Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Britannia: first impressions are favourable

Well, last weekend we got the chance to crack open the copy of Britannia I picked up at the closing down sale at Wargames World here in Brighton, and a very nice looking game it is. My appointed component popper dutifully popped and sorted all the many components for me - lovely card tiles in the main, with excellent artwork, as only Fantasy Flight seems to be able to do it these days.

Most of the pieces represent different tribes that competed for control of the island of Britain between 43 AD, when the Romans invaded, and 1066, when the Normans did the same. Back in the 1990s, one of the games I used to play a lot of was History of the World, which was bought by a friend of mine, but which got a lot of air time amongst the guys I used to game with in the John Major era. Britannia reminds me of that, but it is slightly more sophisticated, and while HotW randomly allocated civilisations, in Britannia you play a designated sequence of tribes: e.g. if you are green, you get the Welsh and Caledonians to begin with, and then the Jutes after that.

Each play gets four tribes, and the game is balanced so that no one gets to play more than one 'uber tribe'. The Roman player begins the game, invading Britain, and has by far the best troops in the game, plus the ability to put down forts wherever he conquers, but once the Romans pull out of Britain, his subsequent tribes are nowhere near as good. First off, he has to play the Romano-British, and face off against the invading Saxons of the red player. We did not get beyond turn 4 in our game (around 350 AD), so the Roman player was still very much in control of England and Wales at that stage, but it was obvious he was thinly stretched, with the Irish plundering Dyfedd and the Saxons on the loose in Wessex.

Dark Ages history, like the 17th century, is a bit of a gap for me in terms of my historical knowledge. In many respects, this is quite an educational game, as it clearly teaches just who was active in Britain at this time, and you begin to get an idea of the difference between your Scots and your Picts, your Angles and your Jutes.

Winning is based on scoring points, and each nation has its own points scoring priorities. Some people have complained that this is hard to keep track of, but I did not have a problem here. Most points get allocated on certain turns, based on occupation of regions, but you can also score between scoring turns by achieving certain objectives. In the early part of the game, i.e. pre-400AD, there were points on offer for knocking out Roman forts and destroying legions, no easy task. The other tribes still need to think about snaffling territory off each other as well, because the first big scoring round comes in turn five, and you need to be ready for the withdrawal of the legions and the free-for-all that follows in the 5th century.

Major historical personalities also feature: they can help with the movement of armies and make troops in their region fight harder. You only really have them for one turn, so it is best to use them or lose them. The only personality to feature in our game was Boudicca, who led my Belgae on a successful revolt against Roman rule in Essex, and then went on a rampage into Kent while most of the Roman army was in the north getting ready for a crack at the Picts.

All in all, this is a beautiful looking game. Did I say that before? I had been discouraged from buying largely because a friend of mine had said "it was a bit complex" with too many exceptions, but having sat down and actually played the beast for four turns, I beg to differ. You really only have to focus on one nation at a time: yes, the green player has to worry about the Welsh and Caledonians at the same time in the early stages, but I get the feeling the Welsh are there to be conserved for greater things later in the game, and the best thing to do is submit to Rome and wait for the legions to leave. The Caledonians, on the other hand, can be entertaining for bashing the Picts during this period, and wrestling sheep and heather off them for turn five.

All in all, a really good game. I think it has benefitted from the fact that there have been two previous editions and several variants exploring other parts of the world. This has allowed the designers to address many of the flaws it seems may have rested in earlier versions.


  1. It seems like this game might share some similarities with Small World. Do they play alike?

  2. Yes indeed, although Small World is a few rungs further down the sophistication ladder, and Britannia requires dice rolls for combat. But the combat is easy to digest. Races are generally not radically different, but they do score differently. The Romans are probably the most different, and have two pages of the rules to themselves, but in many ways their success or lack thereof influences a large part of the first third of the game. Other races are defined by their ability to submit or to raid, or occasionally access to special units like Saxon burghs, or cavalry. It is also a bit more predictable than Small World - you can't bid for tribes, you get allocated them according to colour. History of the World featured a random allocation mechanic which was funky; Britannia lacks that.