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Pendragon: The Fall of Roman Britain, A First Impression

Pendragon: The Fall of Roman Britain, A First Impression

Sometimes you play a game and immediately have to tell everybody about it, shout it from the rooftops, maybe even write a blog post about it less than 24 hours after playing it, because you really need to tell everybody how good it is. Pendragon is one of those games.

It’s no secret that I love a good wargame, especially a GMT game, with gorgeous components and enticing theme so, I had already anticipated that this was going to be a hit, but I hadn’t anticipated it was going to be THIS much of a hit. Sure, Pendragon had a lot to live up to, being the newest addition to an incredible series of games and on my first play, it delivered. Now, this isn’t going to be a detailed account of every single mechanic and the strategy behind it, however I was so impressed, I needed to tell you a few things that really grabbed my attention when playing the game.

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Let’s travel back in time, back to the Fall of Roman Britain. A time of chaos and vengeance. The Dux representing the original Roman Army in Britannia, with the most powerful units, striving to preserve the stability and prosperity of the provinces, building up prestige and maintaining order, teaming up with The Civitates, representing the Romanized aristocracy, ruling the ancient Celtic tribes from lavish villas and prosperous Roman towns. The Saxons, representing various Germanic groups,settled, and eventually took over swaths of Britain. As outsiders, they would face a steep challenge just to come ashore against the might of the Roman army and navy and The Scotti, named for the marauding groups of Irish raiders, also representing the Celts native to the island of Britain who differed from the romanized Civitates by remaining true, or reverting back, to the old ways.

Four powerful, strong factions with different capabilities and strengths, come together in this tremendous game, seeing the collapse of the Roman empire in Britain. A huge game, full of faction wars, dice rolling, area control and some serious battle. 

Like other COIN games, Pendragon is primarily driven by an event deck with periodic scoring and reset via the Epoch cards, which I want to talk a little bit about first of all. They bring so much theme to the game and can be pretty cut-throat at times. The Epoch Cards mark the end of a round and include some extremely thematic events when they occur.

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The Epoch cards add another layer of drama, making for a rather tense atmosphere at times. During the game that I played, I was playing the Dux Faction, I was doing quite well, definitely in the run for winning, when it was time to draw an Epoch card.  

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Now, I had a choice to make. Did I roll the dice, take the risk and potentially end up worse off or did I play it safe? I decided to take a risk, and the outcome was not a lucky one, as you can see in the picture above. Losing 8 prestige was the start of the end for me. That’s something I loved about Pendragon. Mean choices to make that could end in absolute victory or leave you with nothing. Unfortunately for me, it was the latter. Now, I wasn’t there, but I can imagine that would have been pretty apt for that time in history, leaving little to no room to play ‘nice.’

Battle is complex, but satisfying. It took the whole game for me to wrap my head around the battle and how that worked but I feel like that is going to be common when learning Pendragon. It’s a learning curve but worth it. I’ve included the amazing player aid created by Marc Gouyon-Rety, here: Pendragon Battle Board. First of all, it’s an awesome resource to have and second of all, hopefully it can explain a bit about the battle phase and how it’s executed.

The battle phase adds huge amounts of historical flavour to the game. The Raiders, quickly making the decision to Evade or Ambush. The Cavalry running around, but unable to move across terrain or places where the road has dissipated. Combined with the luck element provided by the dice rolling involved, battle is stirring and although I found it rather confusing on my first play, I can see a lot of potential already.

One of the twists that I particularly enjoyed was the use of the Imperium Track, which represents the deterioration of Roman rule. This shows how far off the Briton factions stand in relation to their victory conditions. The political situation will deteriorate during the game and the Briton factions victory condition will also change. It’s a clever mechanic, one I kept forgetting about, but certainly clever.

I also really enjoyed the concept of The Foederati. The Romans are able to hire barbarian tribes as mercenaries during the game, as the legions become unavailable. The Briton factions can bring in Barbarian faction troops as mercenaries under their control. However, if those mercenaries are unpaid during an Epoch scoring round, then they will revert to the original faction control. Something crucial to consider when playing and something I took advantage of during the game. Did it help me? we it could have if the Civitates would have helped me a bit more by lending some of their troops. Another neat mechanic that I’m looking forward to exploring more when I play another game.

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I love the way the theme flows throughout the game, like a well-written novel, watching history unfold as you make your way through some tough but rewarding decisions. I have only scratched the surface with this one and I am so excited to keep on digging. It’s complex, but not in a way that weighs you down, there’s a lot going on throughout the game with no clear path to victory and that’s exciting. 

