“The butcher I may as well have stayed,
for the slaughter that I see.”
There are a few games on the First World War—war games mostly as one would imagine—and as few as there are, I've played even fewer. Which means, as far as reviewing something goes, I don't have a whole lot to compare To the Last Man to. I know a few facts, though. I know that reading the Paths of Glory rulebook was painful and confusing. It was a dense wad of rules and exceptions and tiny details one would have to carve deep into one's mind to remember how the hell everything worked—I should warn you here that I am not a so-called “Grognard” in the slightest—and I know that other games about the First War, Twilight in the East in particular, have nearly fifty pages of rules. That is insanity. That is nonsensical. So when I first looked at To the Last Man, and saw its rulebook totaled nigh thirty pages in length, I grew a little concerned. Was I in for the same old drag?
Turns out, no. I was not. The rule book is over long, and full of a lot of options and design explanations—and even some poems, actually—but the rules themselves are pretty straight forward. No long lists of exceptions, no countless specific rules about countless specific units in countless specific situations. Only a pretty tame, pretty straightforward and pretty elegant ruleset for playing.
But before I get to the rules, I should really dig into the what gives any game its first impression: the components.
I know a dude who loves his games to come in giant boxes filled with so many little plastic figurines. The giggles, as he calls them, these figurines can be game makers for him. And I suppose there can be some joy in looking down at your playing table, seeing an army of little plastic guys stretching out towards the horizon. Its a simple pleasure. But To the Last Man doesn't have any of that. It wants to be a war game, and the components do their best to follow suit, but if I'd never seen the game before, and had to go just off of the bits, I would almost expect a Eurogame.
If you ignore the intimidating turn track—it's easy to read, I promise, but it does has a lot of stuff on it—the map would make you think you were playing something designed by a balding man from Germany. But you're not. You're playing a game designed by a guy who was a DJ in Indiana. About as far from Germany as you can get. And it's a war game.
One thing that really impresses me is that the people who did the design for the pieces aren't actually professional designers. These guys did it in their spare time and never got paid. And if you look at the pieces, there's a lot of care that went into them. Everything is very attractive, and what really gets me, is there are common visual themes and motifs among everything. They clearly go together, and more so perhaps than most any other game I can think of. The board has no cities listed, nor train tracks or rivers, nor country names, nor markings for important battle sites. It is minimalist in some sense, throwing out all of the extraneous war game garbage that can clutter up the playing board. Each area is cleanly marked. You know exactly where your armies are, and you know exactly where you can go. My only complaint about it is—and this may just be my printer—that the colors that differentiate the various countries can somewhat blend together when two forest covered areas sit next to each other along a border. It's especially bad where France meets Germany.
When you print out and assemble To the Last Man, you also have to cut out dozens of little counters and army templates. These are just as attractive as the board is. There are two sets of counters designed by two different individuals, and its up to you which one you want to go with. One set has units designated by the symbol of their country, and the other has little flag emblems placed behing silhouettes of men in uniforms or artillery or tanks or whatever the unit is. I went with the ones with the silhouettes, because seeing the images of the little men reminded me of the human cost or something.
Once everything is pasted together and cut out and mounted and all that, and once you place the glorious facade of the Western Front out on your coffee table or card table or whatever other kind of table, and you finally see the game's pieces in all their combined glory, you may be struck by something, and this is assuming you took the time to put the game together well: it looks a lot better than most published war games. That's right, I'll say it: GMT* and all those other guys who make games for grognards? Their games don't look very good. And I know GMT has been moving on up to the East Side, but Paths of Glory is still a plain looking game. Not so with To the Last Man, because though it may not wow the dude I spoke of early with thousands of sculpted plastic bits, it might at least wow him—assuming I pretend I bought it and it was printed by little foreign boys in some far east factory—with the colors and details and overall lay out. Because I have to be frank: the game looks excellent and Arnauld and Christophe—the dudes responsible for the visuals—really deserve a lot of praise, and perhaps a job, for their work.
Rules and Playing this Mother
Like I said, the rulebook is a little bit lopsided and overlong, and a lot of stuff is reiterated several times when we only need told about it once. It's one thing about the game that definitely needs to have some fat chopped off. But the rules themselves? Well, let's see here:
There are a few neat little things in the game I want to tell you about. For the most part you have some rules that aren't too different than say, and this is one other war game I'm experienced with, Hammer of the Scots, in that when your armies do battle you roll a number of dice based on the strength of the unit and certain numbers rolled—in most cases a 1—cause your opponent to take a hit. That's pretty standard fair, and something I'll come back to in a bit, but To the Last Man also possesses a few things that make it very unique and somewhat unlike other games.
