Stratego: Fire And Ice – “Let’s Paint A Wizard’s Hat Onto The Mona Lisa To Freshen It Up!”~ Hasbro Designer

Over spring break I’ve been introducing my 12 year old daughter to some of my more advanced games because most of her friends are away with family and whatnot, but since we’re moving soon we’re preserving our vacation time for the move and so here she sits, with only a couple of neighborhood friends to hang with. Anyhow, a couple nights back we broke out Stratego: Fire and Ice, and playing the basic “classic” rules, we played a couple of games. She immediately fell deeply in love with it, because it’s simple to learn, relatively quick, but has enough strategy to feel like it’s not a total waste of time. It’s actually quite brilliant, according to her gleeful smiles as she trounced the shit out of me not via luck, but by being a clever little turd. Woe is me when she’s 16 and dating.

If you haven’t heard of the old Hasbro game, Stratego, you’ve been hiding under a rock for 30 years. Recent versions have tried to spice up (read: bastardize) the game with all kinds of new skins and special powers, such as a Lord of the Rings and Star Wars version, and this latest iteration, a generic fantasy version. To me, this speaks to the broad appeal and longevity of the game’s core mechanics, and to Hasbro’s apparent ideology that freshening up games for the iPad generation can sell more units.  All I know is that when  I saw this sitting at my local Goodwill store for 4 bucks, complete, I could not help but buy it to see whether my nostalgia for the game was ill-conceived. 

As it turns out, now that I’ve been playing hobby games for a great while, I understand with great clarity that this game is literally a great grandfather to games like Dungeon Twister, or other more European style confrontational games. Further, as I realized just recently after reflecting upon a thread at Fortress: Ameritrash, this is actually a hybrid combat/deduction game. Unfortunately, with regard to the new advanced rules, they literally destroyed what made classic Stratego what it is.

The first copy I ever saw was the 1970’s version that had a Colonel Mustard-looking guy smiling across the board at you, holding a piece. Never trust a guy with a pornstache, says I, and that skeevy pervert totally looks like he’s got some children locked in a basement somewhere. Anyhow, it had Marshals, Colonels, Captains, and so on down the ranks to the lowly Scout; only a very few pieces had any powers, and in almost all cases, the guy with the stronger piece would win an individual battle. The only way to know what rank the other guy’s piece is was to attack it, which forced you to make incredibly tough decisions that delivered a very palpable tension. It’s what made the game so fun to play. Not so any more, because with this latest “Fire And Ice” version, gone are the military ranks, replaced by mostly generic fantasy wankers such as the Dragon, Mage, Elf, and Dwarf. The funny thing is that the art looks straight out of Heroscape, down to the “Lava Monster” creature that looks a hell of a lot like a Marro Warrior, if you know what that is. I’d argue that it’s not that the new rules are “bad” in the sense that they don’t work, it’s that

Regarding the art and components, the board a nice looking four-fold design which I love because it’s small enough to take up very little room, and the components are of the usual new-style “castle” design with sticker faces. Gone is the medium sized, rectangular box and now the box is a small square, making it easier to put on shelves with newer-style games. In addition, I am incredibly happy I didn’t have to sticker these myself, thanks to the previous owner, because there’s like 100 pieces and the stickers have to sit in this little recessed area which I cannot see being anything but a white-hot bitch to get in there right. The stickers on some of my pieces are awry, which gives credence to my thoughts on the subject. 

It’s hard for me to really define what the art looks like; it’s somewhere between Larry Elmore and whoever did the art on Heroscape. It’s not really bad, although the board art is a bit on the lazy side, but rather it’s just so damned generic and cartoony looking that it’s hard to take it very seriously. My major complaint is that my board has the wrong power names written on the character images on one side of the board, so instead of “Flight” or “Detect Unit”, they all say “Quickness”, although the power descriptions are right. Pretty funny shit, you’d think someone would’ve proofread, especially at a mega-corporation like Hasbro. Anyhow, the rules are really simple, even using the Fire and Ice rules, so it’s not a big deal to learn or teach, and to a 12 year old, no less, and it only really takes 45 minutes to play, so it’s actually a great little 2-player filler game.

So, back to the “classic” game, my friends. I started looking at the way the game is set up, the actual design of it, and I realized that it is the epitome of a Euro game. There’s no luck at all, and every move is an important decision. It is the ultimate brain burner, and from the moment you crack the box until one player takes the flag, it’s a battle of minds. There is no post-game whining about dice rolls; if you lost, you lost because the other person out-thought you. The best part is that the complexity comes from the strategies you employ, not the rules, which in my mind is one of the most important features of a truly great game. There’s no chrome, everything makes sense, and every design feature serves a purpose. It really doesn’t get any more awesome than that, from a design perspective.  With the art direction and the new powers, it’s almost a drop in for a Dungeon Twister theme; in fact, I think this game could’ve really been branded with the Dungeon Twister moniker because I see a lot of similarities between that game and this. The difference is that I think it’s far more intimate because of the small amount of controlled units; Dungeon Twister is SEAL Team Six to Stratego’s Battle of the Bulge.

