Thursday, June 19, 2014

LTTP - Warmachine: High Command

In lieu of our usual gaming last week, a friend of mine picked up the original starter set for Warmachine: High Command. The thinking was that it'd be a nice change of pace for the weeks where we have an odd number of players (WM/H are almost impossible to play multiplayer unless you're doing teams,) and it'd be a different game to possibly squeak into the rotation for when folks aren't in the mood for the tabletop game.

As it turned out, we ended up with just two players (myself and the friend that purchased the game,) so we played a few games of 1v1 High Command. Impressions of the game after the break, including my theorycraft about playing the game multiplayer.

Core Mechanics:
High Command is the first "deck building" style game I've ever played, but based on what I've heard from others it has a lot in common with other popular deck building games such as Ascension.

The core of High Command is that both players are trying to score as many VPs as possible before the game ends. A game of ends when either a) players capture all available locations, or b) the "Day of Reckoning" card is revealed during the Winds of War step.

Endgame condition 'a' seems like it's impossible in a 1v1 game unless both players are using extremely aggressive decks (and even then I think it's very unlikely.) There are 15 location cards that must be cycled through and only two are in play at any time. Taking a territory is no mean feat - a player must have two more occupying forces than their opponents at the start of that player's turn to capture a location - and during our games we only each managed to capture two or three locations over the course of a game.

I think this condition is in place for multiplayer games, where there are more locations in play and players are possibly able to more easily rush a location before others can stop them (1 location per player, up to 4.) In speaking with other gaming buddies that have played the game multiplayer, that seems to be how it plays out and in that situation I can see chewing through the locations deck before you hit the "Day of Reckoning" Winds of War card. In a 1v1 game though, I feel like the deciding factor is always going to be time.

Players can score VPs in two ways: 1) capturing locations, and 2) buying reinforcements that are worth VP. #1 happens kind of naturally during the course of the game, and it's usually the best single source of VPs (plus the locations themselves often become a useful resource to use when purchasing further reinforcements.) #2 also happens naturally during the game, as cards that are worth VP are also often very useful in game, though they're also often more expensive to purchase than non-VP options. VP obtained from reinforcements are also lower than if you had captured a location (1-2 vs 5+).

Much of the game is juggling building up your deck with options you can afford to continuously play (to pressure locations) and getting cards worth VP for long term victory viability. Again, this is probably similar to other deck building games, though with High Command there's a focus more on fighting it out over locations (as is appropriate for a card game set in the Iron Kingdoms,) so there's an emphasis on deck building as a means to facilitate combat.

Game "Feel":
The feel of a game is hard to quantify. In the case of High Command I'm looking at two factors:

1) How does it relate to and compare with Warmachine?

I think High Command succeeds very nicely in this regard. The different factions play in a way that is very recognizable to players of those factions, and in some cases they actually play more like you'd expect the faction to play than it does on the tabletop.

For example: many players get into Khador based on the premise of heavy armor and hitting power, but the primary sources of heavy armor (Man-o-War and warjacks) are extremely finicky and difficult to work with, so many players end up playing Khador very differently than they expect. In High Command, Khador warjacks and Man-o-War can take a very respectable beating, so they can serve as the blockade you always envisioned while other army elements get into position and back them up.

The game also plays similarly to how a game of Warmachine plays, in a very general sense. Most games of Warmachine are determined by fighting it out over scenario zones; while not all games are determined based on scoring CPs in those zones, the positioning forced by those scoring zones being on the table leads to the actions that eventually close out a game. In High Command players are constantly fighting it out over locations (at least, we were,) so it maintains that feeling of trying to keep pressure on scoring zones while also managing your resources (in Warmachine that's your model count, in High Command it's your hand, deck, and reinforcement queue.)

While I wouldn't recommend High Command as a substitute for Warmachine, it contains more than enough of the same DNA that it feels clearly tied to the tabletop game. That is great for fans of Warmachine that want another way to experience the game that is maybe a little faster (though more on this later) and is less resource intensive to play. It also introduces players to more of the Warmachine setting than they may have experienced otherwise, with many of the cards containing flavor text and neat Iron Kingdoms references.

2) How well does it function as a card game?

I think High Command likewise succeeds here, but it's with this criteria that the cracks start to show in the game's rule set. I've only played a couple of games so I'm no expert, but there are a few things I could see becoming an issue with enough play (as players become more savvy.)

The ability to build up VPs passively is a good thing - taking locations is difficult enough that without a passive VP mechanic 1v1 games would often come down to who could score one more location than the other player - but I can also see it encouraging a turtling play style. Winning locations can be very difficult (due to the capture requirements and the timing of it.) As such it's possible that players may focus on winning by buying up as many VPs as possible from your reinforcements and put just enough into locations to keep the other player from scoring. A game like that would still have player interaction - you're required to fight any opposing resources at a location each player turn - but it would be largely for show, as the game is going to really be decided by who builds up VPs on their own faster.

