Read the Editor’s foreword for the purpose of this new magazine, and what to expect.

  • MAIN FEATURE – Becoming Churchill
    Our feature article looks at Mark Herman’s Great Statesmen Series and considers the importance of getting into character to enjoy the three games released so far.
  • FREE GAME – Gravelotte 1870
    Gravelotte 1870, by the hot new designer ‘French’ Fred Serval, is a card-driven rock-paper-scissor game available exclusively in Punched.
  • TALKING HEAD – Tomislav Cipčić
    We have a fascinating interview with Tomislav Cipčić, designer of Brotherhood and Unity, an excellent new war game set in the Bosnia and Herzegovina war of the early 90s.
  • STRATEGY GUIDE – Labyrinth: The War on Terror
    Start learning to win with our strategy guide for Labyrinth: The War on Terror.
    We review UBOOT, a tense cooperative submarine simulation and the 2019 Charles S Roberts game of the year. Read it here.
    Nevsky, Spacecorp, Hitler’s Reich, Shores of Tripoli, & Meltwater.


Don’t get me wrong. Those war game magazines, the ones issued once in a blue moon, come with a free game, cost about £35, they are great. I buy them. Long may they continue. But… What about a (hopefully) more frequent magazine, say one issued twice a year (“gasp”). One that is mobile-friendly, and provides useful links and other technological wizardry (“heresv!”). And one that does not cost you anything (“say whaaat…?). Say hello to Punched, that’s what!

The catch? It’s basically a glorified blog. No paper. You can’t store it in a cupboard to be discovered – like an old treasured copy of Razzle – by your mum, during a sort out, two decades later. Digital also means no free physical game. Sorry about that. But it’s FREE, what do you want!?! And in this issue we are giving away a PnP game, Fred Serval’s Gravelotte 1870. Not only did he design it free of charge, exclusively for this first issue, but it’s an addictive game of bluff and wits to boot. Thanks Fred, you are a star!

Quality of writing and analysis? Here you have me. I make no qualms about it. Punched is written by amateurs. Maybe it’s better to think of it like a fanzine. We are fans of war and strategy board games, and want to share our love of the hobby. Hopefully we’ll get better at the journalistic craft as we go along.

The magazine is also intended to support and promote the Cardboard Emperors community. If you aren’t familiar with us, we are a war and strategy board gaming group. Our roots are in London, UK, but through the Discord server we have members from the rest of the UK, wider Europe, and a couple from Australia!

Post-Covid we plan to host a bunch of physical meet-ups and conventions, while still keeping a strong online community thing going. At the time of writing we plan to run our big in person event, Conflict in Camden, on 2-4 July 2021. Check out our events page for more details.

Covid will change the way people work and play, long after it ceases to inconvenience our lives. I cannot wait to get back to face-to-face gaming. But for me, like countless others, the online gaming genie is now out of the bottle. Cardboard Emperors and Punched will support both physical and online board gaming.

So, with no further ado, I bid you to dive into Issue 1 of Punched.

Special thanks to contributors Paul Williams and Neil Bunker (aka for their reviews of UBOOT, SpaceCorp and Meltwater. And special special special thanks to Donal Hegarty (aka for his amazing work on the art and design on the magazine and website.

If you like it, feel free to send the link to friends and colleagues. If you have any editorial comments, suggestions or complaints, go f*ck yourself.

Nah! Just kidding. Email me Also do that if you have ideas for an article you would like to write for the next issue.


James – Winter 2020/21.

Main feature

A comparative review of Churchill, Pericles and Versailles 1919

Churchill, Pericles and Versailles 1919. Mark Herman’s Great Statesmen Series is, well, a series of games. But only loosely. You represent a decision-maker or makers at pivotal moments in regional or global history. Two of the three share some mechanics. But this is not COIN or Simonitch 194X. Notably, you cannot assume that because you like one you will enjoy the others.

Being a big fan of two-thirds of the series, one ponders what is a determining factor for enjoyment. A rather clunky explanation I’ve landed on? The need to get into character.

We aren’t talking here about getting putting on a Corinthian helmet and sacrificing a goal. But – in a very abstract sense – trying to put yourself into the mind of the statesman you represent, and acting how you think they would act, both strategically and inter-personally.

What type of player are you?

If you imagine a graph, I think you can contrast the three games by a) the importance of getting into character (Y axis – ‘need’), and b) how successfully the game facilitates this (X axis – ‘relative difficulty’). Here is what my graph would look like.

Of course, some people are just not the getting-into-character-types. Fly them to Yalta, put them in a conference room with Gary Oldman dressed up as Churchill, and still they insist on recalculating all the points scored at the end of every turn. Point being that we can only expect so much from games on the X axis. Nonetheless, for those of us that want to believe, a given game can do a better or worse job of helping out. That’s the yardstick.

