multi-player wargames?

I played Galactic Emperor twice in the past week or so.  It’s a new game Alex recently got, and I feel like I’ve seen what it has to offer.  I think Galactic Emperor pretty much succeeds at what it tries to do.  It is a relatively fast-playing multi-player wargame.

Each player gets a corner of space which is his, and he cannot ever be thrown out of his home world.  A number of different roles are available, and selected by the players to drive the game (a la Puerto Rico).  These roles bring new planets, needed resources, a market to sell and buy resources at, the ability to build various types of war space ships, and new science (primarily ways to improve your military power). 

In short order Galactic Emperor delivers direct player conflict, as players quickly encounter each other as they spread out on the board.  I think Galactic Emperor succeeds in creating a somewhat variable game filled with lots of smack.  I’m just not so sure I am in the target audience anymore.  Years ago I enjoyed playing Axis & Allies, Shogun and other multi-player wargames.  But GE fell flat for me both times I tried it.  

In our first game I was definitely the weak player, and drew attention from the stronger players, who rightfully suspected I could be pushed around, and they could take my weakly defended planets.  That was not much fun, but I learned my lesson.

In our second game, I minded my knitting and built up a stronger fleet and gradually spread out.  I was playing next to a child, and did not wish to be a jerk, so I largely left him alone.  My right hand opponent, TG, was looking extremely strong, and I was content to let him duke it out with Alex, who had some rough early rounds.

Eventually due to some capricious decisions from the child, and some great battle luck on the part of Alex, my right hand neighbor was overwhelmed and saw his colonies getting divvied up.  And I realized that probably my best play was to also try to chop some of his turf away from him.  But I decided not to.  The idea of adding to a weak players misery wasn’t too appealing, so I instead laid back.  (In fact TG ended up rebuilding, and decided to attack me.)

For me, I guess I am not such a fan of direct smashing of opponents anymore.  Or at least I wasn’t too keen on it these past two weeks.  And I think a chunk of my discomfort stems from the fact that this was a multiplayer game.  I have recently, happily, played some 2p wargames – plenty of smashing there, and no discomfort on my part – that is the whole game to smash your opponent.  But in a multiplayer game, especially one with no elimination, I am not sure I like the idea that the strong should victimize the weak, making their gaming experience unenjoyable.

I am happy to out compete someone in an 18xx game, or a game of Brass, etc.  But this pack mentality in multi-player wargames bothers me.  I’m still processing what I didn’t like about Galactic Emporer.  Years ago I enjoyed playing Rise and Fall, and more recently I have enjoyed Vinci.  These are multi-player games with direct player fighting that do not annoy me.  Both Rise & Fall and Vinci give a player the ability to climb back into the game.  This may be the key difference.

I also like Wallenstein, and Wallenstein definitely features direct player conflict.  But in Wallenstein the conflict is not the point of the game.  It must be considered, but along with feeding your troops, building up your provinces and economic concerns.

Another case is Friedrich.  Friedrich is a fine game, one I wish I could play more of.  3-4 players duke it out constantly.  Why does this work for me, where Galactic Emperor does not?  I’m not sure I have an answer yet.  Hmmm.

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