European Cleavage

World Cup?

Here’s something that will sound like an obvious truism to some and opaque to others: the decision space of a board game is derived from its restrictions, not its permissiveness.

Hold up, Morpheus, what do you mean by that? Well, I mean that nothing is permitted until the rules explicitly announce that something is possible. Anything else would be require a ten-volume rulebook, because unless somebody spelled out instructions to the contrary, you could do anything you wanted at any time — which, incidentally, is pretty much how my friend Geoff plays board games. Since that’s untenable for anybody who hasn’t resigned themselves to repeatedly explaining that, no, you cannot teleport across the map and demolish all my armies with one action, the clearest rules start from scratch. Here are the phases. Here’s what it means to move. Here are the steps you follow every time you undertake an action. Nothing exists beyond that framework.

Europe Divided, designed by David Thompson and Chris Marling, is a fascinating look at what happens when you break the rules until they hardly matter.

I do love how it uses dice instead of chits.

The struggle for Central and Eastern Europe gets started.

Let’s start from scratch, then. Pay attention.

Europe Divided is about the new Cold War. Beginning in 1992 and proceeding through 2019, it’s contemporary enough that it’s caught some flak for casting one side as the bad guys. For now, it’s more important to get the lay of the land. After the conclusion of the last Cold War, things are looking shiny for the European Union and NATO. Western Europe, along with a few other member nations, is unified, wealthy, and well-staffed. Their former rival, the Soviet Union, is the inverse: fragmented, poor, humbled. Not quite the snarling bear it once was. The big question is the territory that once acted as the stomping ground between giants. Europe’s black sheep, the Balkans and Ukraine, the Baltic states, crossroads Poland, and so forth. The EU and NATO want to bring them into the fold. Assimilation, but an assimilation of root beer and McDonald’s franchises.

Only, the problem with uniting into a big bureaucratic entity is the big bureaucracy. Europe wants to expand, but they’re juggling two interests at any given time. The EU, represented by yellow dice, offers stability of identity, a fraternity of nations. NATO, represented by blue dice, is more like an umbrella. An iron umbrella with tanks and jets. These are simpatico — they don’t compete — but they’re also offered separately. If Europe has filled Hungary to the brim with yellow influence, they’ll need to start from nothing if suddenly they need NATO there as well.

Two types of influence, allied but separate, powerful but slow to spread, often aggravating in their sluggishness. Those are the rules.

And then there’s Russia.

Russia doesn’t care about the rules. For one thing, they don’t have two types of influence. Their influence is red. Solid, unitary red. When they influence a country, they’ll never need to influence it with some other, parallel influence. Worse — or better, depending on which side of the table you’re sitting at — their bureaucracy is dedicated to breaking the rules. They don’t have much money, so they won’t bother properly outfitting their troops. No culture to spread, so instead they’ll spend time bashing the other guy’s intentions on social media. No grand plans, except to erode, erode, erode. When a crack opens, they can slip through. Like wind and water.

I edited out a very bad joke. You should thank me.

The card system is permissive.

Hold that thought while we pivot to the more mechanical side of Europe Divided.

There’s a good chance you’ve played a card-driven game before. Imperial Struggle, 13 Days, Dual Powers: Revolution 1917, Watergate, that sort of thing. It’s a genre based on restriction. You have a few cards, but they may benefit your rival as much, or even more, than they benefit you. Think of it like a bureaucracy. You can do certain things with your cards, but you’re often struggling against events beyond your control. Sometimes you’ll take an action that’s immediately followed by a rival reaction. Or perhaps you’ll be stuck with cards that don’t quite mesh. Politics and war are messy affairs. So too are your options. Those are the rules.

And then there’s Europe Divided.

Europe Divided is the most permissive card-driven historical game I’ve seen. On a turn, both sides operate with a hand of four cards. From those four, you’ll choose two, announce their summed initiative number, and then both sides resolve their two cards in sequence, with the initiative winner going first. Here’s the big part: the location of your cards doesn’t usually matter. Some cards add an influence cube to any neutral country of your choice. Some increase the value of those influence dice. Others raise money, or deploy armies, or move them across the map. Many cards allow all of these actions. The European offerings tend to be more granular, since their influence is divided into two colors, but the big Union members can do pretty much what they want. Russia’s cards, courtesy of its sleeker bureaucracy, are similar, plus a few wormy tricks like increasing influence all over the place or using propaganda to chew away at EU/NATO influence.

