Newcastle Gamers – Saturday 26 April 2014

or “It’s Just a Learning Game”

It finally happened – I played Hegemonic. I’ve posted previously about the components and how lovely they are, but until Saturday my only experience of the gameplay was soloing a three-player game to make sure I understood how it all worked. I put out feelers for players the day before and Olly expressed an interest, so I figured I’d be able to round up another couple of people to fill seats on the day. Indeed, Gareth and Nick joined in to make us up to (what I guessed would be) the optimum four players – enough to make it interesting but not so many that the game runs for the whole night.

First off, the rules explanation. Luckily, the designer has written a “teaching script”, which covers the main points of the rules in a sort of conversational style and a logical order. This script was a huge help to me, because I can read out written materials much, much more fluently (i.e. without stammering) than I can explain things when I have to think about my choice of words and phrases. It did, however, take pretty much an hour to go through. That would be fine if we could then launch into the game with a really solid idea of what we were doing… but that really doesn’t seem to be the way Hegemonic works. No matter how well you understand the mechanics in the design, they are essentially abstract ideas until you start trying to fit them into a real game situation.

So the first couple of rounds were spent basically exploring the mechanics and figuring out how to get stuff done. In an ideal world, we would have run the first round or two, wiped the board and started again with a better understanding of the game… but this isn’t an ideal world and gaming time is limited.

I played an early Tech card (Mass Translation Relay) that allowed my Quantum Gates to be spaced 1 Sector further apart than normal. That allowed me to sneak into the back end of Olly’s home galaxy board, reducing his VPs in the upcoming scoring round by 2 and increasing mine by 3. When I reveal the final score, you’ll see how much difference a couple of rounds in that situation could make.

The random draw of Sector tiles and Tech cards guides players down certain routes for their empires (Industrial, Political or Martial), and I took an early Industrial route, building a little sprawl of Borg-style cubes in my red corner of the galaxy. A bit of Martial building bolstered that presence and allowed a bit of expansion, but (once I had reasonable Political influence in a couple of factions) much of my game was spent merely trying to hold on to the presence I had on various galaxy boards, given that they are the regions used for scoring in each round.

Olly and Nick were also going quite heavily Industrial, and Olly eventually took over all of our Industrial complexes, meaning all of his complexes were in play and Nick and I were reduced to only our home-sector complex. Gareth meanwhile, after an early skirmish between his Political agent and mine, was slowly building outwards from his home sector, creeping into other galaxy boards and establishing dominance wherever possible. His was not a conflict-heavy strategy, unlike mine or Olly’s, but it was dangerous and he was the player I was keeping my eye on most.

The galaxy at the end of the game.

The galaxy at the end of the game. You can see that I (red) have been completely removed from the central galaxy board by this point, and I’m only actually present on three boards. Gareth (blue) and Olly (purple) are on four boards each and Nick (green) is on five boards. It was a good thing I’d built up a decent lead at the start of the game.

The final moments of the game were a bit odd. We were all pretty much broke, so there was little chance of successful expansion. We knew that each level of Tech card we’d advanced would provide 2 VPs in final scoring, so the whole thing finished in a flurry of card-drawing, discarding and lucky points. I picked up 4 VPs from the last card I drew, which felt über-gamey.

Final score – Me: 102 / Nick: 97 / Gareth: 95 / Olly: 94

First impressions of Hegemonic then…

It’s a solid area-majority game, hidden under one or two too many layers of befuddling systems and physical design choices. Imagine a delicious cake with a layer of icing and decoration far too thick to be pleasant. All you want is the cake itself, but you have to fight your way through the sugar flowers, crunchy silver balls and inch-thick marzipan before you get to the lovely cakey goodness within.

Firstly, the baffling design choice: colour. Let me state this simply and clearly so you can see what madness this is: the six player colours are used in-game to represent completely separate things. That green hex with a blue circle in it? Nothing to do with the green or blue players. I have no idea why this wasn’t picked up in development and playtesting (and this game was in development for years), but Gareth and I both had problems with the use of colour in the design.

