Saturday, April 7, 2012

A gateway game for burgeoning wargamers

When I first heard about Manoeuvre I was really intrigued. The game was described as a light wargame that was playable in less than 2 hours with easy rules. This struck my fancy because I've always been quite intimidated by the rulebooks I've seen for wargames. A lot of the games in the wargame genre have massive rulebooks and really lengthy playing times. I put my faith in the good words I read on BGG and placed the order. What I was hoping to get was an accessible wargame that used a simple ruleset with realistic playing time. Did I get what I wanted or did I get out Manoeuvred by BGG hype?


Rules

Manoeuvre is graced by an incredibly simple ruleset that lays out the game in a very readable way. The rules are available to read here on BGG, The one downside of such a simple ruleset is that you will often have ambiguities in the interpretation of the rules and Manoeuvre is no exception. There is a lengthy FAQ here on BGG which will help you with most of the major questions.

Altogether the rules are solid and the FAQ irons out any wrinkles. Even new gamers should have no problem getting through the rules.  Final score - 4.5 points.


Components

Manoeuvre is heavy in one particular component: cards. For each of the 8 armies in the game there is a deck of 100 cards. The cards are approximately the size of the original TTR cards, but they're much thicker and coated with a gloss finish as opposed to satin. The small size, thick stock, and sheer number makes it a bit difficult to shuffle them, but it’s definitely manageable. I feel like these cards are built to last a long time which is nice, especially when you consider the price tag of this game which is really inexpensive compared to many other games in the genre.

Each of the 8 armies has 8 square counters. Each counter is double sided with one side being the full strength side and the other being the weakened side. The counters are pretty large and have very readable text. It’s very easy to decipher which piece is which.

Also in the box are 32 battlefield squares. Each of the squares is a 4X4 grid with each having a unique mix of terrain. This creates an enormous amount of board variety so you can be assured that you'll never be fighting on the same board twice.

Lastly there are 4 each of d6, d8, and d10.

In most online stores you can buy this game for under $30 which is a terrific price for the amount of components you get in this box. When you add in the gameplay, the price gets even better.  Final score - 5 points.


Gameplay

Card Driven
Manoeuvre is card driven, but not as much as other games in the genre. The cards are only used for attacking or defending whereas other games such as Hannibal use cards for a wider variety of actions. There are no special event cards like in Hannibal or 1960 instead you have a small number of cards which directly affect battle. One of the biggest differences is that one piece gets to move each turn without the use of a card. Again, most CDG require a card for movement, but that’s not the case in Manoeuvre.

Maneuvering in Manoeuvre
Manoeuvre is well named because positioning your army is key to victory. The game is all about gaining strong terrain and positioning your pieces for optimal attacks. Hills are incredibly advantageous because they provide a bonus when attacking off of them. If a board has only a few hills, players will be racing and fighting to capture them.

Additionally, if a piece is forced to retreat and cannot, it is eliminated. This puts extra emphasis on positioning you pieces to prevent your opponent from retreating. It’s hard to pull off, but if you manage to position your pieces to block in a unit you're in a great position to eliminate the unit. This is really useful when you need to eliminate a strong piece but lack the straight firepower to do so.

I like the fact that this game places a premium on how you position your units. This creates an environment in which tactical choices play equal part with a solid overall strategy.

Choose your battles wisely
A big part of playing the game is the decisions you make when choosing which pieces to battle. One of the victory conditions is to eliminate 5 of your opponent’s pieces. This can only really be done through battle so you need to fight to win. However choosing which pieces to engage is key. For example, you may have a good opportunity to attack a unit off a hill thus getting an attack bonus. Also, if you can position your pieces so that more than one is adjacent to an enemy piece you may be able to take advantage of a Commander card which will allow more than 1 of your units to attack at the same time.

One of the main reasons not to attack is that when you force an enemy unit to retreat, you're generally forced to take the vacated space with one of the attacking units. This can be a bad thing if your unit is on a hill and you're forced to move off of it.

