Space, the Fiddly Frontier: Asmodee’s Eclipse

Fiddly is always expressed as a function of bits. A fiddly game, then, is a game with either lots of bits or lots of manipulation of bits. Eclipse, a new space exploration/expansion/extermination/exploitation (4X) Euro game from Asmodee, satisfies both conditions, with hundreds of wooden cubes and lots of little plastic spaceships and a gazillion punched cardboard tiles that get shifted and adjusted over and over through the two hour plus play time.

The fiddly nature of Eclipse helps provide a sense of immersion in the game’s theme of galactic civilizations expanding, exploring, and exploding one another through well-designed player mats that track the state of the player’s empire and various technologies. One watches his or her civilization grow (and, yes, shrink). But such fiddility comes at a time cost.

Behold my mighty empire!

Recently, Pablo Garcia-Silva, Michael Vogt, and I put Pablo’s copy of Eclipse through its paces at Labyrinth on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. It took us about half an hour to punch the counters and get all the wooden bits and info counters sorted on the various player charts, but once everything was in place, we roared out of the wormholes and finished eight of nine turns in about two hours. I imagine that, with the pieces now roughly sorted, set-up will take less time, probably on the order of ten to fifteen minutes, an acceptable amount of prep time for those of us used to wargames but perhaps a bit long for those weaned on Euros.

The gameplay itself is mostly economic engine/worker placement (take a different action every round, increasing your mandatory end-turn money expenditure with every action), with some simple combat, random board generation, and awesome ship building thrown into the mix for good measure. Victory goes to the player with the most victory points at the end, earned through combat, territorial acquisition, and technology research.

Combat is perhaps a bit simplistic for the wargame crowd, but even having combat in a Euro game is rare enough that I won’t complain. Besides, getting to load up your ships with plasma cannons, gluon computers, and tachyon thrusters makes up for the buckets-of-dice combat resolution.

Flight of the Dreadnaught

One never has quite enough resources to do everything, but there’s always the tantalizing possibility that if you over-extend, you can steal away an opponent’s resources to cover your own shortfall. I can see where an group given to analysis paralysis would hate this game—lots of potential paths to victory and avenues to failure—but if the group is as interested in having fun and flying little plastic spaceships and making poor science fiction puns as it is in maximizing efficiency in an economic engine, it’s a keeper. And at a hundred dollars retail, it better be.

This is another game I see getting a lot of play in the late-night game convention slots just for its support of up to six players and the glorious tableau the game presents on a table. Plus, you know, you get to make spaceship noises.

Once again, my thanks to the crew at Labyrinth for their gracious hosting and to Pablo and Michael for a great afternoon of gaming.

Rumble in the Jungle: MMP’s Angola

After years of development, Multi-Man Publishing‘s re-make of the Ragnar BrothersAngola has finally arrived, and in fine form.

A meeting of monster columns

This area-move wargame on the Angolan Civil War in the mid-1970s is designed for four players, split into alliances of two players each (one side controlling the FNLA and UNITA forces, the other the FAPLA and MPLA forces that waged war through the Angolan countryside). The game can conceivably be played with fewer than four, but the game strives to model the command-control failures of the various forces and the difficulty they had in coordinating their actions, a difficulty the game emulates in part by prohibiting secret planning. You either tell your partner (and your opponents) that you’re moving to particular town or you don’t say a thing and hope he/she figures it out by the time your forces have arrived. Fewer players means fewer opportunities to mess up a grand sweeping plan, and grand sweeping failures were part of this conflict and an important aspect of the game.

I had the pleasure of playing a four-player session of Angola recently at that finest of local game stores, Labyrinth, on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Michael Vogt (UNITA) and I (FNLA) squared off against Pablo Garcia-Silva (MPLA) and Doug Bush (FAPLA) in Labyrinth’s gaming area for a stolen Friday afternoon of fun.

None of us had played this game, originally released in 1988, before, but we’re all grizzled wargaming vets, so we forged ahead full speed. Much of the game is familiar wargame stuff, though the enforced fog-of-war rules and a nifty odds determination system meant that attacks often went in at 1:2 ratios, an almost unheard of occurrence in most games. The game system really wants each player to push, and push hard, even at low odds. The card-driven movement system (with only limited opportunities to move units each turns) forces one to use units whenever possible, and a limited countermix and the subsequent loss of reinforcements if you don’t sufficient counters in your pool helps encourage an attacking mindset. Smoke ’em if you’ve got ’em, if you will.

Pablo and Doug’s Cuban-backed forces made good gains early on, and the game design self-balances by giving the side that loses territory the opportunity to gain extra forces from their foreign backers (Zaire and South Africa, for UNITA and FNLA).

The siege of Lobito

After a few bad turns, you’ve got a force to be reckoned with, and Michael and I had a few bad turns, enabling us to push back in style. The UNITA stacks coming out of South Africa were monstrous and inflicted some real damage.

By the time we called the game, both sides were tied and looking quite equally matched, force-wise (though Doug did have a giant air force that dwarfed the rest of us). But because of the early losses, the UNITA/FNLA alliance was in a precarious position—another bad turn could have seen the foreign powers remove all aid. The risk/reward balance in the game is quite finely crafted in that respect: you can’t play rope-a-dope until you have a giant army, because you’ll risk losing your sponsors and will probably be too far behind on points (representing accumulated political victories caused by territorial gains).

Combining ease of play (though with much tactical depth) and a wild random set-up feature, Angola is going to be making the rounds at game conventions for years to come. I foresee quite a few late night four-player sessions of this one at Winter Offensive.

My thanks to the crew at Labyrinth for their gracious hosting and to Pablo, Doug, and Michael for a great afternoon of gaming.

Game Preview: Angola

Which is rarer? A wargame on the Angolan Civil War, or a serious wargame that plays very well with three or four players? Well, the former, probably, but rarer still is a multi-player wargame on the Angolan Civil War. And that’s where Angola comes in.

Originally published by the Ragnar Brothers in 1988, Angola, an area-move game with card-driven unit activation, covers the opening portions of the Angolan Civil War in 1975-76, with the four major factions (MPLA, FNLA, UNITA, and FAPLA) represented.

Angola Prototype Counters from MMP

Multi-Man Publishing is re-releasing Angola as part of their International Game Series line, with updated graphics courtesy of Lee Brimmicombe-Wood, a noted game designer in his own right whose graphics always strike a balance between functionality and style. MMP’s Angola is currently available for pre-order:

The game is finely balanced, and all players frequently feel as if they are simultaneously on the verge of victory or defeat thanks to an ingenious victory point system that rewards good play for both sides and allows players to absorb reversals and strike back with the right countermove.

Reports from people who have played the original indicate that Angola provides an unique experience, with lots of deception and posturing possible, making it great for multi-player (or at least for the guys I usually play against). The rules scale to accomodate between two to four players, so it’s not strictly multi-player. And given that this is a MMP game, a VASSAL module is almost certain to be released as well, providing an excellent method for conducting multi-player sessions.

Angola has been sitting on MMP’s pre-order page for a while now, so if you have any interest, get over there and pony up a pledge. This game looks to be a hidden gem.

(Image from MMP)