In ancient times armies would line up on opposite sides of a battlefield before a conflict. Perhaps they would give speeches to encourage their troops or taunt their opponents while they waited for the coming battle. At least that’s how things work in Battle Line. The sides are clearly drawn up and troops are sent into battle one at a time, patiently waiting for the enemy to show up before the fighting begins. Can you win this very neat and organized battle?
How It Works
Battle Line is a loosely themed two player tactical card game. Each player represents a side of an ancient conflict vying for control of the battle field represented by 9 locations marked by flags. During the game players will be playing their troops, represented by cards, on their side of the locations to try and gain control of them. The shared deck from which the players will be drawing their troops contains 60 unique cards made up of 6 colors ranging in value from 1 to 10.
To start the game first prepare the battlefield, set out the 9 flags in a line between the players marking the locations that will be fought over. Once the scene is set each player readies their army by drawing 7 cards from the deck to represent their starting troops. In turn players send one of their troops to a locations by placing it on their side of the flag. Then a new troop is recruited by drawing a card from the deck.
Once three troops have been played on one side of a flag they are considered to be a formation and will square off against the enemy formation played on the other side. The superior force claims the location for their commander by moving the flag to their side of the battlefield. No more troops may be sent to a location which already contains a friendly formation (three cards) or where the flag has been claimed.
When a location becomes contested with a formation from both players the winner is determined by the strength of the formation evaluated in ranks similar to poker hands. The order in which the cards were played in the formation does not matter. Here are the possible formations from strongest to weakest:
Cards have the same color and are in consecutive order, similar to a straight flush.
Cards have the same value, similar to three-of-a-kind.
Cards have the same color, similar to a flush.
Cards are in consecutive order, similar to a straight.
Cards do not match any of the other formations.
Higher ranked formations will always beat formations of a lower rank. If both formations have the same rank then whichever has the higher sum wins. If they are identical then whichever was completed first wins.
A clever commander with a strong formation may claim a flag before his opponent’s formation is ready in the right conditions. If one player has a completed formation they may claim the flag on their turn if they can prove that their opponent cannot beat their formation. There are a number of ways that this can be done either by showing that the opponent’s formation will be of a lower rank or identical rank with a lower or equal sum at best. To do this they may use the cards that are currently in play to show that they may not play what is needed to complete a stronger formation. For instance if a player has a Phalanx (3-of-a-kind) and their opponent has a blue 8 and 10 on the other side and the blue 9 is also in play elsewhere then this information may be used to prove that a Wedge (straight flush) may not formed allowing the Phalanx to win.
If a player is able to claim 3 flags in a row (called a Breakthrough) or 5 flags anywhere on the battlefield (called an Envelopment) then they win the battle and become the new king! All games need to end in the winner becoming king.
In addition to the deck of Troop cards a separate deck of Tactics cards may be included. They have special powerful abilities to manipulate the cards in play or conditions to claim a flag. I personally prefer the simplicity and elegance of Battle Line with only Troop cards so I choose to play without the Tactics cards and won’t go into detail on how they work.
Should You Get In Line?
My preference for playing without the Tactics cards will be reflected in my review, I don’t think they add to the game in a meaningful way so my opinions are on playing with just the deck of Troops cards. I would advise anyone that tries Battle Line for the first time to play this way and later add in the Tactics cards if they want an additional random factor.
On the surface Battle Line is an extremely simple and quick game. You can explain how to play in just a couple of minutes and the formations are all based on fairly common poker hands so they should be easy to remember. The components include a deck of cards and nine tokens. To set up you only need to shuffle and deal the cards and place the tokens in a line. Even with new players you’re ready to play quickly and the play-a-card/draw-a-card turn structure keeps things moving at a brisk pace. As the game progresses there will also be less positions in which to play to nicely counteract the increasing complexity of the board.
Battle Line actually has quite a lot in common with traditional card and trick-taking games beyond simple rules, quick pace, and ease of play. Some of the main shared elements are hand management, timing, and information control. I’ll start by looking at the last one, information control, because it’s perhaps the most important element of Battle Line. In most card games there are three states that cards can be in. Cards in your hand are private knowledge, cards that have been played are public knowledge, and cards that are hidden in some way (either in the deck or your opponent’s hand) are unknown. The interesting aspect here is that whenever you play a card you are taking some of your private knowledge and sharing it, making it public to all other players. So over the course of the game the amount of public knowledge is increasing and you may even be able to infer information about what your opponent is holding by the way they play. Keeping track of this information is commonly referred to as card counting and in many games requires a memory element as cards are discarded or hidden after they are played. It’s also worth noting that in Battle Line all cards played remain in play and visible so there is no memory element present. This removes the necessity of card counting for high level play and instead switches the emphasis to being able to scan the board for important cards.
Battle Line plays off of the concept of information control in a number of ways that expands on the system present in many traditional card games. Players begin the game with no public knowledge and a limited amount of private knowledge (cards in hand). As cards are brought into play both players are sharing not only what formations they are lining up but what cards are no longer available to draw. This is useful for assessing what formation you may want to react with at any given flag but also in determining the odds that you will draw into a formation that you only have 2 of the 3 cards for. Let’s say you’ve got two consecutive cards of the same color in hand, there are exactly two cards that can be used to complete a Wedge (straight flush) formation. If one of those cards is in play then you’re down to depending on drawing that one card, not great odds. Perhaps it would be better to use them towards a Phalanx (three-of-a-kind) instead or you could play them somewhere that would allow you to switch to a flush or straight and still win.
There is thus a balance between playing cards that are useful for creating the formations that you want while not sharing crucial information with your opponent. If you have a card that they need to complete a strong formation then you may want to withhold this information (by keeping the card in hand) while assembling what may appear to be a weaker formation on your side.
Public knowledge is used not only in deciding which cards to play and where to play them but is an important factor in claiming flags. The ability to prove that you can claim a flag is dependent on the cards that are in play. If you have a card in your hand that is needed to provide sufficient proof to claim a flag early then you need to play it before you can do so. It is often worth doing so that you can deny your opponent their available positions. This can make it crucial to play cards mainly for the purpose of making that information public.
While you may be able to infer or guess what cards your opponent is holding by the way they are playing it is more likely that their hand will remain mostly unknown as they are drawing a new card every turn. Along with being able to choose what information to share (by playing cards) this leads to elements of posturing and bluffing. When your opponent reacts to your partially completed formation with a weaker one it may mean that they are holding the cards that you need and they can easily win. Should you give up on that flag and focus elsewhere or keep holding out in hopes that you’ll draw one of the cards you need? These decisions are especially important near the end of the game when you’re choices are more limited.
The different victory conditions prevent the players from being able to ignore certain areas of the battlefield. Clusters of flags are very important so it is places extra competition in spots that are more likely to provide three flags in a row. You can decide which flags are worth fighting for and which may be worth sacrificing to achieve the condition that better fits your hand and board position.
Battle Line is an excellent tactical card game that is easy to teach and quick to play but still offers great depth. The aspect of information control makes every card play important and adds tension to what may be straightforward decisions.