Chits Around the Table
There are perils to self-publishing. Take Renaud Verlaque’s Swords Around the Throne, a sky-high vantage on the Napoleonic Wars that, unlike his earlier published titles Age of Napoleon, The Price of Freedom, and The Big Push, is available only through the Game Crafter. As a consequence, Swords Around the Throne defies ease of entry. Its rulebook is a muddle of misplaced information, details that could have been offloaded to cards or the board are absent, and like many wargames there are exceptions aplenty.
Which is a pity, because somewhere behind a veil of its own devising is a novel portrayal of European upheaval.
Right away, Verlaque shows that he isn’t interested in doing things the way they’ve been done before. Expectations abound when it comes to Napoleon. Doubly so in board games, perhaps a result of the Prussian culture of Kriegsspiel that sprang into existence contemporary with old Boney himself. It comes as a minor surprise to see armies represented so wholly, as complete entities rather than infantry, cavalry, and artillery, to witness terrain reduced to smooth or rough connections between major cities, to ponder at the erasure of seasons altogether. Can such a game depict an invasion of Russia without the assistance of General Winter?
Swords Around the Throne is determined to try, and it does so with a hand tied behind its back. In this case, the proverbial hand is an action system so sparse that it makes most Eurogames seem distended by comparison. There are only three in all: diplomacy, the act of persuading foreign countries to join your side rather than joining the other guy; insurgency, for fostering uprisings against Napoleon’s expanding domain (or, if you happen to be Napoleon, for suppressing revolt); and campaign, an action that covers recruiting, marching, fighting, and support, with as many bullet points as you’d expect.
To be sure, these actions are all fairly expansive. To take only one example, diplomacy covers significant ground, letting you sway neutral countries to your side, bump rival allies down to neutral status, cement an alliance to block foreign meddling for the remainder of the year, or bring subjugated countries closer into the fold. There’s a vital core at play, one where the game’s array of powers both minor and major can only be touched by particular actions when they exist in a particular state.
“Particular.” There’s a word that describes Swords Around the Throne as a whole as well as its component parts. There’s a thrill to seeing history replicated via a game’s systems, and Verlaque deploys proper incentives all around. Russia may not have a winter, but it’s sprawling and pesky to conquer. France may seem impregnable, but Britain’s mastery of the sea allows it to flit around the edges of Napoleon’s influence, nettling at him wherever he’s weakest. Certain theaters may seem like dead ends, only to serve as crucial pressure points that prevent a foe from stretching to their fullest limit elsewhere.
The source of the game’s greatest strength is the same as its strictest limitation: the card system. Both players construct a deck at the outset of every year, combining the talents of their home country with those of the great powers they’ve brought into their orbit. These cards pull multiple duty. They’re what both sides plan with, what they battle with, what they’re forced to administrate. Verlaque handles this with a soft touch. It isn’t that cards explicitly call on you to administrate anything, it’s that they, like the cards in Martin Wallace’s A Few Acres of Snow, might appear in your hand when you’d rather draw something more potent. The result is a reflection of a problem that besets every successful empire that now finds themselves responsible for far-flung peoples and bureaucracies. Where’s that powerful Napoleon card when you need it? Likely buried beneath the tasks of running Austria, Prussia, and Spain.
That isn’t the card system’s only accomplishment. It also highlights the innate flexibility of Napoleon’s leadership versus that of the stodgy old guard across the Channel. Both players plan their cards in advance, locking them into the next few actions. Rather than piling on chrome, however, Verlaque makes a single distinction: the English plan three cards in advance while the French only plan two. The result is a natural distinction rather than an enforced one, allowing Napoleon to pivot more rapidly. He’ll need it. Although the English can’t land their forces flippantly, an ill-timed invasion in Westphalia, Italy, or Spain could spell his early downfall. This is a game of deliberate action and painstaking growing seasons, not tactical opportunism.
At the same time, that same emphasis makes Swords Around the Throne feels somewhat stodgy itself. Despite its many innovations, Verlaque stops short of two worlds, crafting a game that’s neither as smooth as the Euro tradition he’s wading into nor as open to historical advent and accident as its wargaming cousin. Battles, for example, almost never have unexpected outcomes. The reference sheets even come with displays for every card on offer, encouraging players to count a foe’s potential strength in advance. Campaigns therefore roll out with an inexorable dreariness. There are no unexpected turns, no surprise gambles, no flashes of brilliance. On the battlefield at least, there’s no room for genius or courage, only the slow crush of expected results.
Of course, this doesn’t spoil the experience, although it does touch nearly everything else. To give a further example, it’s often a matter of the draw whether England can cause a country to mount an insurgency against France. Otherwise both sides have their potential cards on full display, and it would be unwise for Boney to be caught without a strong counter in hand. Every play comes across as processional like that, closer to a session of card-counting than the explosiveness of a cannonade. Not even a cannonade. Never mind a broadside; I’d settle for the occasional spark.
The result is mixed, both cleverly innovative and hidebound by its own cleverness. It’s the sort of game that begs for further development, not to mention increased clarity. Verlaque has brought an unexpected vision to life, one that watches the gears of empire turn from the farthest possible remove. Like a time-lapse that won’t let up, it’s a fascinating perspective that would have benefited from slowing down now and then.
A complimentary copy was provided.