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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A complimentary copy was provided.