I think a few factors help to prevent this tactic from being the best way to play. First: each player has three warcaster cards that they use in a manner very similar to warcaster feats in Warmachine - they're "one use", they're very cheap, and they put a lot of power into a given location. These cards are often a very good way to make a big play and they can do a lot to shake up an entrenched back and forth. If both players are using their warcasters smartly, it feels like it's going to be very difficult for the players to effectively blockade each other for the duration of the game.

Second: the Winds of War cards do a lot to shake up the game turn by turn. Many of the cards give you bonuses that make it easier to get certain resources in play, while some cards make it harder to get cards to locations. If the right cards come up at the right times, it can enable plays that would otherwise be impossible (especially combined with warcaster cards) and those can have a remarkable effect on the game.

Third: the way that the "Day of Reckoning" card resolves and the randomness of when it will show up encourages players to ramp up aggression as the game moves towards the Late game phase. "Day of Reckoning" is aptly named; when that card pops up players immediately resolve possible captures on all locations and the game ends. That can be a profound swing, so it behooves both players to act accordingly as it gets closer to possibly being the next Winds of War card flipped.

In a 1v1 game, each player has a different goal at that stage. The first player needs to end each of their turns in a strong position, since the Winds of War flip is going to happen before they get a chance to act again. If they under commit to any locations, it leaves an opening that the other player can exploit to possibly pull off a big late game swing. The second player needs to likewise keep the pace up, and they're rewarded for being intelligently aggressive, as they may be able to get occupying forces in place before their opponent can respond.

Since both players don't know when "Day of Reckoning" is going to pop up (unless you're looking at the absolute last card of the deck) and locations represent big VP shifts, it feels worthwhile for players to stay aggressive at least going into the Late game phase. Moreover, you can't bank on being able to build up a big VP pile from your own reinforcements. You can get screwed out of buying VP cards if you don't have the necessary resources in your hand, and the random appearance chance of "Day of Reckoning" means that you may not get enough time to build up enough VPs (especially if your opponent has been able to capture a location.)

So, based on my limited experience with the game, I think the mechanics in place do a good job of preventing turtling from being the optimal play in all games (at least in 1v1.) I think there will be times when it'll be a good idea to hoard VPs, and you may be able to clutch games out that way (especially if you can snag a location or two early,) but I don't think it's the de facto best way to play. Again though, that's all based off of a few games, so we'll see how well it holds up.

Variety and Expansions:
There is another problem I see with High Command, but I think it's one that would have been more of a problem when just the core set was available. Due to the way the reinforcement decks are constructed - each warcaster has colors associated with them, and you can only include reinforcements that share a color with one of your three selected warcasters - you run out of valid deck options relatively quickly.

It wouldn't take too many games before players had seen everything each army could put together (5 warcasters to start with only leaves you so many color combinations,) and for those competitively minded players it probably wasn't very long at all before optimal builds were figured out.

The bad news is: that kind of stagnation can seriously hurt a card game, especially one that's partially sold on the ability to tailor your deck however you desire.

The good news is: PP has been very good about releasing expansions for the game, so I feel like that issue is probably one of the past. As of the writing of this post there are five expansions available for the Warmachine side of High Command, there's a second starter set available that introduces four new faction decks, and there's always the ability to match up against the Hordes version of High Command (which itself has four expansions.)

With all of those expansions and the other half of the game available (i.e. Hordes,) I'd wager that there is a lot of variety in what you can create for your decks, and there are (hopefully) plenty of options that are viable competitive choices. PP seems to be releasing expansions that roughly parallel book/model expansions for Warmachine and Hordes, so it's likely that we'll continue to see expansions as more models come out for both games.

What also helps High Command out is that it isn't a CCG; when you buy the starter box or any of the expansions you're getting a fixed set of cards. A player starting out in the game doesn't need to worry about a big outlay of cash to get a good set of cards together. They can either work their way through the expansions (relatively cheap, at $16 per for all the cards in that expansion,) or they can target the expansions they need to build a particular deck.

Since High Command isn't split up by faction (the core set and expansions have cards for Cygnar, Protectorate, Khador, and Cryx,) a player buying into the game would also have four different factions worth of cards for that investment. Not too shabby, and you'd have a ton of replayability with all those options available.

One of the interesting things about High Command, and in fact why my friend picked it up to play last week, was the part of the game's sales pitch that it can be played with between 2-4 players at the same time. That makes it a nice alternative game for days when we can only get 3 people together, or even if we wanted to play something different when everyone did show up.

The early reviews I read/heard of the game all said the same thing: it's okay in 1v1, but multiplayer games are an absolute slog. I cannot verify those allegations first hand since we didn't end up playing 3 player games as we originally intended, but I can infer what a multiplayer game may look and play like based on my 1v1 experience.

And based on that: I would never, ever consider a multiplayer game of High Command. There are several reasons for this:

   - Space: High Command requires a fair bit of table real estate to play comfortably. Each player's set of cards they're managing take up a good bit of space, and then in the center of the table you have the locations and the cards trying to occupy them. In our 1v1 games we ended up taking up a good chunk of a kitchen table. In a 3 player - or even worse a 4 player - game, you'd need as much table space as a game of Warmachine just to be able to spread out comfortably.