Even the new version, with it’s new powers, is definitely still a Euro-style game, with simple rules and deep play, but with all the chrome nonsense that comes into play, I think it can be chalked up to “adds complexity for complexity’s sake” at best, “abortion on a shingle” at worst. At least from a thematic standpoint, everything makes sense, but sadly, from a design standpoint, it seems like someone from Hasbro couldn’t stand to leave well enough alone and, to add insult to injury, had to use cool sounding (read: insipid) names like Volcandria and Everwinter, as if it wasn’t generic enough just adding generic fantasy tropes into the mix. It’s like the Magic: The Gathering third string team was out of ideas, reached into a hat, and pulled out rejects from 1989. On its face, and only on its face, it’s not a bad update of the classic game, it simply certainly muddies what was once a stellar game design. One could make the argument that it adds to the game by giving players more choices, thereby adding a new layer of strategy. Sadly, once you get past the skin deep level, you realize that it murders the key tenet of the original game, the risk-taking mechanic, and since there is less risk, there is less tension, which makes it boring.

The changes are so profound that the game is hardly recognizable; it’s not really Stratego as much as it’s more of a “generic fantasy battle game”. The board layout is the same, and the unit composition is the same, but that’s about all. Funny enough, I think the printing error I mentioned may well be Ms. Hermance Edan’s revenge for the wholesale, rapacious profiteering through “updating” of her original 1908 design. Yes, a lady originally invented this game, if you weren’t aware, and it was originally designed over 100 years ago. That’s a fucking classic, if I ever heard of one, and Hasbro essentially went to The Louvre and painted a wizard’s hat, replete with magnificent yellow moons and stars, onto Da Vinci’s masterwork.

To be more specific, let me elaborate on some of the changes, since they kind of irritate me. First, the Dragon, this version’s avatar of the Marshal, can fly over any units in orthogonal directions, land, then attack. In 1908, the first plane had only been invented 5 years prior; no, the Marshal couldn’t fly. Another example is that the Mage can reveal itself, select an enemy unit within 2 spaces, and force the opponent to reveal its rank. In the classic game, a key decision point on every turn was whether to attack an enemy unit because the only way to determine its rank was to do so, and which was the core risk-reward mechanic in the game. In that same vein, the Elf can shoot any creature up to 2 spaces away, essentially giving the game ranged attacks, which make no sense when you consider the classic rules’ adherence to a battle’s victor taking over the space of the defeated unit, and again, the risk-reward mechanic that made the game so tense. Now, you can create a wall of strong units in your first rank, put Elves and Wizards in the second rank, and with zero risk simply force the enemy’s hand in revealing itself. These two additions, alone, are a colossal, epic, indescribably fucking stupid change to this game’s core mechanics. It literally changes how you play, and this is where the “rules get in the way” of the strategy. 

Because all of the new unit designations have special powers, so it’s much more of a miniatures game than old Stratego. Maybe it’s nostaligia, but honestly, I don’t know that I’d be interested in playing it even if I had no experience with Stratego, primarily because if it stood alone as a miniatures game, it simply wouldn’t be all that good. My daughter and wife both share this opinion, after playing the classic rules and the advanced rules, and the wife never played Stratego’s classic version prior to playing the advanced rules. The long and short is that the game’s changes are so profound with regard to removing the tension and risk-reward mechanics that the game itself is simply not the same game.

Anyhow, while none of us can really offer a strong recommendation of this version of the game for the aforementioned reasons, this version does have a few redeeming values. First, it comes with the classic rules, so you can literally just avoid playing the Fire and Ice rules. Second, the smaller box that I mentioned makes it easier to store than the old-school rectangular box. Now, on the flip side, the pieces aren’t the old-school engraved bits, which is a definite negative; stickers peel off eventually, but the engraved, painted numbers don’t.  I mean, if you look at it from the perspective that you get a “free” variant Fire and Ice version packaged in with the classic game, maybe it’s a good deal. That said, if I wanted to buy Stratego, and I don’t plan to buy it again, ever, I’d want the Onyx version, but if I wanted to buy cheaply, I’d most assuredly buy an older, classic version off of eBay for a low price. I guess what I’m saying is that this version leaves a lot to be desired, although for the four bucks a paid for it, I really don’t have too much room to bitch, considering I can play the classic rules any time I want.

Why Ice Is Cooler Than Santa Sipping A Milkshake In A Blizzard:
– Stratego is a classic that every person must play, and will likely love
– The small box makes this version of Stratego easier to store
– It has the classic rules built-in
– The “new-style” pieces are nicely molded and don’t tip over

– Fantasy tropes scream “We don’t care enough about you to develop something cooler”
– The new rules ruin most of the tension that makes Stratego a classic
– The misprint on the board is irritating
– Stickers instead of engravings are understandable, but undesirable

First, the new rules murder most of the tension in the game, which was a deliberate act of gaming vandalism. Next, the stickers were a necessity to show the dragons and elves and whatnot, but putting that many stickers in small little apertures has to suck. Finally, with a market capitalization of over seven billion dollars, you’d expect them to hire an editor, but no, the misprint indicates otherwise. Short version: this version is inferior in almost every way to older versions, so buy them instead, but the classic game is so incredibly well designed that you should most certainly go out and buy an older version instead. In my estimation, “Jumbo Original Stratego” has the best value-to-quality matrix, and when I get some cash I’m going to get that one.


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3 thoughts on “Stratego: Fire And Ice – “Let’s Paint A Wizard’s Hat Onto The Mona Lisa To Freshen It Up!”~ Hasbro Designer”

  1. Pete,

    I’ve been wanting to tell you this since the Rampage review – welcome back to reviewing, my friend.

    I missed reading your reviews as you are one of my favorite board game reviewers.

    I suggest you and your daughter give Lord Of The Rings: The Confrontation a try. The basic hidden character mechanic is the same a Stratego and everything else is just ramped up to 11!


    1. Thanks, brother. Spread the word.

      I’ve played Confrontation a couple of times and thought it was neat, but never really went out of my way to get it. Maybe I will now!

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