And right up front, this is the coolest thing about Europe Divided. Where some card-driven games are so obsessed with balance that they hardly differentiate between their sides — Fort Sumter, I’m looking at you — Europe Divided doesn’t go that way. Here, the sides are distinct. Western Europe is a massive financial and military force that’s following all the rules. Russia thinks rules are for suckers. In fact, Russia has such a good time tweaking the other side’s nose that it’s pretty much the reason to play Europe Divided, because helming the European Union is sort of like partying with a guy who lists “designated driver” on his dating profile. He’s the guy you want around in a pinch, but only in a pinch.

I'm convinced that the best CDGs have some uncertainty in their scoring criteria. The scoring cards of Twilight Struggle, the wars in Imperial Struggle, the reveals in Watergate, the bluffs in 13 Days... too much information is another form of too much permissiveness.

Headlines lend some focus to the action.

That permissiveness lets Thompson and Marling invest their sides with genuine identities. Europe is powerful but slow, and only gets slower as it fattens its deck by inviting newer members into the fold. By contrast, Russia’s weaknesses are soon rounded out as it infiltrates wealthy neighbors, but this decreases how often it can pull off its dirtier tricks. These aren’t only different colors. One side is a bureaucratic achievement. The other is a parasite that’s evolved to drain that bureaucrat to the quick.

That’s the good stuff. But meanwhile, that same permissiveness also makes Europe Divided feel a little too open. And by extension, too flimsy.

Here’s what I mean. Much of the game is driven by headline cards, scoring opportunities that award points if their conditions are met. Because they come from a shared deck and are parceled out by the players, sometimes one side will have a lot of objectives while the other has only one, or even none. That’s a good thing, by the way, potentially stretching somebody thinner than they can handle. For example, as Russia you might want to add an army and enough influence in Georgia to outpace NATO’s influence there, while also preparing to max out your influence in Belarus, while also trying to stop the EU from doing something similar in Czechia and Slovakia. Headlines act as flashpoints, focusing the action where the regular cards can’t.

They’re also too visible, robbing the game of any opportunity for bluffing or deception. As such, they’re generally easy to accomplish, barring outside meddling. This isn’t always the case; Europe in particular has a few high-scoring cards that require investments in multiple theaters. For the most part, however, headlines are readily accomplished or disrupted. In many cases, whichever side goes last will often have the final say in how that round’s headlines play out. Because cards can act anywhere, rather than being based on restrictions of adjacency or limited opportunity or inopportune rival events, there isn’t often any reason to prefer one over the other. March in an army to oust that rival force. Skip across the Baltic Sea to remove a rival’s monopoly on culture in Poland. Use only two cards to add and increase your EU influence in Moldova, immediately outperforming the Russians there.

Or depressingly predictable.

Some regional conflicts feel prescient.

There are still subtleties to explore. Beefing up a region until it can’t be tampered with in a single go. Controlling the seas. Parceling out which cards are ultra-flexible. Managing your hand of special advantage cards. At its best, Europe Divided spurs tense runoffs. The rest of the time, it’s so open that it feels less like a Cold War and more like a fly-swatting contest for the next headline round’s initiative.

By stripping out the restrictions inherent to most card-driven historical games, much of the tension and uncertainty is also removed, making Europe Divided a mixed result — but still an interesting riff on the usual formula. It doesn’t disprove the rules by flouting them, but it does emphasize the importance of asymmetry in keeping things lively. Call it a near miss.


(If what I’m doing at Space-Biff! is valuable to you in some way, please consider dropping by my Patreon campaign or Ko-fi.)

A complimentary copy was provided.

Posted on November 11, 2020, in Board Game and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 17 Comments.

  1. Interesting sounding game- would like to give it a playthrough one day.



  2. Thanks for a witty and clear review!

    I’m very interested in East European 20th century and contemporary history. I decided however not to back the game for reasons your review partially “prove”.

    Twilight Struggle with its focus on being playable, with enough historical flavour to justify its cold war theme, is still quite enjoyable to play. A key here I think is the choice to narrow down the struggle to some key areas. Those key areas are further limited by the pure size of USSR. Influence mostly follows expected patterns. I’m OK with the game. It’s about past history and the game doesn’t really force any narrative on you.

