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Posted on May 18, 2021 in Boardgames, Front Page Features

“Who are the Britons?”  Morgane Gouyon-Rety Mints a Roman COIN Embedded in Arthurian Legend with GMT’s “Pendragon: The Fall of Roman Britain”. Board Game Review

“Who are the Britons?” Morgane Gouyon-Rety Mints a Roman COIN Embedded in Arthurian Legend with GMT’s “Pendragon: The Fall of Roman Britain”. Board Game Review

Ray Garbee

Pendragon: The Fall of Roman Britain. GMT Games. Designer: Morgane Gouyon-Rety. Price $95.00

Passed inspection: An exiting four player game that explores the decline of Roman Britain. Engaging game play with high replay potential.

Failed basic: The font used on event card headers evokes the period, but some players found it difficult to read. This only impacts the title – the event text itself was easy to read.

GMT Game’s Counter Insurgency (COIN) series has been a literal game changer for strategy games. While the core rules of the series explores conflicts grounded in asymmetrical warfare, each new title has adapted and evolved to bring something fresh to the game table. Pendragon: The Fall of Roman Britain  is no exception. In Pendragon, the eighth title in the COIN series, game designer Morgane Gouyon-Rety started with the foundation of the traditional four-player COIN game and transformed it into a struggle depicting the decline of Roman Britain.

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The imprint of Roman colonization can still be seen across the landscape of modern Britain. The remains of structures in London endure, as does an amphitheater in Chester. Further afield, you’ll find the well preserved Roman bath house in Bath and the impressive defensive works delineating the northern boundary of Roman control. And of course, the legacy of the system of Roman roads that were vital for defense and commerce on the island.

A name like Pendragon can’t help but evoke the tale of Arthur, King of the Britons. There’s a robust school of thought regarding the historicity of the Arthurian legend. Current scholarship suggests that Arthur is more myth than an actual person, but that myth persists into the twenty first century.

The game shows Roman Briton just past the zenith of its power. The empire’s past expansion is a memory and the mindset of the provincial leaders has shifted to determining how they can best profit and turn this time of crisis to their advantage.

And a time of crisis it most definitely is! The Empire is under pressure from barbarians beyond the frontier. From the east, Charismatic Saxon leaders lead bands of raiders from across the sea.  These warriors are seeking plunder and, on occasion, new lands to settle. From the northwest, fierce bands of Celtic warriors – the Scotti – sought lands in Hibernia and the western regions of Briton. The Roman leaders find themselves caught in a vise between these two barbarian hordes.

The game board depicts Roman Briton past the height of its power, but still a formidable presence. Settlements are spread across the land, including the major cities of Londinium (modern day London) and Eboracum (York). The network of Roman roads is depicted as are the smaller towns and forts that make up Britannia.

But aside from that, what has Rome done for the average Briton? Well, the relative wealth and prosperity of the various provinces is denoted and tracked as a measure of the success of civil Britons. Of course, If you are the Saxon’s or the Scotti, these wealthy provinces make Roman Britain an inviting object for raiding and potential colonization. But before we start carting off the village silver and building settlements, let’s step back and review the contents of the game.

Cracking the seal on the box, we find a fairly standard set of components. Emptying out the box, we have the following;

  • The Gameboard
  • Rule booklet
  • Player’s Aid Booklet
  • Tokens
  • Counters
  • Cards

If you’ve played a COIN game before, these components will seem familiar. However, if you are new to the COIN series, let’s do a quick run through of the parts.

The gameboard is a gorgeous map of late empire Britainnia. Stretching from Lands End in the southwest to the boundary with Caledonia, roughly along the line of Atonine’s Wall. The map depicts the regions, sea zones, cities towns and forts of Roman Britain. The prominence of the road network is a central feature of the map and showcases the roads as an enduring feature that you see echoed across other board games ranging from Avalon Hill’s Kingmaker to High Flying Dice Game’s “Alfred the Great: The Ethandun Campaign”

The board depicts three classes of terrain – clear, Hills and Fens. Hills are found in the north and west, while the Fens are flat, marshy areas located in eastern Britain.

The perimeter of the board contains the sequence of play, tracks for the Epoch round and Imperium (we’ll cover those in a bit) and staging spaces for each of the games four factions.

The rulebook is a 44-page paperback booklet, printed in color with saddle stich binding. It’s the standard format for a GMT rule book. Those 44 pages are divided between the 20 pages of the introduction and ‘standard’ rules and rules for non-player factions, a glossary and the scenarios three (3) scenarios and the full campaign game. The rulebook is similar in format to other COIN games from GMT and explains the core concepts of control, actions and events and victory. There are also rules for the new concepts of Prosperity, Wealth, Renown and Prestige. 

