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Board Game Wish List – Pendragon: The Fall of Roman Britain

Welcome to my third ever Board Game Wish List. This month we’re going to feature a game I’ve talked about briefly this year. I’m relatively new to wargaming, but there is no way I’m missing out on this great upcoming title from GMT Games. I had heard whispers of this one on BoardGameGeek so long ago, and I’ve been keeping tabs on its development for quite some time now. I was able to reach out to the designers, Marc Gouyon-Rety and Volko Ruhnke, and get some special previews to help shape the content for this post. I cannot wait for this one to release, and I hope that I can help get you excited, too, for what is certainly going to be an amazing game!

~Note: Images used may display various prototypes of the maps, components, and more. Furthermore, all rules and discussion are based off a pre-production presentation of the game, so images seen and items mentioned may change by the time the game is finished and ships out.

**Warning: This post is massive, but very much worth the time to read it. I’ve broken things down into manageable chunks, covering a host of aspects about the game up front. There is a lot of excellent information in there, some coming straight from the website and/or rule book, while other bits are coming from my own attempt to streamline the concept of the game. Near the bottom are the reasons I’m really, really excited about this game. I won’t judge you for skipping to that part, but by breaking this into chunks via subheadings, you can read a section or two at a time and come back after your brain has processed all that information. This game is going to be deserving of such long, focused attention!

pendragonbanner2

Introduction, taken from the GMT Games website:

“At that time all members of the assembly, along with the proud tyrant, are blinded; such is the protection they find for their country (it was, in fact, its destruction) that those wild Saxons, of accursed name, hated by God and men, should be admitted into the island, like wolves into the folds, in order to repel the northern nations. Nothing more hurtful, certainly, nothing more bitter, happened to the island than this […]”

Gildas (De Excidio Britanniae, Part I.23)

So wrote the 6th Century AD British monk Gildas in his pamphlet De Excidio Britanniae (“On the Ruin of Britain”) about what had befallen the Romano-British lands. This crucial period in history saw the end of the Roman Empire in Britain and the seeds of the modern nations of England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, and Brittany. Most of us know next to nothing about this period, but we know of its legends – from King Arthur and his knights, through Merlin, Vortigern and Hengest, Badon Hill and the Isle of Avalon, to St. Patrick and Niall of the Nine Hostages…

“For the fire of righteous vengeance, caused by former crimes, blazed from sea to sea, heaped up by the eastern band of impious men; and as it devastated all the neighboring cities and lands, did not cease after it had been kindled, until it burnt nearly the whole surface of the island, and licked the western ocean with its red and savage tongue. […]”

Gildas (De Excidio Britanniae, Part I.24)

Volume VIII in GMT’s COIN Series transports us into the 4th and 5th Centuries A.D. and to the embattled Isle of Britannia. Pendragon – The Fall of Roman Britain covers a century of history from the first large-scale raids of Irish, Pict, and Saxon raiders, to the establishment of successor kingdoms, both Celtic and Germanic. This sumptuous volume adapts the celebrated asymmetrical COIN engine to depict the political, military, religious, and economic struggles of Dark Ages Britain.

Shrouded in mists of myth and legend, this story so foundational to many national groups has been subject to many different narratives and interpretations. The traditional Victorian vision of brutal and violent conquest of Roman and Celtic Britain by Anglo-Saxon raiders and invaders nowcollides with modern historical views ranging from continuity of tribal rivalries to quasi-peaceful cohabitation and acculturation.

The Introduction, taken from the Rule Book

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Pendragon is a board game about the fall of the Roman Diocese of Britain, from the first large-scale raids of Irish, Pict, and Saxon raiders to the establishment of successor kingdoms, both Celtic and Germanic. It adapts GMT Games’ “COIN Series” game system about asymmetrical conflicts to depict the political, military, religious, and economic affairs of 4th and 5th Century Britain.

