Spotlight on Games > 1001 Nights of Military Gaming

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La Vallée des Mammouths (Valley of the Mammoths, Das Tal der Mammuts)
This Bruno Faidutti-invented game captures a fantasy of caveman life. Players hunt, fish, forage, breed and engage in tribal warfare, always empire-building towards victory. They never really help one another, but war is usually infrequent as well since simple food gathering activities mostly preclude. Overall, it's not realistic, it's probably sexist and there's plenty of randomness in the events, animals and cards, but even so succeeds simply on the basis of presenting a richly-flavored fantasy. Be aware also that some players may be eliminated before the end and that event card interactions may be ambiguous, the inventor's unhelpful response of "these kinds of little specific situations are impossible to completely describe in advance, so you must chose what sounds 'realistic'" seeming sure to provoke fights. Some graphic-design factors unfortunately mar the 2001 editions. Some of the warrior counters resemble too closely the woman counters and can cause unintended illegal moves. In addition, the animal counters do not state the speed, food value and terrain restrictions of the animal, which could have helped a lot. The use of upper and lower case letters for board coordinates does not help either.
European exploration and colonization of the world in the 15th and 16th centuries. This game is more drenched in flavor than just about any one can mention including a map based on a "wrong" historical map and a wonderful set of event cards that seem to cover just about every dimension of the period. Happily, the underlying game system is also quite impressive with plenty of opportunity for strategy and negotiation as well as an appropriate level of chaos. On the other hand, its detractors point out that it can take many hours to complete. Another is that sometimes play gets rather nasty. Here you've had a great expedition, but just on your way home there are a bunch of enemy fleets just waiting for you to pass by so they can try to intercept and steal all your honestly-gotten gains. The instructions are rather long, although there's nothing complicated in them. The map, being a copy of an antique one, can be a bit hard to decipher as well. But even unexpected areas of the world are included such as Asia and the Antipodes. Players may even take on the roles of Russia and Turkey and colonize overland. Just be sure not to let anyone colonize the fish!
Mark McLaughlin; Task Force Games-1986; 1-7; 300
In the very successful Viceroys Expansion: Columbus, published in 1992 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the event, points are given not just for ending colonies, but also for discoveries made. China is even added as a power with the proviso "Chinese fleets may only move along coasts and island boxes. They may not move into all-sea boxes." If Gavin Menzies' 2003 book 1421: The Year China Discovered America is correct however, this rule should be obliterated.
Mark McLaughlin; Task Force Games-1992; 1-8; 300
Victory in the Pacific
Early wargame about World War II activity in the Pacific Ocean treats its theme in a very loose way as ships move by area and shoot at one another individually. There is relatively little reflection of different ship capabilities, but there is a great deal of dice rolling. Also seems to be slightly imbalanced in favor of Japan. For these reasons some have suggested that a short version of the game be played by having each player roll one die and the Japan player adding 1. High roller wins.
(For a print and play game that can be played with this game's tiles, see The First War.) Light game of 19th century warfare for two to four on a variable board composed of hexagonal tiles. Four types of terrain are available, though none but water impact tactics – instead they determine what types of units are built. As in Diplomacy, there is 1:1 correspondence between the number of centers one owns and one's forces. But in terms of resolving combat, the model is more that of Risk with its sequential turns and many dice castings. In the system's most interesting feature, combined arms are reflected by giving a player an extra die roll for each type he has present (infantry, cav, artillery and frigates making up the set) while sheer quantity only helps in taking losses longer. The attacker has an advantage in that he gets lost units back in his cities at the end of his turn while the defender gets the benefit of extra dice for his city, so this is balanced. But there are fundamental problems as well. For example, whom should one attack? Axis and Allies solves this by use of historical background. Risk does it via the importance of continent control and capturing cards to prolong the turn. But here there is no visible means of support whatsoever. Likely you'll pick on someone for completely arbitrary reasons and then after a few turns hope he builds up again as your now former ally starts looking too strong. Barring a really disastrous case of dice rolling, the multi-player version just has no convergence toward any ending. Of course, there is still the two-player version, but there another problem – which also affects the multi-player setting – obtains. Since the map is variable, the player with the more favorable terrain is bound to win. Terrain could be made symmetrical, but then there would be an advantage to the first player who can expand into the empty terrain first. You'd think that maybe tying the setup to a more historical setting as Battle Cry does would solve some of these problems, but here one discovers that the links between the economic and military systems just don't make any real world sense. One is just left with mindless randomness of the dice. In addition of course, this game of elimination violates the principle that every player has a chance to win until the very end. By far the best feature of this independent production is its generous set of bits. There are 127 very nice hex tiles and plastic pieces in four colors, including a rather unusual artillery-plus-artillery-man piece. But unless Peter can come up with new rules at his website, I predict they'll only be of interest to tinkerers and those inventing their own systems.
A complimentary copy of this game was received for purposes of review.
Strategy: low; Theme: low; Tactics: medium; Evaluation: low; Personal Rating: 4
Innovative "third generation" board game about generic civilizations conquering Europe. In the style of Britannia, players represent successive groups represented by two randomly-drawn characteristics. This ensures that every game will be quite different. (The game could be made more different still using the suggestions of Mike Siggins that two sets of tiles from Die Siedler von Catan be used to randomly create a map.) Another nice feature is that players bid victory points for their civilizations, but must give up victory points to bid for a more desireable choice, and these points are given to the player who does eventually take that choice. The generic setup is a weakness as well as a strength since no actual history (or even much geography) is learned in the process. More seriously, the game has considerable downtime as there is virtually nothing for the player to do when not his turn. Suggest that four be the maximum number of players. The endgame reveals problems as well as players may tend to overanalyze. There is a lot of politicking as well as leader bashing and thus some inherent kingmaking tendency.
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