‘Bend It Like Churchill’ Guest Blog by Mark Herman
I recently agreed to write a quest blog for Katie’s website with no idea what I would say, so luckily some events conspired to give me a theme. I note that Katie recently wrote a very thoughtful review on solo play in my 2015 Churchill design. I like that that she prefers to actually play a game a bit before rendering her view, something that I hope to see other reviewers emulate. Her request to write here coincided with my seeing some interesting online posts of Churchill games, where the Churchill player had won by nixing the Second Front, something that frustrates inexperienced players.
For me, game design is how do I tell an interesting, yet plausible, historical narrative whose story arc takes the players down paths not seen in chronicles of an actual war.
Churchill, the game, was designed to tell different stories of how the Big Three aligned to their national interests cooperated and competed to end World War II. This historical path saw Allied cooperation last long enough in Europe to bring about the unconditional surrender of the Third Reich with Europe divided between two opposing ideologies. At Yalta, an American President with almost literally his last breath negotiated a collective security agreement (United Nations) that unfortunately increased Soviet leverage in Asia, something we are still dealing with today. My view is history was some version of a Condition 2 victory where the Soviets likely had the most VPs whose total was less than those represented by a Western Alliance with the US as the winner.
Off of this historical outcome, there are alternate paths that players get to explore. Today, I will focus on how the UK player wins a dystopian condition 3 victory by shutting down the second front, and dominating the political dimension of the game to win. I call this strategy “Bend it like Churchill.” The essence of this strategy is for Churchill to create a new world order where the UK is not a bit player between two Super Powers. This narrative has Churchill dominate the US-UK agenda to drop unconditional surrender and make a separate peace with a post-Hitler Germany to stop the Soviet Union from dominating Eastern Europe. This was historically something that Stalin actually feared might happen and fueled his paranoia as the war in Europe wound down.
How this happens in a game of Churchill? the British are looking to have Germany surrender to the West, while their army is mostly intact to block Soviet expansion outside of their prewar borders. In game terms, the UK player blocks the 2nd Front making it difficult for the USSR to advance on Germany. The UK uses its energies to deny the Soviets Western resources, control the Global issue supported by capturing Pol-Mil issues to win the political alignment competition. The UK then dominates a condition 3 victory by accumulating a greater than 10 VP advantage over the player in third place for the win. Does this sound familiar? I have seen this type of game play out many times for a variety of reasons, but the main reason is usually associated with an inexperienced American player or one who defers their national self-interest to UK benefit. Remember, balance in Churchill, the game, is based on the other two players recognizing that they are literally being ‘played’ by the UK and shutting down this strategy or lose the game. The purpose of this guest blog is to demonstrate how the US and the USSR drive the game closer to the historical narrative where they, not the British, dominate the post war world.
Before you can defeat a strategy, you first need to understand its tactical elements. The UK’s national capability or its superpower is rooted in the Imperial Staff. The Imperial Staff lets the UK player add one to the staff card played to determine who wins the agenda phase. Since each of the staff decks has the identical number and strength cards (sans personality capabilities), if the Churchill player uses a 5 card, they achieve a value of 6, so for all practical purposes, the UK will win any agenda phase they want to win. This ability to go last gives the Churchill player the last say in any conference, which translates into the ability to stop any conditional event (2nd Front, USSR declares War on Japan) if they so choose.
The first order effect of this tactic is that without the 2nd Front, the German reserves will focus on the Eastern Front, making it difficult for the Soviet forces to advance on Germany. For the Roosevelt player, the flip side of this strategy is that since their military score is tightly aligned to the UK, they can only find military advantage in the Pacific. Often the American player thinks they can beat Churchill in this manner and acquiesces to their detriment. If the Churchill player manages to shut down the European war, they then focus their agenda and staff cards on dominating the Global issue and politically aligning the Colonies, the Middle East, and a share of Europe to their side and the high score in a condition 3 (Axis do NOT surrender) end game.
I think this type of strategy is an obvious path as in most competitive games, the high score wins and this strategy is a good fit for this traditional style of play. It was a commonly used strategy during play-testing. What I find interesting is that for an experienced Churchill player, the ‘Bend it like Churchill’ strategy is one of the easiest to defeat. This is why I left it in the game, as it plays to the main melody of most games and with experience, the play-testers found it easy to defeat. So, what follows is a ‘how to’ recipe for a US or a USSR victory when confronted by this strategy.
The key to any UK counter strategy is to understand how to neuter the Imperial Staff. The agenda phase card interaction is simple; the high card value wins. If Churchill wins, that player places any single issue on their track and places their two agenda issues after the Soviets and US have chosen theirs. For purposes of this analysis, we will assume that the UK is dealt at least one 5 value card and will always use that card to win the agenda phase with a score of 6. We will ignore the occasional situations where the UK is not dealt one of their 4-five value staff cards, or one of the other players will successfully tie with a Chief of Staff card play (1/6 chance).
