The Lonely Carolingian
Despite the fact that Charles I spent the majority of his reign warring against one foe or another, it’s hard to imagine how Tom Russell’s Charlemagne, Master of Europe could have been anything other than a solo game. After all, who could stand as a worthy opponent to the Pater Europae? The Lombards, Moors, Saxons, or internal Frankish plotters who ultimately found themselves bulldozed as Charles became king, then king of a second kingdom, then eventually Emperor of the Romans?
Actually, the answer is those dang dice and those dang cups. By the conclusion of a session, it’s apparent that they’re the real enemies of the Carolingian Dynasty.
Following the classic formula of many notable solo games, Charlemagne, Master of Europe is both heavy on the dice and incredibly hectic, though both descriptors fall short of explaining what it’s trying to accomplish. At the outset, Charles I is a young king of the Franks. He has some stability in his heartlands, unsettled Frankish nobles in Neustria and Aquitaine, the uppity Lombards to the south, and a border teeming with very grumpy Pagans to the East. For now, the intrigues of his own court, potential Moorish invasions along the Spanish March, the depredations of raiding Vikings, and the jealousy of the Byzantines are far-off concerns — though never quite far enough off.
The contrasting immediacy or remoteness of these threats is regulated by one of the game’s most innovative systems. Rather than measuring out problems via an in-game calendar — Vikings in turn 5, Moors in turns 7-9, and so forth — nearly every danger is paced by swapping troubles from one container to another. Cups. Goblets. Funeral urns. It all depends on your perspective.
I’ll give you an example. Let’s say Charles wants to stamp out some growing resentment in Poitiers without resorting to outright battle. He marches into the region, rolls a die, and possibly silences the nobles who’ve been fomenting dissent. But while you’re sweeping your foes off the map, the cups beckon. One chit that was safely nestled in the friendly cup will now be moved to the unfriendly cup, and two chits that were situated in the hostile cup will be moved onto the map. In this way, friendships and secure borders gradually come under strain and grow disgruntled, then eventually boil over into full-on scheming, rebellion, and invasion.
Adapted from Russell’s earlier game, Agricola, Master of Britain, these cups are the soul that makes Charlemagne both so interesting and, well, a little wonky.
First, the good. There’s a certain logic to the way these cups are manipulated, and at times that logic informs the prudence of certain actions. Aggressive behavior like political suppression, battle, or forced baptism of Pagans can quickly degrade your relations with rivals both at home and abroad, filling your hostile cup with greater diversity and, eventually, farther-ranging threats to your rule. Early on, for instance, you have little to fear from the Moors, but over time it’s possible for them to become one problem too many. If only you’d taken a few benign actions — paying off your enemies, establishing a marquis or two — then perhaps they never would have presented a significant challenge at all.
More than that, these cups also sidestep the need for any sort of governing artificial intelligence. Instead of doing what many solo and cooperative games resort to by mirroring Pandemic, wherein threats “explode” from one region to another, invading chits in Charlemagne remain where they’re planted. The problems they pose are largely abstracted: Vikings mess with your churches, stacks of Pagans chew away at your treasury, Moors creep toward your heartland. Whatever the effect, resolving a chit is as straightforward as drawing it and looking up its consequence. No need to worry about a band of Saxons pouring across the border into Aachen, or Byzantine court intrigues behaving differently after a certain number of appearances. There’s surprisingly little overhead despite the breadth of everything Charlemagne wants to portray.
However, there are some downsides. While Charles is forced to fight fires wherever they appear, he’s occasionally left with the strangest of all fates for an emperor: too little to do. This isn’t the status quo, and it’s entirely possible to find yourself choking on one crisis after another. But at certain points in Charlemagne’s three- to four-hour campaign, it isn’t uncommon to discover that Charles needs to march back and forth, passing time until a barbarian horde or rebellious mob gains a leader and a trove of treasure to plunder.
It’s a strange thing, to so quickly veer from a state of emergency to a quiet year of waiting around for a rival army to grow strong enough to bother trouncing in battle. Because battles are possibly ruinous — more on that topic in a moment — it’s far better to wait until a fight carries a payout. At times this feels like an emperor’s shrewdness, refusing to commit too early to a conflict, but can also lead to weirdly sedate game rounds where your best possible course of action is to laze about until something important comes up.
The point is, for every advantage afforded by Charlemagne’s cups, there are also moments of shakiness. It’s anybody’s guess whether the path to the imperial crown of Rome will be paved in jagged pitfalls or smooth cobbles. And that lack of control over the proceedings is only deepened by the game’s unwillingness to let you massage the outcomes of its dozens of dice rolls.
This is a matter of preference, but I’ve always found dice most enjoyable when they let me exert some meager level of control over their outcomes. Usually this takes the form of a limited resource that can be spent to boost the effects of your actions. Think of the power cards of Darkest Night, the treasures and wagered crewmen of Nemo’s War, or the hunters and inventions of Greenland and Neanderthal. In Master of Europe, a failed roll is a failed roll, no way around it. And between that and the chits that direct the action around Charlemagne’s growing territory, it often feels less like you’re playing the game and more that the game is playing you.
Not that this is entirely negative. Once I came to terms with the idea that I was giving suggestions rather than sitting in the driver’s seat, Master of Europe became far more enjoyable. And really, the whole thing is far less about any one die roll and more about a panoramic view of Charles I’s success or failure as a Frankish king.
Consider the game’s battle system. Whenever you collide with an enemy army, you array your forces against troops drawn randomly from the game’s fourth cup. There’s hardly any chance that you’ll lose one of these fights. In fact, this is such a remote possibility that it’s an immediate game over if your forces ever rout. Instead, you’ll take some hits. Maybe an infantry or two, perhaps one of your precious mounted scara. Not too bad, right? Well, no, it’s really bad. Troops are costly and necessary for battle, but more importantly they’re the backbone of your entire empire. At the end of each round, it’s not enough that you survived all the rebellions and Pagans and whatever else the cups threw at you. You’ve also got to meet a certain victory point threshold and be fielding a sizeable army. With each passing round, these requirements continue to expand. As the ruler of the Carolingian Empire, even a moment of stagnancy can mean your defeat.
In the meantime, you’re also tasked with chasing the game’s victory conditions. These steps are largely scripted — first the Iron Crown of Lombardy, then public works and churches, then coronation down in Rome, then ensuring you have enough points, troops, and dead Moors to qualify for final victory. It sets the format for the whole game, with long-term considerations winning out over your moment-to-moment actions.
In one sense, this directed approach robs Charlemagne, Master of Europe of any chance of standing out as one of the great solo games. Despite the uncertainty of the threats that emerge from its cups, every game follows largely the same beats, whether scrambling to douse fires or finding the time to head down to Rome to accept a surprise coronation from the Pope.
Then again, this might not matter. The real highlight of Charlemagne is found in the way it evokes its history — the strain of competing calamities, the irritating appearance of Vikings or Moors or faraway Byzantium, the lifelong struggle of its king and emperor — and in that sense Master of Europe does a fine job of abstracting, distilling, and making accessible the life of Europe’s most famous founding father. While it isn’t the sort of game that demands a place on every shelf, it’s instructive, well composed, and offers plenty to consider across two or three plays.
(If what I’m doing at Space-Biff! is valuable to you in some way, please consider dropping by my Patreon campaign. It’s how Charles I became Charlemagne, you know.)
A complimentary copy was provided.