The components are second to none, of course, and the board is beautiful but could have potentially been a bit bigger. I know that’s a big ask, and maybe an unrealistic one but moving all of of those pieces around the board was definitely a bit fiddly. Is it enough to put me off playing again? of course not but it did get a little bit frustrating later on when the board had filled up slightly. 

I’m really looking forward to returning to this one, each new COIN game brings new challenges, new ways to engage in and learn about important parts of history and a reason to love the game system even more. Please keep an eye out for my full review, coming soon.

Thank you for reading. 

‘WINSOMES’ Guest Blog by Tom Russell

‘WINSOMES’ Guest Blog by Tom Russell

When Katie asked me if I’d be up to contributing to her blog, I readily agreed, but was at a loss as to what I should write about. The trouble is that I generally write two articles a week over at the Hollandspiele blog, where I offer various musings about our games, about aspects of wargame design, about graphic design, and about the ups-and-downs that come with having the best job in the world. There’s not much that I don’t write about over at the company blog, and I didn’t want to just grab something that I had written for our site and say “let’s give it to Katie to run on her site instead”. I wanted something that wouldn’t necessarily fit in with our regularly scheduled programming. I asked Katie for some suggestions and she provided a good one, but it was one that I didn’t think I could do justice.

But then I thought, wait a second, Katie likes train games too, right? She was on twitter the other day holding a copy of 1825, for goodness’s sake. One thing that isn’t a great fit for Hollandspiele are my thoughts on the only games these days that I design for an outside firm – the train games I design for each year’s Winsome Essen Set. In the days before Hollandspiele, if anybody heard of me at all, they heard of me because of the Winsomes – so much so that when I met Edward Uhler of Heavy Cardboard fame at Origins 2017, he admitted that he hadn’t realized that the Tom Russell who designed Winsomes and the Tom Russell who designed games for Hollandspiele was the same Tom Russell.

 And so, here is the true story behind four train games.

Northern Pacific (2013)

In 2011, I had yet to see one of my games published. I had a couple of games under contract with publishers (who, it would turn out, never got around to publishing them) but was feeling generally frustrated in my desire to make some kind of name for myself.

I was very acutely aware that I was still very new to this whole thing. I wasn’t a particularly “well-read” gamer – we didn’t have the money to go out and buy a lot of games – and that put me at something of a disadvantage compared to more “literate” game designers. I wanted to expedite the practice of learning my craft, and to do that I figured I needed to find and work with a great developer with lots of experience. Winsome Games came on my radar around this time, and I was aware both by reputation and by playing a handful of their games that John Bohrer was one of the best developers around. I was also aware of what a feather in my cap having a Winsome game could be, and that Winsome titles often got licensed to larger, splashier firms like Queen, Eagle, and Rio Grande.

All those seemed like pretty good reasons for me to work with Winsome, and so I decided that my next game would be designed with Winsome in mind. That’s where it started. I didn’t come up with a great mechanic or theme idea. It wasn’t out of any particular love for train games – though I do love train games. It was the purely mercenary motivation of “I want to do a game for this publisher, which might help further my game design career for reasons X, Y, and Z.”

Because of that, I had some initial difficulty coming up with an actual, workable game. I knew who I wanted to publish the game, and I knew the game was going to be about trains, but I didn’t know anything else about it. For a long time I just sputtered and spun my wheels, at a loss as to what the game would actually be. I started to question the wisdom of designing a game “backwards”, as it were.

I was also somewhat intimidated. At that time, Chicago Express (Wabash Cannonball) was one of my favorite games, and anything I could come up with would fall far short of that game’s glories and ecstasies. There was a lot of math involved – sorry, maths, forgot I was writing for a blog on the other side of the pond – and I was and am rubbish at maths.

But in early 2012, a few months into my faltering quest to design a game for Winsome, Mary and I happened to play two quick games of Paris Connection, Queen’s version of SNCF. That game is a simple and elegant filler, and playing it, something just clicked in the old noggin. The next day I started work on a simple, streamlined, and stripped-down filler game. My intention was to distill one of the primary features of Wabash Cannonball and the other stock-holding cube rail games, the forming of emergent, elusive, and transitory alliances.

Those two games, SNCF and Wabash Cannonball, were primary influences on the game that would become Northern Pacific. A third influence was cinematic in origin – my all-time favorite Western film, Once Upon a Time in the West, had a plot which turned on someone buying land where he guessed (correctly) that the railroad would have to pass on its way to the Pacific. That, in essence, is what players are doing: they invest in cities hoping the railroad will connect there, profiting when it does and cursing their losses when it doesn’t.

