Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Boardgame review — Comancheria


Lords of the Southern Plains


Designer: Joel Toppen
Player count: 1
Publisher: GMT Games



In my review of Navajo Wars, the original game in the First Nations series, I wrote about the Navajo that “their history—rife with conflict—is one upon which designer Joel Toppen has crafted an experience that is part simulation, part history lesson. Listen closely.”
And I wouldn’t change a word to introduce Toppen’s second opus, Comancheria.

[Although I will make every effort to review Comancheria on its own terms, comparisons with Navajo Wars will sometimes prove inevitable. I shall then present such insights within brackets, so that readers unfamiliar with the previous title might easily navigate around the unwelcome interruptions.]

This time around, the game brings the Comanche empire back to life, in all its glory, and asks the player to lead the Lords of the Southern Plains in their struggle against formidable foes—from rival tribes to the Spanish, to the Mexicans, all the way to the Americans. Can you preserve the Comanche culture and way of life?
Not to spoil anything, but the deck is stacked against you. Quite literally.

Comancheria is strictly a solitaire experience: you jump in alone, against the “cardboard computer” the designer has put together. The game cycles through a simple sequence of play, first having enemy armies (if any have formed on the board) march towards your territory, then letting you move from point to point on a large map and execute one action, before (probably) resolving enemy actions. You then reap the rewards and/or suffer the consequences, the great clock ticks forward one step, and the cycle repeats itself. This keeps on until either defeat ensues (when the Comanche culture and military might are completely eradicated) or you survive the end of a Historical Period, indicating victory. Unless the chosen scenario calls for more than one Historical Period to be braved…

Actions available to the player are Moving, made easier with a horse, but otherwise still feasible; Hunting, in order to provide Rancherias (bases) with much needed food; Raiding, to destroy rival tribes as well as acquire horses and the occasional captive; and Trading, which makes it possible to upgrade resources and gain a crucial edge over the hostile environment. There’s also the Culture action, which strengthens Comanche culture according to occupied territory; Planning, where community leaders make use of their influence and Rancherias are relocated; and Passage of Time, when new Rancherias are created (affording the player more options) and community leaders risk dying of old age.

[At seven, the number of possible actions is a bit less than the 10 Navajo Wars offered. But seven is really all you need in this case, and it makes jumping into the game that less overwhelming.]

I think it fair to say that the game revolves around Raiding. This is something you will find yourself performing over and over again, not only for the resources that successful raids provide, or the destructive effect they can have on rival dwellings (the elimination of which proves vital more often than not), but also because Raiding is the only way to boost the influence and power of the Comanche community leaders. And the more powerful those leaders become, the more effectively their Rancherias can operate and thrive.

Raiding is resolved by drawing a number of counters from an opaque cup. Some of those counters indicate a success (resources taken, rival dwelling ravaged, and leader potentially more influential), while others show a number of action points that enemies will be able to use at the end of the turn. Nothing’s ever free, even when you ride a horse without a saddle.

[At first I, too, missed the great raid resolution mechanism from Navajo Wars, which had us drawing colored cubes from a bag. But you’ll soon see what exciting twists and turns the drawing of counters in Comancheria makes possible.]

But no matter what action you select, the game’s timer moves down one notch once that action is completed. After a few times, you start rolling a die to see if your next action will be a free choice, or if you will be forced to take the Passage of Time action summarized above. The more the game moves forward, the greater the chances of a mandatory Passage of Time. And after each Passage of Time, the game’s second timer goes down one notch, while the first one resets. (Think of this as two hands on a clock: the little hand counts down the number of player actions, while the big hand counts down the number of overall rounds in the game.) When that second timer reaches zero, the Historical Period is over. You check for victory (or at least avoidance of defeat), and then call it a day or proceed to the next Historical Period.

But before we get to that glorious conclusion (or ignominious kick in the butt), enemies also get to play, and that almost on every turn. Depending on the scenario, the identities and natural tendencies of enemies will change from one Historical Period to the next. But the basic mechanism for activating them remains the same.
Their actions are decided by an Instruction Display where instruction counters are set up in four columns—one for each enemy—at the start of the game. A die roll determines which enemy will wreak havoc on the board this turn, while another roll flips over a counter in that enemy’s column, revealing a different instruction. Action points accrued through failed raid attempts are then used to pay for each instruction, and the enemy works its way down its column of instructions, until it runs out of action points. At that point, used counters are cycled back to the bottom of the column, and everything shifts up in preparation for the next turn.

Easy, right? But the random enemy selection and the equally random flipping of an instruction counter mean that while you always have a pretty good idea of what will probably happen, you can never be sure of it. Plans need to be kept flexible.
There’s one more twist, this one made possible by the counters used to determine the success of a raid [something that wouldn’t have worked as elegantly with the cubes in Navajo Wars]: instruction counters sometimes make their way into the success cup, waiting for the unwary player to fish them out of the cup instead of a success counter. So you thought you were going on a tranquil raid and could prepare for enemy payback at the end of the turn? Surprise! The enemy is coming out of its lethargy early this week.

