Battle Line (Game Review)

There’s a stack of games in our house we’ve said at some point or another that we’re probably going to sell. But before we do, I force us to play one or two more times to be sure we’re not making a terrible mistake and to try to think through why we didn’t enjoy the experience (if that’s still the case). THESE… are our stories.

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NUMBERS NUMBERS NUMBERS!!!!

Hey, kids! Do you like NUMBERS??? Just pulling them from a deck and putting ’em down like it’s 1850 and good games haven’t been invented yet?? Well you’re in LUCK!!

Okay, that’s not really fair, but it’s also: why we’re ditching the highly-rated Battle Line.

According to Board Game Geek:

“Two opponents face off across a ‘battle line’ and attempt to win the battle by taking 5 of 9 flags or 3 adjacent flags. Flags are decided by placing cards into 3 card poker-type hands on either side of the flag (similar to straight flush, 3 of a kind, straight, flush, etc). The side with the highest ‘formation’ of cards wins the flag.”

There’s definitely strategy and calculation in this game. You’re making plans, you’re paying attention to what your opponent is doing and what’s on the board, etc. It’s a fairly cognitive game in these respects. But for all that, at its core, I would say Battle Line is about luck: whether you’re going to happen to draw the cards you need, and in time, or whether your opponent will.

And despite the (thin) theming and the possibly-disruptive tactics cards, it remains an essentially dry game, far more concerned with math and logic than with Alexander the Great. This review has it right. I’m beginning to think I need to check whether Reiner Knizia was involved with titles before we commit to them. His name seems almost a sure-fire harbinger of gamed I’ll dislike for variable yet somehow math-and-theming related reasons.

A final word on the formations element:

I kept checking back with the thin paper rule sheet to determine the relative value of the various tactical arrangements of cards. I think I’d have enjoyed this game significantly better (and learned it markedly faster) if the box had included two of those little rule-reminder tiles.

I briefly mentioned tactics cards above. There’s a secondary deck you can draw from each turn instead of the ‘numbers’ deck. This consists of tactics cards that may totally destroy your opponent on a given flag or may not help you much. The incentive to fuck with tactics cards, however, is low. Your opponent can only lay down one more than you do, and if you take but don’t play these cards they just clog up your hand. Taking them slightly diminishes your chances of getting regular cards you really need, while playing them potentially enables your opponent to pull weird unforeseeable bullshit. There’s an arms race mechanic here, and the Cold War has never been my favourite historical era.

I like the idea of a random element in this tightly corseted game, and I suppose more confident or risk-taking players might want to employ tactics more. All in all, though, playing tactics feels like a bad gamble. This mechanic seemed insufficiently supported by the structure of the rest of the game.

Some game mechanics are kind of counter-intuitive and have a way of making you feel like a total moron. I could not wrap my head around the way flags are decided and closed off in Battle Line for the longest time. My girlfriend is typically great at explaining rules and mechanics to me, yet we had little luck here. It made initial rounds of play really frustrating for me (and a bit embarrassing). I only really got the game after maybe five plays, and by the subsequent and final plays, one or two of which I won, we already knew we were trading the game on. I still don’t love Battle Line, but I finally knew saw what was up, could play competently and competitively, and enjoyed the game, like, at all.

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VERDICT:

I liked Battle Line better by the end and could see its virtues as a mechanical system, but I’m still not sorry to see it go in favour of: Hive.

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2 thoughts on “Battle Line (Game Review)

  1. he did lost cities, which we quite liked as a 2 player. it is very mathy with theme pasted on, though, so fits into that category, just being a more entertaining version of same.

    interestingly you are far kinder on this game than i am now likely to be. i thought it was ok at the beginning, but the more i played it the less i was interested in the putting down of cards in exactly the same sorts of sets over and over again. lost cities is fun because it has that same ‘oh no, will i draw X?’ but there are more options for what X will be…

    samurai the card game was much worse, though.

  2. Yeah, perhaps in addition to being polarising he’s also a bit hit and miss, re: how successful his execution of his ideas is. I feel like I could have gotten to like Battle Line a bit more over time but not like… enough? It was never going to be a *favourite*. It’s odd because I feel like the starts from the mechanic and then finds a theme, whereas if I was designing, nothing at all would make sense to me but to go the other way around.

    Inarguable, re: Samurai.

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