Virgin Queen is an epic. Long, grand, complex, demanding and immersive. It is a sequel to Here I Stand, and is also designed by Ed Beach. These games have many similarities. The period covered in Virgin Queen is the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. Here I Stand depicts the rise of Protestantism. In Virgin Queen, the Protestants are already well established, but there are still religious conflicts in England, Scotland, France and the Netherlands. The six major powers playable are England, France, Spain, the Holy Roman Empire (HRE), the Ottoman Empire and the Protestants (Netherlands and the French Huguenots). The actions which can be executed and the ways of gaining victory points differ depending on which major power you play. Some of these do overlap, but there are some which are unique to a single power. You can wage war and conquer key cities. You convert the population to your religion, you try to circumnavigate the globe, you send pirates to raid your opponents, you establish colonies in distant lands, you set up political marriages, you plot assassinations, you sponsor great artists and scientists. There is much to do as a major player in the arena of European politics.
Virgin Queen is a card driven game. Many historical events are captured in the cards. Every round you draw some cards and take turns playing them to either trigger the event or to spend command points to freely execute actions available to your power. Some of the major powers are natural enemies, some have incentives to cooperate. However in the game it's all up to you how you want to play. Ultimately only one can win, so no alliance is permanent. Any player threatening to win will be ganged up upon by others. However in most cases victory points earned cannot be lost, so your opponents usually can only slow you down.
This game has a 43-page rulebook, so it's hard to describe in just a few paragraphs. Let me share my experience through photos.
I played the HRE, and this was my player board. This board lists the actions available to me and how many command points they cost. I have eight square markers, four of which are already on the main game board, and four remain here. Square spaces on the main board are important cities called keys. When you control one, you need to place your square marker on it. The more keys you control, the more cards you get to draw every round, and the more VP's you will have. If you manage to place all your square markers (i.e. in my case if I control eight keys), you immediately win a military victory. You do not need to capture all keys by force though. Sometimes it is possible to gain keys via diplomacy, i.e. minor powers deciding to ally with you.
This is the diplomatic status chart, showing the relationships between the six major powers and five minor powers. There is a diplomacy phase at the start of every round. If you want to attack another power, normally you have to declare war in this phase. You also negotiate peace and make alliances in this phase.
This is the Protestant Spaces chart. The left side shows how many spaces in the religious struggle areas (England, France, Scotland, Netherlands) are Protestant spaces. The right side shows how many VP's the various major powers have depending on the number of Protestant spaces. Spain (yellow column) wants to keep the number low, because when it is low, Spain will have more VP's. The Protestants (orange) and England (red) want the opposite. In this, they have a common goal. The HRE (black) has special rules on this. At the start of the game the HRE player needs to secretly decide to support the Protestants or the Catholics, or to be neutral. The VP's the HRE gets depend on this secret decision made.
If 50 or more spaces become Protestant, the Protestants will win a religious victory. Conversely if the number drops to 9, Spain or France will win.
This is the marriage chart. The five spaces on the right are for indicating the eligibility level of each bachelor or spinster. At the start of every round some new characters will appear here and players will try to find matches for the characters from their respective countries. If a marriage is agreed upon, a die roll will be performed later to determine what benefits the two countries will gain. Younger couples will have better odds of getting high rolls. If a lady remains unmarried at the end of a round, her eligibility level will drop one step. For a gentleman, he rolls a die to determine whether he drops one step or retains the same level. Aging is more unforgiving to women, just like in real life. If a character drops off the chart, he or she will no longer be available for marriage, and still stay unmarried forever.
Our game session was initiated by Dith, who owns a copy of the game. We managed to round up the full complement of six players, which is the best number. Meet-up time was 9am. By the time we finished setup and the stragglers arrived, it was about 10:30am. We started off then, and our first round lasted till about 1:30pm, around 3 hours! It was mainly because we were still unfamiliar with the rules, and we had to look them up frequently. By the time we were done with the first round, we had executed most types of actions in the game. Subsequent rounds ran more smoothly. Our game ended at 5:30pm. Total play time was about 6.5 hours. I had actually expected we would have to continue after dinner.
Reading reading reading...
