Everything but Luxembourg

Poor Jesus.

If you want a design’s corners sanded smooth, Tom Russell isn’t your man. For a perfect example, look no further than his recent game about the Peace of Westphalia. The version you learned in high school was likely abridged: Westphalia concluded the Thirty Years’ and Eighty Years’ Wars, hammered out the first inklings of international state sovereignty, and upheld that one Latin phrase from the Peace of Augsburg that you forgot by the time the test rolled around. Three points. With an introduction and conclusion, that’s exactly enough for a standard five-paragraph essay.

But Russell isn’t writing a five-paragraph essay. His Westphalia is molded after the complicated historical version of events, the one that featured over a hundred delegations that never met at the same time, yet still wheedled over the table while stabbing each other under it. Why? Because they were terribly in debt. So it goes. This is history with its corners left unsanded. Eight million dead, years of prevarication, and all because everybody’s credit cards were maxed out.

In order to depict this dire state of affairs, Russell doesn’t divide his players into one hundred delegations. He doesn’t even require more than two hours. Instead, he presents a negotiation game that’s both spare and expansive, clunky and elegant. And it all begins with the setup.

This is where war has brought us. Poor Austria.

Settling accounts.

I’m not going to explain how you actually lay out the pieces, in case you were worried. Instead, there are three things you need to know right from the beginning in order to play Westphalia.

One, you need six people. No compromising, no merging factions, no dropping the Dutch. Make no mistake, this is a hurdle. Ever set up a game night for six, only someone’s kid got sick at the last minute? I have. More often than delegations marched into Westphalia in the 1640s. Russell’s Westphalia doesn’t express any sympathy. Europe’s Wars of Religion have left millions dead, and you can’t scrounge up another friend to play as Spain? Shame on you.

Two, most negotiation games revolve around the stuff you’ll be trading back and forth. The same is true here, except there are only a handful of items anybody wants, and one of those is actually something nobody wants. There are three to consider: armies, prestige, and debt. Four if you count trade cards from the Dutch, but that’s really just negative debt. The first two are useful. The third is about as amusing as a banker breathing down your neck every time you throw a fancy party, because, hey, that’s what it literally represents.

And three, if you’re playing Westphalia, you will be negotiating. Even during setup.

Here’s what happens. At the very beginning, you’re given a faction, but there’s no need to keep it. Instead, you’re free to take part in some old-fashioned smooth talk. This is accomplished by trading away the things you’ll have if someone hands over their kingdom. “If you swap me the Dutch, I’ll give you my first trade card and two armies.” That sort of thing.

Not too bad, actually. Should have snapped a picture of Spain's pile.

One of six factions… and its excessive debt.

Of course, it’s entirely possible to keep the faction you were dealt. But part of what makes Westphalia tricky is that its factions are unbalanced. Before you complain, recognize this as a feature. There are two broad coalitions, the Habsburgs and the people who think the Habsburgs suck eggs. Both contain three factions. Between these six sides, anybody is poised to win. Even multiple factions. Including those on opposite ends of the whole “Do the Habsburgs suck eggs?” issue.

But being able to win doesn’t mean winning is easy, and each side brings their own advantages to the table. This manifests as some nicely muted asymmetry, including differing victory conditions. In Westphalia, these are anything but equivalent. On the Habsburg side, Spain just wants to be holding fewer than 25 debt tokens when the game ends. Straightforward, but also precarious given how much spending Spain was doing before you came around. Meanwhile, their Bavarian allies are tinkering with two tracks: liberties (for the nobility, naturally), which they want to be higher than tolerance for Protestants, because the only thing that sucks eggs worse than their Habsburger overlords are filthy Lutherans and Calvinists. Oh, and they also don’t want too much debt.

Here’s where it starts tipping the seesaw. Speaking of those Habsburger overlords, the Austrians are in charge of the pro-Habsburg coalition. In practice this is sort of like being in charge of a stampede that’s already hurtled over a cliff. At least the other steers will consider your suggestions as they approach terminal velocity. Austria’s goals include — you guessed it — avoiding too much debt, but they also have one other duty that elevates their blood pressure from “cut down on sodium” to “the fountains of the Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna.” Namely, they’re tasked with guaranteeing that their Bavarian and Spanish allies also meet their victory conditions. The same is true of the opposing coalition. Where the Swedes want to secure Protestant tolerance and the Dutch like making money through trade, the French are watching their own waistline and that of their allies. In both cases, it’s the difference between keeping track of one pocketbook and three. Between self-reliance and depending on states famous for spending every penny they don’t have.

Which is why it might behoove you to trade liberally for the Dutch. Their strategy revolves around winning a battle or two, making peace at the right moment, and handing out trade cards to desperate rivals. Compared to corralling the Bavarians and Spanish, that’s a summer stroll.

It sucks to be Spain. Seriously.

Up in the Spanish Netherlands.

One of Russell’s primary accomplishments comes down to the amelioration of an issue I hadn’t even recognized until Westphalia snapped it into focus. Many negotiation games are reliant on the concept of the “victory point.” But what’s being measured by the humble VP? Economic prowess? The esteem of your peers? Is it an easy abstraction or the expression of a particular philosophy of power? In many cases, it’s better to simply not invest any thought into what all those points represent. Even Westphalia doesn’t do away with this abstraction entirely. Because every faction has their own goal, any number of players can win — except for all six. If that happens, the game kicks over to a rare scoring round. Highest wins. Ho hum.