Let’s start with Churchill, the first of the series. In it you and two opponents take on the roles of the eponymous cigar-waver, his frenemy Stalin, and slippery Franklin D Roosevelt. Starting in January 1943 with their meeting in Casablanca, you restage the conferences held by the ‘Big Three’ to agree the war strategy and post-war world order, and then work through the consequences.

There are issues to be debated, for example over the best use of British industrial production or if a Second Front should be launched. A Leader plays a Staff card to advance an issue and so – in character – tries to ensure that their preferred outcome is agreed at the conference (“Soft under-belly Franklin, it’s all about the soft- underbelly I tell you”).

That same issue can then be ‘debated’ by one of the other Leaders through one of their own Staff cards (“I dunno Winston, my generals tell me the war will be over a year earlier if we go straight for France”).

You should be having lots of negotiation and deal-making here. Expect two players to gang up on the other one conference, then enact a 1984-esque switch of sides the next turn depending on the progress of the war.

Each leader has bumps, abstracting a relative strength or weakness in the historic negotiations. My favourite is ‘Nyet’, which when shouted belligerently by Stalin gives the Soviets an extra +1 strength on Soviet staff cards played for debates. But, watch out comrade, Beria is whispering something; there’s a chance Stalin’s paranoia will kick in and all your remaining staff cards will be at minus 1 strength. That may be better than Roosevelt’s fate, he may keel over mid-game, to be replaced by Truman. Yes. This does happen.

Once all the staff cards are played and issues won, play then moves to the War Phase. Here the issues are resolved over more bartering on the post war peace, and the war progresses in a somewhat deterministic, if still fun, manner.

The game defining feature of Churchill is determining who wins. Depending on if both the Western and Pacific Axis powers have surrendered or not, and the amount of points the lead player has, the player in second place could win. Managing your relative position and the progress of the war to come second on the points track can be a strong game-winning strategy, though not one you will work out on your first play.

How to explain such an outcome? Here’s Mark Herman:

“Players have to win the game within an alliance structure. A cutthroat winner-take-all style of play may result in the most points but could drive your Allies into a pact against you in the peace to come; hence why [in certain conditions] second place score wins.”

This feels right. And it reflects how the game design simulates the occasion. From the prominent picture of each leader on the board to the points bonuses for achieving historic goals of your nation, special leader traits and the waxing and waning of alliances necessary to win.

But is it for you? Probably only if you take advantage of the thematic immersion the game offers. I love it, but if you care not for the history, or your enjoyment of games is more derived from straight out competition or puzzle-solving than theme, there’s not so much in Churchill for you. It is lots of negotiation and shouting out “Nyet!”.

Pericles, the second game released in the series, is altogether more forgiving on that front.

Like Churchill, each turn is a game of two main phases. Like Churchill, a political (‘Assembly’) phase occurs first where rival factions compete to win issues. Like Churchill, these issues are then executed to progress the war in a second phase.

But how these two phases play out is quite different. To start with this is a four-player game of two-vs-two. The Aristocrat and Demagogue factions of the City-State of Athens against the Eurypontid and Agiad factions of the City-State of Sparta.

This leads to an uneasy alliance between ‘allied’ city-state factions throughout. Only the lead faction of the winning city-state wins overall. During the political phase, both factions of a City-State need to work together to ensure they can execute their joint war strategy. Each is also conscious that it is better for their score (‘Honour’, in this game) if they win the issue rather than their opponent. Sometimes they will cancel each other out through miscalculation. In which case, the whole City-State suffers.

The war phase is a completely different beast to Churchill. Having won issues such as League, to boost the strength of your allies, Oracle, to place treachery among the strongholds of your rival city-state, or Military, to raid or launch major expeditions, you’ll be placing them one by one face down on the regions where you wish to act.

Churchill & Pericles share a common mechanic…

The Conference/Assembly Phase is played on the left side of the board. Players move issues towards their end through playing Staff/Political cards. The resolution of the issues helps determine the outcome of the war on the right side of the board.

Issues can be played on top of each other. Once all the issues are placed, they are revealed by players in turn, on a last-in-first-out basis. Cue a pulse-raising process as the issue you need to play is blocked, or you forgot where you placed it, or your City-State ‘ally’ does something incredibly self-serving contrary to the agreed plan (By Zeus’s piss, what have you done Cleon?!”). It’s a roller-coaster that leaves you abuzz. It can also be darn frustrating. If the intention was to simulate paralysis, disappointment and failure, I tip my hat to your Mr Herman.

It is not as easy to get into character as with Churchill. The factions have some asymmetry. As Athens you are stronger at sea, Spartans naturally kick-ass on land. But – and I think it is because you do not represent a single great leader, but different leaders over the 60 years covered by the war – I do not feel I am in a Greek assembly when I am debating an issue. Unlike with Churchill, there’s no pantomime in my head.

Fortunately that does not matter much. As a strategic war game Pericles is compelling. So compelling that I find myself awake at night thinking through different strategies, key choke points, and game winning last-minute moves. The only other game that does that to me is another Mark Herman design, Empire of the Sun.