The game played in anywhere from two to ten minutes, which had the distinct advantage of making it very easy to test. Consider: a weekly playtest group that is given a ninety minute game to play can get through the game once each week. But my little train game got in a dozen plays or more every time we got together. Changes were minimal but rapidly implemented. The most important change was the double-sided arrow, providing additional but brittle flexibility to the players. This was Mary’s idea, and it was brilliant; it really held the whole thing together.

I wrote an email which I addressed to Mr. Bohrer (he quickly asked that I call him John) and inquired about submitting the game. He gave me the address, and I sent it off. Usually when I submitted a game to a publisher, it would be weeks or months before they got it on the table, if they did at all. But John and his group played it on the day it arrived. They liked it, thought it would be a good contrast to the brain-burning epic Continental Divide, and offered to publish it in the following year’s Essen set.

I was of course rather elated by this. I was further elated when, as expected, John and his group went to work on the development. They gave it the title Northern Pacific, having relocated it from the American South-West of my original submission, and they doubled the size of the map. This resulted in a richer and more complex decision space, but oddly didn’t alter the core simplicity of the game, and most surprisingly didn’t really change the length of the game. Comparing the new map with my original was a sort of master-class in the art of multiplayer game design, and was indeed instrumental in me learning my craft.

 In late 2012, a full year before the game was to be released, John came up to Michigan to meet me in person. He explained that he always met his authors before he publishes one of their games. Mary and I met John and one of his associates at an outdoor restaurant that, if I remember correctly, made a passable Reuben sandwich.

Now, prior to meeting John in person, I knew that he was a smoker – his “cigarette smoker” microbadge on BGG kinda gave it away – and that gave me some cause for worry. Neither Mary nor I smoke ourselves, and we find the smell of it to be extremely irritating. I particularly have a madeleine-in-tea association with the smell, as my father, a heavy smoker, died of lung cancer at age 38. I saw my father die – it was a messy and ugly death – and the smell of cigarettes causes a vivid involuntary memory of that moment.

So, going into it, I was worried that I might give offense by asking him not to smoke, that I would come across as overly fussy or, if I had fully explained the reason for my aversion, that I would come across as overly dramatic. I wanted to make a good first impression, especially as, at least at that time, I was famous for making bad ones.

So, John was sitting in the outside dining area, and he was indeed smoking one cigarette after another. But I never smelled it. It never irritated my throat, it never attacked my nostrils, and it never brought back my father’s dying moments. Partially, this was because of the way John smoked, holding the cigarette away from the table, blowing the smoke softly and gingerly upward and away. We didn’t tell him that we had a problem with the smoke; he just politely and naturally directed the smoke away from everyone. I sat across from him, and Mary next to him, and when, on the way home, I marveled at how he smoked, and that I’d never encountered a smoker who was actually considerate of others, Mary expressed surprise that he was smoking at all. She hadn’t noticed. (And man, let me tell you, Mary notices everything!)

But partially, it was because of how charming and down-to-earth John is. His stories that night were entertaining, his insights into various Eurogame publishers were acute, and even as he drove the conservation and had the best lines, he made you feel like you were the center of attention. Those are rare talents, and I think they’ve served him well.

The game came out in the 2013 Essen set, and I was fairly confident that it would be well-received, it being (in my own estimation) such a charming clever little thing. So I was actually surprised at how divisive it was. Some people loved it and some loathed it. It was either the purest distillation of train game player dynamics that ever was, or it was barely even a game. Even folks who liked it argued over whether or not it was “really” a game at all, which I found disconcerting and discouraging. If I had a thinner skin, it might have put me off of doing another train game at all, if not for the fact that I had already designed and submitted Irish Gauge.

Irish Gauge (2014)

So, back in 2012, a month or so after meeting John but still a year off from the publication of Northern Pacific, I was driving home from work when I came up with the idea for another Winsome game. Having a long commute – I spent an hour on the road each day – I had ample time to think and to more-or-less assemble the entire game in my head. I spent that evening creating a prototype, and we played Irish Gauge for the first time two days later.

The core of the game is that there is a cup filled with three colors of cubes. Some of these cubes are pulled out at the start of the game and assigned to cities to seed the board. A player could use their turn to call for Dividends, in which case they would pull three cubes out of the cup: cities of the same color would pay out, cities that didn’t match those pulled wouldn’t. As you call for Dividends more often, the probability of a given color paying out decreases. Further, players could turn towns (which always pay out, but only a little) into cities by purposefully removing a cube from the cup, potentially killing a rival’s income.

That was all part of the game from the first play to the last, as was the minimum stock bid values which the players recouped at the end of the game. Really, everything about that game came out of that hour-long drive home from work. After several months of uneventful testing that confirmed the overall soundness of the design, in April of 2013 I submitted the game to Winsome, and John agreed to publish it in the 2014 Essen set.

