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Subject: Brentry or How Europe invaded Britain and Britannia invaded Eurogames rss

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Nicholas Hjelmberg
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Introduction

Why review an over 30 years old boardgame? Well, there are two main reasons.

First, when Britannia first saw the light of day back in 1986, there was not yet much light to see. Boardgames were still synonymous with mass market games like Monopoly and although war games had been popular during the seventies, they were now succumbing to the competition from computer games. However, there were signs of a new dawn for boardgames thanks to innovative designers like Sid Sackson (Acquire), Alex Randolph (Twixt) and Francis Tresham (Civilization). Britannia was one of many links in this development and one of its contributions was to bridge the gap between war games and the more peaceful eurogames we know today.

Second, Britannia also enlightened me and made me realize that I didn't have to choose between Monopoly and a war game with hundreds of counters. It also sowed the seeds to my History interest as I became aware of the exciting centuries that preceeded the Norman Invasion of 1066, a year that sadly was the starting point of all my history books in school.



The Gameplay

So how does Britannia play then? At first glance, Britannia reminds about RISK. The game depicts the invasion of Britannia from the Romans in AD 43 to the Normans in AD 1066. The players take turns to act with one of the many peoples of Britannia and a turn is divided into 5 phases:

1 Population Increase Phase: For each area held, add 1 to a population track and increase population by 1 for each count of 3.
2 Movement Phase: Move units to an adjacent area.
3 Battles/Retreats Phase: Roll dice to eliminate opponent units (at the roll of 5 or 6) or retreat.
4 Raider Withdrawal Phase: Retreat raiding units to sea areas.
5 Overpopulation Phase: Remove units in excess of 2 times the number of held areas.

Some exceptions apply to special units and areas, e.g. Romans eliminate opponent units at the roll of 4, 5 and 6, hill areas add only 1/2 to the population track but units there are only eliminated at the roll of 6 and so on.

At certain points victory points are earned, most often for occupying certain areas in certain rounds. A typical game lasts 4 hours and the player with the most victory points in the end is the winner.



The History Play

If this had been all there is to Britannia, the gameplay would have been underwhelming. However, what made Britannia stand out then and today still is its simulation of the historical tide. The players do not merely play one people each but rather all of the historical invaders of the island. For each player count, there is a list of peoples controlled by each player and almost each new round will see a new people arriving in Britannia.

This provides a delightful challenge to both the "war" aspect and the "diplomacy" aspect of Britannia.

The Military Player

As a military commander, you have to take into account not only your present forces but also your future forces. Should you aim at high-scoring but well defended areas or easier but less valuable targets? Should you spread thin to maximize your people's victory point this round at the risk of being eliminated or is it better to consolidate for the future? Or perhaps you should simply give up on your people and let them pave the way for the next? Granted, many war games have rules for reinforcements arriving at the battle field but the peoples in Britannia are not merely reinforcements to a people, they are completely new peoples with new objectives.

The Diplomat Player

As a diplomatic emissary, you have to negotiate across different peoples and time periods. It's not unusual to have an agreement with another player regarding two of your peoples in Southern Britannia while at the same time having your peoples fighting ferociously for the control of Scotland. Or an agreement to give up areas to another people now for the promise of peace for your future people (which, of course, may or may not be honored when the time comes).

A War Game or Not?

As a matter of fact, I would argue that Britannia is not a war game at all. Britannia is not about mass armies conquering land, it's about peoples migrating and settling. It's not about maneuvering and building up to win the last battle, it's about writing chapters in the History of Britain and being rewarded with victory points throughout the game. "Wars" in Britannia are often excused, and accepted, with phrases like "I have to go here", "I have nowhere else to go" and so on. To win Britannia, you need to build and use your resources wisely and know when to focus on resources (people tokens) and victory points (areas) - not unlike many of today's modern eurogames.




Potential Issues

Beginner Threshold?

Unfortunately, Britannia's defining characteristic of History writing is also a challenge to new players. All invasions have their fixed rounds and are clearly printed on the board but it's not until you've played a couple of games that you start understanding the impact of a "major Danish invasion". It's not a flaw of the game, since it does reward repeated plays, but new players should be constantly reminded of upcoming invasions so that they may plan for them.



Randomness?

