroes) or action options (the Demon player). We played the second scenario, ‘Holding Back the Invasion’, where the heroes (such as they are, being a rabid cleric—the Redeemer–leading a band of condemned criminals) must reach a pit that leads to the bowels of Hell and destroy it with explosives!
Playing the Redeemer and his men, I immediately began having a hard time of it. The second dungeon tile drawn was the horrible Hungry Tunnels; a room full of blood-sucking tentacles that doubled the damage from any hit. I kept getting forced back into this room, until eventually my strongest character—the condemned Brute—was trapped and killed, and my remaining warriors became doomed to fight off the ever-increasing horde of troglodytes, desperately struggling through flooded corridors and narrow passages, dying by inches, until only one was left, blindly racing forward, only to find himself stumbling into a troglodyte spawning lair, with the objective still three tiles away! Aaaaaaarrrrrrrgh!
Runewars is a big, deep game very much in the spirit of War of the Ring, as it combines the grand sweep of large armies with the adventures of individual heroes. The trick is balancing the two, as evidenced by our game. My opponent, controlling the skeletal hordes of Waiqar the Undying, swarmed out through the mountain pass protecting his kingdom, built a stronghold across the valley from where my Latari Elves had done the same, then, after a turn in which I’d failed to account for the fact that I had only four food and had to reduce all my armies, feinted with an attack on the city in the centre of the map (which failed), then in the next phase unleashed the real attack on my stronghold, an assault with the aid of a Tactics card that reduced my stronghold defense to three, which overwhelmed the five defenders and carried the day!
Next turn I played a card which gave me the last of six Dragon Runes—and I won the game.
It may seem that in this case strategy was overturned by luck, but on the contrary, it was a perfect example of the game: I won by stealth and cunning, using my heroes to sneak about the board collecting Runes, while my opponent was trying to win by brute force. The puny Elves trounced the nasty Undead … even as zombies devoured the Elven dead among the ruins of their stronghold …
Runewars is definitely one of those games that you want to play over and over, trying different strategies as you get to know the game better. It seems very complex at first, but it quickly begins to ‘flow’ and the mechanics fade into the background. A definite favourite.
Another game my opponent and I would like to see on the table more often is Tide of Iron, as it’s quite complex and to really enjoy the game you need to be familiar with the rules. Perhaps not the best choice for the last game after a long weekend of gaming and a bit of a hangover then. We decided to start the campaign in the expansion Tide of Iron: Normandy, which of course begins with the Allied invasion of Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944. It’s an extremely difficult scenario for the Allies of course, who have push onshore and through a single choke point whilst being battered on all sides by machine gun emplacements and bunkers firing heavy machine guns. It can also be a little bit uninteresting for the Axis player, who pretty much has to stay dug in and just fire at anything that moves—or doesn’t!
My opponent did manage to get off the beach and win however—despite terrible luck with his supporting artillery—but only by taking out a few machine gun nests with sustained suppressive fire, assaulting a bunker with a flamethrower, and eventually losing about half of his force. He did make a few fundamental rules errors though; this is a game where there is a lot to keep track of, and again I highly recommend my reference sheet and rules summary to get things playing smoothly.
He has since told me if he played the scenario again he would concentrate all his forces in the centre of the beach and send a third of them to scale the cliffs while the others suppress all the machine gun nests—since if only the bunkers can fire, the worst than can happen is you can lose two squads every turn until you silence them.
It was late on Sunday when victory was declared and we were well and truly ‘gamed out’; but what an excellent weekend of gaming it had been! Everything from epic battles on Middle-Earth to dungeoncrawling to the D-Day assault—what else but boardgaming can provide this amount of variety and enjoyment? If there was one lesson we learned however, it’s not to play too many complex games in a row; it can get a bit much for the old brain cells!
Feel free to tell me about some of your more enjoyable gaming sessions below in the Comments section—it’s always fun to hear about the experiences of other gamers. Until next time, get your friends together for some good gaming this weekend!