I recently sat down to play a solitaire boardgame about the Ottoman Empire in World War I, which would seem like the most random damn thing ever. I don’t have any context for a game about the Ottoman Empire. They’re the ones that had the scripted bankruptcy in one of the Europa Universalis games, right? An expansive, centuries old empire in the predominantly Arab world that couldn’t sustain itself because, uh, well I guess you had to read various histories to answer that. If I recall correctly, Paradox just hardcoded into the game that the Ottomans would fall apart because, you know, that’s how it really happened. You have to work hard in a Europa Universalis game to build up your own blob. You can’t just take someone else’s blob and run with it with impunity.
So here’s a solitaire boardgame about the last days of the Ottomans and I’m eager to play it precisely because I know nothing about the last days of the Ottomans. I have no reason to care whether I win or lose. I have no context for this. But I’m happy to have the numbers and rules show me the way, to have them create narratives to pique my interest, to cultivate in me some sort of curiosity. Let’s see what happens.
After the jump, a tabletop adventure starring Peter O’Toole, Mel Gibson, and the enormity of the Armenian genocide.
The game is called Ottoman Sunset and it’s published by Victory Point Games. It’s in a much smaller box than their main releases. Is there room in here for a game about the Ottoman Empire? It would fit alongside a shelf of Criterion Collection DVDs. The map takes up as much space as a place mat. Oh, hey, there’s a place on the map called Aqaba. It’s a point on the track along which the Arab army advances. Aqaba is a word I know because I can hear how Peter O’Toole says it in Lawrence of Arabia. That gloriously glottal Q rolling out of his mouth so Englishly, his lips popping the B so properly. Aqaba. “Aqaba is over there,” he says when Omar Sharif tells him it cannot be attacked. “It’s only a matter of going.”
The army counters are named for generals. The Arab army counter is Feisal Hussein, who was played by Alec Guinness. And here’s the T.E. Lawrence card that flips the counter to its more powerful Lawrence side! And Aqaba is right next to a space called Hejaz Railway. What famous sequence does that remind me of? So I do have a context for the Ottoman Empire. They’re the Turks in Lawrence of Arabia. Of course.
And there’s the landing at Gallipoli, a little inset box on the map, as if to say it may be small, but it’s also important enough to be blown up for a clearer picture. Peter Weir’s Gallipoli is one of the all-time great war movies for it’s perspective on war through the relationship between two men. Boys, really. One of whom was played by Mel Gibson before he got grizzled and crazy. Here’s a card for dropping a counter labeled Hamilton onto the Gallipoli peninsula, at which point it tries to work its way up to the Ottoman capital of Constantinople. The Gallipoli campaign failed, so here’s the card for taking the counter off the board, which represents the British evacuation. Here’s another card for reinforcing it, which might mean forestalling or even preventing what happens at the end of the Peter Weir movie.
These cards drive the narrative in Ottoman Sunset, even more than the die rolls, which will presumably even out along the way. For every good roll, there should also be a bad roll, with mostly middling rolls along the way. But the cards are a whole other matter. The when, where, and whether of any given card is the heart and rhythm of Ottoman Sunset’s narrative. For instance, consider a card called “Forcing the Narrows”. The Narrows are the Dardanelles, a strait from the Mediterranean that goes right up to Constantinople, where you can take another strait, the Bosporus, into the Black Sea. For swathes of land consisting of myriad nations, Constantinople is the key to projecting force down into the Mediterranean. The Dardanelles below Constantinople is the keyhole. When World War I broke out, the Germans had a bad-ass battleship called the Goeben floating around in the Mediterranean, cut off from any German port. So they ran it up the Dardanelles to Constantinople and asked the Ottomans to help them hide it. The Ottomans did, and later sent it back out to fight, but with the Turkish name Yavuz. Look at that beast:
She officially entered the Ottomans into World War I by shelling a Russian port at Sevastopol as a blatant “it’s on now!” challenge. She was a notable part of the Turkish fleet from that point, enduring through World War II. She was eventually scrapped in 1973. That battleship is a card in Ottoman Sunset. There’s no artwork on the card and it doesn’t really need it. I can see the Yavuz just fine in my imagination.
