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Cole Wehrle
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A Game Out-of-Time

i.

I don't think this game was made with me in mind. Just look at my top ten. Actually, don’t click away yet; I’ll just tell you. My top list looks something like this: 18xx, 18xx, Napoleon, Trains, Stocks, Number-crunching, Titan, more Napoleon, etc. My collection is a veritable greatest-hits of minimalist design and Spartan components. Good games make opaque suggestions and offer deep interaction. They are games which encourage “good play” and punish a poor evaluation. There is no room for theme in their clean machinery. Theme, like a paint of coat, is best applied thinly.

It hasn’t always been this way, and there are a few notable leftovers in my collection from that earlier era. In high school I rolled dice. I’m not ashamed of that, but I’m not terribly proud either. I was never taken with the fantasy tropes that seemed to get play (bikini armor, goblins, etc), but normally wasn’t hard to find an interesting game beneath that muck. After awhile I ran into Titan which more or less filled the fantasy corner of my game collection. I followed this with a general interest in wargames many of which still see some play and I can be found, on occasion, rolling dice. These days, it’s not so much that I’m bothered by the typical characteristics of ameritrash, only their implementation. Games which could have been really, genuinely interesting, seem so sloppy and so unfocused—fair more interested in an experimental usage of a new euro-mechanism than developing an interesting game. I could go into it more, but this is supposed to be a review right? Okay, so on that note, let’s get to Duel of Ages.

Back towards both the end of high and a short stint in miniatures I found myself at a game store having had my High Elves knocked out a tournament early and without a ride home. In the corner some folks were setting up a game of Duel of Ages. The players pitched me the game with the old Tom Vasel line: “Genghis Khan + Mountain Bike = Super Awesome Extra-Fabulous Game.” It did not move me. I like my games (and my stories) to be coherent, even if they are challenging, but this was a bridge into fandom that I did not care to cross. What was next, Duel of Ages: Slash Fiction Edition? Against my better judgment I decided to join in the game, and then a remarkable thing happened. After the characters were dealt we got into two teams of three, we sat down for a short conference to divide the characters and strategize. Suddenly those head-in-the-cloud nerds were talking about real strategy that seemed to be a bizarre fusion of football, capture the flag, dungeons crawling, and squad leader. The game itself matched the promise of that thrilling alchemy. Okay, so maybe there was something here after all.

But somehow I didn’t manage to play too much DoAI after all. College happened along with a sharp turn towards minimal design and games that usually had more stocks and trains than bombs and guns. Then, after a long hiatus that more or less stripped me of any ameritrash credentials I might claim, I stumbled on to BGG and heard-tell of a new edition of Duel of Ages. Normally I would have just ignored it. There are, after all, games of 1830 that need to be played! But perhaps the Ogre kickstarter, Arrested Development, and Venture Bros had softened me towards nostalgic series reboots. My collection had also gotten pretty lean, and most of the heavily thematic titles had been traded long ago. I trim it at least 2 or 3 times a year and it pretty accurately reflects what gets played. Finally, and most importantly, my wife had begun to become interested in wargames and encouraged me to think about a good, strategically/tactically/thematically rich wargame without much of a rules overhead. DoAII fit the bill, so I jumped in and happened to be on the website when a little technical slip up last week made me the most unlikely person to own the first copy that went out.

ii.

Enough of my biographical musings. They don’t really come to much anyway. Suffice to say, that I am a stranger to this corner of the hobby and to the incredibly dedicated DoA fanbase which has waited patiently for this game for a long time. I don’t pretend to fully understand this game or its history and I can’t promise anything more than my first impressions. As I write I have played four games: one Rush and three Triad all with two players. Despite that inexperience, I do feel compelled to say a few things about this game and organize some of my feelings about it. Rather than offer a rules summary, I will talk briefly about the components and then at more length about the design—both how it works and how it feels.