Three types of cards round out the game’s engine. Culture cards are purchased with culture points, and represent Comanche skill advancements. Development cards are essentially events that, for good or bad, influence life on the plains; they include such evocative titles as Mild Winter (good!), End of Ute Alliance (bad!) and Epidemic (I think I’ll go home now). The last type, War cards, regulates armed confrontations between the Comanche and their enemies, allowing war parties to move on the map and bestowing one side with an advantage or saddling them with a drawback.
Combat is simply resolved with modified die roll. There’s no need for more: this isn’t a game about war, but a game about survival. (Which sometimes requires military action.)
  
PRODUCTION

True to the series it gracefully expands, Comancheria is one beautiful game.
Again, I’ll steal from my description of Navajo Wars to capture the elegance of the components, “from the evocative box cover to the stunning (mounted) board, right down to the various cards and counters, all produced with the same earthy palette of soothing tones. If you’re going to stare at a game for a couple of hours, it might as well go easy on the eyes—and this one certainly does.”

The game also comes with two well laid-out player aids that remove the need to constantly dig through the rulebook for answers. In fact, you could jump right into the first scenario and learn the game as you go, using those player aids as trusty guides.
  
RULES

Like its predecessor, Comancheria runs on just 19 pages of rules. Rules that are well written, easy to read, and mostly make sense. I say “mostly,” because the way Passage of Time works (the two clock hands I mentioned earlier) was not immediately obvious. But beyond that minor snag, the game just clicked.

As I mentioned before, it would be entirely possible to hit the deck running and learn the game just from the player aids. Everything in the game is procedural: knowledge from outside each procedure is not necessary to its execution. (You might run into some surprises later on, though, but your scars will heal and you’ll have learned a valuable lesson.)

Alternatively, you could also grab the Play Book and go through its 20-page tutorial. That will take you through several preprogrammed turns, at the conclusion of which you can keep going with the rest of the scenario, or reset the game and start over. (Think about that: the tutorial is one page longer than the game’s rulebook. How’s that for quality service?)

Then again, you could go old school and just read the rules. It’s only 19 pages—knock yourself out.

Once you’re done, there are six scenarios waiting to, uh, play with you.
  
FUN FACTOR

When I reviewed Navajo Wars, I declared it my favorite solo game (with John Butterfield’s RAF flying in close formation right behind). But I have to admit that Comancheria is giving my number one a run for its money.

Let’s take a look at this new offering through the lens of my three solo criteria.

Significant Decisions
Do you, as the human player, have a major influence on the way each game unfolds? Absolutely. This is not a “rail game” by any stretch: you’re allowed to gallop every which way and decide what to do. Avoiding raids will not be possible for too long, but that would be like complaining that a wargame forces you to attack the enemy. Your objective is to get rid of intruders and establish dominance over your territory.
But you get to choose how and when to accomplish this. (Good luck.)

Balanced AI
Does the artificial intelligence present a challenge and yet remain beatable? Yes. And it sure doesn’t feel like more of the same from one turn to the next—the clever instruction counters make sure of that.
Enemy instructions range from Hunt (which removes valuable Bison from the board!) to Settle (sending varmint ever deeper into Comanche territory), to all-out War (which can bring about the destruction of entire Rancherias—and cost you the game).
It also happens that an enemy will declare a truce, but hey, that never lasts.

Replayability
I need to steal from my review of Navajo Wars one more time. (Last one, I promise.)
“Because the aforementioned instruction counters always come up in wildly different orders, no two games are alike. At all. Multiply that by the number of different scenarios included with the game (six), and by the variations in deck shuffling, and you get a dizzying array of possible outcomes.”

There’s more: depending on what culture cards you decide to purchase, the ways in which your bands of Comanche riders will capture and hold on to precious territory will be myriad.


PARTING SHOTS

In short, I love this game. It made it to #4 on my Top Ten of games published in 2016.

Comancheria is clever, challenging, rewarding, it tells a story, and it also teaches history. What more do you want? You don’t even need a gaming partner—just open and consume whenever you’re ready.

It’s also a game that requires a rather negligible time investment. While your first game will no doubt eat up a chunk of your evening (I would recommend you set aside three hours if you intend to finish that first scenario), subsequent plays will clock in at less than 90 minutes for a single Historical Period.
We’re talking an afternoon for the campaign game (all four Historical Periods), which is outstanding.

[So does Comancheria feel like just a reskin of Navajo Wars? Not at all. It has some familiar moving parts (mostly the Instructions Display) but it presents a challenge all its own. For one thing, I feel less like I’m reacting to enemy moves, and a bit more like I’m setting the tone (for however long that lasts…). I also found Comancheria to be a little simpler, mechanically speaking, but also a tad more difficult to win. It’s an easier game to ease into, and it also requires less time to play a short scenario.]


I still have ways to go before I can claim to have conquered all six scenarios. But I’m already looking to the horizon, where Toppen has alluded to a future encounter with the Great Sioux Nation.



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