From left: Dith (Protestants), Heng (Ottomans), Jeff (Spain), me (HRE), Kareem (England), Ivan (France).
The early game. At the start of the game, France and England were at war, and so were Spain and the Ottomans. Scotland was allied to France, and Kareem (England) decided up front to subdue these pain-in-the-butt highlanders first. I gave him some mercenaries during the diplomacy phase, which boosted his invasion force. Unfortunately another player played a deserter card and all the mercenaries fled. Bummer!
In my secret alignment I had chosen to side with the Protestants, so I was hoping England and the Protestants would do well, because they would be indirectly helping me. Most English (red) locations were Protestant at the start of the game - red border and white centre. The Netherlands area (orange) was still owned by Spain. Dith (Protestant) needed to start rebellions in the Netherlands and in France to allow the Dutch and the Huguenots to establish their bases. Spain (yellow) and Portugal (maroon) already had many colonies settled throughout the world - those triangles with their nations' colours. Every round treasures would be shipped back to Europe, and other nations could attempt to send pirates after the treasure ships. That was what Heng (Ottomans), Kareem (England) and Ivan (France) did in the first round. They almost robbed Jeff (Spain) clean.
I (HRE) made a stupid mistake in the first round. One of the unique scoring methods for HRE was to control three key Central European cities. Being able to do this scored 1VP per round. I had assumed I already controlled all three keys at the start of the game, and I only needed to hold on to them. Only after the diplomacy (i.e. war declaration) phase, I realised I didn't control Buda yet. It was controlled by the Ottomans. It was too late for me to declare war on the Ottomans. I could only make preparations in the first round.
My hand of cards in the first round was quite suitable for making war on the Ottomans. I had the War in Persia card which would divert some of the Ottoman forces. I also had the Foreign Volunteers card which would let me gain three regular troops. What a waste!
Ivan (France) invested much effort in sailing and colonisation. He managed to establish two colonies in South America in the early game. Colonies may grant additional cards or treasures at the start of every round. Ivan also pushed his sea captains hard to circumnavigate the globe. The first two sea captains to circumnavigate the globe would earn VP's for their nations. However sailing the oceans was risky. The rest of us watched keenly as Ivan pushed his fleet of three ships further and further along the journey. One by one the ships failed navigation rolls and had to turn back or were lost, until he had one last ship remaining and was one sea zone away from completing the circumnavigation. We held our breaths as he rolled... It failed! We all felt his pain, but it was funny as hell at the same time. So much effort wasted! Thankfully his captain didn't die and managed to make his way back to France, only to be sent sailing again by Ivan in the next round. Eventually Ivan succeeded in going around the world. Both the first two sea captains to do so were Frenchmen, and there was much glory won for France (3VP in total).
This one is an interesting card. If there was any sea captain in the Caribbean area, I could make him fail his mission and immediately return home. The story behind this was the captain was distracted by the legend of El Dorado, and neglected his duties. In the early game there were a few sea captain in the Caribbean area, busy plundering Jeff's Spanish colonies. I could have played this card on these pirates, but at the time I didn't have any particular reason to, so I let them ravage the colonies.
Round 2. The Ottomans (Heng, green) had been doing much pirating in the Mediterranean against Spain (Jeff, yellow), but now Spain was building up its own Mediterranean navy. The Protestants (Dith) had initiated some rebellions in the Netherlands and France, but they still only controlled very few cities. In Round 2, I think everyone pitied Jeff, the victim of many pirate attacks in Round 1, so no one bothered him much this time. This allowed Jeff to collect most of his treasures being sent back from the colonies. Subsequently he had many treasures to spend in Round 3, allowing him to perform more actions.
This Charles II on the left was one of my (HRE) guys. On the right was Elizabeth I of England (Kareem), the star of the show. Elizabeth I started the game at eligibility level 5, the highest level. Charlie here had a long and complicated relationship with Lizzie. They agreed to marry, but Lizzie changed her mind at the last minute, cancelling the wedding. England had one home card (i.e. a permanent card on hand) which allowed Elizabeth I to jilt her fiance. Charlie knew she was just flirting and didn't mind. He loved her too much. He was content with the presents she showered on him, which helped advance the HRE cause. Just a few years later, they got engaged again, and Charlie got jilted yet again. The last thing I expected from this game was a romantic comedy.
