Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Battles of Westeros - Winter is Coming - House Stark.

If you haven't already checked out TheBro's entry about his experience *cough*losing*cough* playing as the Lannisters in Fantasy Flight Games' newest big box release - The Battles of Westeros, you should read it here. The journey I took last week gave me a great opportunity to play one of my favorite houses in the A Game of Thrones series - House Stark. Some might consider them to be the cliche good guys of the books, and to be sure they often pay the price for playing this role, but all I can do today is give an account of the enjoyment I got out of playing the good guys and helping House Stark to claim yet another military victory over the nefarious and tricksy House Lannister! I want to say a big thanks to Rob Kouba, designer of The Battles of Westeros for showing us his game and giving us a chance to play on his fancy prototype copy (hint: it is not fancy, but it gets the job done!).

My brother's account of the battle from the Lannister point of view will likely be a bit more complete. I'll admit that I don't currently own a single BattleLore product since he owns every single release that's out there. He's been keeping up with the rules and has a better understanding of tactics and terminology. That being said, I hope this is still somewhat informative and makes for a good read. If that fails, you can always come back soon for the results of the questions Rob let us ask him last week. If that's not good enough for you, well, then let the Others take you already!

When we sat down at the table I was really struck with how much the board reminded me of Tide of Iron (ToI). It's not modular the way ToI's board is, but it is very open offering a very basic green background to then customize the board however you want with terrain tiles. We would later find out that the board will be double-sided so the game can be played on either a vertical or horizontal viewpoint while still being able to draw a simple line of sight and movement lines, given that the game (like BattleLore) is played on Hexes.

The next thing I really liked was how few cards there were in front of me to reference my units. As House Stark in the first scenario, I had two commanders (one infantry commander and one cavalry commander), three groups of archers, three or four groups of infantry (you'll have to forgive me for not remembering which) and one extra group of cavalry. With all that I only had five reference cards in front of me, which was really nice. Given that I don't get a whole lot of chances to play BattleLore, I never really picked up how best to manage the minimum 8 or 9 reference cards per side per scenario. The reference cards for my two commanders, archers, infantry, and cavalry were all laid out nicely and easy to read quickly.

My role as House Stark was to defend two key strategic points for five turns to hold off those evil Lannisters from crossing a river and holding the fords. Really it was just to make sure the Lannisters didn't control two specific hexes at the end of any turn before five turns, but this game really oozes flavor. It's very easy to get a feel for what the scenario is trying to convey. This is one thing I noticed when looking through the scenario book - BoW is very heavily story-based.

Speaking of story - my commanders were Rickard Karstark, a cavalry commander, and Maege Mormont, an infantry commander. Commanders fit into a normal group but fill in the last role instead of just another mook. Rickard had two cavalry units accompanying him and Maege had three infantry units. For more information on commanders, check TheBro's post as he does a great job explaining. Rickard could use up two two command points a turn and Maege only one. The board was set up a little bit like this with the river represented by "---" and "\" fords by an "F"  the Hill by an "H" and the strategic points with an "S"

              S          F
           H         S   F

I apologize for the crudeness, but I think you get the idea. This is of course how the field looked from my point of view. Rickard's forces included the three archer units and were on the left side of the river, guarding the strategic points. This was opposite many Lannister infantry who, in the very least, would have to stop their movement once they entered the ford hex giving me another turn to shoot them down and strike quickly with Rickard's cavalry units. On the right side of the river (near a road that ran almost straight across the board - more on this in a bit) was Maege's force with the groups of infanty (I'm just going to call it four from here on out) and one cavalry unit. Opposite Maege's forces was an intimidating massing of Lannister cavalry forces. Lannisters had superior units from the get-go, but much like Stark often has in the books, I had the superior ground.

On my first turn I was able to move all my units without much difficulty. In fact on a regular turn of BoW, you're probably going to be using everything you've got going back and forth between you and your opponent. I made what, I guess probably due to lack of experience, was a bold and daring move on my first turn. I moved Maege's infantry into a tight-packed (i.e. supported) little group to block the Lannister cavalry's route to my strategic points. Because the road was so close, it wouldn't take long for the cavalry to reach me as it added an extra movement point if all the normal travel of the cavalry took place on the road. Lucky for me TheBro's Lannisters were painfully short on extra command points to get his cavalry moving quickly. Instead he moved his infantry forward towards my archers who had taken up in trees just behind the ford as well as one unit on the hill, which is an awesome piece of terrain. While on the hill, ranged units get to ignore intervening models when drawing line of sight. This gave me the chance to shoot at his commander even though the commander wasn't on the front line.

My infantry, who should have gotten clobbered by his cavalry actually did quite well. I made some killer die rolls when attacking and took some shockingly weak die rolls when attacked by the superior cavalry forces. It wasn't long until the Lannisters had to make some last-ditch efforts against my superior numbers. One of the strategic points was taken throughout the game, but I got it back by the end and brought his forces down to one lone infantry unit by the end of the fifth turn.

One of my favorite aspects of the game was the morale track. Morale is kept track of via a sliding scale that means when I lose morale, my opponent gains, and vice versa. In general I didn't get many morale tokens, and so I never lost many morale as a result of pushing my units to act twice in the same turn. I almost won as a result of TheBro getting too many morale action tokens combined with the Lannisters losing morale each time they lost a unit.

One more quick note on the Starks. Their special unit is the kennel master. They're rather unique in that they come on  the standard cavalry base - so 3 to a unit - and move like infantry. They're basically a melee unit, but they have a special ability which lets them effectively have a range attack. It seemed to be a little random as far as what the range attack hits on, but I really like the way this unit sounds. Essentially the kennel master is releasing his wolves to go out and hunt and return to the master. It's a nice way to conceptualize a range attack other than shooting some unidentified projectile at your opponent. It also gives Rob a way to authentically include the wolves and direwolves into the House Stark motif - it fairs well as a sign that dragons or other more... interesting aspects of A Game of Thrones to make an appearance in the game.

By now you should have gathered that I won the game, but don't let me convince you that I only like the game because of this reason. It really reminded me of a kind of sequel to BattleLore. TheBro made a good point that it feels like the change from the original Warcraft to Warcraft II, for example. They had an amazing base system to work with and just improved upon it. I'm not saying anyting bad about Classic BattleLore as I'm well aware there are a lot of fans of it out there, and it's a particularly great game in its own right. I'm excited at this point to show you guys the rest of the info we got from Rob, so check back soon to see answers to some of your questions as well as some extra ones we thought of on our own. It'll be like a version of 10 questions only super-awesom-er. I promise!

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