   - Time: High Command wasn't too time consuming to play 1v1, all things considered. Each game lasted around 80 minutes. With some practice and more familiarity with the cards and system, we could probably trim that down to 60 minutes. That feels like about the most time I'm willing to spend on a card game like this (adversarial deck building game,) and it fit my expectations.

But each player you add to the game is going to ramp that time up, possibly disproportionately. You now have that many extra player turns to work through, and each one of those is going to add a fair chunk of time to the game. Adding more players also complicates combat decisions, so I can imagine the combat phases are going to be more time consuming as well (not by a lot, but it adds up.) While I don't expect the game to stretch on interminably (though it could if players consistently foiled each other, resulting in more deliberate player turns,) I think it would quickly get past the relatively brisk pace I enjoyed in the 1v1 games.

 - Mechanics: High Command feels like a game that was designed and balanced around the idea of 1v1 games, but the rules were left open enough to make 3-4 player games feasible. That's all well and good - plenty of games don't even give you the option of playing with more than 2 players - but I think the cracks in the system start to become more pronounced when the game gets past 1v1.

Anecdotal: one of the things I've heard about multiplayer games is that players end up not really fighting over locations. If a player is able to get to a location, the other players just give that one up for broke and try to claim another before anyone gets there. The reasoning seems to be that it's a big effort to maintain a fight at a location, so it's almost always a better use of resources to try to take a new location. Players may be able to spread resources between two locations (which is difficult) but it feels like its impossible to maintain a fight across three locations.

So why bother? Just keep playing location whack-a-mole, and so long as you're able to build up enough VPs on the side, you've got a good shot at winning. Better than everyone meatgrindering each other, which will just reduce the game to a VP build up race.

I'm not saying that I've seen these issues happen, but what I can absolutely see is that High Command works at 1v1 levels because the direct opposition of players kind of keeps everything honest. Once you start adding more players into the mix it feels like the game has much more potential to go off rails and become less fun.

For all of those reasons as well as the general consensus I've heard regarding multiplayer High Command, when I play I'm going to stick to 1v1. That was plenty fun, and if we end up with 4 players it's probably better to just play two 1v1 games. Still no solution to a good 3 player game, but I think that's partially a gaming holy grail.

Final Thoughts:
I honestly walked away from my High Command games impressed.

The initial reviews I read about the game weren't terribly kind. Multiplayer games were slammed (I can definitely understand why) and the 1v1 game was at best regarded in a lukewarm sense. High Command released right around when a number of other deck building games were really hitting their stride, so it released against stiff competition.

I think the game benefits tremendously from the release cycles that PP has been willing to pump into it. If we were playing it right when it came out, I'd have a similar feeling than most others. Its a fun game, but games like these tend to live and die based on having enough card variety to keep the game feeling fresh and interesting. There's only so much you can do with the core set of cards, even though PP did put a decent bit of variety into that initial release. I'm much more excited about the prospect of playing more High Command knowing that there is so much more to see and experience.

As for how it compares to other deck building games, I couldn't say. I haven't played any other deck building games, and truth be told I haven't had much interest in them. I appreciate the genre, but it's not something that I would reach for on my own. High Command caught my interest because of it's ties to Warmachine; without that (and the interest of friends in the game) I don't know that I'd have given it a shot.

But I'm glad I did. Its a fun, interesting game that happens to have a thematic tie in to a game I'm already very invested in. If you're in a similar position, I readily recommend giving High Command a shot.

Just don't play multiplayer.


  1. If all people involved in a Multiplayer game have a grasp of the game, think outside their own turns (as far as possible), and aren't deliberately stalling, multiplayer works. It doesn't necessarily work /fine/ beyond a certain point, but I have played a few 3-Man games, and those were enjoyable. I can see the same for 4-man games, and if you'd want to keep everybody focused, you could use the "Chokepoints" variant from NQ (Baseline: Half as many locations. Locations are worth 2x the VP).

    But I concur, getting a three-man game right is the holy grail. If, in High Command, the Khador player becomes the "observing third" of an ongoing battle between the other two, he may very well win without interfering. I'm naming Khador because that faction is the easiest one to play Robo-VP-Style.

    Btw, I went through the effort and wrote a game report of High Command:

  2. Thanks for the multiplayer impressions! I haven't spoken with too many people who have played many of those, so it's good to hear from someone who has. I also was unaware of the "Chokepoints" variant; I can see how that would focus everyone's attention much more in a 4 player game.

    Your game report was a very fun read. :) That's a great format for writing up the game. Very clear and concise.

    The frustrating thing about not finding a "good" 3 player game is that's the player size where you need it most. If we had even numbers, we probably would have just played a normal game of something else. ;) I think it's going to take a company being willing to sit down and define rules (and probably scenarios) specifically for 3 player games, to address the challenges it presents. Most "ad hoc" methods don't really work out.