Step one; the US and the USSR need to play at a minimum a 4 value staff card, so the UK chosen issue is placed on the one or two space on their track. Once an issue gets in the three or greater space it becomes difficult to reverse.
Step two is the more important step. The UK has four production resources each turn and more than half of the conference cards force the UK to automatically expend a production in a Theater of war. More significantly, if you are playing the tournament scenario note that ‘Conference Card 6: London B’ takes two of the four UK production resources. For all practical purposes this means the UK usually has control over three not four production resources.
Therefore Step two is to deny Churchill control over his resources. Simply stated, if the UK directed offensive and production issue are part of an agenda and these are won by either the US or the USSR, then Churchill cannot pay for any political-military issue that they win. Perhaps more importantly, even if the British win their Directed Offensive issue, the resources will be spent on the war, somewhere, and not on resourcing a political military issue. This situation is exacerbated when one considers that two of the five value cards in the British deck (Eden and Bevin) are their strongest Pol-Mil staff cards, so they do pay a price for winning each agenda phase with their strongest card.
Step three is related to Step 2. Remember, the last card play can only impact one issue, so do not give the Churchill player a simple choice. On the last card play of any conference where the 2nd front issue is on the table, the UK player needs to be confronted with three tough choices. Consider a UK player faced on their last card play with neutering the 2nd Front confronted with the knowledge that they cannot resource anything or allowing Stalin loose in Asia. Is stopping the 2nd Front worth giving the US the Global issue and the end of Colonialism? As should be obvious the UK can still stop D-Day, but without the supporting political components the ‘Bend it like Churchill’ strategy doesn’t work. Once D-Day has occurred then this British house of cards (TV reference intended) no longer works and now we are more closely aligned with the historical narrative.
This is all easy to accomplish if Roosevelt and Stalin balance against Churchill when Churchill tries to bend history in their favor. But what should be done when Roosevelt conspires with the UK to stick it to Uncle Joe? The answer that I have posted even before the game was published is the Soviets usually win the war through the barrel of a gun.
To begin this closing portion of today’s tutorial, we need to review Soviet Eastern Front math. The Soviets have three flexible production issues and access to more restrictive production resources. The first restricted resource is the Murmansk convoy. Half of all conference cards have a Murmansk convoy event and if the Soviets invest in the Arctic, they make some of these automatic plus yield a fourth resource marker. Prior to a successful D-Day (2nd Front) five of the six German reserves will deploy to the Eastern front. If we simply consider using four Soviet resources to place 4 offensive support markers on the Eastern front the net result is the Eastern front has a net value of zero (remember the front has an intrinsic strength of 2), with no possible advance.
Using this net zero Eastern front strength as a starting point, each offensive marker added to this front now adds a 20% chance of an advance. Therefore, if for example the Soviets can win two non-Soviet directed offensives, there is an 80% chance of an advance. On most turns, the Soviets will gain one bonus offensive support marker from staff cards (by intent to limit what Soviet production could be used for) forcing an automatic Eastern front advance with a 10% chance for a 2 space breakthrough.
The main point is that the Soviets through adroit issue choices and timely Nyet debates, can force their armies forward even in the face of Western intransigence. If the USSR Eastern front forces German surrender without D-Day, Stalin gains a net 15 victory points worth the equivalent of 5 political alignment markers. Add in a few Soviet political alignments in Eastern Europe and it’s usually a Soviet victory. Of course, even this strategy can be opposed. However if everything is being opposed, just by placing multiple directed offensives on the table, you ensure that the war is being prosecuted somewhere and not Churchill’s political adventures.
It is probably worth a few words on the key Soviet tactic in the game, Nyet. The rule is; any Soviet staff card (Stalin is not a staff card) that is used to debate an issue has one added to its value. Once an issue is on the table, let’s say the UK Directed offensive, and one of the other two players tries to play on it, Nyet! No matter what card they play you have a good chance of beating them by at least one. This way an issue in the center is now moved to your one space. They try to win it back, Nyet, and now it’s on your two space and so on. As much as possible leverage your potential 6 point per hand Nyet bonus to make your hand stronger than your Western allies, especially the British.
My last piece of Soviet advice, although this applies to all three players, is that winning the European theater issue with the Nyet tactic is as good as winning a directed offensive. Winning both theater issues is three directed offensive equivalents. The only downside for the Soviets is that they cannot take Theater command, but they get to choose who gets it as a reward for good behavior. Regardless, remember that the Theater issue is an important yet often overlooked source of offensive support.
In closing, when the 2nd front is on the conference table, do not trust Churchill to do the right thing, force Churchill to do the right thing. After all, it’s a game of diplomacy and to paraphrase Churchill, “diplomacy is the art of telling someone to go to hell and having them ask you for directions.”
Well I think I will yield the remainder of my words to the gentle woman from the UK. Take care my friends.
You can follow Mark on Twitter, here: @markherman54