Commitments are tough. Whether it’s to a job, a partner or a menu item, it’s scary to make a decision knowing that you can’t turn back from it. What if you break up or find something better or decide you wanted soup instead of salad?
Battle Line, my favourite game by the prolific Reiner Knizia, is all about commitment. The two players are generals, sending troops to hold a line of skirmish while trying to break through each others’ ranks. Over-committing is deadly, because it gives your opponent insight into your strategy. But hesitate too long and you’ll give them the chance to overwhelm you. With just a deck of cards and some pawns, the game manages to capture the feeling of standing over a field of battle, counting the seconds until the perfect moment to call a calvary charge, desperately hoping that the other side doesn’t fall back and regroup to flank you.
Battle Line lives up to this theme with simple mechanics. The main deck is made of “troops” represented by cards in six colours, numbered 1 through 10. Each player starts with seven cards and plays one each turn– sending a troop out to one of the nine battles – and then replenishes their hand from the communal deck. As in any war, the arrangement of your troops is extremely important. Each battle can only have three cards on either players’ side. The strength of the troops is determined by their “formation,” similar to a Rummy or Poker hand – flush, straight, etc. Rarer formations are more powerful, so a straight flush beats three-of-a-kind which beats a regular flush. Once a card is placed, it can’t move, so troops in bad formations are worse than useless: not only are they not winning the battle they’re in, but they could have been put to better use elsewhere. With each card you play, you’re committing to that formation. If you start on a three-of-a-kind and can’t finish it, you’ve sent those troops to their death.
What makes this system even better is that battles are only concluded when both formations on either side of the line are completed. Imagine that you’re a general in the field: you’ve sent out your best troops in a strong formation, but across from you is an empty plain – your opponent has yet to join the fight. Instead they lie in wait, noting the make-up of your force in order to fight you more effectively and efficiently. So it goes with Battle Line: if the enemy hasn’t yet joined the fight, you can’t know if you’ve won. A player can only claim victory in a battle if they can prove, using the cards that have already been played, that there is no card or combination of cards that their opponent can play to beat them. So if there’s a battle where I’ve got three 10s and my opponent’s got the Red 1 and Red 3 across from me, the battle is still in progress. However, once that Red 2 comes out, we’ll determine a winner. If the enemy plays it in her formation, her straight flush beats my three-of-a-kind and she wins. But if I was lucky enough to draw it instead and play it somewhere else, I can prove that there’s now nothing to add to her two cards that would beat my three 10s and thus win the fight. If I was really dastardly, maybe I’d been holding on to that Red 2 for several turns, letting my opponent hang herself with false hope. Holding back information in order to force the other player to commit to an unwinnable fight is a strong strategy in Battle Line. Just make sure you’re not on the losing end of the equation.
Rounding out the game are the Tactics cards.. These represent your military genius and can be drawn and played instead of Troop cards. They have powerful effects, acting as wild cards, allowing you to move troops around or drastically change the conditions of a battle. To mitigate their strength, they have a significant limitation: you can only ever have played one more Tactics card than your opponent has played. So at the beginning of the game, when neither player has used a Tactics card, each player can use one of them. But once you’ve played a Tactics card, you can’t play another until your opponent plays one. This means that you have to be very careful of when you bring out these powerful abilities, because once you’ve used one you might get locked out of ever being able to play another. Over-commit to a strategy by spending a Tactics card too early and you’ll be forced to hobble your way through the rest of the game, posing much less of a threat to the enemy.
The interplay of these systems – formations, battle resolution and Tactics cards – makes every decision in Battle Line agonizing. Whenever I play, each of my moves feels like the wrong one as soon as I’ve made it. Maybe I stalled too long, forcing myself to create weak formations. Or I committed to a formation too early and couldn’t find the card to complete it. Or I played a Tactics card when it would have been better to lose the battle and save my strength for later. In each case, my commitments are often embittered by regret. But the bitterness of defeat makes the successful plans and lucky draws all the sweeter when they occur. And unlike real life, when my commitments don’t pan out, I can just erase them, start a new game and try to correct my mistakes. Over and over again.