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RICHARD III digital from  Avalon-Digital I've been a constant fan of Columbia Games ' many block games and was a daily onl...





I've been a constant fan of Columbia Games' many block games and was a daily online player of Hammer of The Scots with other gamers worldwide, when Columbia hosted their own site for play.  Sadly they chose to close that some years ago.  When I discovered that Avalon-Digital were in line to produce four of my favourite Columbia games: namely Hammer of the Scots, Julius Caesar, Crusader Rex and Richard III, I was hyper when I got the chance to review the first of the four that they are working on.

Being from the UK it was a double bonus that their first choice was Richard III.  At this point I should point out that I've been playing with a beta  model that is still in the process of being finalised.  Also its original physical version demands a very asymmetrical style of play from the two sides, so I was intrigued to see how well they would cope with this.  

For those of you unfamiliar with this game and many of the similar games produced by Columbia, its system uses an area movement map.  In this case broadly covering the Wars of the Roses, it features most of Great Britain.  In its original physical version, the units are wooden blocks to which adhesive labels designating the major lords who took part in these wars have to be affixed on one side, thus creating a simple but effective fog of war.  Around the edges are a series of pips that indicate the number of dice that are rolled in combat and an alpha-numeric value [e.g. A1, B3, C2 etc] that shows the number or less to be scored to achieve a hit and the letter conveys the order of precedence for firing.

In the case of Richard III, the game plays over three Rounds that represent a period of three Campaigns.  Each Round a player is dealt 7 cards and each player plays one at a time simultaneously and their value determines both initiative and how many areas can be activated and/or new blocks introduced on to the map.  Among these cards are a few that introduce special Events.  Victory is achieved by having the most nobles on the board by the end of the game or by eliminating all five of one player's potential claimants to the throne.

In essence the digital version is recreating all that the physical game covers both in what you see and how it plays.  Inevitably, though the map is identical, the reduction in size to a computer screen or tablet makes for several difficulties. The first is in distinguishing both the names of the areas and the colour of the boundaries between them; the latter being very important for deciding how many units may cross a border and whether they may continue movement or cease movement.  Though there have been suggestions that the ability to zoom in will be part of the final game, the copy I'm working with does not have that facility.  This is something I judge to be ultimately essential to ease of play.

The other factor here is that the map also has heraldic shields printed in the areas that show where nobles may be placed on the map when recruited.  Currently, this is physically impossible to see at all clearly, but the problem is avoided by potential areas lighting up when you place your cursor over the block you want to select.  That's fine, but it does mean that in the early stages of a Round you can spend rather a lot of time cycling through the blocks to check where they might be placed.   Also there is no take-back facility.

For those who prefer [especially when playing solitaire against an A.I.] to be able to way up multiple options that may be a feature that they will object to not having.  However, as one who tends to be a little impatient of those who suffer from excess Analysis Paralysis, I'm more than happy with the current process.

What is totally satisfactory is the combat sequence which is handled very effectively and certainly cuts out the sort of potential mistakes that can be made in a game with real physical components and opponents.  No getting the order of battling with units wrong, no having to remember which units have the special ability to conduct a charge or roll for treachery and no problem of remembering which units are reinforcing a battle or what happens on the odd occasions when the Attacker becomes the Defender. 
Instead you have a clear display, as seen above, showing which unit currently may fire and what its other options are.  When there is a choice of unit to attack it will also indicate those choices.

As in the original game, you will also have the option where to move your units to if you are defeated and have to retreat or where you can regroup to, if you are victorious.  The computer also rolls the dice for you - no cocked dice on a computer screen - and allocates hits totally accurately.  This is an excellent part of the program which speeds up immensely what tended to be the parts of the game that took up most time.

All in all, the game plays out swiftly and with no technical glitches.
However, there are currently two drawbacks.  The first is that at the end of a Round, nobles follow a set of rules for where they have to return to on the map.  This can be every important for your intended plans for the next Round, but at the moment the computer doesn't just decide for your opponent, but also returns your blocks too.  This is a very important element that needs to be returned to the player's active control.

There is one final concern and it is a major one; the quality of the A.I. for all its actions whether moving, moving into a combat situation or introducing new units to the board.  So far, playing either side multiple times I have won every single game and nearly always by substantial margins.

So, at the moment, the program has the potential to be a success and as a lover of these games I hope that ultimately the A.I. will be developed to the level needed to give a genuinely challenging opponent.