Saturday, July 23, 2011

[Review] "Battle of 4 Armies" is Fantasy Fun for All!

Earlier today, I made the second of what I hope will become a regular monthly or bi-monthly visit down to Victory Point Games headquarters in Santa Ana, CA.  The game company's staff are friendly and welcoming, and it doesn't take long before a visitor gets talked into participating in a playtest of an upcoming game.  On my last visit, I was able to playtest an upcoming game entitled "Assault on Galactus Prime."  The game was a blast, and I eagerly look forward to its release.

This time I playtested an expansion for "Battle of the 4 Armies," one of VPG's existing game products.  But before I played the expansion, I had to learn how to play the base game.  I own a large stack of VPG games, but I had yet to purchase "Battle of the 4 Armies" by designer Nathan Hansen.  It is a testimony to VPG's desire to support and educate burgeoning game designers that this game, which was released on May 12 of this year, already has an expansion in the works.

The premise of "Battle of the 4 Armies" is simple:


 In a wealthy valley through which a warm,  enchanted river flowed from Foggy Mountain, Queen Elyra’s Council could no  longer keep secret her mysterious disappearance. She, the last heir to the Crown of Chip, was gone and, as word of  her departure grew more dire in each retelling of this new while spreading o’er
the land, order in the realm crumbled.

The representatives of the Great Races in the Queen’s Council, long assembled in peace by the force of her will, laid forth their claims to the crown in her absence – first with words, and then with deeds, calling their armies from afar in all directions to this land, each seeking to claim and restore the Crown of Chip.




In order to lay claim to the Crown of Chip, the winning Race must either completely defeat the armies of all of the other Races or control 3 of the 4 strategic locations on in the wealthy valley. Hansen provides some very simple tile placement and combat resolution rules that constitute the majority of game play, rules that echo some of the best elements of Diplomacy and Neuroshima Hex.

At its core "Battle of the 4 Armies" is a territory control game with very few random elements. Save for one random mechanic utilized to represent the morale of units in the game, this is a luckless game. Given the strength of Hansen's basic mechanics, this single random mechanic impacts play but does so in a way that is predictable and adds realism to the game -- morale effects being a staple of wargaming of all kinds. It would be easy to give a pure description of the rules, but they really are so simple that almost any attempt to describe them would border on plagiarism. As one of VPG's "Battlelesson" line of games, the game spends more text providing clear examples of good strategy than it requires to convey the basic mechanics.

That simplicity shouldn't be misinterpreted as meaning that the game is shallow. On the contrary, the choices required of players in the game are quite complex. Where to place and move pieces, when to push forward, when to retreat, these are all very significant choices -- choices that can result in very interesting movement combinations. Not only are the choice options complex, but the size of the territory to be controlled is small enough to guarantee that players must become actively engaged or suffer the consequences. There is no stalling in Australia in order to build up your armies in "Battle." The game can be played with 2 - 4 players, and the more players participating the more frenetic the game play.

Hansen designed the game as a "strategy game" to use during a role playing game session. The game represented a game that was played within his fictional game world. It has since come to be an excellent generic fantasy war game, one that I plan on inserting into my Eberron campaign as a representation of a battle that took place during the "Last War."

In short, "Battle of the 4 Armies" is almost a definition of what reviewers mean when they call a game elegant. There are few pieces, simple rules, but complex and diverse choices to be made that result in remarkable combinations. The game is quite simply one of the best games I have played this year, and is well worth the $15 price tag that VPG are charging.

Buy the game. Play the game. And help me start a viral campaign to convince VPG to do a Kickstarter project that produces a copy of this game with a cardstock map and nice plastic fiddly bits.




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