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Posted on Aug 2, 2023 in Boardgames, Front Page Features

“The Concert of Europe in Discord” European Great Power’s seek global dominance as tensions build towards the Great War in “Sleepwalkers”. Board Game Review

“The Concert of Europe in Discord” European Great Power’s seek global dominance as tensions build towards the Great War in “Sleepwalkers”. Board Game Review

Ray Garbee

Sleepwalkers: Imperial Rivalries and the Great War. Publisher: Dr. Richter Konflictsimulationen. Designer: Dr. Benjamin Richter. Price: 14.95

Passed inspection: A compact, multiple player game that highlights European competition and diplomacy while still conveying the impact of conflict between great powers at the dawn of the 20th Century.

Failed basic: Negotiations are central to the course of the game to the point that the experience can feel like ‘Diplomacy-lite’. If you are looking for a more structured game that does not rely on diplomatic negotiations, then Sleepwalkers may not be for you (but give it a chance!).

The end of the 19th Century was a complex period for the major states of Europe. Much of the world was – or was in the process of becoming – enmeshed in various colonial empires, providing the raw materials for the imperial states. These colonies were areas of friction both internally for the occupied peoples and externally between the imperial powers.


Aside from imperial ambitions, the world, but Europe in particular was experiencing rapid technological changes brought on by the Industrial Revolution and accelerating with the rapid advances in the sciences and industrial arts. Where wooden warships could once serve for decades, advances in metallurgy were rendering ships obsolete, in some cases as soon as they were launched. The United Kingdom and Imperial Germany were engaged in a quite public naval arms race featuring legislative acts and declarations from each nation’s leaders.

Against this background, the major states of Europe engaged in a dangerous diplomatic dance as each sought to achieve a dominant position at the start of the 20th Century. But as the 19th Century drew to a close, a new school of thought emerged centered on pacifism and conflict resolution short of war. Exemplified in the Hague treaties of 1899 and 1907, the movement was rooted in the revival of the Anglo-American practice of arbitration.

These efforts can be summed up by Jochen von Bernstorff in The Use of Force in International Law.

Very much in the spirit of the procedural approach of the liberal Western pacifist movement, the two Hague Conferences attempted to erect binding legal constraints on a government’s decision to use force. Why are these attempts usually considered an ultimately unsuccessful project of reducing violence in pre-World War I international relations? The main reason is that most of the governments of the great powers were not interested in a legal regime effectively restraining interstate violence, let alone their practices of violent interventions in their peripheries. At the same time, all of these governments considered it important to at least rhetorically accommodate the pacifist quest.

 What emerged was an environment in which while war was not thought to be unthinkable, there was a strong expectation that states would participate and submit to arbitration of conflicts and disputes before the dogs of war were turned loose. This approach was effective to a degree with a number of ‘crises’ being resolved through negotiation.

Of course, we know how this dance ends – the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo sparked a crisis that drew in all the major powers, casting a cloud of war across Europe and around the world that would last for the next four years. But that war was not inevitable, at least that’s one of the goals for the players in Sleepwalkers: Imperial Rivalries and the Great War, from  Dr. Richter Konfliktsimulationen.

In Sleepwalkers, up to five players lead a country (or countries) into the 20th Century. Each player shares the same goal – to lead their country to a dominant position. The metric for this measurement is a commodity called “prestige”. They player with the greatest prestige at the end of the game, wins the game.  Players will strive to achieve this through political maneuvering, economic protectionism, imperial expansion and on occasion, by engaging in open conflict. If the players push their luck and miscalculate, one of those wars could spiral out of control triggering the First World War and ending the game. It’s also possible for the players to transition into the 20th Century and have the game end without a global conflict

The physical components of Sleepwalkers are in line with other products from Dr. Richter Konfliktsimulationen such as Hindenburg’s Hour or Kido Butai. It’s a compact package in a zip lock bag containing the following items;

  • An eight-page rulebook
  • A 12” x 16” game board
  • 55 die cut counters

As indicated, this is a compact game. Players will need to provide a six-sided die and an opaque containing to hold the fifteen random event counters.

The rules are concise, but require a close reading. Much of the activity is straight forward, but we found it helpful to construct a flow chart of the crisis and war processes, which was very helpful until all the players were comfortable with following the flow of the game turns.

The game board is an attractive, functional representation of the major states of Europe. A quarter of the board is a list of the fifteen random events in the game. Other elements on the board include the sequence of play and steps in a crisis and war, as well as the turn record chart.

The counters are functional, bordering on the stark. Each player has a set of counters that denote the action they take that turn. That’s not to say they are unattractive, or hard to use, but the counters are not works of art. Possibly the most used counter for each player is the mobilization/mediation counter. But the counters clearly convey the players intent, which is why they are there in the first place. I’d like to have seen more virbrant, saturated colors used with the counters, but the colors used match the country colors on the map.

