Blocks! Richard III Review09 Oct 2019 1
Blocks! Richard III Review
Released 09 Oct 2019
Our computer wargaming roots extend, by-and-large, back to table-top miniatures and hex-and-counter games. Over decades, software has evolved and we have a universe of products that work very differently than the physical games from which they took their inspiration. At the same time, as anyone who keeps an eye on board games knows, tabletop designs have continued to innovate, albeit in their own directions. So when a new game crosses that boundary from the physical world to the virtual, it is bound to attract interest. That is even more true if that game is an especially innovative design or is already successful in its own realm.
One such crossing, Blocks!: Richard III, was recently proposed through Kickstarter where it received a rapid and enthusiastic response. Now that the wait is over with the new game due for release this Wednesday. Richard III: Wars of the Roses is a well-regarded, two-player board game that has been around for 10 years. It's is part of a larger family with even longer history and a dedicated following. I recently was able to try a pre-release of Blocks!: Richard III and have been playing with it in anticipation of the public unveiling.
I've long thought the block game series from Columbia Games was ripe for translating to the computer. The series got its start in the early 1970s with the game Quebec 1759. This is an operational-level game set during the French and Indian War characterized by area movement and, amazingly enough, blocks. The concept expanded to cover other periods, including WWII and the American Civil War, but the most successful variations portray pre-gunpowder, operational-level warfare.
The designation 'block games' refers to the representation of military units by square, wooden blocks. The unit designations and strengths display by way of printed stickers on one face. With the blank side facing your opponent, a unit's identity and details are visible only to the player to whom it belongs. Imagine Stratego, but with much added depth. Better yet, each block has four rotated orientations corresponding to up to four different strength-levels, as modified by combat and supply. The beauty of the system is that all the historic details of the game are expressed by the map and the blocks themselves; where they are positioned and how they are oriented. There is no off-board or even, for that matter, on-board tracking of resources. It is simple and intuitive.
As a board game, this one originally released as simply Wars of the Roses and then later was rebranded as Richard III: Wars of the Roses. I suppose "my kingdom for a horse", "winter of our discontent," and all that strikes a more recognizable chord among those of us who were woolgathering during medieval history class. Of course, the game isn't really about Richard III, per se. In 1460, that particular Richard was the youngest of three sons to Richard, 3rd Duke of York and Protector to King Henry VI. While it momentarily looked like the elder Richard might himself become Richard III, our historical Richard III seemed relegated to play a minor part in English history. The player begins pondering this elaborate family tree and wearing the badge of either a red or white rose, to either change or affirm the course of history.
Experienced tabletop players will immediately take to Blocks!: Richard III. The interface is a 3-D rendering of the board, blocks, and cards and interaction involves simply clicking or dragging the components. If you're familiar with blocks, but not this iteration, you can still jump right into a game, as the interface will guide you. You would likely find it more productive to first learn Richard III's unique rules. Even if your new to the concept, you could still just start playing. The interface is straightforward but you're likely to be a bit lost as to the hows and whys. Some time spent with the game's rules (downloadable from Columbia Games) is a prerequisite to enjoying your play. The game is identical between the board and computer versions, some added UI assistance notwithstanding.
Play is separated into "campaigns," each broken into seven separate turns. To me, this meta-turn structure is the jewel of this design. The similar Hammer of the Scots (Colombia Games' treatment of the Scottish Wars of Independence), campaign cycles are separated by winter turns. This represents how armies in millennia-past, especially in Northern Europe, tended to limit their campaigning season to those months when the weather favored moving and fighting. Citizen-soldiers might return to their farms during planting and harvest or simply be disbanded for the winter and then reassemble in the spring. Handling this cycle is something that few operational wargames get right.
