En Garde

Abacus, £10
Designed by Reiner Knizia
2 Players, about 10-15 minutes
Reviewed by Mike Siggins

Flying in the face of GDW's claim to the name, this is the latest from Reiner Knizia, the man currently incapable of designing a duff game and churning them out every couple of months. Neatly coinciding with the World Fencing Championships in Essen and, spookily enough, my running into a party of fencers on the train (they are possessed of oddly shaped sports bags), this recent release is a neat, quick game that recreates the feel of fencing using simple card systems - in fact, using the techniques at which messrs Parr and Goodchild excel. Thanks to its format, it isn't going to set the gaming world on fire, but I enjoyed it and suspect you might as well.

Fencing has always fascinated me for some reason, as has Kendo. For anyone who knows me, this might seem out of character. Perhaps the thought of bashing someone with a large stick with minimal chance of injury to either party appeals on a deeply suppressed feral level. More importantly, both sports have a splendid 'kit' factor - I'd love either (or both) of those masks. I did once try to take up fencing at school but failed to make the grade on limb flexibility - or that's what I was told by the master in charge. The fact that all the boys chosen had pert buttocks and fair skin and were able to do the splits probably had nothing whatsoever to do with their selection - 'Right, that'll do boys. Off to the showers with you.' I was quite happy to have missed the cut because I can't shower with men of my gender (to misquote Woody Allen). Anyway, I was more than put off when I saw them practising later on, as the bouts seemed to involve a lot of mad charging around, slashing of swords and much grunting. I think I was looking more for the Errol Flynn dashing but subtle approach, saying 'Hah' a lot.

With this is mind, I have bought all the games that I've ever seen on Fencing which amounts to just the one which I picked up at the Bloomfield Auction, beating out Steve Jackson who wanted to raid it for spikey combat systems. Snappily titled Fencing, it is by Passtyme Cards and was published in 1976. The game is quite good really considering its age and is markedly more technical than En Garde, featuring various types of parry, counter-ripostes and all sorts of detailed stuff. It suffers in two areas: ropey rules that make it difficult to understand what is going on and a very basic card system. Nevertheless, it could well be more accurate for all I know. Apart from this one, which must be quite rare by now, there are no other fencing games that I know of. I did have hopes that Lambourne would cover the topic in their Sporting Deals range, but that seems to have gone quiet while Terry works on his Ryder Cup magnum opus - shot by shot for every player (eager gamers can expect to finish a tournament by the millenium!). Review next time I hope.

Which rambling diversion brings me to the game in question. The game is played using two metal dobbers which are placed at the two ends of the segmented board, 23 sections long, representing the piste. The aim, as in the real thing, is to score five hits on your opponent before he does the same to you. Each player is dealt five cards randomly numbered between 1 and 5 which he uses to move up and down the piste. Cards are played one at a time to move and are replenished each turn as one jockeys for position, perhaps forcing the opponent to the end of the track or conserving 'good' cards to build up to an attack.

In the standard game (the basic is not worth your time), an attack is performed by laying a card that would move you exactly onto your opponents space. You can then add cards to that to build up the strength of the attack (ending up with say a 2, 4 and a 5 laid). This either results in a parry (by playing the same number of cards to exactly match the total attack number) or a hit. So if you start the turn five spaces away and lay a five, the other player must lay a five as well, otherwise his light goes on and you're one up. If you successfully parry, it is possible to riposte (counterattack) by immediately laying a card that would move you onto the attacker's space. eg in the above example, yet another 5. Once a hit is scored by either player, you return to the startpoints, redeal the cards and start again.

The advanced game adds more interest as it is possible to simulate the famous charging attack by laying one card to move (we call it a run) immediately followed by a lunge. This two part attack gives the opponent the chance to fall back (by laying a movement card immediately after the run) as an alternative to the parry. I would recommend this rule as although it makes the fencers much more powerful, it allows attacks from out to ten space range, which not only keeps you on your toes but makes for a quicker and more dynamic resolution. It also feels a lot more like fencing, for those that care about such things.

If both players try for position or have a number of unsuccessful attacks, eventually the pack of cards will come to an end. At this point the player drawing the last card can suffer one more attack and then the bout finishes - no reshuffling the discards or anything like that. It must be said that this is fairly unusual (happening perhaps once in ten bouts but likely to get more common as players improve) but what galls is that the winner is decided by being furthest down the piste. If they are equally advanced, it ends in a draw. This is, I'm pretty sure, an artificial gaming construct that ensures bouts don't go on all night, but I would have preferred something a bit more exciting and realistic.

And that, as they say, is about it - almost. Where it scores, as do most of these type of games, is that it works on the atmosphere level in that you can imagine prancing up and down the piste, hand on hip, lunging or flicking when the time comes. This along with the conservation and timely use of cards adds just about enough to the thought processes to hold the interest. The intriguing thing though, and becoming this designer's trademark, is that when you think you have cracked it and start to get a bit bored, another stratum of play appears. The key lies in attack rather than movement and specifically the cards, their combinations and numbering (Alan Parr nods sagely at this point). I think this could all be rather clever, but then again I could be reading in a bit too much.

