In WWII boardgame Triumph & Tragedy, WWII doesn’t even have to happen

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Well designed games shine whether you are playing them or just watching. The consistency of theme, presentation, and mechanics that make playing a good game such a joy translates — in the best games — into an eloquent dance that you can appreciate as an observer. If you’re really familiar with the game, you can pick up patterns, see the swings, watch the crescendos and decrescendos, almost like listening to a symphony. A good design realizes that every piece of the game needs to fit together, like strings and brass and woodwinds, but each piece needs to bring something different, like strings and brass and woodwinds. It’s hard to design something that fits its pieces together so distinctly and neatly, which is why so many games just add as many pieces as they can, hoping some of them work together. Dice and cards and plastic pieces and a tableau and victory points here and there and oh look! — a mancala. Good luck getting the conductor to harmonize that.

But even complex games can find this sort of kismet. One of the earliest was John Prados’ Rise and Decline of the Third Reich, almost universally known just as “Third Reich.” Although it was one of the most complex games of its time, the way it used hardcore wargame mechanics to express the ultimate supremacy of economics over combat factors was quite sophisticated — perhaps even transgressive. Yet far from making its elaborate factor-counting seem pointless, Third Reich’s smooth mechanics (once you learned the system) led you to naturally push your counters in a way that maximized your industrial prospects. The whole game flowed from this, and while you could argue to the end of the day whether or not it made sense for the British to open 1939 by invading Wilhelmshaven, even this kind of wild counterfactual was based in things like beachhead supply and naval interception. Wargaming’s fundamental assumptions had matured.

Third Reich was published in 1974. Forty-one years later, we got a successor.

In the 1970s, wargames didn’t have blocks. They didn’t have cards, either. Frankly, if they didn’t have hexes, people could get quite angry about it. Now that isn’t the case, and while some people still post odd things on Usenet from time to time about why cards can’t “simulate” anything, most people have reached the point that while some design elements might not be to their taste, they can appreciate how diversity in mechanics can open up new avenues of historical exploration.

Craig Besinque made this argument back in 1984 by designing Rommel in the Desert, a block game with unusual mechanics that I still consider probably the single best take on the North African campaign ever made. In 2015, he designed a game called Triumph & Tragedy, using blocks and cards to… well, you’ll find out soon enough. Unlike Third Reich, it has Neville Chamberlain superimposed on a map of Europe, not German panzergrenadiers. The cover captures the game perfectly, because while you will be one of three players (there are rules for two players, but they are far inferior to the three-player game) fighting for supremacy in Europe, you’ll spend some part of the game doing this diplomatically. The way in which Besinque has marshalled his strings and woodwinds, his brass and percussion, to tell a new wargaming story about a war that has literally thousands of wargaming stories told about it says a lot not just about his design, but how far we’ve come in accepting hex-less, odds-less, factor-less interpretations of history as legitimate “wargames,” in the general understanding of what that term might mean.

Triumph & Tragedy is named after the last volume of Winston Churchill’s history of the Second World War, and like Churchill, it sees the conflict as three-sided: the Germans, the Soviets, and the Western Allies, as led by the mighty British Empire. America is a distant but expected savior, while the French are, well, little blocks that are slightly less blue than the British. The Italians? German satraps, who don’t even merit separate production. (Neither do the French.) It’s a struggle for economic supremacy over the continent, and it’s a struggle that begins well before 1939.

Wait, economic supremacy? What about the warfighting? That’s up to you. Because while one of the victory conditions is winning a warfight, the other doesn’t even involve fighting a fightwar. At any time during the game, you can reveal that you have won by demonstrating you have 25 victory points, which are calculated by adding your production level to any peace dividends. These are secret victory point chits you earn each year you aren’t at war with someone. Ok, yeah, you can win by capturing enemy capitals, or by building the bomb and dropping it on someone, thus demonstrating your technological supremacy to the rest of the world. But what if a war never starts? You can still win. Your production level is the least of your resources, industry, or population. Except that during peacetime, to show the free flow of resources through international trade, you can ignore your resource level for this calculation. Add in your peace dividend, and you can win the warfight without actually warfighting.

This gives each combatant different incentives. The Germans have plenty of industry, but are limited by population and especially by resources. The British have little industry and plenty of population and resources, but many of those resources are coming from distant parts of the empire and are vulnerable to blockade. The Soviets are initially limited by their industry, and have resources and population that are vulnerable because they are close to their national borders. See what Craig Besinque did there? Each power has a different objective due to its circumstances. The Germans need resources and population to feed their industrial machine, and those only come from controlling other countries. The Soviets need to protect the vulnerable population and resources at their borders. The British would love for the world to remain at peace while they desperately build up their industry to match the potential might of their empire. They, more than others, would love peace in our time. Really, just their time. But the other powers will see to it that they rarely get it.

You don’t have to invade other countries to control them, though. Triumph & Tragedy’s simple but brutally effective diplomacy model assumes a dichotomy between talking and doing. Two decks of cards facilitate pretty much all the action on the board: the investment deck, and the action deck. Each turn, you use your production to buy these, which you’ll use for three seasonal rounds. The problem is that while you can buy as many cards as you have production, each card has multiple uses. During the government phase, you’ll play factories to increase your production level. Oh, but that big factory card has heavy tank research on it. Wouldn’t you like your tanks to have first fire, and be able to shoot before your opponents’ tanks? To increase your industry, you need to play factory cards equal to your nation’s factory cost. For a nation like the USSR, that can be as much as seven. Investment card values range from 1-4, meaning that you’ll probably be spending three cards. Think of all the choice tech (two on each card!) you’ll be passing up. But to advance your tech, you need matching cards. So you’ll have to hang on to a few. And you only get to hold a few cards over from on each turn.

