I'm thankful for the opportunity given to me to help out with the forthcoming GMT Games title Cataclysm: A Second World War. This game is on GMT's P500 list right now. I joined the testing crew recently, put together a PnP copy of the game and now I've been getting to know it. Here's a little AAR to hopefully convey some impressions of how the game plays.
First of all, what's the game about? This is a game of politics and war, as the designers William Terdoslavich and Scott Muldoon describe the game, in which the players take the helm of a major world power steering them through a version of WW2 from the diplomatic political build-up into and through the war itself.
One of the key premises of the design has been the ability of the players to create their version of WW2: the familiar elements of the historical conflict are all there from the domestic and international political crises to the military side of it all. Yet, the players are able to recreate an alternative course of events using an impressive array of available game concepts and mechanisms. What results is basically a fascinating, vast sandbox for the players to play out a second world war.
The making of my playtest copy. It's all non-final playtest art.
The game sets off with a production phase during which the powers may collect resources available on the map and convert them into a number of types of stuff, e.g. military units or what are called offensive markers that afford the player particular kinds of actions later on in the game. A third important aspect driving the game are the flag tokens affording the players one of a range of political actions (more of all that below).
I'm soloing all sides in the 2-player introductory scenario called Crisis in the West covering the years 1937 through to 1940. In this scenario, the map is limited to the map of Europe only whereas the other scenarios take place on the full world map. The Fascist powers Italy and Germany are allied against the Democratic powers France and the UK. At stake is political control of Europe, with the Fascist sides trailing in points and needing to seize the initiative. A power's victory point count can consist of a number of things (varying per scenario), but one key measure are the control cubes a power has managed to place in different areas of the map.
the two halves of the map in Cataclysm. In the scenario I'm playing, the Pacific side of the map is not used. Right:
the US and Canada, the latter as a British colony, are able to provide a very welcome resource boost to the European powers.
Early on in the game, the goal seems clear: use the production phase to get forces on the map. Actually, they go into a draw cup first from which they emerge randomly during the following action phase. Alternatively, a single counter can also be placed in reserve from where it can be played at will, a very important game mechanic.
Later on in the game, when the situation has escalated and more and more stuff is happening on the map, the players face more and more tough choices between using their economy to churn out military machines as opposed to produce upgrade and offensive markers to do things with the stuff that they've already got on the board.
Following the production phase, we've got the actions phase. Here you draw random counters, one at a time, from the action cup and the counter's owner gets to conduct one from a corresponding set of actions. A game turn lasts until all markers have been drawn, or all four so-called crisis markers, that are also in the cup, have been drawn. Upon a Crisis marker being drawn, dice are rolled and a random event occurs potentially bringing a change of pace into the situation. Placing and playing counters in and from the aforementioned reserve gives players an important further tool alongside random chit pull.
Now, let's get on with the AAR.
The First Act
The first marker or counter I drew from the action cup was a German flag counter affording this Fascist side a political action. The German side could attempt a couple of interesting things here. One option is Diplomacy, the attempt to extend German influence into neighbouring areas to gain a victory point, potentially at the expense of another power's influence in that area.
And so I went for Diplomacy. The idea was to attempt to reduce the democratic powers' head start by starting a diplomatic offensive against Czechoslovakia to gain access to the resource there as well as to remove the French control cube there.
In the game, the German effectiveness is given as three, one of the best on the game, meaning I'm to roll 3d6 when resolving Diplomacy. The highest roll value achieved using these three dice will be modified by a number of things, including the target country's resistance value. Czechoslovakia resist foreign influence at level 1 meaning, for Germany to succeed, the highest roll will have to be a 6. This seems like a bit of a gamble but let's go for it.
Unsurprisingly, Germany fails the check. That's ok. No provocation results. Provocations fuel conflict in Cataclysm because they afford the provoked powers so-called flags. These are counters with which the powers are able to respond to undertake political, as opposed to military, actions. A power may provoke another by a number of means, such as by successfully spreading its diplomatic influence into an area in which another power has interest, usually areas adjacent to those controlled by the other power. Failed diplomacy, however, does not count as a provocation.
the Spanish civil war as depicted in Cataclysm. The Fascist powers, Germany and Italy, support the right nationalist side in the war by offering Foreign Aid (the arrow counters to the right of the civil war marker). At stake is political influence in Spain and ultimately victory points. Top right:
Rearmament in Europe. Armies, air force and fleets dot the landscape. Who's going to make the first move? Bottom:
the Red Army is about to roll into Poland.
