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Game Preview: Coalitions, or An Intriguing Game of Diplomatic Area Control

Candice Harris
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From gallery of candidrum
Prototype box and components
UK-based publisher PHALANX launched a Kickstarter campaign in June 2021 for Coalitions, an interesting, diplomatic area-control game set during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars from designer Andrew Rourke. While the project has a few days left on Kickstarter, I wanted to provide some insight on how it plays since I had the pleasure of checking out a prototype provided by the publisher.

Back in April 2021, Eric put me in contact with Adrian Turzanski from PHALANX when Adrian mentioned he wanted to introduce me to a new game they had coming to Kickstarter that I "might be interested in". I can confidently say after having the opportunity to play a six-player game that Adrian's instincts were spot on!

In Coalitions, 1-6 players represent major European powers — France, Britain, Austria, Russia, Prussia, and the Ottoman Empire — that are competing to gain the most influence, thus shaping the future of the continent. While Coalitions is geared as a multiplayer competitive game, it also includes solo and co-operative modes, in addition to multiple scenarios to offer players flexibility and a variety of ways to enjoy it.

It's worth mentioning upfront that Coalitions is not a typical wargame. The essence of the gameplay is centered around diplomacy and forming alliances, which is essential with the asymmetrical set-up of the nations in play. Sure, conflict is often needed to gain control of territories for which you'll score more influence to win the game, but conflict doesn't feel like the focus of the game. Therefore, Coalitions will likely appeal to wargamers and non-wargamers alike.

In Coalitions, you have Britain versus France, and then you have four additional nations that can be in a coalition with either side, be neutral, or be at war with everyone else. Depending on your political status, you may have different options and benefits when it comes to gameplay. Also, when playing with fewer than six players, some players will control multiple nations. Depending on which nation(s) you control, you start the game with a certain number of generals (plastic miniatures) on the board stacked on top of a certain number of unit tokens, possibly some money, and a certain number of battle cards in hand. There is some asymmetry between the nations since different nations have varying amounts of generals, units, and starting resources (i.e., cards, money, morale), but theygenerally function the same. I should mention that France has a maximum hand size of ten, while all other nations can have at most six battle cards.

The game board for Coalitions features a map with different types of territories in which players can move their generals, leaving garrisons to claim control. Each nation's originating territories are solid colors matching their nation's color, and there are disputed territories which are striped with multiple colors, showing which nations can gain influence from controlling it.

From gallery of candidrum
Prototype board mid-game

During set-up, you also place each nation's morale marker and influence marker on the appropriate tracks according to the scenario set-up details. Morale is used for playing cards in battle, while influence is needed for victory.

In Coalitions, player turns are driven by a clever "Wheel of War" rondel that allows players to take actions simultaneously. There are six different actions around the Wheel of War and the inner circle indicates which nations take which actions. After all players/nations have taken their respective actions, you rotate the wheel one step, which changes the actions each nation takes.

From gallery of candidrum
Wheel of War prototype
When the Wheel of War gets back to its starting position, normal actions are paused briefly to resolve the political phase, with players deciding simultaneously which of their nations are going to join or break coalitions, become neutral, or fight a war of expansion.

Players continue playing full rounds of actions followed by a political phase until the end of the game is triggered by either a player reaching 40 on the influence track, or by a nation other than France taking control of Paris. The player controlling the nation with the highest number on the influence track wins.

Actions

Of the six actions in Coalitions, most are simple and straightforward, with movement being slightly more complex since it often leads to battle, and potentially takes place in multiple locations. Here's a breakdown of the six actions as they appear in clockwise order on the Wheel of War starting at the top:

1) With the Battle Card Exchange action, draw a battle card, then discard one from your hand. In Coalitions, players start with a hand of battle cards that can be used to increase strength in battle. The battle cards range in strength from 2-5, so this action is helpful for potentially improving your hand.

2) For Taxation, you receive money/income from all non-disputed territories you control that have a territory value. Disputed territories generate influence, as you'll see with action #5 below.

3) The Leadership action allows you to place any or all of your off-map generals on the board, draw one battle card, or gain one morale.
When Britain takes this action, they can also give subsidies to their Allies, and if they do, they gain one influence. I'll note that these subsidies are paid from Britain's treasury and can be distributed however the corresponding player sees fit. This means if Britain has two allies and decides to give subsidies, they could pay both the same amount, or they could pay one more than the other, or they could pay one of them and not the other, so Britain's allies should be prepared to do some serious convincing and prove their loyalty to get as much money from them as you can.