This naval passage to the Ottoman capital was also a potential weak point. In the real World War I, the British navy attempted to come up the Narrows to assault the city directly. It didn’t work out very well, so they backed off and opted for something else. Namely, the Gallipoli landing. A boardgame like this is all about the what-ifs, such as what-if-the-naval-attack-succeeded. Hence the “Forcing the Narrows” card. It’s location in the deck is one of the most important facts in a game of Ottoman Sunset.
“Forcing the Narrows” is one of the cards in the second set. These represent mid-war events. They get shuffled into the draw pile when a particular transitional card comes up. Therefore you get some warning before the British ships attack. You’ll know precisely when that “Forcing the Narrows” card gets shuffled into the deck. So you can use your precious early-game actions boosting your defenses along the Dardanelles, including mines and better gun emplacements. Alternatively, you can hope German U-boats start patrolling the Mediterranean, which happens when you turn up another specific mid-war card. This U-boat event will preemptively cancel any assault up the Dardanelles. Do you prepare for the “Forcing the Narrows” card, or do you trust that Germany will intercede in time? Of course, if you lose the game because you were waiting on Germany, you deserved what you got (one night, I lost four games in a row to the “Forcing the Narrows” card).
This boardgame has a keen sense for the greater war swirling around the Ottomans. In fact, the course of this greater war in the wider world is an important factor in whether or not the Ottoman Empire collapses. There’s a track representing Turkish national will. Occasional cards will have you roll a die to see how a particular off-map battle went. Did Germany prevail in Jutland? Who won Verdun? How are Russia’s attacks faring against Austria-Hungary? Every off-map victory gives you a point of national will. Every off-map defeat takes away a point of national will. But more importantly, the map itself affects your national will by whether you’re holding important locations against hostile armies. For every strategic point you lose, you lose a point of national will. There goes Baghdad, Damascus, and Jerusalem. If your national will is ever at -3 at the end of a turn, you lose the game. So with enough Central Power victories abroad, you have more leeway to lose territory at home.
On a related note, I was reading about the Russian siege of an Ottoman fort at the city of Erzurum. When the fort fell, along with the casualties and the artillery guns captured, the number of captured standards was mentioned. It’s kind of quaint that back then, people still cared about their flags enough to list them alongside casualties and lost artillery. I even found this picture of Russian soldiers showing off captured Ottoman flags.
That’s a lost point of Turkish national will if I’ve ever seen one.
One of the structural features of Ottoman Sunset is that at some point after all the cards have been shuffled into the deck, an orgy of battles breaks out in Western Europe. This is the Kaisershlacht, which I think is German for “the Kaiser goes all Leroy Jenkins in the Great War”. Theoretically, this could be the third card you play, but the more probable math is that it will be a late-game event. From this point forward, a separate battle phase throws new victories and defeats into the hopper every turn. Suddenly the Turkish national will gets a lot more unstable. Suddenly Germany goes from being your protector to being the psycho you wish had stayed at home. Did you divert resources to Western Europe? More importantly, did you leave them there after resolving the great battles at Ypres, Verdun, and the Somme? It’ll pay off now.
Did I mention this is a “state of siege” game? Victory Point has published a whole bunch of these. The concept is that you’re trying to hold a center against a set of tracks, each with some threat moving ever inwards. The best example of a state of siege game is Dawn of the Zeds, a zombie survival game brimming with cool characters, memorable events, exciting narrative beats, and some of the niftiest zombie-themed gameplay to grace any platform (read the review here). One of the weaker examples of the state of siege engine is Cruel Necessity, which uses a set of tracks to represent the English Civil Wars in the 17th Century. Cruel Necessity throws in a whole mess of extra tracks to represent religious, political, and national concerns. It has a very “yo, dawg, we heard you liked tracks, so we added tracks to your tracks” approach. The various tracks are further complicated with victory point thresholds and fortified points and extra rules so that the track management effectively overwhelms whatever historical reality is being represented. It’s also so unsexy, maybe because Oliver Cromwell never cut as cinematic a figure as Peter O’Toole’s Lawrence or Mel Gibson’s Australian solider. If you follow Cruel Necessity’s flavor text to try to give context to the constant marker scooting, you’ll read about people declaring things and making rules and writing stuff on notices. I suppose there’s nothing quite like an English constitutional crisis for a dry boardgame.