The interesting aspect of the game is that, aside from their basic incremental values for movement, all the cards are useful in their own way in combat, partly because you need a good spread to cover attacks from any range but also because of the mathematical combinations. It is here that one also runs up against the game vs simulation line and, although I doubt the designer wished to cross it, the very best sports games work on both levels. So in examining this, please bear in mind that I am not criticising En Garde for failing to deliver on the simulation front, I just considered it quite interesting to see how the game has come about and what, by luck or judgement, is hidden inside this apparently simple game.

Right, an example will help matters. Errol is seven spaces away from Fred. Errol attacks using a long range run (a 4) and then a 3 to attack. He loads up with two more 3s for a total of 13 with four cards. Fred parries with 2x5s, a 2 and a 1. He can then riposte with a 3 should he be lucky enough to have one. No great problem here and, I suspect, the more cards played the more chance of matching in combination? However, scenario B might be that Errol is just two spaces away. This time he holds a useful 2,2,1,1,1 so he can attack with the two or 1 + 1. The 1 + 1 is interesting as he could load up with another 1 making the hit a certainty (the card value distribution is known to both players from the rules - there are five of each) as Fred is not going to have three 1s to parry, though he could of course choose to retire after the first 'run' card, especially if he knew what was coming. By the same token, a number of 5s is going to be hard to stop, so it is clear that the extremes are more effective than the mid range numbers. ie there is only one way to parry 3x5s (=15) or 3x1s (=3) but several to parry 3x3 (=9) (4,4,1/4,3,2/5,3,1 etc). I can't be fussed to do the probabilities but I'm pretty sure this is correct. I will live in fear now in case Professor Parr writes in with '1/10. See me.' in red ink.

That all works well in game terms, and we have a clever little maths system hiding away here, but looking at the implications for actual fencing, it might be a little odd. The figures would imply, to the layman, that an attack made from very short range is more difficult to parry and more likely to succeed than one from mid range (I would go along with this, plus it is quite hard to get in close), but the longer range attacks are equally tough - could this be something to do with a long lunge? I'm not entirely sure this should be the case, but knowing little about the sport I can't say for sure. I would think, as I suggested earlier, that the game is designed as a game and any realism is a fortuitous by-product. Perhaps a fencer (Madeleine?) would let us have the benefit of their knowledge. I am intrigued to know whether, in lunging from a distance, you are more or less vulnerable to counter attack eg is your body more out of reach or are you a less manoeuvrable target? Perhaps I'll just do what I always do - buy a good book on the subject. Either way, the game should be able to emulate much of the reality.

If all this has any substance, and I think there is something there, it means card counting is very useful if you can do it, though there are only 25 cards (and no suits) instead of the usual 52. This obviously helps those without photographic memories. Also, there is a comment in the rules that I take as evidence of intent - Knizia forbids examination of the discard stack, a sure sign we are in card counting land. As a consequence, an attack from a specific distance can be the result of some shrewd calculations on the odds - is your opponent likely to have a five given that three have already gone or is a 3 + 2 or a 4 + 1 better or even a 1 and then a 4 next turn? Can you parry if he comes for you? Or perhaps you should back off and wait for a better hand? I like this as it adds an element of Backgammon play where you constantly weigh up the probabilities but can of course gamble at any time. And just as in that game, you might not get the dice (or cards in this case) you need. Whatever, it is a fascinating side to a game that superficially has so little depth.

Finally, I understood there to be quite a bit of difference, tactics and target wise, between foil, epee and sabre but the game makes no real distinction - you get a generic fencer and just score 'hits' though I'm sure there is something about specific areas of the body being valid targets for each of the different weapons. Perhaps Lew Pulsipher will do us a hit location chart. As I said, all this is probably beyond the scope of the game and the designer's intention, but it does sport an endorsement from the German Fencing Association which must carry some weight.

As the game works so cleanly in all areas, I suppose its only drawback is that the game is for two players and not really adaptable to any other number. It is therefore a bit out of its depth at a game session. The way we got round this was to run either a round robin of bouts, noting down total hits to split ties, or a four player knockout tournament with 3rd/4th playoffs. Both of these worked well enough but with odd numbers you are stuck with round robins and someone picking his nose (or making drinks if you game in polite circles). As for long term playability, I think it will hold up reasonably well. I doubt there is enough depth and variety to keep it coming out time after time and the two player format won't help, but thanks to the card play, it's a stayer. Better still, compared to say the lengthy Devil Take the Hindmost, it is short enough at twenty minutes to act as a filler or for a quick end of evening slot. I've played about twenty bouts already which isn't bad going.

Components are good for what you get, but as you might expect there isn't much in the box: a roll up track, a couple of dobbers, 25 cards and two markers. Ten quid please, chaching. Rules are from Editions Webley, are up to the usual standard though they do suffer a little from having to cover three separate games in the one book. They are also included within the multi-lingual rulebook - Mr Clifford, your wish has been granted. Overall then, a good and potentially outstanding light game (if it works out as I hope) with a system that functions perfectly as far as it goes but which is also wide open to variants and tweaks. It features impressive atmosphere, light card play, some elementary strategy and a good feel for the sport. Now all we need is for Lambourne to bring out a slightly more technical game and we're laughing. Personally, I'd buy one if I were you.

On to the review of Time Agent or back to the review of Vernissage.

Sumo - Mike Siggins - Legal Notices and Other Information