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Reviews - Battle for Hill 218
 
by Lee Valentine


Battle for Hill 218

The Battle for Hill 218

Game Published by Your Move Games
Game Design by Darwin Kastle
$9.95

This game is featured in our OgreCave Christmas Gift Guide 2008.

The Battle for Hill 218 (referred to as "Hill 218" throughout) is a hot new game by Your Move Games (YMG), the company that brought you Battleground, Succession, and Space Station Assault. Hill 218 is a non-collectible two player, war-themed, abstract, strategy card game. It's the second game designed by Darwin Kastle that YMG has published.

Its closest cousin in the gaming industry is probably BTRC's Infinite Armies. Unlike Infinite Armies, Hill 218 is not available as a PDF game, but is instead a professionally printed card game. Like Infinite Armies, Hill 218 is not an attempt to recreate a specific historical battle, but is instead an abstract battle over a fictional territory.

The Cards
In Hill 218, players each have their own deck of 24 cards (plus 2 "Air Strike" cards that are left outside of the deck). The two decks are functionally identical in every way, including the backs, except that they have different border colors on the card faces (green vs. purple). Every card features a picture of a specific unit type ("Infantry", "Special Forces", "Tanks", "Artillery", etc.). In addition, each card has custom information about where it can be played on the table (its "Supply Line" information), its field of fire on the turn it is initially played, its field of fire on subsequent turns, and the strength of its firepower.

Playing Your Cards
Hill 218 is played on an imaginary grid of cards, where cards are played face up on the table parallel to and generally adjacent to other cards already on the table. At the center of the grid is a card representing Hill 218 itself. Contrary to what you would expect, the goal is not to enter and control that board space. In fact, the Hill 218 card is a no-man's land which cannot be directly interacted with by either player. It is simply the hub around which the rest of the cards in the game are played.

Each player starts with a hand of 3 cards and then draws and plays two cards per turn. On his first turn, the starting player draws and plays only one card.

The object of the game is actually to play one of your cards into a specific grid space orthogonally adjacent to Hill 218 on your opponent's side of the board. That's your opponent's "Base" space. As soon as you occupy your opponent's Base, you win the game.

When you play a new card onto the table it has to either go into your own Base space or be adjacent to one of your other cards. If it's not played to your Base space then what counts as a legal adjacent space on the board is shown on the "Supply Line" information of the card you are playing. Normally a card must be played orthogonally adjacent to a card you've already played. The "Special Forces" card must be played diagonally adjacent to one of your other cards in play. "Paratroopers" can either be deployed along normal supply lines, or they can ignore supply lines and drop in almost anywhere on the grid, but if they drop in, they can't be played onto your opponent's Base.

If you don't play the card directly to your own Base, then you must be able to trace a "Supply Line" from the card you just played, through a chain of your intervening cards, all the way back to your Base. Cutting an enemy's Supply Line can thus make it difficult for him to keep expanding into your territory – he has to branch out from somewhere else or repair a severed supply line.

Open Fire
When a card is played it attempts to fire at one of your opponent's cards (your choice) within the card's initial field of fire, and one of your previously played cards may provide supporting fire against the same target. There are two firing strengths in the game, which I'll call "strong" and "weak" (the game doesn't have names for these two categories of fire, but instead differentiates them with symbols). Strong fire immediately destroys the target without support from another card. Only two kinds of units ("Artillery" and "Tanks") have strong fire and they only have it when they are first played. Weak fire destroys a unit only if it is bolstered by a supporting shot from a previously played unit that is adjacent to the target. As noted earlier, units have both an initial field of fire and a supporting field of fire on their cards; all supporting fire is weak.

For example, you might have a previously played Infantry to the right of an enemy tank and you play a new Infantry card to the left of the tank. All Infantry fire is weak and both their initial and supporting shots can only be made against another orthogonally adjacent target. Playing a new Infantry unit triggers a firing sequence against one target, and the combination of the weak initial fire and the weak supporting fire is enough to score a kill. When a kill is scored, the target is discarded from play.

Artillery has an initial field of fire against non-adjacent targets. Supporting artillery fire and all other fire in the game is only against an adjacent target.

Targeted cards have no differentiated defense. Every card is destroyed by a single strong shot or simultaneous fire from two weak units. There are no defensively playable cards or actions. And unlike many wargames, Hill 218 is sufficiently abstract that a card is either destroyed and removed from play, or it is functioning at full efficiency (there is no "Damaged" or "Wounded" status of any kind in Hill 218).

You can forego the normal play of a card to play one of the two "Air Strike" cards you are alloted each game and bring the rain. Air Strike cards start on the side of the board and allow you to select any enemy target anywhere on the board and immediately destroy them (as if they had just been hit by strong fire).

Winning the Game
Play normally lasts until one party occupies his opponent's Base and is declared the winner. If that never occurs for either player, then the game ends when both players have totally run out of cards and actions (including "Air Strikes"); you don't reshuffle your cards. In this instance, the player with the most units still on the table wins the game. Given the fast play of cards (2 per player per turn) and the small 24 card decks, games generally last about 15 minutes.