Cruel Necessity does add a slick tactical combat system, but it has a disappointingly slight bearing on the larger game. It’s designed so that you’ll usually fight to a draw, which means losing an action point (which seems like a loss instead of a draw). Over the long-term game, the tactical battles give Cruel Necessity a framework to represent how Parliamentarian forces get more effective as the Royalists are ground down. Historical figures can even be killed.
— Tom Chick (@Qt3) February 22, 2014
The counterpart for this in Ottoman Sunset is the quick minigame you play if the “Forcing the Narrows” card comes up and it hasn’t been preempted by German U-boats. Now the British fleet fights its way up the Dardanelles, rolling dice to fight past whatever defenses you’ve built. All your preparations, or lack thereof, are put to the test. If the British fleet gets to Constantinople, you lose. The rules are far simpler than the battles in Cruel Necessity, but the stakes sure are higher.
For the most part, Cruel Necessity is a game of tracks, crammed with text snippets and peripherally related detail, dying the death of a thousand tiny adjustments. The theming even stumbles over itself when you’re trying to get at the history underneath. Every card has a title relating to some historical event, but then it has three separate snippets of flavor text, some of which is unrelated to the title. Each card is a blunderbuss blast of historical flavor, and it relates poorly to the gameplay mechanics. Sometimes the text in Cruel Necessity is even flat-out broken. Here’s the event in which Parliament passes the Licensing Order to censor written materials. But didn’t I just get the Licensing Order achievement earlier in the game? That’ll teach me to pay attention to flavor text. Cruel Necessity very nearly turned me off the whole concept of stage of siege. I had to replay Dawn of the Zeds to remind me how well it can work.
But Ottoman Sunset is another example of how well it can work, even if it opts out of all the detailed player interaction of Dawn of the Zeds. A game of Dawn of the Zeds is probably going to take at least an hour. But I can easily finish Ottoman Sunset in fifteen minutes. Less when I lose quickly enough. It has the advantage of being almost entirely about advancing armies, and arriving armies, and departing armies, and armies getting stronger or weaker. World War I for the Ottomans wasn’t entirely unlike zombies closing in, being beaten back, and showing up somewhere else! There was more mobility down here than there was in the trenches of Europe. The Ottoman Empire was already in bad shape. It was crumbling fast and, as the title implies, World War I was its last hurrah. In fact, according to the game system, the historical outcome was a “crushing defeat”, which is the lowest level of defeat. That means you can never do worse than the actual Ottomans. I kind of like that. Here’s a terrible situation. Give it a try. Anything short of abject failure and you’ve done better than real history. Grats! I lose the majority of my Ottoman Sunset sessions, but at least I usually do better than the actual Turks, which is a win of sorts. By way of contrast, Cruel Necessity’s “moderate victory” for the Parliamentarians was the historical outcome of the English Civil Wars. There’s more room in Cruel Necessity to fail worse than history.
As I mentioned, the cards in Cruel Necessity do a poor job of painting a historical backdrop, because they’re too full of minutiae. Furthermore, Cruel Necessity plays by a hard-and-fast process of using sets of cards sequentially. Each set of cards is one of the English Civil Wars. You play the first set of cards, then you do a scoring round, then you move on to the second set of cards, then a scoring round, then the third set of cards, and a final scoring round. Three discrete historical periods will not overlap. GMT Games’ brilliant solitaire game Navajo Wars works similarly, but each of its three phases has a very different flavor, and very different gameplay mechanics. It recycles many of its cards for each phase, seeding them with specific historical milestones. Cruel Necessity doesn’t have any of this variety.
