Tuesday, 27 September 2011


Plays: 3Px1.

The Game

Maria is designed by the same designer as Friedrich, Richard Sivel, and uses a similarly unique (hmm... an oxymoron) battle system. This is a war game about the War of the Austrian Succession. Maria Theresa of Austria was 23 years old when her dad the king and the Holy Roman Emperor died. The opportunistic wolves (Prussia and France and some others) thought she was weak and decided to attack and to grab her holdings. Some countries helped Austria. In history, Maria did better than her enemies had expected, and by the end of the war managed to maintain status quo except for conceding the territory of Silesia to Prussia.

Note: I'm describing the advanced game here. I didn't pay attention to the simple version.

The game is designed for 3 players, with 2-players as a variant. One player plays Maria, controlling only Austria at the start of the game. Another player plays Frederick, controlling Prussia, Saxony and the Pragmatic Army (Netherlands and England). This is a little weird, because the Pragmatic Army is actually on the same side as Austria. The Frederick player has split personality, having stakes on both sides of the war. The third player plays Louis XV, controlling France and Bavaria. Prussia and Saxony are north of Austria and they attack her from that direction. France and Bavaria are to the west of Austria, attacking from that direction. The Pragmatic Army is to the north of France and the German states, and can attack these two areas, however the game rules do not allow them to attack Prussia or Saxony (or vice versa).

The game is played over four years of 3 seasons (no fighting in winter), making 12 turns. To win, a nation (Austria, Prussia, Pragmatic Army or France) needs to place all of its victory point markers onto the board. There are a number of ways to do this. Capturing enemy fortresses is one, winning major victories in battle is another. Controlling a majority of the German cities which can vote for the Holy Roman Emperor is also one way. There are a few others, including some that are only applicable to specific nations.

Let's talk about the battle system. Every nation starts with a certain number of cards, and draws a number of cards every turn. The cards are almost like a standard deck of cards, having numbers and suits. The map is divided into squares, each belonging to one of the four suits. When you are involved in a battle, the number of troops lead by your general is your base strength, and you can play cards of the suit of his location to add to your strength. Because of this, it is important to choose where to fight. There is also a bluff element because if you are holding many cards, your opponents can't be sure whether you have many cards in the particular suit that you need. This mechanism also makes it dangerous to be caught having no cards in a particular suit. If your opponents know you have just exhausted a particular suit, they will try to catch you while you are weak.

The game board and starting setup. White is Austria, mostly on the right (Bohemian) side map, with two patches on the left side map. Red is France, and its ally Bavaria is orange. Grey is Netherlands, where the Pragmatic Army is. Blue is Prussia, and green Saxony, initially allied to Prussia. The territory to the east of Saxony is Silesia. It belongs to Austria, but has special treatment. Prussia starts with two victory markers there, and Austria starts with five. Typically you only get to place victory markers when you occupy enemy fortresses. The uncoloured areas around the border of the two map sections are the small German states making up the Holy Roman Empire.

Only French and Austrian units may move between the two map sections. Others can only play on their own maps.

Round tokens are generals leading armies. Cubes are supply trains. Coloured squares and stars on the board are minor and major fortresses respectively, and they are worth victory points. Thick lines are major roads, which allow generals to force march, i.e. travel further than normal, under specific conditions.

Notice the grid of light grey lines. They split the game board into squares, and each square is associated with a particular suit - spades, diamonds, clubs or hearts. On the right you can see that Prussia (dark blue) and Austria (white) have some victory markers on the board.

The number of generals you control, and supply trains that are needed to support them when invading your opponents, are limited. Your cards are limited. Battles tend to be few and decisive. There is an political events system where players spend cards to try to trigger or avoid events. Events have various effects giving advantages to one side or the other of the war. They can cause Saxony to become neutral and even to switch to the Austrian side. These events have much historical flavour, yet their effects are implemented in simple ways, e.g. causing some nations to draw more (or fewer) cards, causing some nations to play with fewer (or more) generals, and allowing some nations to place victory markers.

There are some special events that can be triggered under specific conditions, e.g. France reducing their military objectives, Prussia annexing the Silesia region and entering a temporary truce with Austria, and the election for the Holy Roman Emperor. These reflect historical possibilities (and facts) and add much flavour to the game.

The political tracks, representing the allegiance of Saxony, Prussia's war with Russia, and the support of the Italian states.

The cards look good. The reserve card at the bottom right is a joker. It can be treated as any suit and any number from 1 to 8. Sometimes treating it as a small number can be useful, e.g. when you want to intentionally lose a battle and retreat.

The Play

In the first game that we played, Han played Austria, Allen played France, and I played Prussia and the Pragmatic Army. Prussia had many cards at the start of the game, and I swiftly descended upon Silesia in the north of Austria, quickly capturing many fortresses. Austria (Han) had two special hussar units which could go behind enemy lines to disrupt supply, forcing enemies to waste cards. Han used them effectively on me and on Allen. Discarding one or two cards may not seem much, but they do add up. In the early game France (Allen) and Austria (Han) had one very big battle which cost them many cards. Austria won, but both of them went card-hungry. France (Allen) continued to send armies into Austria, but due to shortage of cards, he was conservative and advanced cautiously.

These are the two hussar units that only Austria has. They can't fight. They are used to disrupt supply. They can be place four spaces away from any Austrian general, and if they interrupt the supply line of an enemy, that enemy must pay cards depending on the distance between supply train and general. This is useful for forcing the enemies of Austria to discard cards.

In the early game, the Prussian (blue) armies descending upon Silesia. The hussars were not yet in position to interrupt the supply train.

One big battle in the early game between Austria (white) and France (red). This was in the north of France.

