On the Shorter Game in Britannia Second Edition
(Editor’s note: Steve speaks with great authority about this version of the game, as he is the one who created it (though it did undergo a change or two after testing). It replaced the three player short version that was in the earlier versions of the game, and which he refers to occasionally. Steve and Torben Mogensen seem to know the Britannia rules better than I do, too—my excuse is that I have too many other Brit-like game rules running through my head.
I have not changed Steve’s British spelling to American, since many readers will prefer the British anyway!)
Ask most players about Britannia and they will tell you all about how it is a four-player game, and that it’s 16 turns long, and that it takes about four hours to play, and you have to think carefully about the Romans…
But that is just one of the games provided. Among the seven different games included in the new Fantasy Flight Games (FFG) package there is a Shorter Game which only involves three players, takes half as long, and begins once those pesky Romans have left the scene. With the new game, people have become interested in ways they can start playing without having to play the whole scenario, and gently introducing themselves and their new opponents to the rules without an overload of information. The Shorter Game may well be ideal for this. Quite apart from that it is an important game in its own right.
Shorter Game scenario
As a reminder of what I’m talking about, referring to Page 19 of the rules, the Shorter Game starts on Game Round VI and ends at the end of Game Round XIII. Normally Round VI is the first round after the Romans disappear, and the Roman player would be replacing forts with Romano-British armies. Round XIII, just like Round XVI, is a Victory Point counting round and so just like normal, players will be fighting for turf on the last round before they count their final points to see who’s won. Also there is a King at the end of that round. Play of Round XIII may be a little different than usual, since the game stops here, and so players won’t be positioning themselves for Round XIV, and may be reluctant to retreat from the areas they hold.
Now the Romans have been and gone, so there is a more appropriate set up showing the nations that were beginning to become established after the Romans left. There are no Belgae. Romano-British, Welsh and Brigantes occupy most of the island, with the Picts and Caledonians in their familiar position in the north. Irish and Scots have already landed on the west coast, while Saxons, Jutes and Angles have bases on the south and east coasts.
Saxons, Scots and Angles will launch Major Invasions. The game will end after the arrival of the Norsemen, Dubliners and Danes. If there is a King at game end it will likely be either Dane, Saxon or Angle, each controlled by a different player.
In the past there was a mix of attitudes towards this game. Firstly, you don’t get proper counters, so you had to play with counters that were mixed colours – and that just doesn’t look right. Secondly the balance of the game was always questionable. Thirdly some feel that four players is ideal for Britannia, and anything different just doesn’t work.
I’d like to tackle some of these unfamiliar issues, for players who are new to Britannia, and provide a little background on the game, for players who aren’t.
Players and colours
The three players take the Nation cards for the nations as listed in the variant. The first edition of FFG’s rules omit the Dubliners from the list of nations – these properly belong to Player 3 who controls the Angles. The counters in the game won’t let you play the Shorter Game with proper colours without a little swapping around. Unlike in the past, the new version of the game does not have the nations’ names on the counters. This means they are more flexible than before.
There are three players to furnish with counters. FFG gives these players a number, but Britannia players are used to calling the players by their colours, so:
Red (Player 2): Saxons, Norsemen and Irish are going to be their usual selves. However in this game Red has control of the Picts instead of the Brigantes. So you can use the counters for the Brigantes (Shields) to represent your Picts, only remember the Brigs have 11 army counters and the Picts have a limit of 10, so you’ll have to take one of them out, maybe put it on the Pict nation card to remind everyone the Brigante warrior is a Pict now. These Red Picts still score according to their normal Pict Nation Card, as do the other substitute nations.
Blue (Player 3): Angles are the same as usual. However Blue has three different nations to sort out, the Jutes, Dubliners and Scots. In the case of the Jutes, Blue is best using the Norman (Longship) counters – remember the limit for the Jutes is only 6 armies, no more can be placed at any one time (and they DON’T get cavalry!). For Dubliners and Scots the Blue player can use the Pict (Spear) and Belgae (Shield) armies from the standard game. Both have 10 army counters, while the Scots need 11 and the Dubliners need 9. So one army will have to be taken from one nation and added to the other. I think Picts are best to represent Scots here, with the Belgae in the role of the Dubliners, with 1 Belgae moved across to the Scot nation in case it is needed.
