Sunday 14 April 2013

God's Playground

Plays: 3Px1.

The Game

God's Playground is a Martin Wallace game that requires precisely three players, just like After the Flood. Both these games never quite became very popular. I wonder whether it's because of this very specific restriction, or the limited production run. Probably both. God's Playground is a game about Poland, from 1400 to 1790. It is under constant threat of invasion from all directions. Players are Polish magnates who have holdings in Poland. They need to defend Poland while growing their holdings, sometimes needing to work together. Ultimately to win the game you need to be the more successful than your fellow countrymen, so sometimes you need to do things that would be bad for Poland, maybe even bad for yourself, just to make your colleagues suffer more than you do.

The game is played over four rounds, each representing an era in Polish history. At the start of every round you secretly assign your nobles to the 5 regions in Poland and also to the national army. The total number of nobles assigned to the national army determines how much of a boost it gets for the current round, on top of its basic strength. As for your nobles in the regions, you will need to use them for most of the actions in the game, e.g. claiming estates, raising armies, attacking enemies and recruiting land managers. Every round, five enemies will threaten to invade from five different directions. To preempt these attacks, you need to raise armies to attack the neighbouring countries, and you need to deal enough damage so that they call off their attack. One special action allows you to sign a treaty with an enemy, but there is a small chance that they will renege. If you can't discourage them from attacking, you will still get to defend your homeland when they invade. You can even mobilise the national army to try to beat them back. If any enemy cannot be fully repelled, they will start destroying estates, and may even spread to other neighbouring regions within Poland. The game primarily revolves around these external threats and how the players try to defend Poland, while investing in estates and trying to make enough money to raise armies.

The game board. Poland is divided into 5 regions, and each is threatened by an enemy.

Every player has 12 numbered blocks. You use them to secretly assign nobles to the 5 regions and the national army. In Round 1, you use any six of them, but in Round 2 you must use the remaining six. The same applies for Rounds 3 and 4. So you need to decide when to conserve your strength and when to go all out.

The four kings represent the four rounds in the game. The cavalry and infantry icons represent the basic strength of the national army. Augustus is a weak guy and has no military strength, so he will be fully dependent on the players to contribute strength to the national army.

This is the region of Prussia, and it has four spaces for estates. The estate value starts at $3, and may go up or down depending on whether there is any war or occupation by foreign powers. The black bordered box represent the enemy - the Teutonic Knights in Round 1, then Sweden in Rounds 2 and 3, and finally Prussia in Round 4. For simplicity's sake I just think of them as the Teutonic Knights. The numbers 5, 7, 4, 9 are the enemy strength values for the four rounds. 4VP is how much you earn if you are the highest contributor in campaigning against this enemy.

There are many other details to the game, many of which relate to the history of Poland. One of the enemies, the Habsburgs don't really attack Poland. They just send politicians to try to influence Polish politics. These politicians remove Polish nobles, which reduces what the players can do. In Round 3, the Ottomans attack the Habsburgs instead, and it is up to the players whether to help the Habsburgs. If they don't, the Ottomans will become very strong in Round 4, and will attack from two directions. If they do, the Habsburgs survive, and switch to a military approach to invade Poland in Round 4 (ungrateful scum!). It's a choice between two evils.

In the southeast there are two cossack cavalry units, which the players can recruit to help defend Poland. If they are not recruited, they will join the Tatars in attacking Poland. There is one special action which allows a player to dissolve the parliament, i.e. to remove all ministers from the parliament (called the Sejm). This is usually disastrous for the country, because ministers are few and crucial. You need them to activate the Polish national army, and you also need them to sign treaties. You probably want to do such a traitorous act only if you are sure your fellow countrymen will be even more screwed than you.

All these rules (there are quite a few others I have not mentioned) bring a lot of flavour to the game. They help to recreate Polish history. In some cases they also help to balance the game. There is no superfluous rule.

During the four rounds, players gain victory points (VP) mostly by launching military campaigns against the enemies of Poland. They can also gain VP's by building schools, and having unused ministers. At the end of the game, the most important source of VP's is the estates owned by the players which have not yet been burnt to the ground.

The two beige coloured cavalry tiles are the cossacks. You can recruit them to fight for Poland. If you don't, they will find for the invading Tatars.

The rectangle at the centre of the map is the parliament (called the Sejm), and the discs are the ministers of parliament.

The Play

At the start of the game, Han, Allen and I got to pick three estates each as our starting holdings. This phase already set the context for how we needed to cooperate (or otherwise). Allen was the only one having estates in Lithuania, and because of that, neither Han nor I bothered to help him defend Lithuania. Han and I had overlapping interests in the south - in both Ukraine and Little Poland (Lesser Poland is probably a better translation). I was quite the diplomat, signing treaties with the Tatars quite a few times. Every round there is only one opportunity to sign a treaty, so turn order is important if many want to take this path. Bribing (that's effectively what signing a treaty is) the Tatars meant Ukraine remained at peace for quite some time, and the estate value grew, which meant more income for the estate owners.

At the bottom left, Allen (blue) is the only player having estates in Ukraine.

Allen's (blue) valiant effort in attacking the Russians. I think this was Round 3. The Russian base strength was 6, their additional strength was 2 (indicated by the two green cubes), making a total of 8. Allen had dealt 9 points of damage to the Russians, which was sufficient to cancel their invasion.

