When people discover that I spend an inordinate amount of my time playing board games, the first question I usually get, once the jokes subside, is "What is your favorite game?" For the last 15 years or so, the answer has been a relatively obscure game from a long defunct company: Borderlands. Since my introduction to German gaming, this opinion has been sorely tested. But despite exposure to the best that Europe has to offer, I'd still have to say my old favorite reigns supreme. I'll take the rest of this column to try to explain why I feel this game is worthy of such high esteem.
Many Games Journal readers will recognize the trio of Kittredge, Olotka, and Eberle as the designers of the justly acclaimed Cosmic Encounter. These three men formed Eon to produce Cosmic Encounter and then went on to create half a dozen or so more games in the late seventies and early eighties, all of them notable and none of them like any other games of their time. Borderlands was the last of their Eon creations.
Borderlands is a game of conquest, although it deals with much more than just tawdry warfare. It is played on a board that shows a continent divided into 36 territories. The territories bear such colorful names as Ham's Landing, Anneconda, and our personal favorite, Ellen's Bight. A single long river snakes through this continent, running adjacent to most of the territories.
In each game, a subset of the territories can produce resources. There are 16 resource disks: 4 Timber, and 3 each of Gold, Horses, Coal, and Iron. The disks are assigned randomly to 16 of the territories at the beginning of the game. Thus, each game has a unique initial setup. The players then take turns claiming territories one at a time until they are equally divided among the participants. This completes the setup of the game.
The initial selection of the territories is critical. You want to claim a variety of resources, while at the same time establish a connected set of territories that you can readily protect. One tactic is to make your first few selections such that a larger group of territories are inferred to be in your control. When done properly, this can allow you to effectively control more than your share of the continent. If you are too aggressive, however, your territories will be too centrally located to easily defend.
Borderlands revolves around the proper management of the resources. Resource tokens are produced in the player's territories. If the appropriate tokens are assembled in the same territory, they can be exchanged for development tokens. For example, a Weapon, which is useful for attacking, can be produced from either a Coal and an Iron or from two Gold resource tokens. Players can also develop Riverboats, which are helpful for moving resources, as well as for combat; and Cities, which increase production and resource movement and are also good for defense. In addition, the first player to occupy three territories with Cities at the end of a turn wins the game. Ultimately, Borderlands comes down to acquiring the right resources, maneuvering them properly, and exchanging them for the most useful developments. All these skills, along with a keen tactical combat sense, are needed to win the game.
The Game Turn
Each turn of the game consists of five phases. Every player performs his actions in a phase, beginning with the Lead Player, before the next phase begins. After all five phases have been completed, the next turn begins, with the player to the left of the previous Lead Player becoming the new Lead Player.
The first phase of each turn is Development. Each player in turn has the option of acquiring development tokens for the appropriate resource tokens. The second phase is Production. Each territory with a resource disk produces one resource token. If your territory has a City in it or is adjacent to one of your territories with a City, two resource tokens are produced instead. However, production in a territory only occurs if a resource token of that type doesn't already exist in that territory.
The third phase is Trade, in which you can trade resource tokens in your territories with the other players. This not only allows you to obtain resources you may need, but, since the resources you receive can be placed in any of your territories, also lets you get resources where you need them to be. Trading also allows you to get resource tokens out of the territory which produced them, which is necessary if you want that territory to produce another token next turn. Making a lot of trades that help both you and your opponent is usually better than being conservative, but you have to be careful that you're not allowing the other player to develop a critical item.
Phase four is Shipment, which continues the process of moving resources. There are three types of shipments. You can ship by foot, by moving tokens from one territory to an adjacent territory you own. You can also ship by horse. Horse resource tokens can move up to two territories, as long as you own the territories moved through. You may pick up and drop off tokens along this route. Finally, you can ship by boat. Riverboats can be moved along the river (with some restrictions). You may pick up and drop off tokens from any of your territories adjacent to the Riverboat's route. Normally, each player can only make one shipment per turn, but they can earn more if they possess a large number of territories.
Combat, which occurs in the final phase of the turn, is the heart of the game, and has a unique mechanic. There are no armies per se; every territory contains exactly one unit, called a Warrior, which signifies its ownership. In addition, a territory can contain no more than one Horse, one Weapon, and one City.
During the Combat phase, the active player chooses an enemy territory to attack. The resolution of the attack depends upon the number of points that can be brought to bear in attacking and defending that territory. Warriors are worth 1 point, as are Horses. Both Weapons and Cities are worth 3 points. Riverboats are worth 2 points by themselves, but they always carry a Warrior (to show who owns it). They can also carry up to one Weapon and one Horse (obviously we're dealing with something a little roomier than a canoe). In an attack, the attacker adds up the points in all the territories he has adjacent to the attacked territory. The defender does the same thing and also includes the points in the attacked territory itself. Any other players with adjacent territories can ally with either side or with neither, at their discretion. If the attacker's total is at least equal to the defender's, he wins the battle and replaces the defender's Warrior in the territory with his own. Any Horse, Weapon, City, or resource tokens in the territory now belong to the new owner.
All very logical, but hardly enough to get the pulse racing. Here's the twist. The attacker is allowed to make one shipment into the attacked territory. This might be with a horse up to two territories away, possibly carrying a weapon. Or it might be with a Riverboat from down river, also possibly laden down with armaments. Obviously this opens things up quite a bit and lends an element of fluidity and surprise to combat which really sets the game apart.