In Richard III, the campaigns are separated by a 'political turn', the meaning of which is more nebulous. While the War of the Roses was, indeed, a civil war, it lacked some measure of the violence and divisiveness that civil wars usually imply. Lancastrians and Yorkists alike were, at least ostensibly, all loyal to King and country. Furthermore, the leading figures were interrelated; either by birth or by marriage or, often, both at the same time. As a result, war on the battlefield might well-up suddenly and then, after a few good scraps, settle back into politics-as-usual. Richard III's rules, and particular this political turn, take into account that fights on England's battlefields might be separated brief interludes or even by several years of quietly civil political intrigue. It is all similar to Hammer's wintering, but with less attention to the calendar.
A complete game, then, consists of three such campaigns. A campaign starts with players being dealt seven cards, held in secret. One card each is selected and simultaneously revealed to begin the turn. Cards determine play order and also grant action points. Card actions typically either recruit (add blocks to the board) or move, all while hiding the faces of your blocks from your opponent. After both sides move, any opposing forces now sharing the same space are revealed and a battle is resolved. While not exactly a battle simulation, the system does require some tactical thinking and victory depends heavily on the makeup of the armies that you've committed as well as the roll of the dice.
To win, you must either eliminate all your opponent's claimants to the English throne or, at the end of all three campaign turns, boast the support of a majority of the nobility. Rules governing support, loyalty, and treachery determine which side's claimant is considered to be the King and which is a Pretender. Understanding the special rules and taking advantage of the opportunities they present can make the difference between winning and losing.
As much as Blocks! is clearly meant to reproduce the board game experience, it also adds enhancements of its own. Blocks! enforces game rules so you can be up and playing ahead of the usual rules learning curve (the 8-page rule book is not terribly difficult but, as I said, this isn't Stratego). It also automates some of the figuring. For example, a running tally of political support is displayed on screen. Another nice addition is how the game enforces deployment restrictions. Selecting an off-board block highlights the allowable target counties. Select a county and the eligible blocks get displayed.
The board version's three scenarios (1460, 1470, and 1483) are available options when you fire-up a new game. You can choose either York or Lancaster, or even both. Blocks! is meant to play against a computer opponent. While you can play both sides, the game does not facilitate "hot seat" play nor is there internet-based multiplayer. Current Richard III fans, limited to single-player, will consider whether the computer opponent presents a challenge. Based on the evaluation code, I'd call the AI competent but not brilliant. Granted, there is a strong luck component to these games but I have seen the AI make some obvious stumbles. Blocks! does include the option to choose the nature of your opponent; offensive, defensive, or balanced; which may help the challenge factor and add to replayability. There is not, at this stage, an option for varying the difficulty.
Merits of the board game aside, will this stand on its own as a computer game? Automating setup and play to be smoother and faster (good things!), may make a game feel somehow smaller. What you've spent all evening to set-up and pour over with a friend suddenly feels a lot more simple and casual as a 45-minute mouse-and-keyboard session. Further, studying the rules and pondering the components is a necessary part of learning to play a board game. Is this really an investment that the computer gamer wants to make? I would suggest that anyone getting this game as a stand-alone, computer-only experience consider that reading and digesting the rule book is part of the experience you are purchasing.
I mentioned at the outset of this article that I've been playing with a review version of the game. I have noticed a few issues with the game but, as a whole, I've found the game to be stable, relatively bug free, and easy on my computer's resources. AI turns execute quickly and my interface is smooth and responsive. What I've seen so far suggests a quality effort.
Now, the very name of the game, Blocks!: Richard III, provides one last cause for anticipation. The developers clearly intended this game to be the first in a series of block game conversions. The Avalon Digital website offers a rather aggressive release schedule for three more games. The Roman Civil War game, Blocks!: Julius Caesar, is scheduled for release later this month. Two more medieval games, Crusader Rex and, my own darling, Hammer of the Scots, are slated for earlier 2020. The developers are also toying with making their in-house editor part of the package, which could further expand the versatility of the series. This week's release certainly holds out the promise for a wealth of new gaming in the near future.