Sunday, December 15, 2019

My first rules botch- Stratego

My mother has a battered set of Stratego, an older version released sometime in the late 80s or early 90s. A blue bomb piece was missing, but we usually compensated by making red remove a bomb as well. I was taught by my mom, and frequently played with my cousin Sharon while she babysat me as a young kid.

Stratego seeks to emulate Napoleonic Wars of attrition, featuring a constrained map where pieces move one square at a time and the main approach to your enemy is three two-square wide channels with impassable lakes or the board edge to the left and right.

The victory conditions in Stratego are simple- kill every piece your enemy has that can move (Flags and Bombs are immobile), or capture the enemy's flag.

Stratego is a meat grinder. The strength of pieces is known only to their player- and all pieces are rated on a 10-point scale for strength. In older versions, smaller numbers were stronger, much like AC in 2ed AD&D (Which I'll use here). You can only discover the strength of opposing forces by attacking- a risky venture as discovering that you just walked your 7 into your opponent's 2 means losing the 7. Ties result in both pieces dying in a Pyrrhic Victory.

My family generally played with the following understanding:

  • Scouts (9) can move and attack in the same turn
  • Bombs destroy any attacking piece that is not a Miner (8). When attacked by a Miner the Bomb is removed. Bombs are not removed upon killing attacking pieces.
  • Victorious attacking pieces advance into the square of the defeated piece
  • Victorious defending pieces do not advance into the square of a defeated attacking piece
  • Moving a non-scout piece to the far end of the board (similar to a pawn advancing in chess) allows you to rescue a formerly captured piece, which is placed on your starting side of the field. This may be done 3x per game, but each individual piece may only rescue once.

But, Sharon and I didn't read the rules closely enough, because there's this cool piece called the Spy.

At the top of the Stratego foodchain, you have the Marshall (1). The Marshall is a force of nature, capable of cutting down swathes of troops, only challenged by Bombs and the enemy Marshall in the absence of the Spy. 

The Spy is squishy, and dies to any attack, while also dying when attacking other pieces. But, if the Spy Attacks the Marshall first, the Marshall dies. At that point the Spy can just sit around body blocking, preventing Scouts from blazing across the battlefield and taking unprotected flags, or something I guess.

But Sharon and I didn't understand the rules that way. We'd unknowingly played with a much deadlier set of rules:

If the Spy Attacks, it wins (except against bombs). If the Spy is attacked, it dies.

This made a game that was already a stark look at attrition and added a game of monstrous glass cannon chicken into the mix as well. The spy could annihilate and cut through an opposing enemy army, but any scout could quickly end its reign. Attacking the wrong bait could cause the Spy to advance into the defeated piece's space and fall victim to a piece lying in wait.

Previously, the Spy was best used hidden, unobtrusively placed to sneak out and get the drop on the Marshall, a contingency to the piece in the game meant to be a force of destruction.

With our rule, what was an elegant and subtle duel became a frantic dance to find an opening that would allow for taking out one of the deadly duo, without losing half of your own in the process.

Now that I'm significantly older, I've played Stratego with both sets of rules. As far as screwing up rules go, the unintentional change we made to the Spy wasn't game-breaking, unlike the scores people who never ran auctions for unpurchased Monopoly properties (let alone the insanity of allowing free parking to accumulate a pool of money).

I'd say that this rules botch is a viable rules variant. It can overall speed the time a game of Stratego takes because of the rapid death experienced by armies as the deadly duo comes through town, and it simplifies the Spy's role by making its interactions with other pieces more universal. Highly suggested when playing with young kids looking for a more action-packed board game.