The year is almost over, and once more, it has come with quite a few excellent historical board games played. These are the three I enjoyed most this year:
Frederick II of Prussia was one of the most successful practitioners of warfare in the 18th century. His fame rests mostly on his exploits in the three Silesian Wars (1740-42, 1744-45, and 1756-1763). The the first two wars were about territorial expansion for Prussia, the third about Prussia’s naked existence. This stark difference seeps through all of Frederick’s writings (for example, his two Political Testaments for his successor (one of them written after the Second Silesian War, one after the third) or his various strategic writings. So, as Maria covers the first two Silesian wars and its sister game Friedrich the third, how do they shows the differences even though 90% of their rules are identical?
One difference are obvious: Prussia is an attacking power in Maria, the defender in Friedrich. Others are more subtle: Prussia’s political stance in Maria is akin to that of the young Frederick who changed his allies about as often as his shirts – the Prussian player is allied with France against Austria in the Bohemian theater of war, but allied with Austria against France in the Flanders theater. The lower number of combat cards drawn make every battle more of a risk and an opportunity alike in Maria – if you win big, a theater might change entirely. And so there is less of the attritional warfare of the Third Silesian War (so typical of the Prussian defense in Friedrich) and more of the bold strokes and reverses of fortune which characterized the first and second Silesian Wars. Maria is by no means a simulation – the battles are fought with poker cards! – and yet it captures the spirit of the conflict it depicts so well.
Last year, I started a nice little game of Unconditional Surrender! and shared it with you on Twitter and this blog. That entertained all of us for about ten months, and then, by summer 1943 in the game, Nazi Germany had already collapsed under the Soviet, British, and American onslaught. The Soviet Union had barely suffered any losses of men or terrain during the war while America and Britain were still tied up in a struggle against Japan in the Pacific. So I thought: What if Stalin saw this as his golden opportunity to gain hegemony in Europe? – And I started a follow-up game using the end positions of this previous one, now pitting Soviet and Western forces against each other. Thus, the struggle continued and was only finished on December 24 this year!
Designer Salvatore Vasta says two things about this game over and over again: First, it’s easy to mod. I have found that to be true. Even though the game is not made for a post-WW2 confrontation, I could easily adapt what needed to be adapted, and the basic framework continues to serve very robustly. And second, Sal says, the objective of the game is to have fun (that is in fact rule 1.1.1 of the game as per the official rulebook). Rarely have I met the objective of a game so comprehensively!
The game with which I had most fun this year, however, was once more…
Remember the first days of January 2020, when the Corona virus was at best a piece of miscellaneous news (unless you lived in Wuhan)? Yeah, me neither. But there are records of these far-away times. And in these first days of 2020, I had five friends over at my place to play a game of Here I Stand. As always, it was a wild and wondrous experience – the Ottomans captured Vienna, but the Hapsburg counter-stroke took Sultan Suleiman prisoner, and in the end, the Pope sold a divorce to England for two cards, drew two extremely powerful cards with five command points each (including Diplomatic Marriage) and then nabbed Venice, Genoa, the lofty title of Master of Italy, and the victory in one big turn.
Fast forward six months. The pandemic was by now all over the news and all over the world. We had just gotten out of the first wave, and six people from a lot of different households meeting didn’t seem like a great idea. Thus, we decided to give an online Here I Stand game a shot (in case you want to do that, too: We used the Wargameroom client, ZeroTier for a shared network, and Discord for communication). And while it was not the same as sitting in the same room with one’s friends, it came pretty close. A great relief, a great release of joy in a troubled time. Amazing what gaming with friends can do. Our next online game is already planned for January.
Which historical board games did you enjoy this year? Let me know in the comments!