Monday, May 11, 2009

StarCraft: The Board Game

Year 1

Among the planets of the Bellerive sector were eight peaceful orbs, circling lazily around their respective suns, unbothered in their own quiet majesty.

Oh how war changes everything.

The feud that had ensnared much of the galaxy had now come to Bellerive, and things were never going to be the same again.

First to arrive was the Overmind, seeking further resources for its hungry legions. The Zerg Swarm descended upon the world of Tarsonis and began to breed.

With survival on his mind, Jim Raynor also led his Terran forces to the Bellerive sector and set up home on Antiga Prime. He knew the Zerg had already arrived, but beggars can't be choosers. Besides, wasn't there an adage about keeping your friends close and your enemies closer?

With reports of Raynor's new colony reaching him, Arcturus Mengsk wasn't going to let a prime opportunity to lord it over Raynor once more go astray. He brought his own forces in to the sector, and planted the kernel of his new empire on Abaddon.

The picture would not have been complete without the third race in the galactic war. Joining his rivals in the sector was Tassadar, himself a fugitive from the Protoss Conclave, who was on his own personal mission to redeem himself and rid the galaxy of the insidious Zerg. Tassadar's choice of homeworld was the bountiful Torus. While producing the resources he would require to build Tassadar's empire, the planet also found itself bordering the home planets of the two Terran factions. Perhaps this could be turned to his advantage...

After initial allocation of forces, each faction sought to expand its territory immediately. The Overmind sent its Zerglings to the small, but strategically strong Vyctor V; Jim Raynor's new troops were dispatched to Halcyon; Arcturus Mengsk solidified his grip on his end of the sector by establishing a base on Bhckar Ro; while Tassadar sought to tap the resource rich planet of Pridewater.

At the end of Year 1, the Overmind's tactical placements saw the Zerg's yearning for conquest grow more quickly than its rivals, signalling its strength early. Still, the battle for supremacy in the sector had only just begun.

Year 2

An unspoken pact of sorts emerged in the second year of the Bellerive occupation. Each faction further established its two colonies without any conflict taking place.

The threat of conflict, however, was laid down, reminding all that battle was growing nearer.

With Arcturus Mengsk's only path to expansion via Tassadar's planet Torus, the Protoss leader was justifiably wary of an attack from the Terrans. Tassadar's order of troops to Abaddon was one he had no intention of carrying out. Leaving himself vulnerable to a counter attack this early in the war could very well be disastrous, and Tassadar had no desire to leave his existing colonies unprotected.

Tassadar's desire to both ruffle Mengsk and delay the Terran's own orders was successful, but Mengsk wasn't one to fool around, and he had the Protoss very firmly in his sights.

Year 3

Arcturus Mengsk wasn't the only rival eying off the bountiful resource deposits on Torus. Before Mengsk could launch his assault on Torus, he was beaten to the punch.

Seeking new resources, and conscious of the fact that control of just two more resource areas could well cement him victory in the sector, Jim Raynor dropped a force of Marines, Vultures and Wraiths on the two mineral fields on Torus that Tassadar had not protected.

For now, Raynor was content simply to deprive Tassadar of the mineral fields, but the other Terran force was not. With Tassadar's base on Torus unprotected by photon canons, Arcturus Mengsk launched an assault, keen to grab the planet's conquest advantage for himself.

Tassadar was no fool, however, and had a plan of his own. When the Marines and Firebats dropped in on the base, Tassadar withdrew his troops to the safety of the vespene geysers on the other side of the planet. While losing one unit of zealots in the process - the war's first casualty, albeit non-combat - the retreat forced Mengsk to return all bar two of his own units to Abbadon. Tassadar then capitalised with his final action of the year by counter-attacking in force and destroying the token force Mengsk had left behind.

While all the action had focussed on the Terran invasions of Torus during the third year of the war, the Overmind had quietly gone about its own business, as Zerg are wont to do, and had strengthened its bases and units numbers. It was only a matter of time before the Zerg sought further territory...

Year 4

...and that time had come.

With most of Jim Raynor's troops ensconced on Torus, this left Antiga Prime relatively undefended, and ripe for the picking by a gluttonous Zerg army.

The Overmind signalled its intentions early, and with the major threat of a Zerg invasion, Raynor had no choice but to order his own troops back to Antiga Prime from Torus.

While the reinforcements failed to arrive back in time to stop the Zerg force , including a unit of the formidable Ultralisks, from establishing a foothold at the Terran base, they were in sufficient number to launch a strong counter-attack.

It was a vicious battle, with casualties on both sides, but ultimately, Raynor's troops held their own. Just as the battle looked like it could go either way, the last of the Overmind's front line units, an Ultralisk, caught splash damage and was killed in a splatter of gore. With only a Queen remaining, the Overmind was forced to retreat to Vyctor V, lick its wounds, and seek another path to victory.

With Jim Raynor's forces all but removed from Torus, Tassadar seized the opportunity to take back one of the mineral fields. The Marine unit stationed there knew what was coming, but could do nothing to prevent it.

With four years of the war having elapsed, all factions knew the end was near. The time was coming to put one final plan into action that would see the glory of victory.

Year 5

It was not long into the final year of the war, that all sides knew what was at stake. The Terrans, unfortunately, would not be victorious.

Jim Raynor had severely miscalculated his ability to conquer and hold the extra resource areas he required to forge a victory, and it was now impossible for him to come out on top.

Similarly, Arcturus Mengsk, while controlling all areas of Abaddon and Bhckar Ro, had not done enough to secure victory for himself.