The game’s reception was much less divisive than Northern Pacific, which somewhat took me by surprise. I was assuming, especially given the random/probability element, that some of the train gamers would have their pitchforks at the ready. And so my first foray into a “proper” stock-holding game seemed to go over very well, and I still get people telling me it’s their favorite Winsome, which is very kind of them.

Trans-Siberian Railroads (2015)

Almost immediately after John said yes to Irish Gauge, I got right to work on another train game. Now, remember: at this point in the timeline, it’s the spring of 2013. Northern Pacific won’t be released until later that same year. Each of my train games is thus being made “blind”, without receiving any feedback from gamers at large which I can use to improve the next design. This is a crucial part of my process these days; I can’t imagine what Charlemagne, Master of Europe would look like without the useful feedback I got from gamers on Agricola, Master of Britain. While these days I do very much appear to be working in my own peculiar idiom, it’s an idiom that’s informed by what customers respond to both positively and negatively.

I say this because, while I have a soft-spot for Trans-Siberian Railroads, I do think it’s something of a misstep, in that it moves away from the simplicity of Northern Pacific and Irish Gauge and takes things into a more baroque direction. Someone once said of it that it has “more scaffolding than game”, and someone else found it “overwrought”: “Ideas are spilling out of the sides of this thing and rotting on the floor.” And, you know, they’re not necessarily wrong about that.

Trans-Siberian Railroads was my first attempt to take some of the elements I enjoy in the 18XX and Winsome-fy them. The most obvious of these is the way that money can be shuffled from one company to another. In the 18XX, this is largely a matter of buying trains. In this game, the track-leasing or leap-frogging mechanism allows players to pump money from one company to another. The two late-game companies are primarily used for this purpose in my game, which mirrors player patterns in some 18XX games that see early companies propped up by late-starters. I emulated the Phases that you often see in an 18XX, originally having three such phases but cutting it down to two in order to control the game length. Companies need to be floated by purchasing at least two shares before they can operate, and there is a distinction between “private” and “public” companies. Lots of little echoes like that – probably too many of them, in retrospect.

The Nationalization aspect of the game was inspired somewhat by 1856, though it resolves quite differently in my game and proved to be needlessly punitive. To be clear, I don’t mean “needlessly punitive” in the sense that it’s something amiss with the design, but rather, that this feature of the game is cruel, capricious, and disproportionate – that was always the intention. I’ve a fondness for economics games that are borderline psychotic.

I think the game works and can be compelling, but only for certain and very specific definitions of compelling; in retrospect I don’t enjoy it as much as my first two Winsomes, or as much as my fourth. That seems to be the consensus with gamers as well, who seem to prefer either of my two Gauges. But being a longer and more complex game I also think it’s harder for folks to get it on the table, and so it might be that as more people play it and are exposed to it, it might merit a better reception.

Iberian Gauge (2017)

So, it’s the summer of 2014. Northern Pacific debuted in the previous October, and Americans are getting their unnumbered Essen Sets in the mail, including Irish Gauge. Having received feedback about both of those games, I start thinking about doing a fourth Winsome title. My ambition was to scale things back after the comparatively epic Trans-Siberian Railroads, producing another game with modest rules overhead. I did however want to experiment again with Trans-Siberian’s track-leasing mechanism, and to make it the focus of the game. The difficult terrain of Spain and Portugal would be ideal for this, and thus I began work on Iberian Gauge. There was another great idea at the core of the design which I was fairly proud of: each stock would be numbered, and each player would build track for each company according to the order those shares were purchased in. If I have the red number one and three stocks, and Mary the red number two, then when it was red’s go, I’d build (number one), Mary would build (number two), then I would build again (number three).

Pretty much everything that you see in the final game was there from the start, but despite that, the game had an absurdly long development cycle. It wasn’t ready in time for the 2016 set despite my best intentions. It very nearly missed being in the 2017 set.

Primarily this was because I had less time and less playtesters. My regular playtest group more-or-less dissolved. No, there wasn’t any drama behind it. Folks got married or divorced, got new jobs and moved, found new interests and pursued them: the normal, sad, inexorable drifting away that comes with adulthood and the passage of time. My own free time became a rare commodity when I took on editorial duties for a magazine in late 2014, shortly before being promoted to a stressful, overtime-prone management position at my day-job.

I was pretty sure the game was ready, but I held onto it, tinkering here and there, worrying that I wasn’t getting enough testing, hesitating before sending it off to John. Eventually of course I did.