As anyone interested in purchasing this game knows, the massive system of DoA has been collapsed into two sets: the Basic Set and the Master Set which together represent a general expansion of the DoA system. A buyer will find more of just about everything. If you have an interest in the exact numbers you can readily find them at their website, duelofages.com. In short, they have tossed the first expansion in with the base set and have put everything else in the master set. I think this is a sharp move. The basic box is more than complete and a player could spend 50+ plays just with its content without seeing any repeated scenarios. Then, for those completionists out there, they put everything else in one, very large, box. A player getting involved in the system should feel no pressure to upgrade and I think they have encouraged a slow entry by putting the first expansion within the base set—an admirable quality in an age where expansions seems like easy profit grabs (cf. TI: Shards).

That being said, the master set is a thing of beauty. It is a huge box, engorged with the weight of its components. I doubt I will see this much chipboard until Ogre starts appearing on these shores. The unpunched counter/platter sheets measure nearly 4 inches in height. The counters have a wonderful heft and a very nice finish that is sure to weather a lot of handling well. The platters, as advertised, lay quite flat. They are somewhat larger (at least I think so), but not extremely huge. I appreciate this restraint. Part of me wishes that Steven Jackson would have sized down his ogre game to slightly more reasonable proportions. The game also comes with many decks of cards. The cardstock is sublime. They are very pliable and tough, similar to the cards in the new edition of Glory to Rome or Yomi. They shuffle very well and are laid out clearly.

While I have no love for the computer generated artboards, I do think that aesthetic does work for this game. It manages to line up with the kitschy early 00s video game look that builds on the game’s sense of humor. Additionally, there is a huge variety in the style of the art boards (many are not CG) which is made remarkably uniform by a very consistent and well thought-out layout. The icons and numbers are very easy to read across the table. The game also includes some very nice player aid cards that proved helpful during the game. I was initially concerned that the player tokens would prove indistinct on the board compared to the symbols of the first edition. I have found this somewhat unfounded. The counters are big enough to provide visible detail and it hasn’t been a problem.

iii.

The game itself plays much like I remember it. There are a variety of scenarios which will give old-hands something new to try, while allowing those players to just as easily set up a mission from DoAI (likewise the platters seem very similar to the old platters in content but I am not totally sure). Regardless of this new diversity, the missions all have a similar feel: players get into teams, divide their characters, and then go about advancing through the various challenges to get items while attempting to ambush one another with those items. The labyrinths have gotten a little more complicated. They now feature multiple tracks whereby players can boost their time’s abilities, but the push-pull mechanism remains intact.

This sameness would seem to be a big hit against the game. Folks who download the master rule will readily note the large number of scenarios in the back, but, if they are all so similar then why even have them? The scenarios are the ground rules of scaling up your game. However, the vast number of set up variables (as well as cards from the different treasure decks ensures a completely different experience with every game. Fortunately this modular sensibility is put into some control by a very fine balancing that speaks well of the games own history and development which is able to grapple with an extraordinary range of asymmetric possibilities and consistently produce strategically rich situations.

Combat is a very straightforward and is resolved with just a couple of rating’s comparisons and card flips. The real challenge (like all good games) is about setting up the situation of the combat. Though the resolution of the individual blow is quick, for the contemporary gamer I think it will feel a little cumbersome at first. Fortunately we found it to become second nature after a couple engagements. More importantly, the system has the ability to model a huge range of variables, from the strength of a throw to the force of an arrow which goes a long way in quelling any computational qualm a new player might have.

Unlike the old game characters enter the map by means of reputation which leads to some turns when no one might enter and other turns while half of the team might suddenly appear. I’m not sure of the exact effect of this change but it does seem to push the characters out faster.

