Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Reviewing collectible games from a wargaming perspective: Echelons of Fire

I've reviewed Echelons of Fire in greater detail elsewhere,, but to recap, Echelons of Fire was one of the first wave of collectible card games to appear once Magic : The Gathering made its big splash. It's theme is modern era tactical level combat. Most of the cards are either United States Army or from the Soviet-style N.D.G. (I call them the No Darn Goods). The second edition added some British and Serbian units. The only dragons in this game are a U.S. anti-tank missile.

Echelons was a closer imitator of Magic than most. If it wasn't a clone, it was at the very least a half-sibling, sharing the same sequence of play and many of the same concepts, even including ante. Like Magic the game is won by reducing the enemy player (headquarters) from its initial 20 points down to zero points.

Echelons does have some differences from Magic that extend beyond mere names. Unlike Magic, for example, there is a limited form of maneuver in Echelons of Fire, as attacking units must use a maneuver card (left, center or right) to pass through a terrain card (woods, town, hills, open, city, bridge, river) on their way to the target headquarters.

Also somewhat different from Magic is the role of the supporting supply (mana) cards. In Echelons you not only have to pay the unit's cost in ammunition and fuel points to deploy it initially, you must keep paying it very turn. This is similar to the concept of "upkeep" in Magic, but it's a standard feature, not a special ability.

More so than Magic ,the fighting in Echelons revolves around the units (creatures in MTG terms) as there are relatively few ways to directly attack an enemy headquarters.

For a wargamer the theme in Echelons of Fire is obviously much more attractive than MTG. As Echelons is a "dead" game, there is no convention or tournament scene so casual play is the only available venue. Because the game is no longer in print there is a finite size to the collection and cards are inexpensive to obtain on eBay and still generally available.

There are some rules holes and "degeneracy" problems in the game that may have to be house ruled if you play a lot, but they probably won't come up among casual players with limited collections very often.

The quality of the cards is a notch below Magic and the breakdown between common, uncommon and rare cards is poorly done. Players will have vast numbers of common fire teams and infantry weapons in excess of any need. If you build up any sized collection at all you will even have plenty of the rare cards, which are much less overpowered than similar cards are in Magic.

My overall recommendation is that Echelons of Fire may be of mild interest to a wargamer. It allows you to explore some of the deck construction metagame of Magic without the expense and the frustration of facing players who have much more resources. Indeed, as you're not likely to find an opponent with his own cards, you'll probably be drafting both decks from your own collection.

It is still, fundamentally, a card game in mechanics and card-game skills will play a bigger role than the usual principles-of-war based maneuvering typical in board wargames. That said, it does adhere to the theme strongly, and wargamers will probably find it a more comfortable theme than Magic: The Gathering.

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