Cards. That's where I'll start. Each player has cards and these cards let you do stuff like attack with units, move armies around, improve attack rolls and screw your opponent's assault. Okay, that's pretty standard. We get that a lot. But here's the thing: you are not entitled to have a hand of cards. These cards are not a right every player receives just for taking up a game. If you spend all your cards and do nothing to get more, you are screwed. The most important card of all is the Offensive Card, of which there are a lot, which allows you to move all of your units and battle in any disputed space—meaning any space you share with an enemy. Hold up, you may say, all units can move and I can battle anywhere? Is there no limit to this madness? Well, no, there isn't. At least, there isn't if you're mad enough to move everyone and attack everywhere. And if you do that, you probably are mad. Also you will lose. Because you have to ration your Offensive cards, and you have to be smart about your offensives, because running over and over again into a brick wall is never a good way to get anywhere. And here's the thing about rationing: your cards aren't just for commanding your glorious armies of the Fatherland, they're also for taking hits. Any card can be discarded in place of a lost unit, meaning you can avoid your armies losing strength by having your hand lose its strength, and a lot of the game's strategy involves deciding how to take losses. Do I discard this offensive card I wanted to use next turn, or do I let my opponent tear my Third Army into pieces? The only way to get new cards in your hand is during the production phase, when both players get a certain number of points to spend on various stuff. But there are choices here too, because you really don't have that many points to spend, and you have to choose between cards and units. It can be quite the dilemma. I also want to mention that the deck is constructed really well. There are a variety of cards, but enough of each type that you'll never really get screwed by never getting the cards you need. It strikes a pretty good balance.
The other unique thing are the armies. Each army piece on the board has a corresponding army template you keep hidden from your opponent outside of battle. Each template has little spaces for your various units. You have two types of units, infantry and auxiliary. Infantry are, of course, infantry, and are the backbone of any army. Auxiliary units includes various other types of things like tanks and biplanes and cavalry. Infantry aren't that exciting, but each type of auxiliary unit works differently, with tanks being hard hitters, cavalry able to run raids on fortresses, artillery getting to attack twice per turn, and biplanes capable of a number of things including forcing your opponent to re-roll hits. When two armies battle, both players whip out their army templates and compare sizes, and then roll dice based on the relative masculinity of either side. Then, when you take hits, assuming you don't discard a card, you have to remove units from your armies, decreasing their power and losing—if you have to or choose to remove auxiliary units—special abilities.
All of this is pretty cool, and allows the game to possess a unique simplicity while still allowing for interesting strategies, tough decisions, and usually compelling play.
Conclusions of Grandeur? And other Puns.
Games are more than a sum of their parts. They are more than their rules and rulebooks, more than their shiny or ugly little bits, and more that how it feels to push wood or plastic or cardboard across a table. Or, at least, good games are more than all of those things. Is To the Last Man a sum of more than its pretty parts and easy-to-learn rules? Probably. Seems like it. All of the rules are pretty cool, and allow the game to possess a unique simplicity while still allowing for interesting strategies, tough decisions, and often compelling play. And in most every case, that's all you need. But here's the only lingering doubt for me: all of these tough decisions, all of these choices and strategies, may ultimately be secondary to you and your opponent just rolling dice at each other. Some people are really into that, and it's cool, but a great game is one, and I'll use Paths of Glory or Twilight Struggle again here, where the heart and the soul are the tough decisions. Paths of Glory seems to be about dice rolling and battles, and Twilight Struggle is an area control game, but those descriptions only detail the surface. The depth and meat of those games is in the cards. Really, they're both card games. And I'm not using them as examples because I think To the Last Man should be more like either of them, because it shouldn't, I'm using them as examples because a) they're the only war games** I'm that familiar with, and b) they illustrate well what I mean. To the Last Man is a fun game. I'd certainly say it's a good game. But I don't know yet if it's a fantastic game. The cards and the decisions and the hidden armies and bluffing, I haven't decided they're the focus over the throwing dice at each other, or if it's the other way around. For a lot people it probably doesn't even matter.
My honest opinion is that you should print the game out, mount it well and play it as much as you like. It's certainly worth checking out. It's fun, it's fast and simple, and if you're into it, it lets you make believe the First World War. And if it were published by an actually publisher, I'd certainly buy it. I'm going to play it more and I'm going to enjoy it when I do. But I don't think it will dethrone any other games from their places of high glory. But really, it doesn't have to.
*Yes, I know GMT make great games and that looks don't matter, and I do love them bunches, but you'll never get me to say—and this doesn't apply to newer stuff, because Twilight Struggle Deluxe and Dominant Species look wonderful—that their catalogue is one filled with beautiful design and sturdy pieces.
**Yes, yes, I know Twilight Struggle isn't really a war game.
Edited to tighten up some punctuation.
- Last edited Thu Jan 20, 2011 7:24 pm (Total Number of Edits: 3)
- Posted Thu Jan 20, 2011 4:31 pm
Thanks so much for reviewing To the Last Man!
To the last man is a great game when you play you feel like every decision is important and that you unlike what is often assumed reading history about the war, sending men to slaughter but rather making critical decisions about how to win. WW1 is fun and interesting with this game.