Two player games are a genre unto their own. At one end of the scale are classics like chess, while more recent classics like Lost Cities have similar slimline set of rules to challenge the players. In the last year there has been a string of two player card based war games published that are at the lighter end of complexity but provide a fresh take on the genre. This article covers reviews of three such games and at the end of the article I will summarise my thoughts on the merits of each.
The games are:
- Napoleon Saga
- By Martin Wallace
- About 90 minutes
- (Review copy from PSC games)
The setting as you might have gathered is the American Civil War with the protagonists operating on the Unionist and Confederate side. The board shows the starting spaces for each side as they square up to each other. The initial set up sees armies of varying strengths (up to 3 points) that are one railroad link apart. The Confederate player has defensive armies guarding their areas and ports and each player is dealt a hand of cards. These will determine each player’s short term plans.
For the Union player the emphasis must be on attack as when their card deck is depleted they must have scored 2 victory points. Failure to do so results in a Confederate win. The only way to gain these victory points is to take ownership of Confederate territory and each area shows the victory points that can be gained. The ones at the front of the line are only worth a few points but sufficient to meet the Union’s early needs, though attacking some ports is also possible.
Battles can take place when one side moves forces into an occupied enemy area. The defender (usually the Confederate player) has several choices. First, to move via rail to an adjacent territory thereby ceding the invaded area. Secondly they could retreat to the half territory on their side, which means that both sides have forces in this area but they are not yet engaged. Finally they could battle. These are resolved quickly and in a straightforward manner. The attacker totals their army strength ands adds a face down card, which will add between 0 and 4 strength. The defender can play a terrain card which adds 2 strength points and a card to their army strength with a draw being won by the defender. In addition, there may be some defensive bonus printed on the board which is only in the first defender half of an area. The losing party removes half rounded up of their army pieces and the attacker loses half rounded down.
This leads to some very interesting decisions. The state of play for the Union player – how close they are to owning territories with 2 or more victory points, the relative strength of the armies, and the stage of the game. In the first draw deck the Confederate player has better cards, but by the time the third round through the deck takes place the situation is likely to be reversed. This is because at the conclusion of the deck being exhausted a new set of reinforcements are added, and the Union ones are far better than the Confederate ones.
This tension of when to concede and when to fight is added to because of potential European intervention which is recorded on a track. If it reaches one end then the Union loses because the Europeans intervene, supporting the Confederate side. Movement on this track arises when the Confederate player plays cards moving a token along the track or when losses are taken by either side. Another track called the Blockade track records the hand size for the Confederate player each turn and this is depleted as the Union player plays ship cards. If enough ship cards are played then victory points will be earned by the Union player. Interestingly only the Union player earns victory points. It was a clever design choice as it makes the game more simple to appreciate the current position.
Reinforcements arrive when players use the cards in their hands to improve their army strength. Value 2 and 3 reinforcement cards are discarded from the game so the deck deconstructs as the replacement cards added when a deck is exhausted are not as good, especially for the Confederate player. The Union player has to earn even more victory points when their draw deck is exhausted and again failure to do so means an instant loss. Also if Washington (for the Confederate player) or Vicksburg and Richmond (for the Union player) are captured then this also causes an automatic win.
The rules are pretty simple, but the choices are really interesting and tortuous. The Union player has to make progress quickly, while being concerned they the Confederate player does not hold out too long. The Confederate player has to hang on, but be wary that if the game gets to the third draw of the deck the odds switch to a Union victory.
I have really enjoyed this game and the tension was fantastic. The latest release has some changes from the initial release to balance out the risk that Washington would be captured quickly and a few other changes but the ease of learning the game and uncertainty of where to attack, defend, strengthen and how the cards are dealt means that there is always a concern for each side that progress is not quite enough and you might be on the verge of defeat.
Even after these changes the Union player has to play extremely well to win and can easily lose by not gaining those victory points by the end of the first draw deck, Even so, the game is very enjoyable for both players and I expect to be playing this in the years to come. This game recently won the latest two player IGA award and deservedly so,
- By Frederic Romero and Giuseppe Rava
- L’Oeuf Cube editions
- About 60 minutes
- (Purchased Kickstarter edition)
This game features a player board with one side commanding the forces of Napoleon and the other the Prussian and British forces, collectively known as the Coalition forces. Each player has an identical area to play cards, which is three ranks or lines of 5 spaces at the front, 4 in the second row and 5 spaces for reserves.
