Sunday, March 16, 2014

Friedrich: A boardgame review

In addition to miniature wargames, the odd computer game, and non-collectible cardgames, I am an avid player of boardgames. My personal preferences tend to higher level thinking games, where I must not only master the rules of the game, but also attempt to out think my opponent(s). Or at least, I attempt to predict the likely outcomes of choices they are presented and then plan accordingly. Friedrich is just such a game.

As my education background relies heavily upon 17th and 18th century Europe (England and France primarily), the Seven Years War figures largely within my area of interest. Since the period 1740-1763 saw Prussia emerge as a major player in European affairs, Frederick the Great's campaigns are not only intriguing, but also illuminating. At least, to one who has a keen interest in early modern warfare and also geopolitical maneuverings.

With all that stated and out of the way, let's get to the actual game, shall we?

To start, this game is not checkers. It is more of a cross between chess and poker, with a serious grounding in the Seven Years War. It is like chess because the rules are easy to learn (less than 6 page), but difficult to master. It is like poker because much of the game is spent bluffing and calling bluffs, due to the mechanisms surrounding combat resolution.

The game uses no dice. None. Instead, cards are used to recruit replacement troops and supply convoys, and they are also used to resolve the individual battles between opposing armies. Simply, the cards represent your potential for sustained warfare in a game of maneuver and attrition.

The map depicts Hanover, on the left to East Prussia on the right, with the Baltic being just off the map at the top, and Bohemia bordering the bottom. It is a four-player game; Prussia (with Hanover), Russia (with Sweden), Austria (with the Imperial Army), and France.
The colored regions matter, a lot. They represent the ownership of the territory, which is very important for defending objectives, as well as who gains supply from them. Objective cities are marked on the map and may only be defending by the owner of the location. For example, Prussia has an enclave in western Hanover, which cannot be protected by Hanoverian armies, but only by a Prussian army. Armies protect objectives as long as they are withing three movement "dots" and they are of the same ownership. If an enemy is protecting an objective you want to take, you must either maneuver them away or fight (and win) a battle to get them to retreat.

Players begin the game by choosing sides (with the most masochistic or experienced gamer taking on the role of Prussia your first go around). They then secretly allocate the strength of each of their starting armies on the player cards.  You only reveal the strength of your armies when they are directly involved in a battle. After that, your opponents must do their best to remember what your army strength is, if they forget, too bad. Also, no tabletalk concerning strategy, army strength, and cards is allowed. This is a gentleman's game, and one must fight with honor!

Meanwhile, starting with the end of the 6th turn (after France has moved), one Fate card is drawn from the top of the Fate Deck, resolved, and then placed face down at the bottom of the same deck. There are 6 cards which represent major (game changing) events, and 12 minor cards that add a bit of unpredictability. Russia is eliminated from the game when the death of Empress Elizabeth is announced via such a fate card. As this can happen as early as the end of the 6th turn (which happened in the first game I played), Russia is under some pressure.

Essentially, the game ends when ONE of the "allied" players achieves his conditions (captured all of his nation's objectives). Prussia wins if he can prevent that from happening, whether due to Russia, Sweden, and France being eliminated by the fate cards or by running out of time (tournament play is timed using chess clocks, otherwise, if you have 2 hours to play and don't beat Prussia within it, you lose.

Each nation draws a certain number of cards a turn, Prussia starting with the most drawn at seven a turn (which eventually becomes four if the wrong fate cards show up). These cards are critically important to the game.

Looking at the image above, notice the suit markings in blue, on the map? Those determine which card suit you are to play when your army is in battle. You can be playing one suit while your opponent is playing the same or different suit, depending on where their army is located.

One reason why this adds a lot to the game is that you are often in a position of having few or no cards of a suit you really need. Usually, like when I am playing as Prussia, this means Prussia is low on spades (for defending Silesia) or hearts (to defend Magdeburg). Hence, you want to bluff your opponents, by careful maneuver, into thinking you are stronger in a particular suit than you really are. At the same time, the allied players are best served by forcing Prussia to continually fight in one or two suits at most, thus running Prussia out of cards and severely weakening Prussia militarily.

Allies. This means that each of these nations are attacking Prussia, for their own ends. But overt cooperation between players is strongly discouraged. Overt means prior planning or discussion of any kind. In general, the players should learn the game and then play it to win a victory for their nation. Not for Austria to help France win, but to secure a win for Austria alone.

Combat. When opposing armies end up adjacent (not in the same location, but adjacent - new players often get this wrong), they MUST fight a battle. Each player announces the strength of his army (or stacked armies) and the player with the fewer number must either accept defeat or play a card. As successive cards are played, the players attempt to end the battle with a positive value. If you run out of cards and are at a negative value, you lose. For each point of difference, you lose one strength point and are retreated one dot on the map. So, if you lose by four, you lose four strength and your opponent  retreats your army four dots. Yes, your opponent gets to retreat your armies.

An example of combat is: Prussia, with one army of 8 strength, faces off against a stack of three Austrian armies with a total strength of 15. Prussia starts at -7 (the difference between army strengths). Prussia may then either concede defeat (not a good idea) and lose seven strength and be retreated seven dots (which can be REALLY REALLY bad) or play a card (cards are played one at a time and as long as your value is negative, you have the right to play another card). In this case, Prussia plays a 12 of clubs, putting the score of Austria at -5. Now, Austria plays an 11 of spades (look at the image above to see why), placing Prussia at -6. Prussia does not wish to spend any more cards, and since a retreat of one is safe (in the image above), he plays a 5 of clubs, losing one army and is also retreated one space.

There are Reserve cards, which are trumps. They can be played in any suit of a value 1 to 10. The player decides the value, often making the mistake of continuing the battle when he should cut his losses.

Another interesting aspect of this mechanic is "playing to zero." When a player plays a card, bringing the total score to zero, his opponent MUST play a card in suit, if he has it. Otherwise, the battle ends with no losses or retreat for either side. This is a way to force your opponent to play more cards in suit than they might have intended. It is advisable to do this if you feel your opponent is weaker in suit than you are, otherwise, you may play more cards yourself, to your own detriment.

Anyhow. I have played this game eight times, four as Prussia. While I have not yet lost as Prussia, I have come very close to losing three times. I made the beginner mistake of playing too many of my cards in early battle, when I should have taken a -1 result. Oh, losses are replaced by spending 6 points of cards for each strength point of troops. If you only have a 7 point card, you lose the extra point. Also, there is an army maximum for each nation and you can never have more total points on the board than that maximum.

I highly recommend this game. I cannot say enough positive about it. While it does require 2.5-3 hours to play (for experienced players) it is a game you must play at least once. The pressure that Prussia is under, to remember enemy army strength, cards played, but also to maneuver your own forces with skill, is not matched in any other game I have played. By the same token, playing as an ally (I have won twice as Austria) comes with its own set of frustrations. See below:

 photo Friedrich13march14_zps59e4f456.jpg
Here is the game from this past Thursday. I was playing as Russia, Ron as Austria, Brent as France, and Evan as Prussia. I came on strong early, but Austria bid its time, taking advantage of the Prussians turning to face me. France, meanwhile, crept up, putting pressure on Hanover, and won the game. Here, you see France needing one last objective and Brent takes it immediately after this picture was taken. Gaaaah!

So, do yourself and your mates a favor and buy (then play) this game.

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