And personally I still enjoy speculating in hushed tones on the source of a false Rumour (that traitor Alcibiades, up to his tricks again), or what the Oracle divined to cause that lone Delian League unit to scarper (the entrails showed a death foretold). Just indulge me.

Which brings us to Versailles 1919, the most recent release of the series. Spoiler alert, as astute graph readers have guessed, here we have a game where I think you need to get into character to fully enjoy it, but for which the game mechanics offer the least help.

The game is much simpler than its predecessors. It can be taught in 20-30 mins. You will be Britain, France, the USA or Italy. On your turn you place influence on, or resolve, issues that were historically negotiated over the six months of the peace treaty talks. You might take an action to claim some spent influence back. You can also negotiate with other players to help you out, bribing them with influence cubes, if required.

The debating table is on the left. The outcome of issues is tracked on the right.
Art By Ciotóg Creative

When you resolve an issue, whoever had the most influence on it ‘wins’ it, and gets to decide the future. For example, if you win the ‘Slovenia & Croatia’ issue card, you can choose independence for the two countries, just for Slovenia, or to envelope them into Yugoslavia. The first will make the Italian public very happy. It will also earn you two self-determination markers. The last will make the Italian public very unhappy. As Italy you probably want to win this issue to make sure you get to decide. Won issues grant victory points. They also support your chosen strategy. The ’14 Points’ strategy rewards the owner if they win issues that help drive national self- determination. Others might reward keeping Communism in check. Points are scored in a salad-like manner for issues won, national happiness, meeting strategy card demands, and so forth.

So why place Versailles where it is on my highly subjective graph? When I have played, I really have tried to get into character, as have my fellow players. It starts off well, but quickly levels off into a mechanical exercise of who can optimise play to score the most points. And that’s not the players’ fault.

Firstly, it is just not a period people are familiar with. There’s no The Darkest Hour or 300 for the Versailles negotiations. Damned if I know what the ‘Shantung’ issue is or why the Japanese are unhappy if it goes to China. Unfortunately, the issue cards do not provide any flavour text to help here.

Secondly, while historically each nation had key objectives for the treaty negotiations, the game is like… mah…

Example: I’m playing the Italians and I pick Repatriations as my Strategy. It’s only one of two options left and it happens to best align with my position in the current board state. And I want to win the game. So… thematically for the rest of the game I mainly care about Germany repatriations to France and Briton? Er?

I can’t help feeling the game is a missed opportunity to mechanically align victory conditions and relative bargaining power to the historic goals of each nation. That would help me to care more.

Instead, each player ends up chasing issues that are least likely to be subject to unrest tests, that will generate the most headline points, or match the icons on the strategy cards.

It’s still a fun game and puzzle in its own right, and you can engage in lots of negotiation, but you will struggle to get into character, and, unlike Pericles, without that the underlying game only takes you so far, kinda-like a light to mid-weight euro about negotiating trade routes in the Mediterranean. Definitely one to try, but that for me fails to hit the heights of its two predecessors, particularly on the immersive front.

My slight downer on Versailles 1919 aside, the Great Statesman series is off to a very promising start. The premise of the series excites me greatly, and the Staff/commander card negotiation mechanic, introduced by Churchill and followed-up in Pericles, is excellent.

I think it could be extended to a more micro-level. The race to the Rhine for example and the competing strategies of Patton, Montgomery and Bradley. Or, away from war, to something like the sessions of the Commission established by the five Mob families of New York in the 1930s to oversee mafia activities across the US. Oh yeah, I can picture that now, Godfather soundtrack on in the background, Goodfellas quotes at the ready, c’mon Mr Herman, let’s make this happen!

Words: James Buckley


Gravelotte free game.

Gravelotte 1870

by Fred Serval


The designer at the table.


Tomislav Čipčić

Tomislav Čipčić is the designer of Brother & Unity – a new release from Compass Games covering the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina from 1992 to 1995. The game is rightly garnering much acclaim for its balance, intensity, subject-matter, and being that rare-breed – a proper multiplayer hex and counter wargame. Here’s our interview with Tomislav:

What is your personal connection to the war in Bosnia & Herzegovina and your motivation for designing the game?

At the time of the war I was living in Šibenik, Croatia, which was also at war. Many of my classmates were refugees from Bosnia & Herzegovina. Some of their stories stuck in my mind. I then read a great book by a historian Davor Marijan – Homeland War. It provided a detailed analysis of the wars in Croatia and Bosnia & Herzegovina. My initial idea was to design a game about the Croatian War of Independence, but I struggled a bit as the war in Croatia was a series of military operations interspersed with long periods of ceasefire. On the other hand, the war in Bosnia & Herzegovina was a continuous conflict played out on a wide and scattered frontline. I started making a prototype map of Bosnia & Herzegovina, created a set of initial unit counters, and very quickly realised that was the way to go with this design.

