Orcs marching to war is the theme of this abstract, somewhat "German-esque" offering from Fantasy Flight. Players are each leaders of a tribe that hope to defeat a collection of men, elves, dwarves, nomads (and each other) in order to achieve victory.
At the start of each round there are four battlefields each with a "challenge" that must be faced. Each player has ten troop chits (four grunts, three archers, three cavalry) and these are valued from 1 through 4. Players will take turns placing two of these chits (called a "rank") beneath one of the four battlefields. One chit is placed face up and the other face down with the further restriction that you can't place two cavalry together not two archers. Subsequent ranks are placed behind previous ones so that a marching order of sorts is created as the orcs head to battle. This continues until all players have placed five such ranks. Now, since these are orcs we're dealing with not is all peaceful and harmonious. After the placement phase there's the possibility of "struggling" within the ranks.
Each battlefield is considered separately. The player that placed the last rank (ie. the one at the rear of the column) decides if he's going to attack the rank in front of him. (I'll explain why a player would want to do this later.) If he does then the two facedown chits are revealed and the ones on the left are compared as are the ones on the right. An interesting Rock-Paper-Scissors resolution is employed here: cavalry beat archers, archers beat grunts and grunts beat cavalry. If the two units are of the same type then the higher valued one wins, if they're the same value then it's a tie and both units survive. Defeated units are removed from the column and returned to their owners. If a player defeats both enemy units, the loser must pay him one goblin slave (the games "money" and victory points). This struggling continues down the line as the rear-ward ranks all get a chance to attack the units ahead of them. The rules are a little unclear about what happens in every possible outcome of a struggle but it's not too difficult to figure things out. (An explicit description of each possible outcome is available on Steffan O'Sullivan's website: http://www.io.com/~sos/bc/orcz.html) Either way eventually all struggles will be resolved and any remaining orcs in that column will then battle the "challenge" there. This is simply done by adding all the orc values (type makes no difference) and comparing it to the primary value on the challenge chit (multiplied by the number of players). So, in a four-player game the orcs will need a total of 16 points or more to defeat a 4/2 challenge.
If they are successful then the challenge is defeated and removed from the game. The player who contributed the highest value of units then receives as reward a number of goblin slaves equal to the primary value of the challenge. (Four in the above example.) He also receives the secondary value which he must distribute to any (surviving) participants of the battle. He is free to divide this up any way he sees fit. So this is why players will struggle within their ranks as they head off to battle as it's the strongest who will get the majority of the rewards for winning there. But what if the orcs lose the challenge? Well, whoever has the highest value of units there must pay a penalty equal to the primary value of the challenge. Ouch! Further, this player can then impose a penalty equal to the secondary value on any players, not just those involved in the battle. This is where much of the strategy and decision-making come in, you want to be the strongest in a battle naturally and usually this will mean struggling against other ranks as you march to war. However, if you struggle too much then you won't actually be able to achieve victory once you arrive.
Each battle is thus resolved and chits are returned to their respective owners. Any defeated challenges are replaced with a new challenge and another round is played. After four rounds, the player who has acquired the most goblin slaves is declared the winner. (There is a "no-win" option though. If the players have not defeated all three challenges in at least three of the four battlefields then all players lose. In my experience this doesn't happen often but it is a possibility. Each battlefield has six possible challenges and these range from the rather easy 2/1 up to 6/3. As only three will be drawn for each battlefield there's great variety in how tough a task it will be for the orcs to win.)
There are also special events that are drawn at the start of each round and affect some aspect of the game. Further, each player has three, one-use-only heroes that they may employ: The Scout allows that player to secretly look at any one face-down unit. The Champion automatically defeats the challenge in the battlefield that he's deployed in. The Shaman doubles the value of the unit he's ranked with.
