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Triumph & Tragedy But Sadly No History

John Goode
Falkland Islands
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Microbadge: ReviewerMicrobadge: Microbadge: Wargamer of 40+ yearsMicrobadge: This place intentionally left blank.Microbadge: Brutal Reviewer
Board Game: Triumph & Tragedy: European Balance of Power 1936-1945

It was a dark and possibly stormy night in game designer Craig Besinque’s game room. On a bottom shelf a brawny, worn-around-the-edges, has-been was feeling frisky. Mr. Axis and Allies had seen a lot of action, though most of it three decades ago. Sure he was overweight, but he had timeless moves, well-sculpted physical features and could show you a good time if you weren’t too much into book learning and had the wrists to go the distance.

A shelf above, Ms. EuroFront was playing coy in her tight fitting tube top. She knew she was a lot to handle and that her parts didn’t exactly mesh seamlessly. But as long as her paramour didn’t focus too much down south he tended to like what she had to offer. And of course she was into older men. Almost exclusively.

We’ll never know exactly how things played out that evening but I just finished another game of their resultant lovechild: Triumph & Tragedy.

T&T is GMT’s 3-player strategic level World War 2 ETO game released in 2015 and already sold out and in the que for a reprint. It looks and feels like a Columbia game with a paper map (to be upgraded to mounted in 2nd edition), stickers, wooden blocks, cards, rules with notes in the margin and lots of 6-sided dice.

As a simulation T&T starts and ends with the map,
a functional, arbitrary, area-movement representation of the western hemisphere. Small countries are one space, pre-war Germany is three, while Turkey has six spaces and Russia 25. Many spaces give the controlling player population and/or resources, though not in any realistic way. Czechoslovakia only grants population though it was relatively resource rich. I’m not aware of any strategic resources Denmark delivered (milk?) but in T&T it’s equal to Norway or all of Northern England/Scotland.

Each nationalities' units act exactly the same, though some German, UK and USA units can be built up one step larger. Every unit type from armor to aircraft carriers cost the same to build. In combat some types fire before others and the target number to get a hit varies slightly (armor needs 2 or less, infantry 3 or less): all fairly generic block-game stuff. T&T’s mechanics aren’t going bowl anyone over and if you’re a wargamer of any experience you’ve played this game before.

At least as far as the ground game goes. Where T&T gets interesting is in the diplomatic game. In addition to using your yearly resources to build your armed forces you can also buy Investment and/or Action/Diplomacy cards. The former increase your production or grant your military units special benefits. The later are required to move your armies or can be used to buy influence in neutral countries. If you can get three influence in a neutral it will ally with you permanently. Always a good thing.

This resource management aspect is tricky and a greater determinant in what side wins than the military sphere. Granted, if your armies overrun all before them a military win is still the shortest distance to point B: victory. But conflict voraciously eats both belligerents production and the combat system tends towards stalemate. Considering that all but the most casualty-free attack will mainly benefit the side not fighting and that you get a random amount of victory points (0-2) each year you don’t fight at all and T&T looks more like an argument for pacifism.

And that’s a valid argument. But it results in the insurmountable problem with three-player wargames: you’re not the master of your destiny. What you do often matters much less than what your opponents do. If you get attacked you lose the peace dividend that year. Nothing you can do about this. Once the peace is broken the nation still at peace is in a powerful position. Since this will often be the Soviets they have little incentive to do anything but collect peace dividends while building up the army and possibly investing in VP-granting technology.

The Axis can’t really sustain a two-front war, leaving the West in the odd situation of having to declare war on the Soviets, lest they win via sitzkrieg. Unless they can gobble up large tracts of land, or the West is grabbing too much Axis territory, the Soviets have no incentive to join the fray.

It all quickly and frequently goes Twilight Zone. But it can be fun. It can also be horribly lopsided. And too often you are not the master of your domain, such as when one of your rivals opts to do something random, ill-advised, or spiteful. I frequently got the feeling when playing T&T that I'm along for the ride more than leading anything.

The appeal of games like T&T is not lost on me though I’m alarmed by the trend towards ever thinner veneers of history in wargames. T&T isn’t in the category of Twilight Struggle or Churchill—games so devoid of any simulation cred they could just as easily be about dominating a landscape of confections or becoming the best fed hippopotamus—but it’s definitely a case of truth being the first casualty: historical truth. And why play a historical game if it's not at all historical? Because it can still be a good game I suppose.

Taken for what it is, T&T is a light, fun game and one very much in tune with what the current generation of wargamers seem to want. For me it’s just too light, too free-for-all and too random. Replay value is also not as high as it would seem after the first couple of plays.

From gallery of FinalWord

Triumph & Tragedy: European Balance of Power 1936-1945
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