Peace treaties sound like a good idea. However in hindsight, they can turn out to be a major disaster. There is a small probability that the enemy will renege, and when they do, you will not have done any preemptive strikes to reduce their strength, and you will most likely have no troops to defend the region. You can try to mobilise the national army to fight the invaders, but it may be too little, too late. We didn't have any such dishonourable acts in our game, but I can imagine such an event can really mess up the players' plans.

While the south remained generally peaceful, things didn't go so well in the west - Prussia and Greater Poland. At one point all three of us had estates in Prussia. So we should all be holding hands, singing kumbaya and fighting the enemies together right? Wrong! Our selfishness caused the destruction of the region. No one put much heart into defending it from the Teutonic Knights, because there was always the thought that the invaders would be burning someone else's estate first. Of course, by the time that this someone else's estate was burnt, he wouldn't be bothering to contribute anymore to defend the other remaining estates. There was a domino effect. The economy collapsed and the estate value dropped to rock bottom - $1.

When the Ottomans attacked the Habsburgs in Round 3, we decided not to help. We probably wouldn't have managed to do so even if we had wanted to. We had enough on our hands. In Round 4, the Ottomans became very strong and attacked Poland from two directions. At the time Han was the only player with estates in Greater Poland. Greater Poland was doomed because it not only had to face a huge Ottoman army, it also had to deal with the Teutonic Knights overflowing from neighbouring Prussia. Naturally, Allen and I watched with glee.

At the top right (Little Poland), the Ottomans (small orange cubes) have invaded, but the players (red, blue, white) collectively have more nobles than them, so only one estate will be burnt by them, and they will not expand further from Little Poland. At the lower right (Prussia), the enemy (black cubes) has invaded too, but here the Polish nobles will not be able to keep them in check. They will burn the last remaining estate and also spread to neighbouring regions.

The game was one round after another of crashing and burning. There were too many threats and it was quite impossible to deal with all of them. It was about how to minimise the damage, especially to your own holdings. The game was about survival, and trying to score as many points as you could while doing that. You do need to have some cooperation and coordination with the other players, but this is in no way a cooperative game. You help each other only because you need each other to survive. When the time is right, you will gladly sit aside and let your colleague face the music by himself.

At the end of the game, I won by a large margin. I had the most valuable estates, and during the game I managed to pull off a nationwide Jesuit school building project which gave me a big chunk of VP's. Jesuit schools cost money and nobles, which can otherwise be spent on armies and campaigns, so it's not always a simple decision to play education advocate. Poland was in tatters by game end. Every region had foreign powers, just that in some regions there were enough Polish nobles to tie them down and not let them run amok. Surprisingly Allen managed to defend Lithuania reasonably well, all by himself. He still had three estates remaining.

This was Round 4. The Habsburgs (purple box) had been conquered by the Ottomans (orange cubes), and the Ottomans were now attacking this region (Greater Poland). The remaining Polish nobles were mine (white), and were greatly outnumbered by the Ottomans. All the estates here, which were all Han's, were burnt to the ground. The estate value (black disk) had dropped to $1.

Game end. Every region had foreign powers present. In the northwest, the Teutonic Knights had completely destroyed Prussia and had spread to Lithuania in the northeast. In the west, the Ottomans had destroyed Greater Poland. In the southwest, the Ottomans present were barely contained by the Polish nobles. In the southeast, the Tatars had invaded too, but there were enough Polish nobles to prevent them from causing too much destruction.

The Thoughts

I quite enjoyed God's Playground. It's a game of crisis management. Things will go to hell, and you need to salvage as much as you can. You need to analyse and understand clearly the interdependencies between the players - where the opportunities to work together are, and where the threats to do something nasty to one another are. I would say most actions in the game do not cause direct harm to your opponents. More often it is your inaction that would cause trouble for them. However there are a few nasty moves you can pull too. E.g. the dissolve parliament action mentioned earlier. There is also a special action that allows you to take over an estate belonging to the leading player if you are the trailing player. Denying your opponent a special action can be crucial too. The build city action (triple the VP value of an estate) and the diplomacy action are limited.

There are quite many rules in this game, and it is definitely not a game for casual players. One round is a procedure of sixteen steps. The reference table on the game board is a necessity. This game is a high-investment game - there is much you need to cover before you can start to play. I don't think any rule is superfluous. No rule exists just for thematic reasons. Not every rule will be important in every game, but I feel that every rule has a purpose, e.g. for game balance, to create competition, to create different opportunities to score points. The many rules do steer the game along a path that more-or-less makes sense historically. This can make the game feel restrictive and scripted, despite giving the game historical flavour. I feel there is still enough manoeuvre space for the players, and there is still enough variability.

The table on the left is the procedure for one complete round. Sixteen steps! The table on the right are your options when you execute your special action. The small table at the top right corner shows the troop costs and strengths.

It may not feel so, but I think the game is mostly deterministic. This allows for better planning and strategising. Dice are used to determine the additional strengths of enemies, but their basic strengths are pre-determined. Dice also determine whether a treaty is honoured, but we know the likelihood of renegation is low. You know what you are signing up for when you spend money on a treaty. The simultaneous and secret assignment of nobles to regions is not random. It's a matter of guessing your opponents' intentions and priorities. Overall the game is quite strategic.

God's Playground is a flavourful game where you balance saving your country and serving your own interests. It has an interesting mix of cooperation and selfishness. Things will go downhill, and as long as your opponents are further downhill than you, you are good.

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