Sunny San Diego is a few thousand kilometers away from me. No way I could just go to a board game convention there… or could I? In 2021 I can! For pandemic reasons, San Diego Historical Games Convention (SDHistCon) has been held online the last few times, including this November 12-14. I’ve had a blast at the previous SDHistCon in May this year, so of course I signed up for this one as well. Once more, it was a great time – thanks to Harold Buchanan and all the many volunteers who made this event happen. Here are a few of my highlights.
Every day of the con starts with the Morning Coffee event – just some leisurely chatting between Harold and the attendees. Of course, that gets particularly interesting when designers and publishers share their philosophies or views of the industry. For example, one day solo gaming was discussed – with Harold sharing the (to me) surprising factoid that in a 1970s subscriber survey of Strategy & Tactics magazine, 80% of respondents described themselves as solo gamers. The replay value of dedicated solo games was also discussed –are they something you come back to or do you rather play it for the novelty, which, after the first full playthrough of what the game has to offer (campaign- or scenario-wise) has worn off? – For me, there is no marked difference between solo and head-to-head gaming in that regard: My most-played game this year (so far) is the app-version of Pavlov’s House (David Thompson, Dan Verssen Games), which was just so easy to get a game going during the pandemic – no second player required, and all the housekeeping was handled for me by the app. On a more long-term basis, I’m now in the third playthrough of the full campaign of Unconditional Surrender! (Salvatore Vasta, GMT Games), which means I had one or the other campaign of that game running for most of the last three years. In a game that just takes 50-100 hours for the full campaign, it’s just easier to play it solo (although I’ve started a head-to-head full campaign (online) now just this month).
NYC 1960 (Vez Arponen)
Speaking of solo gaming: The first game demo I attended was a solo game! NYC 1960 has you arrive with barely any money and even less of a plan in the Big Apple, trying to make it big there. The game is fully embracing counter-culture – from beat poetry to civil rights activism, and, maybe most of all, Bob Dylan. Beware, however, that everything you do drains your funds or your energy, so you might find yourself sleeping on the streets or close to despair over your prospects a lot.
After the introduction, I had the opportunity to try it out for myself (which took around 45 minutes): I managed avoid the cardboard bed on the streets a few times by temporarily renting an apartment or crashing on the couches of my new acquaintances, I worked some odd jobs, evaded cultists, and, as the pinnacle of my artistic career, I found the inspiration to write a grand total of three (!) lines of beat poetry (whose lack of compliance with the established conventions of beat poetry is due to my cultural illiteracy. Please don’t take my VPs away).
Tyranny of Blood (Akar Bharadvaj)
Not just any unpublished game – but the winner of the Zenobia Award and thus highly anticipated in the historical gaming community. Tyranny of Blood depicts the Indian caste system in the era of British colonialism (1750-1947), with four players taking the roles of the four varnas (large social groups): Brahmin (priests and scholars), Kshatriya (warriors/princes), Vaishya (merchants/artisans) and Shudra/Dalit (laborers) (Dalit technically not being a varna themselves). The game is highly asymmetric – each faction has different goals, different actions to pursue these goals with, and different means at their disposal. Still, they have one thing in common: Each faction is aiming at advancing the social standing of the castes belonging to it. And then there are the (non-player) British, slowly advancing from their coastal trading posts into the interior. They can be a hindrance for each faction’s plans – and thus, also a help (if you make them hinder other players more than yourself).
Tyranny of Blood looks as intricate as intriguing, and was probably the game that interested me most at the con. It takes the detail and argumentative richness of historical conflict simulations, which tend to be in the military/foreign policy realm, and applies them to the social/domestic policy one. With four hours for a full game or two for the short scenario, it can be played in an evening.
The Economics of a Wargame Kickstarter (Kevin Bertram)
Fort Circle’s Kevin Bertram presented the business side of board gaming as he experienced it with his The Shores of Tripoli. He laid out the costs and revenue from all different sales channels he used (Kickstarter backers, game stores, Amazon…) and also gave some insights into the marketing and project management of a successful Kickstarter – and, of course, status updates on Fort Circle’s upcoming games (like the highly anticipated and almost shipping-ready Votes for Women (by Tory Brown)).
