M. Kirschenbaum
United States
College Park
Maryland
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Just a head's up, this is not really a review in the customary sense. It's a set of observations and provocations about the game and its design. If you're looking for stuff about components, sequence of play, and how the mechanics work please check one of the other postings.

Codeword Cromwell throws us a curveball straight out of the box. The packaging and flavor materials make clear that what we hold in our hot little hands is meant to be received as a product of the very backstory the game depends on. We're not just gaming the Battle of Birkham Stokes, the fictitious little East Sussex village that is the setting for the action; we're experiencing for ourselves a "training module" used to school the cadets at something called the Combined Forces Military College in Greenwich, apparently the name given to the collusionist military command that followed from the German occupation of Britain after a successful Operation Sea Lion. (Actually, specifically, we’re meant to accept that this is a redacted commercial release of those official training materials.) Codeword Cromwell, in other words, is not a game about a (fictitious) battle, it is a real game pretending to be a fictitious game. The novelty of holding the "module" in our hands for ourselves is presumably meant to add literal weight and heft to the impact of the backstory.

Weight and heft, by the way, are right; it’s the usual Very Heavy Box from Fifth Column, large mounted map, 1" counters, multiple card decks, a refreshingly modest instruction book and a thick (but smaller dimensioned) "intelligence briefing" which has the backstory, card explanations, and more. It’s pricey, but it’s a lot of thick, full-color cardboard. You know the drill.

Two mistakes people will make about this game: they will call it an Alt-History game and they will call it a Role Playing Game. It is superficially both perhaps, but a closer looks suggests it is not much of either. Could a German invasion of England have succeeded in the summer of 1940? That's the alt-history question, but it's not a question Codeword Cromwell is much interested in. Oh yes, there's some stuff in the backstory about the Germans foregoing the raids on London to concentrate on Fighter Command and Chain Home; and we're asked to accept that the Royal Navy mostly stays out of the way as the result of a secret pact with the US, for the greater good of the Allied war effort. But all of that is really just a paper-thin justification for the rural English setting and its cast of cardboard characters--

Which brings me to the second point: though the game features a dozen named individual characters of recognizable types--the cleric, the surgeon, the mechanic, the policeman, the rogue, etc.--the player has scant agency when it comes to actual character development. Indeed, one of these characters, unknown to the player, will be unmasked as "Chaplin," an Abwehr agent loose in the village. Chaplin is in effect an NPC, as indeed they all are. Each character has a backstory, a special ability, and a set of interactions with other characters, most of these triggered by card draw. But the player is not role-playing when he implements these, he is merely putting the characters through their scripted paces.

There is a lot that is left unspoken here. Why is the village of Birkham Stokes of such strategic significance? Why is the village church of such tactical significance? Why are the villagers themselves so motivated to resistance? (We're given to understand that for many of them, the battle represents a chance at redemption—so a coward disgraced in the Great War puts on the old uniform one last time). Bottom line: if you're looking for history--alt- or otherwise--look elsewhere.

Mechanically, as others have mentioned, the game bears some passing resemblance to the State of Siege system. You, the solitaire player, are defending a centralized locale (the Church) against threats that advance incrementally from all sides. You (the player) must allocate resources (the villagers and their weaponry) to mitigate those threats. Along the way you will draw "tactics cards" which may allow you to introduce random or one-time events--a strafing run from a wandering Spitfire, for example. Also over time, as a consequence of the strategic course of the invasion (tracked on a separate display) the German forces will become more numerous and stronger. Enemy armor may enter the village. Artillery may range in. The doughty villagers will become wounded, or killed, or sidelined by their own agendas and idiosyncrasies--a romantic tryst, an attack of the nerves. (Incidentally, when the paratroopers in the West Woods machine-gun the Women’s Auxiliary the air of cheerful bumpkinry that pervades the proceedings becomes a bit heavier.) Gradually the equipment stores dwindle as munitions are expended, guns jam, and improvised weapons are abandoned. The implacable foe presses ever onward and inward. The game is clearly intended to come down to the final turn, which includes mechanics for a last, big push by the Jarman.

Where, then, is the fun? It's not primarily in the decision making I don't think. Yes the player has decisions--this is not a B-17-style ride-along. But the decisions are generally fairly obvious: you want to get your most capable defenders in front of the biggest threat axis, defeat the threat, look around to see who’s left standing and--uh oh, here comes a new threat!--rinse, lather, repeat. The combat systems are clever and low overhead so the wristage and procedures involved in all this are very bearable. But no, the fun here comes, as many have said, from the immersive story-telling quotient. The allure and promise of the game is that each play will generate memories as rich and compelling as the prefabricated ones that are recounted in the flavor materials and briefing book. Remember the time Daisy threw the Mills bomb into that pack of Jerries? Remember the time the pub lads came tumbling out of the Black Bull to beat up on that patrol? Remember that tank battle on Hangman's Lane?

