Thirty Years’ War – PC Game Review
Thirty Years’ War. PC Game Review. Publisher: Matrix/Slitherine. Developer: HQ. $29.99 download; $39.99 boxed.
Passed Inspection: Fine period graphics, acceptable AI, historically accurate, neglected period
Failed Basic: Steep learning curve, weak diplomacy, limited multi-play
Games built with the AGEOD engine are not simple propositions but, then, the Thirty Years’ War is far from being a simple conflict. Historians sometimes compare the war to a crazy quilt but a better metaphor is a Rubric cube. The theaters of operations shifted all over central, northern and eastern Europe with alliances, agendas and intrigues twisting and turning throughout the war. Designed by the clever people at Headquarter and AGEOD while published by Matrix, Thirty Years’ War represents a heroic, educational and playable, if slightly flawed, reorientation of this continental conflagration.
The game’s map covers all of Germany and Eastern Europe with glimpses of Scandinavia, the Netherlands, parts of France and northern Italy as well as some of modern Slovakia. The map is divided into hundreds of well-defined provinces, marked with the flag of the controlling power, indicating the patchwork nature of the Holy Roman Empire (HRE). Major and medium-sized cities are by an outline reminiscent of a period woodcut differentiated by the walls of a major city with a numeric indicating the walls’ strength. Mountain ranges as well as both major and minor rivers are clearly drawn while the winter months cast a white blank over the entire vista. Seven different overlays show information such as supply possibility, city control and weather. The mouse tool tip reveals seven categories for each province and six categories for each city. The usual bar at the top of the screen shows money, victory points, morale, supplies and engagement points.
Graphics hit a higher level of interest when dealing with period matters. The large diplomatic box above the map has the coats of arms for each major power in vivid color. Over fifty regional decision cards have detailed depictions of events like scorched earth, landmines and raids. Yet, the pieces de resistance are the portraits of commanders, troop types and equipment in the stack bar. Commanders’ faces are accurate down to the Van Dyke beards and huge ruffs around the neck. Commanders’ special abilities are marked colorfully with symbols on their pictures. Pikemen are shown in buff coats holding their long weapons while different cavalry types have detailed armor and flamboyant clothes. Artillery pieces are exhibited by type from siege mortars to falconets. Clicking on a specific unit in the bar brings up a window with even more detail and a myriad of unit values. These details enhance the feel of the game greatly.
Of course, no AGEOD game is complete without sortable ledgers. Thirty Years’ War has ten of these valuable pages covering troops, military production, objectives and governmental decisions. The usual message scroll helps player keep track of events with a click on a line moving the map to the event’s position. Important events are highlighted in red and clicking will create the pertinent sub-window. Battles are shown with a meter followed by a very detailed page recording the action of each unit and nine possible results such as captured equipment as well as casualties, called “hits”. A more detailed blow-by-blow description is available. Major battles allow players to select formations and tactics. A mini-map aids navigation of the map. Unfortunately, text follows the regrettable trends of small, dark-on-dark font. Perhaps this irritation is a nod to period feel but it gets in the way of play.
Sound effects are adequate with the sound of arms clashing and guns booming with a tolling church bell. The 180-page manual covers matters fairly well and, with the help of three tutorial scenarios, takes some of the edge off the steep learning curve.
Fighting the Long, Slow Fight
The interface is the tried-and-true AGEOD staple. Movement is accomplished by dragging units or stacks represented by commanders’ counters either by region-by-region or directly to the final destination. Movement can be slowed by terrain, weather and enemy action. A unit with an inactivated commander cannot move to a region containing an enemy unit. The movement portion of the three-part orders tab allows units to enter a city at the end of the move as well as forced march, sortie and evade the enemy. The other two tabs deal with creating depots, razing cities and managing stacks. Also attached to the stack bare are the command postures ranging from aggressive to very passive and the Rules of Engagement that include everything from all-out to “Please don’t hurt me!” The effectiveness of stacks in combat is a function of commanders’ abilities and their command points. Naval movement and commands are handled approximately the same way although use of fleets is relatively rare. Fleets are primarily tools for troop transport, amphibious landings and blockades.