The game comes with a scenario book and the cards from the introductory scenario have a golden edge to make them easy to select. Each side has specific forces – cavalry, infantry and artillery in various strengths so there is line infantry, musketeers, dragoons, foot artillery and highlanders amongst the units. In all there are 16 different types of unit in each army. Each unit card shows the name and strength of its fire, melee, morale and cohesion, the last of which corresponds to a mix of the number of soldiers in the unit and the ability to keep its composure after suffering losses. All of the numbers for these characteristics are in the range 2 to 4. There are also some keywords which provide benefits for that unit, such as being steadfast. You can also set up a points based army as the cards show the cost of each type of unit. These unit cards occupy the front, second and some of the reserve areas at the start of the game.
Strategy cards represent the different orders given to the army through the course of the battle and they too convey specific information. Other than the name of the card such as Fix Bayonets! there is an initial rating (0-5), the conditions and impact often card.
Players have their own strategy deck of cards and when playing anything but the initial scenario, the cards required for each of these decks are listed. The size of each player’s deck may not be the same and players start with 5 cards from their own deck.
Each turn follows the same outline – initiative which is determined by selecting a card from your strategy deck, but if you want to play a dummy card (value 0) you can if you like the composition of your strategy deck and don’t want to use what you have drawn. After trying to rally retreating units, the main part of the game is the combat actions, with players alternating actions until all three of their activation markers have been used.
Combat is the heart of the game and it is extremely easy to resolve. The attacking unit adds a D6 roll to their base fire strength and a 6 or higher achieves a hit and a casualty marker is placed on the defending unit. Combat is always against the unit directly opposite and as units can only be activated once, damage is gradually sustained, though if a 9 or higher is achieved there is a double casualty on the defending unit. If the cohesion value of the defender has been reached it is eliminated representing a combination of losses and worn out troops. An attacker could engage in melee which means that the two units will fight until one retreats, runs away or is depleted so badly as to be eliminated. The difference in melee is that both players take part inflicting damage and so the results are more dramatic and bloody. Ranged combat comes from the artillery that shoot in a V shaped direction. The outcomes are similar to the normal combat so it is possible to soften up a unit with some artillery shooting prior to the regular combat.
There are additional rules for cavalry, retreating units and reinforcements and the game feels very engaging as the incremental losses are inflicted and as troops leave the line voluntarily or not. All of this would be insufficient to create a very good game but this is where the strategy cards shine. The wide range of actions, reactions and events mean that the game recreates the story and feel of a battle as well as the results of one. It also provides excellent replayability as the forces may be the same for each scenario but the sequence of strategy cards will mean that different aspects arise each game.
The game ends when one person reaches 10 victory points with usually 2 points for each unit defeated and 1 or 2 points for successful objectives, these being cards that were dealt at the beginning of the game to each player. It can also end with an immediate loss for the army that has three vacant slots in their front line, so even if you are behind on losses a successful attack can turn the tide of the battle,
There’s a handy reference card which shows the sequence of play on open side and summarises the key words on the other. It is really excellent and greatly helps with learning of the game. What I like about the game is the ease of the rules. They feel intuitive and there are not many to learn. Games are finished in about 60 minutes and the tension from being able to play a good combination of strategy cards can lead to anguish or delight for the players.
This game also did well in the recent IGA 2 player awards and you can see why. The scale is not intimidating, but the range of choices and plans that can be enacted are engaging and the story that plays out is great for both sides as they replay the impact of their choices. I’ve really enjoyed this one.