The game has got a lot of acclaim already. What was its development history, ending with Compass agreeing to publish it?

The development process was very straightforward. After deciding on the theatre of war and the scope of the conflict (the whole war at a strategic level), I had to decide on the core mechanics. A CDG point-to-point system seen in games like Paths of Glory seemed fitting. Very early on I decided to keep the game length to under 3 hours, to make it more practical for 3-player sessions. That decision pretty much defined the rest of the development process: the number of spaces on the board, number of unit counters, and the amount of cards in the player deck. It also guided me away from using a combat results table as a combat resolution mechanic – I wanted something easy to remember and implement, that allowed for occasional extreme combat results. That was a must for such a fast-paced game, and that is how I decided on using a combat effectiveness table.

After about a year of playtesting and further refining I had an initial prototype. I pitched the idea to Compass Games, and to my surprise they accepted it right away. They recognised the things that would be interesting to their market: the subject, which wasn’t represented enough, the 3-player aspect of the game, and the ability to finish the game in an evening.

Can you explain a bit more about the relationship between the Croats and Bosniaks in the war? In the game they are adversaries but can still use each other’s supply lines.

Croats and Bosniaks were natural allies. The Serbian faction, backed by the Yugoslav army and state, was a fearsome opponent at the outset. So it was obvious for the Croats and Bosniaks to join forces against the common enemy. But the whole story of the Croat-Bosniak relationship was (and still remains) much more complex, more than I could explain in this interview. Their shared history has made them adversaries and allies at different points of history. The conflicting issues between them were primarily the distribution of power and wealth, religion and cultural/national identity. The historical periods of old Bosniak state, Ottoman rule, Austrian rule, Serbian rule, and finally Communist rule, each brought new challenges and twists to this story. Finally, this war also represented a Bosniak national revolution, a war which reaffirmed the idea of Bosniak identity and their right to statehood.

To conclude – the Bosniaks needed the Croats as their base of operations and a lifeline to the international community. And the Croats needed the Bosniaks for strategic and diplomatic leverage and support. Without their Croat allies, the Bosniaks could not have survived the Serbian onslaught. And without the Bosniaks, the Croats could not have presented the war as a righteous fight against Serbian domination.

On a related point, did you think about a specific mechanic to allow for combined offences in earlier iterations?

I tried several approaches to this. I initially had complex mechanics in place to deal with alliances, supply, peace negotiations and such. Many playtests were done to shape those mechanics. But I had to let most of them go – they only made the game longer and more complex, without adding too much to the mix. They were replaced with the combination of Foreign Attitude track, and the ability of players to talk and deal openly with one-another during the game. I’ve left those inter-player communication rules deliberately vague and unscripted, in order to leave it to the players. That gives this game a social and psychological layer that can only be found in a fast 3-player game. For me – it is one of the key aspects of Brotherhood & Unity.

The war is infamous for the atrocities and humanitarian crisis. Mechanically you look to capture this by penalising the capture of a key space, and with certain card events. Did you consider other more explicit mechanics in earlier iterations?

Initially I did play with the idea of having a “refugee mechanic”. When you captured a space, a refugee counter would be placed on the board and it had to be moved to the nearest friendly space. That counter represented the wave of refugees moving through the country, influencing its ability to fight and to supply itself. There were special rules for the movement and influence of those counters on the gameplay.

But it became clear that this mechanics was too cumbersome for the game. Also it seemed a bit too extreme to move those markers up and down the map, while they represented hundreds of thousands of impoverished and poor people. So I found it better to abstract their effect with the use of strategy cards and Foreign Attitude mechanics. I concluded it was better to imply the ghastly effects of the war, rather than to try to be explicit in the portrayal.

The Bosniak player can bring in Mujahideen fighters to supplement domestic units. What was the impact of Mujahideen fighters, both on the course of the war and the region afterwards?

Their impact and their actual involvement is still debated. Latest research suggests that there were probably not more than a couple of thousand fighters at any one time in the country. But that image of Mujahedeen fighters has stuck in people’s minds, especially the Serbian view of the war. At that time, the memory of Soviet- Afghan War was still fresh and the idea of those fighters coming to Bosnia & Herzegovina scared people. The decision to use those units only added fuel to the fire, and remained one of the more controversial decisions of the Bosniak leadership.

What in a game of this time and physical scale is being simulated with the movement points? For example the Bosniak domestic units have very limited movement capacity, even though the period being simulated is a few months and the geographic area small.

In a game of this high strategic scale, one can’t view the unit movement allowance as a distance in kilometres a unit can travel within a period of time.

It’s an abstraction of course. In short – the Bosniaks didn’t have any motorisation, and the Serbs had the majority of combat equipment. That is why the Bosniaks can’t support their breakthroughs. Even if they succeed in punching a hole in the frontline, they can’t advance beyond that hole, and the offensive stalls right away. If you read the after action reports from the Bosniak offensives in 1994 and 1995 – you’ll find that pattern over and over again. They attack, they push through, and then they stop because they have no mechanised mobility. At the same time, the Serbs, with their motor pool left over by the Yugoslav army, can shift forces from far away and plug the gap in the frontline.