Many will ascribe this degree of storytelling to the backstory and flavor text that constitute so much of the game materials. I think that's wrong though, and I think it misses what's clever about the design. Dan Hodges realizes (at least I think he does) that stories are part and parcel of a game's procedures, that is the explicit rules-based mechanisms for representing various actions on the board. The pub lads beating up on the German patrol isn't memorable because you imagined it in your head or read about it in the flavor text, it's memorable because you enacted it on the board: there are actual counters to represent the lads and the darts, pool cues, and bottles which they must first arm themselves with and then carry into a close combat--led, perhaps, by the ferocity of publican Betty Tanner who (again perhaps) you’ve just last turn recovered [die roll] from her incapacitation [card draw] from an earlier wound . . .

"Betty Tanner in the Pub with the Billiard Stick." There is perhaps another design influence here then, the classic Ludo or Clue, which is also a story generator with people and places and things involving a not so dissimilar cast of characters. But what Codeword Cromwell does so very well is to carry off an ongoing series of four-way procedural interactions--villagers and equipment and the enemy and the village itself--all of which are mediated by cards, dice, and AI mechanisms for advancing the German patrols and the overall conduct of the invasion outside the village. It is immersive, clever, and yes, fun. It’s also a fascinating artifact, not of the Greenwich Combined-whatever but of the contemporary games industry, which has created the audience and appetite for such a thing.
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Dave Daffin
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Ledbury
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"Spiffing review, Kirschenbaum. Report to the Commander to receive your medal".

Great review!
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Jim O'Neill (Established 1949)
Scotland
Motherwell
Graduate of Barlinnie
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VENI, VIDI, VISA - my reaction on entering my FLGS.
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Mr Kirschenbaum,

This review is


Pyuredeadbrilliant

and I agree with your conclusions. This is NOT a game but rather a re-readable novel whose story changes with every read. All that is required to get the most out of this package is a very active imagination. This is one of my favourite games at the moment and promises to be a lasting treasure.

Regards,


Jim

Est. 1949

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Gordon Watson
United Kingdom
Banstead
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Nice review - and yes, CC is a story generator.
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Paul Aceto
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Nice review Mathew. I actually do think some of the fun comes from decisions, especially in the final few turns when the Germans are everywhere and you're left with a handful of villagers and characters. There is a Euro-style puzzle-solving element in play. But even here, as you mention, there is a story element.

Case in point. In my only game so far, I moved Reverend Barnstaple to the SW Square on my final turn. One might ask why, since he's unarmed and unable to do much. But I knew that if the Germans entered on that southern column, they would move all the way to church square before stopping, increasing the chances the center would fall. So I put the Reverend in the SW Square, knowing he would stop the Germans but then likely die. Gaming the system? Perhaps, but in mind's eye, I saw some German troops suddenly stopped in their tracks when confronted by an angry reverend, delivering a 20th century version of The Monition of Cursing, until they finally decided to shoot him and move on.

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M. Kirschenbaum
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Zouave wrote:
Nice review Mathew. I actually do think some of the fun comes from decisions,


Thanks Paul, and I didn't say it didn't. But your example also touches on one of the key points I wanted to make. You describe this:

Zouave wrote:
in mind's eye, I saw some German troops suddenly stopped in their tracks . . .


While undoubtedly some of the action and "story" takes place in the mind's eye, the game's real achievement, in my view, is making so much of its narrative *actionable* via its multilayered interlocking mechanisms, that is to say the cards, character traits, AI, and so on. These present story-trees as dense as anything I've encountered in the avant garde lit world, where there are also procedural story generators aplenty.

While all games have narrative, this is one (and ASL is another good example) where much of the narrative that emerges is a function of specific on board interactions, not "just" the gamer's unbridled imagination.

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M. Kirschenbaum
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Btw, edited a few times to resolve typos, stylistic glitches, and to add one new bit at the end. Thanks for all the kind words and thumbs!
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Henry Lowood
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Matt,

Do you have any thoughts about comparing C:C to Butterfield's own Combat! game? From your review, this one seems much more detailed in terms of the actions enabled by the game components and mechanisms, but the spirit seems similar: experiential, maybe a little bit cinematic (based on war movies, rather than military history).

Henry
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M. Kirschenbaum
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Henry, I'm assuming you mean AMBUSH! I own a copy, but I'm ashamed to say I've never played it.
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Paul Aceto
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Sorry Matthew, I did not mean to put words in your mouth, er hands.

I really like and agree with you you added up above. The number of decisions you make ensures that the game tells your story, not a story driven by the game itself, and it all fits together very well.

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M. Kirschenbaum
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Thanks Paul, I appreciate your comments!
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Henry Lowood
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Yes, Ambush not Combat. (The game, Ambush, always connected in my mind to the TV show, Combat - hence, the confusion.)
It's worth a look if you can get your hands on a copy.
Henry
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Mark Walker
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Henry
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Matt,

This is an amazing piece of writing. Too bad that there isn't an award for best BGG review. Excellent.
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