It was simplicity itself for Tassadar to move into the two remaining regions on Torus and Pridewater and secure more areas than any other faction. However, even Tassadar's run may have come too late.

Despite its failure to establish a base on a third planet, the Overmind's control of Tarsonis and Vyctor V had given it the conquest advantage it needed. All the Overmind had to do was hold on to its bases on the two planets until the end of the year, and victory would belong to the Zerg.

The Zerg victory was what Tassadar had to avoid. With no help coming from Jim Raynor, now wallowing in his own inability to succeed, the odds were stacked against the Protoss leader. Tassadar amassed his force of Reavers and Zealots on Pridewater and prepared to launch an all-out last-ditch attack on Vyctor V.

It was then that Tassadar realised his mistake.

The Overmind's base on Vyctor V was protected by spore colonies. An attack force could not be landed in the area of the base and had to be dropped on the other side of the planet. Even if Tassadar's troops could have conquered two separate groups of Zerg, he hadn't left himself enough time. He could make it to Vyctor V, but not to the all important Zerg base.

Realising the war was over, Tassadar reluctantly surrendered to the Overmind , watching helplessly as the Zerg swarm claimed the Bellerive sector for their own.

The Actual Game Summary

I've eschewed my usual how-to-play-the-game review and instead opted to write a session report because, well, it's more fun.

I was joined at my house in Bellerive (does the name of the sector make sense now?) by Mark, Tim and Christine. Instead of randomly choosing factions, they were chosen on personal preference.

Mark and Christine chose to play with their favourite colours (green and red respectively) meaning Mark was the Overmind and Christine was Arcturus Mengsk. Tim, as the only other player besides me who had played the Starcraft computer game, chose his favourite race, Terran, and so selected Jim Raynor. With a choice of three remaining, I chose to play Protoss and took the yellow forces of Tassadar.

After initial placement, we all expanded to a neighbouring planet, so had two planets each come the end of Round 1. It was at this point, that we realised Mark had the advantage. His two planets gave him 3 conquest points per round, while Tim and I had 2, and Christine had only 1 conquest point.

Round 2 was fairly uneventful, with all players improving bases and adding units to the board. I did place one move order on the top of the stack on Christine's planet of Abaddon, but that was really just to mess around with her and force her to take a couple of event cards when her actions were blocked.

Christine, whose two planets bordered only my planet of Torus, took action in Round 3, and placed orders on Torus. Later in the order placement phase, Tim placed a move order on Torus as well.

Tim, unfortunately, misunderstood the special victory conditions. He mistook "Round 3" for "Stage 3" and thought that if he captured the two empty mineral areas on Torus that he would have the six resource areas he needed to win.

Christine then attacked the conquest point area of Torus where my base was located. Fortunately, I had an event card that allowed me to retreat without engaging in battle. I moved my units to the gas area, and had to lose one Zealot due to the unit limit, but Christine had to return all except two units to Abbadon. I then executed a move order and succeeded in defeating Christine's remaining units.

Mark, whose special victory conditions required him to have bases on three planets, saw an opportunity and placed orders on Antiga Prime at the start of Round 4. Tim, who had moved most of his units from Antiga Prime to Torus in the previous round had to move them back again. Mark captured the conquest point oarea of Antiga Prime, and looked like he might hold on, especially with an Ultralisk assisted by a Queen.

Despite failing to defeat the Ultralisk, Tim had played a splash damage in the other skirmish won by his Vulture. The splash damage took out the Ultralisk, and the Queen was forced to retreat because it is an assist unit.

Mark didn't actually need the third base to win. He'd been receiving 3 conquest points each round and at the end of Round 4 was on 12 points. If he held on to his planets, he'd claim the 3 points again in Round 5 to reach the 15 needed to achieve a normal victory.

Both Christine and myself had a special victory in our grasp, but as Christine had fewer conquest points than me, she couldn't win. Tim just didn't have the forces to take the extra areas he needed.

The problem I had was that the check for a normal victory is made before a special victory at the end of a round. Therefore, I had to prevent Mark from getting his three conquest points. For my first order placement in Round 5, I placed my special move order on Vyctor V. My plan was to attack Mark's base there directly.

Unfortunately, as related in the story above, I didn't realise that Mark had the spore colony protecting his base, meaning I could only attack that area if I already had units on the same planet. That required two move orders: one to move to the second area on Vyctor V (and battle Mark's forces there), and the other to move to the base. As I'd only placed one move order on the planet I couldn't do that, so it was impossible for me to win even if I could defeat his forces.

So, Mark was the winner and he received congratulations from the losers.

I was left feeling somewhat underwhelmed by the game. I felt as if my choices were limited and that the grand scale on which a game like this ought to be played just wasn't there.Ultimately, it seemed that the game came down to the initial planet layout. Mark claimed planets that gave him 3 conquest points each round, and that is ultimatley what decided the game.

The game took a good four plus hours to play, and yet we only had five rounds. I felt like I wanted to do so much more. I only built three types of units, and was left thinking the game could have been so much more if only I had a chance to develop my base more, or build different units.

And yet, now that I've had time to digest the game, rethink my strategy, and work out what I could have done differently, the game is growing on me. A good game gives you an array of choices in a limited timeframe, and it's how you approach these choices that affect the game.

I imagine StarCraft would play out very differently with six players and twelve planets rather than the fours players and eight planets we played with. I think I'd like to try that one day. I don't think I've even scratched the surface of what a strong Protoss strategy can do. If the game can serve that up, then I'm willing to chow down on more StarCraft action. Bad metaphors aside, what I mean is that, while I'm not entirely convinced I like this game, I'm willing to give it another chance.

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