On we go. The play proceeded quite fast as I kept drawing more markers most of which are quite quick to resolve. During this build-up phase, the powers take opportunities to build up their political influence but also to secure it by moving forces into friendly countries. Basically, you're wanting to get provoked so that you receive more political capital (flag counters) to get stuff done (and inevitably provoke the other powers).
At one point I pulled the French Home Front marker. This marker triggers what's called a Home Front check. This simulates the development of the mood at home when the power in question has reached a certain more aggressive commitment level. The French were at Rearmament level and therefore subject to a Home Front check which they failed. As a result, the French stability sank from wavering to unstable. The nation seemed to be crumbling under the weight of the European-wide power struggle. Right away I played a French flag from the reserve ---a sort of an emergency fund from which a previously reserved marker can be drawn almost at will to get one really important thing done. I used the flag to do Propaganda, a political action, to shore up some stability at home in which the French succeeded.
In this scenario, the Soviet Union functions as a non-player side conducting random aggressions in certain countries. In my game, the Soviet dummy came to attack neutral Poland. At this point I began to regret that I had not deployed any French armies into Poland to protect the French control cube in there. Now it threatened to be too late as the Soviets were rolling into Poland. We had some combat to resolve.
In Cataclysm, combat involves some die rolling, with modifiers where applicable. The player agency in combat resides in strategic placement of the different types of forces such that positive modifiers can be attained. As a result of combat, losses may be suffered and/or units retreat. In the present case, due to some lucky rolls, the Polish were able to withstand the Soviet attack. The French got lucky, for now, and kept their foothold in Poland.
As a result of the Soviet aggression, however, the special game state called Status Quo got broken giving the two Democratic powers in play, France and the UK, immediately a flag each plus boosting their earnings during the production phase. Basically, the Soviet aggression opened the flood gates a little and the Democratic powers would now also be able to prepare for war at heightened ability.
Soon I drew a so-called Civil War Resolution marker. This triggered the end game of the on-going Spanish civil war. A round of combat got resolved and it ended for the benefit of the Fascist sides. The next German or Italian attempt at Diplomacy toward Spain would be a little more likely to succeed with a +1 DRM boosting the attempt. As it happens, the next chit I pull is a German flag affording them just the Diplomacy action they needed now.
In this reenactment of WW2, the Germans had already occupied Sweden and now they were going to use the nationalist victory in Spain to extend their political influence there. I was rewriting history, replaying a second world war.
How were the Democratic powers going respond? Earlier on, the UK had spent a political action, but to no avail, to attempt to persuade the US to a deal involving them giving resources to help counter the rising Fascist threat in Europe. The US giant remained asleep, for now at least. Should Germany succeed in Spain, more provocation still would result affording the Democratic sides more opportunities to respond. This game has just begun. We haven't really even touched the combat side of the game yet.
The Second Act
Here we go with the second turn of this scenario, the years 1939 and 1940. There will be a third and the final turn as well. This is the shortest scenario of the game with the playing time given as 1 to 3 hours which seems realistic.
At the start of the second turn I'm thinking it's time for the Fascist to seize the initiative and begin the hostilities somewhere toward the end of this turn. The final, third turn can well be a short run ended by a Japanese offensive marker being drawn out of the action cup. This will symbolize the Japanese having attacked Pearl Harbor and mark the end of this scenario.
This is where it seems to me I've got to do some thinking ahead. First of all, the Fascist sides (but not the Democratic powers) may conduct a special kind of a military action called a sneak attack. That has got to be the way for Germany and/or Italy to kick it off, I'm thinking. To be able to sneak attack, however, the attacking Fascist side must be at Mobilization commitment level, that's one up from the current Rearmament. A flag counter and a successful efficiency check will be needed to get the level to go up.
A thing to keep in mind is also that the Fascists are in an alliance meaning they'll pull each other into war ---one may also dishonor an alliance, though, and decide not to join the war but at a price. There are a good few pacts and other agreements like that in Cataclysm. They are kind of like obtaining game states that affect the game play in various ways. Another example of such a game state is the previously mentioned Status Quo (insert a clever joke about the band here), a marker that limits the Democratic powers in certain ways.
Anyhow, on we go with the game. I note that at this moment there are no tank armies whatsoever on the map, and tanks provide a bonus in combat, so it might be a good idea for a power to get one on the map right now. And so, in order to get a tank into the theater quickly when needed, I have the German side produce and place an upgrade marker into the reserve from where it can be deployed quickly to flip an existing army into one that's armor supported. The UK sense the gathering storm and also place an upgrade marker in reserve.
