It was over quickly, and I enjoyed it ... sort of.
A gamer friend once told me, " Being an out of the closet Ameritrash fan means never having to answer the question 'What were you thinking when you bought that game?'" I'm going to answer the question anyway. It has Spartans. Other than that, my expectations were not particularly high. Reading between the lines of the description, I figured that it was a tactical game with a high luck factor, that could be played by two players in under an hour. In other words, about 45 minutes of chucking dice and quoting the movie in deep theatrical voices. Not much to ask. 300: The Board Game simultaneously exceeded expectations and disappointed.
Andrew Parks has done an exceptional job of creating a world in which players can immerse themselves. There are many well thought out touches that bring this game to life. I have a minor quibble with the legibility of the counters, due primarily to the use of movie stills, rather than icons to indicate unit type. However, this choice is understandable and excusable. The one thing that really prevents 300: The Board Game from being a really great, trashy, beat the crap out of your opponent game, is the use of an outmoded, arithmetic heavy battle resolution system. With a sleeker battle resolution system, such as the ones employed for Memoir '44, Nexus Ops or Monster Mash I, 300: The Board Game could have been that elusive, fast, light, exciting, 30 minute, two player game that would have saved me from another round of dull Euro fillers.
Out of the box, the game looks tasty. I almost ripped the board upon removing it. The board fills the box right to the very edge. Probing with my fingers, I found the fold and pulled. The board lurched. Much to my surprise, I had only grasped half the board's six panels. The other half swung free. I quickly lay the board down to prevent ripping it. The board was huge. Size does matter. I love the epic proportions, and the sense of place the map conveys.
The board is larger than it needed to be for a two player, column battle. Essentially, only the 6 Coastal Plain and the 6 Hot Gates spaces are necessary for game play. The rest of the board is there for thematic impact and convenience. The board is well thought out, providing everything needed to play, plus a nice clear space in the middle for rolling dice. There is a glory point track around the outer edge for keeping score. Two player aids, the Round Order and Battle Chart are printed on the upper corner. Player aids on the board are always a plus. The Persian and Spartan Camp spaces hold reinforcement tokens, so no need to worry about piles of tokens in front of players getting knocked off the table. The game lasts for 6 rounds. However, rather than having a generic turn marker, Ephialtes, the hunchback, moves one space along the goat path at the end of each round. This nice thematic touch not only keeps players in the world of the game, but also makes it easy to remember to move the marker (remember, we are the people who forget to move cars, so remembering to move a turn counter is a challenge). The only thing that I don't like about the board is the "300" written across the middle. It's like "Who the hell tagged the cliffs?" [insert lame Vandals joke here]
There are two decks of battle cards. One for the Persians, and one for the Spartans. The cards are printed on the thinest card stock ever. I think I have received greeting cards printed on thicker paper. I guess they blew the budget on the board. The cards are battle or movement modifiers. They are pretty typical - add to your attack, add to your defense, cancel the effect of your opponent's card, cancel wounds, immediately kill off some of your opponents units, etc. Most have some criteria that must be met to be used, such as a specific unit or leader must be in the battle. Each card also has a still from the movie and a quote. The rules actually state that you must read the quote aloud when playing the card, although it does not stipulate that you must read it in a deep theatrical voice. So points for providing us with the quotes, and points for pictures of hot Spartans.
The Spartans and Persians units are cardboard counters. They are about the size of a quarter and are round, and thick, and glossy. They aren't minis, but they do feel good in your hand, and there's a certain tactile satisfaction when sliding them around on the board. The Persians also get two war beast counters which are about the size of a half dollar. This sizing is, like the board, well thought out. For stacking and attack limits, each war beast is equal to three regular units. The larger size token takes up about as much room on a space as three regular sized counters. This makes it easy to not screw up the stacking limit. Another nice touch is that Xerxes, the God King of the Persians, is worth 20 points to the Spartans if killed. Dilios, the storyteller, will subtract 10 points from the Spartans score if killed (he's the only Spartan with a glory point number). This provides incentive to the respective players to have these two characters survive the battle.
Each counter has a still from the movie, as well as unit type, an attack number, and a defense number printed on them. The Persian units also have a glory point number. One side has the starting stats, with a blue boarder for the Spartan units and a yellow border on the Persian units. The flip side has the wounded stats, and is bordered in red for both the Persians and the Spartans. Here is where the design stumbles a bit. If you are sitting on one side of this huge board, looking out over your army at about a 45 degree angle, you know what you see? Yellow or Blue ringed counters with a big blur in the middle, reflecting light off their glossy pictures. You have to stand up, and bend over, with your face perpendicular to, and no more than a foot above the counters, just to distinguish one unit from another. Once a bunch of units are wounded, you can't even tell which counters are yours. Don't even think about playing this game with someone over 40. They'll be hanging four inches above the board, whipping their glasses on and off and swearing. You'll be like, "Get your fat head out of my way, I can't see my dudes." After a couple of beers, forget about it. You'll both be leaning over, and smacking your heads together, and there will be real blood on the board. Okay, that's an exaggeration. We didn't bleed, but it hurt like hell. After that, we used glass blobs to mark our units so we could tell what was what with out injuring ourselves. Fortunately, there aren't that many different unit types, The Persians have Infantry, Cavalry, Immortals and four leaders. The Spartans just have Spartans and five leaders.
