Newcastle Gamers – Saturday 5 April 2014

This was an all-day session in honour of International TableTop Day and – as tradition dictates – there was no way I would be able to make the whole thing from 10am to wee-hours finish. I arrived around 2pm via the busiest train I’ve ever been on (rammed to bursting with game fans of a whole different stripe, off to witness what turned out to be a 4–0 pasting of the home team), perfectly pre-arranged with Gareth so I could walk in, sit down and dive into A Distant Plain. This, the most recent in GMT’s COIN series, recreates the recent and ongoing conflict in Afghanistan using a card-driven system.

Gareth and I had been playing Cuba Libre using VASSAL and email over the few weeks running up to this session, so the COIN system was well ingrained into our minds. We’d been hoping to be able to drum up the full four players for ADP, but it wasn’t to be. Instead, Norman joined us as a third and we left the fourth seat to be ably filled by the flowchart AI system. Factions were assigned thus:

  • Me: the Coalition forces, aiming to drum up popular support for the Government before getting the hell out of there.
  • Gareth: the Government, looking to gain control over as much of the country as possible, while also lining its own back pocket with ‘Patronage’.
  • Norman: the Taliban, seeking to foment opposition to the Government and build as many bases as possible. Crucially, the Taliban is the only faction able to have a presence in Pakistan next door.
  • AI bot: the Warlords, who want to get rich from growing and selling opium, while keeping provinces out of the control of either the Coalition/Government alliance or the Taliban.

Yes, the “Coalition/Government alliance” is a crucial part of the faction interplay in ADP. My Coalition forces were quite capable of dragging Government troops off on a Patrol or Sweep operation around the country even if Gareth didn’t want me to. And all on the Government’s money too.

Luckily, Norman’s Taliban guerrillas presented a common enemy to unite against for much of the game; with Islamabad remaining heavily favourable towards the Taliban throughout almost the whole game, Norman could simply build bases and rally hordes of guerrillas there for absolutely no cost and just walk over the border into Afghanistan in huge numbers. For a while, it was oddly like suffering in a dysfunctional marriage in a rat-infested house, trying to agree how best to deal with the rodent problem while it was just getting worse and worse around us, but we managed to get the Taliban largely under control by about halfway/two-thirds through the game. After that, it was just whack-a-rat with them – when a little pocket of trouble popped up, we knocked it down again.

[The very first card of the game had been a Propaganda card, the COIN system’s way of offering possible victory and then resetting various bits of the board state before launching into the next campaign. This had been excellent for teaching Norman how Propaganda worked, but it had also left the Taliban much richer than they would have otherwise been and it also meant that the next Propaganda card was likely to be a long way off. (They’re seeded into five separate 13-card decks which are shuffled and then stacked to form the deck for the “Main” scenario that we played.) The Coalition and Government then suffered terribly from a Sandstorm card which had a hefty movement-limiting effect until the next Propaganda, which – along with the abundant resources just mentioned – meant the Taliban were much freer to do their thing and establish presence within Afghanistan. I also got slightly hamstrung by NATO command strictures for quite a while, but that just meant Gareth had to do the lion’s share of Taliban-bashing; I didn’t mind too much.]

Gareth got into a handy little routine of using Eradicate to destroy the AI Warlord’s opium fields, gain Aid (for later resources) and Patronage (for victory points) and remove the popular support I was seeking, but I was starting to feel a little confident. With the Taliban held at bay and popular support at a decent level, I decided to start pulling some of my troops and bases out of Afghanistan. The Government’s eyebrow was raised, knowing full well that this could signify that I was going for my victory condition while also making things a little harder for them. But because the Coalition forces can only ‘Surge’ from three spaces in one turn, I had to still leave a reasonable presence in the country, so I was only halfway there at this point.

That remaining presence was enough to keep messing with Gareth a bit (transferring from his ‘Patronage’ backhanders into proper Government resources that I could spend and spending that money on shifting spaces towards support), and I ‘Surged’ nearly all of the rest of my forces out of Afghanistan when I knew the fourth Propaganda card had to be within the next two or three cards. This put me a few points above my victory condition (based on the total of population in support of the new regime and the number of available Coalition forces – i.e. the number not in Afghanistan), but the next card’s event scuppered my chances by removing support in two populous provinces in the north of the country.