But most of the time your goals are achievable. More importantly, they’re relatable. The Dutch want out of this mess. The Spanish want to shed some of this ridiculous debt. The French want to have their client states legitimized. These tasks are grounded in history, which is nice. Even better that they’re grounded in something everyone recognizes and dreads:

Debt.

There are other commodities, armies and trade cards and hand-wavey prestige cylinders and future promises. None of them are as pointed as the game’s most undesirable merchandise. This has a few effects. For one, most of the game’s negotiations have a whiff of desperation about them. You aren’t trading something you want for something your friend wants. You’re giving away something desirable and the anvil chained around your throat. One of many anvils, rather. I’ll give you two armies, but you’ll adopt four of my debt tokens. Sure, you can have a prestige cylinder, but you’ll be paying off last month’s royal ball. Yes, let’s cease hostilities in the Netherlands… for the price of last year’s credit.

At least the debt tokens look cool. You can tell that to the banker while he repossesses your palace.

Prestige and armies… but mostly debt.

At times this is double-edged. Every game concludes with a debt resolution round where taxes and commerce burn away some quantity of your debt tokens. Despite some slight fluctuations determined by random roll, this is both too mathy and too under-documented by the game’s reference cards. How much debt can you afford? Count up your acquisitions, commerce cards, half of your remaining units, and how much you think the dice will screw you, and voilà, there’s how much you can blow past your victory condition. Upon first play debt resolution represents a pleasant surprise; later, it’s a jarring interruption of diplomacy and warfare as everybody evaluates their current spending cap.

Still, this is a minor issue alongside what Westphalia accomplishes with its minimal footprint. Unlike many of its cousins, Westphalia’s stakes are readily apparent. Resources aren’t abstract. They aren’t even properly philosophical. They’re the same things you’ll spend to dig yourself out of debt. Or to win battles. Which is pretty much the same thing, really.

It says something about Westphalia’s breadth that we haven’t even talked about battle yet. In part that’s because it’s so minimal. Despite the presence of maps and military rules, the game’s maneuvers serve to bring you back to the negotiation table. In between each diplomacy phase, armies are staffed and marched, dice are rolled, and casualties are quickly accumulated. The rub is that nothing is certain. Even if you have a considerable numerical advantage, rolling doubles will spell military disaster, wiping out your troops and leaving the opposing army intact. It’s a small but crucial detail, one that forces you to consider every enforced claim and every interception. Especially since the entire point of waging war is to squeeze your opponents into less-favorable bargains.

Put another way, Clausewitz was right, but only halfway. War is the continuation of policy by other means. It’s when that formulation is inverted that things really start to spin out of control. Early on, a spare army might be sold with a single debt token. After losing your entire defensive army, how much will you be willing to absorb to keep your holdings from total collapse? Those are the questions that drive Westphalia.

NO YOU TAKE MY DEBT

Why don’t you argue about it?

Like many of Russell’s designs, Westphalia has its share of rough edges. Factions are not only imbalanced in difficulty, but also to some degree in engagement, with the Dutch and Spanish featuring less prominently than their peers. Some of its calculations, in particular debt resolution or the rare scoring round, come across as unnecessarily picky. And of course there’s the issue of pitching it to five of your friends. Hopefully you know some folks who can stumble through the pronunciation of Cuius regio, eius religio.

But for every problem, Westphalia produces two moments of illumination. By focusing on debt, it casts a pall over every talking point, one that builds in pressure as the war reaches its conclusion. By letting multiple factions win, it allows for unexpected negotiations, agreements, and conveniences. Through warfare it imbues its diplomacy with a sense of stakes, while through diplomacy it imbues its warfare with essential context. These twin pressures force ever-rasher bargains. Even its smallest cubes are priceless compared to the biggest trades of countless other negotiation games.

In other words, this is Russell doing what he does best: taking a slice of history, casting aside its five-paragraph explanation, and blowing it into focus with clarity, passion, and enough scuff marks to remind you that every detail carries meaning. Westphalia may be tough to table, but it’s similarly hard to forget.

 

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A complimentary copy was provided.

Posted on December 23, 2019, in Board Game and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Another engaging review by the master. I’ve tinkered with this one solitaire just to see its moving parts. Don’t forget that another trade commodity is territory claims, especially between Bavaria and Austria. Recatholicization is a great word to add to my vocabulary.

  2. Can I ask about the effect of binding promises?

    • Of course.

      This isn’t the first negotiation game to feature binding promises — I’m thinking about Sidereal Confluence, for one. What makes such treaties work here is that you’re very carefully limited as to how far in advance you’re allowed to promise anything. Basically, you can only promise one “phase” in advance. So if you’re in a diplomatic phase, any promises are binding for the current phase and the next military round. Anything beyond that is too distant and outlawed by the rules.

      In practice, this has two main effects. First, it lets you make complicated deals with more than two parties; i.e., “If so-and-so gives me a prestige, I’ll give it to you for your trade card, and you can yield a territory to their client state.” If everybody gives verbal agreement, there’s no option for reneging. Second, temporary treaties are binding during the military phase. Two factions can make a permanent peace (Spain and the Dutch), but everyone else is limited to these short-term enforceable agreements. Anything later than that, however, and you’ll need to come up with new deals.

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