Over the course of roughly fourteen generations, from 43 to 410 AD, the Romans ruled the island of Great Britain. Even they had trouble the unruly ancient Scots, the Picts, which proves a universal point. Nobody will ever understand the Scots. I suspect a combination of Irn-Bru and Buckfast are to blame. All joking aside, this is a complicated time period in the history of Great Britain and the approach that Marc Gouyon-Rety has taken with Pendragon: The Fall of Roman Britain to introduce the end of this era is nothing short of perfection in cardboard and wood.
Before we get started, I want to qualify my The many invasions of the shores of England prior to the well before the Norman Conquest were wholly unknown to me. I was aware of the Saxons. I was aware of the Romans in England because of Bath. I almost feel like any time someone mentions Bath, a middle-aged women is compelled to say, “It’s just lovely there. You really should go!” I think everyone has some comprehension of Hadrian’s Wall and maybe, to a lesser degree, about the various uprisings that the Romans were responsible for putting down during their 370’ish year rule. To that end, the two hefty booklets that arrive with your purchase of Pendragon include the InsideGMT blog entries that outline the design decisions and history of the era.
COIN games from the beginning have covered topics about which people are aware, but perhaps don’t have the full story. They have taken us from South America, to Asia, to North America and more recently to Europe. This multi-continental, era-independent system, has changed the way that I look at wargames and conflicts. The combination of political and military asymmetry presented in the games gives even well-worn topics like the American Revolutionary War a new feel that allows gamers and armchair historians a valuable new lens through which they can interact with the past. Critically, the COIN series has given us new published lead designers like Marc Gouyon-Rety and topics that have fallen through the cracks of our hobby long enough.
The history covered in Pendragon provides gamers with an appreciation for the Land of Hope & Glory’s turbulent past. Just as the waves of the North Atlantic lap against its shores creating dramatic and gorgeous coastlines, the waves of invasions in Pendragon etch a no less beautiful narrative. At the macro-level, Pendragon pits the Britons who begin as unified Roman Dux and Civitates against the barbarian hordes of Scotti and Saxon raiders seeking to earn a foothold in the lush landscape of Britain.
The constant erosion of that Roman influence, stability, and harmony begins to create a new dynamic represented across the course of the game by Imperium Track which starts at Roman Rule, degrades to Autonomous Rules, and devolves into the complete factional fragmentation. The effects on the game for these changes make each epoch change to be a potential game changer, quite literally speaking. Britain feels like a unified land in the beginning of the game, but as the Dux (Roman) and Civitates (Briton) players race to deal with barbarian incursions, the roads feel like a critical lifeline. When the roads are no longer able to be maintained, the ease and speed of travel change the feel of the game in a profound way.
Compared to roads and lines of control in prior COIN titles, I have to say that I liked the Pendragon approach here. The roads feel alive and the whack-a-mole style of the early game is served well by their maintenance in the full game. As the roads degrade, the regions feel more isolated and the conflicts more visceral and immediate. It’s no longer the reverse trip of a hen party in ancient York (Eboracum) to the coast for a marriage, it’s a slog through the now entrenched barbarian countryside where it’s more than poor Vodaphone coverage that’s got you down!
It’s details like this that make Pendragon so worthwhile and they seem to sneak up on players around every corner. Pendragon takes the best of what’s come before and builds upon it. One of the best places to see this in the way combat is handled. No longer is the risk-style of trading pieces sufficient to settle an armed dispute. Combat is tactical, a welcome addition to the COIN series, and choices abound. While the initial learning curve for this new style of combat can be cumbersome both the example of play in the Playbook and the brilliantly laid out player aid card covering combat make it a snap.
Effectively there are three phases to combat. The pre-combat phase during which the combatants will determine if they’re going to try to run away or ambush each other. The field battle phase in which the defenders might sneak some of their forces off into the nearest hillfort or stronghold and the true power of the Dux cavalry can be brought to bear. Finally, you have the siege which has its own phases. Follow the flow-chart and the layout of the battle player aid card and you’ll be left wondering what mad genius dreamed up this combat system. The answer, of course, is Marc Gouyon-Rety who packs what must be years of careful consideration into this mechanic alone.
