Thank you for checking review #127 by Cardboard Clash. My aim is to focus on reviewing board games and how they play for two people and, on occasion, how they play for one person. Because my wife is my primary gaming partner, a lot of consideration goes into finding those games that play well with 2 players, and we typically prefer to find those games that do not require a variant (official or otherwise) in order to play it with just the two of us.
***Note: A copy of this game was provided AGES ago in exchange for an honest review. More on the delay can be found in the Final Thoughts section.
An Overview of Charlemagne, Master of Europe
Charlemagne, Master of Europe is a board game designed by Tom Russell that is published by Hollandspiele. The box states it plays 1 player and has a playtime of 180 minutes.
Description from the publisher:
At the age of twenty-nine, Charles I became sole ruler of the Frankish Empire. What he did with that power over the course of the next forty-plus years is the stuff of legend. His unparalleled achievements in warfare, diplomacy, administration, and culture led to the sobriquet Carolus Magnus: Charles the Great: Charlemagne, King of the Franks and of the Lombards, and Emperor of the Romans.
In this solitaire strategy game, you assume the Frankish throne, and seek to duplicate – or exceed – Charlemagne’s singular genius, while hopefully avoiding some of his mistakes, such as the famous defeat at Roncevaux (immortalized in the Song of Roland). As you conquer new territory and incorporate it into your empire, you’ll need to contend with rebels and palace intriguers. Building public works and patronizing the Carolingian Renaissance will increase your prestige and wealth. Along the way you’ll need to win the support of the papacy, buy off Viking marauders, convert the pagans in Saxony, contend with incursions from Al-Andalus, build a powerful army, and maintain detente with the Byzantine Empire.
Gamers who are familiar with the game Agricola, Master of Britain will find many similarities between it and Charlemagne: Master of Europe, though this is a longer and more complex game, with its own nuances. The core mechanism of cup adjustments is of course alive and well. Chits representing enemy units reside in one of three cups representing how they feel about your rule: Friendly, Unfriendly, or Hostile. Chits are drawn from the hostile cup and placed on the map, manifesting themselves as overt challenges to your rule. Every action you take will subtly change their stance, blindly moving chits from one cup to another.
This game is epic. I mean massively huge in feel. Four times the size map from Agricola, Master of Britain, and so many other things to balance apart from controlling the spread of forces which, as you might imagine, is a bit more difficult with the larger map. Thankfully you get Marquis folks, who can help stamp out the tribes with less effectiveness and who can someday aspire to have roads built through their part of the map. There are so many little levers to see in action here, and it makes the game feel massive, impressive, and wonderful. And, well, potentially overwhelming. But believe me, friends, when I tell you it is absolutely worth blundering through.
Just like in Agricola, Master of Britain, this one has a nice ramping up of things to teach you some of the things to watch for: army strength, VP total, money, etc. Each round you need a little more, meaning you need to continually be making forward progress. And paying attention to the things that increase your wealth-making and VP-making potential. And keep an eye on how many forces you are actually losing, because at some point in time you’re going to need to be buying more replacement troops and promoting troops beyond the 1 per round if you want to keep up.
Which is where the best part about this game comes in: there is only one way to win, but half a dozen ways to lose the game. This will probably drive as many people away as it draws in, but I am well documented as a person who really loves a solo game with a challenging experience. I don’t usually enjoy the easy win games that are “for the experience” – there are exceptions, but in general I want to feel like I earned it. The downside here? You could literally lose at the end of the 10th round unexpectedly through a chain of events unraveling your cushion. More on that later. And those 10 Rounds? Yeah, it took several hours to get there…but it was 100% enjoyable the entire way, even in the bitterness of defeat.
While everything else got bigger and more inflated, the combat system here got simplified to smaller battles that follow the same flow, just fewer units overall but at the same time more tactical decisions, such as two wings of combat and how your Scara have a strong advantage during the first round of attacking. Even after the battle, deciding which unit on each half should get promoted, keeping in mind that you’ll get a VP but also lose that strong Level 4 unit if you make that final bump…so much to enjoy here.
I absolutely love the chit pull system employed, and how every action you take leads to reactions in the cups and the deployment of more forces. Most of the time you feel like you are treading water, trying to keep one or two areas under control and then swooping up to deal with the heathen armies as they get out of control or, more likely, when you want some cash for churches and roads. I never feel like I am fully in control of the board state in the game, and only rarely do I feel like things are spiraling out of control. Do I sometimes suffer from a terrible pull or two in a row? Sure, that can and will happen. But it isn’t the norm.