Finally there are 6 "Battle Dice," which are just standard six sided dice. These dice are used as follows. You determine which of your dudes are involved in the battle, and add up their attack numbers, being careful not to whack heads with your opponent who is doing the same thing. Then you look up your attack number on the Battle Chart printed on the board, to determine how many dice you roll. Then you and your opponent simultaneously roll your dice and add up your totals. That's your damage number. The Persians have to kill off dudes until the defense numbers of the dead dudes add up to the damage number that the Spartans rolled. Then you add up all the glory points on the dead Persian dudes, and the Spartans score that many points. The dead Persian dudes get reincarnated as reinforcements and are put into the Persian camp. The Spartans then kill off dudes until the defense number of the dead Spartan dudes add up to the damage number that the Persians rolled. The Spartan dead dudes are just dead, and get tossed out of the game. Additionally, if the total of your defense and the total of the damage doesn't work out all nicey nice, you flip a guy to his wounded side. So for example, if you had three units with a defense of 10, 4, 2, and your opponent rolled an 11, you could kill off your 10, and flip your 2, or you could kill off your 4 and your 2 and flip your 10. Got that? Actually it is not difficult, it is just tedious.
So here's how the game works. The Spartans have to earn 100 glory points before goat boy makes it to the Persian camp (i.e. earn 100 points in six turns). The Spartans earn points by killing Persian dudes, and by taking ground. The Persians win if they prevent the Spartans from earning 100 points (i.e. if the Persians don't die too much) or by fighting their way through the Hot Gates and taking the Spartan camp (i.e. moving onto a row's last space, which is adjacent to the Spartan camp). There are 6 rounds. Each round you draw battle cards, march, battle, and finally move the hunchback along the goat path.
During the March phase, you move in your reinforcements. Each Persian unit can move one space forward. Each Spartan unit can move either one space forward, or one space sideways. There really isn't a lot of movement choices, and most of the time the choices are a no brainer. You just keep pushing your dudes forward. I like that this mirrors the movie and gives you a sense of men constantly surging forward. It is particularly evocative when playing the Persians. You get a real sense of the frustration of having so many men, but not being able to push them through to the front line.
The real game play is in the battle cards. We have been playing with the "gamer" variants, which gives you a starting hand of 5 cards, and allows you to pick two cards at the beginning of each round. Additionally, you can use a card to add one point to your attack number, rather than use it for it's specific purpose. This allows you to burn your useless cards, such as those that require a specific hero to be in a battle, when that hero has already been killed off. Typically at the beginning of each battle you have a hand of about four or five cards, so you have some choices.
During the Battle phase you chuck dice and kill dudes.
So here is how the game plays. The initial set up is dictated, so there is no over thinking how to place your guys. You don't even have to decide what guys to move into battle. You begin face to face, and immediately start hacking at each other.
This is Sparta! This is not grammar school. Battle resolution should be immediate, visual and visceral. Arithmetic is not exciting. Counting things is not exciting. Bookkeeping is not exciting. When I have to pause to add/subtract seven different strings of small numbers to resolve one battle, the game just loses momentum. I am pulled out of the world created by the game. The forth wall is breached. My suspension of disbelief is broken. I get flashbacks of my cubicle at the office.
The Persians: [throwing down a Battle card] I would gladly kill my own men for victory! I add two to all my attack numbers and subtract 1 from all defense numbers.
The Spartans: [throwing down a Battle card] Here we stand! Plus one to all units defense.
The players grab the dice and face off, but wait. Stop. First we must do some arithmetic.
Spartans: Okay, I'm 8 plus 6 is 14 plus 4 is 18. Look it up on the chart, I get three dice.
Persians: I'm 3 times 2, so that's only one die.
Spartans: Don't forget your card.
Persians: Oh yeah, Okay, I get 2 dice.
The dice are thrown. And it is time to do a little more addition to determine your damage number. Then some subtraction to figure out which units get killed off. Don't forget your card modifiers. Then some more addition to calculate Glory Points. In total, seven little addition/subtraction exercises are required to resolve each battle and track points. Gee wasn't that an exciting battle.
And that was only the first row. Now reapeat the above to resolve the second row.
Move the hunchback along the goat path. Pick some cards. Push your tokens forward. A couple of movie quotes, and it's time for three minutes of grammar school arithmetic again.
The amount of work required: depth of game ratio is just off. For me, getting that balance right is the heart of a great game. Unfortunately 300: The Board Game was so close to being an amazing, trashy filler, and then just blew the balance.
On the other hand, the man likes 300: The Board Game. He says if I let him play the Spartans, he'll play in costume, so I expect we will be playing again, just not at Game Club.