Posted by: gschloesser | August 9, 2011

Politika

Design by: Jim Van Verth
Published by: Red Storm Entertainment
2 – 8 Players, 2 hours
Review by:  Greg J. Schloesser

Tom Clancy, the famous author of military-style thrillers, long been a war gaming fan.  Now, he has entered into the war game market with Politika, produced by a company of his own, Red Storm Entertainment.

The premise of the game is that Yelstin has died and there is now a power struggle amongst various factions within Russia to take control of the vast country.  The game is billed as ‘The Strategy Game of political intrigue in modern day Russia’.  The game simply sounded too intriguing for me to pass up.  The fact that it was available at my neighborhood Toys ‘R Us made it easy to pick up, too. 

As a side note, Toys ’R Us has an exclusive with Red Storm Entertainment to distribute the game.  This has caused some discontent amongst gamers, who prefer to give hobby shops their bucks.  Others, however, see this as an opportunity to expose the gaming hobby to many more people.  Should prove to be interesting!

I will say, however, that the game appears to have been ‘dumbed down’ somewhat.  Early reports on the game from initial play-testing sounded as if the game had more of a sophisticated feel.  The game in its present form falls somewhere between Risk and Milton Bradley’s Samurai Swords (Shogun) on the level of complexity.

Players each represent one of eight possible factions struggling to take control of Russia following Yelstin’s demise.  Each of the factions has a special power which allows it to perform a particular action (a.k.a. Cosmic Encounters).  For example:  The Russian Mafia can extort $20,000 from another player each turn; The KGB can steal an action card from another player each turn; The Separatists receive double income production from the six separatist regions; etc

These powers do not seem to be well balanced, however.  For example, the Separatist power continually gives that player double income if he has influence in one of the six separatist regions. As a result, that player usually has oodles of cash as compared to his opponents.  Cash is important as during most attacks, you are required to ‘buy’ your attack dice.  Without cash, no attacks!  Also, you use cash to purchase ‘Action’ cards, which give you certain powers – many of them extremely powerful – during the game.  Again, no cash, no action cards.  Thus, the player with the Separatist power can have a noticeable advantage, one that is difficult to overcome.

Each area can hold three influence markers.  Players begin with an equal number on the board (there are a few instances, depending upon the number of players, where a few players will have one or two less on the board, but they are compensated for this deficiency with extra money at the beginning of the game).  The object is to convert as many of your opponents’ influence markers into your own.  Of course, they are trying to do the same to yours!

A player’s turn works in this fashion:

1)  Draw a Production Card:  This card usually lists three regions.  Each of these regions produces $10,000 for each player who has an influence marker in that area.  $10,000 per area is the limit even if you have more than one influence marker in the area.

Sometimes, the production card turned over will trigger a random event which can temporarily alter play (Snowstorms, Strikes, etc.).

2)  Move Representatives and/or Uprisings:  Players can move their two representatives and/or any Uprising in which they have influence.  Representatives are important, as in order to attempt a takeover of an opponent’s influence marker, you must have one of your representatives in the targeted area.  Representatives’ movement is limited by where they began their turn and a player’s ally.  Basically, if your representative begins a turn in a region where you already have an influence marker, you can move across adjacent regions as long as either you or your ally has at least one influence marker in the region.  However, if your representative begins a turn in a region where you or your ally do not have an influence marker, you can only move to an adjacent region.

There are three uprising markers on the board.  These also hold 3 influence markers each.  If a player has influence in an uprising, he can move it as many regions as the number of influence markers he has in it.  The effect of the Uprising is to block any production from the region where it is located.

3)  Trade and Alliances:  During this segment, the active player can freely trade action cards, influence markers and money with the other players.  His opponents can only trade with him, not each other.  Since I enjoy games which have trading and negotiation elements, this was my favorite segment and the saving grace of the game.

Players can also make alliances with one other player during this segment.  The advantage of an alliance is two-fold.  One is the movement bonus listed above.  The other is defensive in nature.  If an opponent is trying to oust one of your influence markers from a region, you normally get one die to roll in defense for each influence marker you have in the region.  However, you also get one additional die for each influence marker your ally has in that region.  Thus, alliances aid in defense.

Alliances can be broken by attacking your ally, or during the next alliance phase.

4)  Challenges:  In each area where a player has one of his representatives, he may make one attempt to remove an opponent’s influence marker and replace it with his own (or someone else’s, if he desires).  Basically, the challenger can buy attack dice for $20,000 each.  The defender gets one die for each influence marker he has in the region, as well as one die for each influence marker his ally has in the region.  Dice are rolled, with the highest total being successful.  Ties go to the defender.