John and his group made one change after accepting the game for publication. In the original submission, the player who held Priority Deal at the end of the game got an extra $10. The Winsome folks didn’t feel that this was really necessary, and playing the game recently I can’t say that I’ve ever really felt its absence.

The game came out last year, and the reception has been largely positive. More than that, it’s been useful. For example, discussions with one player about groupthink and the use of the three-paper company in a four-player game has pushed me away from asymmetrical companies in my next train game. The ability of some gamers to completely sidestep the semi-cooperative aspects of the game (resulting in a very different and potentially flat experience) likewise inspired me to make cooperation somewhat mandatory the next time around.

As for that next game – well, I’m not allowed to talk about it yet, but I think it’s the best and most interesting train game I’ve ever done, perhaps even the culmination of my train game mini-career, and my last word on the track-leasing mechanism it shares with Trans-Siberian Railroads and Iberian Gauge. I have no idea how it will be received – for one thing, I’ve become increasingly disenchanted with “hate play” and screwage, making the game less cutthroat and more about “running good companies”, which is a red flag for some players.

Working with Winsome did greatly increase my profile among certain gamers, and probably made some of them take a second look at Hollandspiele and it’s wargames. It made me a better, more confident, and more idiosyncratic designer, to the point where I don’t think the games I’m making today would exist without Winsome. Heck, without selling those first three games to Winsome, there’s a fair chance I may have thrown in the towel and focused on turning my terrible, soul-crushing day-job into a career.

So I’m very thankful that nearly seven years ago I said, “I’m going to design a game specifically so I can have a working relationship with Winsome”, and even more thankful that it paid off.

You can find out more about Hollandspiele and the incredible games that are published there here: Hollandspiele.com

Why I Love Wargames: Part One

Why I Love Wargames: Part One

I always want to write late at night, I get so many ideas flying through my head but then I come to write them down and they disappear so here I am, at 11pm, hoping to write something coherent. Of course I enjoy writing reviews and about the games I love but, I get my true joy when I’m writing about the things that make me happy in a different kind of way. I am going to write a series of blog posts describing why I love wargames and here is your first instalment.

I often think about why I play the games that I play and I guess you could say that about anybody but my tastes have gotten pretty specific over the last year or so, and I wanted to talk a little bit about wargames and why they have a special place in my heart. Now you can say the same thing about boardgames in general, they are so full of theme, full of exciting stories and adventures but there is something that’s just a little bit different when it comes to wargames for me.

Learning about Historical events and Military history

Growing up, I wasn’t really into history at all. I studied it at school, because it was mandatory but beyond that, it didn’t really grab me. Looking back, I feel like maybe the history lessons at school were a bit crap in the first place and I was focused on other stuff  but fast forward quite a few years and I am obsessed. My love of wargames did not start out due to my love of history, it was in fact the other way round.

The more wargames I discover, the more I start learning about history and the more excited I am to do research on the different events or wars that I may be playing a game about. Playing wargames also let’s me do more with historical events than just read a book or watch a movie. I now love doing those things too, but playing a wargame is a highly thematic and immersive experience. Does that mean I love war? not at all. I get asked sometimes if I do and the answer is simply no, but do I love learning about history and getting to know events, what happened and why things are the way they are now? of course I do. Like a lot of other boardgames, wargames tell a story.

There’s something so extraordinary about a designer telling an elegant story, as well as highlighting important parts of history.

I intially discovered wargames through GMT Games, I had played and fallen in love with Twilight Struggle and needed to find more games that would excite me the way that Twilight Struggle had. So I did a bit of research and played a couple of COIN games, Fire in the Lake and Cuba Libre to be exact and I was hooked. I didn’t really understand the COIN system back then but there was something about it, I knew I loved it and wanted to learn more.

Strategy and Mechanics

I love the strategy that is often involved in wargames. Yes, they do include the usual mechanics that I love including area control, hand management and so on but after playng heavy euros, 18XX games and all of the games I still love, I wanted something new to obsess over and wargames were that for me. I see it as a challenge, learning new stratgies and new ways to play games.

I also find it so interesting to discover other strategies that we might have pursued and how that could have changed the way a lot of these historical events played out.

Solo wargaming

I know that other boardgames can be played solo and I do that occasionally, but I learned to play a lot of wargames by playing them solo and it’s something I really enjoy and actively do these days.

I talk alot about mental health and boardgames and the relationship between the two and this is a perfect example. There’s something so theraputic about playing a solo boardgame when I’m feeling anxious or struggling with my mental health. I can sit down, focus on the game and the tough decisions that I am going to have to make during the game. Sometimes I want the experience of sitting down and playing a heavy game but being an introvert, sometimes I can’t socialise and need my own space so being able to do something I enjoy, on my own, in a safe space is so valuble to me.