All of these unit factors were designed by analysing and comparing playtest results with the actual historical events. We looked at the operational history of the war – the flow of offensives and counteroffensives, average movement of troops and such. We tweaked the movement factors until the gameplay started simulating the historical events pretty accurately. And that’s when we knew that we had very good approximation of the real thing.

The Serbs are very powerful early on, the Bosniaks weak. This flips mid-game. The Croats remain a middle balancing power throughout. Overall this simulates the changing strategic balance, but how clear cut were these distinctions in reality?

That is pretty much the historical dynamics of this war. That ‘flip’ in the middle of the game tells the narrative very accurately, while providing a great challenge for the players to adapt to. The Serbs made their biggest gains in 1992, when they exploded throughout the country, taking town after town and expelling the opposing population. The Bosniaks, even with help from the Croats and extensive media coverage and diplomatic effort, barely managed to stay afloat. The Croats fared better, since they had combat experience from the war in Croatia, but were still unable to stop the Serbian onslaught in Posavina and around Jajce.

In 1993, the Bosniaks and Croats started fighting each-other. Some historians say the Bosniaks attacked the Croats because they were too weak to attack the Serbs. Other say that Croats attacked the Bosniaks in order to cleanse those regions they regarded as their own. It’s hard to say which story is closer to the truth, but one thing is sure – the Serbs used that situation to entrench and secure their gains. In 1994, the Bosniak army finally became strong enough to launch major offensives, and by 1995 became a force to be reckoned with. But they never reached the firepower or movement capacity that the Serbs and Croats had. They lacked the heavy weapons and transport up until the end.

You have already mentioned the CDG aspects of Paths of Glory – what other games inspire you?

Lately I’ve been studying in depth some hex and counter and area-impulse designs. My favourite systems are the Operational Combat Series and Battalion Combat Series by Dean Essig. The titles in those series “DAK”, “Tunisia” and “Brazen Chariots” are just incredible example of wargaming detail and beauty.

Another great system out there is a “ZOC Bonds” system by Mark Simonitch. It’s very adaptive, easy to understand and to use. Then there is the low counter gem “No Retreat” system by Carl Paradis. Two of my favourite games are from that system: ‘The Russian Front’ and ‘The North African Front’.

Area-impulse is the system that I will probably use next if I decide on doing a game with a low counter density at an operational/tactical level. The first game with those mechanics, ‘Storm Over Arnhem’, and the more modern renditions by Mike Rinella, are great examples of how you can make a fast-learning, fast-moving wargame.

What can we expect next from you on the game design front?

I’ve been developing for quite some time a wargame set in the WW2 North African theatre. It’s a childhood dream of mine to make a game in this setting, and I’m delighted at how much the game has progressed.

I decided to make this new game as a computer game. I plan on using all of the latest ideas from the tabletop wargaming world and to combine them with the bonuses the computer provides. I’m talking about hex and counter mechanics, complex CRTs, detailed orders of battle, all set during the long North African Campaign. All that combined with true fog of war, smart opponent Al, easy to use multiplayer, and the ability to load and save the game in an instant.

Making computer wargames will also enable me to make this my day-job. I will publish the games myself, and the gamers will get a better product, with more features, for less money. If it works out, I will be able to sustain my business and create more and more games.

Words: James Buckley

Tips ahoy! A Viking ship.


Labyrinth: War on Terror

Learn to win as the US or Jihadist in our Labyrinth: WoT strategy guide

As the Cold War drew to a close, CIA agents armed and funded Mujahideen groups opposing the Soviets in Afghanistan. The Soviets left, but the Jihad continued. Led by a charismatic and rich Saudi called Osama Bin Laden, some of the former Mujahideen established Al Qaida, ‘The Base’, a network of Islamic extremists committed to expelling non-Muslims from the Holy Lands, and establishing Islamic rule. The USA, former sponsor of the Mujahideen, was identified as enemy number one. After a number of smaller attacks, Al Qaida decided to take the battle to the Americans directly. It’s September 12th, 2001, the day after the Jihadists have destroyed the World Trade Centre… Labyrinth: The War on Terror begins…

Cooool. I mean terrible and horrible in reality, but as someone who enjoys asymmetric games in modern settings, cooool. I love Labyrinth. Definitely a top 5 game for me. The two expansions are excellent too. It falls somewhere between Twilight Struggle and COIN, more towards the latter in terms of complexity and the asymmetry between the factions, but with the same agonising choices and no-win situations offered up by Twilight Struggle.

Like TS, it’s a good tournament game. Meta strategies and counters to them emerge over time. The inaugural Cardboard Emperors Labyrinth tournament over the summer of 2020 saw a number of interesting and, for me, new strategies employed, not least tournament winner Jason Linford’s Jihadist early-game assault on Iraq.