My HRE was mostly a land-locked nation. It was technically possible for me to build a ship, but I was limited to just one galley. So, up front I had decided to not bother with naval affairs. One unique ability I had was to sponsor Italian artists or scientists, which could potentially get me VP's. I couldn't directly participate in religious conversions. I could only indirectly help the Catholics or the Protestants. In Round 1 I missed the opportunity to declare war on the Ottomans (Heng), so at the start of Round 2 I did not hesitate to pull the trigger. The Ottomans had a great general - Sokollu Mehmed, who could lead 12 units. I had two generals, Schwendi and Zrinyi, who could lead 8 and 6 respectively. My two generals needed to combine forces to match Heng's general. In Round 2 I quickly attacked and captured Buda, the third city I needed to fulfill my scoring condition. At the time Sokollu Mehmed was still in Istanbul. I had planned to sue for peace right after that, but Heng would not hear it. He reached an agreement with Jeff (Spain) to pull a pincer move on me. Sokollu Mehmed was coming for revenge on my eastern front. My western front was barely defended, and Spain had a small army in northern Italy getting ready to attack.
Jeff came after me also because I had stolen one key city from him via diplomatic means. The Papal States were originally allied to him, so Rome was under his control. I had invested in my relationship with the Papal States and then played a card to make the Pope reconsider his options for allies. The Pope switched over to ally with me, thus giving me control over Rome, while Jeff lost control. I was suddenly perceived to be a major threat by everyone, because now I was just two keys short of achieving military victory. Even if a major power did not share a border with me and could not directly attack me, it could still play nasty cards to mess with me. It was not impossible for me to capture two more keys. If I could defeat Sokollu Mehmed, I could sweep all the way down to Istanbul. But then of course that's easier said than done. If I did break through and threaten to wipe out the Ottomans, there would be plenty of wolves knocking at my western border.
In the end, my opponents didn't need to have worried. My two generals fared poorly against Sokollu Mehmed, despite having a larger army. They lost battle after battle, and now my front was broken (photo above). I would not be able to hold on to Buda for long.
The Dutch Protestants (Dith) started rebellions and now controlled both Antwerp and Brussels. This was the start of the Dutch Republic. Most of the Dutch region was still under Spanish rule (yellow flag with red cross). There was still much work for Dith. One of the key methods for Dith to score points was to convert the populace to Protestantism. At the start of the game, as the HRE, I had selected to trust in his ability to mass-convert the people, so I picked to secretly side with Protestants. However his conversion efforts were lacklustre at best. Later we found out that he had misunderstood the rules and thought it was much more difficult and costly than it really was. No wonder he hesitated to spend command points on conversion. Aaarrgghh... I should have sided with the old-fashioned Catholics.
At this point Kareem (England) had finally managed to capture Edinburgh. He didn't want to bother with the other Scottish towns, and wanted to go for major French cities. He was going for a military victory. He had deployed fleets along the English channel and had been raiding French coastal towns, greedily grabbing VP's. Ivan (France) had not been spending much effort on military, neither army nor navy, and had to suffer this English bullying. France had both internal and external threats. The English pirates were annoying. Even more worrying was the English armies on standby across the channel. Locally, the Huguenots had initiated a rebellion. Ivan had his hands full.
One unique scoring method for France was marriages. Whenever Ivan managed to marry off a member from the Valois family, he would score 1VP. So he had been busy playing matchmaker. Also in two marriages when he rolled dice for how they turned out, he rolled very high numbers, and these marriages gave the countries involved 2VP each. 4VP from marriages was a big deal. Controlling Paris was worth 1VP every round. That was another reliable way for France to score points.
Round 3. Some new elements were added - we could now hire assassins and spies. My (HRE) situation did not look good at all. My front with the Ottomans (Heng) had crumbled. My ally the Papal States (purple) was under attack by Spain (Jeff). Rome would not hold out for long. The Ottoman corsairs had been keeping a low profile in the Mediterranean Sea for a while, because the Spanish had a stronger naval presence now.
