Sunday, 15 September 2013

Bioshock Infinite The Siege of Columbia, Part 2: Gameplay & Verdict

In yesterday's article we took a look at the box contents for Plaid Hat Games' tie-in to the Bioshock Infinite videogame, The Siege of Columbia.  We made little attempt to hide our disappointment with the physical quality of the game itself, so now we're back to look at the way the game plays, and to see if it offsets the quality enough to justify the hefty price tag.
As we mentioned in yesterday's article, the players each take control of one of two factions; the lower-class Vox Populi or the upper-class Founders, as they wage a civil war for the control of Columbia.  Before the game can get started the players must argue between themselves over which faction to control.  Non-Bioshock fans will probably be content to flip a coin or choose their favourite colour, but fans of the videogame will probably want to play as the Founders, purely to be in control of the iconic Songbird character.
The initial set up of The Siege of Columbia is quite a lengthy process, but there is an easy-to-follow step-by-step guide in the rulebook to talk new players through it.  Whilst only a niggling criticism, it did occur to us that the addition of a set-up reference card would have benefited the game, and certainly got us started much sooner.
Each player shuffles their Action Card deck and draws an opening hand of 5 cards, and places their units in their starting locations (as specified in the rulebook).  They then randomly select a Leader Card each to assist their faction, and an Elizabeth Timeline to dictate the flow of the game.  Any unoccupied locations are given a face-down Territory Token for the players to battle when they try to claim the area.  Finally the Victory Point Cards are shuffled and the top card flipped over to reveal the first objective, and the World Event Cards shuffled up ready for the first turn.  Then the players just have to randomly decide who gets the First Player Token and they're ready to go!  This entire process takes just a few minutes with experienced players, but for the first few games it's a very drawn out process.  Given the high number of game components though, it comes as little surprise, and each of these elements plays an important role.
This is a nice example of a game of The Siege of Columbia in progress.  At this point every element of the game is in play, and it probably looks very intimidating to a new player!  So, in our usual fashion, we'll do a runthrough of a game turn, and hopefully this should make things look more manageable.
Each round starts with the top World Event Card from the deck being flipped over, and the players voting on whether or not the motion passes.  Some of these card benefit the Founders, some the Vox Populi, some benefit both, and some benefit whichever faction throws in the most votes.  This variation is well-balanced, and can force players to think on their feet and re-evaluate their entire plans for the turn.
On this occasion, the card strongly benefits the Founders, as it gives the Founder player 10 Silver Eagles which can be spent on units and upgrades.  Obviously the Vox Populi player won't want this to go through, so they will be voting against it.  Each player selects however many cards they wish out of their hand, and places them face-down in front of them.  Once all players have chosen their voting cards, they turn them face up and add up the Influence scores (the yellow number, second-down on the left of the card) of all the cards.  However, the vote isn't over yet!  If it's a tie, then the motion is considered to have passed, but if one faction is ahead then Booker gets the final vote!
Booker DeWitt is the protagonist of the Bioshock Infinite videogame.  He spends the entire game rampaging around Columbia, causing tremendous collateral damage and racking up countless casualties along the way.  However, the authorities still seem to feel he deserves a vote, and so one white die is rolled, and the score is added to the Influence total of the lowest-scoring faction.
In the example above, the Founders have played 7 influence (6 off Songbird, 1 off Flak Man), and the Vox have played 3 (1 off Flak Man, 2 off Shotgunner).  The Vox players rolls Booker's white die, and scores 3.  This puts the final score at 7-6 to the Founders, and so the motion is passed.
This isn't where the World Event phase ends though, as the cards will now dictate the course of action for Booker and Elizabeth.
Once the vote has been resolved, players must check the bottom of the card for an Elizabeth symbol.  If this is present, then the Elizabeth Timeline progresses one space, and the effects of this are resolved.  The timelines favour neither player, but sow chaos amidst the ongoing civil war, sometimes benefiting both parties and sometimes punishing them.
After this, Booker is moved around Columbia.  If Elizabeth isn't with Booker then he'll go to rescue her (and God help anyone who stands in his way!), otherwise he'll move to the space indicated in the bottom-right corner of the card (2, in this case).  If Booker's face also appears beside Elizabeth's then he's in an aggressive state of mind, and will start attacking any units in that space, regardless of their allegiance.  Although he may only be one man, Booker is more than capable of wiping a faction from a location entirely, and he shouldn't be engaged unless absolutely necessary (details on combat to follow).  Just like the Elizabeth Timeline, this random movement of the grossly overpowered Booker is a very good mechanic, as it keeps either side from becoming too complacent.  In Games & Tea's first playthrough of The Siege of Columbia the balance of power shifted dramatically, when the dominant Vox player had their lines torn apart by a rampaging Booker, paving the way for a Founders victory!
After the World Event Card has been resolved, the player with the First Player token begins their round.  The first order of business is making money!  The silver number on each Action Card (below the Influence value) is the card's sell value.  At the beginning of the turn, any number of cards can be sold out of the player's hand to add to their coin purse.
With this phase over, the players can then buy more units, although they can only be placed in locations already controlled by that player.  The more powerful the unit, the more it costs.  Players can also pay to upgrade their Action Cards at this point.
With the financial side of the turn done, it's time to advance into enemy territory!  Each turn a player can move up to four units, and can do so in one of two ways...
Units can move from one location to an adjacent location.  Adjacent locations are signified by their connecting arrows.  Any units moving in this manner can move only one space, and then must stay put for the remainder of the turn.
The other method of movement is the Skyline!  Players familiar with the videogame will know the Skyline very well; it's a series of rails connecting the various locations in Columbia, and allowing fast-travel around the city.  Any unit riding the Skyline can move as many spaces as they wish, but at each junction they must roll the Skyline Dice to see if their unit falls to their doom.  As long as a single thumbs-up is rolled on one of these dice then the unit is fine, otherwise the player must discard Action Cards equal to the number rolled, or sacrifice the unit.
This makes the Skyline a perilous method of transport, but one that can pay dividends for a lucky player.  Whether or not to ride it is yet another of The Siege of Columbia's tactical decisions, and gives the gameplay a little more depth.
Once the movement phase is over, combat is initiated!  If the active player moved into an enemy-controlled location they must do battle.
The combat system is incredibly simple in The Siege of Columbia, but is well-designed at the same time.  A single dice is rolled for each unit in combat, but the more powerful units roll higher-numbered dice.  Before any dice are rolled, however, the players can play any Action Cards face-down to boost their dice rolls.  The Combat Score on these cards is the red number at the top.  Let's look at an example of combat...