The basic phases of the game are remarkably easy to teach. My wife, who had never played a formal hex-and-counter wargame more complicated than Commands and Colors, easily picked up the basics in a few minutes and within ten we were playing a full Triad scenario. This is perhaps the game’s most remarkable quality. Despite the outrageous breath of this system, the rulebook remains both short and well-written. We never had trouble finding a particular rule and, indeed, have hardly used the thing. I am a little disappointed that they didn’t provide the formal masterrulebook in either set of the game, but the basic set rulebook appears complete and provided an enjoyable read. The read was all the more enjoyable because it used a very old technique, programmatic instruction, to teach the game. Now I’ve never liked this method and have always preferred a straight rulebook, but I do think it can be useful for many gamers and here it was rendered in a way that was information dense enough to hold my interest (sorry Vlaada, I’m just not that into that kind of foreplay).

This gets me to my central point. DoAII, like DoAI, is relentlessly old-school in all the best ways. There have been modifications since the first edition, but they are modifications that could have been made in 1990 if the game had been released ten years prior. They are sensible modifications that don’t cow to the mechanism of the week. The “dice decks”/challenge decks are a perfect example. They simply found a way to speed up resolution without messing with the odds or inventing a new subsystem. That’s the essence of good design and you can see choices like that all over DoAII. The new rating system, which allows attributes to be rated from 0-9 instead of 1-6 keeps the game’s scope manageable while providing a finer resolution for the character’s portraits.

iv.

The little green Martians darted from shrub to shrub. They could hear the roar of the skeletal beast in the distance and see the uprooted debris that it threw up in the air. The creature had pursued them through the woods and the distance between them was closing fast. The Model 1903 rifle given to them by the griffin had slowed their progresses and was now looking more like a muddy stick than a weapon. They recognized it for the clumsy, unsophisticated weapon it was, but the force of its shot was the only thing that could bring the beast down: they had to get it to their friends who were waiting on the battlements. Hopefully the weeds and bramble hadn’t damaged the weapon. They paused to survey the coming terrain. At least the final sprint was across clear terrain and the faint outline of the Alamo appeared in the distance. Their alien hearts pounded. A twig cracked behind them. The Martians turned in terror to see the bone beast towering over the heads. The beast grunted and lunged towards their position. The Martians panicked and desperately attempted to put the weapon in position and get barbaric tool loaded. The monster continued towards them, its feet hardly touching the ground. The rifle took its aim and two of the little men pulled hard on the trigger. They could see the blank red stare of the bone construct as it reached its claws reached towards them. The little men contorted their palms over the trigger and felt it give slightly under their combined weight.

Then there was a sharp crack. The monster’s jaw splintered and hung loose in the air as it’s body twisted and fell to the ground. The Martians fell over, exasperated, their hands writhing and their weapon still loaded. After a pause, the monster rose and quickly pivoted away from the Martians. At the other side of the field, what looked like two little boys were laughing. Their laughs didn't last long. Soon the Mulgoth was upon them. Minx and Jinx hurled more little projectiles at their assailant but the monster weaved through the shots without hesitation. Within moments both were swept up in his grasp, and carried away towards the looming fortress that stood pressed into the mountain side. The Martians watched the outline fade into the distance. The rifle wouldn't do. They needed a lock-pick now.

v.

Duel of Ages isn’t for everyone, but I think it is for more gamers than might realize it. At its core there is an interesting wargame here, filled with opportunity fire and equipment profiles. It is a wargame that rewards planning and sound strategy. It is also a wargame that shouldn't be judged just as a "wargame" in the modern cliquish sense. The design demonstrates that early Avalon Hill ethos that suggested that games, even if the happened to be about war, could reach a mass audience, despite their funny counters and unadorned rulebooks.

Yet, there is something just beyond the wargame here too. The sound machine heart of the game generates more energy than they would appear capable of, and that extra power expresses itself in the profusion of stories that that it looses. Without an apparent care for themematic coherency, this game builds remarkably cogent tales which enlist the cultural memory of its players to create something their own.

The second edition demonstrates a deep commitment, without compromise, to the qualities that made the original so great. In sensibility, it’s like nothing I’ve seen recently (especially from the genre). It is a game deeply out-of-step with the designs of the present moment, and is all the better for it.

