Friday, April 18, 2008

Card Driven Games

I've found myself playing a lot of card driven games lately. These are games that combine more traditional wargame mechanics with the use of a deck of special cards. In order to perform an action you have to play a card from your hand. That card is generally either used to provide a number of action points you can use to do things with, or generate a special event listed on the card.

The result is that you always have far more options than you can take advantage of. The player that can maintain his or her focus will be the one most likely to succeed. In order to do this they need to be able to identify real opportunities while at the same time avoid wasting their efforts on distractions. It also creates a very nice tension between acting and reacting. You have to react to the cards you're dealt, while at the same time trying to maintain the initiative over your opponent.

Among the card driven games that I either own or have played are Twilight Struggle, 1960: The Making of a President, Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage, Paths of Glory, and Shifting Sands. I've been paying particular attention to the two most complicated of those games: Paths of Glory and Shifting Sands.

These games can all trace their lineage back to We The People, which is generally acknowledged as the first card driven wargame. I divide card driven games into two major types that I'm tempted to call single deck games and dual deck games, but the real difference between the two types isn't in the number of decks there are. The real difference is where an event that is favorable to the inactive player can be triggered even if played by the active player. So far the only games like this that I've played have been single deck games, but Hannibal is not like that and also uses only a single shared event deck, so the single/dual deck description is not completely accurate.

The games that have the ability to trigger events favorable to the inactive player are Twilight Struggle and 1960. The advantage to this mechanic is that there's an extra layer of strategy and decision making involved as to whether and when to play certain cards that could benefit your opponent. The disadvantage is that it adds to the luck factor in that if you draw a hand full of cards that benefit your opponent, you can really be screwed. In theory, since you drew a lot of cards that benefit your opponent, there should be more cards in the deck that benefit you, and your opponent should have a greater chance of drawing them. In practice, this doesn't seem to always balance out over the course of a game.

I'll admit that I may change my mind as I play these games more, but for now I'm liking the other card driven games better, where getting a bad hand isn't as big of a deal. They have the additional advantage of giving you more options which forces you to make more difficult decisions. When half your cards have events that only benefit your opponent, it's really easy to decide not to play those events. When all your cards could be played as either events or action points, then you have some tough decisions as to what mix to play.

Unfortunately, two of the three games I have played that don't allow triggering of the inactive player's events are very difficult for new players to learn. These games are Paths of Glory and Shifting Sands. These are both very good games, and they share a common core system that is not that difficult to learn, but they also both have a large number of exceptions to the core rules that serve to add both balance and historical accuracy to the games. The drawback to this is that it's very easy to forget or overlook some of these exceptions, and when you do it can really shift the odds in favor of one player or another.

Fortunately, since the core system for both games seems about 90% the same, it's a lot easier to learn one after you've learned the other. Having tried both now, I'd recommend starting with Shifting Sands as it's a smaller game overall with slightly fewer special rules. In either case, be sure and check out some of the play aids available for the games on BoardGameGeek.


rayipsa said...

We never did get Paths to Glory on the table before you moved. It is still sitting on the shelf with the rules about half read. I will have to break it out and see if Robert or Joe want to give it a spin on a weekend. It is definitely not a Tuesday night board game.

Fulminata said...

Yeah, it's definitely not a boardgame night game. Neither is Shifting Sands, although it might be doable to play the Sonnenblum scenario in that time frame.

I bring up Shifting Sands again, because I think it has a lot of the core concepts of Paths of Glory, but on a smaller scale. This includes secondary theaters and various nationalities joining the game through events. I've almost finished up a solo play of the full game and it's really helped me to better understand how a lot of things work.

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