5)  Buy Action Cards:  The active player can purchase Action cards at $20,000 apiece.  Action cards can be used to modify some of the games events.  Some action cards give players extra dice in attack and/or defense.  Others give players free attacks with a certain number of dice in regions stated on the cards.  Others allow players to steal money from their opponents or the bank; etc.

Some thoughts on the game:

1) Some of the components are simply awful.  The influence markers are tiny … 1/4″ X 1/2″.  Due to their miniscule size, they are difficult to handle.  Further, they are color coded on one side only – the other side is white.  Since they are so small, they are easily flipped over by mistake.  This problem is compounded since the Church’s color is also white.  How difficult would it have been to color the counters on both sides and make them a bit larger?

The Uprising markers are small stands (similar to, but a bit larger than, those used to support the General figures in Hannibal and We the People).  You are supposed to slide the three influence markers in the stand.  However, since the influence markers are so small, they are barely visible.  And, again, since they are only printed on one side, it is difficult to tell which players actually have influence in the Uprisings.

2)  A limit needs to be placed on the number of Action cards a player can have in his hand.  Otherwise, a player who is cash rich can purchase vast quantities of cards each turn and have an overwhelming advantage.  Most of the cards give players ‘free’ attacks in regions, so a player with a large quantity of cards can make numerous attacks each turn as opposed to most other players, who are limited to two.  This occurred in one of our games, as John Moore (playing the Separatists) continued to get double production from the Separatist regions.  He was very wealthy, so bought 5 or 6 Action cards per turn.  In the final round, he was able to make over a dozen attacks and sweep the game.

Solution:  We have suggested a hand limit of 5 Action Cards.

3)  Turn Order:  This should be varied each round, with a system such as used in Air Baron.  As it stands now, players know exactly when their turn is each round, so can plan accordingly.  Further, some of the special powers bestowed by a player’s faction could be useless or ‘checked’ depending upon who came before or after him.  This would be less likely to occur if the turn order was varied.

Solution:  Use a variable turn order, such as in Air Baron.  Place a chit from each player in a cup and draw the turn order at the beginning of each turn.

4)  Action Cards:  One of the action card allows a player to steal $20,000 from the bank, while another allows a player to steal $20,000 from another player.  The problem with this is that purchasing an action card costs $20,000 anyway.  So it is a wash! 

Solution:  Up the amount able to be stolen to $40,000.

5)  Defender Dice:  As mentioned, in an attack, a defender gets one die for each influence marker he has in the region, as well as one die for each influence marker his ally has in the region.  More often than not, this limits the defender to one die, while an attacker can purchase as many dice as he desires and can afford.  If a player is fairly wealthy, he usually can muster significant advantages in his attacks.

Solution:  Allow the defender to purchase up to one more die for $20,000.

6)  Game End:  The game is scheduled to go 6 rounds.  Players can decide before hand to play up to 10 rounds.  With the timing of the game’s end clearly known to all, the player going last has a BIG advantage, as he can hoard his attack cards (as John did, in one of our games) and blow everyone out of the water on the last turn without fear of being counter-attacked.

Solution:  Vary the turn order, as suggested above, AND vary the games end.  It can end anywhere from Turn 6 – Turn 10.  Beginning with Turn 6, a dice can be rolled following each round.  After Turn 6, the game ends on a roll of 1 or 2.  After Turn 7, it ends on a roll of 1 – 3.  After Turn 8, it ends on a roll of 1 – 4.  After Turn 9, it ends on a roll of 1 – 5.  It automatically ends after Turn 10.

The game has promise, and I do like its premise.  However, one gets the feeling that it was not playtested very well or extensively.  If, in our first playing, we were able to spot these many problems, one has to wonder how much play-testing was actually done.

It does seem important to make challenges early in the regions where production value is high, as these have a much higher probability of surfacing in the production deck.  Further, if the Separatist power is in play, players must attempt to keep that player from developing influence in the six Separatist regions where he gets double production income.

We also had an interesting occurrence where a player played the action card “Thieves Cut Telephone Lines” during the final round (there are six rounds).  This has the effect of severing ALL alliances.  The problem is that, at the end of the game, the player with the most influence markers wins.  If there is a tie, the alliance with the most influence markers wins.  If the Action card mentioned above is played in the final round, it seems to prevent the possibility of any alliance victories.  Kind of strange.  But, then again, the game has many quirks such as these.  Some rule revisions and modifications are needed to make Politika an acceptable game worthy of replay.

For a complete list of the suggested variants and rules ‘fixes’, please see the section.

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