Battle Line Strategy
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.
RK: "The designer is most certainly not the best tactician. I will make my comments but by no means am I the strongest authority on the tactics and
strategies of the game. There are two groups of people: those who design the games and those who try to master them. I'm in the first group."
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.
RK: "Clearly the outer flanks are less important with respect to the opponents ability to get three flags in a row. My focus is different. If you
number the flags from 1 to 9 for illustration purposes, there is specific importance on flag #3 and flag #7."
"If you capture these two flags than there can not be any problem with respect to your opponent's ability to capture three consecutive flags on the flanks.
This leaves flags 4, 5 and 6 as the only possibility for your opponent to get three adjacent flags. So for this reason I always have a careful eye
on flags 3 and 7.
Of course it's not always possible to secure flags 3 and 7 and, in such cases, flags 2 and 5 will protect the left side of the
board, 5 and 8 can protect the right side of the board, but those combinations leave more possibilities, more 'missing fence posts', that your opponent
can exploit to gain three flags in a row.
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
RK: "I do not draw heavily from the Tactics deck. Usually I will only hold one or, at the most, two Tactics cards in my hand. I prefer to stay focused on
the Troop cards. In desperate situations, I will draw from the Tactics deck to prevent defeat but outside of exceptional situations like this, I am a
basic player and, to me, that means drawing cards with numbers on them.
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.
RK: "The two Leader cards, Alexander and Darius, being true wild cards, are very valuable and are worth hunting for. But if those have already been played, I'd be
much less inclined to waste card draws looking for any of the other special ability cards (i.e. Scout, Fog, Companion Cavalry, etc.)"
So, generally speaking, Reiner shys away from the "bells & whistles" and tunes in to the primary game elements.
RK: "I like simplicity. I like simple rules. I derive the most fun out of the fewest rules. For me, the game without Tactics cards is the pure game."
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.
RK: "I do not like to give up any ground ordinarily by playing weak cards or dumping them in a random slot, but it would depend on the situation. For
example, if I have secured flag #3, then flags #1 and #2 decrease in importance since there is no opportunity for my opponent to get three in a row
there. But I will always try to get the strongest set possible in every slot, unless opportunities elsewhere on the board take precedence."
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.
RK: "Yes, definitely, I often do this. I make no distinction between a slot that has two cards or three cards played because, once a second card has been played, the
best possible set in that slot becomes obvious to both players. From that point on, playing a third card reveals no more than was revealed by the second card."
When asked his favorite card game, either his own design or any other, he demurred with the following explanation:
RK: "On the question of other designers, I'll probably have to disappoint you. I'm playtesting all the time, new stuff, and hardly ever playing other designers' games or
even my own games once they're published. As for other designers' games, I find that if I know of others' games and solutions it makes it harder for me
to be objective. If I don't know them then I can put forth my own ideas without being hampered by the knowledge of "oh, I know the solution this guy
did, or this girl did, as a designer". So, out of necessity I'm forced to come up with my own solutions.
You have to make so many decisions and devise so many solutions when you're designing a game. How do I create this? How do I distribute this? How do I
manage this component? If you know a solution from somebody else, your brain focuses on that solution and you just can't get away from it. Whereas
if you don't know it, you are much freer, much more innovative and much more creative in forming solutions.
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.
RK: "The original Schotten-Totten had a Scots Highland theme that was very popular in Europe, but the idea to change the theme for Battle Line and add more complexity
with the Tactics cards was a marketing decision. American game publishers said the American market is different; the American market wants more complexity and
details. So I designed the Tactics deck specifically for this purpose. The latest publication of the Schotten-Totten game also has new tactics cards included
as an extra."
"But no, there will not be any additional Battle Line themes or enhancements published. This is another difference between the American and European markets. American
gamers seem to consider the theme as an integral part of the game, whereas European gamers identify the game mechanic alone as the defining characteristic of
the game. To them, it would be like publishing the same game twice, which I would not do. Therefore, Battle Line is completely done."
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.
RK: "I'm going with the market and I'm going with the trends, particularly the trends that fascinate me. The latest generation of smart phones are a very exciting
platform for games and are allowing us to reach lots of people who haven't played games before. I've put a lot of effort over the last two years to developing games
for the latest generation of smart phones. In addition to developing new games, I'm always evaluating my boxed games for suitability to be transferred and played
well on the small screen.
There are currently about 25 of my games for purchase in the iTunes App Store, several in the Android and Google stores, and I'm adding more games
regularly. Gourmet Gaming is also being kept up to date with new versions of existing games and new offerings."
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
RK: "For me, Lines of Gold is a very addictive game, and I have actually got the second highest score at the moment, which makes me very proud! It's a very
different game, a solo-play game, so it's something you play, not against an artificial intelligence, but you're required to optimize the resources you have
and try to gain more resources to continue playing.
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.
Got some feedback for us? Email your opinions and comments to Mark.