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Reviews: Sack Armies
by Allan "Sven" Sugarbaker

Back of Sack 
Armies tokenMany games try to capture the feel of a skirmish force, surrounding and destroying enemies. Many of those same games fail in their mission. However, every once in a while, an elegant system comes along that is both intuitive and comprehensive, placing gamers firmly inside the command bunker and in charge of a diverse group of skilled combatants. Sack Armies is such a game.

What's Inside
Sack Armies is a disk game, using full-color, hexagonal disks (called "tokens") that are punched out from cardstock. This is a painless process, as each token punches out cleanly, with hardly any exceptions. Just in case, though, punch them from the face side, pushing away from yourself. The fantasy artwork on each token varies in quality from excellent to above average, though your tastes may differ.

The game tokens come in starter packs and booster packs (called Army Packs and Reinforcement Packs, respectively). Wait, wait, don't run off screaming "Collectible?! Aiiee!!" yet. Just opening a single starter pack unleashes a horde of tokens (42 of 'em, to be precise, but it sure feels like a lot when hefting them in your sack), which is enough to form an interesting little attack force. The addition of a booster (Reinforcement) pack brings 18 more tokens to the mix, augmenting your troops further and bringing your total to 60 tokens. All that from just a single starter and booster.

Those of you who nearly ran away screaming from the first mention of CCG-terminology should know Sack Armies isn't nearly as bad as most collectible games. In Magic or L5R, a player is rewarded for pouring all his money into the game to get those elusive rare cards. Once he has all the rares, he can make killer decks and destroy all who oppose him. In Sack Armies, the rarities still come into play, but are held in check by army construction guidelines. Each token, be they Unit token, Battlefield, Spell, or Maneuver, has a rank that corresponds to its rarity (shown by a number of black bars on the right side, common = 1 bar, uncommon = 2 bars, rare = 3). Players can use any tokens they wish, as long as the total ranks in their army does not exceed 40.

In this manner, an army-plus-battlefields can be 40 tokens strong, or as small as twelve rares and an uncommon.With these restrictions in place, a player using nothing but rares would be hard pressed to survive, since once a unit is removed from play, there are few ways to bring it back. The player relying purely on powerful cards will find himself overwhelmed.

Ah yes, I said "hefting them in your sack," didn't I? As a thoughtful gesture/marketing gimmick, each Sack Armies starter pack doesn't just contain the rules and seven token sheets, it also has a forest green, cloth Sack Armies pouch with drawstrings, about the size of a large dicebag. The drawstrings are metallic gold in color, to match the game's title, proudly emblazoned on the side of the "sack." Frankly, I'm thinking about carrying my other disk-games around like this, too (though with all the sacks inside a large box, just in case).

For you hardcore collectors, here's the breakdown:

  • Army Pack: The three sheets of tokens in front of the rule sheet have your rare and uncommon tokens. When looking at each of these, the token in the upper left is your rare, the three tokens going in a row from upper right to lower left are your uncommons, and the other two are commons. The four token sheets after the neatly-folded sack are all commons, so you'll build up a bunch of those.
  • Reinforcement Pack: Your first sheet should be all commons. The other two sheets follow the rarity locations I outlined above. Fortunately, some Reinforcement Packs have the Expeditionary Force checklist inside the cover wrapper, so you can double check all this and indulge your urge to "collect 'em all."

    There are also a few promo tokens floating around, found mainly at tournaments and conventions. Thus far, these promo pieces are Renegade ______, where the blank is filled with one of the races (Elf, Shazari, etc). Go hunt them down like the dogs that they are.

    Some Background
    The world of Tyrannia plays host to the Sack Armies game. Tyrannia has two major continents, the Cradle and the Tangle. As their names imply, the Cradle is where the civilized races have their main populations, and the Tangle is a largely-untamed wilderness. Long ago, each civilization of the Cradle began settling parts of the Tangle, shipping valuable resources back home. Life was good.

    Then came the Gloom Time (when life was not-so-good). An unknown event caused a vast Fire Wall to spring up between the two continents, cutting them off from each other for 2,000 years. Many civilizations were decimated by earthquakes and tidal waves, further effects of the Fire Wall's appearance.

    Now a gap in the Fire Wall has been discovered, and everyone's pouring through it in a massive land grab. In Sack Armies, each player is a General in command of a small army. These armies must be used to conquer new land for the General's race, lest they lose their foothold on the Tangle a second time.

    Let the Battle Commence
    The goal of Sack Armies is a simple one: win the day. This can be done by either gaining control of all of your opponent's battlefields (thus eliminating him), or by wiping out his forces.