In Pendragon, one to four players each take the roles of one or more Factions in Britain: the post-Roman army in Britain seeking to maintain imperial order and perhaps morphing into warlords; the landholding civilian aristocracy of the Romanized Celtic Britain tribes aiming to recover their independence while preserving their lands and wealth; the Germanic peoples (Saxons proper, Angles, Jutes, and others) threatening Britain as they look for new opportunities across the North Sea; and the non-Romanized Celtic peoples from across the Irish Sea or from the cold North (mainly Irishmen and Caledonian Picts) eying the disintegrating provinces with appetite.

Issuing commands and exploiting their Factions’ special actions and various events, players build and maneuver forces to influence or control the populations of Britain, extract resources and build renown, and achieve their Factions’ aims. Cards regulate turn order, events, and victory checks.

The game’s most important functions are summarized on several aid sheets. The last few pages of this rule book list key terms in an index and explain how to set up. New players should start with the tutorial in the Playbook.

My Overview of Pendragon: The Fall of Roman Britain

PendragonMapv049

There is so much that is going on in this game, it is enough to make a person’s head spin at a glance. This is far from a light game and if you pick up the rule book, look at the map, or consider there are four factions with unique goals and objectives in the game, you might go run and seek the comfort of your game of Splendor with its simple, straight-forward, always-use-the-same-strategy gameplay.

That would be a mistake. Yes, this game is big and heavy and there are a lot of unique things going on in here. This is probably not the first game to look to if this is your first time exploring a heavy game. But wow, this game sounds really amazing and I don’t think it is quite as complex as it first appears. Here’s a simple breakdown:

Contenders reduced

There are four different factions vying for certain goals within Britain. The game takes place around 400 A.D. to begin and, depending on the scenario played, could span anywhere from 2-6 Epochs. The longer the game, the thicker the deck and the harder it might be to reach those win conditions. There is also a short scenario in there which reduces the win conditions on two of the factions.

The four factions all play unique, but at the start of the game there are some unique things going on: two of the factions are somewhat allied, meaning they will attack and defend together and can even dip into each other’s resource pool. The other two factions begin with no pieces on the board. Yes, you heard it correctly. Nothing on the board at the beginning of the game for two factions. So here are the four factions and what each one is trying to accomplish to win the game:

  • The Roman Dux faction – Depending on the point in time of the game, they are either adding their Prestige value and Prosperity (with two different possible values needed depending on the game state), or Prestige value and Population.
  • The Civitates faction – Their sole goal is to influence the population under Britain control via resettling refugees. They are the British nobles, trying to throw off the Roman control while warding off the invaders.
  • The Saxon faction – They are trying to increase their Renown while also forming Settlements in Britain. They can also win by controlling population on the island and shifting things into their favor through settlements. Think of this as trying to increase their glory while also “peacefully” settling the land they are invading.
  • The Scotti faction – They have similar objectives to the Saxons, needing both Renown and Settlements on the map. However, they are not trying to control the population.

Awaiting Pendragon's Invitation reduced

During the game, cards are played from the deck one at a time, with one card ahead (so the next in the queue after the current one) revealed to all players. Each Event card shows the order in which the Factions become eligible to choose either that Event or from a menu of their unique list of Commands and Feats. Executing an Event or Command makes it so that Faction is unable to do that on the next available card. In the deck there are also Epoch cards mixed in, which provide opportunities to fulfill instant win conditions and complete activities such as collecting resources.

This cycle will continue until either the Epochs are all complete (there are two in a short game, four in a medium game, six in a long game) or until one player fulfills their win condition.

There are a ton of excellent aspects to this game, and those are all covered by the GMT Insider articles far better than I could do. At the very bottom of this post, you’ll find links to all ten current articles which break down one core mechanic at a time in an effective way. And hopefully by now you haven’t been scared off from the game. It might be a little intimidating, but you can handle it. For a deeper dive into what this game includes and what the factions are, I can make no improvement to the description of this game found on GMT Games’ website.