In Ottoman Sunset, three sets of cards are thematically linked to the title. There’s a set of early-war cards called dawn, a set of mid-war cards called mid-day, and a set of late-war cards called dusk. Get it? Dawn, then mid-day, then dusk, then Ottoman sunset.
(Habsburg Eclipse, the sequel that covers the Austro-Hungarians during World War I, uses the same conceit of three sets of cards to represent different phases of the war. But I find it amusing that it uses the same terminology even though the word “sunset” doesn’t appear in the title. Dawn, mid-day, and dusk? What do those have to do with an eclipse? Shouldn’t the three decks be called, uh, “tiny bite”, “half-circle”, and “totality”?).
Each set of cards has a single transitional card that instructs you to shuffle the next set into the draw pile. This leads to a compelling web of tangled historical what-ifs that make each game feel different. It furthermore means crucial events like the Bolshevik Revolution, the British naval attack up the Dardanelles, the landing at Gallipoli, or the Arab uprising can happen any time, including never. As I said, the when, where, and whether of these cards is more important than the die rolls. Each of the Ottoman Sunset cards is a single historical event with a broad and simple effect on the game.
There aren’t many moving pieces in Ottoman Sunset. The sequel, Habsburg Eclipse, has several early-game cards that add more pieces to the game. It’s arguably better gameplay because it gives you more decisions and more ways to interact with the board. You can get a whole mess of tokens for German assistance, radio intercepts, and artillery fire. But Ottoman Sunset has precious few of these. One card gives you three tokens representing a special squad of elite Turkish commandos who can block army movement. Another card gives you a single one-use token to represent the assistance of Germany’s Asia Korps. That’s it. Ottoman Sunset is not a game with many die roll modifiers. So when they show up, they’re important.
The unique situation of the Austro-Hungarians is expressed in Habsburg Eclipse by adding sliders to represent the ethnic factions within Austria-Hungary. If any of these factions gets too restless and bottoms out on the loyalty track, the war effort on certain fronts gets a -1 penalty. The math plays out so that the Croats and Czechs will be a consistent problem — as if you need additional complications while dealing with Russia’s advance in the Carpathians — but the steadfast Hungarians will likely be your BFFs throughout the war. If all three sliders drop to their lowest level, it represents an ethnic collapse and the game ends. This failstate looms over Habsburg Eclipse much like the British navy threatening to come up the Dardanelles for a knock-out blow against the Ottomans.
The main difference between Ottoman Sunset and Habsburg Eclipse is that the sequel wants to give you more control, whether it’s deciding when to use your artillery, how to manage ethnic tension, and even whether the Russians retreat from the Polish front (this latter example makes no sense to me, because it seems like something the Russians would decide themselves). Habsburg Eclipse is every bit as good a game as Ottoman Sunset, but you have to slide a little ways down the slippery slope toward Cruel Necessity.
Since it’s the more recent release, Habsburg Eclipse suffers some of the pangs of being a first edition (Ottoman Sunset is currently a second edition release). Some cards and counters have conflicting information about rules and what numbers you need to roll. The color coding is ill advised for how fronts and armies aren’t matched, and furthermore someone had the idea to color Serbian and European battles very nearly the same color of red, but to stipulate that certain red modifiers apply only to the European battles, so don’t get any ideas about color-coded bonuses. The reddish orange used for the marker on the Romanian front further confuses the issue. Information that’s supposed to be on the cards isn’t always there. How am I supposed to know the battle of Trentino is dependant on the Udine space on the Italian track? By looking it up every time? The card for the Czech declaration of independence either defies math or was printed for a different version of the board than the one that comes with the game.
