Saturday, 8 October 2016


Plays: 3Px1.

The Game

Churchill is designed by Mark Herman (Washington's War, We the People, Fire in the Lake). It is a game about the politicking between Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin during World War 2. Although UK, USA and USSR are allies working together to defeat the Axis powers, they are also manoeuvring and trying to make sure their respective countries emerge as most powerful from the war. It is not only about winning the war. It is about who will be strongest after winning the war. This is refreshing to me. I have not played anything like this before.

This is the prime minister of the United Kingdom, Sir Winston Churchill. This card shows his personal abilities (and weakness) as well as the UK national abilities.

The game board is divided into two halves. The right half is the conference table. This is where the most important part of the game is - meetings! Meetings?! Yes, this is a game about meetings. The left half shows a map of Europe and a map of Asia, with multiple tracks leading to Germany and Japan respectively. The Allies want to advance along these tracks, representing how they fight and eventually defeat the Axis.

The game comes with three scenarios, with different setups and lengths. The full scenario is played over 10 rounds, and starts at the earliest point in history. The medium scenario lasts only 5 rounds. You play from Round 6 onwards. The short scenario lasts 3 rounds, and you start from Round 8. Each round is divided into two parts. The first half is that meeting between Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill. This is the most important part of the game. The second half is mostly executing what has been discussed in the first half. The meeting outcome determines what you can and cannot do in the second half.

Before you go for your meeting with the other two leaders, you draw cards to determine who you will be bringing with you. These guys are your debate team. They have different strengths (the number in the corner) and special abilities (the text).

Now that you have your meeting attendees, you need to determine the meeting agenda. In the game there are a total of 18 possible topics for discussion (those small square markers at the top left corner). At each meeting, usually only 7 of them can be on the agenda. In this photo, three topics have been selected and placed in the play area. Two are at the centre, the neutral position. One is on the UK track, i.e. closer to Churchill than the other two leaders. This means Churchill currently has an advantage on this topic.

Let's look at some examples. One type of topic is called a Directed Offensive. It allows you to direct two armies of a specific ally to a front of your choice. You get to do this if at the end of the meeting you have an advantage on this topic over your counterparts. Another type of topic allows you to exert influence on minor nations, sometimes planting spies in those countries, sometimes swaying the ruling government to support you. Having spies in and having the support of minor nations give you points at game end.

After the agenda is set, you start your meeting. You take turns playing cards to pull topic markers towards your leader. The value of the card played determines how many steps the targeted topic is moved. Some cards have special abilities, e.g. being more effective on a specific topic type. If a marker you want to pull is currently on the track of another leader, you need to pull it towards the centre before you can continue to pull it towards your leader.

The three black pawns indicate global trends. If the global trends topic is discussed during a meeting, you will have the opportunity to move a global trends pawn. Pulling one towards your leader gives you an advantage, and is also worth points at game end. E.g. Stalin can prevent the Western allies from gaining the support of Eastern European nations.

After the meeting adjourns, you proceed to execution, which is mostly done on the maps.

On the European map in the top half, there are three tracks representing the three frontlines leading to Germany. USA and UK attack from the west and south, while USSR attacks from the east. On each track, as long as enough resources are allocated, there will be a possibility of advancing towards Germany. The more resources committed, the higher the likelihood of succeeding. If sufficient resources are allocated, it is even possible to advance more than one step. Each space on the tracks contains some details, e.g. the victory points to be gained if the front reaches that space, or conditions that must be fulfilled in order to advance to that space. The Asian map works in a similar way.

How do you win? This is a little complicated, but this is the gist of the game. There are victory points in the game. You total them up only when the game ends. However having the highest score does not automatically mean you win. It depends on your point differences with the others, and also whether the Allies have managed to defeat both Germany and Japan by Round 10. If the Allies win the war, and if the leading player outscores the trailing player by less than 15 points, the leading player wins the game. If the score difference is more than 21 points, then it is the 2nd placed player who wins instead. The reasoning behind this is one nation has emerged too powerful from World War 2, so other two nations form a new alliance to counterbalance it. The stronger partner in this new alliance becomes the most powerful, and thus wins the game. If the score difference is between 15 and 21, a die is rolled to determine who wins. Due to these winning conditions, you want to outscore your opponents, but not by too much. If you find yourself in second place, then you might want to hurt the 3rd placed player more than you want to rein in the 1st placed player.