Green (Player 1): We are left with Green and Yellow counters to represent Green’s five nations. The Welsh, Danes and Caledonians can remain their usual selves. The Romano-British will remain Yellow. Only the Brigantes will need a new set of counters – as a personal favourite, I would use the Scot (Yellow Spear) armies to represent these. Both nations have an army limit of 11, so another good reason to use the Scots.
Then players should decide how to handle leaders. In the case of Fergus, Urien, and Olaf their nations have changed colour. So players have the choice to use the actual counter for that leader with odd coloured armies, or substitute a leader that can’t appear in the game (Such as William, Harald or Boudicca) and use that counter. As it happens, none of these leaders need to be identified for point scoring, and leaders will always be with an army of their nation, so should be easily identifiable.
Now that you and your opponents can safely tell each others’ pieces apart, you’ll have to set up. The classical set up of one army per area has been retained. However in the past some areas were left vacant. In this new version all areas are occupied. This was a conscious attempt to give the native British nations some power, and to avoid the ‘empty England’ situation that was depicted before, and was rather inauthentic. Also previously the Irish and Scots had no areas on land. This meant that they had to rely on the forces that arrived on Round VI and after, which meant they lost all of their forces arriving on Rounds III to V on the Timeline. This seriously weakened those two nations, who typically in a full scenario will have retained some of their raiding forces from previous rounds. As the Irish control parts of Wales initially, the Welsh have been moved further east, into Cheshire and March, which were known to the Welsh as South Rheged during this time.
Given this more powerful British set up, and the fact that Saxons, Jutes and Angles are already on land there was a likelihood that the Romano-British would attack the Anglo-Saxons, as they were permitted to do in the original Short Game, and are free to do in the Standard Game. This doesn’t sit right with the particular historical situation we’re depicting, where the Romano-British had invited Anglo-Saxon federate allied warriors, known as laeti, to live among them and act as mercenary armies. It would be the Anglo-Saxons, according to tradition, that launched attacks against their hosts and paymasters.
So there is a special rule in this game that says the Romano-British cannot attack Saxons, Jutes and Angles. In fact, the Romano-British may not attack anyone on Round VI given their other restrictions, and as usual may not Increase Population.
The reason the Romano-British may not attack anyone is that on their other borders there are Welsh and Brigantes, and in keeping with our place in history, under the variant rules these two nations are considered as having previously submitted to the Romans. Under the rules any such nation is protected from attack from the Romano-British until Round VIII. There is also usually a rule that says the Romano-British score for eliminating armies of these nations if they attack first. In the Shorter Game variant rules no such points can be scored (this stops any shenanigans by the Green player who might deliberately attack his Romano-British with Welsh or Brigantes to prime those nations to be scored for with a counterattack – not a likely move, but possible).
My attitude to the opening of the game is one of being careful and cautious. The nations on the board are spread out and weak. Certain nations receive invaders, but only the Saxons can consider themselves at near full strength, and even they will have to be careful about establishing themselves properly. This is an ideal time for first-time players to be learning about the Population Increase and Movement rules, whether by making the moves themselves or observing the other players. A little time concentrating on the details of the rules here is better spent now, before the game starts to get busy and players will want to be quickly playing through the rounds.
I’ve seen players view the first round of the Shorter Game as an opportunity to land decisive blows on their opponents, or pick on certain opponents to attack. As the Chinese say about the French Revolution, it’s too early to say. Any decisive act on the first round will be a huge risk, and players will be jeopardising the good health of their nations for the remainder of the game if they launch an ill-considered attack on Round VI.