From gallery of candidrum
France continuing to take territories with its generals
4) For Mobilization, you can spend the money you earned from the Taxation action (and any additional money you were able to squeeze out of Britain if you're an ally) to recruit new units, buy battle cards, or increase your nation's morale. Each unit token, moral point, and battle card costs $1, and you can purchase any combination you'd like. All of the nation's unspent money (except for Britain's) is lost due to corruption, so whatever you don't spend goes back to the bank.

5) When it's your nation's turn to Gain Influence, total up the territory values of any disputed (striped) territories you control, and add the corresponding amount of influence on the influence track. This is one of the main ways to score influence, so you have to plan accordingly and hold onto as many disputed territories as you can to maximize your score when you take this action.

6) Movement is the only action you will likely want to have everyone's attention for, so you may decide to not do this action simultaneously. However, while the other nations are taking their actions, you can be thinking through your movement plans so you're ready to go.

The player whose nation's movement round it is must choose another nation to allow the movement of its generals, even if you choose not to move them. Up to three rounds of movement may be allowed, one round at a time, and all must be allowed by the same nation. The catch is that the movement "allower" can't be someone you're in a coalition with, or another nation you control, or a nation that already has 15 morale. As a reward for their perceived kindness, the movement "allower" gains 1 morale for allowing one round of movement, then another 2 morale if they allow a second round of movement, and another 3 morale if they allow a third round of movement.

You can imagine this could get a little hairy when you have to pick an enemy opponent as your "allower" and you have secret intentions of moseying into a territory they currently control to take it over. Remember the "allower" has to allow one round of movement, and may allow up to three. As you can imagine, this process tends to involve some discussion, with you carefully explaining your intentions to negotiate additional movement. Morale is important for having flexibility to play more battle cards when resolving battles, so sometimes the "allower" may bend a bit more than they'd like to gain some extra morale.

Once you have an "allower", you can begin your first round of movement and move each of your generals. Normal movement allows you to move up to one territory across a common border, or you can also perform strategic movement up to three territories across common borders controlled by the active nation or their allies.

Sea lanes on the game board connect territories via ports, but only Britain and nations in coalition with Britain (with the British player's permission) can move generals along sea lanes.

From gallery of candidrum
Britain (red) attacking France (blue) with support from adjacent Prussian general (black)

When moving your generals stacked with units, you can leave unit tokens as garrisons in uncontrolled territories you move to/from to claim control. Having a garrison placed in a territory is the only way you can control a territory that isn't one of your home/originating territories. The more garrisons you place when moving, the fewer units your generals will have to beef up their strength for combat. Therefore, it's usually a tough decision figuring out how many garrisons you'll place during movement and where it makes most sense place them.

From gallery of candidrum
Prototype battle card example
If any generals end their movement in a territory occupied by an enemy nation, a battle occurs. When resolving battles, first you tally the strength of the attacker and defender in the contested territory, with each general, unit token, and garrison adding 1 strength point. Then, starting with the attacker, both sides can request support from allies and their nation's other generals in adjacent territories.

Then, again starting with the attacker, followed by the attacker's supporters, the defender, and the defender's supporters, you can secretly commit one face-down battle card. This process continues until all players have passed. The number of battle cards that a nation can play in a single battle is limited to one card for each unit token taking part in a battle, so a general with two units can play up to two battle cards in a battle.

Next, everyone simultaneously reveals the battle cards they played, then you add those values to the total strength of each nation. There's a track on the bottom of the game board to easily keep track of the strength totals of both nations as you go, which is helpful. The nation with the highest total strength wins. Then there are some battle resolution adjustments to be made for both sides.

Each nation involved in the battle drops the morale level equal to the number of battle cards they played. This is the main reason you'll want to boost your morale regularly by allowing movement or spending money on it during your Mobilization action. It also highlights the fact that the Wheel of War rondel has everything ordered well so you have the opportunity to boost your morale before your own Movement turn.

All generals on the winning side lose 1 unit token, then any nation that has a victorious general in the contested territory gains 1 influence, or 2 influence if the defeated general is French. Any nation that supported the victorious nation also gains 1 influence, so there is some extra incentive for you to back up your allies in times of need.

Losing generals in the contested territory lose all unit tokens with them, but their supporting generals lose only 1 unit token. Depending on the board state, the losing general in the contested territory is either placed in their nation's capital territory, off-map, or in any unoccupied territory their nation controls. Thankfully, no one loses influence when losing battles, but it's best to not make a habit out of it.