The game turn is relatively straight forward. Each turn starts with a random event, pulled from a container. Many of the events will dictate which player goes first in the turn (in some cases, it dictates the players action to boot!). play proceeds in clockwise order around the game board.

Once the player order is set for the turn, players will conduct their action for the turn. Each player chooses from their set of available actions;

  • Impose a tariff
  • Propose an alliance
  • Increase armaments
  • Attempt to expand your empire
  • Do nothing (aka pass)

The real measure of a game is in the playing, so let’s run through a turn to give you a sense of how important social diplomacy can be in the game. I rounded up three other players and was able to put on a four-player game. We had the following players (sitting in clockwise order);

  • Matt (Germany)
  • Dan (United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland)
  • Ray (picking up the slack and playing France and Russia)
  • Marc (Austria-Hungary)

The first event in the turn is the random event draw. We kick the game off with event number 8 the “Daily Telegraph Interview”. The event reduces German prestige by 1 and sets Britain as the first player for the game turn. A rough start for team Germany.

The random event counters (looking much more blue than the white they really are).
Turn 1, right out the gate German prestige takes a hit!

Player order for the turn will be

  • United Kingdom (Dan)
  • France (Ray)
  • Russia (Ray)
  • Austria-Hungary (Marc)
  • Germany (Matt)

The UK starts their player turn. Dan sees this as an opportunity to kick the Kaiser whilst he’s down and plays the armament action against Germany.

Matt objects and issues an ultimatum to the British – back down or this could mean war!  Dan scoffs at the notion, he’s thinking that Germany won’t risk losing a war and taking the prestige hit on top of the earlier loss from the event.

Neither player has allies (which would not help in any case, as allies won’t show up when the crisis involves the United Kingdom as one of the participants. Both players now secretly choose whether or not to mobilize for war.

A conference is called with all other nations weighing in. France, Austria and Russia, all urge restraint and select mediation as their action. However, both the UK and the Germans have mobilized. There being a 1 point different between the committed, mobilizing powers and the mediating powers, a die is rolled. This was unlikely to trigger a war (needing a “2” or a “12” in this case, as the dice rolled could not be equal to or less than a “1”).

War between the UK and Germany is averted. (It was always very unlikely to break out.)

War was avoided and a resolution reached. All three mediating powers gain +1 prestige, both mobilizing war parties each loose one prestige (and, since the crisis was resolved through mediation, the UK does not gain prestige for the initial armament action, they net out at -1 prestige), but Germany has lostr a total of -2 prestige so far this turn.

Thus ends the United Kingdom’s player turn.

As an aside, Dan should not have mobilized, as it cost him a prestige point whilst his mobilization did nothing to impact the likelihood of war, or change the odds of giving the UK a chance at a short war. While he has penalized Germany’s standing in the world, he’s done so at the cost of advancing Russia, France and Austria ahead of his own interests.

The remainder of turn one is expended in alliance building. Ray goes second and has France offer Russia an alliance. As Ray is also playing Russia, he reciprocates and has Russia accept the alliance. Not liking the looks of the political landscape, Marc’s Austrians offer an alliance to the Germans. Matt, after the drubbing taken earlier in the turn, welcomes the support and accepts the Austrian alliance. This brings the end of turn 1 with Europe aligned into two major camps with Britain standing alone (but favoring the weaker Franco-Russian alliance if push comes to shove).

Moving on to the second game turn, we draw another random event chit. This turns event is event number 5 – the Heroro Genocide. Again, Germany loses -1 Prestige and Britain has the initiative for the game turn.

Germany’s Prestige is as low as it can go.

Dan looks at the standings and thinks poor Germany has suffered enough (and at zero Prestige, they cannot sink any lower.) Britain turns its sights to Russia and plays the expand action against it. There’s a conflict brewing in southwest Asia as the British try to expand into the Russian sphere of influence.  

What’s this? The British Empire encroaching on Russia’s traditional sphere of influnce?

Ray’s looks at the situation and thinks it’s okay to let this one pass. ( Britain gains +1 prestige while Russia looses -1 prestige. Ray’s thinking that you cannot call allies in a conflict involving the UK, so better to swallow the loss for now.)

France plays an armament action against Germany. Looking at the alliances, Matt elects not to object. France gains +1 prestige.

France provokes the Germans.

Ray then takes Russia’s player turn. Having suffered at the hands of Britain, Russia elects to expand into the Balkans and provokes Austria. Marc objects to this violation and after a consultation with his German ally, issues an ultimatum to the Russians. In the call for allies, both sides allies respond. In the ensuing conference, all parties elect not to mobilize while the United Kingdom mediates. A die roll of “6” results in a peaceful resolution and all parties gain +1 prestige for their restraint. (Note the initial event had no impact on prestiage as this was resolved through mediation.)