It’s not always that way though, sometimes I just want to play something because I’m bored, or want to learn a new game or nobody else is around to play a game or because it’s fun. It’s great to have that option and a lot of wargames do.

There’s just a few reasons I love playing wargames, keep an eye out for part two, thank you for reading and let me know why you love playing wargames.

Thank you for reading.

 

 

‘Bend It Like Churchill’ Guest Blog by Mark Herman

‘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.

pic2467234_mdFor 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.

ISSUES

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).

MAP

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.

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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.

Mark Herman
Baxter Building
NYC

You can follow Mark on Twitter, here: @markherman54

Seize the Bean, Don’t Be Fooled By Those Cute Sugar Cubes [Kickstarter Corner]

Seize the Bean, Don’t Be Fooled By Those Cute Sugar Cubes [Kickstarter Corner]

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A game set in the heart of Berlin, you’re a barista, skilled in the craft of coffee. You’ve had it with your day-job and you’ve opened up your own café in the interesting, colourful city of Berlin. The thing is, other coffee shops have opened up too and you’ll be competing against other up-and-coming cafés and you’re determined to be the best.

In Seize the Bean, you’re competing to get reviews, specifically good reviews and lots of them. The person with the most, positive reviews at the end of the game, wins.

How do you get good reviews? Well, you must successfully serve customers in your line, fulfulling orders and making sure your customers get what they came in for. Each turn will provide you with limited actions which you will use to attract certain types of customers, gain resources, or even boost your actions for more effective results. By looking for opportunities in the ever-changing city, the players can take the right products and upgrades and build up their shop and clientele to victory.

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How do I play it?

Good question. During the game, players take their turns over the course of a Game Day.  The game is played over as many Game Days that are required until a player takes the last of the Available Good Reviews. Once the last review has been taken, the game ends.

Game Days or player turns are divided into four steps. Each step is completed by all players, in turn order, before moving onto the next step.

First of all, you need to serve your customers.

It’s mandatory, that’s how you’re going to get your good reviews and make your customers happy, as well as triggering certain abilities during the game. Customers that haven’t been served become impatient, which is not a good sign and may force a player to take a Bad Review Token. Bad reviews are never good for business.

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To Serve a Customer, you must pay the required ingredients that are shown on the top left of the card. Immediately upon doing so, you will take the rewards, if any, that are located below the ingredients. Rewards are usually Good Review Tokens which are good for business!

After paying the required resources to fulfil a customer’s order, you may also choose to pay the bonus ingredients if there is an option to do so on the card. If you do, you also immediately receive the bonus reward that is indicated underneath the bonus ingredients. Yay, more reviews.

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Then there are the different actions you can take.

You can acquire resources

The Resource Actions allow you to take resources from the central supply. Each Action has a base amount marked on the Player Board and can be increased by adding Product Cards to your Pantry. The Action’s new amount of acquired resources is depicted horizontally across the Product Cards.

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You can scoop the beans

The Scoop icon is special in that it allows you to literally scoop out Beans, Or you can skip the use of the Scoop and simply replace it by taking six beans, but why would you? it’s fun. When using the Scoop it is recommended that house rules be set in advance, such as fallen beans must be put back and players only get one chance per scoop (ie. no retries or floor Beans, please!).

You can take City Actions

The City Actions allows you to take Customer, Product and Upgrade Cards from the City. Each Action has a base effect marked on the Player Board and can be increased by adding Upgrade Cards to the your Pantry. The action’s new effects are depicted horizontally across the upgrade cards.

You can Attract Customers

The Attract Action allows you to take a customer from the city and place it into your discard pile. By default, they may only take visible, non-buried customers. Later on in the game, this action may be modified by upgrades that you have installed.

You can Stock Products

The Product Action allows you to take a Product Card from the City and place it into your pantry which is on the left side of your Player Board. By default, you may only take visible, non-buried Products. When placing a Product Card in your Pantry, each card should be placed so that the icons of the previous Cards are visible and the three resource bars and Special Ingredient bar line up appropriately.

You can Install Upgrades

The Upgrade Action allows you to take an Upgrade Card from the City and place it into your Shop Decor.

At the end of the day, you’ll draw new Customer Cards from your Customer Decks directly into their Line. The cards go into your Line from left to right in the order they are drawn. The amount of Cards you draw is equal to their current Hype. If they already had Cards in their Line those do not count towards the total they must draw. If they run out of Cards but are required to draw more, they must shuffle their Discard Pile into a new Deck and draw from it. If they still run out after doing this then they simply stop drawing Cards.

