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TWO PLAYER GAMES: AN EXPERIENCE

by Mark Delano

 

It is easy to denigrate categories of games that you rarely play. It is much harder to come up with a valid reason for this disdain.

A little over a year ago I found I had developed an attitude toward two player games that was quite dismissive. The primary objection was based on the lack of shifting interactions between players you get from multiplayer games. In particular I was disenchanted with European two player games. For example the Kosmos line of two player games had one or two standouts but I was generally disappointed in their play. I felt they tended to either be too light for my tastes or take too long for the amount of gameplay provided. I admit that in some cases I judged too harshly or too quickly, but remember, I was consumed by the truth and beauty of 3 or more. This past year three very different games radically changed my opinion, for the better I believe.attika1

The first that I was exposed to was Hans im Gluck/Rio Grande’s release Attika (Winter 2004 GA REPORT). This is a deceptively simple game, with two disparate victory conditions. The first: play all of your buildings. The second: connect two shrines that are on the edges of the board, ending the game immediately. Each turn you are faced with the choice of using actions to place buildings, flip up buildings to hopefully find one to place, or draw cards to make placing buildings easier. During the game you are given opportunities to expand the board, and this board expansion can be used to aid your own building placement or hinder someone else’s. I played several games of this with three or four players, and I thoroughly enjoyed it at first. Gradually I came to realize a real flaw in the game that was particularly apparent with four players. A large part of the tension in the game is derived from the sudden death shrine victory condition. With four players you are dependent on the others to help protect against this shrine victory. If they fail to defend appropriately you may have the opportunity to block yourself, but it will often be at such a price that all chances of a victory are eliminated. This leaves you the choice of playing collectively against individuals or letting other people’s mistakes cost you the game. Neither alternative is very attractive. I first tried two player Attika while waiting for a football game on a Sunday afternoon. I played 8 games in a row that day, and loved every single play. It was a revelation, seeing a good game turn into a great game by restricting it to two. It plays fast, very fast. Most games finish within 15 minutes. There are tons of interesting decisions to be made and strategies to try, and if your opponent connects the shrines you can’t blame anybody else. The variable board, card draw and building draw keeps play fresh well past it would be expected, while managing to remain surprisingly balanced. Now I very rarely sit down for a game of Attika with more than two, but it is always my first choice if I can snag one other person.

At the Gathering of Friends Gaming Convention, I saw a new Reiner Knizia card game called Blue Moon. It looked interesting, but I still had some lingering prejudices regarding two player games and it smelled bluemoonboxsuspiciously like a CCG. The fact that it was published by Kosmos/Fantasy Flight neither added or detracted from the allure, the decidedly mixed commentary made me leery. Still, since it was Reiner Knizia, I was more than willing to give it the benefit of the doubt. I didn’t get a chance to play it at the convention, but a friend did pick up a copy. A deck consists of exactly 30 cards with no duplicates. Each turn you are confronted with the choice of either matching or exceeding your opponent’s play, or retreating to wipe the board clean while conceding dragons to your opponent. The game ends if someone collects all three dragons or runs out of cards. Victory is determined by who has the most dragons, with an extra point to the opponent if one player ran out of cards. Early plays interested me, and showed that much of the uncertain reception resulted from confusing wording and strange labeling choices. After getting past the initial hurdles I found an elegant and intriguing card game. Blue Moon relies on a back and forth battle for dragons where playing your strongest card right away is often not the best way to win. Sometimes it is better to hang back and draw your opponent’s cards out, other times aggressive play is rewarded. To some extent it depends on the deck you are playing against, but even more important is ferreting out the opponent’s hand based on their play. Deck construction is intuitive and simple. Each card has zero to four moons printed on them, with the more powerful cards having more moons. There can only be a single card of any type and there is an additional limit on the number of moons from other decks. A well constructed deck will usually defeat a poorly built one, but…

The last of the three games that restored my two player interest is Memoir ’44 published by Days of Wonder (Summer 2004 GA REPORT). Contrary to the previous games, I was anticipating this one well before it came out. On first inspection, Richard Borg’s Command & Colors series are very light wargames. The time spent is light, but the experience is not. The system is simple. Each scenario sets up the starting terrain and unit positions along with any special rules or victory conditions. Players take turns moving and/or attacking using the cards they draw. Each card specifies how many units to activate on what part of the board, or perhaps provide some other special ability for the turn. Attacks are resolved using dice that detail whether the target memoir441awill take damage, retreat or survive unharmed. I enjoyed the first to be published, Battle Cry (Summer 2000 GA REPORT), but it failed to become a favorite. Memoir ’44 is a better fit for my taste in historical gaming, and many of the design changes make it a superior game. One change from Battle Cry was the wide disparity in card quality. There is still contrasting quality in Memoir ’44, but there are compensations built in for the worst cards. Another contrast from Battle Cry is the fluidity of the board positions. Battle Cry often has an entrenched feel due to the difficulty of organizing an effective attack. In Memoir ’44, tanks are highly mobile and dominant in open terrain, while infantry are flexible and can pry open even a well entrenched position. Still, Memoir has a great deal of luck which is part of the fun. It’s about holding off desperate charges or making ones of your own. The dice luck can result in large swings, but knowing when to take advantage of what opportunities you are given is where the skill comes in. Utilizing terrain and managing cards can be key. It’s often a hard decision whether to use the last card on a flank to make one more push, or save it to react to your opponent’s moves.

On initial inspection there is little to tie these three games together other than the number of players. Blue Moon has no real board, Attika has an ever changing board, and Memoir ’44 is structured like a classic hex war game. The pacing of each is quite different as well. There is a rise and fall in tension for Blue Moon, as the stakes increase the longer it takes for someone to win a dragon. This is quite a contrast from the steady play and resource management of Attika, a pace that is punctuated by shrine connection panic. Memoir ’44 moves from nail-biting moment to nail-biting moment, with every die
roll a potential heart breaker. The real greatness of these three games is what they taught me through their differences about games in general. Games do not have to rely on the other players to provide tension or a wide variety of experience. A good design can create depth and novelty even if there is only one other person to worry about.

ATTIKA (Rio Grande Games, 2-4 players, ages 12 and up, about 60 minutes; $32.95)

BLUE MOON (Kosmos/Fantasy Flight Games, 2 players, ages 12 and up, 30 minutes, base set priced at $24.95, “booster sets” available)

MEMOIR ’44 (Days of Wonder, 2 players, ages 8 and up, 30-60 minutes; $49.99)


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