Posts about GMT Games
Showing off my GMT games, which don't tend to garner a lot of discussion here.
At some point in 2012, I strolled into my local game store to browse. Back then, I'd played Catan, Game of Thrones, Arkham Horror, maybe a few others. I was a history major, but had never connected my interest in history to board games. One shelf caught my eye that I hadn't noticed before. Every single game was historical and marked "GMT." I'd heard of Twilight Struggle, which was ranked #1 on BGG at the time, but nothing else; it was out of stock anyway. The guy working suggested 1989: Dawn of Freedom instead, which I bought.
Since that day, GMT has been by far my favorite publisher, with their games constituting about half of my collection. They range from epic all-day games (Here I Stand and Virgin Queen) to quick thirty-minute plays (Red Flag Over Paris). They are:
1989: Dawn of Freedom: Using the same basic mechanics as Twilight Struggle, but only focusing on the Central European revolutions of 1989 rather than the entire Cold War. It also adds a card-based mini game (the "Power Struggle") to introduce some unpredictability. Tons of fun.
Cuba Libre, Falling Sky, and Colonial Twilight: My three COIN games. I really like this series. They model asymmetrical conflicts throughout history, the Cuban Revolution, Gallic Wars, and the Algerian War, respectively. There are about ten that I don't own, with several more in the pipeline. While these games are pretty heavy, knowing one opens the door to learning others. I find them extremely rewarding, but don't get to play them quite as much as I'd like. If you like Root and are looking for something deeper, give these a try.
Sekigahara: An incredible game about the battle that led to the rise of the Tokugawa Shogunate. It brilliantly incorporates bluffing and hidden information to power a tight, tense 2p experience that remains one of my favorites. With elegant and simple rules, it's a perfect intro to wargaming.
Here I Stand and Virgin Queen: Two massive games designed by Ed Beach, who notably was also the lead designer of the video game Civilization VI. HIS, which really requires six players to sing, sat on my shelf unplayed for five years. I had accepted that I would never experience it. However, I recently found a very active gaming group and have gotten it to the table, fully manned, twice in the last two months. The experience is unforgettable. It's clunky; there are a lot of rules. But oh boy is it fun. Six great powers trying variously to conquer one another, defeat/spread protestantism, explore the new world, commit piracy, and so much more. VQ is my newest acquisition, and it's next up to be played. Can't wait.
Red Flag Over Paris: A newish game from a first time designer, simulating the short-lived and little-known Paris Commune of 1871. Snappy and incredibly tense, it only takes about thirty minutes to play. While different from 1989 and Twilight Struggle in a lot of ways, it successfully translates their feel into a smaller package. It lends itself well to multiple plays in one sitting. Another great entry point into wargames.
Unhappy King Charles: A possibly over-complicated simulation of the English Civil War, this game has sadly been out of print since 2008, and is exorbitantly expensive secondhand. I recently found it for a reasonable price and pulled the trigger. It got to the table for the first time last week. It's going to require a few more plays to fully make sense, but it holds a lot of promise.
What GMT games do you like? Any must-haves that I'm missing (I've played Twilight Struggle a lot, but don't own it)?
I've fallen in love with the COIN games over the past few months and I'm branching out to trying other GMT games too. My only trouble is finding an active community to talk with. I can find bgg forums for specific games but I'd like a bigger one to talk about their other games too.
I finally got Pendragon back to the table, this time to play a full (short) solitaire game on my own. Below is my thoughts after that game. As usual it is also available on my website, along with images and an account of how the game went, you can read that version here: https://www.stuartellisgorman.com/blog/first-impressions-pendragon.