The first chit to come out of the cup this turn is indeed a German flag counter. This enables them an attempt to increase commitment. Let's see if we can get that commitment level up to Mobilization. Yes, we do. The requisite roll succeeds.
Hiking up your level of commitment is a provocation, yes, but as all available French and UK flags are already in play (in the reserve box and/or the draw cup) and these Democratic powers can gain no further flags. (Let me note in passing that I'm a newbie in this game so none of the decisions I detail here might actually make much good sense strategy-wise! In fact, in my future games I probably ought to make sure that a power is never out of flags so that they can profit from provocations.)
Now, Germany gains some offensive markers and more military units as a result of the commitment level shifting up pouring further grease into the engine. These markers go into the available box, or the draw cup to re-emerge at random later on. What's the downside then of increasing commitment, you may ask. It's that each future German stability test is conducted with a -1 DRM. Increasing threat of instability at home is the price of increasing commitment.
Next, I decide to ready Germany for a sneak attack and deploy the upgrade marker from the reserve. This is called trumping as this chit play occurs by the trumping player's choice instead of pulling a random chit.
the Germans have got a tank army at the ready and Czechoslovakia has been marked as the target of the offensive (the grey arrow counter). There's a chance that the blue French control cube in the country will be replaced by a white German cube soon. Earlier Austria has succumbed to the German diplomatic pressure as indicated by the presence of the white German control cube. Bottom right:
a French fortress provides extra protection in the French capital area. Bottom left:
Italy sent the man himself, Il Duce, Benito Mussolini, to Spain to conduct some diplomacy. It worked. Spain is now under Italian control. A yellow control cube, well a cylinder actually, indicates Italian control.
Right now I'm realizing the Fascist threaten to catch the Democratic powers with their pants down, so to speak. The problem got exacerbated by the fact that, at the end of the first turn, all four Crisis markers came out of the draw cup before there was a chance for the Democratic powers to play a good number of their tokens. When the fourth Crisis marker comes out of the cup, the turn ends and any remaining flags in the cup simply end up unplayed, although eventually they do get placed back into the cup at the start of the second round of play.
Ok, so the Democratic powers have got to do something, but what CAN they do?! They could attempt to declare a war on Germany/Italy ---they've got the hardware for it--- which, however, would immediately trigger a home front check (unlike the Fascist sides, Democratic nations cannot just go about declaring wars without consequences). The French anyway are already wavering so I don't think it's a good idea to get a war going.
Another idea could be to have the UK and France create an alliance. This would allow the Democratic powers to pool their units and perhaps then get a war going. The Brits could get their hardware off their island onto mainland Europe which would grant them interests on the mainland and in turn allow British diplomacy against German controlled areas. Alliance formation, however, requires a simultaneous play of two flags by the two sides plus a successful efficiency check by the less efficient side so it could be a costly process in terms of time and effort to create an alliance. On the other hand, in most cases, if you fail an efficiency check once, next time around you'll get a +1 DRM for the second attempt. But it obviously is time and flag consuming to keep repeating an action.
A third thing the Democratic powers could do ---as far as my newbie eye can see--- is make sure they get forces out into the countries in which they've managed to get control cubes. This I've so far failed to do and that's now proving to be a real problem for the Democratic powers.
As I think the report here shows, there's a lot of actual history built into the game mechanics, the board set up, and the asymmetry of the factions. As a result, as the leader of a power, you'll be going through many of the same lines of reasoning as your historical counterparts did back then.
In this context I must confess, while I am not German and only live here, I do get a slightly iffy feeling when a German tank chit rolls into Czechoslovakia, Austria or wherever. I nonetheless believe wargaming and conflict simulations can offer valuable history lessons and tell us something interesting about the how's and why's of past conflicts.
Anyhow, so what happened next in this game? Well, somehow again I seemed to be pulling more German counters than anything else from the action cup. And so, inevitably, the German diplomatic efforts took Austria under German control with no significant difficulty.
Next, there was going to be a German attack on Czechoslovakia. I made a newbie strategic miscalculation. I planned to roll into Czechoslovakia with the aid of the tank army but overlooked the fact that the adverse terrain in that country negates the DRM that tanks afford. Also the dice did not really roll the Germans' way and, although they took control of Czechoslovakia eventually, the newly upgraded tank army had to be flipped back to its non-upgraded side.
