First Impressions: Churchill

By Dave Neumann 04 Jan 2016 0

Over the holidays, I was fortunate enough to get Mark Herman's latest "wargame" to the table, Churchill, from GMT Games. Why the quotes, you ask. Well, I'm not quite sure that Churchill is a wargame. While the game's setting is World War II, there isn't a hex to be seen and, while there are a handful of counters, you won't find a NATO symbol on any of them. Instead, this game's main focus is the politics behind the war and how the Big Three shaped a post-war world. The main focus are the war-time conferences between the Allied leaders rather than the battlefields. 

I felt compelled to write something about Churchill because, since we wrapped up our last game on Friday night, I've done little else but think about the game. It remains set up on the table in the basement like a body on a slab, with my postmortem lasting for three days. I can't remember getting this absorbed in a boardgame before, which tells me that Churchill is something special. I don't feel experienced enough with the game after only two playthroughs (and both at the "training" level consisting of only three turns) to do a full review, but I needed to tell someone out there how fantastic Churchill is.

The Churchill board is broken up into two halves. One half represents a circular conference table with each player's leader (Roosevelt, Stalin, and Churchill) positioned equidistant from each other along the table's edge. The other half of the board gives a much abstracted view of the world, consisting of several tracks that lead to both Germany and Japan. There is both an Eastern and Western Front track that lead to Germany, for example, as well as a Mediterranean Theater track that doesn't enter Germany, but will draw forces out of Germany if the US/UK side can progress far enough along the track to make the Axis nervous. There are four tracks leading into Japan: Central Pacific, Southwest Pacific, China-Burma-India, and Far East. On each track rests a block which represents the front.

Turns consists of two phases. The first phase is the conference phase. First, a conference card is revealed which acts like an "event" card, triggering events or rules that will shape how the turn progresses. For example, a conference card might have the USSR player roll to see if the Murmansk convoy gets through the artic this turn, or if it is sunk by U-boats. A poor die roll means it's sunk, and the USSR player forgoes the extra production that the convoy would have delivered. Of course, if there's enough naval support in the artic the question is moot and the convoy breaks through without a die roll needed. Other events include Roosevelt being unable to attend a conference, making him unable to advance any issues that turn, or the UK being pressured to send production to a front that they'd rather not concentrate on. Following the card reveal, the true conference begins. Each player will advance one of the preset issues by playing a card from their hand. These cards contain members of each leader's general staff, and each one has a strength value as well as an attribute that triggers when the card is played. When you play a card, you can move that issue along the tracks on the conference table toward your leader. If any issue reaches your leader, you've won it and it's off the table. At the end of the conference, you also win any issue that's on your side. This is the crux of the game, the push-pull of these issues between each leader. When you you advance an issue, the other players may debate the issue, pulling it back toward their side. The real game comes not from simple card play, but from the face-to-face negotiation you have with your tenuous allies. Promising to not debate an issue for help in production or offensive support on one of your fronts only to see your opponent "forget" and place all their offensive support on their own front is maddening and thoroughly wonderful, knowing that you'll get them back at some point down the road.

The issues up for debate include things like US Production, US/UK/USSR Directed Front, Opening a Second Front in Europe, USSR declaring war on Japan, A-bomb research, and more. The mechanisms of the game, overall, are quite simple, but learning which issues translate to what you need during the second phase of each turn is where the learning curve gets steep. What is that extra production going to do for me? Do I want to move a front forward now, or let the Russians advance first so that the bulk of the German reserves head East? Questions like this won't become clear on your first playthrough, where our group failed to defeat either Germany or Japan, but fall into place the more conferences you get under your belt.

The second phase is the war phase. Here, you'll take your winnings from the conference and spread them around the world based on deals you've made and what you think is best for your country. This includes military placements, such as naval and offensive support, as well as political placements. Attached to the sides of each of the tracks are the countries of Europe and the colonies of Southeast Asia. In these you can place clandestine networks and political alignment markers. Thus, you're not only trying to win the war, but setting up post-war governments that are in your pocket instead of your allies'. 

The game is won by collecting victory points which are earned by controlling political influence in countries, winning issues, and moving your front closer and closer to Germany and Japan. You also score for A-bomb research (or, if you're the Soviets, spying on A-bomb research) and controlling global issues, which change how political influence can be spent around the globe. Interestingly enough, however, it's not always the player with the most points at the end of the game who wins. The game is semi-cooperative, so a player who ignores his allies and plows forward for a huge point lead may find himself in trouble when the end game rolls around. Depending on if the Axis powers have surrendered, there are different ways to decide who wins, usually involving a die roll. If the player in the lead is more than 15 points ahead of the player in last place, then the dice determine who the true winner is. If there's a gap of 22 points or more between top and bottom, the trophy will go to the player with the second most points at game's end. This scenario only applies if both Axis powers concede, however. If not, it gets even crazier with the player in third having a chance to come up from the bottom and win. It's a tad complicated, and I had no idea during the game who was ahead or behind and by how much, but it feels right at the end. You need to help out your allies rather than steamroll them, or you'll find yourself winning the war, but losing in the post-war world as your former allies look at you with anger and suspicion. 

The game can be played in one of three scenarios: a training scenario in which the world is setup as it was in late 1944 and you play through 3 conferences, a tournament scenario which covers 5 conferences, and the full campaign scenario in which you play through a full 10 conferences. As I said earlier, I played through two of the training conferences with a play time of nearly 4 hours for the first game, but only about 2.5 hours for the second. A full campaign game of 10 conferences is estimated to last around 6 hours.

One of the nice things about Churchill is that it fits in that oft-ignored niche of good three player games. The game is made for three players and, although possible to play with 0, 1, or 2 players using elaborate bots for the leaders, I can't imagine those games being as rewarding as playing face-to-face with two of your friends.

So, is Churchill a wargame or not? To be honest, I don't care. All I know is that I want to get two of my friends together and get this back on the table as soon as possible.



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