Luck of the draw
As with any card based game, there will be luck of the draw. Manoeuvre is no exception and with a deck of 100 cards luck may play a bigger factor than many people would like. As units are eliminated, you will draw more and more dead cards and it’s not uncommon to have a hand of mostly useless cards late in the game. To help mitigate some luck, players can discard as many cards as they want at the start of their turns and may then draw back to a hand of 5. This is really helpful when you're trying to make a specific attack but lack the cards. It’s no guarantee you'll get what you need, but it’s a decent way of helping players control the randomness.

As if that’s not enough luck, combat is resolved with dice. A target number is calculated and dice are rolled based on the attack type and unit. Hits are based off of this formula and the only real way to improve your odds is by playing more cards and rolling more dice. Sometimes no matter how many you roll, you'll still not get the numbers you need. Wargamers are no stranger to dice rolling so this shouldn't pose much of a problem to fans of the genre.

Overall this is a pretty luck heavy game. Fans of pure strategy will be put off by this but I think people looking for a light wargame experience won't have a problem with the luck.

Downtime
A player's turn is pretty short. First they discard and draw then they move a piece. After movement is the battle phase in which both players participate. This creates a turn in which there is very little downtime for the non-active player. Turns shouldn't take more than a few minutes so there's not a lot of idle time. This is a pretty big contrast to traditional wargaming in which one player's turn can last 15 minutes or more.

Variety in the armies
There wouldn’t be much point in having 8 armies if they were all the same. To that end, each army has slightly different characteristics which are shown through unit type and unit strengths. In addition each army has its own unique deck with some armies having completely unique cards. The armies are intentionally unbalanced to reflect the historical period. For example, the English and the French are allegedly the two strongest armies in the game while Austria is generally acknowledged as the weakest. This allows a handicapping system of sorts in which a more experienced player could use a weaker army against a new player to help level the playing field. Also, the different army personalities allow players to have different play experiences based on which country the field. For example, the US army requires a more guerilla approach while the French can simply outmuscle their opponents.

What about the non-wargamers?
If you’re not interested in wargames, then you probably think Manoeuvre has nothing to offer you. This is not true at all. While Manoeuvre is definitely wargame based, the gameplay revolves largely around managing your hand. If you like balancing acts of attack and defense then this is a game you should look into. Also, one of the endgame conditions results in victory point scoring. If you play well you can win without having the most kills. This brings a different thought process into the game, one in which position is more important than battles.

All games are basically abstracts with a theme pasted on, but Manoeuvre may be more so than any other wargame. This doesn’t feel like a wargame, it feels more like a Euro/wargame hybrid along the lines of Warcraft: The Boardgame or Nexus Ops.

The final score on the gameplay is 8 points.  I have to deduct one point for the luck factor.  I know it's inherent to card games but sometimes you just really want to go for the throat and you simply can't.  I also wish there were some scenarios so I'm taking a point for that as well.  It would have been incredible to have even a couple simple scenarios to run different armies through.

Overall
Manoeuvre scores 17.5 out of 20 points.  The slight rules ambiguities costs the game half a point.  I also deducted 1 point for the luck of the card draw and also 1 point for the lack of scenarios.  I can deal with the cards and the slight presence of rules holes, but the scenarios would have taken an amazing game and made it a true classic.

On the BGG scale, I rate Manoeuvre a solid 8/10. I really like to play it and I'm likely to suggest it.  I don't always want to play wargames, but when I do this is near the very top of the list.  It's one my wife will play which is great and adds to the opportunities to play it.

Conclusion
When I found out about Manoeuvre I thought it was going to be a light wargame that had a lot of accessibility and that’s exactly what it is. A simple ruleset and reasonable playtime makes this game easy to learn and quick to play. There's a lot of luck to be sure, but there's also a lot of decisions to be made in playing the game. The overall presentation is great and there is a lot of variety in the game to keep things fresh.

So if you’re looking for a gateway into the world of wargaming, Manoeuvre is what you’re looking for. It offers engaging gameplay with a simple ruleset and manageable play times. The game will introduce you to some wargame concepts like line of sight, terrain modifiers, and weakened units. The amount of luck in here is more than in most wargames, but you’ll quickly learn how much the dice affect games of this genre. Ultimately the experience is fun and rewarding without being too complex. Manoeuvre is a solid game for any collection, especially those looking to test the wargame waters.

This review originally appeared on BGG and has been slightly updated and modified.

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