Monday, September 21, 2015

Wargame review — Churchill

Now Where Did I Leave My Cigar?

(Originally published on September 21, 2015)

Designer: Mark Herman
Player count: 1 to 3 (fully soloable)
Publisher: GMT Games

During World War II, leaders from the Soviet Union, Britain and the U.S.A. converged on select locations to hold conferences—23 in total—that would define the allied attacks on Germany and Japan, but also shape the world that would emerge from all that violence.
WWII essentially died giving birth to the Cold War, a reality conveyed in a visceral manner through GMT’s Churchill.

Played on a split board—one half a huge conference table, the other an abstracted map of both Eastern and Western theaters of operation—Churchill was conceived of as a three-player experience. Each participant sits in one of the big chairs: one player takes on the role of the titular British leader, another that of Roosevelt (and eventually Truman), while the third becomes Stalin. Together, they try to steer this unholy trinity towards defeating the Axis powers.

This is accomplished through a clever and novel conference system build on a three-way tug of war. Each conference unfolds in the same manner: players select issues—two apiece—they want to “discuss” during the conference (from war production through to political placement, all the way to D-Day) and place the relevant markers in the center of the conference table. Then, in turn, each player plays a staff card (from several, all with varying values and abilities) to try and advance a specific issue on his own track, towards his leader’s chair. Opponents can attempt to debate the issue and pull it back towards them, and so it goes until all staff cards have been played. Once per conference, the leader himself can stand up and speak instead of one of his minions—to great effect—but each such occurrence comes at the expense of a die roll that may have unintended consequences: Roosevelt may die (vacating his chair for Truman), Churchill may suffer a stroke (rendering him unusable during the next conference), and Stalin may go full-on paranoid, taking each subsequent Soviet staff card down one notch in efficiency.

When the dust settles, whoever has the most issue markers on his own track “wins” the conference (which bestows victory points), and the all issues are then implemented on the battle half of the board. Production markers are allocated to various endeavors (with “allies” sometimes helping each other against their will), resources are dedicated to advancing the many fronts towards Germany and Japan, research is done on the A-bomb (perhaps with the Russians spying on the proceedings), the Western allies possibly storm the beaches of Normandy and Russia might declare war on Japan, and so on.

At the end of 10 conferences, three situations can arise.
  1. Both Axis powers have been defeated, and the player in the lead is less than 16 points ahead of the player in last place. In this case, the player in the lead wins.
  2. Both Axis powers have been defeated, but the player in the lead is 16 or more points ahead of the player in last place. In this case, a die is rolled and the result added to 15. If the player in the lead is less than that new number of points ahead of the player in last place, the player in the lead wins. Otherwise, the player in second place wins.
The rationale here is that a point leader who pulled ahead too much will find himself with the other two powers allied against him in the postwar world. Hence the notion that the player in second place should win—because his situation will be preferable in the New Order.
  1. Either Axis power (or both of them) are undefeated. In that case, the player in first place subtracts 1d6 from his score, the player in 2nd place subtract half a d6 from his score, and the player in last place adds 1d6 to his score. Highest score wins.
Yes, this eventuality comes down to a die roll. But failure to defeat the Axis produces a world in the throes of chaos, and players should expect nothing more at the end of such a disastrous session.

And that’s pretty much it. There are many subtleties at each step of the turn sequence, but the overall system is very simple. Or so it seems—we’ll get back to this later.


WAR PRODUCTION

Churchill is housed in one of GMT’s double-deep boxes, a very sturdy cage of cardboard that could take a beating and still walk home. The cover gives off a Spartan, solemn feel, which is appropriate given the subject matter.
Similarly, the (mounted) board has a very business-like look to it. This is no artsy wargame map, with lovely terrain renderings: it’s a war room map, where abstractions are placed as reminders of what stands where at any given time. Any more would simply not be relevant.

Then come four decks of cards—one for each leader, plus the conference deck—printed on good card stock. Not too thick as to become cumbersome when it’s time to shuffle, but tough enough to keep sleeves at bay and still look great. The equipment also features a variety of thick counters, die-cut à la Eurogame (complete with rounded corners), as well as wooden cubes and assorted bits to represent the belligerents’ influence in both theaters of operations. Some might take offense at the perceived cheapness of the bingo tiddlywinks used to track clandestine networks in relevant countries, but the little transparent discs are frankly the best tool for the job.

