Roll under 40 to Spot: Tanks of War
Rich Nelson, founder of Giant Goblin Games, is in the process of shipping his baby to nearly a thousand Kickstarter backers at the very same moment I sit here writing this. Storm the Castle! is his first foray into the intimidating world of boardgame publishing, and he’s determined it won’t be his last.
Since we live in the same city, I got to sit down with him for a look at his second project, the aptly-named Tanks of War: Third Reich Rising (because it’s about tanks, and war), and after talking for a while about what he’s doing to differentiate this from all the other WW2 games out there, I got a chance to play it. Quite a few times, in fact. What follows are my impressions of this WW2 tank-battle deck-building game, which should show up on Kickstarter sometime in the next week or so.
Did I Say Deckbuilding?
When Rich first explained what Tanks of War was all about, it sounded as improbable as two armor-piercing shells slamming into each other mid-flight. On the one hand, he had a game built on reams of careful research about the lumbering beasts that made up armor combat on the Eastern Front in 1941 and 1942, using the now-familiar cards-as-miniatures style popularized by Summoner Wars. On the other, he insisted it was also a deckbuilding game.
That took me by surprise. Maybe it shouldn’t have; after all, everybody’s making deckbuilding games these days, whether or not they employ the mechanic particularly well. Thankfully, in this case, the deckbuilding didn’t turn out nearly as tacked-on as I expected, playing instead like the administrative duties that make your unstoppable tank column possible.
For one thing, both teams (Third Reich vs Soviet Union) come with their own separate pool of options. There are a few shared cards between them, like “Get Back Into the Fight!” for rallying panicked crews, “Commander Spotting” that lets one vehicle take a free spotting action each turn at the risk of exposing the card to being prematurely discarded, and “Battlefield Camouflage” for better concealment, but for the most part, the different teams’ pools are completely unique. The Soviet Union, for instance, has a bunch of action cards that play up their numerical superiority, while the Third Reich has access to Luftwaffe air strikes and Blitzkrieg orders.
It was also nice to see a distinction between each side’s vehicle deck and “force” deck. Each turn, both spill a handful of tempting options into separate card offers, so instead of relying on luck gracing you with a tank destroyer instead of a bunch of critical damage cards (which are a cool mechanic that let you attach locked-up turrets and broken tracks to damaged enemy tanks, but you need to deal some damage first), your chances of picking up something desirable aren’t as remote as they would be otherwise. With some careful planning, especially whether to spend your supplies on higher-value supply cards or reinforcing vehicles or special action cards, it’s possible to distill your draw deck into a perfectly-oiled machine of war.
Best of all, if you ever want to get rid of something, or save up for a massive turn at the expense of some cards, you can use your limited commander actions to shunt cards into your “reserves,” where they’re available at any time — though only once, at which point they’re decommissioned and lost forever. It’s a clever mechanic that lets you streamline your deck and make one last use of your weaker cards at the same time.
Tanks. Of War.
The other half of Tanks of War is the bit where you actually trundle your tanks out onto the battlefield for some warring, and it wouldn’t work if the vehicles weren’t sufficiently detailed to set them apart from one another. Good thing these tanks are every bit as unique and interesting as their real-life counterparts, sporting armor values on each side (showing what type and number of dice you roll when a shell hits you), and different levels of speed, weapon strengths, ammunition stockpiles, and other details. There are a bunch of varieties, from slow-crawling super-tanks to nimble runners with rapid-firing short barrels. There are even tank destroyers that sport powerful guns you’ll need to carefully line up because they lack the benefits of rotating turrets.
One of the most important numbers is the crew proficiency rating. This shows how experienced your crew is, and it determines how well your tank can aim and spot. Since you won’t be winning any battles unless you can shoot and spot, managing the odds of successfully getting a bead on an enemy tank and then punching a shell through its armor is one of the most important things you’ll do in any match.
Roll Under 40 to Spot
Okay, so you’re an old pro at shaping streamlined decks, and you’re starting to understand what those hundred-plus tank stats mean.
Too bad, because those aren’t the only ingredients in this recipe for success. You’ll also need to carefully manage information during the game itself — as in, tanks enter the battlefield face-down, and one of the best ways to keep them from getting blown up is to keep them hidden. While hidden, you can peg away at your opponent to your heart’s content, and he won’t be able to return fire until he’s figured out where all the exploding bullets are coming from. Staying concealed also carries the perk of preventing your enemy from knowing whether your advance on their left flank contains a couple ultra-heavy Stug 3Fs or nothing but scrawny Panzerjäger 1s with paper-thin armor.
Clever opponents will eventually deduce the general attributes of your tanks by how fast they’re moving, what kind of shots they lob his way, and how good your crews are at spotting and aiming, but while the secrecy lasts, it’s a great way to get an advantage over your enemies.