Another issue compared to modern boardgames is the randomness of the dice. Like in war games, there are many die rolls throughout a game that "should" even out. Nevertheless, bad die rolls may ruin the future of your people, particularly if it's a small one that will need several rounds to recover (if ever). There are some tactical rules, such as the above mentioned defence bonus for hills and leaders' ability to eliminate units on one extra die result, that may be used to mitigate the die rolls. Thus, a common tactic is to use leaders to clear up strong defensive positions in the hills, but in the end of the day your people's destiny is determined by the die.



Unbalances?

Finally there is the potential issue of balance. Over the course of the game, there are two peoples that can be expected to dominate Britannia for most of the rounds: the Angles and the Saxons. This means that a successful Angle or Saxon game will leverage a lot of victory points to its player (although the opposite is also true). In contrast, the Romans also score a lot of points but during a shorter time while the Welsh score points during a long time but usually limited to the Welsh areas - in both cases with less opportunity to do significantly better or worse. That doesn't mean that it's impossible to win for those players but they can't rely on the game to balance the Angles and the Saxons. Instead, they have to do it themselves to prevent any of them to get the upper hand. Is this a flaw or a feature? I lean towards the latter, since it makes each game of Britannia unique and memorable.

Limited strategic choices?

Modern players may also feel uncomfortable with Britannia's ambition to simulate the History of Britannia. The fixed invasions (and, in some cases, withdrawals) as well as the victory point cards, which point out specific times and areas for each people, drive the game and prevent too large deviations from History. Don't expect the Romans stay until the Vikings come or William the Conqueror conquering Scotland. This is similar to most war games out there but give less freedom than your average eurogame.

Does this mean that you don't have any strategic choice in Britannia? My answer is yes, you do. Looking back at my statistics (I was geeky already back then), the success for the different player colors changed over time as new strategies were uncovered. A "green" period, where the Danes took advantage of the weakened Angles and Saxons and swept across England, was followed by "blue" period, where the Angles and the Picts helped each other to take control of Northern Britain, and then a "red" period, where Arthur seeked refuge in the Highlands, only to hand over England to the Saxons.

One particularly memorable game was the first time I saw the "Brigante Gambit". A Roman failure to capture Southern England in the first round saw the Brigantes breaking into Wales and helping the later Irish to completely wipe out the Welsh, ensuring red superiority in England for the rest of the game! (I'm not sure whether this is possible in post-Avalon Hill editions.)

Summary

To sum up, Britannia is a game with its roots in the war games of its time that had the courage to explore other mechanics than conflict. The tide of the game weaves a picturesque tapestry of British History which challenges the players to manage resources of varying quantity and quality throughout the game. Both military and diplomacy skills are required and although the game does impose some restrictions on the player strategies, each game of Britannia will be unique.

So does the game appear frequently on my table? Sadly no. The game is really limited to 4 players only. 3 player games often find players having to "negotiate" between their own poeples while 5 players often find players with too few/weak peoples to enjoy the game. The 4 hours' playing time was good compared to many war games of that time but too long compared to today's standard of 1-2 hours. The rules were also good compared to many war games of that time but contain many sub rules that are not always intuitive. (I'm still not sure how to handle all corner cases regarding the Brigantes' submission to the Angles.) The age and the "war game label" may also discourage new players more interested in the latest engine builder. For some reason, this doesn't prevent them from enjoying the, in my opinion, soulless replica Small World.

But will Britannia leave my collection? No, I have too many good memories of the game and just like Advanced Civilization returns to my table at special occasions, I keep hoping that Britannia will one day.



This review was also published at The Quest for the Perfect Game - Reviews to Extract the Essence of Games.
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Jim Marshall
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I find myself playing this more these days than I did back in the eighties. Partly that's because of the greater number of available gamers today (back then, as you note it was either chin-stroking two player wargames or lighter family fare for social groups), partly becasue the FFG edition(s) are much more attractive to look at than the Gibsons edition I had back then.

Still only one or two plays a year, but it always goes down well.
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Michael Debije
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Big fan of this, as well as the spinoffs, including Rus’, Maharaja, and Italia.
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Lewis Pulsipher
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Thank you for the detailed review. The Fantasy Flight edition from 2006 is (for me, at least) clearly a better game than the Avalon Hill version that you’ve reviewed. I took the opportunity of that edition to fix some errors introduced by Gibsons and then AH, and added such things as Roman Roads, Boudicca’s revolt, and Saxon burhs.

My wife, who is English, also says her history started with 1066. Even though she studied history in university.