Spain (Jeff) had sent a Jesuit priest (grey square tile with a portrait) to England to convert the people to Catholicism, and he was doing well. Some towns had been converted (solid red markers without a white centre). Kareem (England) was busy preparing to invade the European continent, and couldn't spare time to deal with the priest. Jeff took the opportunity to initiate a Catholic rebellion, attempting to murder Elizabeth I and to put a Catholic king on the throne. For such a gunpowder plot to succeed, Spain needed to roll four hits more than England during the rebellion (not easy). If the plot succeeded, Spain would instantly win the game.
Jeff counted the various factors that affected the number of dice he got to roll. He had nine dice. Kareem had five. A 5 or 6 was a hit, i.e. a one third chance for each die. Jeff rolled first, and our eyes popped to see six hits! That meant Kareem needed three of his five dice to be hits, to prevent a Spanish instant victory.
Kareem rechecking the Catholic rebellion rules and probably thinking: you've got to be kidding me...
This is it - life or death in one roll.
Two hits. Boom! Spain (Jeff) wins! Elizabeth I was killed, and a Catholic king ascended to the throne. We hadn't even completed the third round. I had expected we would play one or two more rounds. At this stage, many of us were close to 20VP, so it was quite likely someone would hit 25VP in Round 4. On BGG the consensus seemed to be that the game normally lasts 4 or 5 rounds, and rarely went on to the 6th or 7th round.
To summarise our session, one sentence: Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!
I had a great day playing Virgin Queen. It's a game that requires much effort and commitment, but I think it's worthwhile. You feel like you've lived through history. Similar to Here I Stand, there is some luck element, and sometimes you just have to accept fate. You can strategise, you can use diplomacy to your advantage, you can do all sorts of preparation, but sometimes bad luck just strikes and you can't help it. That sounds scary, considering how much investment the game requires. So much good work put in, and you lose because of a die roll? Wouldn't that make all the meticulous scheming and careful preparation meaningless? I think the game still gives you plenty of opportunities to mitigate luck and to position yourself to benefit from events and other players' actions. It's all about how much risk you want to take and how you want to allocate your resources. Just like in real life, there is no 100% guarantee. This is what makes the game exciting. This is what makes it feel epic. You are caught in the chaos and wonder of a turbulent and fast-changing age. You do your best, and hope for the best, as your witness events unfold and heroes emerge. In my conflict with Heng (the Ottomans), I felt I had done all the preparation I could, and went in with an advantage. Unfortunately things didn't go as I had hoped, and that was beyond my control. One thing I was thankful for was in most cases you don't lose VP's gained. Losing keys will cost you VP's, but most other VP's are permanent. So even if you suffer a setback, you don't go into a downward spiral with no hope of recovering. You just need to find ways to resume scoring VP's, and pick up from where you left off.
Luck does not come only from the dice. The cards too are a factor - whether you draw useful cards, and whether others draw cards which will harm you. Having 6 players in itself is a balancing mechanism. The players will reign in one another. It is hard to imagine a runaway leader not getting ganged up upon.
Playing the Holy Roman Empire, and I think the Ottomans too, can feel like you are the supporting cast. As the HRE, I had no finger in the seafaring and colonisation pie. I couldn't directly participate in the religious struggle. The Ottomans can do plenty of pirating because they have corsairs, but being Muslims they had no interest whatsoever in the European religious struggle, and needless to say, they won't be marrying any of the Christian infidels. They only had two fronts - the Mediterranean Sea, and the frontline with the HRE. When playing with four players, the HRE and the Ottomans will be delegated to non-player powers. Despite having less variety in possible actions, they are not passive powers in a 6-player game. There are still strategies to think about and scheming to do, and it is very much possible for them to win.
Some of us felt the game is more complicated than it needs to be. Indeed Virgin Queen places more emphasis on representing history than on streamlining gameplay. Every mechanism exists for a reason and tells a story. The game has a very wide scope.
If you intend to try Virgin Queen, do be prepared to spend much time and effort. You will experience the delicate balance of power between six ruthless nations. You will be making difficult decisions while you try to lead your nation to glory or steer it away from disaster. You will set a vision for your people and set in motion events to achieve it. You may even make history, with a little blessing from above.
Note: Thank you to Jeff (Boardgamecafe.net) for providing some of the photos in this blog post, and also the venue for this event.