But it’s harder to understand how to play well than TS. There’s the aforementioned COIN-like complexity. And fewer resources on the internet devoted to the game. As a humble attempt to begin to address the latter, we present to you the Punched strategy guide to Labyrinth.

In the green and black corner, regular baddie Paul Williams sets out his top tips on how to win as a Jihadist. In the blue and tan corner, you can read my freedom-loving thoughts on how to win as the US.

Words: James Buckley

Box cover with chess knight and soldier walking on chess board desert.

James: U-S-A U-S-A

I will always play the US in this game given the choice. Put it down to latent masochistic tendencies. It can be deeply frustrating.

Early on you will be trying to save those Poor governance countries, those distant plains. That’s 3ops a pop. And there’s fewer US 3op cards. Even when you have the ops, your chance of success for the all-important War of Ideas roll is just 1-in-3 without modifiers. Yep. You are on the backfoot. Firefighting. Gains are incremental. You are playing the long game. But that just makes ultimate victory all the more enjoyable. Here are some tips I think could help you get there:

Tip #1. Make Regime Change count.

Don’t RC into Afghanistan. Just don’t. It didn’t work in real life and it isn’t going to work in the game. Just look at it. It is low resource value and poorly connected. Infact, don’t RC anywhere unless desperate. It opens you up to a world of pain. The Jihadist’s evil red eyes will burn brightly with anticipation as they ready Quagmire. Giggity giggity goo. That said, sometimes you have to. If that’s the case, make it count. Choose a country that will upset Jihadi plans to get to six resources and/or adjacent Islamic Rule states, or help you with your victory conditions. See my tip below on the ‘carbon triangle’ for more on this.

Tip#2. US Soft is better.

It has two advantages. By around halfway through the first deck, global world opinion will be Soft. The War of Ideas penalty will then kill you if you are Hard. Make the painful move. Be decisive. Pay the 6ops for the Reassessment. Being Soft also offers a cheap route to increasing Prestige. Test non-Muslim countries, even those already soft. It only costs 1op and you have a 2/3 chance that they will roll as Soft, giving you a +1 Prestige boost. I will typically do a Reassessment as soon as the world opinion crosses the boundary into Soft.

Tip #3. Focus on the ‘carbon triangle’.

You probably already know this, but the Gulf States is critical to turn Good early. It starts at Fair, and provides the catalyst in terms of Wol positive modifiers for taking what I call the ‘carbon triangle’ of Gulf States, Saudi Arabia and Iraq. Get those and you win on an Oil Price Spike. Iraq is difficult as it starts at Adversary and you will need a card like Covert Action to move it to a position where you can Wol. The other way to get Iraq is by Regime Change. Yep, an exception to my Tip#1, Iraq is one of the few examples where a Regime Change could actually make sense (just like happened in real lif…errr…hmmm….moving on). Taking it can also deprive the Jihadists of a key high resource oil country. For that reason, the Iraqi WMD event can be good to get into play early, as a just-in-case.

Tip#4. Use your troops.

Grunts. Frankly they are going to cost you a bomb in veteran’s pensions and healthcare costs, so you may as well use them. Deploying them to the field can leave you vulnerable to Prestige hits from triggered plots, and having more than 5 out means you are drawing one less card each turn. However, they can be invaluable in preventing Major Jihads. These require 5 more cells than troops in the target country. If you see cells massing in a country to undertake a Major Jihad, move 3 troops there and nip it in the bud. This requires of course that the target is an Ally, and so, like most things in an advice column, is easier said than done.

Tip#5. Cards to play.

The US has a lot of situational cards, many of which won’t do much in a standard two-deck game playing the Let’s Roll! scenario. But there are some I think you should get into play as soon as possible.

  • Abbas. This allows the play of Quartet. Combined these can give you a major prestige boost and the Jihadis a funding hit.
  • Patriot Act. Good not only for preventing WMD plots in the USA, but more importantly in most cases it allows the play of the two Sanctions cards in the deck, each of which hits Jihadi funding by -2.
  • Indo-Pakistani talks. Moves Pakistan to Ally; which is an important step to stop it becoming the target of a Major Jihad.
  • CTR. Only a 1op card and addresses those Central Asia WMD concerns.

Paul: Ji-had-i Ji-had-i

As James notes, playing the US can be annoying. Very.

The Jihadists par contre are a sandbox of fun, boasting multiple routes to victory. Yay, more ways to win. Getting to 6 Islamic resources will be the most common. But, for a change, why not let off a WMD just outside the Pentagon. Or – like a prophetic Dr Livingstone – send a plucky cell on a cheap package deal across the region. If they visit enough sites, you might win by getting 15 countries to Poor or Islamic Rule. Despite the fun times, in the most recent Cardboard Emperors tournament the US won more than the Jihadists. So, how to win as the Jihadists? Here are my top tips:

Tip#1: Strike where the US is weak, harass where they are strong.

