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Gathering of Engineers

Ludographic considerations from the Silicon Forest

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Standing over Here

This past Sunday, six of us got together and played the new GMT multi-player card-driven wargame Here I Stand (HIS). Doug has already blogged his session report. I want to add my perspective (since I came in last...) more in the form of a review.

Title: Here I Stand: Wars of the Reformation 1517-1555
Designer: Ed Beach
Publisher: GMT Games
Retail Cost: $79.00

Here I Stand (HIS) is a game based on the Protestant Reformation. The six sides (“powers”) are the major players of the time – the Ottoman Empire, the Hapsburg Empire, England, France, the Papacy, and the Protestants. The minor players (Scotland, Genoa, Venice, and Hungary) are handled in a very strict, procedural fashion. The idea of the game came from the old SPI (?) game A Mighty Fortress. This game acquired the nickname “A Mighty Tortoise” as it was apparently VERY slow moving. I don't know, as I never played the original. I preordered this game the day GMT put it on their p500 list, and I've been anxiously awaiting its release ever since.

The game, at its core, is the same multiplayer card-driven wargame engine used in The Napoleonic Wars. But it's about there that the similarity ends. The rulebook is very clearly written. In fact, after our initial playing, we only had one rules question, and one known botched rule. Both of which were extremely minor. The rules are 44 pages with 23 sections. However, the length is due to the extremely clear, procedural method in which they're written. Everything you can do in the game is explained in a step-by-step, annotated process. And that's a very good thing as no two powers can (or want to) do the same sets of things. There's even PBEM tips printed in the scenario book.

What impresses me most about the HIS design is it is highly asymmetric. Not only does every power have a different goal, everyone has different ways of acquiring victory points. And every indication is that things are highly balanced despite this.

To get a sense of scale for the following discussion, you should know that the game ends automatically if someone has 25 victory points or more at the end of a turn. (There's a maximum of 10 turns in the full game.) The starting VP levels in the full scenario range from zero (for the Protestants) to 19 for the Papacy.

Everyone (except the Protestants) gets victory points for controlling “key” cities. The Protestants get points for controlling the six Elector cities in Germany instead. In fact, controlling enough key cities produces an instant win. They're also the primary determining factor in how many cards you receive each turn. So, military objectives tend to revolve around capturing and holding these key cities. Every other power gets additional VPs in different ways:

Ottomans: up to 10 VPs for piracy.
Hapsbugs: mostly through operations in the New World.
England: in addition to New World operations, England gets 5VPs for producing a male heir.
France: New World operations and up to 6 VPs building chateaus.
Papacy: keeping cities Catholic, burning Protestant debaters at the stake and expanding St. Peter's Basilica
Protestants: converting cities, translating the bible, and disgracing Papal debaters.

There are also VPs awarded for winning wars, and a small number of cards can give extra VPs.

The turn sequence is relatively straightforward:

  1. Bring in any new items scheduled to come in that turn, roll for New World riches (these are usually additional cards, i.e. Resources), and deal out a fresh hand of cards.
  2. Diplomacy – this is the only time “secret” deals can be hatched. At the end of this phase each power must state if there were any deals reached that change the game state (i.e. ending wars, etc.). You can also sue for peace or declare new wars in this phase. At any other time, all diplomacy must be at the table.
  3. Spring Deployment. You can move one formation of troops from your capital to pretty much anywhere within your domain.
  4. Action phase. This is where you play the cards in your hand. This goes in sequence (the same order in which I listed the powers above) until everyone passes.
  5. Wintering. All troops head for the nearest fort, or your capital.
  6. Resolve new explorations and colonization attempts in the New World
  7. Check for victory.


The action phase is similar to most other CDGs. You have a hand of cards, and every card has both a value (in command points (CPs) – think action points from Tikal, etc.) and an event. When you play a card, you choose which way you're going to play it. If played for the event, generally you follow the instructions on the card, and you're done. (The exception is Mandatory event cards – these must be played for the event, AND you get the 2 CPs to spend afterwards.) If you play the card for the CPs, you then get to spend the value of the card in actions as listed on your individual player mat.

Every power has a different subset of actions they can perform. England, France, and the Hapsburgs can explore the New World, for example – the Ottomans can't. But only the Ottomans can commit acts of piracy. The effect is that the game plays very differently for each power. In addition, each power has a “home card” which must be played each turn and then returns to your hand for the next turn. These are all 5 CP cards (the maximum) in addition to having powerful effects. Finally, depending on your specific power's current ruler, you may be able to hold one or two cards from one turn to the next.