    Each player starts by participating in building the Virtual Battleground. One at a time, each player places his Battlefield tokens, adjacent to each other and leaving a single hex space of neutral territory between. This doesn't mean a single line of battlefields facing another line across the way; just that the first token for each player must be exactly one hex space away from those of one of his competitors. Battlefield tokens have a large arrow that points toward the controller of that region, and is rotated to face whichever player has gained control. Should a player lose control of all of his original battlefields, he is out of the game.

    Each turn, a player can: draw up to three tokens from his sack (the draw pile, effectively); deploy up to three tokens (even including more battlefields); move up to two units; or attack an enemy unit (with multiple attackers, if desired). This step-by-step, one action per turn style of play emphasizes strategic thought, and gives Sack Armies the feel of a brutal chess variant.

    Here's where the armies come into play. Army units are deployed face down, either on a Battlefield controlled by the player or in the neutral zone next to it (a one space zone extends around the outside of all clusters of Battlefields). Units move around at their individual movement rates, and once a unit is next to an enemy, he's in their line-of-sight and flips over. Moving onto an enemy unit initiates a melee attack, and challenges for control of the Battlefield in question.

    Certain units can use either Spell tokens or Maneuver tokens (or both!), which are noted by a colored stripe across the front of the Unit. Spells or Maneuvers are placed under the Unit that wants to use them, to a maximum of 3 spells and 3 maneuvers. These can be activated later at the appropriate time, often to tremendous effect.

    Combats are resolved in a simple, yet effective, manner. Called the Two-Flip System, the defender and attacker both flip a coin. If a player gets "heads," he flips again, and again, until he finally gets a "tails." He counts the number of heads he got, and multiplies that by his Unit's damage rating, to get the damage dealt to his opponent. For ranged attacks, only one flip of heads is counted. Of course, should either attacker or defender get tails on his first flip, he does no damage, a nasty shock during important battles, and one that tends to be an equal-opportunity problem.

    Original Playtest
    As an interesting side note, I thought I'd mention a little about the early playtest we were allowed to participate in.

    As pre-release playtesters (heck, we were pre-printed product), we got to experience the game in an unusual manner. It was as though Tyranny Games were trailblazers and we were trackers, trying our best to follow their trail. Tyranny Games did their best to leave markers for us pointing the way, but they already knew the trail, and as newcomers, some minor confusion arose from their instructions. However, even a slight amount of confusion couldn't reduce our enjoyment of the combat system, and all those neat little pieces. Our feedback after getting "lost" in the game is exactly what a company wants from a playtest, anyway.

    Our greyscale, printed tokens, glued onto manilla folders and cut out by hand, made it hard to read some of the card details. Our main problem was in determining who could use spells, maneuvers, or neither, as those capabilities are marked by color (red, blue, or green). However, the trade off was that we got to see and use a version of every token from the set. At the time, we didn't know which were rare and which were common (we got one of each), but after a bit of playing, it became apparent that certain tokens were death incarnate.

    In those first days of playtest sessions, with the aforementioned greyscale cut-out tokens, the combination of any flyer with Stealth or Obscure was popular, as your enchanted flyer could rarely be attacked. The Edge of the World battlefield token, which sends units slain there back into the sack instead of out of the game, was a unanimous favorite after the goblins simply could not be broken because of it ("The Chief is dead. Long live the same Chief!"). The Screening Fronts maneuver is nasty, and I would have loved it if I had used it instead of getting abused by it.

    Thoughts on the Full Release
    Having seen the early version, the full release of Sack Armies was exciting. Few changes were necessary since when we'd seen it last, the sign of a solid, well-designed system. So when the Landshark from our playtest copy was renamed as Devourer in the final version, we noticed the cosmetic change but were unfazed by it. Similar minor alterations were noted: Saplings became Thornlings, Hounds became Dogs of War, Battle Rage became Death from Above, Knight of the Hunt became Fey Knights, Spitters became Shazari Spitters, and a few others.

    Color! Wow, that was nice to finally see, after agonizing over unit colors on our now cheap-looking printouts. Made some of the artwork look even better than before, if that's possible.

    I still find it interesting that players can't bluff that they have spells or maneuvers in their hand. Unless the cards are Associated (placed under) a unit, you ain't got no game. Later sets/tokens may include special abilities to get around this. If so, I'm playin' with 'em, just to see how it changes things.

    Tyrannny Games and Precedence Studios make it exceedingly easy to check out the game before buying in. The full rules can be downloaded, and can be used with the printable trainer set to give you a good sense of whether Sack Armies is the game for you. You've got no excuse not to try it. If you don't have a computer, get yourself to the library, you dolt. With Sack Armies: Colonization coming this December, and Sack Armies: Fortifications following in March 2002, you can get in on the ground floor of this nifty game while it's young.

    As a collectible game, Sack Armies makes me long for plastic binder pages with hex-shaped pockets to proudly display my combatants. As a disk combat game, it makes me want to march forth and slaughter. Often.

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