Sunday, January 11, 2009

Charles Should be Happier than He Is

Mike and I got the 2009 season of Two Side rolling with a look at GMT's new release Unhappy King Charles. This is one I'd been looking forward to for a while, and was pretty happy when it finally got released.

UKC was designed by Charles Vasey. This is Mr. Vasey's 2nd game on the English Civil War between the Royalists and Parliamentarians for control of England between 1641 and 1645. His first is the longer, and more detailed, King's War that was published a few years ago by Clash of Arms. I've got a copy of that one and would really like to get it on the table at some point.

Anyway, back to the game at hand. UKC is a card-driven wargame (CDG) that covers the entire English Civil War. As opposed to some of the more recent CDG releases, UKC is much further towards the simpler/shorter end of the scale. It's got a few features in it, however, that model the dynamics of 17th century warfare in ways I haven't seen in a CDG before.

The components are pretty standard GMT fare. Paper map (beautifully illustrated by Lee Brimmicombe-Wood) counters (mostly one sided) with a bit of a unique twist: instead of the Roger MacGowan artwork we've come to expect on GMT counters, these feature small photograph of painted miniatures illustrating the various brigades that took part in the war. I think these illustrations could have been a bit larger without crowding the counters at all. It's a nice idea – hopefully someone else picks up on it. The cards seemed a bit thin, but in sleeves it doesn't really matter. They're also attractively designed with some pretty good visual clues.

The way the cards are used harkens back to the original CDG, We the People. Cards are either events or operations, not both. If you're dealt an opponent's event, you can discard the card to act as a limited sort of 1-operation card. Operations are mostly used to activate generals with that strategy rating or lower, but can also be used for expanding political control either directly or through raids by Local Notables (a unique aspect to this game I'll get to in a bit.)

The turn sequence is your standard CDG fare – administrative stuff, action rounds, then cleanup/victory check. A few things within that distinguish this game from others, however. First, during the administrative stuff, units are recruited from a pool of available units. As C17 warfare was usually short-term and regional in nature, each region has a pool of units from which you can recruit, and you can only recruit one unit per region per turn. Placement of these units is handled slightly differently for each side, reflecting the differing nature in how the two sides were supported.

An interesting point to note here is you place your new recruits before you draw your hand for the turn.

This is also the point at which political control markers are checked for isolation. If they can't trace (avoiding enemy spaces) to a friendly army, supply fortress, or local notable, they're removed. Parliament removes first, and this might open up trace for the Royalists. This didn't happen in our game but is definitely possible. A strategy point to make here is that the ECW had no front lines. There were pockets of support for both sides all over the country. This means you will have what would be an isolated pocket in games set later on, but here if they surround a friendly trace point they carry on. This means there aren't very many “safe” areas on the map – nearly any spot you control is reachable by the enemy from somewhere.

After all that, it's time to draw your hand and start the action round. This runs typical to most CDGs with one minor difference – you can begin to pass if you have no mandatory or core cards in your hand, and you've played at least six cards (and cards played during combat count towards this amount.) Each side has two core cards, and is dealt four more cards each turn. Certain events allow you to draw cards, and you get to draw cards for major or decisive combat victories. At the end of the action rounds, any cards you may have left over are placed aside as “Ace in the Hole” cards which are not considered part of your hand, but may be played during any future action rounds. This allows you to sock away strength for a critical turn should you manage to acquire extra cards.

One other note about the deck – the game uses a single deck that's added to as the game progresses. I don't believe it's possible to end up reshuffling, so once a card is used, it's gone. The three mandatory events are placed at or near the top of the deck whenever the Early, Mid, or Late War decks are added, indicating the major milestones in the war: The Raising of the Standard starting hostilities, the appearance of the Covanenters from Scotland, and the creation of the New Model Army.

Combat is simple – it's a contested d6 die roll where the starting value is the combined combat value of the armies involved plus the battle rating of the commanding general. Combat cards can modify this initial amount. After adding your d6, if the totals are within one, the fight's a draw and each side must lose a veteran unit. If one side wins by 2-4, it's a minor victory, the losing side must lose a militia. A win by 5 or more is a major (decisive if a combat card converts it) victory and in addition to the losing side losing two militia, the winner draws one (or two) cards.

You'd think this would lead to the creation of large armies to go hunting, but large armies can only be led by a small number of generals, are harder to move (require 3-op cards), and suffer more attrition. So, if you're going to do that, do it when you know you've got a number of 3-op cards and don't expect the army to survive into next season.

After action rounds are over, the biggest thing that happens is attrition. This is a critical feature of the game. Between 1 and 3 units (starts with one slowly increasing to three as the game progresses) are removed from the board according to a certain priority. These tend to remove units from regional generals operating outside their region first, then large armies, then armies adjacent to enemy armies. If you're not familiar with these effects, you might be in for some nasty surprises. (Case in point: about halfway through the game Prince Rupert, while campaigning in the Midlands, saw his army go from four brigades to one in a single turn of attrition.)

It's probably important here to mention a key feature of the game: the only way units are permanently eliminated is via combat. (There may be an odd event here and there, but that's the exception.) Units removed during attrition or when dispersed (as an army can do when attacked by a superior force) are eligible to be recruited again in later turns. Mike and I fell into what's probably a common trap for people playing UKC the first time – fighting too much. In fact 2/3 of the way through the game, I was out of units to recruit in the North. You really can't afford to be constantly fighting in this game. Your armies are a means to an end, and what matters is getting political control markers placed and controlling regions.

An automatic victory occurs if one side drops below a required number of controlled spaces. (This starts at 14 and increases by one every turn.) It also happens if King Charles is ever forced to surrender. If the game goes the distance, the Protestants get two points for each of the five regions they control, and one point for each of the nine industrial spaces on the map. If they have 12 or more points, they win. No draw is possible.

Mike and I managed to get through seven of the 11 turns in the game in four hours. As much of the early game was spent verifying rules, etc, I can easily see this being a 3-4 hour game, if it goes the distance. I've got a fair bit more CDG experience than Mike so I was able to get into the flow a little quicker, but as neither of us had played a game quite like this one before, we weren't quite sure what we should be doing. Things started to click as time progressed, and we got through 7 turns. (The last turn we played was when the New Model Army appeared.) Mike made the final play, flipping a control marker in the Midlands. This gave him control of the Midlands, and added to the South and East plus 7 of the nine industrial spaces gave him 13 points, enough for a close win. However, it would have been very interesting to see what would have transpired in those final four turns. We were both critically short on units (I was down to seven total on the map, Mike had seven or eight plus the hard-to-control Scots. He had the New Model Army on the board, however, and it's a tough fighting force.

Our game saw a lot of fighting in the North. Charles never moved far from York, leaving the campaigning to Rupert. The Royalists (me) were ejected from the South relatively early on, making it very difficult for me to liberate those recruiting areas.

One thing I started to realize as we were nearing the end of the evening is that you almost have to look at this game backwards compared to other CDGs. In other games, you're dealing with the armies in order to achieve things on the map. In UKC, you're looking at the map and figuring out how and when to use your armies.

I really enjoyed my initial experience with UKC. While there are a number of exceptions in the rules, they really are rather simple as CDGs go. It's getting used to the fluid situation that's presented that will take time and experience. The initial buzz on this game has been very strong, and it doesn't disappoint. I'm looking forward to getting a lot of experience with this game, and it could quickly become my favorite two-player CDG.

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