I fear I have to begin this review with a disclaimer: The only other “Commands & Colors”-style game I’ve ever played was Memoir ’44 (and only one time), so if you were hoping for any comparative insights into the merits of the brand new BattleLore Second Edition relative to the other games of that family, I’m afraid I’m about as useless as a blue herring at a mystery writer convention. If, on the other hand, you want to hear me talk about four things I really like about BattleLore — four things that just maybe are double-edged swords — then I’m your huckleberry.
The Scenario Generation Is Awesome, But…
In place of the usual scenario book, BattleLore 2nd Ed has an entirely different idea about how a scenario ought to be generated. For one thing, it really wants you to use the word “generated” instead of just “set up,” and to that end it comes with a pack of scenario cards for both factions (noble blue humans versus evil red demon-folk). Each player gets a couple of these cards, picks one, reveals it, and voilà, you’ve got a stew on.
Well, just as soon as you set up all the terrain, establish any special rules and victory conditions, do some arithmetic to figure out your army composition, place your army cards, and replace your army cards with an actual army. It can take a while, especially if one of your players has had a long week and is struggling to count up to fifty army points (hey, it happens to the best of us), but still, it’s a fun system that dynamically forges interesting setups roughly… oh, maybe 75% of the time.
See, while I enjoy setting up one of BattleLore 2nd Ed’s scenarios nearly as much as I enjoy playing the game, my one hangup is that now and then you’ll end up with a setup that isn’t particularly interesting. Most of the time you’ll end up with something terribly fascinating: the Uthuk Y’llan barbarians have entered a marshy region with few fords or bridges, and you’re the Daqan Lords desperately hoping to keep them out of the proximity of two uncomfortably-close towns that are crucial to the war effort on the frontier; but beware, because the barbarian cavalry can move through the shallow waters without pause! So long as you can keep them away from those two towns, you’ll creep closer to victory; but on the other hand, the barbarians gain bonus points for killing your troops near water. For, um, awesome reasons. Poisons the water supply of the towns or something.
Then again, maybe you’ll pick two scenario cards that result in a bunch of clumped hills in the middle and barely a single copse of trees to either flank, and wheeee.
I really don’t intend to blow this criticism out of proportion though. To be fair, if a scenario card doesn’t show water on it, I’m just not that interested (and nearly all of them do have rivers). Nitpicking aside, I love the way BattleLore 2nd Ed handles its scenarios, from the “decoy” army cards you use during army setup to mask the composition and placement of your forces, to the crisp visuals of the entire enterprise, complete with easily-identifiable victory locations and terrain and opportunities and weaknesses. Ooh, or the Command Tents that you can place for extra requisition points, with the tradeoff that your opponent can take it over for victory points.
Even if it does take a while to get everything put together, it really is a fairly streamlined process, and all the while you get to plan out how you’re going to have your Flesh Ripper cavalry move into that vulnerable town as soon as possible, and mulch every single Citadel Guard that trundles your way.
The Command Mechanism Is Nail-Biting, But…
One of the coolest things about BattleLore is the way you order your units. Rather than moving anyone you’d like, each turn sees you playing a single command card, which will dictate where you’re allowed to give orders. It might be a “Patrol Left” card, meaning you can activate two units on your left flank to move and attack; or you could draw a “Line Advance” to order one unit in each of the game’s three zones. It’s an incredibly simple system that nevertheless allows for some fairly difficult long-term decisions. Should you keep pressing the right flank in order to take that victory-point location and hope your inattention in the center and left doesn’t result in the death of too many units? Do you spread orders around and try to force the opponent to rush to keep up? Do you sacrifice that unit just because you don’t want to waste a three-order card because he’s the only one you’d bother activating? There are plenty of decisions to be made, and since you can only order a very limited selection of your troops each round, every single turn is an agonizing one.
Of course, the downside to this whole thing is that sometimes the luck of the draw can decide that you don’t need to play anything on the right flank this game. Sure, there are some special cards that will let you order units anywhere, but the fact stands that it’s entirely possible for your opponent to draw better commands than you. Holding three similar command cards and praying the fourth you draw each turn won’t continue limiting your options can be infuriating.