I have technically played Pendragon before when I sat down to learn the game (which you can read about here: https://www.stuartellisgorman.com/blog/learning-pendragon), but the first half of that game was with the aid of the playbook guiding all my actions and the second half was a fairly chaotic mess of indecision. I have since sat down and played the game for myself and I’m much more comfortable with playing it, but still feel a little out of my depth strategically. It is a real testament to the quality of the Pendragon playbook that I was able to complete my playthrough of the game without having read the rulebook. Sure, I referenced the rulebook fairly regularly – looking up specific rules and double checking how actions worked in specific situations – but I was able to play two entire Epochs without having to read the rules cover to cover. That’s impressive no matter what the game is, but doubly so with something as complicated as Pendragon. I intend to read the rules before tackling a full-length six Epoch game as there are definitely elements I still don’t fully understand, such as specifics of how the degradation of Roman rule functions, and over a long game those will probably come up more. I will also need to know the rules a lot better before tackling the enormous task of teaching Pendragon to other people, especially if they are relative COIN novices like myself. That all having been said, my experience playing a game of Pendragon was fascinating and I can’t wait to set it up again.
I played four handed solitaire, meaning I played all four factions without the solo-play bots that come with the game. The bots add a whole extra layer of complexity and challenge that I didn’t need when I’m still coming to terms with the basics of how to play. When I finished my learning game, I felt relatively comfortable taking actions as the Scotti and Saxons but not comfortable implementing a winning strategy with anyone. Now having finished my first full game I think I have a better idea how to win those two factions, including the subtle differences in their respective goals – the Saxons want to actually settle in Britain while the Scotti mostly just want to plunder – but I’m still a bit adrift when it comes to the Civitates and Dux.
I have a much better idea how to stop the Civitates and Dux from winning – which is a very important part of the game. The Dux player begins the very first turn already winning the game and the Civitates aren’t far off winning themselves, if they can just switch to Civilian rule at the first Epoch they would win. However, both sides have to maintain that control through at least 9 rounds of play – assuming the Epoch is very early – and it is up to the other factions to find ways to tear them down. My learning game saw the Dux claim victory even though I had no idea how to effectively execute a strategy with the Dux – and I’m still not sure I could do that now – just based entirely on the strength of their opening position. This game I managed to effectively tear the Dux position to shreds but undermining the Civitates proved to be more troublesome.
At the start of the game the Dux win if the total wealth on Britain plus their individual prestige is high enough. They start with no prestige and can only reliably gain it through glorious battle with the barbarians, but the island is plenty wealthy. Eroding this wealth is pretty straightforward, as the Saxons and Scotti will be launching raids and bringing their plunder home to boost their own renown. Thus, if you can effectively execute a decent raiding strategy with those two factions bringing the Dux low, at least initially, isn’t too hard. When Rome begins to crumble and the victory thresholds shift, things can get a little more complicated, but I haven’t gotten there yet. The Civitates on the other hand win if they rule a large enough population. This can be eroded in two main ways early in the game – founding rival settlements as Scotti or Saxons, or if the Saxons ravage regions and reduce their population.
The challenge with the Civitates isn’t that in the long term you don’t want to undermine their rule. Instead, it’s in the balance between playing for a long strategy and ensuring that they can’t win in the short term. Early on the Dux are motivated away from attacking the Civitates so it’s really up to the two barbarian players to bring them low. However, the temptation exists to just raid early on and collect renown, and not really trying to set down permanent settlements that the Dux could attack. However, if they neglect settling – or at least destroying Civitates settlements – too much then they run the risk of not doing enough to prevent the Civitates from winning. In my game I did a tolerable job at undercutting Civitates rule, but in the end, they were still able to eek out a win on the end game scoring with a massive score of 5 points.
What I find fascinating about Pendragon is how it balances this need to undercut your enemies’ chance of winning with the desire to pursue your own goals. This is hardly the first game to require players to police their rivals victory conditions, but often other games that do this can get a bit petty and miserable. Towards the end of a round players sometimes find themselves discussing openly how to kneecap whoever is closest to winning. Now, I’m playing solo so obviously I’m not having those conversations anyway, but while I could see players discussing who is winning in Pendragon the random play of events and the limitations on how many actions you can take makes it much harder for everyone to construct a clear plan for an alliance all against one player.
Also, the victory conditions can turn on a dime, so any such alliance will barely last more than a turn or two. In my game the Saxons had a strong lead for almost the whole game, establishing an early foothold in the southeast thanks to a lucky event and then expanding rapidly with amazing rolls for numbers of raiders. They seemed unstoppable, but a strong alliance of Civitates and Dux crushed them near the end of the second Epoch. However, that alliance had caused them to neglect the Scotti who probably would have won – except that an early second Epoch card prevented them from fulfilling their strategy. Actions like kingmaking or ganging up on players seem like they can only last a few turns before the shifting state of the game throws up new challenges that everyone tries to turn to their advantage.