Meanwhile, the other Fascist power Italy began to pursue its own expansionist ambitions. Italy's standard efficiency level is low, a one (meaning you roll all your checks with just 1d6), but by using the special Il Duce flag they may conduct an action at the heightened level 2 efficiency. Also, during the first turn the Spanish civil war got resolved in favor of the Fascists and there was now a bonus +1 DRM sitting there waiting for the Italians to take advantage of too. Il Duce jumped on the chance and Spain succumbed to Italian diplomatic influence. As it happened, however, the random event of the next Crisis marker to come out of the cup reignited the Spanish civil war. This removed Italian control of the country again.
The Third Act
We were now in the final turn of play. The Germans were making inroads into various Europe neutral countries while the Democratic powers looked to be just about done with being mere observers of these provocative actions.
The next chit to be drawn was a German offensive marker that they used to pile some forces to their border toward the West and France apparently in preparation of a sneak attack. Then the French held their breath for a turn or two until a French offensive marker came up allowing them to respond to the Germans and deploy their own forces to the border to protect their home areas. Meanwhile, Italy had its home front check for the turn, failed it and became unstable.
Next, one of about three UK flags in the cup got drawn. They used it to successfully increase their level of commitment Mobilization. This level or higher is needed for declarations of war. Things were moving forward now and dramatic strings and drums boomed in my head.
The German home front was seemingly unable to take the gripping tension as Germany failed their home front check and became unstable. At the next opportunity, however, the Germans trumped with a flag lifting their stability back up to Wavering. I figured it's good to keep a flag in reserve for just that kind of occasions.
Here I pulled the second crisis event marker of this turn (the first had passed without a note). What you do here is you roll two dice and consult the so-called Crisis Table for a random event. It was one titled Public Support giving the highest rolling Democratic power a flag. This turned out to be the UK, who went and put the flag in reserve, and then on the next turn played it from the reserve to declare war on Italy. Germany, as an ally of Italy, decided to honor the alliance and get pulled into the conflict. The war was on.
The strings and drums seized. Total silence.
And then the board exploded with action. The war declaring power immediately gets 1 free military action (as opposed to up to 3 military actions that a full scale campaign involves). These the UK used to raid a German fleet, successfully, and the Germans were forced to retreat. In response, German diplomacy took Hungary.
Next up was a UK offensive marker and we all know what that means. Yes, the UK would get to launch another offensive against the allied Fascists and this time they'd be able to hit at the full three military actions strength. Within the space of two chits, the UK had gone from a rearming nations to mobilization and then to offensive war.
I consulted the military options available. The UK was able to deliver what's called a major invasion, a nice little campaign combining land and naval unit action potentially also with supporting air units if they are within range. Such an invasion across the Channel into the Benelux or even Germany itself was one option.
But I thought I had spotted a softer spot elsewhere into which to poke the British finger, namely, the Italian capital territory. It did not contain any armies, just two surface fleets, and a resource, so if the UK would actually get an army in there, Italy might lose its capital and then collapse and surrender. And there was a British tank army sitting in Egypt that a major invasion in fact would be able to transport all the way to Italy. There were two UK fleets floating in the Mediterranean able to suport the invasion too.
Now, a major invasion is a multi-step process but I'll save you the detail. What happened was that, by winning a couple of naval battles, the UK managed to clear the way for the tank army to actually step onto the Italian soil.
A battle ensued. The UK was handicapped in a number of ways here: it could not trace supply to its tank army (-1 DRM) and the tank army offered no combat bonus because of adverse terrain. Furthermore, Italy enjoyed air superiority as a supporting air unit was able to fly in from adjacent Northern Italy (+1 die). Nonetheless, in the end, when taking into various factors, the UK and Italy both got to roll two dice.
And so I roll.
And it's a tie!
What this meant was that both Italy and the UK took one loss. The UK tank army (being an upgraded version of an infantry army) suffered a step loss and simply got flipped to an infantry army while the Italians, who had no land unit in the battle at all, could not absorb the loss. As a result, the UK took control in Rome and gained two VPs as well!
But that's not all. Italy had now lost control of a home area as well as their capital area (in this case one and the same area). As a result, Italy would have to face two stability checks. To make matters worse, as an ominous coincidence, just a chit or two ago, Italy's stability had decreased to unstable, one step short of collapse. And so we were to roll a 1d6 twice at 2/3 chance of Italy collapsing.
And it's a collapse on the first die! What a masterful stroke from the British here to hit the Fascists in the softest spot! And what incompetence of the Italian leadership to leave the capital area so exposed. Well, in Italy's defense, it had been a Blitzkrieg from the British.
It's events like this that give you the idea of the kind of an absolutely fascinating sandbox this game offers for the players to act out their own history in.
