Topdeck Montcalm for the win!
OK, first off let's get that review of Empires in America filed.
Victory Point Games' venerable States of Siege line has come a long way. The original games in the solitaire series – titles like Soviet Dawn and Arab-Israeli Independence were pretty simplistic, whack-a-mole affairs where you tried to beat back five counters moving along different tracks whether they represented armies, ideologies or whatever. They were card-driven, with historical events driving the action. Typically, various tracks and meters would influence die rolls and other results so you got a decent sense of a historical narrative in a compact package. But those early versions of the system were pretty simplistic and they often felt somewhat repetitive or lacking in giving players enough agency to counteract bad rolls and inopportune card draws.
I liked the early SoS titles, but from Zulus on the Ramparts on through Cruel Necessity they got a lot better. Cruel Necessity in particular is kind of the "Citizen Kane" of the form, a detailed, exciting game that captures a good percentage of the feeling of playing a big GMT-style card-driven wargame without straying too far from the simplicity and brevity of its forbears. But before VPG's designers started evolving the system in earnest, the 2009 release Empires in America was one of the first of the more advanced titles. Designed by Joseph Miranda (who also did Zulus), it opened up a couple of new concepts in the series specifically tied to leadership and command-level strategic decisions. There's a new edition of it now available as part of the "Gold Banner" series, and it's a fine choice for those looking to check out these games.
It's the French and Indian War in all of its glory and with all of its major players. Washington is here along with Wolfe, and you'll play against them as the French under Montcalm and other continental generals. The goal is, of course, to keep the English out of Quebec as they approach from five different areas. Each general is represented on board by a card indicating their battalion strength, a reputation score that can go up and down based on campaign successes and any special abilities. The English automatically assign their leaders to the "lanes" to Quebec and can be sacked, reassigned or completely eliminated. The French play leaders during assaults on forts and while attacking approaching armies, bringing along militia, siege weapons and of course native irregulars all represented by cards.
Process is easy enough. A staged deck of "Historique" cards outlines the events that happen both in America and also in Europe leading up to and throughout the Seven Years' War. At first, you'll draw four of these per turn, some of which become hand cards that you can play to your tableau, increasing your military strength or imparting special actions. English generals also appear in the deck as well as harmful events that hamper your cause. When the Seven Years' War breaks out the tempo increases and you draw six of these cards per turn. The goal is to survive the entire deck, which takes about an hour and some change if you are familiar with the game.
The English move any army counter that has leadership's along their route up to the number of that leader's command, and if they hit a fort (either printed on the board or built by the player) there's an assault. There's an initiative roll, and whoever gets it rolls first- a big advantage. Fives and sixes are hits, whoever comes out either alive or with the least casualties is the winner. If the French send a leader (they can all fight only once per turn), it's a Major Battle and they can also add tableau cards to their current battalions. The battles can brutal, and they can also be literally do-or-die once a couple of armies are closing in on Quebec.
The French also get a number of action points per turn based on the total command of the leaders in the tableau. These are spent to attack, build forts and trading posts, assign replacements and play cards. Using these wisely is critical because they are so limited, and choosing to build a fort at the right time versus launching an attack can mean the difference between winning and losing.
There's a nice, even tempo to the game that escalates. Cards might be discarded or recycled to come back later and shifting leadership on the English side keeps you in a reactionary state throughout. It's hard to get initiative to drive them back in earnest, but when you get a foothold it's hugely satisfying to send them packing. Once Montcalm enters the game, you've got a huge advantage (so much so that there is a variant to tone him down), but you never know if he's the last card in the deck…or if you'll topdeck him next turn. By the time he shows up, Wolfe and the boys might be on your doorstep.
So obviously, there is a large degree of randomness in the game as is usual for States of Siege. I do not view this as a negative, particularly in a solitaire context. A random draw or bad roll might be tough to recover from, but you'll not find that your strategy against another player is thwarted by luck rather than smart play. And the randomness adds a degree of drama to the whole affair that keeps you on your toes, constantly guessing and second guessing what is going to happen and trying your best to mitigate it at every turn. If you get totally boned 20 minutes in the game, it's up to you if you want to reboot and give it another shot. Or pack it in for another day. You're alone, and not entertaining guests here.
This is a good one, but I still prefer Zulus and Cruel Necessity over it. I feel like those games are more dynamic and have a stronger interface between their subject matter, scope and mechanics. I'd call it "entry level", but it is still a little squirrely in the rules even before you add in the host of chrome-y optional rules, most of which I would recommend after a couple of outings. It is also pretty hard to win especially for a newcomer to this kind of game, and the capricious difficulty level might be off-putting to some players. But hey, there again, it's a solo game. Play it how you want to play it. Adjust according to what makes it fun for you.
Other than playing these VPG titles quite a lot, I've of course been playing Star Wars: Rebellion, two games in with a buddy that pulled out his phone and ordered a copy halfway through the first game. It is pretty much exactly what you wanted this game to be, provided that you didn't expect it to be a TI3/4x style thing. It's kind of more of a worker placement game than a DoaM one, and in fact the weakest part of the design is the combat. I'm teetering on the brink of declaring the combat crap, to be honest. It's just overwrought, like how FFG resolution systems often are. It really doesn't need the +1 hit/+1 block tactics cards at all. It's just clutter. I almost think that it could be modified so that instead of drawing those stupid cards you just add hits equal to the difference in command for space and ground per leader ratings. So if you had 3 space command in a space versus 1, you'd just add two automatic hits. It would be cleaner and quicker. I do really like how it distinguishes between "light" and "heavy" damage, so that you don't have an X-Wing taking out a Star Destroyer. Unless you have something that lets you get that one in a million hero shot.
Overall though, I think it's one of the best games FFG has ever done, and it's the best thing Corey K. has done since BSG. Can't wait to play it more.
On the solo front, I've gotten in a few games of a couple of Thirstyman-maligned DVG titles and they were both pretty good. Warfighter is a modern spec ops thing that is really kind of a dungeon crawl in disguise. But it's a good one, with some fun gameplay and plenty of Call of Duty-style action. Some neat ideas in it- like having NPC-class characters that don't have hands of cards and can take limited actions. So far it's put up a good fight too, and I've enjoyed doing the loadouts and watching the cool narratives unfold. Thunderbolt Apache Leader is probably the best game of that series that I've seen so far. It takes a bit to get going, but once you've got a couple of AH-64s and A-10s kitted out and blasting through Iraqi armor, hoping that the AA guns don't stress your pilot out or fill his chopper full of bullet holes (which stress out the next pilot to fly it if you don't fix them), it's lots of fun. Definitely managerial, but in a solo setting that works.
Pax Porfiriana prompted me to check out Greenland, Phil Eklund's "other" tableau builder, and after reading through the rules and having no clue what to do, I finally sorted it out by just setting up and playing a solo game. I think I get it now. What a lot of words to describe a dice placement game. It's typical Eklund- TONS of detail, lots of rules that exist only to simulate something, inscrutable graphic design, bizarre icons, impenetrable strategy. But I feel like I understand what's going on in it a this point, and it looks quite interesting. There are some neat opportunities for negotiation and direct conflict, lots of elements that convey atmosphere and setting, and a real sense of challenge. Definitely looking forward to getting into this one more.