- By Martin Wallace
- Published by PSC games
- (Review copy supplied by PSC games)
This time the subject matter is the Ancients and their warfare and once again is designed by Martin Wallace. The game is card based and features 6 army sets with fixed order of battles for each set. The sets include the Replicant Romans, the Carthaginians, the imperial Romans, the Ancient British, the Achaemedid Persians and the Alexandrian Macedonians. Each army set has 31 cards of which one card shows the leader cards and their mix and on the reverse side is the composition of the whole army. Four example, the Cathaginians have 8 leaders, spearmen, three types of infantry, three types of cavalry and some elephants. The Republican Romans have archers instead of elephants and a higher focus on heavy infantry. So the mixture of cards in each army reflects the style of armies from that period.
Gameplay is very simple. There are 5 terrain cards on display representing the five columns on which battle takes place. Players alternate taking turns in a fixed sequence in each turn, checking for victory – three columns are under your control; taking control of a column where you are unopposed; carrying out flank attacks, adding cards to the battlefield column, attacking and then adding three cards (later four cards) to their hand with a hand limit of 9 cards.
Placing a card requires discarding a number of cards from your hand as shown on the deployed unit which is challenging as you want a good hand of cards but want to play your better (and more expensive units) of course. The active player continues to add units to the extent of what is possible or they desire and also attack in any order and as many times as they like. The limitation on a column of units is that there can only be two units and normally of the same type (infantry, for example).
Attacking is the essence of the game and the active player can declare attacks. This involves declaring which unit will fight if there are more than one in a column and then the defender can decide to withdraw if the speed of the defenders exceeds that of the attackers. If the fight continues then players total the attack and defence strength of their units, adding modifiers for terrain, bonus cards played, any leader cards and the higher total destroys the lower total with the loser removing all units from the fight. Draws are even worse as all troops on both sides are lost. The important aspect is the control of the terrain and this moves in one step in the direction towards the winner so a territory is either neutral or owned by one side.
In order to win the game three or more territories have to be controlled by one side at the beginning of their turn. Because of the turn sequence it is not possible to win until a few rounds have been played.
The game’s strength is its speed of play and simplicity of actions. Play cards, reinforce, attack and hopefully gain control of each column. There are flanking rules which add attack strength if specific criteria are met, but the rules are easy to digest and well presented.
I really like the card quality as they have a plastic feel and shuffle easily. The additional benefits from each card are easy to identify so you don’t even have to refer to the rules to know what they do. The games are also really quick. I’ve not had many go beyond 30 minutes and none beyond 45 minutes so it’s easy to fit into a short break or lunchtime. The game is also really portable as the cards can fit into a plastic bag and you only need the army cards and the terrain cards and the rules.
Final thoughts and comparisons
Firstly, I like all the games though I enjoy Lincoln and Napoleon Saga as they have more depth. Milito doesn’t attempt that depth of play and feels more like a Lost Cities game with a military overture. Mechanically they are nothing like the same games but in speed and following 5 columns/colours there is some similarity.
The presentation on all the games is very good. The important aspects for all games are the cards and whether they are easy enough to understand. After only a few minutes all the games have iconography that is intuitive so they all present well.
If you are new to these types of games, then Milito is extremely easy to play and well presented but if you have a little more experience thenId recommend the other two games. Both offer a more interesting story line and more tension as the decisions and outcomes are more challenging to predict. In Lincoln, the game presents two distinct positions and so the focus for each person is different, with each person worried about different aspects of play but not knowing how the other person can react due to the content of their hands.
In Napoleon Saga, there is a war of attrition and sometimes the dice rolls go your way, making you try to fill a gap that may be created in your line. The cards in this game vary considerably so the scenario variation provides you with more options to consider different battles, though even the first few scenarios are sufficient to gain considerable enjoyment.
These are 3 fine games with merits for each one so I’m glad to have played them all. The 2 player card based war game market has three fine additions and it is pleasing to find them all published within the same year showing that the market certainly has space for new designs with interesting themes and a set of rules that are not too complicated to grasp. I look forward to seeing the next iteration of this style of game.
Thank you for covering Lincoln. I’ve been considering buying it for a while, but I only want to spend money on games that are “home runs” and not ones that get dull after four or five playings. I guess i’m kind of spoiled this way.
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A great article, Alan, and even moreso because I have been working on and off with a card-based design of my own based on The Crusades… Here’s hoping it becomes part of “the next iteration” eventually! 👍