Brit is highly asymmetric, whereas most Euros are symmetric (everyone has the same situation at game start). This asymmetry might be difficult for Euro-players to deal with. How you play each of the four colors is quite different. Moreover, your situation changes drastically over time because of the history. For example, the Romans seem to sweep all before them, then the Romans leave and the player only has the Scots and Romano-British, trying to survive until the Dubliners and Norwegians appear.

It’s very much a thinker’s and planner’s game, so it may be tough for the many Euro players who aren’t accustomed to having to think a lot to succeed.

I don’t think of Brit as Eurolike, though it has a few Euro elements such as victory points and no player elimination. But it certainly isn’t a hard-core old-style hex-and-counter two player game, either.

I disagree about flexibility in comparison to Euros. The point allocations are certainly constraints, but if you watch dozens of games (especially of the 2006 edition) you’ll see that all kinds of different things can happen. In contrast, most Euros have “multiple paths to victory”, which is to say, always-correct solutions, that players must learn and follow. They are parallel competitions, forms of puzzle rather than of interactive game. Which suits contemporary players, evidently. You can learn how to succeed in one or a few plays of a Euro, while only a few have the depth to encourage people to play more than five hundred times (I know of at least two Brit players who have played that many times).

I cringe a little when anyone compares Brit to Risk. Risk is a symmetric “Conquest” game, favoring the attackers (in American versions) and encouraging attack. Britannia (highly asymmetric) requires players to understand when to attack, and when not to, and anyone who plays it like Risk will lose. But Brit IS a multiplayer “dudes on a map” game just as Risk is.

I agree that Smallworld is “soulless”, and that might be why people who “don’t play wargames” will play it: it feels abstract, just as its predecessor (Vinci) felt (even more) abstract.

I like your paragraph arguing that Brit is not a wargame enough to save it for later. It’s certainly not an “all-out war” game.

But do try the FFG edition. Or wait a year or two, the FFG edition will be reprinted with miniature figures, sold along with a newly-designed two-player (new board) Duel Britannia game that lasts 65-75 minutes (in its current state).

Lew Pulsipher
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Martin Gallo
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This is a great wargame. So great that I own the Gibson, AH and FFG versions and will more than likely buy the FFG reprint.
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Nicholas Hjelmberg
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Thank you for the feedback! If Britannia appears inflexible and similar to RISK in my review, it's a shortcoming of my English rather than the game itself. I meant that Britannia may appear so at first glance but that it does offer so much more. I also think Britannia may be a good first step for RISK players towards a much richer game world.

The idea of describing Britannia as a link between war games and eurogames was inspired by Stewart Wood's book Eurogames, where I was happy to find my old favorite Britannia mentioned. However, I do agree that it is a wargame first and foremost.

I follow the development of the new Britannia edition closely (any more updates?) and look very much forward to the improvements.
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Lewis Pulsipher
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Just to avoid any confusion, FFG will not be reprinting Brit, it will be a British company that specializes in plastics for games.
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Lewis Pulsipher
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I don't recall what Stewart wrote in his book (I was a reader for the doctoral dissertation that became the book).

I've been trying to think of a substitute for the word wargame, because there are players who won't play a "wargame," but will play a good historical game and enjoy it - same game. Best I've come up with is "historical (and fictional) strategy games." There are hardly any strategy games that are non-historical, Euros tending to be abstract by design.
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Donald Moomin
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The current moderation is unfair and one-sided...
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Many years ago, when I was, ahem, a lot younger than now, me and my mates used to play (the AH version of) Britannia all the time. We of course also went through various phases where perceived inbalances would lead to changed play styles, which of course would lead to new ideas about balance, and so on.

What I always particularly loved about the game (well, apart from the strong feeling of history) was the asymmetry and the VP charts guiding players, which allowed your in-game decisions to be a lot more rational than in traditional free-for-all conquest games: You might feel hurt that the Welsh had knocked you out of York, but looking at their VP chart, you could hardly object to the fact that it made sense for them to do so.


The new two-player version certainly sounds interesting. Does it have the same scope (all of Britain from the Romans to 1066) as the original game?
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Lewis Pulsipher
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Because it's two players, and must be 75 minutes (I've soloed in 65), I had to reduce the scope. The Romans defend in the first part of the first turn, then withdraw (so it begins around 350). It ends with the Danes against the Saxons. If Cnut, and his sons, and Edmund Ironside for that matter, had not all died prematurely, 1066 would never have happened.
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Edward B.
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This is a game I've always looked at and been interested in. Excited to see that there will be a new version printed in the next year or two. Any idea on whether it will be 2019 or 2020?
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