The net effect of all this is that it feels like there's sixty-seven different things going on at the same time. England is trying to produce an heir, but is feeling the pull of reform. The Protestants are busy translating texts and publishing books as fast as the Papacy can burn them. The Ottomans are stomping through Hungary and raiding ports right and left. The Hapsburgs seem like they're everywhere, and France is busy admiring their chateaus – even the ones in Louisiana. Amongst all this chaotic activity you end up with some unlikely alliances – France and the Ottomans seem to ally frequently, as the Ottomans are the best at harassing the Hapsburgs thus keeping them off France's back. England needs Papal help for a while to get a divorce in order to get multiple attempts at an heir, but then turns into a papal enemy after breaking from the church. And so on. We didn't touch much of the diplomatic aspects of the game in our first play, but it can get very deep. Particularly later in the game when someone is approaching an automatic victory.

Obviously, the game has a lot of flavor. It's also best with all six players (though it handles 3-5 as well and the designer is working on 2-player guidelines) and good, deep six-player games are a rare thing. After our first play, we had only one rules question, and it was a “what if” for an event that wasn't played. Amazingly, we only broke one very minor rule. This is saying something considering the number of different subsystems interacting in this game. We spent a good 45 minutes to an hour walking through the game before play, and this was when all of us had at least read part of the rules. We played four turns, as recommended for a first go, and this took between four and four and a half hours. It's estimated that the whole game, once everyone knows how to play, will take around 7-8 hours to play, and that seems accurate. There's also shorter scenarios, including a “tournament” scenario designed to be played in under 3 hours. Given that the 3-player game has you playing two powers at once, I could see the three-player tournament scenario being playable on a weeknight. Rare for a game like this.

As you've probably gathered, there's a significant investment of time required to play this game. For me, the investment has paid off handsomely. As an example, I'm currently participating in a PBEM game (as France) moderated by Ed himself. We're just starting turn two, and already I'm seeing the side efffects of diplomacy. The Hapsburgs and I decided to end our war, and I had made my plans for the turn. However, I was greatly surprised by a formal alliance between the Hapsburgs and the Papacy resulting in the Papacy having full use of the Hapsburg fleets for the entire turn. This may significantly change my plans, as I am the only power with whom the Papacy is at war.

It's always dangerous to rate a game after one play. However, given the fact that everyone involved had fun and wanted to play again AND we ran into effectively zero rules problems, it must rate very highly. I'm wavering between an 8 and a 9 on this one. It'll probably end up a 9 in my book for the primary reason that you can get a significantly different experience playing the game as a different power. The Protestants and the Ottomans are really playing two completely different games at the same time. And it all just works. It really is a masterful design, and I think we'll be seeing this one both selling out and reprinting rather quickly.

I do have a couple minor nits. There isn't a player aid that has the turn sequence printed on it, so you've always got a copy of the rulebook floating around turned to that page. (This is being corrected, however.) There aren't any siege markers. But beyond that, GMT pulled off a well-executed production.

If you're looking for a deep multi-player wargame that plays smoothly, or the theme interests you and you're not turned off by 7 hour games, give it a shot. You'll be pleased with the results.

3 Comments:

  • At 9:07 PM, Blogger George said…

    Hear, hear!

    Being new to the game and wanting to do something else than my usual stompin' around I played France much less aggressive than I probably should have.

    One thing I see with the half game we played (until turn five) is that England and France do indeed have minor roles. Their major push will probably be in the latter half of the game.

    Doei!

     
  • At 11:56 PM, Blogger dave said…

    Eric,

    Thanks for the write-up. It sounds very interesting.

    As a follow-up to George's comment, I'd like to ask about one issue of balance. My main beef with The Napoleonic Wars is how much more France (and, to a lesser extent, England) gets to play than some of the more minor factions. What is it like in HIS?

     
  • At 8:25 AM, Blogger Eric said…

    Personally, I think George is wrong on France and somewhat off with England.

    France is free to be as active as they want in the early game. I'm playing France in my PBEM game. I took Metz in the first turn, ended my war with the Hapsburgs, and am moving on Italy in the 2nd turn.

    George chose to be quieter as France in our game Sunday, and had less of an experience in my opinion.

    England shares two overall objectives with France (military objectives and the New World) with the advantage of being the hardest power to invade due to being an island. It is possible for England to be a bit insulated in the early game if they choose to go after Scotland, but that can have ripple effects on the continent. I'm thinking about getting into another PBEM game as England to get that experience down as well. The quest for an heir definitely puts a twist on things for ol' Henry.

    Nobody is truly isolated in this game.

    And, on the flip side, nobody is more overwhelmed than anyone else. The Hapsburgs probably have the most to do, but it's not that much more than anyone else. The Protestants are mostly playing their own game as their objectives are vastly different from anyone else's, but they need assistance from other powers to distract the Empire and the Pope so they can accomplish their objectives.

    Ed ran a LOT of playtest games. I haven't heard of any balance issues arising from the final ruleset. Time will tell, of course, but the prospects look good.

     

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