Let’s be specific. The three different aspects of your empire are consistently represented by three different colours. That’s great. Industrial is yellow, Political is blue and Martial is red. What isn’t great is that yellow, blue and red are all available as player colours. It’s all too natural to think of red things as mine, blue things as Gareth’s, etc. It’s far from something that’s impossible to adapt to, but it just adds a little to the cognitive load. On top of that, though, the Sector hexes with Political embassies have a background colour dependent on their (non-player-related) Political faction: purple, green or orange. Those are the other three player colours available.

But Owain, you cry, there are only a limited number of colours available for something like this. I know. Having six player colours and six different colours for other game elements would maybe be even worse. And I’m not a design guru. Far from it. But maybe using the shapes alone for Industrial (square), Political (circle) and Martial (triangle) would be enough. Then you just need three colours for the political factions (orange, green and purple, as they already are) and six player colours (red, blue, yellow, white, black and pink). Sorted.

So that’s the colour thing. The other problem is the six different ways of calculating power in conflicts, depending on the aspect of your empire that’s involved… and whether they’re attacking or defending. Even now, I’m still not sure if we played the rules for Industrial attack correctly (sorry Olly, you may have been robbed of some points… but I’m honestly not sure). The whole thing adds a layer of complexity that can obscure the game-state in front of you, and I ended up finding the board very difficult to read in the final stages. In an area-majority game, that’s a problem.

I’m sounding really negative, which doesn’t actually reflect my experience with Hegemonic. I had a lot of fun and, like I’ve said, the cake itself is lovely. But the icing makes it sickly and makes it take too long to eat for the reward you get out of the cake. I can’t even remember how long we played for (four hours, maybe, after an hour of rules explanation?), and long is fine if it’s worth the effort, but I felt the time we put in wasn’t commensurate with the game we got out of it. I know that Gareth felt very limited in the decisions he could make (as did I at times), and that doesn’t make for a good gaming experience of this length.

Second time round, things would be a lot different. But I wonder who would be willing to come back to Hegemonic after their first game…

[Side note: Gareth and I later talked about the lack of interesting asymmetry in Hegemonic, so I showed him the optional Leader cards which give each player a menu of unique actions, getting more powerful the longer they go unused (examples range from “You do not discard CAPs down to the Retention Limit this round” to “Relocate your Home Sector (with your Bases and Units) to any empty hex”). I’d left them out, what with the game being quite enough as it is the first time out, but we agreed that it could have been a fair bit more interesting if we’d thrown the Leaders in. I’ll know for next time.]

It was quite late by the time Hegemonic was packed away. Gareth had to leave in fairly short order and neither of us could face the game of Tsuro being set up across the room, so he retrieved his copy of Martin Wallace’s Field of Glory: The Card Game from his car, taught me the rules and soundly thrashed me.

It’s an interesting little game, maybe owing a small debt to Knizia’s Battle Line (and a more obvious debt to the original Field of Glory miniatures game), with two players facing off along a line of terrain cards. By playing one or two military unit cards next to a terrain, you can fight your opponent for control of that terrain; if you have control of three terrain cards at the start of your turn, you win the game. Simple enough. But the truly interesting part happens before the game, when the two players take identical decks of 48 cards and draft them – draw 4, keep 2, discard the other 2 – to create a customised army of 24 cards. So you end up knowing what units you have in your deck, but not the order in which they’ll come out.

Just like Hegemonic, this seems like a game in which experience really helps. Gareth had only played it once before, but he probably at least had an idea of what might be useful when drafting his deck. I did things pretty blindly in that respect, meaning I had too many cards with a low command value, used to pay for other units or to support a battle. I also let myself run out of cards too quickly; I should have been more selective in when to play from my hand to support a battle and when to just go with luck from the top of the deck.

But it was a fun little game and one I’d happily play again. The theme comes through nicely, in that certain units are more effective against other certain units, or drastically reduced in effectiveness in certain terrain, etc. It certainly puts it a step above something like Battle Line, which reduces the concept to numbers, colours and poker-type hands.

There wasn’t quite enough time to join in Tokaido (which, along with Takenoko, is in my mental list of “light Japanese-themed euros I’d like to try”), so I chatted wargames with Gareth until John had finished his game of Terra Mystica and could whisk me off into the Tyne Valley. An interesting evening of first-plays!

All photos by Olly, 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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