Sixteen Thirty Something

Published by Warfrog
Designed by Martin Wallace
Reviewed by Mike Siggins

£20 inc p&p
3-6 Players
about 180 minutes

Now this is, without any doubt, one of the most novel and interesting games that I've played this year. In fact, Sixteen Thirty Something is so different that it may well have to have a new pigeon hole invented for it. It is my belief, after a couple of games since Essen, that it works well, that it is a lot of fun, provides a fascinating challenge to play and that it will doubtless be a commercial success to rival Lords of Creation from the same designer. Best of all, it is a game in which I am still trying to establish a workable strategy.

1630 is a game about powerbroking in seventeenth century Europe. It is a game that directly concerns the Thirty Years War, but it is not a wargame in the traditional Hex and Zocs sense, so those that won't play them can stand easy. It does involve a little combat and militarism, a historical sheen (but no more), politics, negotiation, voting and plenty of strategy. I feel it will appeal strongly to game groups, especially those who enjoy the longer, middle complexity games such as Britannia and History of the World. In feel, it is closest to Avalon Hill's excellent Guerilla, but it is not that close and certainly has less emphasis on the combat and more on power struggles and factional considerations.

I normally like to explain what your role will be in a game, but in 1630 it is a leetle blurred, and top secret to boot. You are an international banker and financier, or perhaps a powerful merchant or magnate, but definitely an individual with leverage at court and the clout to move opinion, countries and armies. As a matter of decorum and survival, this activity needs to be kept distinctly low key. This is quite a neat role, all things considered. The upshot is that you will have influence in several of the nine powers represented on the board, but only a direct interest (for victory points) in two, three or four of them. Your aim in the game is to manipulate any or all of the powers to score points for your cause, which may be achieved by means as simple as building them up peacefully, by changing sides or even sending them to war. And how is that possible? Well, the countries in which you have an interest remain secret until the end of the game but broadly speaking you want to make sure that you maintain a steady influence within them and that their status in Europe is enhanced at the same time. Of course, everyone else is doing the same thing with theirs, and the neutrals are bouncing around in the power vacuum. And having been about as vague as I've ever been in Sumo, I will now explain how that all works.

At the start of the game you are dealt a number of country chits, sometimes receiving two of the same, meaning you are the sole party with such an interest. These are kept face down and secret, but are the only countries for which you can score victory points. You are also dealt a number of cards which will include a selection of special action cards and a larger number of country influence, or vote, cards. These latter are the key to the game and, when deployed from your hand, show numerically how much influence you hold in that particular country, eg Hapsburg 3. These cards can be added to throughout the game, and also supplemented by 'Open' cards which equate to wildcards. Once the latter are laid, they can't be moved around.

The map shows nine European powers which each have a status (broadly representing their power, wealth, and territorial possessions), an army size marker and a military ability marker. At the start of the game they are all unaligned neutrals, but will gradually join either the blue or the red faction. Logically, it is only possible to go to war with a country from an opposing faction, and unless one of you is a small fry, you can attack anyone on the board.

During your turn, you can play two special cards (one or both of which may be an additional vote), trade cards with another player if you wish and then you must declare a compulsory vote. The voting mechanism prompts virtually all the serious action in the game and consistent and intelligent play in this area is vital. The vote itself is an abstraction of an entire turn's scheming in the indicated country. For this reason, you are allowed to negotiate with other players, trying to secure their support, and perhaps explaining your reasons. Of course, they might guess what you are trying to achieve and it could easily go against their interests. Once the country to be voted upon is indicated, each player can lay down cards for that country only and thus the balance of power is established. You can only vote if you have influence, and your influence is quanitified as a numerical total.

The vote can be one of: Militarise (move from Army 0 to 1); Commit from neutral to one faction; Change from one faction to another; and Declare War on another country. Players discuss the proposal, fibbing if they see fit, and then place their voting chit secretly on the table. All are revealed and the votes for and against, from the declared influence cards, are totalled. If the vote is passed, the action takes place immediately. If it fails, nothing happens except the following personal setback.