Some ideas for each player:
Green player: The Green player moves first, and has to move all their nations before the other players move! This can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand the Green player can make all their moves, and possibly grab some important location first, and then sit back. On the other hand the player may feel that they are a target waiting to be hit by the other two players. All the while the Green player will be awaiting the arrival of the Danes much later in the game on Rounds XI-XIII.
As pointed out above, the Romano-British can’t attack anyone initially, and don’t even get to Increase Population at first. Their six armies will have to rearrange themselves to their best advantage in anticipation of the Saxon Major Invasion later in the round. The likely outcome will be them massing in the Downlands (up to 4 armies under the Stacking rule), with loose armies spread out so they aren’t overpopulated (they will have to occupy at least 3 areas to avoid overpopulation, and can vacate their other areas). An alternative would be to occupy a clear area near to Wales or the North with a large group, where they might have a slim chance to retreat from an attack. The Romano-British do not get Population Increase on the first round, but will do on Round VII and later (if they survive!). Even if they are eliminated, Arthur and his cavalry may still be able to appear on Round VII as per the panel on Page 15 of the rules.
The Welsh are faced with the perennial problem of having the Irish behind them, when they might prefer to be fully facing to the east to counter the Angles and Saxons. The Welsh do get to move before the Irish, and so will likely take the easy option of attacking Dyfed, or less likely the opportunity to take Cornwall while there’s only one Irish there. They will also have to think about whether to defend Devon from a potential Saxon attack later, and whether to stay occupying the clear areas to the east of Wales, or to evacuate and move the armies to safer areas in Wales. The Welsh occupy 10 points of territory for Population Increase, and so will gain 1 new army and will save 4 points on the Population Track. Again, now is a good time to be getting new players used to counting these areas.
The Brigantes are spread out to the north. The Angles are weak, but not so weak as to not be a threat. So the Brigantes might want to stay spread out to try and gain some Increase Population on Round VII, or they may wish to mass force somewhere, possibly trying to defend Pennines initially, before deciding where to mass force on Round VII. The Brigs also occupy 10 points of territory for Population Increase at first.
Either Welsh or Brigantes might want to provide a vacant area for the Romano-British to retreat into, but this might become occupied by Irish before it could be used.
The Caledonians will be their usual passive selves, but may wish to unite their two armies into one area for defence. They are likely to stay put – at least their two areas are now connected, so they can retreat from one to the other. They will only gain 2 points for Population Increase, so won’t gain an army at least until Round VIII.
Strategically aggressive players might want to make the Romano-British, Welsh and Brigantes cooperate to fight the Angles or Saxons, but ultimately the self-interest of these nations will involve trying to establish somewhere where they can survive into the later game.
Red player: The Red player has the Saxon Major Invasion in the early part of the game, but this has been deliberately weakened compared to what is possible in the Standard game. The Saxons only have 2 armies on map, plus their 8 Invaders, and four points of Population Increase isn’t enough for another army. In a Standard game they could have up to 14 armies, from reinforcements alone. It will be important, more so than usual, that the Saxons safely establish themselves as a nation on land in the South of England, and build up over time. If the Red player takes risks early on and they don’t pay off, they could be in serious trouble, and will be asking for charity from the other players for most of the rest of the game. The Red player really ought to be cautious in their approach if their coalition is to have the staying power to challenge at the end of the game. All that said, the Saxons do get a Major Invasion on Round VI, so will get to take two moves, and are likely to be fighting either the Romano-British, Welsh, Jutes, or Angles – or all of these. Now is a good opportunity for players to learn about Major Invasions, Leaders, and how Battle and Retreat work.
The Picts begin the game surrounded by enemies, and at medium strength. Like the British nations to the south, they will want to secure their core territory, in eastern Scotland, and this will mean they will lack the resources to attack their neighbours. The Scot and Angle coalition should be seen as the major threat, and the Picts will likely evacuate Dunedin, retreat fighting out of Skye and look to build up strength to expand later as opportunities present themselves. The Picts are likely to build an army on Round VI (if they do not lose a starting area), and can then move to first deny Skye to the Scots on Round VI by putting a second army in that area, dissuading an attack, then try to set themselves squarely in Alban and Moray with two armies in each for Round VII, accepting that they will lose Skye to the Scots on that round.