Description of the game from the GMT Games page:

BedaFomm1LucasBrooks

Pendragon leverages the tremendous flexibility of the COIN system, from dual events to dissimilar approaches and victory conditions, to capture the complexity of the period and let the players explore alternative narratives. Unlike earlier volumes, Pendragon is not about counterinsurgency per se, but focuses on the asymmetrical clashes between and among Romano-British authorities and Barbarian powers gnashing over the carcass of the Roman Empire, including:

  • Barbarian Raiders plundering the land and trying to surprise unwary towns and hillforts, then melting into hills or fens.
  • Expansion or decline of the Saxon Shore naval defense system to counter sea-borne raiders.
  • Authentic Late-Roman military doctrine—mighty but hard-to-replace cavalry tracking down raiding parties before they can return their booty home.
  • Accessible, powerful but fickle Foederati: barbarian warbands in Britain employ.
  • Nuanced battle system representing troop qualities and tactics.
  • Fortified strongholds that must be assaulted, besieged, or rebuilt to gain regional political control.
  • Civil wars, coups, religious shifts, and cultural assimilation.
  • Population movements over the generations, due to good administration, barbarian ravages, or climatic changes.
  • Epochal Events ranging from Roman usurpations on the continent to massive reprisals against barbarian homelands.
  • Evolution of rules and victory conditions throughout the game, as the still vivacious Roman Empire may or may not end with Britain fragmented among competing semi-barbarian proto-kingdoms.
  • A deck of 83 cards with gorgeous commissioned original art.
  • Short, medium, and full-length scenarios
  • Support for solitaire, 2-player, 3-player and 4-player experiences.

“They, moved, as far as was possible for human nature, by the tale of such a tragedy, make speed, like the flight of eagles, unexpected in quick movements of cavalry on land and of mariners by sea; before long they plunge their terrible swords in the necks of the enemies; the massacre they inflict is to be compared to the fall of leaves at the fixed time, just like a mountain torrent, swollen by numerous streams after storms, sweeps over its bed in its noisy course; […]”

Gildas (De Excidio Britanniae, Part I.17)

circa450AD

Each faction in Pendragon brings specific capabilities and challenges:

The Dux represent the original Roman Army in Britannia: with the most powerful units in the game and a network of strong fortresses ringing the island and tied by efficient roads, you must strive to preserve the stability and prosperity of the provinces and punish any interloper daring to challenge the peace. If you can build up your prestige and maintain order, you may be able to keep the island in the Empire, or at least united in a new post-Roman power. You can rely on the civilian militia to assist you, but—as your peerless cavalry dwindles—you must resort to the traditional Roman offer to barbarians of land for service in your forces as Foederati. As the decay of institutions conspires with the scheming of feckless civilians and the marauding of restless barbarians, you may find that the dream of Empire is dead. If so, with your once proud Army little more than another group of warlords, you still can strive to carve for yourself the most powerful kingdom alongside your new rivals.

The Civitates represent the Romanized aristocracy ruling the ancient Celtic tribes from lavish villas and prosperous Roman towns, chafing under the distant authority (and taxes) of Rome, mistrusting the uncultured and semi-Barbarian army, and yearning to settle century-old accounts with their neighbors. When the Barbarian storm comes down upon your island, you may find yourself woefully unprepared to cope—materially or culturally—and presented with a fundamental choice: strive to protect your lands, wealth, and way of life via the despised Army and untrustworthy Foederati, or sacrifice Roman comforts to face down the Barbarian challenge militarily and culturally through a return to Celtic traditions.

The Saxons represent various Germanic groups including Angles, Jutes, Frisians, and Franks who harried, settled, and eventually took over swaths of Britain. As outsiders, you face a steep challenge just to come ashore against the might of the Roman army and navy. You will chip away at the Saxon Shore system, ravage the provincial economy to weaken the Britains’ capability to wage war, and see  some of your best warriors serve as Foederati (often against yourself), but recognize  that the more Saxonsliving on the island—whoever their paymaster—the more opportunities for advancing your nation. Eventually, you must secure footholds, perhaps in the marshy fens of the eastern seaboard that so resemble your homelands, in order to wield your considerable military potential and challenge the old masters of these rich lands to create England.