Although I set out above the multiple routes to Jihadist victory, in practice getting the 6 Islamic resources is the only one that can be reliably planned towards. This requires some discipline. As bright-eyed and ideologically pure Jihadist, the world feels like your oyster. So many heathens to convert. The flip side? The ease with which you can get distracted or dragged off course. Flip-flop between regions and you’ll lack critical mass and pain-free adjacent travel. But get over invested in a specific area and you throw away your best tool; flexibility. Finding that balance between striking where the US is weak, but not letting them pursue their own agenda unmolested, is crucial. As per my tips below, Syria and North Africa are good options.

Tip #2. Look to Syria.

Syria and Iraq both start the game as US adversaries, and are good targets for Major Jihad. I advocate a ‘Syria first’ strategy. This approach offers a number of benefits; Syria is not adjacent to the Gulf States / Saudi, the lynchpin of the US presence in the Middle East. This makes a Regime Change in Syria more challenging (no adjacent Good countries to provide beneficial modifiers). It also puts cells massing in Syria out of reach of Special Forces based in Saudi. If you secure Syria and one other country under Islamic rule, a quick play into next door Iraq provides a direct route to victory through 6 Islamist Resources with 2 adjacent countries.

Tip #3. North Africa is a good mid-to-late game play alternative

With a number of oil states, North Africa can provide rich pickings. The challenge is how you get out there. Conventional means can be slow and resource intensive. Fortunately there are two events that do the job for you: Regional al-Qaeda and Jihadist Videos. The US will struggle to respond. North Africa is a distant plain too far. One thing to be aware of though; focusing on North Africa is more likely to turn the game into a race. You leave the US a free hand in the Middle East. And against a Soft US with world opinion behind it and a network of Good countries, the need to recruit / move / Major Jihad can be slower than the US Wol mechanic.

Tip#4. Don’t sweat Afghanistan

Regime change in Afghanistan is usually a mistake for the US. Make them pay for it. As you should for any regime change country, keep cells there. They prevent War of Ideas rolls, and allow you to a) drop plots to reduce Prestige and increase funding, b) continue to benefit from auto-recruit, and c) trigger some nasty Jihadist events. But don’t try to turn Afghanistan back if it’s been subject to RC. Having an Islamist Regime country somewhere is very beneficial, almost essential, but don’t focus on Afghanistan. Yes it was where your glorious Caliphate was conceived, but it’s not crucial to winning the game.

Tip#5. Cards to play.

Unlike for the US, for the Jihadist player it is pretty obvious most of the time which cards you should play. But there are some less obvious ones that I like.

  • Viera de Mello Slain. Particularly if there is a Regime Change marker on the board or the US is Hard, stopping the play of UN Intervention is a must.
  • Bhutto Shot. If the US is able to play Benazir Bhutto, Pakistan is basically out of play for you. So if Pakistan is part of your strategy, this card – sadly for Benazir – needs to be played.
  • Al Jazeera. Makes it harder for the US to get its ‘carbon triangle’ and prevent a surge of troops to hinder your Major Jihad against the house of Saud.
  • The Door of Itjihad was closed (Jihadi version). Arguably the most annoying card in the deck for the US. They swing weak-minded states with their Western propaganda, and in one fell swoop, The Door closes, setting the country back on its true path. Praise be.
Julius Caesar heralds the review section.
German U-boot on the surface.

UBOOT: Jahwohl, Herr Kapitän!

Summary: It’s niche. A sub game, a full co-op, a game driven by the players decisions rather than cards or dice. It’s very rewarding when it goes well,and always tense and close, but it needs commitment and the ‘right’ group.

It is not a classic ‘wargame’ in the sense of maps, armies of cardboard chits and mountainous decks of cards, but UBOOT, winner of the Charles S Roberts Best Board War Game of 2019, should pique the interest of many. The cat-and-mouse encounters in the stormy expanses of the North Atlantic between the U-boats of the Kriegsmarine and the hunters of the British, American and Commonwealth navies has a certain allure. Rather than a ‘how to play’ or a strategy piece, this review should give you a sense of what the game is all about, what makes it tick, and whether, maybe, climbing into a virtual 200 ft metal coffin to take to the seas with three other players is for you.

I tend to approach games in three layers: the theme (what’s it all about), the mechanics (how it works), and the experience (does it do it well).

The theme

The name says it all really. ‘UBOOT’ puts a group of players in command of a WW2 Type VII U-boat during the Battle of the Atlantic. If you’ve ever played the sub-sim classic Silent Hunter III then you’ll be instantly at home, as will those who have seen the Das Boot film.

That theme is tightly adhered to, from the roles the players take on, to the missions they undertake and the tools at their command, everything is focused around giving a sub-sim experience. There is no superfluous ‘off map’ considerations, no ‘game’ tracks covering the progress of the war or metaphysical concepts like ‘victory points’; it’s just you, your boat, the open ocean, and somewhere, the enemy.