The Irish will likely be under attack from the Welsh at the outset, and their isolated positions will easily fall. On the assumption that they keep Cornwall, they are likely to want to build up in the southwest peninsula, maybe also using Avalon as a base, although they may wish to allow the Saxons to secure it for them first, by clearing and surrounding it in strength.
The Saxons are likely to be faced with a concentration of Romano-British in Downlands, while the lowland extremities of Kent and Norfolk are controlled by the Blue player, but not in force. They will be faced with a choice of storming Downlands, using Aelle to help the attack, or trying to land all their armies without losing too many in battle, and giving all of them possible retreat paths against the inevitable Romano-British counterattack. Aelle will attract Romano-British attackers on Round VII and it may be hard to keep him safe. The Saxons may also wish to clear Devon of the Welsh, and Aelle might be sent here. The problem with leaving the Downlands with four Romano-British armies is that Arthur and his cavalry can be placed here too on Round VII quite legally, making six armies with a leader, and the Downlands is right in the centre of where the Saxons want to be. However if Aelle is dead, or somehow unreachable, it is always possible the Romano-British might pick on the Angles instead of the Saxons.
Blue player: The Blue player has the Angles as the centrepiece of his coalition, and the middle part of his game. The Blue player gets 3 Major Invasions to plan, Scots, Angles and Dubliners. In terms of scoring power I see the Blue player as slightly weaker than the other two, but he may be in a position to gain from any feuding between them, and mostly does have very active forces. In fact players who are used to the Standard Game quite often feel they are still playing that when they are playing the Shorter Game, and a Red-Green feud can result. The Blue player should do nothing to dissuade them, by not being aggressive and building up the numbers of armies, although this can be a sterile and straightforward route to victory.
The Scots will initially have four armies if they haven’t been attacked (Dalriada, Hebrides and 2 in Irish Sea). They will then have the choice to risk an attack somewhere, such as into Skye with 2 or 3 if there’s only 1 Pict there while holding Dalriada, or to reinforce their two highland bridgeheads and build up for their main attack on Round VII. The Scots will have more confidence moving into the clear areas of Strathclyde, Dunedin and Lothian as they are allied to the Angles, but they will still want the Angles to do any fighting for them and weaken the other northern nations, as Angle armies are more easily replaced than Scots.
The Jutes are likely going to be roadkill unless the Saxons deliberately ignore them. Here is an issue with the order of play. The board does list the Jutes as going before the Saxons, but the game was intended to be played Saxons first, and this is the official line. This was how the game (including the Shorter Game) was tested, but the benefits to the weak Jutes are mainly in the Standard Game. In the Shorter Game they really would prefer to go first, either to mass a couple of armies in Kent, or even to have a pop at the Romano-British or Saxons. Of course such an attack might put the Saxons in an even more precarious position than usual, and this is why Jutes first is not permitted. If the Jutes score any points at all, that would be a bonus – being bypassed is their best hope. Players of original Britannia might think the Jutes can score for killing Romano-British, but in this new game they do not, apart from Arthur and attacks against his cavalry.
Angles initially have an enclave in East Anglia, plus four invading armies. Dependent on whether the Saxons attack them, the Angles will be looking to establish a position where they are not overpopulated on the east coast, or may launch an attack or two against their traditional enemies, the Brigantes. This might take the form of a low risk attack on a clear area such as Cumbria or Lothian, or it might be a grab of some difficult terrain, like Pennines or Galloway. As ever, ideally the Angles would like to secure the North of England by making the Brigantes submit, containing the Welsh and any Romano-British that threaten them, and then taking on the Saxons, usually in that order.
The Short Game in the original versions of Britannia was not balanced in Victory Points. The ‘Blue’ coalition involving the Angles was the weakest party. In fact this gave me an insight into how to understand points balance generally in Britannia. There was no way the Blue coalition then could score one third of the points that were typically scored in the game by all three players.