Prussia (blue) had taken over most of Silesia. The army of Saxony (green) was also advancing towards Austrian fortresses. France (red) had entered Austrian territory from the east. The Austrians were surrounded!

In the north of France, the Pragmatic Army (me) advanced steadily, after Austria's (Han) lone army in this area defeated France's (Allen) army. Allen did not spend much effort on defending his north. Since there was little resistance, my Pragmatic Army did not need to spend many cards, and accumulated quite many.

Fighting soon broke out in the north of Austria as two of Han's Austrian generals came to meet my three Prussian generals. I had been successful in the early conquest of Silesia, since the Austrian generals were still far away, and my generals were all at the border ready to roll. However I started suffering defeats when meeting Han's resistance. We had quite a number of battles. He was quite stretched, because of the multi-front war he had to fight. Odds gradually shifted to me as I better positioned my generals (my early positioning was baaaad). However Han made one important move that was crucial to this front - he eliminated my supply train. My generals were now deep in enemy territory and were forced to retreat hastily. This crucial move completely wrecked my momentum. It would take a number of turns for me to send another supply train and to replace troops lost to attrition.

France (Allen) had not spent much effort defending its northern border, and the Pragmatic Army (me) steadily captured more and more fortress. It didn't seem many at first, but once my generals advanced into France, there were many unguarded juicy targets for me. Also, since my Pragmatic Army had not been fighting many battles, I had many cards acculumated. Austria (Han) and France (Allen) had an unofficial ceasefire so that Austria could focus on Prussia (me) and France could save some cards to fight the Pragmatic Army (me). Unfortunately it was too late for France. Their generals were out of position, and the Bavarian (also controlled by Allen) general too. Eventually the Pragmatic Army captured enough fortresses to place all victory markers and win the game without even needing to fight.

The Thoughts

I really like how battles are few and how the can be very decisive. The battle mechanism is unusual, maybe unthematic, but it works wonderfully, introducing a bluffing element and introducing a tricky board positioning challenge to the players. One interesting aspect is you can intentionally lose a battle to cut your losses, rather than risking a major defeat. Army size is actually a small factor in determining win or lose, but having a larger army means you can suffer more defeats before your general is routed off the board.

Despite battles being decided by cards, I don't feel there is a big luck factor. There is much you can do before you need to start fighting, e.g. positioning your generals at the right locations, playing the policital events aspect to bring advantages to your nation, trying to outmanoeuvre your opponents, trying to catch their supply trains, bluffing etc.

Maria feels more like a wargame than a Eurogame to me, despite the rather Euro-ish feel of the battle mechanism. The many historical aspects of the game will feel like a significant overhead, especially if you are used to streamlined Eurogames. For wargamers these rules are probably peanuts. I think they are fine. I wouldn't play without them (they are part of the advanced game). They add a lot to the theme and the narrative.

One downside is this is probably a 3-player only game. I have not tried the 2-player variant, but even the rules say it is a less interesting way to play.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the great review. Your camera needs a bit of adjustment, however. Without knowing the camera: try increasing exposure by +1 EV (via the +/- button, some camera phones also can do this in their settings) and increasing contrast. You may have to switch away from full-auto to do this. Or else take a pic of the board to the left and the other 2/3rds of the pic quite dark, since the brightness of the board is forcing the camera to underexpose (which makes the pics dark), then crop the result which should be brighter.

Hiew Chok Sien 邱卓成 said...

Thanks for the tips! Indeed the lighting condition where I play is not ideal - light comes from one side and not evenly from all sides.

Anonymous said...

The uneven light actually works rather well, giving the pic excellent atmosphere. It's not that, just that simple camera light metering is attempting to make the pic overall 18% grey which is good for the average snap but results in too dark for a light scene (such as white walls, snow, beaches, paper and some boardgames, like Maria) and too bright a pic when the scene is dark, such as black walls, a black background or a dark boardgame such as Quantum. By making much of the scene darker, as with the suggestion, the camera will increase exposure and the board will be brighter. That can be more convenient and quicker than +1 EV, and often the +/- option isn't possible anyway, on simpler phones. But you'll need to crop. Have fun with that! Looking forward to better pics! :)
PS, liked the comment about the unthematic battle mechanic. I commented on this at BGG recently. BGG link. I think it's an abstracted amalgamation of multiple inputs, such as competition for resources, intelligence, area knowledge, etc etc. Kind of neat but a bit jarring.

Anonymous said...

Gee, I been mulling over getting my first block game and stumbled over Maria and Rommel in the Desert by Columbia Games.
Maria isn't a block game but the use of suited card play is interesting, the down side, 3 players, plus long play time.
Any idea how you would rate them against each other, neatly ignoring the player count? If you only wanted to own just one?
Does RitD feel dated? It seems to have that linked supply chain at its core.

Hiew Chok Sien 邱卓成 said...

Now THAT's a difficult question to answer. :-) I like both. They are quite different though so it's hard to compare. Also my play of Rommel was but a scratch on the surface. If you think the play time for Maria is long, then Rommel plays even longer. Rommel does have short scenarios, but I think other than the introductory scenarios, all the rest are longer than Maria. Rommel does not feel dated. It is more complicated. You need to understand many concepts and tactics in order to make good decisions. Often behind one simple decision there are many different far-reaching considerations. Maria is exciting, and the game tells a good story. In Rommel you are more involved in more nitty-gritty details, and you are creating your own story from the bottom up. The supply concept in Rommel means there is an element of bluff. There is a cyclical tempo to it. Sometimes you get plenty of supply. Sometimes not. It's another thing you need to manage - how to capitalise it when you can, how to get away with it when you're weak. If I were to own just one, it's Rommel, but that's only because I do own it, and the copy of Maria I played belonged to a friend. :-) Sorry I can only give this chicken-out answer. But I hope the rest helps.