I’ve still only played the game as far as the second epoch from an early game start, so I have yet to even begin to really explore Pendragon’s most fascinating and noteworthy mechanic: how it models the decline and eventual collapse of Roman rule in Britain. For my next game I think I might try one of the scenarios that starts a bit later to see what a more fragmented Britain plays like, but to get the full experience I suspect I’ll need to somehow find the time to play a much longer game. The two epochs I played took me at least three hours, time I secured by being off work with my daughter in daycare. As I learn the game I’ll play faster, but I still expect it will be a while before I have the time to play a full six epoch game of Pendragon. In the meantime, I will keep chipping away at its strategic depths, and maybe by the time I play the full game I’ll finally understand how the hell to play the Dux.
This area isn’t really my specialty, so I don’t have a list of recommendations, but I did recently review King Arthur: The Making of the Legend by Nicholas J. Higham which includes a lot of interesting detail about this period of British history while exploring the myth of a historic King Arthur. You can read my full review of it here: https://www.stuartellisgorman.com/blog/king-arthur-the-making-of-a-legend
It's Monday so time for another blog post! I finally got around to writing up my initial experiences with Volko Ruhnke's latest game, the fascinating Nevsky. As usual you can read the original on my website, which includes a battle report of my second game since that one proved to be the more interesting of the two! Link here: https://www.stuartellisgorman.com/blog/first-impressions-nevsky
Cards on the table, I have played Nevsky twice as of writing this piece. Normally my First Impressions are literally that, reactions to having played the game once. I played the first scenario in Nevsky and afterward wasn’t sure what exactly to say about the experience, so after a few days I set up the second scenario and started playing. It’s not that Nevsky isn’t a fascinating game – it is, and we’ll get to that – it was just that it has taken me longer to digest it. Part of this delay is probably due to Nevsky particular design decisions, but part of it is definitely down to me and my own obsessions.
As should be apparent to anyone who has been following my posts up to now – I’m completely obsessed with the Middle Ages, and I’m also pretty obsessed with wargames. Unfortunately for me, medieval history is not the most popular topic in wargaming. While I’ve been enjoying my time with the Men of Iron series, hex and counter recreations of medieval battles isn’t really my main area of interest. I’m not really a ‘battles guy’. I’m interested in medieval battles because I’m interested in almost everything medieval, but I’m far more interested in how the battle came to be than I am in which flank did what first. Basically, I’m more interested in strategic and operational level tactics. That’s where Nevsky comes in – it helps to fill the really quite large void in operational medieval wargames. Nevsky, and the Levy and Campaign system generally, is exactly the kind of game I’ve been waiting for, and I think that’s part of what has made it so challenging to get my thoughts in order after having played it for the first time.
Before I go on to talk about the experience of playing Nevsky, I want to give due credit to Jean Michel Grosjeu, who’s excellent YouTube videos taught me how to play. If you’re at all interested, you should definitely watch them, they’re excellent. You can view the first one by clicking here. I read the rulebook after watching the videos. Nevsky’s rulebook is well put together and easy to reference but having the experience of watching two full rounds played with Jean Michel Grosjeu explaining everything to me as it happened made it all click much faster than it normally would have.
Nevsky is the first title in designer Volko Ruhnke’s new Levy and Campaign series and, as the name suggests, each round of Nevsky is split into two phases: Levy and Campaign. In the Levy phase you summon new lords to fight, and equip previously recruited lords with new troops, transport, and/or special abilities. Once the Levy phase is complete it’s time to campaign and discover how badly you messed up your Levy phase. You see, Nevsky is a game primarily about logistics. If your army moves or fights you have to feed them, if you can’t feed them, they lose their motivation to stay on the board and may just leave. Even if you can feed them, your commanders have only agreed to be on campaign for a certain number of turns before they just pick up all their stuff and go home. You can pay them to stick around longer – but did you remember to collect taxes before invading the other sides territory? If you didn’t you could always take an enemy city, or maybe acquire some loot by raiding, except that taking enemy cities can be a long and arduous process, and loot makes it harder to move across the board which means you’ll need more food to get where you want to go.
