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GMT Games: Churchill, and Screwing the Commies

posted Oct 1, 2015, 2:25 AM by Douglas Sun

Waiting for Apple to review your app for the App Store is even more tedious than watching paint dry — and I say this having spent part of this past weekend literally watching paint dry — so as long as I’m in this holding pattern I might as well blog a little about historical wargaming.

Thanks to Mark Yoshikawa, I’ve gotten a good dose over the last few weeks of Churchill, which seems to be turning into a hit for GMT Games. For those of you haven’t played it yet, Churchill is a 3-player grand-strategic game representing the political dickering between the Allied powers during World War II and centered on each of the major conferences at which all three negotiated in person. The core of the game abstracts the battle within each conference to shape and dominate the agenda, as each player plays cards representing that country’s leader (the U.S. has two leader cards, one for Truman, who will replace Roosevelt at some point) and his key advisers. Winning debates within a conference gives you military and political resources, which you use to influence the course of the war and achieve your strategic goals.

Churchill as it is now took me rather by surprise. I playtested the game at am early stage of development and was disappointed, all the more so considering that it was the work of Mark Herman — one of the most experienced wargame designers working today, and also one of the smartest. I recall that at that point, it did not have the war progress tracks that now take up half the game map and makes the rconsequences of each conference tangible. It felt too vague, so overly-abstracted that one might as well have been playing bridge or gin rummy. But I can recommend it in its published form, both as an insight into the political forces that shaped the course of the ar and the world that emerged from it, and as a fun and mechanically novel game.

I’ve played Churchill three times now, twice as the U.S. and twice as the Soviet Union, and I can offer the following observations, for whatever they're worth:

When playing as the U.S., use Roosevelt wisely. FDR will die at some point and be replaced by Harry Truman, but it can happen sooner rather than later. Each time you activate Roosevelt in a conference (i.e., play his card), you have to roll 2d6 and on a 2 or a 3, he dies. It’s a long shot, but if it happens too early in the game, it will leave you with weaker cards to play than your opponents for much of the game. Some American advisers, like Harry Hopkins, lose their strength bonuses or suffer strength penalties if Roosevelt is not President. Truman also suffers a strength penalty until A-Bomb research is completed, so he will probably be a relatively weak leader until late in the game. So if you’re feeling unlucky that day, think twice about using Roosevelt in a conference until you are close to the end of the A-Bomb progress track.

In two of my games, the Western Allies made little to no progress on the Second Front, barely making it out of Normandy by the end of the game. This seemed to have only marginal effect on the outcome of the game, but it did allow Germany to concentrate its forces against the Soviet Union, making progress on the Eastern Front a huge challenge, if not impossible. I don’t know what to make of this, but it struck me as curious. I do know that, as the U.S., it seemed much more urgent to put my resources into the Pacific because the war progress tracks make achieving my strategic goals in that theater seem like a daunting prospect. And it seems that for Britain, concentrating on the Italy track — the soft underbelly — and grabbing those victory points is a better investment of their scant resources than organizing a cross-Channel invasion and fighting through France.

Churchill  really is designed to be a three-cornered fight, with the U.S. and Britain as much in competition against each other to shape the post-war world as they are with the Soviet Union. But given GMT Games’ core audience, I suspect that for a lot of people playing this game, it will be hard to resist the subconscious urge, while playing as either the U.S. or Britain, to team up and thwart the Soviet Union, even if the other Western Ally is actually winning the game. Having lived through most of the Cold War myself, I can tell you that the thought of the USSR emerging into the post-WWII world with more prestige and standing than either the U.S. or Great Britain is just not a happy one. So it seemed natural to try to thwart whatever the Societ player wanted to do, even if it meant giving my British ally a free hand in trying to reassert his nation's imperial ambitions. It reminds me a little of Ken Hite’s remark that he can’t play a WWII East Front game without wanting both sides to lose.

Finally — and this is purely a matter of taste — I’ll endorse Mark’s house rule for scoring the game. Instead of keeping a running tally of victory points, so that you always know exactly where everyone stands at any given moment, you wait until the end of the game to total everything up; the only VPs that you tally during the game are those awards that would be forgotten if you put it off until the end. And there’s no stopping the game to audit. It introduces a grand-strategic fog of war, and adds some spice to the game experience. Not all gamers will agree with this approach, but I like it, and considering that Herman added an element  of uncertainty to the final VP determination with that final die roll to add or subtract from each player’s total. I suspect that he would agree with it also.