The two games have been jury-rigged to play simultaneously, with the option to exchange resources between maps and to modify battle die rolls based on the state of the other map. For instance, the Brusilov Offensive was a Russian attack against Ukrainian territory occupied by the Austro-Hungarian forces. It’s a card in Ottoman Sunset where you just roll a die to see if the battle was won. But when you’re playing both games simultaneously and you draw this card, you check the location on the Habsburg Eclipse map to see how they’re faring against Russia. Modify the die roll accordingly. Like the extra detail in Habsburg Eclipse, I’m not convinced sticking both games together is much of a selling point. These are good games. Making them more complicated with external dependencies doesn’t make them better.
One of the things I most appreciate in Ottoman Sunset is the distinct personality for each track. They are unique for how events affect them, for how the counters change, for how they progress over the course of the war, and even for how they work. The Sinai, for instance, is a track representing a barren stretch of desert where some poor fellow named General Murray is liable to get stuck for want of water, waiting for the construction of a pipeline. If he’s slow enough, you can even trap him behind a powerful fort at Gaza. But then there are times he’ll break out of the Sinai, upgrade to General Allenby, and then hurtle toward Constantinople with the Arab army running interference under the leadership of Faisel, or even Lawrence. In fact, the interaction between the Arab and Sinai track can be a powerful gotcha, as fatal as the British navy charging up the Dardanelles. It just takes more time to get going.
The interaction between the Sinai and Arab tracks didn’t originally work that way. As one of Victory Point’s gold banner releases, Ottoman Sunset has been updated and re-released. It now includes counters, board markings, and text in the rules for variants for the first edition, some suggested online by people who played the game. The developer only gives his official approval to two of the variants, including one that links the Arab and Sinai armies. Many of the other variants are interesting, but it’s a shame there isn’t any official way to play them, perhaps by adding a scoring modifier. I’ve never understood game designers who just dump into your lap ways to make a game harder or easier. It’s not my job to tune the difficulty. You made the game. That’s your job!
The Armenian genocide makes a demure appearance on a card called “Armenian Massacre”. The flavor text refers to it as a “massive systemic program of extermination”. Okay, fair enough. I guess we don’t really need to roll out the G-word. For whatever weird reason, it’s apparently still an incendiary topic. I’ve had that conversation before with people of Turkish descent, where I’ve encountered something very like denial. Maybe Ottoman Sunset wants to tread lightly. The Turkish campaign of genocide against Armenians is an important historical reality, but it’s not necessarily relevant to these marching armies as anything other than a few cards to represent Armenian resistance. But at least the historical reality is in there, even if the G-word doesn’t appear.
Actually, when I said I didn’t have any context for the Ottoman Empire in World War I, it turns out I was wrong. I just didn’t have anywhere to put it, or anything to piece it together, or any expression of it to take root in my imagination. Now I do. That’s not a four I now have to roll to hold back the Arab army instead of the previous three, that’s Peter O’Toole in David Lean’s movie. That’s not one less counter for me to worry about when the Gallipoli marker leaves the board, that’s the result of thousands of pairs of legs hurtling themselves into machinegun fire. “What are your legs?” “Steel springs.” That’s not an orange counter advancing from the number four to the number three space, that’s a force of Armenian volunteers taking up arms and throwing in their lot with the Russians. I can add to these layers of context General Murray unable to cross the Sinai, the British navy’s daring doomed (?) assault up the Dardanelles, the German intelligence services engineering a coup in Afghanistan, the horrible losses as the battles rage on in Western Europe, elite Turkish commandos stopping Townsend’s assault on Baghdad, pulling the Turkish navy back because an army is coming down from Greece. A week ago, I wouldn’t have had any interest in a six-hour lecture on World War I, posted as a podcast. Today, here I am in the fourth hour of the lecture, dreading when it will be over, listening as I play Ottoman Sunset almost as a time-waster — a hearty “let’s see what happens this time!” time-waster — because it’s so fast, dynamic, and simple. It turns out Victory Point Games’ stage of siege engine, like any other gaming platform, is as good as the design that uses it.