The game is familiar enough though and contains some nice twists. You get the shared resources of a game like A Distant Plain. The game is more combat focused like Falling Skies. Barbarian forces, and occasionally Britons will plunder wealth which has links back to Cuba Libre. The game features casualty availability and “perma-death” as seen in Fire in the Lake. This game is both a student and a master of the COIN system. All that said, it’s the new additions that make this something special and showcase the incredible flexibility of the underlying COIN framework.
In fact, it’s hard not to marvel at the COIN framework when you consider this game both in the context of its predecessors, but also as it stands on its own with its unique stamp on the series. The Imperium Track, Naval invasion and sea patrol, Warband vs. Raider, Defensive Structures, recruiting barbarians to your cause as Foederati, plunder used in multiple ways, and of course the combat system. The funny thing is, everything finds its place and plays just as smoothly as any of the other COIN system games. In some ways, it makes me jealous every time I see someone new play this game for the first time. It’s just that good that experiencing it for the first time is a bit of a revelation.
I’ve gushed about this game quite a bit already. I also promised that my reviews wouldn’t take into account presentation unless it was worthy of specific mention. In this case, GMT Games has produced their most extravagant product to date. From the artwork to the custom castle and raider bits that are included in the game to the outrageous 70+ page full-color Playbook. There isn’t anything to critique about the presentation of the game, the rulebook, or the value at either the P500 discounted price or the full retail $99 price-point. Without question, gamers are soaking up every last cent of value from this game both in terms of gameplay and in terms of sheer production value. This could not have been a simple game to produce with the custom work that went into the pieces, but GMT Games makes it appear effortless.
Let’s talk for a moment about the solo game. I played two solo games in addition to my opposed plays. The bots are as on-point as ever and provide a sincerely difficult challenge. This time around, the bots get more custom rules than we’ve seen before including a massive fold-out two-page chart that includes specific instructions for specific event cards by faction. One of the weaknesses of bots in the past has been that while some guidance was provided for bots and how they would interact with events (usually through some kind of faction icon decoration), the bots didn’t capitalize on other faction weaknesses as aggressively. This has been put to bed. Bots follow the most aggressive pathway possible and, in using the bots for a solo game, you are training yourself to be a better player. This has always been true to some degree with previous COIN games. I would call out Fire in the Lake, for example, as a great showcase for learning to play the game from bots.
If my arm were truly twisted to come up with an area of improvement for this game, I might say that because of all the new sub-systems the game turns can run a little long. As a result, even though the event to epoch ratio seems the same as in prior games, this one feels like its longer between epoch (scoring turn) changes. Since so much of the game relies upon the recalibration of resources, renown, and in this game fundamental rule changes as a result of the rise of barbarians the game can feel like a slog as you begin to anticipate the next epoch card. That said, as soon as you see the epoch card, it is executed. That change is fantastic and appreciated because a game like Andean Abyss allows the players a little wiggle room prior to scoring to shore up any potential negative impacts since unit placement in that game, as in Pendragon, is important for epoch turns.
If you even need to read this section at this point, I’d be shocked. Frankly, this is the best COIN game released to date. Given the flood of 2nd Edition upgrade kits that just hit GMT Games P500 list, I suspect some of the lessons learned in this game will find their ways into earlier titles to help improve upon an already strong foundation.
GMT Games has extended their COIN empire, not unlike the ancient Romans, and we are witnessing the series at the apex of its power. While we have Gandhi, All BirdgesBurning, People Power, and a bunch of 2nd editions on the way it’s without question that GMT and its stable of COIN developers / designers will have a tall task in front of them to equal Pendragon.
My hope is that we’ll see Marc Gouyon-Rety continue to design games both COIN and otherwise into the future. His approach and research seems methodical and the fruits of his labor are delicious to see and experience. Without question, Pendragon is already in the running for my 2018 game of the year and it will take a lot to dethrone it which is a big statement to make in the 1st quarter of the year!