Staff Pick: Battle Line

On a cold November day in 333 BCE, the two greatest armies of the Western world met among the mud-caked foothills of modern-day Turkey, near a town called Issus. On one side stood 100,000 Persians, led by Darius III, the last king of the grand Achaemenid Empire of Persia. On the other, 40,000 Macedonians, Thracians, Thessalonians, and various other Greek mercenaries, led by a man so storied that we call him The Great - King Alexander the III of Macedon. In his quest to reach “the ends of the world and the Great Outer Sea,” Alexander sought to conquer the Persian Empire that had terrorized the Grecian city-states a hundred years prior. Despite the Persians’ numerical advantage at Issus, Alexander’s forces broke through the left flank, routing Darius, who fled so quickly he left his family behind. It was the first time a Persian army had been defeated when its king was present. Riding on the momentum of this battle, Alexander would eventually sweep through Persia and destroy the Achaemenid Empire.

At Issus, Darius had more than double the men, the home-field advantage, and well-rested soldiers; by all accounts, he should have had an easy victory. So what did he do wrong?

Alexander the Great never lost a battle in his lifetime, despite typically being outnumbered, and there’s a reason: he was a master of formation. He could read an enemy’s battle line and find the weakness that would allow him to break through. He displayed this prowess at Issus, personally leading the charge on the right flank that broke the Persian formation. Darius simply forgot the first rule of ancient battle - don't let the battle line break.

Battle Line

2 Players - 30 minutes

Battle Line is a two player card game from the human perpetual motion machine Reiner Knizia where you take on the respective roles of Darius and Alexander as they lead their men into battle. The game is essentially like playing nine simultaneous hands of rummy with a strong emphasis on logical deduction. There are nine flags on the board and they represent individual battles; players draw a hand of seven from a deck of 60 - six color suites, with cards numbered 1-10 for each - and they attempt to form a three card set on each flag. The trumps follow poker rules: a straight flush (e.g. 1-2-3 of the same color) beats a set of the same number, which beats a set of the same color, which beats a straight, which beats highest number. The player with the better set of three wins the flag. There are two ways to victory: win five of the nine flags on the Battle Line, and you have an envelopment; win three adjacent flags and you win by breakthrough. A unique feature of Battle Line is that you’re allowed to use the board state to declare a flag won, even if your opponent hasn’t completed their set. If you can demonstrate that the opponent can’t complete their set, you win. For example, if I had three 10s, and my opponent had a red 8 and 9, but the red 7 and 10 were already played elsewhere, I could declare victory, because my opponent couldn’t complete their sequence. However, you can only argue from the board state - if the red seven were in my hand, I would need to play it first before I could claim the flag. This simple mechanic gives the game a strong tactical edge - you aren’t just thinking about what you’ll play next, but how that play will help or hurt you in the grand scheme of things.

Adding to the mix are “tactics” cards, which can have a variety of special effects, from stealing a card from your opponent’s line to “leader” cards, which are basically wild cards. These cards are fun to use, but pulling a tactics card means not pulling a soldier card, which can be deadly. From my experience with the game, they end up being more of a “break glass in case of emergency” play; I find them fun to use, but you can only play one more than your opponent has played, so if they aren’t reciprocating, you can end up with useless cards in hand.

The name of the game is tension. When the battlefield gets thick with soldiers, your brain is working overtime to keep up. You’ll start to view your battlefield as a series of stress points; like Alexander, you have to figure out when to push a formation and when to retreat. I love this part of the game. The laser focus displayed by each player near the end of a game is something to behold. This is the sort of game that brings out the brilliance in gamers and non-gamers alike. By combining a mechanic that we all know (rummy sets) with a new twist (flags, tactics), Knizia has create a cake with the perfect ingredients - easy to learn, difficult to master.

photo credit to BGG user nolemonplease

A lot of people say that Reiner Knizia’s games are unthematic; I would argue that this is a simplified view of the prolific professor. Claiming the theme is pasted on is selling short the strategic element. While the mechanics of Battle Line come from a previous Knizia game, Schotten-Totten, I believe that the theme is perfectly applied and only as irrelevant as your imagination. By some pure cosmic accident, or perhaps because of some latent similarities, Schotten Totten’s mechanics are a perfect match for the ancient warfare theme. Ancient warfare was fought and won in formations; look at any map of an ancient battle and you see that soldiers lined up in rows in a line and met like a sweeping wave. In reworking Schotten-Totten, Knizia found a game missing its theme. We can say it’s just nine-row rummy, or multi-hand poker, but that’s a slippery slope - using that logic, we can claim that Twilight Struggle is just moving points around a map; that King of Tokyo is just Yahtzee; that Pandemic is just a game about efficient movement. These things are all true, but the games are not unthematic because of it. Instead, they use art, flow, and the feeling of play to unify the mechanics into something that feels more than it is, which we call “theme”. Battle Line is no different: it may seem simple on the surface, but when your opponent is close to a breakthrough, your left flank is looking weak, and you’re holding the one soldier that, if used the right way, could change the tide of battle, go ahead and tell me that you don’t feel a bit like Alexander.

- Charlie the Mostly So-So But Not Bad Overall.