When the new version was in the development stage, some attention was given to all the non-standard games, as it was clear that these had not been handled well previously. The suggestion went in to do some work on the Short Game, and the Shorter Game variant is the result of this. While this was developing some of the rules were changing, for example the Burh rules were introduced. In the game as originally published in 1986 Romano-British could score for eliminating Saxons when defending, now they cannot. Further changes to Victory Points, particularly for the Welsh, Saxons and Danes, and changes to the Timeline for the Angles, were made. However all these small changes probably have not had a decisive effect on unbalancing the new version beyond a normal level of doubt that was already there.
The new version has been put together with play and Victory Point balance in mind, and should present a decent and fair challenge.
Comparisons to Standard Game
Strategically the Standard Game is dominated early on by the Romans, and the Yellow player normally sets a mark by scoring with them, but then retires somewhat from the game as it continues. Many players consider the Red-Green axis as one of continual conflict, and to some extent that is true of the Yellow-Blue axis.
It is important in the Shorter Game to forget this and remember that it is a game in its own right. Consequently it is ‘new expression on a familiar face’ and players should be trying to understand it without thinking in Standard Game terms.
The Green player will be the one who falls behind in this game, and will then be relying on the Danes to catch up again at the end. So the Green player benefits from not setting a target scoreline like Yellow does in the Standard, and hopefully has more on-board resources than Yellow’s Scots and Romano-British for surviving the first half of the game, and having influence on the other players.
Comparison with the Short Game in previous versions of Britannia
There were no short games in the original set of rules submitted by Lew Pulsipher to H P Gibson and Sons, which was the first published Britannia game. However they included it, and the same version was repeated in Avalon Hill’s rules. So it looks like it was an idea they had to make the game a little more accessible, although it is likely that this game was largely ignored despite the popularity of the overall design. It seems that they did not consider Victory Point balance in the game, but arranged the nations in an arbitrary way that kept certain opposing nations apart. Their coalitions were Saxons-Brigs-Scots-Norse, Angles-Irish-Dubliners-Picts and Danes-Welsh-RBs-Jutes-Cals. It is likely it did not get much testing. The Angle coalition was weak, and having Brigantes, Scots and Norse on the same side meant that Scotland could be conquered by the Red player, while the Green player had little influence there.
Checking over some of my computer files from the last few years, I’ve logged 75 games in various forms of the Short Game from that era – I must have had more time then! For the 3-player Short Game I rearranged the nations, but kept the set up, rules and VPs. So for the Avalon Hill/Gibsons version of the game coalitions of Saxons-Brigs-Cals-Irish-Dubliners, Angles-Jutes-Scots-Norse and Danes-Welsh-RBs-Picts seemed to work a lot better. A fuller description of some of my Short Games for original Britannia is posted in a folder on the Eurobrit Yahoo group.
My experiences with these games lead me to make suggestions for a Short game for Brit II, which then Lew tested and finalised. As mentioned above, the set up was changed to fill in the vacant areas, strengthen certain nations and give players some simple choices at the outset. Initially the Welsh were faced with the choice of attacking Irish in Cornwall, Dyfed or Gwynedd, but maybe they were too precarious faced with this position. The Irish have a Raiding Turn on Round VI which was added during the development, and the Scots have them on Rounds VI and VII – in the original game neither nation had any raiding capability as all their raiders appeared before Turn 6. These contribute to helping those two nations survive on the difficult west coast.
Anyway the various changes made in the Britannia II development has resulted in a different 3-player Shorter Game with different nation assignments, set up and Victory Points to my cleaned up version of the 3-player Short Game for original Britannia, and these are quite distinct games.
The rules and the Shorter Game
A great many rules do not affect the Shorter Game. There are no Romans, so all their attendant rules can be ignored. Most odd rules will relate to the Romano-British – they have Population Increase restrictions, have restrictions on who they attack, and also have cavalry, but all these oddities will disappear by Round VIII.
