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  TIME OF WARS EASTERN EUROPE 1590 - 1660 from STRATEGEMATA This latest game from the Polish games company, Strategemata, may signal clearly...


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eastern Europe


1590 - 1660

This latest game from the Polish games company, Strategemata, may signal clearly the historical period covered and its location, but for most western gamers I suspect that does little to enlighten us.  Despite familiar names like the Holy Roman Empire, the Ottoman Empire, the Kingdom of Sweden and the Tsardom of Russia, we are very much taken to the eastern most regions that border the maps and wars that have featured in typical western Europe focused board wargames.  
Many of us have gamed the battles of Gustavus Adolphus during the Thirty Years War [which appears as an Event card], but few will have knowledge of Charles X of Sweden's later wars that are covered by one of the Scenarios in this game.  The other shorter scenarios reflect even more unfamiliar episodes; the Khemelnytsky Uprising and the Dimitriads Time of Troubles being perhaps the most esoteric titles!

However, in many ways I feel these shorter scenarios featuring two or three powers are essentially helpful learning exercises for the real essence of the game.  But at its core, Time of Wars is a multi-player game for five players and only five players.  Inevitably this may be a drawback for many potential buyers and so the several shorter scenarios offer some attraction for those who may rarely be able to summon the magic "five" to the table! 

This multi-player game's antecedents are acknowledged in the introduction and designer notes.  The strongest influence is Here I Stand, which can be seen immediately on comparing the two games' maps.  Both are strategic maps in pastel colours with point-to-point movement between circles and squares.

Personally, I'm not a great fan of these blander colours, but have to agree that they do prevent the counters disappearing into the background as some games manage to do.

Both maps are equally functional.  Though overall slightly smaller in size, Strategemata's handsomely mounted map has the distinct edge. This is not only because of its looks, but because it contains a much larger, easily readable diplomatic matrix between the contesting nations, as well as the inclusion of the combat table and this all add to its playability.  
The rules too have striven to provide a more pared down experience with the obvious intent of overcoming the potential longeurs of many multi-player games.  Unfortunately, it has not managed to eliminate what I consider to be the main problem of this genre of game and that is the sheer number of small nation-specific rules.  Not only does this affect the initial learning process, but prompts the question of how to teach it to other players.  Here again, the shorter scenarios can serve a useful purpose, but I find the prospect daunting of sitting down to the task of providing a general overview to four other gamers who have little or no working knowledge of the rules.
A starting point for this learning process is each player's SuperPower Sheet, as exemplified by that of the Ottoman Empire below.

The essential holding boxes for markers and the current ruler card, available actions a player can take and recruitment costs for your units present a good starting point and the holding boxes for the maximum of five armies promise that the map will not become too counter cluttered.  Just as in Here I Stand and in Strategemata's excellent ACW game, How The Union Was Saved [see my earlier review], each army leader appears in the form of a useful standee.
here are just some of those leader units

A particular feature of each player's Superpower Sheet that I like is the range of images of the various types of unit available to each player which mirrors the actual troop counters placed on the map or in the Army Holding Boxes.  Instead of using a few identical standard infantry/cavalry/artillery images for each nation, care has been taken to individualise such things as colouring on uniforms, the stance of infantry units and variety of cavalry.  Though they may play only an artistic visual role, they do give a sense of the differences between the look of each nation's army.
This is something Strategemata's games strive for and history is reinforced in this game by the supplementary information [printed on the back of each Superpower Sheet] that expands on each historical event featured in a player's deck Event Cards.

The Holy Roman Empire's expanded historical Events
As I've observed when reviewing a range of Strategemata's games, it is the Rule  and Scenario booklets that lack the finished quality of the major companies.  This is most noticed in the rule book which is a purely black and white production with very limited pictorial illustration.  What, however, I miss most is a solid set of play examples.  Only a single page is devoted purely to an example of Interception and Land Battle.  Compare this with the excellent eight page Extended Example of Play for the infinitely simpler game system in How The Union Was Saved.  This lack can be felt just by looking at the Turn Sequence.

Game Turn Phases
 1.  Funds gaining
 2.  Cards drawing
 3.  Rulers changing
 4.  Commanders changing
 5.  Negotiations
 6.  Religious unrest
 7.  Mercenaries hiring
 8.  Strategic deployment of one army
 9.  Players' impulses
10. Armies' return to Capital Cities
11. Removal of auxiliary markers
12. Rulers' Domestic Policy

Don't be put off by the number of steps, most of them are very quick to execute, especially as many are simultaneously carried out by each player.  The thorniest and possibly the longest could be the Negotiations Phase where there is simply too much freedom of action.  Two key sentences stand out:
"Players can make secret arrangements to coordinate their strategies" and "After secret negotiations, all arrangements are announced in public."  
Just how much time is your gaming group going to spend here?  Are you going to dare play this game with someone you don't know?  And there are some I do know that I definitely wouldn't dare play this game with!  Be warned, an executive decision might just be a necessity so that the the appropriate full focus is directed to the real heart and enjoyment of the game - PLAYER IMPULSES.
This is where the game really shines with its magnificent individual 50-card, player decks, one for each player.  All are illustrated with a superb mix of full colour scenes from paintings or black and white line prints.  Very striking is that so many of the cards with coloured scenes illustrate historical events or circumstances special to that one player alone.   This is one aspect which singles out Time of Wars from many other CDG productions.

A close-up demonstrates the quality of the black and white line drawings

Also among the pluses in this CDG design is the inclusion of + cards that can be combined with another card, an idea that the designer indicates was drawn from one of my favourite CDG games, Mark McLaughlin's Wellington: the Peninsular War.  You'll note, as well, other typical elements of CDG decks, such as the inclusion of Special Cards that are always returned to your hand at the end of a turn, Battle and Reaction cards and the ability not to use but preserve some cards for use in the next turn and, of course, the all-important Operations Points number in the top left hand corner which you'll spend to undertake any of the available actions in the game.
As you'd expect for the historical period covered, there's a fine mix of religion economic actions, domestic policy and military action and the chance to expand your knowledge of Eastern European affairs.

Once again a big thanks to Strategemata for providing this review copy.