Three player aid folders round out the package, highlighting the three most important chunks of info in the whole game: an annotated sequence of play (with roughly 20 steps each turn, you want to make sure you don’t skip anything), the allocation of victory points (26 different cases, easy to overlook), and a detailed description of the three game-end situations. The flowcharts for bots that allow Churchill to run on less than three human brains take up the rest of each player aid.


RULES OF ENGAGEMENT

Boiled down to its essential nuts and bolts, Churchill is a very simple game. Yet the rulebook clocks in at 36 pages—but nothing could be further from the truth.
The first seven pages offer a “first look” at the different mechanisms in the game. A gray box at the bottom of page 7 shouts “STOP! At this point you have the basic rules and concepts for playing a game of Churchill.” Now, while it is true that every working part gets touched upon in that initial foray, the following section (10 more pages) explains all the details that make the engine run. So I wouldn’t recommend that three newbies attempt a game of Churchill armed with only the limited knowledge contained in that first, introductory chunk of rules. What that summary does really well, however, is prepare a new opponent (or two) for a game where an experienced player will run the show, without the need for them to actually read the entire rulebook.
Next up are four pages of scenarios, one page on the secret agenda variant (which introduces some uncertainty as to final scores), a one-pager for the solitaire experience (using two of the aforementioned bots), and then various odds and ends, including a glossary, an illustrated example of play, and designer’s notes.

All in all, we’re left with 17 pages of actual rules. And those make for an easy read, which pretty much lines up with the complexity level of 2 that GMT highlights on the back of the box. Except that this will only become true after your first game. And that’s a crucial point. Learning how to pull the various levers found in Churchill is easy. Understanding what those levers will achieve is impossible without at least one session under your gamer belt.

One word on the bots. The game comes with three systems meant to replace human opponents when flesh-and-blood decision makers prove not to be available. They work fine, but the game still requires a human operator to play the bot’s hand to the best of his abilities. So single players hoping to play Churchill by themselves beware: the solo game is very much like playing each of the three hands yourself, albeit with some nudging this way or that from the relevant bot. Just don’t expect an actual AI who can surprise you with a move you failed to anticipate.


FUN FACTOR

The fun I derive from a boardgame can come from a wide variety of sources. In El Grande, I like seizing majority in a region at the last possible moment; in Union Pacific, I relish the tension of not knowing when the next dividend card will pop up; in Combat Commander, I am thrilled by the random events to which both opponents need to adapt. In Churchill? There are many things I enjoy here, to be sure, but I believe the one aspect that entertains me the most is how such a simple set of rules can yield that much gameplay depth. And the fact that player actions couldn’t be simpler—pull on an issue until it’s in your lap—blankets the whole proceedings with some sort of magical aura. You really feel like the leader of a major nation, imposing your will with the mere flick of your silver tongue… all resulting in major (and sometimes catastrophic) consequences.

It’s a lot of fun to look at your available staff (i.e. your hand of cards) at the start of a conference, and try to figure out what issues you think you can get away with. Sometimes the two issues you’ll place on the conference table will be crucial to your strategy, and sometimes you’ll select one as bait so that an opponent will concentrate on that particular issue and leave the other one alone. Other times, you’ll focus on one area and leave a desirable issue off the table in the hope that an opponent will decide to put it in play… and try to hide your smug grin when he does slap it down on the table.

I’m just scratching the surface here, but my point is that the fun of Churchill—and, indeed, the very heart of the game—lies around the conference table. The rest is implementation, where players have very little leeway. It’s a very different game, and I believe that a prospective player expecting something akin to moving pieces on a battle map is setting himself up for first-class disappointment.


PARTING SHOTS

I’m not nearly done exploring everything Churchill has to offer. But I’m hooked: each time I finish a game, I want another dose. Right now, goddam it.

It bears repeating: the “consequential” learning curve (learning not how to use actions in the game, but what those actions will entail) is one of the steepest I’ve seen in a long time. But on the other side of that hill, it’s a very pleasant path. Not a plateau, mind you: the road keeps rising, and therein lies the genuine depth of the game.

Churchill is a new type of game, reminiscent of GMT’s own Twilight Struggle in its treatment of influence over brute force. It’s almost more of a mind game than anything else. And that blows me away. See? Designer Mark Herman wasn’t happy with having invented the card-driven game (CDG). He needed to one-up himself and give birth to yet another new breed of wargame.

So when I heard that Herman was already hard at work on a new incarnation of his system involving Pericles & friends, I thought that maybe my rejection of the Santa Claus myth had been a little on the hasty side.



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