Edits: Added some content, did some small proofing and edited for clarity.
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David desJardins
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Cole Wehrle wrote:
My top list looks something like this: 18xx, 18xx, Napoleon, Trains, Stocks, Number-crunching, Titan, more Napoleon, etc. My collection is a veritable greatest-hits of minimalist design and Spartan components.


One term I would never use for 1830: Railways & Robber Barons or Titan is "minimalist design". I think DOA is very much in that same genre.
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Cole Wehrle
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Small review addendum:

I'm sure I'm going to be kicking myself over the next few days as I realize all of the little parts of this game which I left out from the review. I can live with that, but there is one thing I really do want to mention (and may integrate into the body of the review later when I'm less tired).

Critically the treasures in this game are hidden. You pull them, look at them, carry them around, trade them among characters, but the other team doesn't get to see what they are until they do something. The first you hear of an opponents laser rifle is the sound its whirling buzz as it narrowly whizzes by your shoulder. This is a wonderful design feature that makes up for the lack of fog-of-war. Even if you know everyone's position you don't exactly know their capabilities. Should you risk darting across that stretch of land, or is Pvt. Sanchez's lookout position a bluff?

DaviddesJ wrote:
Cole Wehrle wrote:
My top list looks something like this: 18xx, 18xx, Napoleon, Trains, Stocks, Number-crunching, Titan, more Napoleon, etc. My collection is a veritable greatest-hits of minimalist design and Spartan components.


One term I would never use for 1830: Railways & Robber Barons or Titan is "minimalist design". I think DOA is very much in that same genre.


Fair enough. Compared to other 18xx games I guess I just think of 1830/1889 as minimalist--but I guess that's a symptom of my own disease.

My usage here of "minimalist" is meant to register on a couple levels. Perhaps I should qualify them: 1. components, flavor text, etc, 2. rules chrome. I find Titan and 1830 blissfully free of both. There are minor exceptions such as the special powers of private companies in most of the 18xx, but I find that when things like this bubble up they are pretty thoroughly welded to the core elements of the game. Games with stacks of action/item cards tend to have a little harder time doing this. Rather than a single rule which could be posted into the rules (like a Titan teleport), they provide a volume of exceptions to the game's otherwise knowable landscape.
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Johan Haglert
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Care to post some pictures? Doesn't have to be good quality or setup. Back of master box, piles of stuff, ..
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Cole Wehrle
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aliquis wrote:
Care to post some pictures? Doesn't have to be good quality or setup. Back of master box, piles of stuff, ..


Sorry, not a photographer and I have a hard time justifying pictures in this particular review. I'm sure there will be plenty of pictures of the new set coming through the geek mod soon.
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David desJardins
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Cole Wehrle wrote:
My usage here of "minimalist" is meant to register on a couple levels. Perhaps I should qualify them: 1. components, flavor text, etc, 2. rules chrome. I find Titan and 1830 blissfully free of both.


It seems exactly the opposite to me. Titan is almost all "rules chrome" (which is why I like it). The details of how each terrain type works are slightly different, and have a huge effect on gameplay. Different characters happen to be native to different terrain types. Recruiting, summoning, teleportation are all governed by intricate rules that have to be memorized and the tiniest details of those rules have large effects.
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Cole Wehrle
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DaviddesJ wrote:
Cole Wehrle wrote:
My usage here of "minimalist" is meant to register on a couple levels. Perhaps I should qualify them: 1. components, flavor text, etc, 2. rules chrome. I find Titan and 1830 blissfully free of both.


It seems exactly the opposite to me. Titan is almost all "rules chrome" (which is why I like it). The details of how each terrain type works are slightly different, and have a huge effect on gameplay. Different characters happen to be native to different terrain types. Recruiting, summoning, teleportation are all governed by intricate rules that have to be memorized and the tiniest details of those rules have large effects.