But what if you want to influence other countries? That means buying from the action deck. See those cool nations on there? Each one is worth an influence token. Get one influence token onto a country and you get their resources and population for free! Get two, and you can keep others from doing that without declaring war. Get three onto a country and you can use their military. They’re your satellite! Just watch out for your opponents, who will be playing these cards against you (and removing your tokens) as you go around the table. Play a card for influence? Great. You lose the command action on that card. You can’t very well move your armies without commands, can you? Of course not. It wouldn’t be historically accurate.

The tension between investment in research and production, between diplomacy and movement, and between investment and action, drives the whole game. Your hand limit is a real obstacle as you try to collect enough cards of a given type to be able to play effectively in upcoming turns. You can hide technology from your opponents, but at a big cost in hand size. See how many resources it takes to keep something secret?

But really, what’s the point of keeping anything secret, especially when your aides are going to cash in with a juicy tell-all in as soon as you arbitrarily fire them for some stupid thing they may or may not have done in your imagination? The point is that the systems Besinque has chosen to illustrate the problems the European continent faced at the beginning of 1936 work brilliantly as a bas-relief of design: chip away all the things you don’t need to emphasize those that you do. And then make each of them a mutually exclusive tug-of-war dilemma. With blocks serving as the leavening and the texture, but not the seasoning.

Ah, the seasoning. Block games are not a panacea, or our president would already have used them to fix that one thing that you really wanted him to take care of which is why you voted for him in the first place. But some things, like wrongthink, just can’t be fixed. One is that blocks plus area movement equals attritional combat. You’re simply not going to illustrate the difference in combat capabilities between the different sides with strength pips and a bag-of-dice combat system in which movement is restricted to fixed geographical regions. No 1940 blitzkrieg in the west, although I recently read Lloyd Clark’s book that says it was all a myth, anyway. Oh sure, you can take Lorraine with your tanks and planes, but it’s going to feel like taking a victory point area in Storm Over Arnhem: you had the metal and your opponent did not. You may roll up the Rooskies to the very gates of Moscow, but it won’t put you in the mind of slashing panzer tactics. That is, if your opponent didn’t forget to garrison Karelia so you just could just take a flier on Leningrad and find out your opponent was bluffing you with a fleet. LOLZ0RZ! Cradle of Bolshevism, indeed. Those sailors never did one good thing for Russia, including having to retreat and lose the game because fleets cannot remain in a contested land area without ground support.

This kind of anomaly can lead to accusations of the game being like Risk, which is such an insult to both Risk and Triumph & Tragedy that if I were at a party where both games were talking socially I’d politely excuse myself so I didn’t have to deal with the fallout. Risk is a perfectly sound, slowly accreting odds snowball that goes perfectly with a few too many beers and a couple of fractured friendships. Triumph & Tragedy is a grand abstraction on European power politics that brings certain tensions into exquisite focus while necessarily leaving other parts a blurry mess. You can’t make a game where the decision to go to war or not is on par with the ability to make a flank attack on 12th SS Panzer Division at Falaise, without trivializing one or the other. But Triumph & Tragedy is not subtitled: Pan-European Warfare 1939-1945. It is very clearly subtitled: The Struggle for Supremacy in Europe: 1936-1945, and this struggle is captured beautifully by the tension between diplomacy and politics, the tension between production and technology, and the general tension inherent in throwing a handful or two of dice, hoping that you don’t roll higher than a “3.” Can the Soviets decide to invade the Levant while the Western Allies are wrapped up in an assault on Scandinavia while the Axis roll through France into Spain? Sure. Does that bother you? Then why did you let them do it? You can always play historically. If playing historically doesn’t seem to make sense from a gameplay standpoint, you can question the history or you can question the game. The fault may not be binary.

The prism through which you see the game will most strongly diffract the problems that concern you most. Mine reveals a wonderful macro-game complicated by a bunch of needless details in a naval game that emphasizes carrier tactics which never manifested themselves in the European naval theater except in the unique area of anti-submarine operations. Wolfpacks would have been a much better rule than the surface battlegroups that only mattered in obscure Arctic engagements that generated paper tonnage out of all proportion to the significance of the actual historical tonnage engaged or sunk. This is one place Triumph & Tragedy seems to lose its focus as a European theater design, if that was indeed its purpose in the first place. It’s not that you can build Soviet aircraft carriers in the eastern Mediterranean if you control Turkey: it’s what possible good they could do there if you did.

Triumph & Tragedy does a fantastic job of distilling geopolitical factors into a multiplayer strategic game of World War II, leaving some ragged ends to occasionally entangle themselves in an ahistorical mess. Sometimes you can justify that mess, and sometimes you can’t. But the essential three-player dynamic (please ignore the two-player variant – it’s a typographical error) of a Europe ripe for the taking shines through for the most part, and it provides a big enough tableau that you can paint pretty freely and still come away with a satisfying fresco. No one is going to keep you within the lines, though. If you get outside them, beware. But only if you’re afraid of the mess.

  • Triumph & Tragedy

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