The playbook is a separate paperback booklet. Within it’s 70 pages are a host of useful tips and references. As is typical with GMT, the playbook contains an extended example of game play, copious game notes, designer’s commentary, a breakdown of each event card and notes on sources, place names and a pronunciation guide.

Pendragon has a substantial number of tokens beyond the classic disc, cubes and hexagonal cylinders of its predecessors. This is a reflection of the complexity and depth of the game. There are towns, forts, settlements, legionaries, militia, raiders, warbands and wealth. Taken together, the range of pieces makes Pendragon one of the more diverse games in the COIN series.

Various wooden tokens used with Pendragon

There are relatively few counters in the game. As with other COIN games, the counters are used to depict persistent events or the status of area control. In addition, counters are used to mark Saxon and Scotti forces serving as Roman auxiliary troops.

The game comes with a deck of event cards. Of course it does – this is a COIN game, and a deck of cards is a defining feature of a COIN game. Pendragon leverages the conventional COIN standard of the event card determining the faction play order. The events give you a good feel for the events of the historical period, while incorporating the feel of the Arthurian legend.

The Arthur legend is represented by a number of event cards.

Bringing the game to the table, Pendragon offers an experience similar to other COIN games. Each player controls a faction with different goals and different tools through which to achieve those goals. Also like a COIN game, Pendragon depicts nominal allies that are competitors and rivals that must cooperate. In this case, the ‘Romans’ are split between the military commanders (the “Dux”) and the civil administration and ruling families. Facing the Empire are the separated tribal forces of the Saxons and the Scotti. The set-up forces Rome to fight a war on two fronts against the barbarians while simultaneously scheming to put their own interests ahead of their rivals.

However, Pendragon also brings some depth to the COIN series in the way it handles prosperity and wealth. Settled areas under control are capable of producing material goods, represented by gold-colored wooden cubes – which the game calls prosperity. These prosperity cubes are the tangible expression of value present in an area. The prosperity cubes are used to measure economic prosperity, but may also be carted off by barbarian raiders as booty, or carried off by the Roman army as plunder.

Putting the parts in action, you get a game that is both familiar, yet unique. In part this is due to the randomizing effects of the event card deck and epochs. In each round the players are confronted with decisions. From the current event card, players know the play order and the event effects. Players are also aware of the upcoming event – which may be beneficial for their faction, or helpful for their opponent. The effect is that in each round, players have to gauge the opportunity cost of passing versus taking the current event card or executing a command action, possibly with a “feat”. This decision process is at the heart of the COIN series…and it’s one of the things that make COIN games so engaging.

That engagement can also be profoundly frustrating! To paraphrase a dank meme, the card – like the cake –is often a lie. Some cards purport to impart powerful opportunities or change the nature of the base rules to the games. This is a true statement – the cards can indeed do this.

But on another level, the card is the cruelest trick in the COIN magician’s show. Cards can represent a shiny, gleaming grail that while offering you some benefit, at the same time, distract you from pursuing your own objectives and goals. That distraction can have devastating results. Player’s need to be mindful that they don’t let that shiny card event become a cursed monkey’s paw that promises wealth while bringing ruin. Read that card carefully and weigh the opportunity costs of taking the card against the command action and feat you might otherwise take – and bear in mind the potential reactions of your opponents.

This aspect of the cards is not a challenge unique to Pendragon. Rather, this is a feature common to all the COIN games. It’s a sound design choice that allows introducing events outside the core game rules without requiring a host of special rules. The decision to use an event remains one of the key choices over which the players will agonize. It’s a key element that adds to the gameplay and the engagement of the players.

Again, do read the card event text carefully. A number of the cards offer powerful, game changing benefits that if they appear at the right time can be very useful. An example of this is the “Classicus Britannica” event which can either result in a reduction of the Roman sea patrols which improves the strengths of Saxon raiding parties, or can result in a more robust naval presence in the Oceanus Brittanicus.

Players should be mindful of their unique pivotal event card. These are easy to overlook and also can be hard to determine when is the best time to deploy that pivotal event.

Given that my exposure to the historical period consists almost entirely of movies derived from the romantic legend of Arthur, just setting up the game gave me a greater appreciation for what the Romans have done for Britain. 

Pendragon captures the feel of Roman Britain during the late Imperium. The game board gives a sense of space and place. Londinium is still the major city in Britain, though Eboracrum’s primacy as a central hub for military forces is clearly represented. At its heart the game represents a finely balanced economic engine. All it will take to topple this engine are a few strong pushes.

 The event cards provide the insights into the historical events that occur during the period. It’s a solid effort given that the period depicted in the game trends into an era in which, to paraphrase Nelson Muntz, “historical records are spotty, at best.”