New Day

The Cards in the City all advance one column forward, stacking up as necessary on the fifth face-up column to create the various City Discard Piles. A new card is drawn for each row, from the respective City Deck, and placed in the first column.

All players remove their Meeples from their Actions and put them back onto the Action Step part of their Player Board.

The First Player Token is then given to the player who has the Next First Player Token, and it is then passed to the player to their left.

As long as there are still Available Good Reviews, play continues again from the Serve Step with the new First Player starting their Serve.

Seize the Bean ends when there are no more Good Reviews available.

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Thoughts

I was curious when I initially heard about Seize the Bean. I love deckbuilding games, they are high on my list of favourites but a game about making coffee in Berlin, well I love the idea but would it be an interesting game?

Sure, the concept is awesome but it would need to executed well, and the designers got it spot on.

Seize the Bean is probably one of the most thematic games I have ever played. Why? well, the satisfaction of making customers happy, the pressure of making sure customers are served and satisfied, and a never-ending line of customers with very different orders. All the stuff that comes with working in a busy, popular and rather cool coffee shop. Working somewhere super busy is stressful but rewarding and although I wouldn’t go as far to say that Seize the Bean was stressful, there’s definitely a lot going on.

I also love the diversity in this game. You can tell that so much care and consideration has gone into providing an accurate representation of customers that are likely to come into the shop, plus the artwork is striking. Berlin is a vibrant, diverse, busy city and that is perfectly captured throughout the artwork and gameplay. 

The combination of deck building and resource management in Seize the bean is pretty nifty, and unexpected. I know I shouldn’t equate cute artwork to simple gameplay but don’t be fooled by the cool components and eye-catching cutesy artwork, this game can get pretty tense and it’s pretty difficult to manage your resources, keep your customers happy and keep growing your shop.

The component quality also looks pretty neat. Of course, I played a prototype but even the quality of that was outstanding. I’ve mentioned it a couple of times already but nice, clean, cute artwork, and one of the stretch goal gets you 3D printed sugarcubes, coffee beans and little milk cartons. What’s not to love? 

Seize the Bean is an innovative, light-hearted but complex game with enough decisions to keep you hooked. Along with stunning artwork and clever gameplay, this one is a winner from me.

Currently on Kickstarter with 12 days left to go, you can check out the campaign here: 

 

 

Thank you for reading, and see you next time! 

Who Are You? by Geoff Engelstein

Who Are You? by Geoff Engelstein

The Avalon Hill Game Company launched the modern wargame in the 1960’s. And one of their key marketing techniques was to put you in the shoes of history’s greatest generals.

Here’s the box cover from 1961’s D-Day:

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 The font size choices tell an interesting tale. The game title, D-DAY is largest, followed by INVASION GAME. The next biggest is the YOU, in bold and all-caps.

Three years later they were still doing it. Here’s the 1964 cover from Afrika Korps:

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Again, the YOU is all-caps and bigger than the other text. Not sure why they decided to put GAME in all caps, but not Desert Campaign, but that’s a mystery for another post.

Avalon Hill realized early on that giving players a hook to put themselves into the game, giving them a clearly defined persona, was a way to improve their experience, and the narrative that can be built.

One of the questions that I’m most asked about designing games is whether I start with a mechanic or a theme. In truth, most of the time I do neither. I start with an experience I want the players to have, which is a combination of emotion and narrative with the theme. For example, “Zombies” is a theme. But if someone tells me to design a Zombie game, that leaves way too much room to start doing anything constructive. Is the player in a single room putting up barricades until a helicopter arrives? A group traveling through the countryside to reach a safe-zone? Entire nations battling zombie hordes and each other? Until the theme gets combined with narrative, and the emotions you want the players to feel, I find myself just bumbling around.

And identifying who the player is – and making sure they know it – is key to that process. In those zombie games the player could represent a single person, a small group, or the leader of a nation. Regardless of which you choose it’s important that the players feel connected to that role.

Take another look at the Afrika Korps box. It actually tells a story in the small text, between the icons:

Early in 1941, a general named Rommel, commanding Panzer Regiment 5 and other small units rolled across the British at remote El Agheila, swept the Western Desert under the German Cross and began the legend of the Afrika Korps

… and after 2 years of seesaw war against the Eight Army’s New Zealanders and Australians and Indians and Britishers and South Africans and French and Poles and many others, finally broke his sword.

This is such a great example of setting up the experience for the players. You’ve got two competing narratives here, depending on which side you’re playing. The first part (above the game title) tells a tale of a scrappy commander winning seemingly against the odds (small units) to become a legend. Then below the title it gives the story of the Eight Army player, which seems like the rebels from Star Wars coming together to overthrow the empire.

