Thursday, December 18, 2008

Reviewing collectible games from a wargaming perspective: Echelons of Fury

Like it's sister game, Echelons of Fire, the 1995 collectible game Echelons of Fury was an obvious imitator of Magic: The Gathering, with a similar sequence of play, combat mechanism and overall approach.

From a wargamer's perspective the World War II-themed Echelons of Fury may have a little more interest than the modern-themed Fire version of the game, but the game is still afflicted with the same flawed card selection and underdeveloped rules as the modern game and will generally be as frustrating.

As with the Fire game, Fury is a quite dead, so acquiring cards will tend to be fairly easy and inexpensive, if one is so inclined. Drafting decks from a common collection can create some interest and playing a game won't take all that long in most cases. The game allows for varying the deck size and the resulting level of headquarters damage needed for victory, but I think the game is best played with the minimum 40-card and 20 point HQ. Under those conditions the game plays quickly and you can get a whole series of games completed in a short period of time. Restricting the deck so severely makes the card choices more intense.

My particular collection happens to have a "brothel" card, which is not only amusing but shows where the designer missed an opportunity to differentiate his game from Magic: The Gathering and prospered. A big problem with the Echelons game sis that they are, frankly, kind of dull and dry. Throughout the game there's evidence that keeping costs down was a priority but I think this came at the cost of its long-time viability.

The "Brothel" card adds some spice to the game but also indicates how the game could have kept interest fresh by mining some of the rich history of the vast conflict. For example, the game as printed suffers from an excess of identical common cards. Anyone who acquires more than a few decks worth will have far more regular infantry squads, light machine guns and bazookas than they could ever hope to use. But by simply labeling the cards with the names and histories of famous fighting units the collectibility and historical interest of the game could have been heightened. Perhaps a Squad from the Big Red One 1st Infantry Division and one from the Bloody Bucket 28th Infantry Division would have been the same in game terms, but they would have given players less reason to feel cheated when they opened a booster pack and got yet another coupe of common squads.

Likewise many more flavorful special events could have been brought into play with more creative cards like the Brothel card hinted at. World War II was full of strange and unusual events that could provide fodder for cool cards.

As it turned out, the collectible game market is fiercely competitive and there appears to only be room for a handful of hot titles at any given time. Without a hook that could help it stand out in the crowd Echelons of Fury joined Echelons of Fire in the bargain bins.

Had the game lasted longer it might have had time to work out some of the kinks in the game design. It's easy to forget today that many of the early Magic sets had some real problem cards and rules that led to some significant changes and left a legacy of banned and restricted cards. It's been a few years since Magic had to ban a card in play and I think this reflects the intense development process the company uses.

Players of Echelons of Fury will have to make their own fixes, but considering that all play will be among friends in casual play this should not be difficult.

Overall, I think Echelons of Fury is a mildly amusing light war-themed card game that would be worth getting on the cheap if you get the chance, but not anything you'll particularly miss if it passes you by.

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