Thursday, May 18, 2017

World Boardgaming Championships: Beginner Rules

I have been looking forward to this year's World Boardgaming Championships more than I have in a long time. I've been obsessed with a game that came out last year, Star Wars Rebellion, and it got voted in to be a trial. It hits all of my buttons: a two player asymmetric card driven wargame with a fantastic theme. It's long, with small numbers of dice, but it has a lot of intricate details where player skill can make a huge difference. It's like Twilight Struggle, except I get to get in on the ground floor of strategy and tournament results.

They just released the event previews which explain the tournament format in detail. They're running continuous single elimination with adjudication after 3 hours and 45 minutes. That feels too short but maybe my games with Byung take longer than average because we're evenly matched and he's a tad slow. That said, there are plenty of people at WBC who are also slow... On the other hand, I was expecting to have to play 2 and a half full days if they were running 5 hour rounds, so that at least is potentially a welcome change.

Ending in an adjudication is a scary prospect though. How good is the GM at this game? The preview lists a bunch of things he'll look at to decide who wins, and they all make sense, but which things will get the edge in a close game? The proper side to bid on can change depending on how the GM rules in his adjudications and I have no way to access that information right now. This is a little frustrating and curbs my enthusiasm a little bit.

But that's not the worst part. The game comes with a 'first game setup' to help new players ease into the game. There are a _lot_ of great strategic decisions that happen in the initial setup and new players will have no idea how to make those decisions. The game definitely needs to ship with those rules. Unfortunately the default at WBC for every round is going to be using this initial setup. If both players agree they can play the real game, but the default is to play the initial setup.

Now, I think WBC brings in a wide spectrum of players with a wide variety of skills. I think it is important for games at WBC to have demos and to try to accommodate new players. But I also think it's important that a tournament work to test the skills of the players to the utmost. It's a spectrum, for sure, in terms of how much you want to encourage new players versus how much you want to fine tune the games for the experts. I've argued against Agricola using decks that didn't come in the box, for example. I've been against banning cards in Agricola because I think there's value in having people play the game they can buy in a store and not a modded version of it. But the experts don't want to lose to someone with a wood hut extension, and they won that fight. Maybe this is the same sort of thing? But Star Wars Rebellion ships with rules for setting up the game that aren't the initial setup, so I think it's in a different spot on the spectrum. Oh, and the rules for 'First Game Setup' explicitly state 'for future games, use the "Advanced Rules" on page 18'...

I think a fair compromise would be to default the first round to the base game (that's where the people learning the game at the demo are going to be playing anyway) and make the mulligan round and all future rounds default to the advanced game. If two newer players win the first round and meet in the second round and want to base game it up, let them, but forcing experienced players to play the base game just feels awful.

How bad is the initial setup in the base game? I've never played it, so I wanted to dig it out and see...

The advanced setup randomly assigns 3 of 5 systems to the rebels, and 5 of 7 systems to the empire. The base game assigns specific systems, and those systems seem to favour the empire. The rebels don't get to start in Mon Calamari, the empire gets loyalty in both Corellia and Mustafar. It's not an ideal start for the empire, but it isn't one of the disastrous ones either.

The unit mix for each side is the same in either setup, the difference is that they're preset in the base game and you get to make decisions that shape your future plans in the advanced game. The base game spreads out the empire units, which in my experience with the advanced game is a horrible plan. You don't have enough actions to move 6 different forces around, and the rebels have enough units to pick off 1/6th of your forces in any given spot. Spreading out just gives them more targets without really giving you more options.

On the other hand, the reason the empire needs to worry is the rebels are supposed to see the initial setup and then pick any space on the board to deploy their smaller force. You get to split between the rebel base and any system, and then the rebels get to take the first action in the game so they can attack the empire in any poorly defended spot. In the base game they force the rebels to split up their forces in a truly terrible manner, and they force them to be placed away from ANY of the 6 empire spaces.

How awful is the split? Well, my experience has shown that the rebels only really care about their fighters and their speeders. They start with 2 of each and you want to save them for a crucial time because they're very useful and hard to come by. The basic setup splits them down the middle with 1 x-wing, 1 y-wing, and 1 speeder in each of the two spots. You can't realistically get them back together to make use of them without wasting an action on turn 1. And that action will only consolidate them into the rebel base, not somewhere useful where they can do anything to harass the empire!

The worst part is they start those units in one of the 3 rebel systems, so the empire now has a single place to go in order to both remove rebels builds and to destroy rebel forces. There aren't many rebel units ever (they start with only 14 bits and probably build 4-6 every 2 turns), so having 8 of them start in a vulnerable, worthless space is terrible!

Our feeling is the rebels are the better side, but everything about the base game setup screams advantage for the empire.

Maybe there's some play in the base game that I'm missing? Maybe saving the time from doing an initial setup and by restricting opening strategies is worth playing a worse game? Maybe I'll calm down in time? But right now, after looking at the base setup, I am not really very keen on playing the game. and by extension, not nearly as excited about WBC as I was earlier in the week.

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