Battle Line Review

I love the part in war movies where the battle is about to happen. Everyone is ready. Plans are set. Death is coming and everyone has a moment to reckon with that truth. The Two Towers did it best with the Helm’s Deep battle. I’m sure in real life, even in pre-gunpowder face to face battles, it was never so dramatic and pointed, but there’s got to be a lot going through the mind of anyone about to enter deadly combat. Uncertainty. Timidity. Resolve.

Battle Line, another Knizia gem from a time before I knew about modern games, somehow captures something of that feeling. I seem surprised because Battle Line is just about as abstract as you can get, but somehow Knizia, like with so many other designs, captures a feeling that makes the theme make sense.

Of course, I first played Battle Line in the original implementation called Schotten-Totten, which is evidently legally distinct but not very distinct in any other way. The cards in S-T go 1-9 and Battle Line, in a strike of boldness, adds a 10th card to each suit. There are also “tactics” cards that add additional complexities but I tried them once and didn’t care for them. Anyways, I had no thematic thoughts during that play but Battle Line (of which I have the “Medieval” version) makes sense to me.

I suppose that’s somewhat of an indictment against the thematic nature of the game, but it’s more credit than most will give to many of Knizia’s designs. I remember in my early days of discovering modern board games the repeated motif from certain influential reviewers that Knizia was a theme-less designer, only producing mathematical and abstract games. Of course, that’s true to a degree–Knizia’s games do tend to be more abstracted than most. But I’m increasingly convinced that abstraction and theme are not opposites. What we call “pure abstract” games aren’t often themeless at all. Chess and Go certainly, in both a historical and experiential sense, draw upon ideas of military strategy. I can say with confidence that Go is more thematic than, say, Hearts, even though both are “purely abstract”. That said, some Knizia games do have no theme. A game of Lost Cities has no connection, as far as I can tell, to archaeology or exploration.

What Knizia tends to do by creating very abstract games is not move away from his theme, but provide clarity. While the game may lack the production trappings we’re used to when we think about a thematic game, it nonetheless captures the feeling of the setting in a precise way. It’s a tradeoff: abstraction takes away immersive qualities while, when done right, creating more pointed thematic moments embedded in decision-making.

Battle Line follows the cadence of a battle. The first handful of moves are tentative and uncertain. You don’t know how the battle is about to play out. You don’t know what your opponent’s plans are. You don’t want to commit to anything so you spread your cards around the battlefield, but by doing so you’re closing off spaces you may need later. At some point someone has to stop circling around and lunge forward with an attack.

If you’ve played Lost Cities you’ll see a lot of familiar aspects in Battle Line, though the play experience is quite different. Instead of 5 different columns there are 9. Instead of trying to play a fat stack of cards in each column you can only play up to 3. Your only goal is to win the skirmish over that space by creating the better poker hand of 3 cards. A straight flush beats 3 of a kind which beats a flush which beats a straight.

The first card you play in any given column is one of potential; you could continue on to get any combination. The second card is a commitment. Put a 7 on top of a 7 and you’d better complete the trio if you want to win that space. Going wide at the beginning of the game can be smart, but it also reduces the number of spaces you can use later if you draw into a nice straight flush.

Going wide also lets your opponent try to rush you out, for if they win a particular space, they immediately claim it and you cannot play in that location anymore. Battle Line contains this subtle tempo game behind the main action, where the total number of cards you can play dwindles as spaces are claimed. You want to control the battlefield.

Paradoxically, Battle Line is also about zugzwang. Zugzwang is a German chess term referring to situations where the fact that you have to make a move on your turn becomes a disadvantage; you’d prefer to pass your turn, but you can’t. In Battle Line you want to make decisions in any given column after your opponent has played their second card there so you know what their best potential play is. Like in actual battle, knowledge is key. But holding back for knowledge can also stymie you later on.

I keep going back to that cadence. While the opening is uncertain, soon the attack begins. In the simplest 1-dimensional way there’s geography: you win the game by capturing 5 total spaces or 3 in a row. After the major blows are dealt and the casualties pile up, if there’s no clear victor the craftiest player can eke out the win. The information you have increases rapidly as you count the cards already played and figure out what combinations are still possible.

Here’s where Battle Line reveals it’s trickiest ploy. In a lesser game the idea of winning a particular battle would require both sides to play their full 3 cards in that column. Knizia lets you claim a battlefield when you can deductively prove that your opponent cannot beat you. This rule creates devilishly tricky endgame situations where, for instance, you may want to play a card but can’t because it would allow your opponent to deduce victory. 

You go from essentially no information to a barrage of information in a matter of minutes. For some that level of crunch might be overwhelming for such an ostensibly simple game. Air, Land, and Sea and Hanamikoji provide a similar battle-column experience with a smaller amount of information. 

Some may make the case that by being more streamlined they are superior games. I give the edge to Battle Line’s sense of scope. By the mid-point of the game you’ll be scanning the battlefield, counting cards, making calculations, and trying to figure out where you should attack and where you should feign. It’s the part of the movie battle where the villain’s plans are being executed with ease–tactics unfolding before our eyes while the heroes struggle to respond and defend. It’s here the action reaches its densest point as the entire battlefield is soaked in violence.

Soon the individual storylines resolve and the skirmishes are won or lost. Perhaps you’re treated to a final strategic flourish in the endgame. Perhaps the luck of the draw tilted the fight early toward one side. Regardless, you’re going to understand Battle Line better at the end, and you’re going to want to redeploy the cards and go again. Last night I taught it to a somewhat skeptical Amber. After the 7th game in a row we reluctantly made the prudent decision to get some sleep.

Score: 8.5/10

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