You Turncoat Me Right Round Baby

I realize the lyric is "you spin me right round baby." But I always hear it as "you turn me right round baby." So this title is a pun on how I mishear that song. Deal with it.

There aren’t nearly enough shared control games. Matilda Simonsson, sole proprietor of Milda Matilda Games, apparently agrees, because she’s gone ahead and designed what could be described as the Platonic ideal of shared control. Inspired by the work of Cole Wehrle — glad I’m not the only one — every copy is crafted by hand. More importantly, it cuts to the heart of what makes shared control so dynamic and exciting.

Spoiler: Turncoats is absolute fire.

Not in the sexy way.

Three factions move against one another.

Here’s the scene. Three factions are at war. The exact type of war goes undefined. A civil war? Hybrid? A Balkanized state now striving for reunification? It doesn’t really matter. From the unadorned white cloth backdrop to the hex geography, this is warfare pulled as far away from the usual minutiae of consims as possible. The only terrain is a single spot in the middle of the map that I assume is out of bounds. There are no identifying marks for the factions apart from signifiers of their colors. Black, blue, red. Vague enough that I’d have to reach into memory or imagination to assign them ideological backgrounds.

Far from making Turncoats feel abstract, this radical distancing gives it a dangerously personal edge. Just as the map is populated by drawing colored stones from a bag, each player — two to five of them — begins by drawing eight stones at random and keeping them concealed in their hand. These hidden stones pull triple duty: as action markers, as game timer, and as an ever-stitching and -unstitching badge of loyalty.

Gah, I even love this. Why have a player screen when you can HOLD THESE PIECES and TRY TO KEEP THEM HIDDEN and SOMETIMES FAIL. Even non-deliberate, non-stated game systems can be worthwhile explorations.

Where we’re going, we don’t need a player screen.

To oversimplify Turncoats, there are two layers to its conflict.

The first unfurls on the map itself. Only one faction can emerge as the ultimate victor of its undefined conflict. To this end, all those stones are set in motion. Deployed onto the map. Moving from one place to another. Striking other stones. In the end, the faction with the most territory emerges triumphant. This isn’t as straightforward as it might sound; because factions may share territory, this is one of those rare games that revels in tiebreakers. Fortunately, these are always at hand, designated whenever players activate an attack or a move.

That moves us up a level, and also serves as an example of how it’s inappropriate to think of them as separate layers at all. Every action requires somebody to spend a stone from their hand. Moving an army from one region to another, for example, means somebody has taken one of their stones — one of eight, a rapidly dwindling supply — and placed it on the flag embroidered on the map. The same goes for an attack. There’s more going on here than I can describe in a short review. Designating for everyone to see what exactly has just occurred; spending the requisite influence; establishing one of two tiebreakers. Suffice to say, every placement is a sacrifice. Not only because it brings your personal supply closer to zero, but also because it weakens your influence over that faction itself.

Because this is victory in Turncoats: First, to maneuver one of those three factions to dominance, and second, to be left holding the most of that faction’s stones when the bugle sounds taps. It’s a final reveal that hangs high in the chest, catching everybody’s breath. One faction to rule, and one player to step from the shadows and announce themself its master.

So much goes into that moment. The war itself, yes. The dozen small reveals before it, yes. But even the slow trickle of influence as players abandon a failing faction. The war ends when everybody “negotiates,” a near-equivalent of passing. Except it isn’t quite a pass. It’s the only moment when you draw a new stone out of the bag. Draw, but then reveal a stone to the entire table and toss it back in. An exchange. Not a gain. Influence slowly changing hands. More than that, this is yet another reveal. Everything in Turncoats is a reveal. And a marvelously biting reveal at that. When someone pours stones into a faction, are they truly marshaling them to victory? Or tugging them by the ear into disaster? Although a session of Turncoats only lasts as long as each player’s scant eight stones, there’s so much room for deception.

Time to count the gems in the tiebreaker areas!

Those tense closing moments when anyone could win.

Which is why it’s such a tremendously personal game.

It’s the map. Board games are their components, materially speaking, and there’s something wonderful about handling a game that’s more artifact, more art, more craft than product. It’s akin to poring over some wrinkled chart in a cave or a library, a war tent, a secret society’s lodge. This shared space is the marshal’s table, and you the marshals, each secretly bent on betraying the others.

It’s the ease of play. There are no complications here. No special rules for movement, no rivers to go around, no cavalry for flanking around another faction’s gunpowder units. I love those details in a hundred other games. Here, they would only detract from the lens you place over your fellow players. Even those tiebreakers are perfectly done, open to manipulation and scrutiny, always transparent.

It’s the breadth. The clarity of recognizing a rival’s goals. The thrum in the breast when you realize you can now manipulate those goals. Is someone pinning all their hopes on the black faction? That means you, a stalwart red, can spend a stone to march the blues into their territory, sparking a turns-long conflict that will sap your opponents’ strength. That you accomplished their erosion with a stone you didn’t even need is all the sweeter.

I know. I make the best jokes.

That’s a wrap.

Turncoats overflows with that sweetness, raw and devilish. This is what shared control games do best, but what so many aspirants get wrong when they try their hand at this trickiest of dynamics. Every detail can be leveraged. Every placement is a tell. Every victory feels like a coup. By stepping away from the historical, the fantasy, the simulation, it wagers war with pulses, quickened glances, and tipped hands. This thing is exquisite.


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Posted on July 8, 2022, in Board Game and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 12 Comments.

  1. How does this compare to The King is Dead?

    Seems like a similar conceit.

    • That’s what I was going to say! I love the King is Dead.

      • They definitely have a few parallels! Turncoats is more open-ended in that it isn’t as constrained by TKiD’s list of battles. It’s quite a bit more freewheeling. You can see the pedigree if you squint: TKiD > Pax Pamir > Turncoats.

    • It’s also a bit reminiscent of Dicke Daemonen, with everyone manipulating control of the map without revealing their allegiances. Except in that game, you have to publicly commit to a faction at some point.

  2. Have you played clans? Looks like an interesting gated control game.

  3. Sounds like the wargame equivalent of a cube rails game. Just stripped down to the smallest, minimalist design and components, where very few pieces and mechanisms are all laid bare for everyone to pick at and stab one another in the back (sometimes by accident, often at their own expense purely because they did it to them last week). I’d say it sounds most like Paris Connection, what with drawing the shares randomly at the start of the game and the rest of the game being an attempt to make the one you have the most in succeed but without giving away that you’re doing it.

  4. citizenparker

    How many players did you try this with? I am always a little leery of a wide player range like 2 – 5. This sounds super interesting but there is exactly one other other player in my group who I think would be into this.

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