The Scotti, named for the marauding groups of Irish raiders, also represent those Celts native to the island of Britain who differed from the romanized Civitates by remaining true (or reverting back) to the old ways. Often, the boundary between the two groups was porous… The biggest such group eventually formed the northern nation of the Picts, forebears of modern Scotland. As the Scotti, you see the disintegration of Roman Britain as an opportunity not so much to expand as to seize riches and renown to assert yourself at home. Raid ceaselessly, surprise and plunder poorly protected communities, kidnap for ransom, and show your military prowess against your unfortunate neighbors across the Irish Sea and Forth-Clyde isthmus… Then establish bases strategically along the enemy shores and entreat local hill tribes to reject post-Roman authority. But beware that your very advances will help give rise and limit your ability to grapple new powerhouses on the island!

“Kings were anointed, not in the name of God, but such as surpassed others in cruelty, and shortly afterwards were put to death by the men who anointed them, without any enquiry as to truth, because others more cruel had been elected. If, however, any one among them appeared to be of a milder disposition, and to some extent more attached to truth, against him were turned without respect the hatred and darts of all, as if he were the subverter of Britain;[…]”

Gildas (De Excidio Britanniae, Part I.21)

So as Britain, the Island of the Mighty, is engulfed in the din of swords and spears and the acrid smoke of burning thatch, will you join the packs of wolves who feast on the once proud Empire, or will you rally the Dragon standards of the Pen Ddraig, the Chief Dragon, lord of battles of the Britains, to try to preserve your people’s lands and wealth?

Timescale: about 15 years per campaign between Epoch cards

What Comes in the Box

  • A 22″ x 34″ game board
  • A deck of 83 playing cards
  • 90 golden Prosperity/Plunder cubes
  • 102 Troop cubes (20 red [Cavalry], 30 light blue [Militia], 15 medium blue [Comitates], 12 green [Scotti Warbands], 25 black [Saxon Warbands])
  • 55 Raider triangular cylinders (30 green [Scotti], 25 black [Saxon])
  • 58 Stronghold “castles” (10 red [Forts], 15 light blue [Towers], 15 medium blue [Hillforts], 6 green [Scotti Settlements], 12 black [Saxon Settlements]
  • Eight Faction round cylinders (2 red, 2 blue, 2 green, 2 black)
  • 12 pawns (1 red, 1 blue, 6 white, 4 gray)
  • A sheet of markers
  • Four Faction player aid foldouts
  • Two Epoch and Battles sheets
  • A Non-Player Guidelines Summary and Battle Tactics sheet
  • A Non-Player Event Introductions foldout
  • A Non-Player flowchart foldout
  • Three four-sided dice (gray) and four six-sided dice (red, blue, black, and green)
  • A background play book
  • The rule book

