Friday, May 23, 2008

Echelons of Fire

By 1995 everyone seemed to jumping on the Collectible Card Game craze started by Magic: The Gathering two years earlier. The 1995 Origins convention book lists more than a dozen new designs, for example.

What wasn't yet clear was how Darwinian the competitive market environment would proove to be for collectible/trading style games. Because of the time and energy needed for the metagame of collecting and deck building, and perhaps more importantly, the wallet-emptying nature of that metagame, there really wasn't room for more than a handful of active collectible/tradeable games at one time. While there have been many CCG launches in the 15 years since Magic; The Gathering debuted, very few have survived. Many of the ones that fell by the wayside were good games, too. Unlike more traditional boardgames where moderate degrees of success were possible, for CCGs it was an either/or situation.

In the case of the modern-era military Echelons of Fire, and it's sister game World War II era Echelons of Fury, you have a game that's not bad, but certainly not great, and definitely unable to compete against M:TG.

Many of the Class of 1995 CCGs explored new ways to implement the CCG concept, but Echleons hewed fairly closely to the M:TG model. Indeed, in gameplay it's remarkably similar to M:TG. Instead of "mana" in five colors there are two types of supply (fuel and ammo) and combat is a deterministic comparing of numbers between attacking and "blocking" defenders, with unblksed attacks doing damage directly to the player. Just as in Magic, the player can take 20 points of damage.

There are some differences in detail between the two games, but these differences tend to the disadvantage of Echelons of Fire. In Magic: THe Gathering, the resource-providing land cards can be reused from turn to turn, but the supply cards in Echelons are tied down "maintaining" the combatant cards. This tends to hinder the dynamic nature of the game compared to M:TG. Likewise, the need to have maneuver cards in order to attack, and especially the fact that those maneuver cards can be lost in an unsuccessful attack, also tends to make the game more static than M:TG.

The biggest problem with the game, however, was the ill-considered card mix. While imitating the common-uncommon-rare pattern used in M:TG the game, the execution is flawed. For one thing, the common cards are way too common and repetitive, while having marginal usefulness in game terms. In M:TG even when cards are otherwise identical common cards, the artwork varied, adding to the collectibility. In Echelons they are all the same, and before long the player will far more fire teams and machineguns than he will ever need. This could have been mitigated by varying the illustrations perhaps, or adding unit IDs or something along those lines.

It's not all bad, though. The game does provide a quick-playing game system that captures some of the flavor of modern combat. Designing an effective deck is challenging and there's no one obvious strategy to follow.

The game avoids the overpowering "combo" problems common to Magic: The Gathering and many other CCGs. Constrained by the laws of physics and logistics, the most powerful weapons are also the most demanding on ammo and fuel, keeping their game impact within bounds. An M-1 Abrams can blast its way throug anything, but it takes three ammo and three fuel to field and by the time you get those cards in play you might be dead from repeated attacks from infantry squads.

The standard game has a 40-card deck with a 20 point headquarters target, but using such a small deck may not make the most of the different weapons systems available and I recommend generally usinga 60-card deck and a 30-point headquarters. This allows players to create more robust decks that give some scope for using the more powerful and interesting weapons such as the M-1, attack helicopters and aircraft. With larger decks it's best to limit the number of specialist elite infantry cards such as Airborne or Engineers to no more than 3 or 4.

The game is easy to get on the secondary market inexpensively.

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