Ah right, I had forgotten about terrain bonuses--it's been a while since I played and very few of the combats are actually resolved. I also think the character recruitment tree is pretty spartan. There are only a few abilities and the tree/stats/point values are all pretty straightforward. There are few abilities which break other rules in the game (flying for instance). Whenever I play Titan I feel like the game has been boiled down.

Of course, I don't mean to be black and white about the Titan's status. (After all in my original sentence I said my collection contains largely minimal games, not that light-hearted "top x" list). Titan is a bit of a leftover and I recognize the various of design tenancies in it, I just think it's governed by a more minimal approach (mechanically speaking) than it would have if it were designed today. In that fictive list I also would put something like Napoleon: The Waterloo Campaign, which I would class (especially the earlier editions) as a wargame with minimalist tendencies.
 
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David desJardins
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Cole Wehrle wrote:
Titan is a bit of a leftover and I recognize the various of design tenancies in it, I just think it's governed by a more minimal approach (mechanically speaking) than it would have if it were designed today.


I guess it would depend who's designing it. If Reiner Knizia were designing the Titan of today then I would expect all of the battlelands to have the same patterns, all of the terrain features to have identical rules, all of the character abilities to be uniform and symmetrical, etc., etc. It's the little variations and "inconsistencies" that give the game character, to me, and yet game design today is generally moving in the opposite direction.
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Cole Wehrle
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DaviddesJ wrote:
Cole Wehrle wrote:
Titan is a bit of a leftover and I recognize the various of design tenancies in it, I just think it's governed by a more minimal approach (mechanically speaking) than it would have if it were designed today.


I guess it would depend who's designing it. If Reiner Knizia were designing the Titan of today then I would expect all of the battlelands to have the same patterns, all of the terrain features to have identical rules, all of the character abilities to be uniform and symmetrical, etc., etc. It's the little variations and "inconsistencies" that give the game character, to me, and yet game design today is generally moving in the opposite direction.


Funny, that's not exactly how I remember Colossal Arena. . I wonder which game we would consider has more chrome per rule word count.

...but serious folks, Duel of Ages II is great.
 
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David desJardins
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Cole Wehrle wrote:
Funny, that's not exactly how I remember Colossal Arena. .


As far as I know, Reiner Knizia designed Grand National Derby, and all of the chrome of Colossal Arena was added by Don Greenwood.

But it's also true that Knizia's games of 15 years ago had more chrome than he would put into a game today. That's part of the trend I mentioned.
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Cole Wehrle wrote:


...but serious folks, Duel of Ages II is great.


And yet the review starts with "This game was not for me."
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Cole Wehrle
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Geosphere wrote:
Cole Wehrle wrote:


...but serious folks, Duel of Ages II is great.


And yet the review starts with "This game was not for me."


I don't think it was. Or rather, I think I thought I outside of the target audience. After giving it some play and some thought, I've come to some different conclusions.
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Geosphere wrote:
Cole Wehrle wrote:


...but serious folks, Duel of Ages II is great.


And yet the review starts with "This game was not for me."


I thought it was a great intro. Sucks you in with thinking it might be a negative review, which is always worth reading. It very quickly explains why it shouldn't have been for him.

By the end, it's explained why it was not for him past tense.

Very good review. Thanks.
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Thanks for the very well written review. It sounds like Duel of Ages has an excellent blend of tactics and story. Most games seem to have one or the other but rarely succeed at having both.
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Thanks for the review. It was a great read! I have a couple of minor comments.

Cole Wehrle wrote:

Unlike the old game characters enter the map by means of reputation which leads to some turns when no one might enter and other turns while half of the team might suddenly appear. I’m not sure of the exact effect of this change but it does seem to push the characters out faster.


I don't think that there should be turns where nobody comes out. My interpretation of the rules is that:

1) Team white has the character/s with the highest respect. All their characters that are equal or higher respect than team black character with the highest respect are reinforced.
2) Team black now has the character/s with the highest respect. All their characters that are equal or higher respect than team white character with the highest respect are reinforced.
3) Repeat from 1) until no characters are left.