Don’t get me wrong, there is fighting in Nevsky, but there’s a lot of hurdles to jump through before you can even get your armies in a position to be fighting each other. If you lose a fight your army might just pack up and go home, but even if you win a fight if can’t feed your victorious troops, they might do the same. Sometimes it may even be worth losing a battle because your opponent has no food, and thus is in no position to fight. If you just show up and run away in the first round that could be enough! The calculations surrounding combat in Nevsky are really unlike anything I’ve played before.
Because of all of these logistical challenges, I would recommend learning the game with the second scenario in the book rather than the first. You see, the types of transport you need vary by season in Nevsky – in summer you have ships, boats, and carts, while in the winter you only have sleds, and in the muddy spring ‘rasputista’ you can only transport food by water. The default starting point is in the summer, which immediately drops you into a game where you have to balance three different modes of transport. However, the second scenario starts with a winter campaign, where rivers and roads are interchangeable, ships are unusable, and all you need are sleds. It’s a little bit less to juggle as you try and grasp the game’s basics. The campaign then carries on into the spring so you can learn about ships and boats once you’ve played a few rounds already.
There are also fewer activations in winter. In the campaign round you get a number of activations based on the season – who you activate when is determined by a deck of cards you assemble before the campaign begins, locking you in to a certain order of play. In winter it’s only 4 cards, so again you have less to do and a little less to worry about. It’s also a shorter amount of time, so once you realise how badly you’ve messed everything up you won’t have to live with those mistakes for quite as long!
I think Nevsky does an admirable job of capturing the nightmarish logistics of medieval campaigning while also embracing the unique elements of Baltic warfare – particularly in its use of winter campaigns and the rasputista. I really look forward to playing it competently someday. So far, I’m doing well if I successfully finish a campaign turn with all my armies fed and located approximately where I intended to put them. There is clearly plenty of depth to this game, and I look forward to exploring it!
The Northern Crusades by Eric Christiansen
The Teutonic Knights by William Urban
I recently spent several evenings sitting down and trying to finally teach myself how to play one of GMT's famous COIN games. For thematic (but definitely not easy of learning) reasons I chose to start with Pendragon. As usual the article us also up on my blog with pictures, although in this case I think it would be a little overgenerous to say that my attempt to understand what was happening counts as a battle report! Link here: https://www.stuartellisgorman.com/blog/learning-pendragon
Edit: I also meant to say, it's not wargaming related per se, but I did an AMA over on AskHistorians last Friday where I wrote a lot about medieval archery and warfare. Might be of interest to a few people here, check it out if you haven't already: https://www.reddit.com/r/AskHistorians/comments/th23ut/im_dr_stuart_ellisgorman_author_of_the_medieval/
I spread Pendragon’s massive board over my tiny corner of counter space I’ve set aside for wargaming and was relieved to see that it just about fit. There was no extra space, so the deck and any extra tokens would have to live on the board, but there was space in the various sea locations to make that an acceptable compromise. Pendragon’s board is gorgeous, and the components deeply satisfying to place and push around. That said, it’s also a bit of a bear to set up – there are so many bits of wood to put down to mark the status of Britain before the Roman collapse. I left the game up over the weekend, playing turns whenever I could grab a few minutes, which was definitely better than trying to set it up and learn it all in one go. After having spent a good few hours with it over several days I can confidently say that I know how to take actions in Pendragon: The Fall of Roman Britain, whether I actually know how to play the game is another matter entirely!
The title of this post is a little misleading – this is not actually the first time I’ve tried to learn a COIN game. Some years ago, I bought a copy of Falling Sky in the hopes of finally experiencing one of these games I’d been hearing so much about. I sat down and read through the rules, and at the end of that process I knew how all the individual bits worked but had no idea what the game looked like in aggregate. Any wargamer with experience with the series, or many other complex wargames, will have groaned at reading that sentence – obviously this was not how I was supposed to learn the game. My background was in miniatures wargaming, so I arrogantly thought I was ready for a complicated rulebook with lots of edge cases. What I wasn’t prepared for was for a game series that so fundamentally deviated from how I expected play to work that I didn’t even really understand how to take an action after reading through quite a few pages of rules.