If the Allies fail to force both Germany and Japan to surrender by Round 10, WW2 will end in an armistice. A die is rolled. The leading player loses this many points. The 2nd player loses half as many. The 3rd player gains as many points as the die roll. The adjusted score determines who wins. If the raw scores are close, the 3rd placed player may emerge victorious. Due to these different ways the game can end, you need to be constantly watchful of how your opponents and yourself are doing. There is a constant manoeuvring. This is not a game where you simply try to score points whenever possible.

The tracks for the various fronts are white. The green boxes next to the track spaces are minor nations. The semi-transparent disks are spies that have been deployed by one of the three Allied powers. A cylinder indicates that a major Allied power has obtained the support of the minor nation. The big red box is Germany, and the black cubes the German armies. The large blocks are the Allied armies advancing along the tracks. They represent where the fronts are.

This particular round was a little unusual. Due to special events or character abilities, there were 9 topics on the agenda instead of the normal 7.

This bunch of weaklings gave me a tough time. Most of them had a strength of 1. The guy with a star was a random factor. When I played him, I would roll a die to determine his strength.

The Play

Allen played Stalin, Han played Roosevelt. I played Churchill, because I prefer green.

Roosevelt had more resources at his disposal, but also had the most things to worry about - multiple front lines in both Europe and Asia, as well as the atomic bomb development, so Han picked Roosevelt. He had played the game once before.

UK and USA had vested interests in each other. On many of the war tracks, both parties stood to gain points when the front advanced. So Han and I had much reason to collaborate. On the Southern Europe track, I (Churchill) pushed the front to a space which gave points, and then basically stopped. Advancing further would not get me much more points. I was happy to allocate my resources to fully support Han (Roosevelt) on the western front, hoping that the western Allies would beat the Soviets in capturing Berlin.

With the close collaboration between UK and USA, Allen's USSR started falling behind. However as the game progressed, this turned out to be a bad thing for me. I was the only person spending more effort on espionage and influencing minor nations, and because of that, my expected victory points grew and grew. I found myself running too far ahead. If the gap between Allen and I became too large, the game might end with Han (in 2nd place) winning. I experienced first-hand the pain of being too successful. It was a challenge to not do so well!

USA wanted to develop the atomic bomb. It already had the technological foundation, but getting the bomb actually made was not easy. USSR just wanted to steal the technology, which was easier. Han (USA) and Allen (USSR) fought over the atomic bomb action, and Allen won this topic more than Han. Eventually USA did not have the weapon to bomb Japan into submission. It had to defeat Japan by conventional warfare. Japan was defeated before Germany. We had changed history.

In Asia, Han (USA) was the only one putting effort into attacking Japan. I (UK) could launch attacks from the direction of India, but I chose to concentrate my energy on Europe. Allen (USSR) could attack Japan via Manchuria and Korea, but he didn't bother either. Han mostly attacked from the Pacific Ocean (east), and was now right next to the Japanese mainland.

Japan was defeated now, and Han suddenly realised he had forgotten a penalty rule. He had neglected advancing from the Southern Pacific direction, and this gave both Allen and I points. It was too late to do anything about it now.

If you compare this photo and the one above, you can see that the minor nations were previously mostly under American influence, but were now under British influence. This was the result of my (Churchill) persistent political manoeuvring.