Why This Game is on my Wishlist

Fall of Londinium, ca500AD

  • Let’s start with the easiest reason, which has little to do with the gameplay itself: The setting of the game. Arthurian Britain, 4th-5th Century A.D. The end of Roman Britain and the beginning of what is frequently termed as the Dark Ages. This is a period that is certainly underrepresented in board games, and I really love how they have taken the approach of steeping it in the history of the period rather than looking toward the romanticized version of the Arthurian era. Could King Arthur have been around with the knights and castles and jousting and courtly love and chivalry and everything else we see in modern Arthurian film and literature? Sure. But the most likely historical scenario for Arthur was right around the Roman decline in Britain. I absolutely love the choice of setting. The name, Pendragon, drew me in. Even though it isn’t really an Arthurian game, I really enjoy the setting that was chosen.
  • It is no secret that I love asymmetry in game, and this one has that in spades. There are four factions that all start under different conditions. They each have their own unique list of commands (sure, there are some similarities but that have their unique flavors), their own unique set of feats, events that harm or help each faction differently, and win conditions that are different. Hidden within these four asymmetric factions are two sets of factions with similar interests that pair perfectly for a 2-player game yet provide interesting dynamics with higher player counts. I’ll discuss this more later when talking about the Dux and the Civitates.
  • The Commands, Feats, and win conditions are all thematic from a historical standpoint. They aren’t diversified just for diversity’s sake. This helps to represent what each of these different nationalities valued and fought for within the upheaval during this period. When you understand just a little bit about that faction and their goals, it begins to make sense as to why you are doing certain things and why you are trying to accomplish certain goals. These are the small details that a game could gloss over and be forgiven if done in the name of gameplay or balance. To see it executed so well, at least on paper, is something that makes me excited. Players will learn while they are playing the game, gaining a deeper appreciation for the period in history as well as the unique struggles faced by those factions.
  • All these historical things don’t just happen by chance; Marc has shared some of the books that formed his reading list about the period. Reading some of those titles has me not only praising the designer and his efforts, but also adding these things to my own reading list. Which doesn’t need added to, really, but I can’t say no to titles like “Arthur and the Fall of Roman Britain – A narrative history for fifth century Britain” by Edwin Pace, “Britannia, the Failed State – Tribal conflicts and the End of Roman Britain” and “Warlords – The struggle for power in post-Roman Britain” by Stuart Laycock, and “Civitas to Kingdom – British political continuity 300-800” by Ken Dark. Yes, those titles get me excited for reading…which is a fairly new occurrence in the last few years. I can imagine pairing these books with playing the game a handful of times will really help the items on the page come alive.
  • There is friction between the two factions that begin the game on the map: the Dux and the Civitates. On one hand, you have the Dux who represent the Roman forces who are trying to hold onto their power in Britain. Their power at the start allows them to tap into the resources of the current residents of Britain in order to fend off the off-shore invaders. The Civitates, on the other hand, are the wealthy class of Britains who not only want to drive off the invaders, but also to shrug off the control that Rome has over their population. There are times when it is in the best interest of both parties to pool together with the raiding warbands along the coasts, but ultimately they both want something different. So while it may start the game feeling like a 2 vs 2 or a 2 vs 1 vs 1 matchup, there comes a point where those common interests divide along separate paths. I absolutely love this design!
  • Don’t like playing two sides in a 2-player or 3-player game? No problem when it comes to this game. While the primary use of the Non-Player flowcharts and other items would be in solo play, they could easily be implemented in a 2 or 3-player game of Pendragon. This makes it so you only have to focus on your one faction and what they are trying to accomplish, while at the same time having the unplayed factions simulate their set of actions. Some may argue this presents more work for the people at the table, but you’ll find that the system they created for the non-players is a wonderful addition to the game and well worth the effort. It isn’t trying to be as streamlined as an Automa system, and it will be rewarding for those who stick with trying to implement it into a game.
  • Did I mention solo play? So many wargames out there are “soloable” by playing both sides of a combat to the best of your ability. In many wargames this works because there is not really much to be found in the way of hidden information. The system in this game takes solo wargaming and turns it up to 11. Yes, it will require work on the part of the player. But wow, just from reading the rules I can already tell the payoff will be a solo experience that few games can deliver. This has me very, very excited to try it out with solo play…and that is probably the best way to go about learning the non-player system. If you’re playing with other players, you’ll want at least one person who understands and can smoothly operate those non-player factions in order to avoid things being bogged down.
  • An indirect side note, but an important one: this is the eighth game in the COIN series of games. Which means if you want to understand some of how the game will play, there are already a handful of games you could sit down and play, or watch played, in order to get a good grasp on how this one will work. Sure, things will be different than what you’ll see in Pendragon, but there is something positive to be said for a game system that players have already seen and tested. It means there will be some great polish on the mechanisms and gameplay because some of those potential wrinkles have been ironed out in previous titles. The man behind the COIN system himself, Volko, partnered with Marc to help refine the game as it developed from concept to finished product. That means this game, once you get it to the table and understand how it works, is going to be stellar. Which inspires confidence in this game, because the core of the system is going to be a solid foundation.

First great wave of Saxons, ca 400AD

And that is all I’ll list for now. I could probably add more reasons, and I might add some more in as I think of important ones to include. But I hope you’ve gotten the idea by now as to why this game is so high on my anticipated release list. I’ve never played a COIN game before, but this one has me interested in the system. Be sure to check out the GMT Insider articles below for some excellent information about the game and the key mechanics.

Where you can learn more about this game

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