I pretty much stumbled upon the existence of this game by accident...you see, I'm hooked on AI versions of board and card games, so I'm always scouring for new ones. Then one day I happened upon the AI version for Battle for Hill 218....and one week and probably 50 games later, I figured it was time to get my local shop to order me a copy.
Let's face it, for a lot of gamers, abstracts suck. It's just bland games of positioning with no attempts at a coherent theme. Not that they should be condemned for that, as that's not what they're trying to be. But for those that are turned off by abstracts, this is usually why. I've found a few over the years that I enjoy--I once enjoyed Chess, I still like Travel Blokus, Othello, and Navia Dratp...but to be honest, they usually just aren't my cup of tea.
Battle for Hill 218 is a card game that's an abstract in theme's clothing, and generally speaking that would be the kiss of death for me unless the game is really good. Therefore Battle for Hill 218 surprises on two fronts--not only is it good, it manages to pay more than just lip service to its theme, a remarkable accomplishment.
The game is about a battle between two armed forces in an attempt to take Hill 218, represented in the game by a card that goes to the center of the table. Directly behind that card on each player's side is the space considered to be the "base", and it's from here that all your military operations must flow. Your ultimate goal is to get one of your cards into your opponent's unoccupied base while he tries to do the same to you. You can't go "over" the hill, you've got to go around and capture the base the hard way. Uncle Sam would be proud.
Each player has a hand of cards, drawing more as the game progresses. Each turn, you have two actions, usually spent deploying cards. The way that you deploy cards is the first way that the game manages to incorporate a very wargamey element--supply lines. Each card has a picture of which directions it can draw Supply from. This supply must form an unbroken line from your base. If the line is ever broken, your actions are fairly limited until you get another card in your base to re-establish the supply line. Most cards draw supply either horizontally or vertically. If you have such a card, we'll say Infantry, then it may deploy to either horizontally or vertically to a card that's in the supply line.
Cards attack once, on the turn that they're deployed. All cards also have an attack grid that shows the potential squares that they may attack. Each attack has one of two icons--either a red crosshair, or a red flame icon. The red crosshair attack can't destroy an opponent's unit in its attack zone unless it's supported by another one of your units (a unit cannot provide support fire for itself) also touching the enemy unit and falling under that unit's Support grid--but more on that in a second. Red flame attacks, however, require no support and can instantly destroy a unit without the need for support fire. The two units in the game that have this capability are the Tank and Artillery, which make sense given their heavy firepower. A Tank deployed either horizontally or vertically connecting an opponent's card may therefore instantly destroy it, removing it from the board.
So what if you need Support fire? Each card also has a grid showing the spaces that it can provide Support to. While a card only attacks on the turn it's played, that same card continues to provide Support capability indefinitely. It does this using a grid similar to the attack grid. Most cards provide support either horizontally or vertically, but the Heavy Weapons card is amazing because it provides support against all spaces it touches.
It's important to remember that Support fire is against an enemy space, a rule that might trip you up when you first play. What you want to do is have support against an enemy card and then deploy a card that can also attack that same card. With the support fire + the crosshair attack, the units together can destroy the enemy card.
Like any good card game, there are cards that break the rules. Paratroopers are a special unit that can be deployed like a regular unit, or with Paratrooper rules. If you deploy them via Paratrooper rules, then they don't have to follow the rules for supply and can deploy to any space on the table. They don't provide supply for further units from there, but their great asset is to get in a position to provide you Support fire from an unexpected direction. The only limitation to deploying a Paratrooper this way is that you can't deploy them straight to the unoccupied enemy base (though they may capture a base if you deploy them using normal Supply rules.) Other cards that break the expected behavior are the Special Forces card, which attacks and supports just like Infantry but draws supply diagonally, a VERY useful capability. Heavy Weapons as I mentioned before not only provide 360 degree support fire but they also only attack on the diagonal.
The last weapon in your arsenal are two Air Strike cards that begin in play face-up. As one of your actions, you can turn one of them face-down and eliminate any enemy unit in play--yes, even a unit in your opponent's base. A common tactic is to pave the way for one of your cards to move into the enemy's base by using an Air Strike followed up by capturing the base. It's not the only way you can do it but it's effective and darned sneaky. So long as you have these Air Strikes at your disposal, the opponent has to be very careful where he allows your units to stay or he risks instant defeat the next turn.
That's pretty much the whole game, excepting the alternate victory condition--if both players run out of cards and actions and neither has captured the enemy base, then the player with the most units on the board is the winner. So you'll often see a shift to defensive play as the decks dwindle and capturing the base becomes a more remote possibility.
I think the game does an admirable job capturing its theme better than most abstract-style games could ever hope to. First off, the supply line is caputred very simply and effectively, and maintaining the supply line is a big feature of many popular wargames. Secondly, the need to combine fire--having one unit essentially "pin" another with cover fire before another unit can wipe them out, also does a great job emphasizing the teamwork and combined arms often brought to bear in a military conflict.
As the game progresses you'll even get a feeling as you would while playing a wargame. You'll feel the urgency to press the attack, and if you falter you can watch as your formation draws back, retreating almost, and establishing defensive fronts, circling around one another in an attempt to repel the enemy's counterattack. Even the way certain units work is captured very well--Paratroopers suddenly dropping in for a surprise assault, Artillery striking from a distance shelling the enemy from afar, Heavy Weapons bringing cover fire to bear on a ridiculous number of directions at once, and Special Forces....hoo boy, can THEY ever sneak in and out of places that you'd least expect them to, you'll really grow to love them and what they can do. Many a game will end in an Air Strike/Special Forces combo if you're not watchful, as Special Forces can go diagonally right into the enemy base.
All in all, a great game, deeper than you'd think for just two small decks of cards. A great link to its military theme while remaining mostly an abstract game, and for $10 MSRP, you really can't go wrong here. We fired off three games in about 35 mintues or so, and it's the sort of game that will have you saying, "just one more."
But don't take my word for it--get hooked on it just like I did. You can download the AI version at http://www.honte.org/Hill_218/Hill.html. I'll warn you though that the AI is a real crackerjack even on Easy and you are going to take your fair share of drubbings as you get started. Hang in there, after probably 70 games now I beat the Easy opponent maybe 75% of the time and have only a handful of victories on the Hard AI.
It's fun, it's cheap, it's got a great military theme, and you get to blow stuff up real good. What more could you ask for?
FINAL VERDICT: 4.5 out of 5