The Rise of the Great Powers / Imperial Struggle (Book & Game, #3)

Back to the book & game pairings to educate & entertain about a certain historical topic! Today, we’re looking at the power struggles of the 18th century with Britain and France occupying center stage, often called the Second Hundred Years’ War. Our book & game for this topic are The Rise of the Great Powers 1648—1815 (Derek McKay/H.M. Scott) and Imperial Struggle (Ananda Gupta/Jason Matthews, GMT Games).

Check out my previous Book & Game posts here:

Eastern Front: Russia’s War and No Retreat! The Russian Front

Reformation Era: Four Princes and Here I Stand

The Book & Game

The Rise of the Great Powers 1648—1815 was published by Longman in 1983. It analyzes the development of the European states’ system from its birth, the Westphalian Peace (at which the Thirty Years’ War was concluded in 1648), to its fully-formed state at the Congress of Vienna (which laid the foundations for a post-Napoleonic Europe in 1814/15).

Imperial Struggle was published in 2020. According to its designers, it is the “spiritual successor” to their earlier game Twilight Struggle – while the two games are mechanically different, they both deal with a global rivalry between two great powers. In Imperial Struggle, the British-French rivalry (often referred to as the “Second Hundred Years’ War”) is fought out over diplomatic, commercial, and military interests in Europe, North America, the Caribbean, and India.

Connections & Conclusions

One first connection: After playing Imperial Struggle for the first time, my interest in the period was sparked (again), so of course I wanted to pick up a book. Finding one was not too hard: The Imperial Struggle playbook has a handy bibliography from which I could just pick what suited my interest best. Thanks, Ananda and Jason!

There is one thing that both the book and the game do extremely well: They avoid the teleological view that Britain’s eventual supremacy was inevitable. Hindsight lets us often assume that no alternatives were possible in history, that yesterday’s losers must have been last week’s underdogs. Or, to quote a friend with whom I played Imperial Struggle: “Interesting to see how this turns out. Like, did France even stand a chance at all?” – To which I replied, “Oh, I assure you, in the 18th century, the Imperial Struggle was real.”

Games, of course, are excellent alternative history generators, and thus it is easy to see how history could have diverged from the path it took. In Imperial Struggle, you might see France ascendent in the New World. (The aforementioned friend basically wiped my British presence out of North America within the first cycle of a peace and war turn.) You might see Spain as Britain’s most important ally. You might see France ruling the waves.

Books need to open your eyes in different ways. The Rise of the Great Powers does this by its scope: In the first chapters, we meet a France which is the hegemon of Europe, diplomatically and militarily more advanced than any other nation on the continent, ready to take on any one or any coalition of them… and then, when the book concludes, we see France contained, its bid for hegemony ultimately shattered. In between, primacy switches between France and Britain (and is sometimes held jointly or by no power). This story of ups and downs cannot but quicken the reader’s mind – what if this or that event had played out differently? The respective advantages of the two powers – military and diplomatic for the French, commercial and maritime for the British – will be familiar to Imperial Struggle players.

Of course, every book and every game looks at a topic through a different lens. The Rise of the Great Powers is a book of diplomatic history, and thus treaties and alliances take center stage. These correspond to the diplomatic action points of Imperial Struggle (and to the tables of the war displays). The Rise of the Great Powers does mention the commercial and military dimension of the age, but it is less prominent than in Imperial Struggle which is driven to a good part by the fierce competition for market spaces and the military buildup before every war.

Finally, the comparison between book and game begs the questions of beginnings and ends. The book, concerned with the development of the European system of great powers, spans the time between two major peace conferences which both redefined that system (the Peace of Westphalia established state sovereignty, the Congress of Vienna institutionalized the European great powers acting together as the Concert of Europe). Easy and intuitive.

For the game, it’s not quite so simple. Its topic is the Second Hundred Years’ War which is usually dated 1689—1815 (so, from the Glorious Revolution to the fall of Napoleon), but Imperial Struggle cuts a few years off in the beginning and the end, shortening the played time to the years 1697—1789 (so, from the end of the Nine Years’ War to the beginning of the French Revolution). The designers touch on why they left out the Revolutionary and Napoleonic period in their game notes: The game would have become decidedly longer (another 26 years added to the 92 already included, which would add another three turns to the ten), and the competition would have been a lot more lopsided than before in the individual dimensions: France militarily dominated Europe from its victory over the counter-revolutionary invasion of France in 1792 to the disaster of the Russian campaign in 1812. On the other hand, once Britain had assured its naval supremacy in the battle of Trafalgar (1805), the French overseas possessions were nothing more than ripe fruit for Britain to pick. The British blockade and the French Continental System would also majorly change the economic competition of the game. Including the Revolutionary and Napoleonic era thus would need some fine-tuning of the rules in order to both feel historically correct and be fun to play.

But what about the Nine Years’ War? It could be very well handled by the game system as is – just a simple War turn. Yet, for gameplay purposes, that would pose the problem of starting with a War turn and thus would make the game less accessible: As it is now, players have the first Peace turn to orient themselves, place some flags, and get to grips with the game. Then whatever they have done is evaluated right afterward in the first War turn. Thus the players get an idea of the interrelationship between peace and war which is so central to Imperial Struggle. Starting with a War turn would turn this intuitive structure on its head and kick the game off with some chaos which would not be based on player input. Thus, the Nine Years’ War was left out.

In case you are as excited as I am about putting even more history into Imperial Struggle: Ananda and Jason have confirmed that they’re working on expansions which cover the Revolutionary and Napoleonic period on the one hand and the Nine Years’ War on the other – likely beginning with a Revolutionary/Napoleonic expansion.

Both of that sounds intriguing to me. The Nine Years’ War expansion could act like a randomizer for starting positions (similar to what the Turn Zero expansion (Ananda Gupta/Jason Matthews, GMT Games) for Twilight Struggle does): Will France gain the upper hand in Germany and the Netherlands? Can the new British monarch wipe out Jacobite resistance – or will the Catholic Stuarts even be reinstated? Must France forgo its claim to the Spanish succession? Can Britain retain its naval superiority? Will the French lose Pondicherry – or the British New York?

And I probably don’t even have to list what would be cool about the Revolutionary/Napoleonic expansion: Revolutionary government and constitutional reform reflected in the Ministry cards. The waxing and waning of coalitions. A Napoleon bonus war tile.

Until then, there’s a lot to discover in the base game for me… and surely a few more books to read on the topic as well! In case you’re just thinking about getting into the great 18th century rivalry, Imperial Struggle and The Rise of the Great Powers are both a great place to start.

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