 Like other COIN games, Pendragon includes factions which are notionally allies, but who have competing agendas and goals. Central to this game is the tension that exists between the Roman civil government and the military garrison. Is the civil government hostage to the military garrison? At times it can feel this way. I can envision the Dux player negotiating with their Roman counterpart for resources with the statement, “Nice island you’ve got here, be a shame if something happened to it.” This is a case of the enemy of my enemy is my friend. The garrison can often liberally utilize civil resources. While nominally a benefit, it can also be a tactic to limit the resources available to the civil government. It’s an interesting political dimension you don’t see in game other games in the series.

Along those lines are the recruitment of barbarian allies. The Romans can make the Saxon or Scotti an offer they can’t refuse with the recruitment of Foederati troops. Like good mercenaries they’ll stay as long as you pay them. It’s a powerful tool to deprive your barbarian opponents of forces they would need for a field battle. It’s a good example of how to keep your friends close – and your enemies closer!

The Scotti and Saxons begin expand their settlements, while the Romans recruit the barbarians as Foederati auxiliaries.

Pendragon effectively portrays the role of the Roman roads. When the roads are in good condition, the network allows the Dux cavalry to ride all the way from Mercia and battle the invading Saxons and Scotti across the land. It’s the foundation of a quick reaction force that prevents barbarian incursions from getting out of hand.

Geography is depicted and used to shape strategy for the external raiders. The landscape reflects areas in which the various factions are most effective. Saxons are more at home in the fens of East Anglia and Kent while the Scotti favor the wild lands of best what will become Cornwall, Wales and Caledonia.

Take time to read through the play book. GMT has supported Morgane in providing an excellent set of background articles describing both the game mechanics as well as the thought process behind those decisions.  For those folks that do not own the game, you can read her thoughts on the GMT website.

Pendragon is an engaging game and a solid COIN game. The game leverages the best of the COIN concept in providing an asymmetrical experience in which each faction has very different objectives and very different tools with which to pursue those goals.

There’s a small quantity of errata to address. Most of it is clarification of the rules as opposed to errors requiring correction. Grab a copy from the GMT web site before you begin to play.   

Beyond the errata there were a couple of items I struggled with. One of those was the font used on the event cards and playing board in the game. While the font is certainly evocative of the historical period, I struggled to read the letters clearly. It may be a personal preference, but the font choice introduced a barrier to my engagement with the game. It’s not a deal breaker as the event text is in a legible font, and the artwork on the cards is superb.

The other distraction can also be chalked up to personal preference. I never studied Latin nor dove into the details of Roman history and now I’m paying the price. The location names are true to their Roman heritage, but many are substantially different from the modern place name. It was somewhat disorienting and rendered a somewhat familiar landscape as terra incognita.  Remember when I recommended ‘read the playbook’? You’ll want to reference the gazetteer and pronunciation guides. Both with help you become familiar with the landscape.

While I say I struggled with these two items, this also showcases one of the positive aspects of a good board game – the opportunity to educate. Pendragon provides insights into the physical and cultural landscapes of Roman Britain.

A feature of importance to modern players is if a game is designed to support solitaire play. Board gamers have progressed from the position of having to change hats and play all sides in a game, to an expectation that a game includes dedicated rules that allow an individual to play a game. Pendragon meets that expectation with a set of rules for automating the play of multiple factions. Almost half the rule book is dedicated to supporting this and the game includes charts defining non-player faction actions and events.

But wait, there’s more! While the need to solitaire play is often mandated by the physical isolation of the player, modern technology is erasing this “tyranny of distance”. In this case, the web-based tool VASSAL provides physically separated players the opportunity to play Pendragon using the a Vassal module!

The Vassal module gives you the full board game experience as shown in this screen capture.

It may not be a dedicated solo game, but Vassal provides an alternative to connect you and up to three friends over the internet so that you can play together. You’ll need to provide a way to talk in real time, but between the telephone, zoom, facetime or Discord, there are multiple choices available. And you can play the game solo using the rules for the bots found in the physical copy of the game.

The Vassal module does a good job, but has some quirks. Epoch cards don’t appear on the board as the current card, so it’s possible to miss them when they appear. Also, the population track does not capture changes when a province is depopulated. You have to remember to manually account for the changes when totaling population.

Should you buy this game? Wait – you mean you don’t already have a copy? Did you read this review? What are you waiting on – the lady of the lake, her arm clad in the purest shimmering samite, to hold aloft a copy of Pendragon from the water, signifying that you should buy a copy? Don’t be daft – seek a copy of Pendragon for your collection, or I shall be forced to taunt you a second time.

Armchair General Score: 96%

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

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.

2 Comments

  1. It is my favorite COIN.

  2. Hello Brad!

    What makes Pendragon your favorite out of the growing number of COIN games?

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