If you have any interest in war games at all, you’ve most likely heard of GMT Games latest, Churchill. In the game, you take the roll of one of the big three Allied leaders of the war, Churchill, Roosevelt, or Stalin. The designer states that Churchill is not a war game, yet it revolves around the competition of wills of these leaders as they struggle to set their agendas and help their countries not only win the war but shape the post-war world as well. It’s connection to the war gaming genre is undeniable, just don’t call it a war game!
Churchill comes with a mounted map board that is split into two areas. One shows the European and Asian theaters with placement tracks to reflect the different fronts on each theater. The other shows the agenda board where the big three will debate agenda topics. Everything is laid out clearly with useful charts and procedures even listed on the board. Those that aren’t are covered in nice charts to flow pretty smoothly. A few blocks are included to represent the combined Allied fronts while smaller cubes depict the Axis military. Wooden markers are also used to show overall command in both theaters as well as political alignment markers. Basically all placed markers are wooden except the clandestine markers, which are thin little plastic discs. It would have been nice if these were wood as well as these can be difficult to pick up, but I imagine it’s a cost and/or weight issue as there are a lot of them. Each country also comes with a deck of cards. These have pictures of various political leaders for each country, an OPs value, and a special modifier for particular agenda items. Each country has its own D6s but only one D10 is included in the box. Since die rolls determine advancements on different fronts, it would have been nice if three D10s were included. Still, this is a minor gripe. Overall, the production value is top notch.
It’s a long, hard road from the steppes of Russia to the streets of Berlin.
Once the game is set up, each player deals themselves a hand of seven cards with their leader card available to them at all times. A conference card sets special agenda items as well as makes note of any restrictions or bonuses players may get this turn. Then, players use their cards to bid (using the OPs number) to see who sets the opening conference issue. From there, everyone can put different issues on the table to be debated on. These can include direct offensive and production markers where the winner of the issue gets to determine how these items will be used in the upcoming war phase. Players can also place issues dealing with political alignment and clandestine markers which allow you to influence other countries (think political alignment for after the war), atomic research, opening second fronts, or leadership in the two theaters. Players then take turns deciding which issue they want to play a card toward.
The OPs value of the card determines how far up that country’s track the issue goes. The higher up the track, the more likely that country will win that issue with a seven locking the issue in. However, each other player, in turn, has the option to debate an issue which could move it back towards them. Say the British player wants European Theater control and plays an OPs four card on it. The issue would move from the neutral center to four on their track. The U.S. may not want to lose control, though, and decides to play a five card as a debate. The issue then goes back five towards the American track resulting in a net plus one toward the U.S. for that issue. It’s a surprisingly easy system that makes for some interesting decisions. Each player has seven cards, no more. Debating an issue means you’ll be down one when it comes your turn to select (you can pass). Also, different cards give different bonuses to certain issues. The Russians, for example, have plenty of cards that give bonuses when played with direct offensives, which could change a two OPs card to a four. There’s some neat balancing mechanics when playing the cards. Churchill has advantages when deciding the opening issue. Stalin’s bonus comes in debating, while Roosevelt breaks any and all ties. It’s a neat way to give some flavor to each country while not letting any feel overpowering.
Action then switches to the theater side of the board where players use their production and any possible direct offenses to decide which fronts should get the supplies needed to, hopefully, advance. Players may also place clandestine markers (spy networks) and political alignment markers or even advance the atomic research track. Progress in any of these will result in victory points at the end of the game. If the Russians make it into Berlin before the West, they get victory points. The Americans, and by association the British, must complete Atomic research to gain victory points. Everyone can earn points from how many clandestine/political markers are on the board. It’s through the scoring the game gets interesting.
There is some sense of cooperation that comes in. The Russians need the West to open a second European front. The Americans need to push in the Pacific to put pressure on Japan and it helps when Russia opens up the Manchurian front. Since you would assume the goal is to win the war, you need to help each other out to meet that end. However, you may also need to help a reluctant ally out by helping them on a front. Why? Because of the way scoring in the game works. There’s no doubt that this is a little controversial. First, you may have noticed I said you would assume your goal is to win the war. That’s because if you don’t beat the Axis by the end of the 10th conference, you don’t lose. I understand the premise. The end is inevitable, the Axis will lose eventually, though it does feel a little wrong not to beat the Axis. Also, the game has a way to discourage someone rushing out in front. Should the game end with someone more than 15 points ahead of the last player, then the second place player actually has a chance to win. In fact, should the leader be more than 21 points ahead, the second player is guaranteed to win. It seems a bit absurd, but it does make sense. A country that rushes too far ahead would face the combined alliance of the other powers in a post-war world. I’ve heard the arguments that the Russians are hard to impossible to play while the game should make you win the war to win. First, I think the Russians are very playable. I’ve lost by a single point as the Russians and realize how I could have easily won. Secondly, I do prefer to play with the Allies needing to win the war, but know that this is to discourage someone from tanking. Honestly, that’s a horrible strategy. In one of my games, the American player was woefully behind until the final conference then suddenly made a stirring comeback to come within two points of victory. I think this game is far more balanced than people realize.
Included in the game are three sets of conference cards. Players can play with the historical order or play with another set. You can even mix up the three sets for a random game. There’s also different strategies to explore with each player. There’s no set “you must do this” route to victory, which is refreshing.
British influencing Western Europe while the Iron Curtain takes shape.
As I mentioned above, the controversial scoring actually provides a way to ensure game balance. The goal is to cooperate with each other to defeat the Axis while prepare for the void left from the defeated powers. Getting too far ahead is a disadvantage. The game also provides opportunities for the game to sway quickly in each conference. You may think you are losing only to find yourself back in the thick of it after a solid conference.
I’ll admit this game is like nothing I’ve played before, and that’s fine because I thought this game was terrific. The game has tremendous historical appeal. The issues and debates are extremely engaging and provide a really strategically deep experience. Is the game broken? No. The scoring system reflects the cooperative nature of the game. Each country has a solid chance of winning. Perhaps this is a game that you get out of what you are willing to put into it, but a lot of games are like this. I can’t play this game enough, and I think those that go into it ready to immerse themselves in the experience will find themselves rewarded.