The issues that separate Thirty Years War from the rest of the AGEOD stable are those that represent the period. These concepts are shown in four scenarios – the Bohemian Revolt, the Danish intervention, “The Paladin’s” (the Imperial mopping-up operations in the Palatinate) and the Swedish intervention. The length of these phases range from nine to 64 monthly turns. The lack of the French phase of the war, 1635-1648, is lamentable. As interesting as these phases are, the full panoply of game functions and play only shows up in the 369-turn depiction of the entire war. Here, players get the feel of the strategy, difficulties and opportunities of the Protestant and Catholic protagonists, Neither side has a strong army in the beginning but gain money and material over time from annual taxes, diplomatic aid and the playing of regional decision cards. Cards for contributions, requisitions and raids are dragged to green pulsating provinces where they can be played. These cards can also be used to recruit troops at the cost of money and supplies.
Building armies is a slow process. Only certain cities can produce particular troops, depending on their internal structures. Moreover, each side has a limited force pool so new units can only be built when they appear in the production ledger and even then they require time before they are fully effective. Good troops can be attained from allies but these troops can be withdrawn if the ally needs them elsewhere. Armies depend on supplies that come from friendly cities and depots that have an unblocked line of communication to the army. Armies can also be given supply wagons to supplement the two months’ supply they carry. Of course, foraging and pillaging can supplement supply as can supplies and weapons captured from enemies. Maintaining armies in the field also require paying the troops or they may desert or not fight at all. Therefore, managing the size of armies and capturing rich cities are vital considerations. Troop losses can be replaced if players have bought incremental replacements from the replacement section of the force pool ledger before movement or combat.
The movement, supply and army organization components of the game are reasonably historical and allow players to manage resources. The diplomacy component, however, is weaker. Diplomacy events happen in three ways: scripted events, trigger actions and decision cards. Scripted events follow history quite well with matters such as the Catholic League and Protestant Union forming at the correct times. Triggers happen in instances when one side is about to be overwhelmed and related parties intervene, e.g. Denmark enters the conflict when the HRE starts going after all Protestants, not just Calvinists. The King of Poland and Bethlen Gabor of Hungary can play an almost random role in the war. Some decision cards can be dragged to diplomatic boxes but these cards appear as playable when the engine produces them. Players have very little control over diplomacy in an era when diplomatic initiatives far outnumbered military moves. One wishes for a diplomatic model like the one in Paradox games.
Nonetheless, the pace and strategy of the game reflects the era well. Operations can only safely occur from March through October. Armies need to seek refuge in friendly cities during winter or suffer large hits from cold, disease, hunger and exhaustion. Set piece battles are rare due to timid commanders, plodding movement, sloppy logistics and being tied to defending objective cities. Small incursions and sieges are much more common. Exceptions to some of these problems are commanders such as Mansfeld, Tilly, Wallenstein and Gustavus Adolphus. Clever handling of such commanders can result in an automatic victory by crushing enemy national morale through stunning victories and capturing objective cities. If such a victory doesn’t occur, the winner is decided by accumulating the most victory points from objectives and inflicting causalities.
The number and length of scenarios assure many hours of play especially since the AI seems to come up with slightly different moves each game. Multi-player is weak; no internet or hot seat options are available and the PBEM system is clumsy and unclear.
Thirty Years’ War is an ambitious and remarkable undertaking by designer Miguel Santacruz who continues to tweak the game. Most gamers may be turned off by the subject and the pace of play. They are missing not only a jewel of a game but an excellent history lesson. More games exploring periods not included in the usual canon of wargames should be produced and promoted.
Armchair General Rating: 89%
About the Author
Jim Cobb has been playing board wargames since 1961 and computer wargames since 1982. He has been writing incessantly since 1993 to keep his mind off the drivel he deals with as a bureaucrat. He has published in Wargamers Monthly, Computer Gaming World, Computer Games Magazine, Computer Games Online, CombatSim, Armchair General, Subsim, Strategyzone Online