The cleverest rule in the voting sub-game is that should you be on the losing side in a vote, your influence cards are turned upside down and are termed 'in the descendant'. This means your influence is waning, possibly because you have misread a situation, offended someone at court, or just been found out. The effect in game terms is that each turn you must discard one of the cards in that country's pile, adding no new ones, until your influence is zero. You may then start again on the 'ascendant'. Should you have had a lot of cards out on the table, effectively this could take you out of the game, but fortunately you retain the votes until they've all gone.

Combat, when ratified by the voting bankers, is resolved simply and quickly, but with high military ability and leaders being very useful in overcoming even a bad dice roll. The loser reduces his army size by one and, importantly, loses a valuable status point which is transferred to the victor. Apart from one of the special cards, going to war is the only way of increasing status, and as we shall see, your victory points.

The special cards mentioned above are, second to the vote cards, the strongest influences in the game. In some cases, played at the right time, they are even more powerful. There are seven types: Assassin, which knocks out any one vote card on the table; Vote, which allows an extra vote; Increase Army Size; Increase Status; Military Improvement; Unrest, which prevents the target country going to war that turn; and Military Leader which adds a useful +2 to the beneficiary nation. Played at the right time, these can really help your cause, and the improvements cards generally carry long term benefits.

Victory points are awarded at the end of each turn and, because of the secret country chits, players are left to declare honestly. The points scored, per country chit, are based on the lowest of a) your current declared influence in that country and b) that country's status. It is therefore important that both of these are kept at healthy levels. A typical score for a round might be ten points, but can be much higher or lower. These are added to the cumulative total and the highest after ten turns is the winner. If you were wondering whether it is possible to identify who is who at this stage, it sometimes is and sometimes isn't - having two of a chit will throw most calculations off course. If it suits your temperament to work it out, you can try, or you can just go along with the game for enjoyment and go on guesswork. As an indication, after two or three turns, it is about as difficult as working out who is a rebel in Guerilla. ie not very.

Overall, 1630 is an interesting game but one that probably is slightly deceptive in terms of your control over events. You feel as if you are making superb strategic moves and playing with the fate of nations (which is good), but in truth you do have rather less influence than you think. It is churlish to criticise such an ingenious and engrossing game, but perhaps a more interactive turn order might have helped here - with player being more involved in other's turns, not only during voting. Whetever happens, the events in Europe start to unfold before your eyes. Countries slowly join factions, build up their forces, a couple of skirmishes break out, and then gradually all hell lets loose. Countries fight long and costly wars against hated neighbours, factions shift and countries defect to the enemy. By around turn six, or sooner, things can be getting nasty and all the time you are desperately trying to maintain your influence through those crucial votes. All this is the real strength of the game, and it is the reason I am so happy to have played it.

It is also, like Lords of Creation, somewhat overlong. We found that in both games we played, approaching three hours in both cases but getting quicker, there was little change once the leader was ahead but I can see that it is entirely possible to come from behind later in the game. The designer has told me this happens a lot, it just didn't happen to us. As good as the game mechanism is, again like LoC, I think it should have come in at two hours to avoid any sense of repetition. Fortunately, as long as you pre-agree, it is easy to simply play six turns rather than ten which achieves this aim perfectly. Whether you lose out on the longer game strategy I don't know. Perhaps the designer will advise.

A small problem relating to the special action cards is that the Unrest and Leader cards can only be played in your turn and last only until the end of the round. If you are playing last or second last, this all but precludes playing them; it being much better to retain them until you have first turn. Given how much interest they add to they game, it seems a bit of a shame to only get their real benefit if you are first to go. Perhaps that is the intention? Might I suggest as a variant either that the two cards are allowed to run a full once around cycle, rather than to the end of the turn, or alternatively have a joint card play phase at the start where leaders and unrest can appear. Just a thought.

The larger problems we encountered were related to country control and play balance. Firstly, once another player has worked out who you are, or even if he hasn't, and you find one of your favoured countries on the end of a long war against a militarily competent enemy (for some reason it has always been those nasty Spanish tercios for me), you will quickly cease to have a good time. It's like being the scrawniest kid in the playground with a bully on the loose. Losing consistently, your status, and victory points, are whittled away steadily and unless you have enough influence in either the aggressor or the defender, you can't even change sides to escape. Realistic I suppose, but perhaps a weakish game mechanism?