The Founders have moved into Vox territory with a Leader and a Rare unit, giving them one red die and one blue die.  The defending Vox have a Leader and two Common units, giving them one red die and two white die.  The Vox player has also played a Sky Rider Action Card, giving them an additional score of 2.  The Founder player has rolled a total of 11, and the Vox player has rolled 5, giving them a total of 7 including the Sky Rider.  The Vox have lost the battle, and so must sacrifice a unit, and then retreat their remaining units back to their nearest Stronghold, leaving the Founders in control of this location.

Once the first player has completed this sequence of events, the second player goes through the same sequence.  Once both players have had their turn, they can discard any remaining Action Cards they wish, draw a fresh hand of 5 cards, and flip over another Victory Point Card.  The next World Event Card is then drawn, and the next turn begins!

There are four ways the game can end.  First, it can continue until one player has reached 10 Victory Points, through a combination of achieving objectives or claiming territories.  Second, if one faction completely wipes out the other faction then it's a case of last man standing!  Third, if the World Event Cards ever run out, the game ends and the player with the most Victory Points wins.  And finally, if Booker and Elizabeth escape Columbia, the game ends, and again the player with the most Victory Points wins.

So that's the basic turn sequence in The Siege of Columbia, although there are extra bits and pieces we've left out here.  We are here to give a review after all, not a tutorial!  So let's talk about how the game performed.

As we mentioned earlier, the initial setup was a little bit daunting.  There were a lot of different components to be placed on and around the board, and to start with it felt as though it wasn't going to be worth the effort.  However, setup speed does increase with familiarity, and once players know the ins and outs of the game this will only take a few minutes.  Once small criticism is that the setup is always the same, and it would be nice to semi-randomise some of the initial unit placement as a way of keeping the game fresh.
The World Event mechanic struck a popular note here at Games & Tea.  The voting system seems a little bit tacked-on and doesn't mesh too well with the gameplay, but the random assignment of Booker and Elizabeth's actions do a very good job of making them feel like legitimate NPCs.
The use of Action Cards to effectively fund every part of the turn is an extremely good mechanic, and this is one which Isaac Vega and the Plaid Hat team can pat themselves on the backs over.  Having just 5 cards per turn to use for voting, selling and combat is a great way to make players think hard about their turns, and we frequently found ourselves having quiet, resource-building turns in preparation for an attack or expansion during the next turn.  The ability to upgrade these cards is a fantastic touch, adding further tactical depth to a game which is already brimming with the stuff!
And speaking of combat, The Siege of Columbia has succeeded in making a system which is well balanced and easy to follow, keeping the game flowing at a smooth pace.
It's not all a basket of roses though, and from a gameplay perspective the biggest let-down for the game comes from unclear rules.  There are one or two issues where we've had to go onto the Plaid Hat forums or watch the official "How To Play" video to figure out how to correctly proceed with the gameplay.  Again, this is a fairly basic oversight for Plaid Hat to make, and the rulebook should have been checked before publishing to ensure that all rules issues were addressed.
The other major let-down comes from 4 player mode, which quite simply doesn't work.  The Siege of Columbia board simply isn't big enough to accommodate 4 factions' worth of units, and within the space of a couple of turns the entire board becomes fully occupied and completely fortified, making any kind of progress almost impossible.  As a result, the players are left just holding their own ground, upgrading units, and waiting for the World Event cards to finally run out so that the game will be over.