Between the interesting deckbuilding, the varied tanks, and the ability to keep your force composition concealed from your opponent, there are a lot of things to like about Tanks of War.
My personal favorite is how wide the decision space is. In addition to all the agonizing deckbuilding and choices about which tanks to bring into the fight, the battle itself is filled with difficult decisions. If you’ve got a tank in a knife-fight with an enemy that excels at close-quarters shots, do you slowly reverse, charge forward and hope to penetrate his armor first, or rotate your tank for a faster retreat and hope your soft side and rear armor can weather the beating? Do you fire your last shell on the off-chance your opponent doesn’t successfully spot you and realize you can’t fire on the next round, or reload now to keep him from rushing a tank forward to exploit your stalled turn? Do you apply a critical damage card to a weak tank you’ve just shot that will make their main gun nearly useless, or save it in hopes of wounding something heavier? Do you use your commander action now to permit one of your tanks to take an extra action, or save it for some free supplies or to rally a fleeing vehicle?
In one recent game, my Third Reich had run into a stalemate on my right flank. I had two tanks that seemed perfectly matched against two of my wife’s Soviet tanks, and both sides spent round after round pinging shells off one another’s armor. We kept aiming, firing, and reloading, without making so much as a dent. All the while, the other side of the board was a bloodbath.
We both shook up our tactics at the same time. I decided to use up all of one of my tank’s action points hiding. Since my guy was positioned in some shrubs, it made him even harder to spot, even for Somerset’s expert crews. On subsequent rounds, I was able to hurl all sorts of firepower her way, and she kept trying to spot my position, over and over. I was only feeding minor damage her way with each shot, but since she wasn’t returning tit for tat, I thought attrition would eventually win the day.
Unfortunately, Somerset had other plans — namely, boldness. She pushed her tank up between both of mine, and started crunching shells into my weak side armor. In the end, she sacrificed her front tank, but was able to blow up both of mine as soon as she figured out where my hidden vehicle was.
Despite all the awesome things I listed above, Tanks of War isn’t the type of game that will appeal to everyone, and complexity is the main reason.
In the picture above, there’s a tank bogged down with icons — all manner of icons, indicating spent ammunition, how fast it’s moving, how much spare momentum it’s already built up to enter the next space, the damage it’s taken, and another to indicate that its main gun is jammed. This level of “clutter” (depending on how well you can parse all the presented information) isn’t especially rare in ToW, and this particular tank isn’t even uncharacteristically laden. For instance, it could also have some critical damage cards under it, or friendly force cards granting it extra bonuses. Now imagine reading that much information off of eight tanks to get an idea of how much there is going on at one time.
Another example is the sheer detail of the tanks. The Soviet T60, for example, has a few easily-understood characteristics like requiring an extra action point to fire, move, or reload; but also a bunch of other details that aren’t quite so immediately grasped. It has a low silhouette. It’s nimble, though it has terrain difficulty. It has no radio. It has rapid fire: 2, and a short barrel: 1. Oh, and sloped armor.
Now, if you love the fact that all these little details are more than just flavor text, that they mean things that actually impact the gameplay, then this game is for you. “No radio” indicates that the tank can’t communicate information about spotting, for instance, and it’s a fabulous little piece of historical accuracy. It also means that once all those little tidbits come together, you get a very complete picture of the uses and limitations of the T60.
But until you figure all that out? It’s just a jumble of very scary, very alien information. And although I expect the design to get cleaned up a bit (these are all prototypes, after all), many of this game’s complexities are the very things that make the gameplay so rich, so I wouldn’t expect things to get too simplified.
Now, I’m not saying that’s a bad thing! Tanks of War is definitely a matter-of-taste type of game. There’s a whole lot to consider, even an intimidating amount at times, but that very considering is the heart and soul of the gameplay. Analyzing the odds of one of your super-tanks holding off three smaller vehicles can be an absolute joy, especially when you calculate correctly and wipe out an entire flank and win the day because you were better at probability math than your opponent. Besides that, Tanks of War is definitely something to look into if you’re a fan of statistics-driven gameplay, hidden information on a dynamic battlefield, unique deckbuilding games, or just armored warfare in general. For players willing to put in the time to explore its multilayered complexity, they’ll find a rewarding experience with a whole lot of depth.
Tanks of War: Third Reich Rising will be appearing on Kickstarter sometime soon. I’m not being paid to write this, and I’m not getting anything for free. I mean, you could send me some loose nickles for writing this preview if you wanted, I guess. But you don’t have to. And I’d probably lose them in the cushions anyway. Really, it’s not worth it.