This time I set out to do the sensible thing and learn via the very helpful Playbook which walked me turn by turn through an entire Epoch of the game. I also set up a second Epoch so that after having my hand held for several turns, I could journey out on my own and see if I’d actually learned how to play. Spoilers, the answer is kind of.
I know that Pendragon is not supposed to be the easiest COIN to learn as a starting point since it has quite a lot of extra bits of complexity – like the rules for plunder – that aren’t in other games in the series. However, as my previously unsuccessful experience with Falling Sky may indicate the historical settings of ancient Rome or late antique / early medieval appeal to me more. Sadly, I never got Falling Sky to the table and eventually sold it off to a new home – something I slightly regret now, but so it goes. Pendragon was the nearest thing to a medieval COIN, and so I was determined that I would learn it. I say nearest thing, because we could spend hours debating whether this counts as Late Antiquity or the Early Middle Ages, with the cold hard truth being that they’re just terms for different perspectives on the same thing. Also, in Pendragon you can play Irish barbarians raiding Britain, which, as someone who’s lived in Ireland for nearly 15 years, I found quite satisfying.
My first two turns of Pendragon took ages, I was so slow as I tried to figure out what the action sheets were telling me or where to place pieces. This was partly my own fault. For reasons that made total sense at the time, I laid out my board with the southern end of England pushed into the corner – I theorized, correctly, that I would need more ready access to the numbered track at the top of the board than I would the Civitates’ reserve units and settlements. The problem was that as a result I spent a lot of the game looking south from Scotland – which meant I was trying to read all the names of the province’s upside down. I’m not particularly familiar with the Roman names for regions of Britain to begin with, so trying to read them upside down with their complicated (but very pretty) font was a real challenge. This is largely ceased to be a problem once I started playing on my own, since unless a specific Event called for me to locate a region, I was happy to just mentally refer to them by their medieval names.
I think it was around turn 4 or 5 that I felt I was beginning to understand how the game actually played. I understood how actions were selected, what playing an Event entailed, who got priority in what turn. It felt like a switch flicked in my brain and I (kind of) understood. A few seconds later I realised that while I understood how to pick an action, I had no concept of what action I should actually be picking.
By the end of my time with my first attempt at Pendragon I think I have a decent grasp of how to play the Saxons and Scotti barbarian factions (for those not in the know, Scotti is the Latin name for Ireland, and not, as you would assume, Scotland). I’m not saying I have even the slightest hope of actually successfully launching an effective strategy with them, but I understood the interplay of launching raids, pillaging regions, and occasionally building settlements. I could choose something to do as a Scotti player and then execute that action. This is in sharp contrast to the paralytic fear that clenched my heart every time I had to figure out what it was the Dux should be doing. Ironically, at the end of my game the Dux won based pretty much solely on the inertia of their strong opening position and me not really understanding the Victory Conditions until after it was all over.
I definitely feel like I understand COIN games a lot better after my time with Pendragon than I did when I started. Learning the whole game solo was a challenge. The information load was a lot, but there’s also plenty of bookkeeping to do in Pendragon and it was hard to keep up with that. I suspect distributed across 4 players, many of whom are very invested in it being very accurate for their own victory conditions, would make it a lot manageable but it was a struggle for me on my own. I think I noticed on turn 6 that I’d completely forgotten to place a Hill Fort during set up and just hadn’t noticed. That didn’t really have any effect on gameplay, but it’s stuff like that presented a real challenge for me.
All of that having been said – Pendragon is a fascinating game and I’m very much looking forward to actually playing it for real. For this first time, I played every faction myself to try and get some grasp on their respective actions and playstyles, but in future I’m looking forward to trying the solo bots and then, eventually, sitting down with some friends to play it for real. Teaching the game is definitely going to be a challenge, but one I intend to do my best to prepare myself for. In the meantime, I think I’m finally ready to actually sit down and read the rule book – and inevitably see all the things I got wrong!