All in all, The Siege of Columbia proved to be a very positive gaming experience, just sadly let down by the poor production quality in relation to its price tag.  All that remains now is to break it down into bullet points and give it the Games & Tea final score!

The Good Points
  • Fans of Bioshock Infinite will be easily drawn in, as The Siege of Columbia does feel like a legitimate representation of the civil war.
  • There are a lot of elements to the game, but most of these mesh very well together to create a seamless, flowing experience.
  • Booker and Elizabeth act as a force of nature, and their ability to sway the tide of the war is a good way to keep the game evenly balanced.
  • The combat system is simple to pick up, and nicely balanced.
  • The multi-purpose Action Cards reward players for planning out their turns in advance, even though Booker will sometimes decide those plans don't fit in with his own!
  • The randomised Elizabeth Timelines and Leader Cards prevent each game from playing out the same way, and keep The Siege of Columbia from becoming stale.
The Bad Points
  • The quality of the miniatures is far too poor for the modern gaming industry.
  • The board art leaves a lot to be desired.
  • The damaged cards show a lack of QC process at the manufacturers.
  • Some unclear/unstated rules need to be clarified with a visit to the Plaid Hat website, which isn't what anyone wants to be doing half-way through their game.
  • The box interior needed to be better designed to accommodate the plethora of game pieces.
  • The game only works with 2 players, giving it limited appeal to gamers who usually play in larger groups.
Recommended Number of Players: 2
On paper The Siege of Columbia is designed for either 2 or 4 players, but definitely works best in 2 player mode.  With 4 players the number of units and buildings are almost doubled, and this makes the board easier to fortify, allowing the game to turn into a war of attrition and grind to a halt.  In 2 players games units are spread more thinly, making for a more tactical experience and a smoother running game overall.
Average Game Time: 90-120 minutes
If you're sitting down for a game of The Siege of Columbia, be prepared for a decent-length session.  With so many elements to the game, the turns can take some time to get through, and so a complete playthrough of the game can take the better part of 2 hours.  This is certainly not a complaint though, as we found the longer, more protracted games to be the most fun.
Replayability: High
The Siege of Columbia has a number of elements working in its favour to try and make each playthrough different, extended the overall lifespan of the game.  The randomised Elizabeth Timeline keeps Columbia's course from becoming predictable.  The selection of Leaders forces players to adapt their strategies from one game to the next, especially if they're alternating between the Founders and the Vox Populi.  And finally the random dictation of Booker's path around Columbia can destroy even the most strongly reinforced areas of the board, allowing the balance of power to swing back and forth unpredictably.
The Future: Uncertain
As a new release, there is no news yet on the horizon with regards to any expansions for The Siege of Columbia.  There aren't any immediately obvious ways in which the game could be expanded though, and so we aren't going to be holding our collective breath.
Price: £65
There are no two ways about it, The Siege of Columbia is an expensive game.  Expensive isn't always bad though, as long as you're getting your money's worth.  Sadly, this just isn't the case in this situation.  The gameplay is extremely good, but for the price of a top-end game, you expect a top-end product, and The Siege of Columbia just doesn't deliver.  If a group of gamers all chipped in to buy a shared copy it wouldn't be so bad, but for an individual it's far too overpriced.  As a popular new release, availability might be a struggle at this time, but this should cease to be a problem as the initial clamouring dies down.
(9/10 if the price was a more reasonable £45, or the quality issues were fixed)
Tea consumed during this review: Typhoo with milk and 1 sugar.  Brew rating: 6/10 (too much milk).

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