Politics Phase

From gallery of candidrum
Political status zone
After the Wheel of War eventually makes it way back to the start, the Politics phase begins. In the Politics phase, players have three minutes to discuss and negotiate before each nation other than Britain and France simultaneously reveals their political status for the upcoming round.

There are several benefits to being in coalition with Britain. You have the opportunity to use sea lanes for movement, you can potentially gain some extra coin via subsidies, and even more exciting, you can gain 2 influence, instead of 1, when defeating French generals.

If you're in a coalition with France, you can potentially gain some muscle since France has the most generals, the most units, and access to the most battle cards.

Going for neutrality limits your movement options, prevents you from contesting territories that have other nation's generals/garrisons, and prevents you from scoring any influence during the Gain Influence action. On the other hand, neutrality gives you double income during the Taxation action and keeps you safe from being attacked.

Or you could completely ditch coalitions and neutrality, and wage a war of expansion to increase your influence and try to win the game on your own while being at war with all other nations.

There is lots to consider when choosing your political status in Coalitions, and I found these political statuses kept players on their toes. In one moment, you can feel like everyone in your coalition is a true ally, but a moment later they could just switch it up and potentially backstab you if you're not looking out for it. I felt suspicious of everyone's motivations the entire game, and I loved it.

It's also worth mentioning that Britain or France may choose to accept or decline any nation wishing to join their coalition, but once a nation has joined a coalition, it can't be kicked out unless they choose to leave on a subsequent round. Playing as Russia, who starts the game in a coalition with Britain, I joked and bragged that I was grandfathered in anytime the British player got sassy about my seemingly greedy negotiation requests and would've liked to give me the boot.

From gallery of candidrum
Prototype political status tokens hidden

From gallery of candidrum
Prototype political status tokens revealed

I love the fact that the rules limit you to three minutes to discuss and negotiate in the Politics phase. Political phases can often drag out games, but this limitation keeps the game moving at a nice pace and delivers interesting diplomatic choices with minimal downtime. I also enjoyed the suspenseful reveal process with the political status tokens.

During one of the Politics phases for my game, two nations surprisingly both joined forces with France at a moment we all thought a coalition with France would be everyone's last choice. It was totally unexpected, based on the discussions we were having moments just before the reveal. The fact that two different nations made the same sneaky decision at the same time blew our minds a bit. I love the surprises this phase can brings to Coalitions. Again, it's hard to tell who to trust, and that alone creates some legit tension as you play.

Players continue taking actions and resolving political phases whenever the Wheel of War returns to its start until the game ends by a nation reaching 40 influence or a nation other than France taking control of Paris. Some additional influence can be gained based on the latter scenario, then the nation with the highest influence score wins.

Solo Mode

In the solo mode of Coalitions, you control all nations except France, and your nations are all in a grand coalition together against your AI opponent, Napoleon. Your goal is to conquer Paris to win the game, but if Napoleon's influence marker ever reaches 40, you lose.

From gallery of candidrum
Prototype Napoleon AI cards
The Napoleon AI is driven by a special deck of twelve cards (Napoleon's deck), representing different historical campaigns, that have territories to be invaded by Napoleon's forces. As the Wheel of War advances, three actions trigger you to draw a card from Napoleon's deck to determine where French generals spawn or move on the game board. There's a priority order to indicate which French generals should move to the targeted territories.

In the solo mode, you do not track influence for your nations — only Napoleon's influence. Whenever you are to score influence, you get income instead. You can adjust the difficulty level of the solo mode by deciding where Napoleon's influence marker starts, with five difficulty levels ranging from 0 for the easiest to 20 if you're looking for the real-deal challenge.

The solo mode has additional rules differences, but nothing overwhelming. For example, if any of your generals/units are in original French territories, Napoleon will ignore the territories on the AI card and instead add/move generals in Paris and French territories with enemies. This will create some serious struggles as you work towards conquering Paris.

The solo mode is clearly a much different experience from multiplayer competitive mode. You won't have the interesting negotiations, shifting alliances, and the resulting intrigue that comes along with it, but instead you will be focused on strategically setting yourself up to take control of Paris before Napoleon gains too much influence and positioning the various nations you control to best achieve victory.

The co-operative mode uses the same AI cards and probably similar rules as the solo mode, but instead of playing by yourself, you'll be working together with other players to conquer Paris. I'd imagine the co-op experience will have a different dynamic even if the goal is the same since everyone thinks differently. Even though I'll always push to play Coalitions multiplayer competitively for the sake of all the interesting negotiation opportunities which I love, I appreciate the versatility and flexibility of having a challenging solo and co-operative modes available, too.