So both players have their role, and their experience handed to them right on the box cover.

As war games became more popular through the sixties and seventies, their role as simulations became more valued by players. They favored games with more realism, that incorporated many different aspects of the historical situation. Morale, supply, untested troops, weather, all became staples of wargames.

This quest for ultimate realism peaked on tactical end with Tobruk (1975) and on the strategic end with The Campaign For North Africa (1979). Tobruk included incredibly detailed rules for armor penetration, including how the relative angles between the armor plating on different makes of tanks, and direction of the shells arc impacted penetration probabilities. Campaign for North Africa was notorious for it’s incredible level of detail, tracking individual water rations.

But a funny thing happened. Everyone slowly realized that more detail didn’t equal more realism. And this goes back to where Avalon Hill started – Now YOU command. New designs remembered the YOU but forgot the COMMAND. It was clear who you represented in Tobruk or CNA – a platoon commander, or Rommel. But it forced players to deal with details that were well below what the actual commanders wanted to – or were able to – deal with.  Monster games like Fire In The East had players move around thousands of chits, but no commander ever was concerned about specific unit placement down to that level.

Omniscience doesn’t equal realism.

The key challenge for the designer was creating systems that gave the appropriate scope to the game, that put the players in charge of what their counterparts would have been in charge of, give them the same knowledge, and the same tools to deal with the situation.

And that turned out to be a much more intricate and subtle problem. It was easy to just do more research on the Order of Battle, but quite another to create systems that convincingly simulate what is outside of the player’s control.

The venerable CRT is an early and classic example of this. The commander can get the right forces into the right place at the right time – but the details of what happens in that skirmish can’t be controlled. But modern wargames look for more novel ways to limit players omniscience and omnipotence.

Card-drive Wargames, like We The People and Hannibal, gave another mechanism for giving appropriate options to players. They present players with a controlled subset of options at any given time, and shield the exact responses their opponents will be able to make, creating a more realistic Fog of War.

The Command and Colors series gives players a hand of cards that limits what sectors of a battle they can ‘activate’ each turn.  This was expanded on in the Combat Commander series, where the cards you have determine the orders you can issue.

Firepower was one of the first games that used a chit pull system to determine which units a player could give orders to, a system which has been used in many games over the years.

And the much-lauded Up Front puts the player in charge of several squads, but takes even knowledge of the geography the battle is being fought over out of the hands of the players. Some felt that this went too far, but Avalon Hill and the designer defended the design decisions to the hilt, ultimately winning over the wargaming community to this style of simulation.

The reality is that every war game has to abstract some elements. And know which to abstract, and how, is the key to great simulation design.

Limiting player control over what they know, what they can do, and how that can turn out, can emphasize the experience for the player, and their identification with their role. In my WW2 ETO game The Fog of War,I specifically wanted to focus on the big picture of setting strategic direction, on par with what the national leaders or supreme field commanders faced. The exact location of a unit, and what was covered by its Zone of Control, wasn’t their issue. The concerns were what the overall strategy would look like, and trying to figure out the plans of your opponent. I also wanted to try to truly represent the hidden nature of surprise attacks and defenses that were hardened well beyond what the attacker anticipated.  I’ve been gratified by the positive response to what is an admittedly unorthodox game.

I’d like to wrap up by describing a little known computer war game from the 80’s – Road to Gettysburg, by SSI. This brilliant game put you in the shoes of Meade or Lee and covers the maneuvering around the Pennsylvania countryside that led up to the battle.

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The brilliant part of the game is the way you control your forces. You have to specifically send orders to your subcommanders – and those orders will take a variable number of turns to get to them. And depending on the leader they may take a while to act on the orders, or just ignore them completely. Or they may get intercepted by the opponent and never arrive.

And to add to the confusion, those leaders send you updates about what’s going on, but they also take several turns to get back to you. And some leaders tend to be serial exaggerators about the size of the opposing forces they see. You have a laminated map where you try to track the positions of your own and the opposing units, but it’s a best guess based on the latest dispatches you’ve received.

It is fog on top of fog, and it was an absolute delight to play.

You can actually play a version of the game via a browser emulator here:

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but without the maps and rules it’s a little challenging.

This is a concept – sending messages to your commanders – that I would love to be able to incorporate into a tabletop war game design, but I’ve struggled with how to make it playable. But if I get it working I think it would be incredibly immersive.

So the next time you’re playing a war game, think about who you represent, and the techniques the designer used to put you in those shoes.

You can find go visit Geoff’s podcast here: Ludology