Gaming Fantasy vs. Historical Conflicts (Volko Ruhnke)
Not everything is historical. Sometimes, we want to escape into alien worlds with our gaming. Still, the same kind of thought might go into designing the model for them – adapted for the circumstances of the historical or fictional “source material”. To prove that point, Volko Ruhnke compared three of his historical games with a well-known fantasy/sci-fi game, focusing on one aspect for each:
- Military economics: Dune vs. Falling Sky
- Sieges: War of the Ring vs. Nevsky
- Insurgency and counter-Insurgency: Star Wars: Rebellion vs. Fire in the Lake
Of particular interest to me were Volko’s contextualizations of the fantasy games in their time – Dune being prescient about the power of those who control the most valuable resource in the world (spice in theirs, oil in ours), and Star Wars’s sympathies for popular-backed insurgencies against an empire vastly superior in firepower after the Vietnam War.
Zenobia Award Finalists panel
Hosted by Liz Davidson (from Beyond Solitaire), this panel featured a whopping seven of the eight designers whose games made it to the finals of the Zenobia Award. They discussed their design process, the delicate balance between keeping the things you find relevant about your subject and making it more accessible, and the gnawing question which probably all creators of things as niche as historical board games have: Who will even be interested in these games?
One final takeaway for me (from Damon Stone, designer of Liberation: Haiti): Different designers will give different perspectives on the same subject. That makes it all the more important to broaden the base of board game designers and the perspectives represented therein – as the Zenobia Award has done so venerably.
Downfall: Conquest of the Third Reich, 1942-1945 (John Butterfield)
Some games take a long time to come to fruition. Particularly when the designer is someone as perfectionist as Chad Jensen of Combat Commander fame. He spent about ten years tinkering with this design and it was still not ready to share with the outside world when he passed away two years ago. Now, with the notes that Chad left behind and the knowledge his wife (and co-designer on other games) Kai had of the game, John Butterfield has taken on the task to finish the design.
From what we could see in the demo, it’s already a pretty interesting game: Two players take the role of the Soviets or the Western Allies in World War II – plus, they control the Axis front which is facing their opponent. Thus, both players have to play offense and defense at the same time. Maybe the most interesting mechanism is how initiative works: Each action costs a certain amount of initiative, and whoever has spent least initiative will take the next action.
A full game might take twelve hours, but there are shorter scenarios for six or nine hours, and many games end early on a sudden death conditions – so while the game is large, it is not unsurmountable.
The Bell of Treason (Petr Mojžíš)
The next game in the Final Crisis series of short, tight games on crucial political crises (after Fort Sumter (Mark Herman, GMT Games) and the soon-to-be-released Red Flag Over Paris (Fred Serval, GMT Games)). This time, we’re going into Czechoslovakia in 1938: Hitler demands the annexation of the Sudetenland, and the two players represent the positions on that within Czechoslovakia: Concede (and cede the Sudetenland, as happened historically) or Defend (and risk a war with Germany). They aim to bring the public, the military, the political actors and the great powers of Europe on their side. A sudden death condition might trigger if the Defend side is quite successful early on (as happened in our demo game), otherwise Defend does not only need to gain an overall advantage, but also to persuade the president to make a stand – or conduct a coup against him. With a timeframe of 30-45 minutes, the game can be easily played during a lunch break.
I particularly enjoyed the historical chat with designer Petr Mojžíš after the demo – what would have happened if the Czechs and Slovaks had decided to fight in 1938? Petr assumes that at least the Czech part of the country would have fallen fast, whereas the mountainous Slovakia might have offered longer resistance. We both agreed that getting the Sudetenland (and half a year later, the rest of Czechia) without a fight was a major boon for Nazi Germany – not only did the seizing of Czech tanks provide a short-term boost to the German army (and the Czech armaments industry, particularly the Škoda works, a more long-term one), seizing Czechia’s wealth (and the gold reserves of the Czechoslovak national bank) also saved Nazi Germany from impending bankruptcy by its reckless spending.
You see, it was a weekend well-spent – even though time zone differences compelled me to go to bed when the fun was just beginning for others. The future of SDHistCon is currently being discussed. And if the convention returns to a physical-only format like before the pandemic – maybe I’ll make it to California some day!