This criticism doesn’t always (or even particularly often) apply, if only because there’s usually a skirmish to be won somewhere, regardless of the flank. And anyway, the best commanders are the ones who will be able to use even their weaker commands to push for an advantage in an unexpected location. It’s just that, well, the best commanders aren’t always above getting boned by their card draws either.
The Dice Keep Things Chancey, But…
Here’s a situation for you: a band of Uthuk Y’llan Obscenes, these gross-out obese dudes with spiked clubs who deal silly amounts of damage unless you can take them out first, occupied one of your towns last turn. This is bad news, because it means the barbarians’ per-round victory point income is now beating yours, and you’ll probably lose unless you can take your town back. Thankfully, your Yeoman Archers get lucky with your first order, rolling two hits (meaning one hit, because the Obscenes are hiding in the town), and since the Obscenes had been whittled down earlier, they’re down to one unit. This means they’re “weak” and will consequently have a much harder time dealing damage in a counterattack against your guys.
This is perfect! It means that fresh squad of Citadel Guards you’ve been holding in reserve — ideal because they can pursue routing enemies, getting another attack in the process — can dislodge the fatties from your town! So you roll the dice, and… oh, you get some lore tokens. Great (no, really, great, but more on that in a moment). Then the Obscenes counterattack, and… what?! They rolled three hits even though they’re weak! Every single member of your Citadel Guards is now a snack for slobby demon-kin!
Blasphemy! you shout northwards, towards the icy lair of the Dice Gods and their twenty-sided pantheon. Did you not make the requisite six oblations this season? Did you not spend eight hours praying for the wisdom to forge the dreaded Zocchihedron? How dare they.
Yeah, it sounds silly right now, but just you wait until it happens to you. There’s no atheists in a
foxhole light wargame.
On the other hand, it keeps the proceedings refreshingly light. I personally like that BattleLore 2nd Ed is a game where I can shout swear words at my dice and pretend I’m not losing because of my inferior strategy. But it definitely won’t be for everyone.
The Lore Cards Are Brutal Bastards, But… Okay, But Nothing.
Here’s another scenario. You have two bands of Riverwatch Riders, one of your favorite units because they can’t be counterattacked. You now see a weakened company of Flesh Rippers — the Uthuk Y’llan cavalry equivalent, but uglier. They’re on their own, and in a position where you can easily eliminate them without fear of reprisal. So you play your “Cavalry Charge” command card and move both bands of Riders over to the monsters. Thanks to the command card and your cavalry’s ability to flank, you’ll be rolling a cool four dice for each attack. There’s no way you could lose. You pick up the dice, a meaty handful, tingling with victory, and start to—
“Hold up,” says your opponent, with one of those jackass smirks he gets. Then he lays down one of his lore cards, “Bone Spurs,” and you literally recoil in terror. Because once he pays for it with his hard-earned lore tokens, it means that his Flesh Rippers have sprouted a bunch of jagged spikes, and every hit you roll is going to kill one of your guys instead. It’s like charging a horse headlong into an iron maiden.
And what do you say? Well, sure, a swear word, and something about your buddy’s questionable parentage. But you’re also sick with envy, because the lore cards are awesome. Soon enough, you’ll play your Rune Blade card to get a whole bunch of hits on his gigantic Chaos Lord, or your Enchanted Arrows to transform your Yeoman Archers into 23rd Century doom-snipers. And then he’ll be sick. Because he’ll be dead.
These lore cards are the best, and they’re only made cooler by the fact that failed dice rolls sometimes add to your stockpile of lore tokens, reducing the sting of a miffed roll dramatically.
If those four things (okay, three, because the lore cards are hilarious, and if you don’t like them then I suspect you don’t like life) sound like upsides and not downsides, then BattleLore 2nd Edition might be the game for you. It’s not perfect, but it sure is a lot of fun, and I can’t wait to see what Fantasy Flight Games does with this combination of setting and fluid mechanisms in the future.
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Want to know how you can play Battlelore 2nd Edition, and upgrade yourself to a 2nd Edition Human Being in the process? By supporting Space-Biff! by purchasing it through this Amazon link, of course! You ought to have guessed.