Battle Line is another two-player card game from the prolific Reiner Knizia, the man behind Lost Cities, Samurai, and Ingenious, one that brings a little more randomness to the table than Lost Cities offers but with plenty of opportunities for strategy – the type of randomness that forces you to rethink your approach to the game, rather than the kind that makes you throw up your hands in frustration. There’s also a very good Battle Line app available for iOS, with good graphics and a solid AI but as yet no online play option.
The main deck in Battle Line includes 60 cards, 10 cards numbered 1 through 10 in each of six different colors. Players begin with seven cards in their hands and on each turn play one card and draw one replacement. In between the two players sits a line of nine flags, and at each flag players place cards to try to create a winning formation, one that ranks higher than the opponent’s formation at the same flag. A completed formation contains three cards. The first player to either win five of the nine flags or to win three adjacent flags wins the game.
A formation’s value is determined by the numbers and colors of the cards it contains. The game has its own lingo, but you’ll notice a correlation to poker hands as well. The top formation is the game’s royal flush – three consecutive cards in one color, with a tie going to the formation with the highest sum on his cards, leaving 10-9-8 as the best possible formation in the game. (If a player completes a 10-9-8 formation at a flag, he wins the flag even if his opponent has yet to finish his own.) Next highest is three of a (numerical) kind, followed by a flush, a straight containing more than one color, and last just any assortment of three cards. When both players have identical formation types at a flag, the above tiebreaker applies. It’s also possible to claim a flag before the other player has completed his formation if it is no longer possible for the second player to create a formation to top the one that’s already on the board.
The twist in the game is the existence of a second deck of ten Tactics cards, each unique, which may be drawn instead of cards from the main deck. These cards run from the lifeline (Hero and Champion, two wild cards that can stand in for any card you want, although each player is limited to playing one of these per game) to the attack card (Traitor, stealing a card your opponent has played and using it yourself; or Deserter, trashing a card your opponent has played). The number of Tactics cards you can play is restricted by how many your opponent has played – the delta must not exceed one, so once you’ve played your first Tactics card you can’t play a second until your opponent has played one.
Battle Line strategy breaks down into two major areas. One is deciding how to fill out formations – if you have the green 9 and the green 8, do you play those together and hope you get the 7 or 10, or do you break up the 9 and 8 to try to build the easier three-of-a-kind formations? But the more interesting part is deciding when to fill out formations. Holding back the second or third cards in a strong formation might entice your opponent to waste a valuable card there – but playing that second card might open the door for him to waste your cards by dropping a stronger formation there. And do you challenge his formations early or try to play at empty flags and create large obstacles in the center of the board? It’s one of those “simple rules but different every time” games, like Lost Cities, that work very well for a quick two-player match.
The game’s card constraints are more confining than those in Lost Cities, which makes it a little more random because of how much you’re at the mercy of the deck. In Lost Cities, you’re just waiting for a larger card in any color you’re using, preferably not too much larger. In Battle Line, you have more formations in play but are often looking for a specific card or one of two in a specific color, and can’t discard a card without using it as you can in Lost Cities. If you want a change from Lost Cities, however, Battle Line is the most comparable two-player game I’ve found.
The Battle Line app (a.k.a. “Reiner Knizia’s Battleline”), from Gourmet Gaming, features two AI opponents, allows you to play two-player against someone sitting next to you, and offers a basic game that involves six cards in your hand and no Tactics cards if you want a tutorial. The strong AI player uses Tactics cards well, doesn’t do anything stupid, and will seize on player mistakes nearly every time. Flags are claimed automatically regardless of the winner, and the graphics involved are very clear. The app had problems with crashing and with incorrect values on two Tactics cards, but both glitches appear to be gone since an update about three weeks ago. It’s been my go-to app of late when I don’t want to get sucked into a long game of Carcassonne since you can knock out a game quickly and there’s enough random variation to keep it fresh.