Now it’s the Austrian player turn. Marc reciprocates and try to expand into the Russian sphere of influence. Ray now objects and the Russians issue an ultimatum to the Austrians. Neither side wants to back down and issue calls to their allies. France and Germany both respond.

The four committed powers secretly decide whether or not to mobilize. The UK – being the only uninvolved party elects to mediate the conflict. But all the other actors have selected mobilization!  This could trigger a war on a roll of “7” or less…

…which it does with a result of “4” it does.

The United Kingdom has a choice of whether or not to attempt to intervene on behalf of the Franco-Russian alliance. However, if Dan did intervene, the UK’s participation would triggered the game ending “Great War” involving all the powers. Even if the Triple Entente won the war, France would win the game as they would have the highest prestige. (Edit: But as Ray is playing both France and Russia, his score is the average of the two countries.) Hoping for a better position later in the game, Dan elects not to intervene. The UK stands apart whilst the continent marches to war. With all powers mobilizing, there is no hope for a short war, so it shifts to an attrition resolution. The raw numbers favor Austria and Germany (mostly due to Germany’s economic power). Austria rolls a “1” and achieves victory. Austria and German gain -1 prestige, France and Russia lose -1 Prestige. The war has ended.

There’s a note in the rules covering participating in a war. All powers involved in a war are done for the turn. It’s one line of text and it’s easy to miss. But the impact of this rule is that Germany, having fought in the war at Austria’s behest is now done for the game turn and Matt does not get to take an action this game turn.

Turn 2 has come to an end with Austria in a dominant position, the UK close behind and Germany recovering from its pariah status and France and Russia faltering. It’s still a competitive field and the players are getting the grasp of how negotiation, mediation and conflict interact within the game.

That’s enough of the description of play. The game continues in this manner until the players either trigger the ‘Great War’ (which ends the game immediately) or, at some point after game turn 5, draw random event # 15 from the chit draw cup (which we’ll assume means a kinder, gentler transition to the modern era rather than the outbreak off a global war.)

Sleepwalkers captures the feel of the period. Though the game may contain multiple, smaller wars, at its heart, Sleepwalkers is a game about diplomatic maneuvering and posturing while players strive to achieve dominance. This is not a game of detailed combat, in fact it’s quite the opposite. When a war does break out, as seen in the example, the resolution is handled quite abstractly. The ‘war’ may be a conflict in an overseas colonial setting, or a sharp clash taking place somewhere along European borders. The details of any given war are irrelevant in the grand sweep of the balance of power between the Concert of Europe (With the exception of course, of that big, game ending, war.)

As the historical backers of the Hague conferences likely intended, there is a lot of incentive in Sleepwalkers to ‘play nice’ and seek a mediated solution. Players can ‘game the system’ by provoking crises and then agreeing to mediate a solution to the benefit of all parties. The game does not prevent that, but such a strategy is tempered by the victory conditions which crown a single winner and the tendency will be for the other players to work to limit the dominance of any single alliance or power. You don’t want to allow either Germany or the United Kingdom to gain a dominant position in which either would welcome World War One as an event that cements their dominant position and wins them the game!

While Sleepwalkers is a five-player game, the rules governing historical alliances mean that game play will often feel more like a three-player game as Germany and Austria-Hungary will face off against the Franco-Russian alliance, with Great Britain acting as kingmaker. Given the game’s reliance on economic power in determining who the British will back, the game does a good job of creating the historical alliances between the Triple Alliance (albeit without Italy) and the Triple Entente. Lewis Pulsipher outlines the general challenges common to three player games in a short abstract with the most common issues being leader bashing and kingmaking.

In Sleepwalkers, the diplomatic nature of the game means that players are constantly seeking ways to increase their prestige, while striving to reduce the prestige of the other powers. Some of these actions – like increasing armaments, or growing your empire may mean that you’ll intentionally provoke the current leader in an attempt to reduce their prestige. This requires that mediators behave as rational actors, which from many games I’ve played, is unfortunately far from the truth.

But again, reflecting the historical period, the second phase of the ‘Concert of Europe’  was to use mediation as a tool by which the European powers could work within to both resolve disputes and minimize conflicts. But like any multi-state body, it was the ability to negotiate for advantage that drove the states to participate. If the players in Sleepwalkers find themselves far behind the curve, they may be more willing to ‘upset the applecart’ and embrace a role as either kingmaker or engage in leader bashing.

Sleepwalkers topic of negotiations leading up to the first ‘Great War’ reminds me of two prior games – Diplomacy and Pax Brittanica.