    In this game I get the impression that influence can pop up switch back and forth everywhere. Does it take into account any of the hard boarders and deeper reasons? Armenia would hardly become a member NATO as long as its archenemy Turkey is a NATO member. There live about as many Armenians in Russia as in Armenia, and the Armenian diaspora is economically very strong in Moscow and St. Petersburg, something that also generates pressure independently of Kreml.

    Further, Ukraine is more divided within itself than anything else. That the US practically control parts of governmental structures of Ukraine and Russia on their part Crimea and other eastern regions, is more a symptom than the core reason, that is to be found in how boarders of Ukraine was drawn by the USSR. Soon, it could also lead to a clash with Hungary over its Hungarian speaking west part, which eventually also could be lost. Not far from this can also be noted how Poland rhetorically and by intervention shows interest in some of the territories once controlled by the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth.

    My point is that Europe is divided in so many slices that a simplified version, as presented in this game, even how popular in mass media, will fail to even scratch the surface of what and why things are changing. It might instead enforce the typical “we blame every failure on Russian involvement (good, that saved me out of a tight spot)”, not because Russia isn’t trying, but because it’s not that mighty and there are tons of other reasons for why Europe is divided. Russia is also divided, even though it seems to follow one leader. The narrative blindfolds players from getting a broader view.

    Overall I’m more sensitive to games presenting contemporary history. Usually, as proven so many times, we’ll eventually have to revaluate a lot of so called facts long after they happened, and in the process many parties will do their outmost to hide their tracks. Hence, if a designer decides to design a game based on contemporary history, you better get it right, because there’s nothing funny going on in this propaganda hybrid war. Right doesn’t mean, get all the facts right, which is impossible, but to present something that isn’t dumd down and lock the players minds. The matter is too serious to be presented as a flimsy influence race.

    My response somehow reminds me of an article someone wrote with the title “Subjecting Subjectivity”.

    • Great thoughts, herodotus! You should play the game and write up a review from the perspective of the game’s simplified stance on Eastern Europe. I’d love to read it.

      • I try to keep the budget for board games for only the necessary games, which means I nevertheless buy too many. Hence it feels a bit expensive to buy it just for a review.

        If I happen to get the chance to play it, though, I’ll keep it mind (maybe I should deceitfully tell all my friends how great this game is?).

      • I can send it along to you, if you like.

  3. Christian van Someren

    This game looks very interesting to me in terms of theme, but I’m still a bit skeptical about the gameplay. Your review has me still sitting on the fence 🙂

  4. I saw you mention on Twitter that you have Labyrinth but haven’t played it. From this review, I think you’d absolutely love it. At the very least, I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.

  5. Boobs!

  6. I found this game an interesting tussle for dominance / control, and I’m keen to give it another go.
    What was more surprising was the amount of recent European history included, albeit told from a ‘western’ perspective, that I had forgotten, or only vaguely remembered. A valuable history revision(?) lesson.
    There’s so much that made the news,and has echoed through European, and probably world affairs, I found it almost shameful that, as a resident of that continent, so much conflict and turmoil so quickly fades.
    It’s not an excuse, but I suppose that’s the downside of being exposed to so much world news that we tend to filter out that which doesn’t affect us directly, to our knowledge.

  7. I don’t see the lack of tension that you describe. It is true, you can place influence everywhere but once your opponent tops you the only way is through military intervention, and that’s when things get interesting. Whilst in other games of this ilk you have to either have the right card or be contiguous to the region you want to influence, in Europe Divided you have to spend actions to manouvre your armies to block paths to regions you control, to force your opponent into expensive detours, to set up impregnable areas of political and military influence. And if you are outplayed -especially with Europe- it will be extremely expensive to get other armies on the board and to manouvre them all the way from Western Europe to where they are supposed to go.
    Thematically it makes more sense to be able to place influence in a nation anywhere rather than having to spread your influence all the way down your destination (like in Twilight Struggle).
    I would also have put more emphasis on how simple and effective the initiative is and how that adds a tempo consideration not present in other games of this type.
    Finally the headlines…I really like them. After a turn or two of Twilight Struggle you know who’s got what and so the “hidden scoring” is not that hidden anymore. In this you can setup trap, bluff, play an headline to force your enemy to stretch whilst you ammass influence and army somewhere else…or play a headline you know they can’t get but that they may spend time and resources trying to secure.
    All of this goodness is packed in a 45 min game. Personally I think this is criminally underrated.

  1. Pingback: Review: Europe Divided:: European Cleavage (a Space-Biff! review) – Indie Games Only

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