I could only claw back a couple of points in support before Gareth carried out a Sweep operation, gaining control for the COIN factions in several provinces and pushing him well into a victory position… just in time for the fourth Propaganda card and a victory check. A well deserved win for the Government. Final scores:

  • Government: 39 (36 needed)
  • Coalition: 30 (31 needed)
  • Taliban: 15 (21 needed)
  • Warlords: 4 (16 needed)
The board at the end of the game.

The board at the end of the game. Note the lack of my tan-coloured cubes and discs on the map.

This was a truly excellent game. Absolutely superb. Every single decision was agonising and – crucially – important. The interplay between the factions – particularly the Coalition and Government, but also every faction’s interactions with the Warlords – was complex and fascinating, offering a different insight into the situation in Afghanistan from anything we get from the mainstream media. As we played, it attracted a huge amount of attention from gamers passing by and many seemed deeply interested in the way ADP models this most current of conflicts.

That said, this is not a game for everyone. If we had a pound for every comment of, “Is this still going?” or, “How long have you got left?” we’d be… well, not exactly rich, but probably able to buy another copy of the game. We played for about six-and-a-half hours, with around an hour of rules beforehand. There were still another ten cards left before the final Propaganda card, so had Gareth not hit victory on the fourth, we could easily have run for another hour or so. I don’t consider that too long for a game of this quality, but it seems many gamers at the club have a limit of 2–3 hours before a game is considered ridiculously long. As the young ‘uns say on the internet, YMMV.

Some players might also be queasy about playing factions like the Taliban; indeed, I detected a little unease on that point from one passerby who asked about the game. That’s fair enough and I appreciate that point of view. But it would be a great shame to dismiss ADP without realising what an elegant game it is. The rules are only ten pages long, yet the depth and complexity are truly exciting. It was the quickest and most fun six-and-a-half hours I’ve had in a long time.

With Afghanistan in safe hands, there was an awkward length of time left before John Sh (my lift for the return leg to Corbridge) needed to get away, so I suggested the shortish-but-hopefully-interesting Tash-Kalar: Arena of Legends, which had been the last of my gains to arrive from the February maths trade on BGG. It recently won the BGG Golden Geek award for Best Abstract Game1 and I think it showed us why.

We played the ‘High Form’ (attempting to complete tasks for the audience, rather than beating seven bells out of each other) as a team game, with Gareth and me playing as an alliance (properly allied this time, not like in A Distant Plain) of the Northern Empire and Sylvan factions, with Olly and Dave taking the Southern Empire and Highland factions. Gareth and I built up an early advantage and we were feeling confident, but once Olly had summoned the legendary Two-Headed Dragon we were pretty much sunk. Due to my misunderstanding of the end-game trigger (I hadn’t included the legendary pieces on the board when calculating the total of 9 required; I thought they were added on afterwards when totting up the final score) the game ran probably a round or two longer than it should have and ended up 14–4 to Olly and Dave. Getting the end-game right would only have reduced the thrashing by a couple of points, but it would have removed the last couple of futile rounds for Gareth and me.

The final board state. Look at all those lovely heroic and legendary pieces. They don't belong to my team.

The final board state. Look at all those lovely orange heroic and legendary pieces. They don’t belong to my team.

Initial thoughts on Tash-Kalar after one play: seems like a good game. I think it probably works better as a two-player game, so you have more control over your plans, or perhaps a four-player game works better as a deathmatch melée (although I can’t imagine the chaos that would involve). It’s possibly not one to pull out at the end of an all-day session, given how much trouble a couple of the very-tired players had in recognising the summoning patterns on the board in all combinations of rotation and mirroring. The components are also a bit lacklustre – given that this has an RRP of £54.99 (!), it’d be nice to have bakelite tiles rather than cardboard tokens. But I see the quality of the game within, it’s short enough to act as a sort of über-filler, and it’ll be a while before I’ve explored all player numbers and all game types, not to mention getting to know the decks so I can better interfere with opponents’ plans.

So, ten hours and two good games. That’s an excellent day of gaming in my book.

1. Its legendary designer Vlaada Chvátil also wins my personal award for Name That Sounds Most Like My Mother-in-Law Sneezing.

All photos by Olly and me, shamelessly stolen from the Newcastle Gamers Google+ page. Newcastle Gamers is on the second and last Saturday of every month, 4:30 pm until we drop at Christ Church, Shieldfield, Newcastle upon Tyne!

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