COIN Volume VIII: Pendragon
I’ve heard some people mention COIN Fatigue. Not me. For a long time, my attitude was that if the powers-that-be at GMT Games desired to produce a hundred of these things, I’d be there. Each new volume is like a component-dense map pack for some popular train game, sans the trains and plus some deeply clever card play and action manipulation and politicking.
Okay, nothing like a train game.
Then I played the latest volume in the series, Marc Gouyon-Rety’s Pendragon: The Fall of Roman Britain. And despite everything it gets right — and it’s a lot — it dawned on me that I was beginning to feel tired. Though it’s possible that my fatigue may have been philosophical. So let’s engage in some therapy!
In terms of setting, Pendragon should be right up my alley. Acting as a fast-forwarded sequel to Falling Sky, the isle that Rome began conquering as a sidequest in Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars has undergone a transformation. Now it’s no mere backwater, but a worthwhile set of provinces in its own right. Some sprawling city centers, rich farmlands, a system of roads, a big wall up north that Emperor Hadrian plagiarized from Game of Thrones — the Britannia of Pendragon has it all.
Or nearly all. The one missing component is the empire itself. Turns out, Rome has begun slipping into decline, and the old stones are beginning to show their cracks. Barbarian invasions, would-be emperors making off with whatever legions they can hoodwink, the gradual collapse of trade, the roads, even the social order…
From its first moments, Pendragon captures the fruity whiff of decay that rises from the corpse of Britannia. As Rome withdraws her support and soldiery to deal with troubles closer to home, two factions are left to wrestle for the helm of a ship barging into uncharted waters.
The first is the Civitates, Romanized locals enjoying the villas and culture of the great Mediterranean city, but who’ve started to arrive at the conclusion that the Mediterranean is a mighty long ways off, so they might as well take control for themselves. They’re opposite the Dux, the leftover military apparatus of Rome. These guys are tough, mobile, and entrenched in the idea that the parents who abandoned them will surely come back sooner or later. All they need is to keep casualties low and economic prosperity high, and everything will work itself out.
Tensions are already running high between these two. And neither seem to realize that the carrion birds are already circling overhead.
This time, the carrion-eaters are the Saxons and the Scotti, invaders watching greedily as the unconquerable legions of Rome withdraw to fight their wars in Gaul. They both want the same thing — booty, land, and respect — and they generally adhere to the same well-trod path to acquire them. As in, they conduct raids, make off with loads of treasure, persuade additional raiders to take their chances, and then eventually settle in Britain either by besieging towns with massed warbands or by working as mercenary foederati for one of the local powerhouses.
In fine COIN Series form, these four sides quickly find themselves at loggerheads. The Civitates want to do their own thing but must remain frenemies with the Dux to remain stable. The Dux want to protect their market towns, but lack the manpower to be everywhere at once. And the Saxons and Scotti want to raid with impunity, but also want to forge relationships on the isle.
But here comes the twist. When we talk about “wanting” something in a COIN game, usually our goals are clear-cut. The Cartels of Andean Abyss want to get rich dealing cocaine. Batista’s Government in Cuba Libre thirsts for popular support. The Vietcong of Fire in the Lake needs to engender a groundswell of hatred against the puppet regime in Saigon. The Coalition from A Distant Plain hopes to repair age-old rivalries and then go home. And so forth.
Not so in Pendragon. Rather than taking place over a few years, time in Britannia is measured in decades, and possibly even more than a century. Across such a span, goals are bound to change.
Consider the military governors of the Dux. Early on, they want prosperity. But across the decades, the isle’s commercial potential is going to decline. The famed Dux cavalry will dwindle, Rome’s interest in returning will wane, and the Civitates will become shrewder as marauding barbarians venture deeper inland. Long-term rule is a fool’s errand. Which is why, by the game’s final act, it’s unlikely that the Dux will still be playing the prosperity game at all. Instead, they’ll be waging full-scale civil war against the Civitates they tolerated for so long, in hopes of securing enough of the countryside to crown themselves sovereign. When that moment of division comes around, Pendragon is going to feel like an entirely different game than the one it began as.
This is both the source of Pendragon’s greatest accomplishments and its most significant frustrations. It’s loaded with smart ideas and captures its struggle with enough plausibility to please even the dorkiest history nerd, but often finds itself stepping away from the relative shallow waters of the COIN Series for the deeper end of the pool. The result is as entangled in exceptions as it is fascinating to interact with.
