We come to maybe the most noble category: Historical board games. Isn’t that what this blog is all about? As usual, the “rules” are simple: The list is based on my personal gaming in 2018, regardless when the game was published. I give a top three and crown one game the winner.
An old favorite of mine. This is one of the games I have played most often in my life, and still I haven’t grown tired of it. Prussia’s struggle for survival when she was surrounded by enemies in the Seven Years’ War is one of the most daring feats of history, and replaying it (be that as the defending Prussians or the attacking Austrians, French, and Russians) would be exciting by itself. Friedrich, however, makes it one of the tensest things I’ve ever seen. The relatively simple rules make for a lot of strategic, operational, and tactical dilemmas. Should you direct your main thrust against Prussia into Silesia or rather help your minor ally in Saxony? Can you move your army to a more defensible sector or will the enemy be able to cut your supply then? Should you play it safe in the battle, take a short retreat and come back next turn to whittle your enemy down by superior numbers, or is time running out for you and you need to risk it for the biscuit right now? It’s the most exquisite agony you’ll ever feel.
Two Punic Wars in one box. I’ve only played the second one so far (so, the one with Hannibal), and that has been quite something already. Once you have made it through the somewhat unorganized rulebook (looking for one of the bazillion small rules is a real pain), a titanic clash awaits you – or several smaller scenarios which focus on just one of the theaters of war. Like Friedrich, Hannibal & Hamilcar challenges you on the tactical, operational, and strategic level: Should you aim for a safe, but small battle victory by attacking frontally or aim for a riskier, but more rewarding double envelopment? If you are likely outmatched, can you find a way to safely get away from your opponent without being attacked? Can Rome afford to send a force to Spain or Africa to wear the Carthaginians down there while Hannibal still lurks in Italy? Most of all, however, Hannibal & Hamilcar is a truly Clausewitzian war game in which military maneuvers are just a tool to gain political allegiance of cities and provinces. As these snowball, lopsided games are soon brought to a conclusion. But at its best, victory comes down to the very last card – as was the case in my first game, when the Romans incited a revolt in Spain to surge ahead of Carthage by the smallest of margins.
I have gushed about Here I Stand before already. So, as the game wins the second award in the second category it is eligible for this year, let me be a bit more analytic. How does Here I Stand give you such an immersive experience?
It gets the mix between the known and the unknown right. Almost every player up for this will have some knowledge about the Protestant Reformation or the exploration and conquest of the Americas. Many will be familiar with figures as Henry VIII or Hérnan Cortes. All of this helps the players get a first grasp and feel at home. But beyond these household names there is a lot of stuff barely anyone, except for the rare player with an outsized interest in the period, will even have heard of. There was a Hungarian nobleman by the name of John Zápolya? Philip of Hesse was a bigamist? One can get silver from a place named Potosí? A whole new world opens to the players.
The powers all play very different. That is not only a great (replay) value argument – you get basically six games for the price of one – it also means that playing, say, the Pope is a unique experience. Your military is weak, and yet you must expand your position in Italy if you want to play for the win. You have more direct and indirect diplomatic threats and promises at your disposal than anyone else, and only your imagination limits how you use them. The Protestants as your sworn enemy go from puny to powerful by the midgame, and it is a delicate challenge to know when to avoid wasting resources on a losing battle, when to beat a fighting retreat, and when to make your stand and turn the tide for the second half of the game.
Here I Stand’s biggest obstacle in getting played is also one of its strengths. During the many hours one game takes, you get invested in your role, especially, if you play from the beginning in the long 1517 scenario. The world slowly unfolds in front of you. Choices have consequences. Maybe your English army took Antwerp from the Emperor in turn 1 and now you’ve made an enemy for the next 30 years of game time. Maybe your siege efforts are petering out, but one of the other powers offers to make contact between you and traitors within the city – provided you will help them out in another way. Maybe you’ve re-married three times already in the hope of siring a male heir to your throne, and now you sit there, desperately bewailing your own mortality and pondering if to behead your current wife. It’s a grand experience.
What were your favorite historical games this year? Let me know in the comments!