Ok, so Italy had collapsed but it had not surrendered yet. Next there was a procedure to check if the collapse actually leads to surrender. This is a die roll modified by certain factors related to the power's overall condition (such as if they control their capital or not). Italy rolled very well, a 6, which with modifiers turned into a 4, but still, that was more than enough to avert surrender. The effects of a collapse are bad enough though, one of the most notable one is the breaking of the alliance with Germany and an offer of an armistice to the enemy, i.e. the UK, as well as the exit out of the game of the special Italian Il Duce flag. Mussolini had been dethroned.
the UK has just taken Rome and placed two of its control cubes there. The remnants of the Italian force are hunched up in Northern Italy as well as in Albania across the Adriatic to the East. Bottom left:
the French and Germans have amassed practically all of their forces at the border. The UK have a highly useful carrier fleet up in Scotland as well as a supporting tactical air force in England capable of taking on enemy air forces in the Northern parts of mainland Europe. Right:
the situation in Europe in late 1942.
Ok, but the game wasn't over yet. The Germans kept a cool head. The German home areas were very well-defended, and the points seemed to be tied as Italy hadn't contributed all that much to the Fascist point total anyway. There was no need for Germany to rush into France, at least not yet, and a couple of neutral countries could still be picked up by diplomacy.
And so, next, Germany used an in-reserve flag to bring Norway into the fold increasing the German VPs by one. In a fine but important distinction, this diplomatic action brought the opposing power France a flag but not the enemy power Britain.
Next, the UK got two back to back offensive markers out of the cup. Their military oomph was, however, effectively spent. An attack into Germany could well fail and expose the home island to a counterstrike. I opted to using the first offensive marker to get a British upgrade marker into the action cup (for hopefully getting to reintroduce a tank army somewhere on the map later) coupled with a simple deployment of a supporting air unit into Rome.
With the second marker I thought the UK would have a go at dismantling the German air support capability in the Benelux countries. If successful, this would serve to tilt the sharpest tip of any German offensive into France. The heavily augmented British raid was a success and the German AF withdrew from the Benelux further back to the East in the German home areas.
In Cataclysm, it's somewhat difficult to actually eliminate an enemy unit as single losses may always be converted into retreats instead. This rule keeps with the scale of the game in which an AF chit represents not just a set of airplanes but a whole AF infrastructure. Thematically, one might imagine the British raid to have occurred over a number of weeks gradually dismantling the German infrastructure in the Benelux leading the Germans to relocate the remnants of their AF capability someplace else.
Then, next, ladies and gentlemen, I drew the game ending Japanese offensive marker. It was time to count the points.
In principle, counting VPs in Cataclysm is easy. VPs are counted per ideology (Democracies, Fascists, Communists) as the sum of a power control cubes minus non-controlled home areas with a couple of additional twists depending, among others, on which scenario you're playing.
To cut a longer story short, the end score in my game was Democracies 10, Fascists 8. (The score's were tied actually until they were adjusted by the Soviet Enmity rule, for those who know the game a little bit.)
What a cool game! The tension surrounding the pulling of chits and rolling the dice for the various checks is quite incredible.
I've seen it said about Cataclysm that, due to the element of luck coming in via the chit pull and die rolls, the game can feel like it plays itself. To be honest, I had that feeling first, but soon that feeling dissolved completely as I began to understand the player-empowering role of the reserve mechanic and the role of foresight in production and placement of markers and units.
The result is quite a unique, captivating and smoothly working game. The manner in which the game combines constant tension and anticipation of the unknown with genuine, complex, forward looking player agency is something really special.
There's a certain asymmetry to the design. Although the basic actions are the same for everyone, each power is different in its geographical setting, its enemies and friends, its forces, the start set-up and so on. Like in any asymmetric design, power balance or imbalance will probably be in part dependent on the player's playing their respective powers (equally) well.
What I particularly enjoy is that the game feels like a developing story. Repeated efforts at diplomacy, reoccurring civil wars, the collapse of the mood at home following military adventurism --- all that and more is material for the players' imagination to fill in a more detailed story.
Random events, but also player-initiated things like the creation of an alliance or a triumph in a well-planned attack, can lead to interesting turns of events. As the player it's fascinating to see a storyline come to reality: there's the build-up, some diplomatic wrangling, some overt as well as covert provocations, alliances are or aren't formed, and eventually, if the players want it, the gloves come off and punches are traded until exhaustion.
That's it with this report, folks. Now, please excuse me, I've got to go and play more of this game. I cannot wait for the game to be published.