Initially in Europe I (UK) strongly supported Han (USA) on the western front. As my victory points grew, I knew I had to change tact. Allen was going to fall too far behind if I stuck to the same position. Throughout most of the game the Western Allies and the Soviet army had been aggressively advancing towards Germany from opposite directions but more or less at the same speed. As both armies approached the final push, I desperately switched my support to Allen, pulling on all brakes on the western front as far as I could. I barely managed to halt the Western Allied army right at the outskirts of Berlin, while the Red Army managed to capture Berlin, precisely in the last round of the game. Allen gained the most points from the fall of Berlin. Both the major Axis powers were defeated. World War 2 ended in complete victory for the Allies.

The tension steadily built up as both the Western Allied army and the Soviet army advanced towards Germany at the same pace. Every round was nail-biting, because if either side fell behind by one step, the race to Berlin could well be lost.

Eventually it was the Soviet army which marched into Berlin first. The Western Allies were only one step too late.

These were our final scores. I (Churchill, green) had 49VP, Allen (Stalin, red) had 39VP, Han (Roosevelt, blue) had 32VP. Although Allen was trailing for most of the game, towards the end he not only caught up but also overtook Han. Also Han's score was hurt by the fact that he had forgotten about the penalty due to the unbalanced advance of US troops in the Pacific. The point difference between Han and I was 17VP, so victory would be determined by a die roll. Had it been 15VP, I would have won immediately. Or if it had been 21VP, then Allen in second place would have won. At 17VP, I needed a die roll of 1 or 2 to win. It was that kind of so-much-hard-work-and-it-comes-down-to-a-die-roll moment. I don't mean it in a bad way. I've always accepted that if the players have played more-or-less equally well, then sometimes the outcome of a game comes down to a bit of luck. I rolled a 2 to win the game.

However that was not the end of the story. We later found out that we had made quite a few mistakes. We forgot to score points for advantages on the global trends. Had we calculated this correctly, I should have scored even higher (which would be bad for me). Also since we played the medium length scenario, which was a tournament scenario, we should have taken into account the tournament rules too. If the end game difference was more than 15VP, the second placed player would win immediately. So Allen was the true victor.

World War 2 ended in Round 10. UK (green) had spread its spies and influence all over the world.

Some minor nations have two spies (semi-transparent discs). You can place a second spy to defend your position in a country. With a second spy, an opponent would need to spend two spy actions instead of one to kick them out. In my case though, the second spies were placed because I needed to minimize scoring points. Had I placed them in other countries, I would be scoring 1VP per new country I spied on.

The Thoughts

One word summarises what I feel about Churchill: unusual. It has an unusual topic. Most World War 2 games are about warfare, but this game is about politics. It's a refreshing look at this period in history. The spirit of the game is encapsulated in its set of victory conditions. It's all about the intricate balance of power between the three world leaders. Part of the game feels like a cooperative game. We generally want to defeat the Axis powers, but not always.

The game mechanisms emerge from the need to represent historical events. This is a story first game. The mechanisms are there to support the story, to tell the story. They are not fanciful or particularly clever, but they work and they do succeed in telling the story. I feel that some of the rules are a direct translation of historical events. E.g. the Western Allies need to have enough warships in the English Channel before they can execute the Normandy landings. It is historical, but some of these "direct translation" rules make me uneasy because a game should not be a reenactment. I can understand that the game needs to be scripted somewhat, so that the story doesn't run too wild. In Churchill you still have the freedom and the ability to change history, but you won't go off on a tangent.

The game mechanisms are not overly complicated, but there are quite many rules and details to remember. This is a complex gamer's game.


Jason Tan said...

This is a really awesome game. I would love to think that's the type of tension felt by the 3 leaders at the Yalta Conference. I've played it twice. The first time the 2 other leaders conspired and the Axis didn't surrender!! Second time Stalin and Roosevelt tied for victory. But I think the best thing about "Churchill" is the post game discussion of what the world would look like after WW2 if the events throughout the game were to really happen. Can't wait for the next game in the series, Perikles :)

Hiew Chok Sien 邱卓成 said...

Cool! I didn't know there's a sequel coming.

Hiterus said...

Wow this game seems very deep. I will try it one day