The second, conspicuously larger, problem is that some of the countries start out with low status, and hence low victory point potential. As the only way to increase status is by extended victory in war or by a (rare) special action card, those with low status tend to stay that way unless you are lucky enough to build up their forces and go successfully to war. This is not often a problem if you draw the big players as country chits, but obviously if you were unlucky enough to draw two Englands and a Denmark (status 1 each) then you'd have major problems.

Another gripe, in a similar vein, is that I am not yet 100% certain that the weakest element of the game I playtested months ago has been resolved. This puts me in an odd position because I have been given a playtest credit for the idea that went towards solving it, but I am not sure it has gone far enough! The problem is this. If you are dealt a hand of country chits, or worse two of a kind, and fail to get a decent number of voting cards for those countries, then you are in deep doodoo. More to the point, you really need those cards from the first round to avoid granting a major handicap start to your rivals.

The Open cards help matters (he said modestly), as does getting four new cards per turn, and flexible trading is also a partial solution, but in my second game I couldn't pick up, or trade for, Poland at all and I was holding two face down Polish chits. Either no one else had any, or they wanted to keep them, as influence anywhere can be very useful to have. As a result, I didn't score for three rounds and my game was virtually lost. Now I'll warrant that this doesn't happen a lot, and you may find it never happens to you, but in a three hour game it is a bit of a pisser when it does. And any similarity to the Siedler card problem is purely coincidental.

Firstly, I'll take it on trust that Warfrog have tested this game to destruction and that they don't consider play balance a problem, or that I am missing something, which is entirely possible. But if these really are balance problems, and I have picked them up after just two games, then I look forward to Warfrog's comments. And secondly, we may need some form of variant by which you can start with one or two of the cards you need or perhaps swap back any chits you don't fancy at the start of the game. End of gripes. Back to the compliments.

1630 is very well produced for what, a year ago, was an amateur publisher. Warfrog have obviously got right on top of the production and printing tasks and the whole package looks rather good. It consists of a monocolour map in the style of this issue's cover, a large deck of cards, some diecut counters and plastic markers. The overall standard is acceptably good to excellent, the artwork is evocative of the period and is of high quality, and the diecutting would put most American game companies to shame. The game comes in a perfectly adequate bookcase box with a full colour card cover. It would have been nice to have a little culverin as a turn marker though - get on it please, Martin. £20? A bit on the high side, but undoubtedly worth it.

In summary, 1630 is a game you should definitely try to play and chances are you will want to buy it if you do. It is full of clever, interactive ideas that work well and there is no area of the game design that I would consider inappropriate or over complex. Everything fits together well and Martin has correctly steered clear of anything too wargamey. For this reason, it does a rather good job of creating a believable pseudo- historical atmosphere that sits well with the abstracted influence and combat systems. As for presentation, everyone who has played it has remarked on the high standards. The game excels in its core system of voting and scheming, which everyone seems to relish, but blissfully without the rigours and bad blood of extended negotiation. In 1630, it is usually safe to assume that people will be lying anyway. Even though it is at the longer end of my taste band, and has those slight concerns over play balance, I have really enjoyed my games of 1630 and will certainly return to it again. Recommended, one of the most original games of this year and, again, we look forward to Warfrog's next release.

As a special offer to Sumo readers Warfrog is happy to supply Sixteen Thirty Something for £19.95 and Stockers for £14.95 (all inc p&p) from 91 Broad Oak Lane, East Didsbury, Manchester M20 5GA, England. USA: Credit card orders ($37.50 and $30.00) to Second Chance Games on 151 638 3535. Germany: DM50,- and DM40,- inc from Peter Gehrmann, Heimsaat 3, 59427 Unna, Germany.

[Ken: Perhaps this is a good time to subscribe to Sumo...]

Copyright 1995, Mike Siggins

The Game Cabinet - - Ken Tidwell