The core mechanics

Co-operative: UBOOT is a fully paid-up co-op. The players share victory or defeat together. There are no individual ‘victory conditions,’ no player specific scores, and no traitor mechanic.

Augmented reality: Although featuring a very nice 3D board representing your Type VII submarine and various player boards, the heart of UBOOT is really the companion app which constantly feeds information to the players. The app isn’t a helpful add-on, but an intrinsic part of the game. It handles everything from your ‘true’ location, to the contacts that alert you to enemies, to the maintenance status of your boat, and, ultimately, the success or failure of your attacks on enemy forces.

Aim your torpedoes to take out a merchant ship.

The app drives the game. Here a poor merchant vessel is hit by the sub’s 88mm deck gun.

Worker placement: Each player will have a set of pieces representing the sailors and petty officers in their respective departments each shift. Making sure these workers are in the right locations around the boat is a key part of the decision-making process. Mucking it up can have significant consequences when it comes to combat and urgent repairs.

Programming: With only a limited number of actions (‘orders’) each turn (‘Watch’), UBOOT features a strong programming mechanic. Executing the right orders in the right sequence will see your boat in position to launch devastating attacks before escaping to the deeps. Get it wrong and you can easily find yourself out of position, with half loaded torpedoes, a fire raging in the galley, and no way to get your bridge crew below decks before diving.

(Scare) resource management: With a couple of minor exceptions, all of your resources in a game of UBOOT are limited. Torpedoes run out, food gets eaten, equipment breaks and replacement parts are expended. Even the morale of your crew is a decaying resource; limited quantities of cigarettes and chocolate only staving off an inevitable spiral towards mutiny if the mission takes too long or encounters too much resistance. Not to mention a mission time limit that usually means you cannot simply dawdle your way round the mid-Atlantic for weeks on end. This all combines in the core challenge at the heart of UBOOT: given the limited tools at your disposal how do you solve the environmental and enemy unit challenges the game throws at you? Expend too much now and you are creating harder challenges for the future. On the flip side, there is no point meeting your watery end with half a boat’s worth of supplies and weapons still on board.

3D cardboard model of submarine.

In UBOOT each player has their own submariner workers to move around the cardboard model of the Type VII sub. Put them in the wrong place and you might not be able to dive dive dive in time!

The Experience

Does it all work? Before I give a verdict, a few points I think it’s worth reflecting on:

Quarterbacking in co-ops: I like a good co-op game, but a perennial weakness is the tendency for ‘quarterbacking’ to creep in. More experienced, savvier (or just louder) players start directing overall strategy and issuing instructions on where players should move or the actions they take. This can detract from the whole experience and reduces some players (particularly newer ones) to little more than paper shufflers moving tokens round the board. Does UBOOT fall into this trap? My verdict is “no” albeit with a big caveat – the Captain. The player who takes on the role of Herr Kapitan has a narrow line to walk. If they become too directive, the other players may find they aren’t particularly engaged in the core decision making and resource management engines that drive the game experience. On the other hand, a Captain reduced to nothing more than an auditor for used-actions doesn’t have much left to do (and, probably, results in a destroyed U-boat when decision-by- committee runs into a real time combat situation). If this is going to be a problem for your group then this could be a mark against UBOOT for you.

Not all roles are created equal: In a full four player game you’ll have a Captain (final decision maker and controller of your limited ‘action’ pool), a First Officer (who owns the interaction with the companion app) a Navigator (armed with various maps, compasses, protractors and slide rules to ensure the boat gets to the right place at the right time), and an Engineer (who tries to stem the inevitable tide of equipment faults and maintenance issues to keep you afloat (or at least intentionally submerged)). Flicking between roles between games will be challenging; each had a distinct skillset and role in the game that rewards repeated play to build experience. That means that committing to a UBOOT campaign means committing to the same role within that campaign for potentially a number of gaming sessions. Personally, I found the Captain and Navigator roles the most interesting, other players will prefer other specialisms. However, if you’re really going to get your value out of a ‘big box’ game like UBOOT, it’s probably worth making sure the roles all appeal to at least someone in your group, or getting it to the table is going to prove challenging.

That ‘Moment’: Some games derive their appeal from a steady, repeatable, satisfying experience. Not “wow” moments, but at the same time you won’t come away from a three-hour session wondering what your just wasted your afternoon on. Others aim to deliver the occasionally great moment, though maybe at the cost of a bit of a slog in-between. UBOOT is the latter through and through. Few other games will deliver an experience as tense as trying to hold your nerve as you listen to the “ping” of a destroyer’s sonar echo from the app, praying your final course change was enough to throw your pursuers off, followed by the crash of depth charges and the anxious looks to the First Officer as they report on damage; just a blown blub or a full hull breach? Death or Glory?

Words: Paul ‘Herr Kapitän’ Williams

Short reviews