Unlike typical wargames, in Borderlands there's no such thing as a losing attack. The attacker states what territory he's trying to take over. Allies declare themselves and the attacker may be able to add to his strength through a shipment. If the attacker's strength is at least equal, he wins. If not, he is free to attempt an attack on another territory. This continues until he is successful or until he decides he will not attack this turn.
Players can make up to two successful attacks per Combat phase. However, in lieu of a second attack, a player can choose to make a shipment instead. Players often choose this option because the first attack (particularly if it included a shipment) may have left them in a vulnerable position. However, consecutive attacks can bring down the most unassailable of positions—aim the first attack at a less heavily defended supporting territory, then use it as the keystone to take on the real prize.
There is one other key combat rule. Prior to announcing attacks, a player gets one free shipment for every City he controls. Taking all of this together, you can see that even though Borderlands is a game of perfect information, there's plenty of opportunity for the unexpected.
The object of the game is to occupy three territories containing Cities at the end of a Combat phase. This means that if a player builds his third City during a Development phase, the other players have a full Combat phase to try to take over one of them. In the standard game, if two or more players meet the victory condition with the same number of Cities, then they are joint winners. Our group always plays with the optional winning conditions: the game continues until a single player has at least three Cities and more Cities than anyone else. This obviously can add to the length of the game but definitely increases the tension and can make for some strange alliances toward the end of the game as the players struggle to balance the City holdings. The standard game takes about two hours, while the optional version can usually be completed within three hours.
Just as they had for Cosmic Encounter, Eon released expansion sets for Borderlands. The two expansions only add marginally to game play. The first allows the game to be played by more than four players by including movable islands, each composed of several territories. Bridges to connect these land masses to the continent and Ships which ply the oceans are also added to the mix. The changes seem artificial, however, and our group never plays with them. The second expansion, which includes some really wild rules, is more successful. Temples, Universities, and Blimps(!) are added to the game. Temples convert enemy territories, which means that their strength can't be counted against you. Universities counter the effect of Temples and increase production. Blimps are the ultimate fighting machine, with a strength of 5 and unlimited movement. These rules are nice when you want a change of pace, but the original rules make for a better and less chaotic game.
Bordering on Greatness
So why do I think that Borderlands is a great game? Well, for one thing it has so many things I look for in a game. Little or no luck. Lots of player interaction. A tremendous amount of tactical and strategic decision making. A game that's long enough to involve you, but not so long that it drains you. Multi-dimensional game play. There's so many different aspects to the game: combat, trading, resource management, diplomacy, development. With the trading and alliance rules, players stay involved even when it isn't their turn. And the combat rules are just marvelous. There are other games that achieve this kind of gaming experience, but they usually take a whole day to play. The fact that Borderlands accomplishes it in a two to three hour time frame is what puts it in my personal top spot.
Does the game have any weaknesses? About the only one I can think of is that the game can really only be played by four. The designers recommend the two player game as a Chess-like affair and it is not without interest. But you lose so much without the trading, alliances, and other multi-player aspects that the game for two just doesn't stack up. The three player game includes all those aspects, but as is the case with many other games, Borderlands for three too often becomes a two versus one affair. Here, the problem is that two players will usually butt heads, leaving the third player with a fairly easy path to victory. You really seem to need four players for the multi-player dynamics to work. As for five and six player games, the islands give you enough room for the additional participants, but the extra real estate seems so remote that this is not a popular option. I've never tried this, but if I were to attempt a Borderlands contest with more than four, I'd probably try to squeeze everyone onto the 36 territory continent and see how it played. This version might play particularly well with the second expansion. However, the vast majority of our Borderlands games have been with four players and that is the only version of the game I can wholeheartedly recommend.
Like all of the Eon creations, Borderlands' design was well ahead of its time. While the game was probably not well known enough for it to be influential, it anticipated many future gaming concepts. For example, territorial games with resources are very popular today. Borderlands wasn't the first game to use resources, but it was the earliest game I've seen that featured a sophisticated resource subsystem. Another innovation is the idea of letting the first player in each round rotate clockwise. This excellent idea is now commonplace, particularly in German games; to the best of my knowledge, Borderlands was the first game to incorporate it. And while it's unlikely that Klaus Teuber has ever heard of Borderlands, his stupendously popular Settlers of Catan does feature random starting positions, territories with resources, uncertain production, territorial improvement through development, trading, and a specific victory condition—just like Borderlands.
Borderlands' physical design was adequate for an American game of the eighties. The counters were of sturdy cardboard, distinctive, and reasonably attractive. Having so many resource tokens on the board at one time could have presented a problem, but the designer made good use of color to ensure that the counters were easily distinguishable. The only complaint could be with the game board, which was a folded, laminated paper affair, no doubt deemed a necessity to keep the price down. It does the job, however, and my copy shows little signs of wear after fifteen years and scores of games. I doubt anyone would be lured into playing the game because of its design, but it certainly doesn't detract from the game in any way.
If was such a great game, why isn't it better known today? At the time of its release, the odds against an American game from a small publisher catching on were almost infinitesimal. Even a game as famous as Cosmic Encounter has gone in and out of print several times since its introduction. Borderlands was sufficiently impressive to make the Games Magazine Top 100 list five years in a row, but, then as now, that was by no means a guarantee for success. When Eon closed its doors in 1984, Borderlands faded quietly away. An inferior version resurfaced as a computer game called Lords of Conquest, but that didn't catch on either. There was a German version in the mid-eighties called Ascalion, but given most German gamers' distaste for contests involving conflict, it was doomed to fail. Borderlands was never in the right time or place to succeed, and so, like so many of its brethren which deserved a better fate, it is now gone. Gone, but as this article shows, not forgotten.
- Larry Levy