So, in actual play there are the two distinct phases that occupy the player's strategy. The first is obviously in the placement of your ranks and the second is deciding whether or not to struggle with the ranks in front of yours. There are several factors influencing your decisions in the first phase. Obviously you want to be strongest in any winning battles but it's virtually assured that you won't accomplish this in every one. So, with this in mind you do want to be present in as many as possible so that you're eligible for the secondary goblins that the winner must hand out. However, if you spread yourself too thin you risk defeat in some battles, perhaps even ones you're strongest in. It's entirely possible that you place one or two ranks on a strong challenge and if no one else follows you you're then faced with the very difficult task of trying to win it all on your own. There's also the matter of struggling against your opponents to consider. Much of the time you'll have placed your chits so that you can defeat the face up chit in the rank ahead of you and so the incentive to struggle is high. You'll weaken your opponent and possibly steal goblins from him in the process but you need to be careful not to do so at the expense of losing the challenge. Further, you don't want to be too obvious or consistent in how you place your chits. If you have a reputation for always struggling and you place a facedown chit behind an opponent's archer you've quite likely signaled to everyone that it's a cavalry unit. This then makes it very easy for a subsequent player to place a rank that defeats both your units. You'll need to mix it up a little in order to do well.
One difficulty that I had in playing the game was that the "trump circle" was not immediately obvious to me and I had to constantly refer to the little chart provided to remember who beats who. More often than not if you're placing units with the intention of attacking the rank ahead of you you'll do so using a unit that trumps it. So invariably I (and most of the other players) would be slowing down the pace of the game as we made sure we were placing the "right" unit. One player made the inquiry of why they didn't just use the more "natural" types of rock, paper and scissors. I suppose it would make it easier to remember but it would seem to lose a lot thematically. Perhaps this won't be a problem for many but as the game really should be played quickly it is worth noting. (There is an optional rule wherein the players have only 15 seconds or so to complete a placement. If they take longer and another player recites an orcish saying, printed on the player screens, the slow player must pay a one goblin penalty. I leave it to the sensibilities of the reader to determine whether this is a fun or foolish rule.)
While I do enjoy the game overall, there are other problems besides this. Perhaps the foremost "issue" is the lack of tension in regards to fighting the challenges. When I first read the rules I'd hoped that there would be some aspect of cooperation amongst the players as they overcame the challenge but this didn't turn out to be the case. There were no great cheers when we won nor loud moaning when we didn't. Just a quick collection of rewards or payment of penalties. I think the game would be elevated to greatness if it could somehow achieve this level of excitement and involvement but I have no idea how this could be achieved. To be honest, perhaps this is much too high an expectation for a game of this depth anyway? Either way, it does have a high theme to mechanic quotient for what is actually a fairly abstract game. The idea of troops gathering as they march to war and fighting amongst themselves fits in very well and makes it easy to understand what you're trying to accomplish. Certainly it's easy to escape into the "story" of the game better than most German style games.
Mechanic-wise, I think the biggest problem might be the secondary rewards/penalties. I felt that these had too big an influence on the outcome of the game. To my mind it feels as though the "proper" move for the winning/losing player depends almost nothing on the individual battle in which the reward or penalty is earned. If I have to hand out three goblins to Al and/or Bob I'm probably going to do so based on the relative standings of those players rather than the contribution either made to the challenge. This won't be so much a factor at the start of the game but as things progress I think it develops into a problem. I suppose one could see this as a balancing mechanism but I don't really like it in that light. Someone giving you goblins simply because they have to give them to someone and you're in last place feels too much like charity to me. True you need to be present in the battle to qualify but it just doesn't seem to work well.
The other problem is that there was very little tension in resolving the battles as more often than not they would be won. Even with the most difficult 6/3 challenges the orcs would usually win. Only if several difficult challenges arose at the same time would there be a big concern about victory. Considering these two problems I wonder if it might not be better to eliminate the secondary reward completely? My thinking is that you eliminate the possibility of a player doing well due to "charity" plus you make the battles much more tense. Since you really need to ensure that you're the strongest I suspect the players will compete much more aggressively (both in the placement of ranks and the struggling phase). This would also make it more likely that certain challenges would be ignored each turn and raise the specter of an overall orc defeat far more plausible. It might also be an interesting idea if the winning had to (or was allowed to) allocate secondary rewards from his own pocket. This would add a whole negotiation aspect to the game which may or may not be a good thing. Note that I haven't actually tried either of these variants so proceed with them at your own risk.
Still and all, I think the fact that I'm even thinking about ways to improve the game speaks loudly that I do find it enjoyable, if the game was utter crap I wouldn't bother trying to fix it. As it stands it's a simple and easy game that's fun to play once in a while.
I'd recommend tossing out the plastic stands for the player colour indicators—they're too small and will horribly mangle the cardboard disks. The same problem existed with Fantasy Flights' Drakon so hopefully they'll be getting different stands in future games.
- Greg Aleknevicus