Final Thoughts

I'm stoked to dig into Coalitions again and experience more of what it has to offer, especially considering I've only scratched the surface with my one six-player game. I would've preferred to get more plays in before writing this article, but unfortunately I lost a month of gaming while recovering from surgery. At a minimum, I wanted to share how Coalitions plays and offer my initial impressions in case anyone's interested in checking it, especially while it's still on Kickstarter.

Between the shifting alliances in the Political phase, negotiations from the movement activation system and within coalitions, and the simultaneous gameplay driven by the Wheel of War rondel, Coalitions felt engaging, suspenseful, and fun. There will be multiple scenarios and expansions added as well, so I doubt this game will get stale.

There are tons of strategic choices to be made throughout the game depending on how you position yourself and work with or without allies. You can plan ahead, but you need to always be prepared to shift your plans as the board state evolves turn after turn, and your allies change over the course of the game. This keeps players engaged and on their toes just about every minute of the game.

I appreciate the simplicity of the design choices in Coalitions, too. Instead of making the prices vary for morale, units, and battle cards in the Mobilization action, everything is simply $1. Similarly, with battles each unit, garrison, and general counts as 1 strength point, then you simply add the battle card values to it. Plus, most of the actions are super easy to teach, learn, and play. There are definitely some complexities with movement and adjustments on the map needed after shifting political statuses, but that's why it's awesome that most of the other aspects of the game are straightforward.

I also thoroughly enjoyed the suspense the battle cards added to combat in Coalitions. When playing battle cards, you can tell how many cards your opponent has, and even how many they can actually play, but since battle cards are committed face down, you never know for sure what your opponents are up to. They could go heavy and allocate all their highest strength cards or perhaps they're not that invested in this particular battle, so they'll bluff and toss in their weakest cards just to drive you to burn more of your good stuff. It can be a real mind twist, but the suspense is thrilling. Remember, you are limited with the number of battle cards you can play based on the number of units accompanying your generals involved in the battle and your morale level. Therefore, it's usually a tough decision deciding which and how many battle cards to play.

From gallery of candidrum

As an example, there was a famous battle in my game that I, and everyone else, was sure I would lose. A Prussian general came to take over a disputed territory I controlled now that he hopped the fence to join team France in the last Politics phase. In the prior round, we were in the British coalition together, and I thought we were homies for life. I had my lonesome Russian general with three unit tokens and a garrison. He had his attacking general with three unit tokens, plus additional support from an adjacent Prussian general of his with three unit tokens, so you can see already why we all assumed I was about to be crushed.

When it came time to play battle cards, we played one at a time, face down. I ended up playing my max of three cards in total (since I had three units with my general) and he stopped after playing three, although he had more cards in hand and could have played up to three more (since he had six units between his two generals), but he decided not to, thinking he had it in the bag. Little did he know that I had refined my hand from battle card exchanges in previous rounds and played three 5-strength cards and ended up beating him by 1! It was very exciting, and we were all completely surprised by the outcome! I wasn't going down without a fight, and he clearly underestimated my forces.

Now imagine the added suspense that would come from having allies (different players) involved as supporters, and them having the same tough decision of which and how many cards to play in addition to what you, the active attacker/defender, is deciding — all without being able to discuss with each other which battle cards you intend to play. How do I ensure a win without going overboard? How much strength will my supporter(s) be able and willing to add? Because, don't forget, on the next movement turn, whether it's your action, an ally's, or an enemy's, you might end up involved in another battle or be called upon for support, so it's rarely a good idea to burn all your cards and morale on a single battle. You must be thoughtful when managing your hand of battle cards in Coalitions. This is another example of something that's quite simple, yet adds interesting layers of thinkyness to the gameplay.

The BGG page for Coalitions shows a playtime of 60-240 minutes. Our six-player game lasted about three hours with six new players making a few mistakes along the way. I can definitely see that being reduced with future plays now that we have a game under our belts and won't need to refer to the rules much. Also, I'm sure different scenarios will mix up the length of the game. Regardless, it never felt slow or boring. The game flows well and moves along keeping everyone's attention from taking actions simultaneously and supporting allies in battles.

If you're interested in a game that features innovative mechanisms, minimal downtime from simultaneous gameplay, and maximum player interaction from area control and interesting negotiations, I definitely recommend checking out Coalitions.

From gallery of candidrum
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