The diplomatic aspects of the game remind me of Avalon Hill’s classic game Diplomacy. Diplomacy is considered one of the classic games of the last 60 years. The simplicity of the mechanics allowed players to focus on the negotiations needed to achieve victory. Everything is abstracted in support of the diplomatic aspects of alliance building and betrayal (dare we say backstabbing?).  In this sense, Sleepwalkers captures that sense of diplomatic alliance building, both formal and informal.  Once nice touch is in Sleepwalkers, breaking your treaty obligations carries a penalty to your prestige. As a result, betrayal will hurt your standing while possibly harming another player’s position. (But sometimes, that can be enough!)

The other game that came to mind was Victory Games Pax Brittantica. Again, we have a game covers the end of the 19th Century with a focus on empire building, dominance and negotiations that will hopefully prevent a global war from occurring. But it’s a very different game from Diplomacy, as it’s focus was clearly on the imperial aspects of each power, with each player diving into management of their respective empire down to understanding the costs of empire, the economic return of a region and resolution of conflicts both as an imperial power as well as traditional nation-state conflicts.

Sleepwalkers falls into a space between these two games. The game hews much closer to Diplomacy in that the diplomatic dimension of the game is clearly at the forefront, while the economic and military dimensions are abstracted, though not nearly to the degree they are in Diplomacy.  I found the choice inspired as the game is neither the cutthroat game of betrayal that is Diplomacy, nor requires a spreadsheet to manage your revenue and expenses to speed play as it does in Pax Britannica. 

I’d argue that Sleepwalkers lands in the ‘sweet spot’ between these two games. The game has enough thematic elements to immerse the players in the pre-World War One setting. At the same time the mechanics are abstract enough that players avoid getting bogged down in the morass of detailed economic and military actions that make Pax Brittanica such a chore to play.

But the thing that really sells me on Sleepwalkers is that for a Brittanica game with relatively simple mechanics, there are surprisingly complex choices in gameplay at work. Based on the random event and player’s initial seating choices, the player turn order can shift from turn to turn. That yields interesting opportunities to capitalize on actions. While war is an event that many players will seek to avoid, the fact that participants in a war forfeit their player turn is a powerful incentive to avoid war’s early in the game turn. This all feeds into the decision-making and brinksmanship as the players navigate the actions and ultimatums within the player turns. On top of that, allowing Britain or Germany to achieve a strong dominant position makes it likely they will work to turn what would have been a minor conflict into a game ending global war as they can assure their dominance and end the game.

The nature of crisis resolution means that all players are engaged in almost every player tr\urn. Sure, that engagement may be as simply as deciding whether or not to mediate a conflict, but you may be called to honor (or break) alliances and decide whether or not mobilizing for war is worth the cost of missing out on a mediated settlement. 

Many folks are concerned with how well a game can be played solitaire. I get that not everyone can call on a group of gamers for an afternoon or evening of fun. In many cases, multi-player games come with dedicated solitaire rules or some form of a bot to automate the play of a faction. Sleepwalkers is clearly not envisioned as a solitaire game and while the rules provide guidance as to how one or more factions could be automated, the game is clearly intended to have the social negotiation aspect of three to five players live in the heart of game play.

If you are a diehard solitaire gamer who never has the opportunity to game with a group of 3-5 people, my recommendation is that you pass on Sleepwalkers. I say that as while you can play the game as a solitaire player, this form of two-handed play will never unlock most of the fun and challenges that are presented by a multi-player gaming session.

But for those gamers that can muster three – or even better five players – at the table, Sleepwalkers offers a fun, engaging experience. Yes, part of that fun is the bitter intrigue of diplomacy and part is from the high stakes game of brinksmanship and bluffing. In Sleepwalkers, the path to victory requires that you, to paraphrase Kenny Rogers, ‘know when to hold them, know when to fold them and know when to walk away.

The four players in our session enjoyed themselves as well worked through the various crises and minor conflicts that erupted on our way to a British victory. One take away was that we all agreed that the game is best experienced with five players and failing that, a three-player balanced the alliances against the United Kingdom. A positive take away was that everyone was quite willing to play the game again.

Sleepwalkers is a great example showing that solid games can come in a small package and not require a huge map with hundreds of pieces. The game gives a great value, especially when measured on a cost per player/hour metric. It’s a worthy addition to my game collection, guaranteed to see repeated game play.

Armchair General Score: 95%

Solitaire suitability (1–5 scale, with 1 being virtually unplayable as a solitaire game and 5 being completely suitable for solitaire play):  2

Ray Garbee has been a gamer for the past four decades. Ray’s interests include the Anglo-Sikh Wars through the conflicts of the 20th Century and beyond, but his passion remains American Civil War naval gaming. His past works include Iron Thunder, Anaconda, Anaconda: Capital Navies and articles in a number of hobby magazines.

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