Cole Wehrle wrote:

The new rating system, which allows attributes to be rated from 0-9 instead of 1-6 keeps the game’s scope manageable while providing a finer resolution for the character’s portraits.


The rules suggest that the ratings are 1-9 rather than 0-9.
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Cole Wehrle
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Macs wrote:
Thanks for the review. It was a great read! I have a couple of minor comments.

Cole Wehrle wrote:

Unlike the old game characters enter the map by means of reputation which leads to some turns when no one might enter and other turns while half of the team might suddenly appear. I’m not sure of the exact effect of this change but it does seem to push the characters out faster.


I don't think that there should be turns where nobody comes out. My interpretation of the rules is that:

1) Team white has the character/s with the highest respect. All their characters that are equal or higher respect than team black character with the highest respect are reinforced.
2) Team black now has the character/s with the highest respect. All their characters that are equal or higher respect than team white character with the highest respect are reinforced.
3) Repeat from 1) until no characters are left.


And thank you for the kind remarks. As to the reinforcement rules, for whatever reason we found those rules hard to understand. What you said makes good sense.

Quote:

Cole Wehrle wrote:

The new rating system, which allows attributes to be rated from 0-9 instead of 1-6 keeps the game’s scope manageable while providing a finer resolution for the character’s portraits.


The rules suggest that the ratings are 1-9 rather than 0-9.


Huh, I guess I just confused the dice roll variant (which bills "0s" as "0s"). I also thought one of the characters my wife had had zero wits last night. I guess I'll have to take a look at the deck.
 
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Warrick Williams
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Thanks for the the review , its the first I've read and the one that made me aware of the new set.
I've already got the original 1st two editions, but I'm amazed and happy they've MADE THIS ALREADY , no kick starters ... its just out there suddenly after so many months, years of "possibilities". Just ordered the collectors edition today from their site - $10 shipping across the world and its already been shipped ! A little special awesomeness that my tax return will pay for. Thanks Australian Government. Thanks WORLDSPANNER, thanks Mr Wehrle.
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Warrick Williams
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PS ..sorry Im not really sure if it started out as kickstarter...I apologise if Im actually wrong ...some kickstarters have been totally rewarding experiences for those involved so really just wanted to say .....it just seemed to "happen " May the Labyrinth spirits look on me kindly. XX
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Cole Wehrle
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Further update:

Okay, so I've played a couple more games now (I think I'm up to 6 or 7 since I got the game). We did our first Split Triad build. It was wonderful, very tense and interesting. It had a wonderful way of focusing the action.

Redroar wrote:
Thanks for the the review , its the first I've read and the one that made me aware of the new set.
I've already got the original 1st two editions, but I'm amazed and happy they've MADE THIS ALREADY , no kick starters ... its just out there suddenly after so many months, years of "possibilities".


It's nice that they didn't feel the need to Kickstart the game. I've got nothing against Kickstarter mind you, but I think it can have a way of rushing development and taking a designers focus away from the game.
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Marc Schade
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I love the story part of the review well done. I never really cared for this game. Doa always looked kind of blant to me, just from a component point of view, and since it was out of print I never cared for investigating furhter. Now with doa ii i checked it out and boy oh boy. I'm so excited for it now. Cant wait for my copy to arrive here in Germany
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DaviddesJ wrote:
[q="Cole Wehrle"]But it's also true that Knizia's games of 15 years ago had more chrome than he would put into a game today. That's part of the trend I mentioned.


Quo Vadis much? *retching in corner*

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Greg Lott
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Cole Wehrle wrote:

...my wife had begun to become interested in war-games...


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Cole Wehrle
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Well, we played Twilight Struggle last night and she liked it...then again, whose to say Twilight Struggle is a "wargame" ninja

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Paul Bauman
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I loved section IV.

Thanks for the work you clearly put into writing this review.
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