Calvin’s Commentaries: Trench

In the world of my beloved abstract strategy games there is a rather diverse range of games.
Some, such as Wizard’s Garden are rather lite fare, with quick to learn rules, and generally quick play. That does not mean they aren’t fun, and highly replayable, but the depth of play is limited.

From there you climb a ladder of difficulty in the genre, until you near a summit of game rules complexity and massive depth to master.
Not always do the two ideas go hand-in-hand though.

The classic Go can be a bear to be even marginally good at, yet the basic rules are about as simple as they come.

In Chess, although there are six pieces with unique movements to learn, and the twists of, En passant and castling, the game basics come fairly smoothly, or at least I recall they did when I first started playing at the Centennial Junior High School in Tisdale about 47 years ago.
I tend to put games such as Terrace and the more recent gem Hive in the same category as Chess.

Where the learning curve really ramps up is the under-appreciated Chase, and even more unknown Pacru. Both have a lot to offer in play, but the learning curve is steeper.

All that brings me to Trench.

Trench is from designer Rui Alípio Monteiro and has actually been around for a while, created back in 2013. The game however has taken a few years to really hit the market, so for most it will still be rather new.

To start with Monteiro has created a game drenched in atmosphere and thematics inspired by the trench warfare during World War I.
The game is based on the idea of two armies, “camouflaged on the field – one black and one white – combat on a diamond-shaped 8×8 grid board, full of optical illusions, that is separated by a Trench. This barrier plays a central role in the conflict: Occupying it will make the difference in the outcome of the confrontation,” notes the rules. Regular readers will know I have a rather deep affection for abstract strategy games in black and white, but in Trench the stark colours of the pieces on a board of the same colours is almost mind-twisting, and I’m not sure if one would end up with a headache if playing a few games on one day or not. I expect the idea is to mimic in some fashion the maelstrom of war, but I am really not sure if that is a good aspect of the game for realism, or limiting because of the possible affect. As the title suggests, as does the ‘storyline’ the trench running across the board separating the two sides is at the heart of this game. Players attempt “to seize control of the Trench in order to take full advantage of its strategic potential, hoping thus to breach the opponent´s defenses and capture their most valuable pieces,” noted the rules. As you might expect pieces represent ranks in the army, from the soldier to the General – “each one of which possesses its own particular and distinct maneuvers – all will have to cooperate to occupy the Trench, invade the enemy’s territory (re: promotion) and vanquish the foe.” Each piece has its own movement pattern, but the learning curve on that is aided by the pattern on the underside of pieces. It’s needed as the 8X8 board is turned so you are playing out of opposing corners of a diamond, which frankly makes it a bit disorienting in terms of movement. A simple orthogonal move doesn’t quite seem as natural with the board configuration.

While the rules were sent later, (not in the sneak peek box), I hope they provide a ‘cheat’ card for each player as a learning tool. The Trench is represented by the diagonal line in the middle of the board. When a piece is placed on that line, it is considered to be inside the Trench. From that point on, this piece is able to use some strategic advantages provided by the Trench, but it will also be subjected to some restrictions.

For example; no piece in the Trench can capture another piece already in the Trench. A piece in the Trench is also something of an offensive juggernaut. “A piece beginning its turn in the Trench does not have to stop its movement upon capturing a piece in enemy territory,” describes the rules. “It can capture more than one piece as it advances from the Trench into enemy territory. It can move the maximum number of squares the piece is allowed to move in one direction; as it does so, it can capture any pieces along its route (called a machine gun move); or it can continue the move even after it capture one enemy piece (mortar shelling); and may end its move on a friendly soldier’s square resulting in promotion (military decoration). While I appreciate the terminology sticking to the theme it adds to that learning curve. The idea of pieces promoting during action is a nice touch to the game. It is the rule that will transform a piece into an immediately superior piece (one level higher).The two units now function as one piece since it is now promoted to one level above the previous rank of the piece just moved. The promoted piece replaces the soldier, as part of the same move and acquires additional powers that come with the new rank the piece now represents. A piece that is already in the Trench cannot be captured by an opponent’s piece that is in enemy territory (e.g., a black piece that is in the black territory, cannot capture a white piece in the Trench). A piece that is already in the Trench cannot capture an opponent’s piece that is in friendly territory (e.g., a white piece in the Trench cannot capture a black piece that is in the white territory).

Getting into the trench and learning how to best utilize it is a massive key to the game. By now you should be getting the picture that the varied moves, the modifications the Trench affords, and other rules layered on this game put it up there in the upper echelon of learning curve. It is frankly a bit of a bear to wrestle and you need to be ready to stumble through a few games learning as you go.

This is where modern tech can help build this game. There needs to be several ‘how-to-play’ videos in multiple languages and well-explained play-throughs online in this era. Visual aids are huge is learning. So back to the Trench where “the Colonel, General and Marshal – the three highest-ranking pieces – can move along the Trench up to the maximum number of squares allowed for the moves for that piece in one direction, and jump over other friendly pieces that are already in the Trench (stealth maneuver). But still, the basic rule of not being able to capture another piece already in the Trench, would be enforced.” The game can be played until one force is wiped out, but a more reasonable approach is the variant where a player wins by capturing an opponent’s pieces worth 25 points. So is this game great, or just an average one? That frankly, remains something of a mystery. There is a lot to learn, and then to factor into strategies. That’s good. The question is whether enough players take up the challenge to lift this one to the highest levels, or do good players tear open its secrets and expose flaws not seen immediately? Those are questions for time to answer.

And, potential players have to be aware this game is unlike most, so it’s learning everything new, and you may be missing concepts along the way for a while. But, I will say it looks awesome, if a bit disquieting, and there is much to explore too. So if you are a chess fan up for a new challenge Trench might be just the ticket.

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