Components
Normally YMG produces games that have absolutely eye-popping color art. The cards in Hill 218 feature what appears to be black-and-white public domain military photos primarily of U.S. soldiers and ordnance. While the card art isn't full color, the card backs and borders are. The iconography and layout of the cards are interesting, but not as physically beautiful as most of YMG's other products. Each card is, however, very easy to read, has a clean layout, and quite functionally carries out the requirements of the game. The black-and-white art is reproduced very crisply. So overall, I think that YMG made some good choices in terms of usability.

The only let down for me on the art selection is the art for the central Hill 218 card itself: it's just a countour map of sepia colored lines. I would have really liked to see a picture of a hillside getting bombarded by artillery or getting stormed by infantry. That said, given that it looks so distinct from the rest of the cards in the set, it does make an obvious centerpiece around which to build the game grid, and so never gets misidentified as a unit card.

The cards themselves are printed on a nice coated stock that appears to be around 300 GSM in weight (about the thickness and durability of a Battleground card) . They are sturdy and will survive the heavy repeated use that this game is likely to see. At a price point of just $9.95 I have no complaints about the stock of the cards or the appearance of the cards. In fact, I found them of surprisingly good quality compared to most other games in the $10 price range, and even surpassing some games in the $15.00 to $20.00 price range.

The packaging is well-designed and professional, but not particularly eye catching. The deck box has the product logo in front of a World War II ammo box. The contrast of the logo is good and highly readable.

The game comes with a 2.5" x 3.5" black-and-white rulebook. The rulebook has a clean layout and is easy to understand. For those gamers who don't like looking at tiny rulebooks, YMG also has the rulebook online as a PDF. In any case, the rulebook is only 24 small pages in a reasonable font, which should make for a quick read for most gamers. It's also got a table of contents, which many game designers forget.

Try Before You Buy
Andrew Gross, a friend of YMG, has created a Java-based computerized version of the game, allowing you to try the game before you buy it. That's usually a very good sign as to the game's quality, and it is particularly true for Hill 218. This software has been tested on PCs, but not on Linux, Unix, or Mac. The game has a simple, bare bones interface with a good artificial intelligence ("AI") system if you want to play the game against the computer. It also features the ability to play online via a peer-to-peer direct connection between a client and a host, provided both players have the software. I tested only the AI and not the networking capabilities of the software.

The software is fun and functional, but I found that in some games the cards being played could end up partially off the visible area of the screen with no ready means to scroll to view the cards in question. Additionally, the computer plays so fast that sometimes I found myself confused when my cards vanished from the screen, particularly when the AI "Air Striked" one of my cards. The computer simply plays out its turn as fast as possible without communicating to you how or why cards are destroyed. This "trust me, you're dead" sort of interface makes the software less effective as a teaching tool, but is probably great for a player who is already familiar with the game.

That said, since the Java version is fun and absolutely free, you can't complain about it much for the price. Once you've learned the game, it'll serve you well, and it allows for pickup games online for those times when you can't get together with your favorite Hill 218 opponent. Andrew Gross really did a great job programming the AI for the game.

For Retailers
If you are a retailer who has customers who are fans of YMG's Battleground line of products, let them know about this game and they'll probably pick this one up too. While the packaging alone is not audacious enough for the game to sell itself to other gamers, the game play is. Make sure your Alpha Gamer gets his hands on Hill 218 and he'll likely chat this up around your game store. The game is very fast and you can probably demo the game in under 5 minutes. Keep a stash of these near the cash register, demo often, and this game may add a surprising additional revenue stream for you this holiday season. If you have open gaming space, definitely keep a copy on your gaming tables, because that's the surest way to sell a game like this – let the consumer play it. Hill 218 doesn't come in a POP display; you order the decks individually, meaning that there's no good excuse not to order a deck or two of the game to try it out at your store.

YMG goes to more trade shows and conventions than even some of the big boys in the industry. So, like Battleground, expect great promotion and support from YMG for Hill 218.

Conclusions
The Battle for Hill 218 is a fast-paced game that has the vibe of speed chess with the trappings of a wargame. Few pieces, few rules, high play speed, and novel mechanics create a different game each time. Because the game is short, The Battle for Hill 218 can easily be played as a great filler game or in a longer series of matches; it's fast enough for the former and deep enough for the latter. The game has enough strategic depth that it has substantial replay value even though there are relatively few component types. I'm fond of the game in spite of the fact that I am not very good at it, which goes to prove just how intriguing the mechanics really are. At $9.95 this is definitely a great stocking stuffer for your favorite gamer this holiday season. Just don't forget to buy an extra copy to stuff into your own stocking; it'll get a lot of use.

Lee's ratings

Overall Score: B+ (A- compared to other similarly priced games)
Component Appearance: B
Component Quality: A-
Rules: A-
Ease of Learning: B+
Retailer Salability: B+ if demo'd, lower otherwise
Time to Learn: 5 minutes
Time to Play: 10 to 30 minutes (15 minutes on average)

Links

Disclaimer: The designer of The Battle for Hill 218 and the owners of YMG are all local to me, and I am familiar with all of them. I have nonetheless tried to provide an unbiased review as to game play and component quality.
 

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