Home for the Hollandays
In a few days, Hollandspiele will be launching their annual holiday sale. True, I could provide recommendations. I could talk about how the games published by Tom and Mary Russell make consistent appearances during Best Week. I could talk about how it’s important to support independent publishers.
But I won’t.
Because instead I’m going to review some of the freebie games that Tom and Mary have included over the past couple of years — and the one they’ll be including this year. Oh yes.
Imagine the dogfights of World War I, but with cats. Also imagine a fighting game, something like BattleCON or Exceed, except all your cards are visible and every card blocks particular attacks. Also, the card you play must block your opponent’s previous attack, and becomes the attack that they must now block or they immediately die. Repeat until somebody does so.
That’s Absolutely Aces.
In the interest of disclosure, my time with Absolutely Aces was turbulent. First we couldn’t quite parse the rules, compressed as they are to fit on two cards. Our second try quickly resulted in a loop, the same cards swapping hands back and forth, the entire match hinging on whichever player’s faltering endurance would see them making a suboptimal move and subsequently careening from the sky like a burning meteor. For our third attempt we stared at the opening setup, one move indicating another, until the Matrix split open and the speech of our mouths fuzzed and popped like a dial-up modem. Nerds call this sort of game combinatorial: apart from setup, all information is perfectly known and deterministic in its outcome. Which lends it a certain cleverness, especially when you glimpse three or four moves into the future. If I do this, they’ll have to do that, then I’ll do this, then they that, then I this, then they cannot do anything so I win.
It’s also a whole lot of burnt gray matter for not much payout. Russell has designed games along these lines before, sheer reductions like Northern Pacific or The Field of the Cloth of Gold, in which systems are rendered to their barest form. Much the way Northern Pacific weaponizes turn order and The Field of the Cloth of Gold sees points salad running amok, Absolutely Aces is action-and-response gone wild. Minimalistically wild. So wild that it’s a pain in the ass to play well. It’s whimsical in the same way her previous experiments in reduction were, and nobody is about to complain about dogfighting cats. But it largely serves as an illustration of the very real bandwidth limit inherent to open information games. Sure, it’s possible to game out the next few moves. But why would you want to?
The Toledo War
Russell’s version of The Toledo War, much like the actual Toledo War — the border dispute fought between the state of Ohio and Michigan Territory for the Toledo Strip — is short, vicious, slightly confusing at first, and far more interesting than it has any right to be. It’s an entry in perhaps my favorite mechanical genre, the Schotten-Tot, in which three territories are feuded over for control, à la Omen: A Reign of War, Haven, and Air, Land, & Sea. That last title is its closest compatriot. Both consist of 18 cards, reduce the genre to its essentials, and make smart use of abstraction to get their point across.
So what’s Russell’s point? The most significant is its asymmetrical approach to events. Unlike the other games I mentioned, cards in The Toledo War belong to either Ohio or Michigan. This isn’t to say that half of them are useless; any rival event in your hand can be utilized as a weak but flexible nudge to any of the game’s theaters. Your own cards are more direct, offering either an event or considerable influence. The caveat with that second option, however, is that it’s limited to a particular theater. You might have a card that bestows a whopping three influence, but it can only be used to swing Belligerence in your favor, not Authority or Claim.
It’s an interesting approach on multiple levels. Historically, not every piece of legislation or every politician will benefit both sides of a conflict equally. However, it’s possible to spin any event to rile up your base at least a little bit. By the same token, the game’s three theaters of conflict aren’t blank slates. Each has a native strength that prevents the opposition from flipping it to their favor with nary a fight. Michigan has the better claim to the Toledo Strip, but Ohio’s status as an actual state lends it greater authority. These theaters also offer different perks. One doles out an extra card to the first player, another acts as a tiebreaker at the end of the game. More than I’ve seen before in this genre, Russell evokes a concrete setting, complete with home-field advantages and events that are a godsend to one side but loathsome to the other.
Unsurprisingly, this emphasis on historical texture brings the occasional rough patch. The conflict is surprisingly dynamic, permitting unexpected swings that function both as clever plays and miniature lessons on the rough-and-tumble past of American statehood politics. But it can also result in lopsided hands. This isn’t a problem in most card-driven wargames, as their longer duration translates into renewed opportunities to offset those mismatched hands. The Toledo War wraps in three to four hands, tops. That isn’t hyperbole: when the deck runs out after two rounds, a final game-ending event is shuffled into the mix, permitting only one or two additional hands. With so few openings to recover, a single bad hand can scuttle your hopes.
Then again, imbalance would matter a lot more in those other card-driven wargames. When your game lasts fifteen minutes, a crummy deal loses its sting. The Toledo War is, above all, a compact history lesson, offering a whole range of considerations in very little time. Not bad for a conflict that was more bluster than battle.
Reign of Witches
Here it is. This year’s freebie. And the last thing I expected was a functioning miniature version of a Pax game.
Let’s not oversell it. Emphasis on the “miniature.” This isn’t the inevitable third edition of Pax Pamir (ooh, diss on Cole!). That said, Reign of Witches manages to reproduce the Pax formula with aplomb. The most visible comparison is the card market. As in Pax Pamir and Pax Renaissance, Reign of Witches features a row of cards (only one) from which you can purchase assets. But for every card you skip over, you’re forced to pay a coin onto that card. Or a candy corn if you have a few desiccated husks on hand. When somebody later buys that card, they also inherit the coins (or candy corns) previously used to skip over it.
That’s the surface-level similarity. A few layers deeper, Pax Adams — pardon me, Reign of Witches — captures both the thematic tensions and knotty considerations of the Pax Series. In a way, those are the same thing. The topic is the Quasi-War, the two-year naval spat between the United States and France. Except the war itself is background noise. As either notable bastard Alexander Hamilton or U.S. Presidential incumbent John Adams, you’re waging a quieter war for leadership of the Federalist Party. The Pax games have always been a gussied-up contest for different icons, a fact Russell makes explicit by using card suits (and probably saving some money on art assets at the same time). There are four icons to gather across three criteria: hearts are the balance of opinion in the Party, diamonds are political savvy, and spades and clubs are military strength. Win two out of these three contests and you win.
Well, maybe you win.
Two details stand out. First, this process is subtler than it might first seem. Like its Pax heritage, gathering suits isn’t as straightforward as purchasing and playing cards. Your assets can also be empowered with coins (or candy corns) for additional effects, sometimes introducing game-swinging powers. Most require you to discard something before you can play them. And in the background the Quasi-War keeps churning along, sometimes locking suits entirely. Or benefiting Thomas Jefferson.
Wait, I didn’t mention Jefferson? The rules barely mention him either. Which is appropriate, since Jefferson would rather go unnoticed. Think of him like Porfirio Diaz in Pax Porfiriana, except a version of Diaz that automatically wins when the players fail their first attempt at toppling his power. In Reign of Witches, every resolved event strengthens Jefferson’s bid for the presidency. To win, Hamilton and Adams have to not only beat each other, but also amass more total icons than Jefferson’s score. Which isn’t exactly an easy task when your rival keeps hiring Aaron Burr (sir) to halve your political capital.
Of Russell’s three freebies, this is the one that demands real attention. If anything, I’d love to see her approach given a fuller treatment. The compact format leaves the Quasi-War in the Caribbean, an essential consideration that remains secondary to the game’s actors. Even better, the notion of a factional conflict between allies paving the way for a third party to swagger onto the stage is pine-solid. That’s been a staple of the Pax Series from the beginning; here it’s formalized in the victory conditions. Small but mighty, this one.
Complimentary copies were provided.