A Battle Line Strategy Session with Designer Dr. Reiner Knizia
Battle Line has always held a special position on my game shelf, which is remarkable because I’m primarily a half-inch-hex, hundred-page-rulebook, hardcore-war-game type of guy. I love the mechanics of Battle Line and often (loosely) compare it to playing nine simultaneous hands of poker. It was the first card game that I ever bought (on a whim) or played. And, brace yourself, my wife will actually play this game with me; another first. I have a shrink-wrapped “backup” copy should disaster strike the original, a distinction it shares with only one other game in my collection (Victory Games’ classic Korean War).
Despite the simple rules and easily understandable components, Battle Line has a considerable amount of depth and optionality, with a pinch of “wild card” thrown in too (see my Battle Line review for more details). A game like this, one would think, should have wider coverage and at least a smattering of publicly accessible strategy tips from some “authoritative source”, an appellation which, by definition, excludes me (note: my wife wins more than 50% of the games we play!). So, I went directly to the source…
It is often said that game designers make lousy game players, but I still feel that there is some valuable insight to be gained by picking the brain of a game’s designer. You can always turn up some tidbit, quirk of play, or obscure game component interaction that isn’t readily noticeable to one who has not had hands inside the engine.
With these thoughts in mind, Battle Line designer Reiner Knizia and I sat down (in separate rooms, an ocean apart) for a conversation about Battle Line strategy.
Reiner prefers to play with the advanced rule that only allows flag capture at the start of a turn. This option always allows the reacting player a chance to play a card, usually a Tactics card, that may alter the situation and nullify the opponent’s capture of the flag. Most Battle Line players use this rule since, as Reiner says, “it makes a nicer and more balanced game”.
There isn’t much of a strategic component to Battle Line. Other than formulating, before the game begins, some very general strategy to pursue (“I’ll dig aggressively through the Tactics deck for the Leader cards!”), the game is all about tactics and reacting quickly, and correctly, to evolving game situations.
At the tactical level, however, there are several key points to consider. A Battle Line victory requires that either three adjacent flags or five flags total be captured by one player. Some players initially concentrate on the left or right flank hoping to dominate one side of the battle line. Others, including me, have an ingrained chess mentality and put more emphasis on controlling the center of the board.
Reiner, however, does not specifically target the center or either flank, but rather focuses on certain flag slots that he sees as the most effective pressure points.
If the opponent focuses on the center, I like to concentrate just outside the center, which I find to be very strong attack points where you can make three in a row without having to dominate the center.”
Some players draw heavily on the Tactics deck, while other shy away from it. Reiner’s personal preference is to NOT draw frequently from the Tactics deck.
Although he expresses this preference for not using Tactics cards, in the later stages of the game when the win is very much in doubt, Reiner would be more inclined to reach into the Tactics deck, but it depends a lot on which Tactics cards have already been played.
So, generally speaking, Reiner shys away from the “bells & whistles” and tunes in to the primary game elements.
In the average game of Battle Line, there will be times when the Troop cards you draw are useless to you at the current moment, yet they occupy space in your hand. You must either play them to an available flag slot, and may not just discard (unless you have a special Tactics card that allows you to discard). Some players will designate a particular flag slot as a “dumping ground” for all their unwanted cards. More traditional players will try to make every single card play count and will hold on to a “useless” card in the hopes that it will become “useful” a few card draws down the road.
Another common situation occurs when deciding to play cards onto a flag slot that contains no cards at all on the opponents side. I asked Reiner if he would be willing to play a third (and therefore final) card onto a flag slot that had no opponent cards at all. Essentially, this requires you to play your best hand without having any knowledge of what your opponent may play, and hope for the best. Your opponent may gain some advantage from your having “shown your hand”, as he now can work that slot at his leisure, waiting until he draws the cards required to beat you.
When asked his favorite card game, either his own design or any other, he demurred with the following explanation:
It’s also a matter of time: I just don’t have time to play all these games!”
But, as for my own card games, I would rank Lost Cities and Battle Line very highly, as these are really my type of games.”
Battle Line Trivia
An ancestor of Battle Line, called Schotten-Totten, had been published by Reiner in Europe. The design was re-worked, changing the theme from Scots Highlanders to Ancients and adding the new concept of Tactics cards, to produce what we see today as Battle Line. I wondered if there were any plans to expand or re-theme Battle Line, as is commonly done with other games like chess (“Star Wars Chess Set”, “Napoleon vs Wellington Chess Set”, etc).
The answer, unfortunately for you theme junkies, is a definite no.
When asked if Battle Line had been a commercial success, Reiner modestly acknowledged that it sold “better than average”, but not as well as another of his card game titles, Lost Cities. I’ve purchased two copies of Battle Line for myself and two others as gifts, so I’m certainly doing my part! It’s a great game and I’m sure it’s done well not just in Europe, but in the rest of the world as well.
In my Boardgaming Life review of Battle Line, I mentioned (half jokingly) that I’d like to see a portable version of Battle Line (“magnetic mini version”) that one could play in the back seat of the car. Well my request has been granted, but not exactly in the “magnetic mini” form that I envisioned. Which leads me to the next section of this article…
What’s Reiner Working On Now?
I am, apparently, very much behind the times because I was not aware that Reiner was branching out into other formats. While doing research for this article, I discovered Gourmet Gaming, which is an online gaming platform that is being used to adapt some of Reiner’s games for multiplayer online play. I selected Battle Line, downloaded the small Java utility required, and within a minute or two I was playing Battle Line against a live opponent.
My wife Joanna, my research assistant and resident Apple-maniac (I’m a PC-guy), also discovered that Reiner has published quite a selection of apps for download in the iTunes App-Store, as well as the Android and Google app stores. So, I CAN play Battle Line in the back seat of a car now… or on the train… or when I’m supposed to be working…
I asked Reiner how this all came about, and how it was progressing.
We have discovered a real gem in the the iTunes App Store: Lines of Gold, designed especially for the iPhone and iPad. This game really deserves a review of its own, but suffice it to say that my wife and I are both already hooked on it and have developed an unhealthy competition to see who can get the highest score…
You can most easily find Lines of Gold and all of Reiner’s other releases in the iTunes App Store by searching on his name, as all of his titles have his name included.
Reiner has also published a number of recent board games, such as The Hobbit board game under the Fantasy Flight Games label, and Star Trek Expeditions, a cooperative mission game published by Wiz Kids.