In Battle Line, each player is the commander of an army in the age of Alexander the Great. Ancient warfare being what it is, only a small part of your army can be controlled at any point and players will draw the rest of their troops over the course of the game. Players then use these units to contest a number of flags that are laid out on the battlefield. They do this by building poker-style combinations to out maneuver their opponents and play cunning tactics cards to help tip the balance in their favour.
How does it play?
Each player starts with 7 troop cards. These are card numbered 1 to 10 in six different colours. These represent the units in each army, ranging from lowly archers to mighty elephants.
These cards are played one at a time next to the flags on the battlefield. Once a player has played three cards against a particular flag then they can try to claim it. The flags are resolved by comparing the combination of cards that each player has placed next to it.
Just like in poker, certain combinations are stronger than others:
- A wedge (straight flush) – the strongest
- A phalanx (three of a kind)
- A Battalion order (flush)
- A Skirmish line (straight)
- A host (anything else) – the weakest
The person with the strongest combination wins the flag, with highest card value used to break ties, and then if it is still a tie, the first player to complete their formation wins the flag.
When resolving flags there does not necessarily need to be three cards on the opponent’s side of a flag for a player to claim it. Rather, if a player who has already assigned three cards can prove from the other cards already on the table that their combination can’t be beaten then they can claim the flag immediately (without having to wait for the other side to play three cards at that flag). Doing so both robs the opponent of a spot to discard bad cards and avoids the chance of a winning combination being destroyed by a tactics card (more on these below).
Once a player has played a card and resolved a flag (if they are able to) then they draw another card and play passes to the next player.
Play continues until one player has either won five flags in total (an envelopment victory) or has won three adjacent flags (a breakthrough victory). That player is the victor.
Using troop cards involves a combination of deduction, bluff and luck in order to outmaneuver one’s opponent and play winning combinations at the right flags at the right time.
The other kind of card that a player can choose to pick up is a tactics card that will influence the gameplay in a certain way or act as a wild troop card. While Battle Line can be played without using these tactics cards, they are the secret herbs and spices that give this game an extra bit of sizzle and make it a modern classic.
Example of the effects that tactics cards have include causing one of the other player’s cards to desert or turn traitor; causing a particular flag to be resolved on 4 cards rather than three (mud); or disable combinations at a flag so that it is decided on total card value (fog).
Tactics cards can be played instead of troop cards during a turn. The only catch is that the maximum number of tactics cards a player can play is one plus the number their opponent has played. For example, after a player has played their first tactics card, they can’t play another until their opponent has played at least one. This means that not playing any tactics cards during the game is a viable strategy to help stop an opponent’s tactical shenanigans.
Using tactics cards involves assessing how to best maximise the value of that particular strategy card and how it can be best used to boost your own plans or foil your opponent’s plans. Tactics cards provide greater depth and generate some of the more memorable moments to the game, particularly when used to break an opponent’s otherwise winning combination.
Theme and components: How does it look and feel?
The theme of ancient warfare suits the simple mechanics that are employed in Battle Line.
With that said, the theme isn’t especially deep, and while each card value has a particular unit depicted on it, most of the time players will refer to the point value of that card (for example, blue 8 rather than blue heavy cavalry). Likewise, while the combinations have been given names consistent with the theme, players are much more likely to refer to their combinations by the equivalent poker names (for example, three of a kind rather than phalanx).
This isn’t a bad thing. Rather, it makes the game more accessible.
The same point can be made for the artwork. The artwork is minimalist and provides some nice flavour for the historical theme, but doesn’t overwhelm.
Battle Line is quick to set up, quick to play and is an excellent use of game time.
The rules are simple to learn but there are some subtle strategies and tough choices that arise during the game. This is because it is important for players not to over commit or telegraph the combination they are working towards, as their opponent may either start a stronger combination opposite it or use a tactics card to sabotage.
The game provides fantastic tension as both players are battling over key spots, particularly when both are hoping to draw the same card to complete a combination. It can also deliver some great moments when tactics cards are revealed to win (or spoil) the day, or when playing the card your opponent has been looking for all game.
Sometimes a player will get an unusually unlucky run of cards, but this tends to balance out over repeated plays.
Battle Line is a fantastic little card game that is easy to teach, great for non–gamers and couples and with enough strategy to keep seasoned gamers engaged. It is excellent value for money and makes for a great present as it can find a home in any board game collection.