Let me give you an example. For at least half of the game’s length, the invader factions are forced to raid the coast to increase their renown. To accomplish this, an invader first designates which coast(s) they’re hoping to raid and exchanges renown for dice. These rolls provide raiders, weaker units who specialize in pillaging rather than fighting, but must be subtracted from that coast’s network of forts. These raiders arrive on the beaches, steal some treasure by hauling it up onto their backs — literally, the pieces “carry” their gold, which is both adorable and physically awkward — and maybe fight a battle to sweep away local forts and claim even more loot. On a later turn, surviving raiders may return their spoils home for a boost to their faction’s renown, with a second roll possibly upgrading some of them into warbands who’ll stick around to fight or settle.
At the risk of sounding glib, that was the easy part. Because the raid action is just the tip of the iceberg. Between a barbarian army raiding and returning home, the Civitates and Dux are also given the chance to react, possibly fighting additional battles complete with special “reinforce” and “intercept” options. And the battles themselves sport enough depth to provide some surprises — evasion! ambushes! bypassing a fortress’s defenses! — but aren’t so complex that they can’t be largely mathed-out in advance. It isn’t uncommon for a raid to not only signal opportunity and disaster, but also a slow grind as everybody evaluates their options: the remoteness of reinforcements, if the nearby Dux cavalry have access to their road network, whether the local forts can hold out against an assault, and so forth.
None of this makes Pendragon unplayable. Certainly not. Rather, the process of a successful raid is utterly engrossing, as are its processes of successful nation-building, settlement-settling, political finagling, and so forth. But all are dense enough that small accounting errors can have rippling consequences. A fort’s coup de main roll was miscalculated; one too many treasures was looted; those raiders should have ambushed on fen terrain; victory values are now out of whack.
One of the benefits of the COIN System has always been that knowing one volume means you can learn the others without too much trouble. That isn’t the case with Pendragon. In fact, its inclusion in the COIN Series might be part of the issue. Other than a few basics, most notably the card system that dictates play order and forces tough decisions between historical events and player-selected actions, many of the proceedings feel like they could belong to a different series entirely. There’s a reason, for instance, why the only other volume that boasted a battle system even a fraction as involved was Liberty or Death, and it had the good sense to not let them occur too often. Here, pitched battles are the norm. More than that, there’s a certain issue of scale — all those territories, all those towns, all those borders. At times its scope edges toward overwhelming.
Then again, this scale is the very thing that makes Pendragon so interesting. The Civitates and Dux begin within reach of their victory conditions and only need to douse fires wherever they spark to life. But the temptation to make nice with Britannia’s invaders in order to gain an edge over their allies is overwhelming, and it isn’t long before petty factionalism dashes any hope of a swift resolution. Meanwhile, the Saxons and Scotti transition from violent opportunists to jealous landowners, willing to resort to violence in order to earn confederates or defend their newfound territory. Again, collaboration seems preferable, only to collapse in the face of cold hard pragmatism from those who consider this isle their sole domain.
The message is evergreen: all these crises and collapses could have been avoided — or at least mitigated — if only Britannia’s actors would have rallied together under the banner of a lesser shared victory. But neither history nor humanity have ever truly behaved in their own best interests, since doing so would preclude the siren song of a golden dawn for you and yours, without anyone else, with no compromises brooked or quarter given. There is no enemy as merciless or as certain as human nature, and in between its layers of persnickety exceptions and special circumstances, Pendragon cuts to the heart of that fact.
Ultimately, much of Pendragon’s appeal comes down to the way it evokes that lesson. Just as A Distant Plain was illustrative of how cultures cannot fully communicate even when they’re speaking the same language — and doubly so when they aren’t — and Colonial Twilight captured the bitterness of a nation boiling over from civil strife to civil war, Pendragon’s tale is about how base pettiness bends the arc of history toward factionalism and collapse. It’s a somber message, especially for a game that features coastal raids, prestige-earning military battles, and huge piles of ill-gotten plunder. For all the adventure, a darker age looms before you.
That’s Pendragon in a nutshell. At times it’s too complicated for its own good, and it won’t hit the table as often as its companion volumes. But each of its quibbles and peccadilloes serves a purpose, weaving a decades-long tale of collapse, ascent, and almost certainly more collapse. The complexity is worth it, if only barely.
But let’s make sure the next one isn’t such a bear, okay Volko?
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