Players learning the rules will get to play ‘normal’ nations like the Welsh and Picts from the outset. This means players can be drilled into a routine of Population Increase, Movement, Battle, Overpopulation from the outset and so should more easily get to know these rules than when playing the Standard Game, where having to deal with the Romans gets in the way of the normal running of things.
Few Victory Points typically will be scored on Round VI (the only ones to look out for are Aelle getting killed by the Romano-British, and armies eliminated by the Irish and Scots on Round VI) so players need not concern themselves with that, but should be looking ahead a little to the first major scoring round of Round VII, which comes along pretty quickly as the second Round of the game. New players can be given a heads up for this. There are no Limes points to deal with, and no Occupying points until the arrival of the Danes and Norse. The only Eliminate points in the early part of the game are for the Romano-British eliminating their enemies, eliminating Romano-British cavalry and for the leaders Arthur and Aelle. Later there are eliminate points for killing Ivar and Halfdan by the Saxons or Angles. So the VP situation is a lot simpler, and again players will benefit with not being confronted with much complexity.
Petty Diplomacy and the Unequal Defence
Now three-player games seem to get a bad press. A number of players (including the designer!) feel that three-player games are open to the possibility that two of the players are capable of ganging up on the third. This has been called the Petty Diplomacy issue, in a reference to a game of alliances, Diplomacy.
Players feel that in a four-player situation the worst excesses of ganging up are reduced, as if two players gang up on a third, there is a fourth player who will be the main beneficiary, and so the alliance is deterred.
I have already mentioned the opposite situation – the feud – where two players ignore a third to fight each other. Ideally the players should play the board as they see it, and not be carried away with an unbalanced strategy. Most players prefer a playing style where players pursue their own self-interests, and play the game not ‘play the other players’. But what if a nightmare scenario does emerge where a player is the target of an alliance of the others? What can you do? Well, retaliate by taking another leaf out of the Diplomacy players’ copy book – the Unequal Defence.
Ultimately no alliance can last if there is no benefit to one of the parties. If one player of a pair is denied any benefit, and the other is allowed to become strong, the strong player will be seen as a threat to win the game, and the weak player should shift over to attacking the strong player and not you, possibly creating a new alliance against the strong player. Any player thus victimised would have to be vocal in pointing out the true leader of the game, and careful that such a lead is pronounced, but not unassailable. Often the biggest challenge for the victim may be in spotting the alliance against them in the first place.
The Green Player would be in an unenviable position if under such an attack. They could try to frustrate either player, but given that they would hope to recruit one against the other later and their Danes are likely to prefer to fight the Dubliners over York, they will likely want to frustrate, but not fatally damage Red first, then try to recruit their Saxons and Norsemen into a fight against the Scots, Dubliners and Angles. It would be important that this doesn’t develop into a feud in the meantime. As an alternative the Green player might find it more dramatic to coordinate Romano-British, Brigantes and Welsh to launch attacks against the Angles to hold Blue back, and let Red grow into the monster that has to be slain before the end of the game.
If the Blue or Red players were in this position either they could pressurise Green, and try to recruit the Danes later, or pressurise the other player in the hope that Green became the leader who could then be dismantled by the Saxons and Dubliners late in the game.
Like I say, the hope is that players don’t go down these dark paths, and the thoughts suggested above are extreme measures to stop an extreme act.
Short Games have provided me with a lot of entertainment over the years. It seems with the advent of the new game a great many more players will try out Britannia. One concern of mine reading the various online reactions to the game is how long people are taking to play the game, and how that is at odds with my experiences over the years playing it. The Shorter Game may well provide a way of killing several birds with one stone, as it provides a way to play where you don’t have 4 players, you don’t have the time to play the full version, and maybe if you don’t have the patience to learn all the rules. The Shorter game might be the prototype for how the future of Britannia-like games develops in a form which is less demanding of time and complexity, but without short-changing people on depth and richness.