November 1943, Tehran. Soviet forces force back the Germans on the eastern front, but slowly. The war in the Pacific grinds toward Japan, though islands capable of basing bombers are just out of reach. Churchill keeps going on about the Mediterranean and the importance of seizing Rome, and maybe inserting troops in the Balkans thereafter. I would really like to push OVERLORD back a few more months in order to focus on speeding up my Pacific campaigns, and to invest some effort in building the framework for a post-war United Nations. But can I resist Stalin’s demands for a second front? Can I keep Churchill’s mind out of the Mediterranean? Can I do something about rumors of communist infiltration in Southeast Asia?
In a single turn of GMT’s new Churchill game, players face similar dilemmas and more. Churchill is about winning the war, but each of the three players also has to keep an eye on winning the peace. The result is a deliciously delicate balancing act.
Churchill is the brain child of game designer Mark Herman, one-time CEO of Victory Games and creator of notable titles such as Gulf Strike and For the People. He makes clear that while the object of the game is to “manipulate the end of World War II” to each player’s relative advantage, the game is not about direct competition. Instead, it is a game of “coopetition” (or is that comperation?) in which players both compete and cooperate. A player’s best chance of winning comes through defeating both Germany and Japan while racking up conference victories (more on this later), building clandestine and political influence in various states, dominating select “global issues,” and achieving military objectives. The trick, however, is two-fold. First, no one player can “go it alone” and win the war. Second, uncooperative players who outscore their opponents by too large a margin can lose by doing so. Act like a domineering jerk? The other two powers cooperate against you in the postwar world to undercut your victory.
Gameplay proceeded much faster and more intuitively than I anticipated. Each turn, of which there are ten in the full scenario, confronts each player with numerous strategic dilemmas. Options, opportunities, and desires always exceed a player’s capacity for action. Good strategy demands prioritization, and therein lays the challenge. The basic quandary of possible ends outstripping means is very reminiscent of another of my favorite games, GMT’s Twilight Struggle.
Enough rambling, though. How does the game actually play? Each turn has two phases: conference and war. Turns commence with selection of a conference card that mandates a few conditions, such as required resource commitments per player or the randomized destruction of clandestine networks. Each conference has three cards with different conditions, but only one will be used for each conference per game. No two games should be identical, then. In every conference, players will have a seven-card hand. The cards represent a key staff member with a “power” rating and conditional ability. Players then take turns using these cards to debate various issues. Issues range from opening a second front and placing clandestine networks or political influence to atomic bomb research and “directed offensives” that require specific players to commit resources to fronts determined by the winner of the issue. The conference board is an ingenious design. Issues start stacked in the middle. Staff cards advance an issue along the player’s track according to the card’s power value. If a player can move a card all the way to level seven, he captures the issue and takes it off the table. Otherwise, issues remain open for debate. So, if Roosevelt’s power level three staffer moves an issue onto the US track three spaces, a subsequent Soviet play of a power level five staffer moves the issue three spaces back to the center, then two spaces onto the Soviet track. The phase ends when each player’s hand is exhausted. Players generally win any issue remaining on their track at the end of the conference.
Players resolve issues and allocate production resources next. A player’s options depend upon the issues he or she won. If, for example, a player won a “Pol/Mil” issue, that player can cash in production points for clandestine markers or political influence that he can place on the board later in the turn. Players also convert production markers into naval or offensive support points, which they then allocate to the various war fronts. Naval support enables amphibious operations. Offensive support improves a front’s odds of advancing.
In the war phase, players take turns placing clandestine networks and political influence, then attempt to advance fronts closer to Germany or Japan. Fronts advance by rolling a success number on a D10, the number being two or less naturally, but modified by offensive support and enemy reserve markers. The game ends when both Germany and Japan are defeated, or after ten conferences (five in the tournament scenario).
The game is best played with three players, but “’bots” enable play with fewer (or zero) human players. Each ‘bot is a set of rules uniquely tailored to a Big Three member. Pitting three ‘bots against one another is entirely possible, and may be a good way to learn the rules.
The game’s components are very nice. The main board is attractive, durable, and highly annotated. Nothing feels cheap. I especially appreciated the rulebook’s layout. The book begins with a “quickstart” section that gives a broad outline of play. Its next section is a detailed breakdown of each phase. It concludes with a surprisingly engaging narrative of an example game turn. The book’s index is organized in several broad categories. Here’s the bottom line: I comfortably understood gameplay after one read through and I never had a problem finding anything during play.
How did we do in our first play through? Poorly! We played the tournament scenario covering the last five conferences, all in about three hours—pretty good for the first time! At the end of the game, Allied forces were in the Rhineland and Prussia, but Germany had not yet fallen. In the Pacific, we were nowhere close to Japan. The Soviet player ended with the most points, but because neither Axis power surrendered he had to remove D6 points from his score. The second place player removed half of a D6 roll from his score, and the third place player added D6. In the final rankings, the Soviet player fell to second. Our after action review turned up numerous mistakes in our approach to the game. For starters, we all focused too much on “peripheral issues” instead of on winning the war. We got carried away with clandestine networks, political influence, Northern Italy (thanks, Churchill!), and pointlessly bickering over theater leadership. We also noticed that for the first three conferences, none of us really talked, negotiated, or coordinated with one another. Each player hid behind his hand of cards and worked to thwart the others at the conference table. In the later conferences, we learned to negotiate. Sure, some diplomatic fighting continued, but we were able to utilize our resources more rationally and advance more quickly. There’s a good lesson here—Churchill is not a zero-sum game. Working together is crucial.
The Good – Churchill constantly confronts players with dilemmas and demands a coherent strategy, but the actual nuts-and-bolts gameplay is very streamlined. I was impressed with how easily we grasped the core mechanics and how quickly the game played. The game also nails coopetition, though we didn’t. Churchill captures the historical dynamics of the WWII alliance well. I would advocate its use as a teaching aid, even at the high school level. Finally, the game is challenging and offers an enormous amount of replayability. Not only will conference conditions vary from game to game, but each player faces unique problems and demands. I played Roosevelt last time, and I have no doubt that the game will look very different in many ways if I sit in Churchill’s or Stalin’s seat next time.
The “Could Be Better” – Finding an issue with this game is tough. I loved it. The possible issue I remember was in score tracking. Scores cannot really be tallied until the game is over. Turn-to-turn tracking would be a little wonky for a number of reasons. However, winning the game requires minimizing the point spread between high and low scores. This can be tricky if you’re not sure where everyone stands. This did not bother me much, in fact I thought it was pretty realistic, but I can see how someone might get a little frustrated.
Verdict: Buy it. Play it. ASAP.