Churchill

Overview

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!

Components 

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.

Score: 9

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It’s a long, hard road from the steppes of Russia to the streets of Berlin.

Gameplay

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.
Score: 10

Replay Ability

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.

Score: 8

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British influencing Western Europe while the Iron Curtain takes shape.

Balance

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.

Score: 8

Overall: 9

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.

The Kaiser’s Pirates

Overview

The Kaiser’s Pirates is not a new game. This card/war game about surface raiders of WWI from gaming behemoth GMT was released back in 2007. But the box sat in the purgatory of my unplayed collection until the relentlessness of winter gave me the opportunity to bust it out. I then proceeded to spent the evening reading the rules, skimming the rules again, looking on BGG to clarify the rules, playing a mock-up two player game, and then finally diving into a solo conflict. Then I played again. And again. Normally, one run through gives me a pretty good impression of a game. After three plays, I’d have to say I’ve never had more mixed emotions about a game.

Components

Inside the extremely spacious box sits four decks of cards: a thick action deck, a slightly smaller merchantmen deck, a still smaller raiders/warships deck, and the comparatively minuscule solitaire deck. You’ll immediately notice the great details of the ships on each card. The rule book even mentioned GMT’s efforts to recreate each ship faithfully, and the result is simply magnificent. All cards are printed on extremely good card stock. So good, in fact, that shuffling the stiff cards becomes a bit of a challenge. That’s a good sign for the longevity of the cards, but I would still sleeve them as quickly as you could. First, you’ll find that sleeving them actually makes shuffling easier. More importantly, you’ll be shuffling these cards a lot, especially if you play solo at all. Also included in the box are a great set of dice: 2 each of D10s, D8s, D6s, and D8s that serve as double D4s. Different ships have different attack and defense values (merchantmen get their attack values from action cards). There’s also wooden markers for damage and supply.

Score: 9

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My opening play started off well with a prize captured and an enemy ship sunk. 

Gameplay

One of the first things you need to wrap your head around in this game is the fact that you aren’t playing a single side. In most war games, you play one side versus another. Here, you are playing as both the Germans and the Allies. Confusing? Not really. Instead of playing a particular power, you get the job of both defending your ally merchantmen from other players (or the AI if solo) while using your own raiders/warships to attack other players’ merchantmen. To do this, you use a 6 card action deck. Each action card has two options. You can use it to intercept (attack), or you can use it for a special action such as attacking multiple merchantmen at once or exposing a hidden raider to attack. These cards can be combined to great effect. For example, you can combine your intercept with a special surprise attack card that gives you a +2 DRM to your attack dice. That’s a great combo to use against an exposed raider or one of the more powerful merchants. This is also where the game can become frustrating. You will find that you often need multiple cards to perform a critical attack, or you spend a card to counter an attack from your opponent. However, you only get to draw one card as replacement at the end of your turn. It’s not long before you find yourself with a small hand of cards and little options. You always can pass, gaining a card to build your hand back up, but the cost is a lost turn.

The solo game is played against a phantom player run by a solitaire deck. This is the deck that is shuffled after every phantom player turn, so it’s the first deck I would protect with sleeves. Every solitaire card has a ton of information on it. There are 4 choices for the phantom player on his turn. The one that happens depends on a die roll. This means that a phantom player’s turn can last for a considerable time if you roll in their favor. The card also has possible responses to your attacks as well. The solo game feels more thought out than most. There’s legitimate decisions to be made, and you are trying to be an opponent rather than just besting a high score. Still, it can be frustrating to see the phantom player go on a long run because the dice are against you.
Score: 7

Replay Ability

Regardless of whether you play solo or with the maximum of four players, you never use the entire action deck at once. This creates a fog of war element that you’re never sure which cards will show up. Still, there are some general strategies that will present themselves. I found that I wanted to keep playing to improve on the strategies from earlier or to make up for a rotten dice roll. That’s replay ability in my book.

Score: 8

Balance

The unique system of playing as both the Germans and Allies makes the game extremely balanced. While you might get occasionally stuck with more warships than raiders (warships can be attacked from the beginning, raiders have to be exposed first) or get stuck with the weak sailing ship merchants, everything balances out over the course of the game. One of the most well-balanced games I’ve played.

Score: 10

 

Overall: 8

At first, I really believed this game was a 7. The luck factor, present in all dice games I know, seemed to overpower the game, especially playing solo. But then I realized it was just bad luck (Like getting hit with air recon on the 2nd turn and playing catch up the rest of the round back luck), and I kept playing. In the end, I found a game that valued card management and decision making over luck. In my final solo run through I survived two 7+ card phantom player runs to still win the round thanks to well-timed attacks against wounded warships. I believe this game would shine even more against human opponents. I would definitely recommend picking this game up, especially if you enjoy playing a sold solitaire system.