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Age of Arguments
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Age of Arguments is set at the end of the 17th and the beginning of the 18th century. It deals with the struggle between the major European states for power in Europe and the emerging empires.
Why did I buy this game? There was only one reason, and it was not the box. Dull and grey with an illustration on the cover, it lacked any appeal. There was just a bad drawing of a man drumming and below it the text: "The struggle between the major European states for power in Europe and the emerging empires during the end of the 17th and the beginning of the 18th century.". The reason I bought it was simple: At the time I considered any game from Warfrog of interest.
I knew that the presentation was not their strong point, but even for them, this was a low. Opening the box my worst fears were confirmed. What I found was next to nothing: A photocopied set of rules without an illustration, a few pawns, some money to cut up, a badly drawn map (of the world, sort of), and - what was this? Some cards I felt sure I had seen before! Yes! They were from 'Sixteen Thirty Something', the game where Mike Siggins had been in the test group and then later had given it a not too flattering review. (A puzzling but understandable thing to do, as the game had undergone changes after the testing. The number of cards had been cut down, leaving a flawed game.)
But what about 'Age of Arguments'? A war game this was not, as far as I could see, and nor was it an historical simulation. What it looked like was an unpromising game made up of what was left from too many unsold copies of a game that did not quite make it. 'Sixteen Thirty Something' had looked like something. It had had its interesting points too and I had played it several times, even though the lack of cards ended up bothering me every time. But this one? No. So I put 'Age of Arguments' on the shelf.
Four years later (the game is copyrighted 1998), I decided to try it. I did so for two reasons. Firstly: I did not like the feeling of having wasted my money on nothing. Secondly: The game was by Martin Wallace. Lucky me! What I found was - it turned out - a pearl, a tight little game where everything works and you have the kind of surprise you always dream of having. The main reason why you (or I, at least) continue buying new games is this: the hope that you will find something that feels like discovering an unknown world.
This game was more than just surprising. Even after reading the rules, I did not see anything particularly new or exciting about it. The object: try to become the most influential power in the world (heard that one before?) - well, the one with the most points at the end of the game. You gain them either in Northern America, Southern America, India or Europe. In all four places you get points for being number one, number two and number three, but in that rule are more consequences than I had realised. As the game says, there are four players and so in each round one player will end up with no points at all. Such a possibility always creates tension!
You gain your position in each of the war areas by winning battles. Sounds simple, doesn't it? Well, yes and no. The battles are fought with cards. That is not in itself very original, but --. You get your cards from four stacks with four in each. You also get four cards at the beginning of the game. Three of the stacks are face-up, the last not. Therefore, everybody can see what everybody else gets (minus one - the one who gets the facedown deck). Then you know most of what the other players have in their hand? Again, yes and no. Some of the cards you pick up will give you the right to even more cards (Increase Army Size). These nobody else gets to see, which makes the situation more uncertain. Those with a good memory for cards may be at an advantage, but this is not a memory game. Far from it.
Most of the cards simply have numbers indicating armies of different sizes. But, some of the cards can only be used in Europe, while the German States (called mercenaries) fight everywhere. At this point you may think you have played something like this before. I thought the same, but then we played it and I changed my mind. The main point with this game is quite simply that the combination of the elements in the game, well known as they are, gives you a surprisingly original game. Many of the best games I have played - and 'Lost Cities' may be the best example - have few and easily understandable rules, but are still extremely original and challenging. This game had that, and in addition the particular tightness that I find in most Martin Wallace games, a tightness that comes from the feeling that a lot is decided in the very first rounds, that the game seems to be almost too short and that even when you are past the middle of it all there still are possibilities and hopes for all except the stupid. I will not deny it. I have grown to like Martin Wallace games, particularly those about trains and shares, but some of them have had a few unnecessary rules complicating what to me seemed a game that would have been better without them. 'Empires of the Ancient World' is one - a good game, but too many ifs and don'ts makes the cardplay confusing. Even 'Way Out West' could have been more exciting with fewer rules about buildings and different kinds of gunfights. In 'Age of Arguments', on the other hand, there is nothing to take your mind away from the main point: Winning the battles.
Two of the four players always fight each other. Who fights whom is decided by a very ingenious method: At the beginning of each turn, the turn order is auctioned. Again, this is a rule that has been used before, but here it has unusual consequences. The last player always fights number three and the first and second players each other. The turn order also decides who takes the first and who the second battle, and the first battle (the one between numbers one and two) is always the more important one. Here you gain two points; in the second you only win one. These points you use either to move up in importance in the war area where you just fought, or to move the loser down. A nice detail of some strategic value, and a reason to fight even if you are in the top position.
From the beginning of each round everything feels quite clear to you. You have a fair idea about which war area is most important, but will there be a fight there this round? You cannot be sure, as the two areas are drawn from a few round counters laying face down beside the game board. So, let's say you are lucky. Then you have to position yourself. Should you try for the second battle (the one where you get only one point)? You may think that staying out of the bidding, and keeping your money, is the obvious solution. But no! Being number four makes you the last to choose between the four stacks of cards, and you will end up taking the least valuable one (well, choosing the one with the cards hidden can help you, but somebody else might have decided to do that before you). So, how much money should you bet? When should you drop out of the bidding?
Money has some importance for winning - if you are the one with most of it at the end of the game, you get four points extra and if you are the one with least money, you subtract four points!
Chance plays a part. The cards in the fourth stack are, as I mentioned, unknown to all players except the one taking them. Which of the four areas will be the battlegrounds is also down to chance, but you still have the feeling that your own skill is the most important element, and that you, by choosing well among the cards in your hand (you pick four in each battle), will either win this battle or have very good cards for the next one. Then, if you can just outguess the other players (and remember which cards they took), you will win.
I admit it: I won, but as the game did not take too much time to play, we played more than once. It turned out it was a very nice game to lose, too. There can be no doubt about this one. If you find 'Age of Arguments' somewhere, buy it. It may not be the deepest game around, but when it comes to excitement, tension and surprises, you will get a lot.