Knowing that a single round can be the difference between winning and losing provides an insane amount of tension for the player in the game. The closest I came has been losing via VP in Turn 10. That game I had a good cushion all game on VP, even racked up 5 EVP early on. Turn 9 I lost points due to Army Strength, which that was as much on me as the bad losses I took in battles that round. Next round? Three actions, four Byzantine pulls costing me 6, 7, 8, and then 9 VP. Next action? End of round. Oof. Even with the EVP paid out, I was 2 points short of the threshold when I had been at the 11th round goal before that army strength loss. I couldn’t have prevented it. The turn ended by the time I got to where I could start clearing off leaders. Yet earlier in the game, I had a fun round of tension where I was trying to weigh between waiting in Rome to get crowned or going to deal with the Moor threat. And boy, was it nerve-wracking pulling Hostile Reactions knowing that one more Moor would end it…
This game goes from feeling like you have all the time in the world to scrambling to keep up. The first four rounds, before a 3rd End Turn chit is added to the cup, can literally take until the entire Hostile cup is empty. In my experience, at least one of those turns will come close to that point, and it can seem like you are floundering about, trying to come up with meaningful things to do that aren’t moving you backwards (like losing forces in battle). Once you finish the 8th turn, now there are four of those chits in there and getting two pulled can happen WAY sooner than you want. Again, speaking from experience here. I enjoy the fluid turn lengths, but man it can bite you sometimes.
I hate the condition for building the roads: completed church, Marquis present, no enemy units or Vikings. That last one, that’s the rub. You want to know how many turns in a row that was foiled by a late pull of a single unit to the area, several spaces from the Marquis of the area, that was followed very soon after by the 2nd Turn End chit drawn? And I need to do this THREE different times? In my best showing, this was what I was convinced would cause me to lose because I needed 2 more and there was just no way it was coming together in time.
I know it is the Hollandspiele standard, but I am pretty sure my map will never, ever be remotely flat when on the table. I’ve stacked books for several nights, and no success. I’ll either have to luck into a rare mounted version of the map some day, put it in a frame of some sort on my wall myself, or just accept that there will be parts of the “board” that the chits just won’t like to stack well.
My biggest nitpick on this? There’s a wonderful player aid, four pages long. And I can deal with the inside being flipped upside down from the outside. But honestly, what is the reason to not include how many Hostile Reactions come from each different action? Everything else about your actions are listed, and yet the most important one is not mentioned! I had to tarnish my player aid by marking it up with a pen to correct this mistake, as it had to be a printing error… Note: It turns out mine must, indeed, be a fluke of a player aid. I gave photographic evidence that what came in my box was an anomaly. So rest assured, your player aid SHOULD have those Hostile Reactions, and the inside shouldn’t be flipped upside down.
This game has been my source of shame as a reviewer for a year. Typically I aim to turn a review around in a few months, and I was successful in doing that for Agricola, Master of Britain which they also sent at the same time. Agricola hit my Top 20 countdown, in fact, because I was absolutely in love with the game and it gave me hope that I could find solitaire wargames to enjoy. And then I tried playing this, which was Agricola+ – taking the system and expanding everything for a more epic, grand scale. And boy, was it ever larger. So much so that I positively failed to get any kind of traction on wrapping my head around the game. I got it to the table two different times and had to put it away mid-2nd turn because it just wasn’t clicking for me. And so onto my shelf it went, taunting me every time I looked at that bright orange box and making me also keep away from Agricola, Master of Britain for a whole year because, well, why should I play the smaller game when the larger one still very much needed played and reviewed.
Enter 2020. A friend of mine convinced me to play 13 Days: The Cuban Missile Crisis with him in January. Which led to Twilight Struggle. Which led to Watergate. Which led to Sekigahara, Meltwater, Commands & Colors: Ancients, Nevsky…and down the wargaming rabbit hole we both fell. So the next time Charlemagne looked at me, I stared right back and swallowed my pride, pulling it off the shelf and setting it up and revisiting the rulebook.
That next play? It went so well in terms of flow and understanding. I was FINALLY ready to graduate up to a bigger wargaming experience, and for that I apologize wholeheartedly to Tom and Mary, because it should never take a full year to get around to reviewing a game. However, had I forced myself to suffer through more plays last year, I am convinced that my review would have been a gross disservice to the game, the designer, and the publisher because it just wasn’t the right fit for me at the time.
The good news is that now IS the right time for me as a gamer to return to this one. And whoa, what a game this is. Once it all fell into place for how it all connects, this is an epic, incredible game experience that progresses at a slow burn, but once things start to boil then it really takes off in a way that blew me away, even above and beyond what I enjoyed from Agricola, Master of Britain. Both games will place really high on my Top 100, I believe, and I had to play Agricola again after some plays of Charlemagne to make sure I knew which I loved more. However, there’s room for both, because Charlemagne is definitely not a game you can finish in a single sitting unless you get unlucky and lose early…or have a really long, uninterrupted sitting.
There are SO MANY things going on in here, and they help to highlight the best of the chit-pull system for this solo game. Places where you have control can rise back up in rebellion and need stamped out. Every action you do has a reaction, usually greater in number than what it is you did, meaning you’re never going to feel like things are under control. And even when you manage things well, the unpredictable nature of pulling the Turn End chits, as well as the wild card units of the Vikings, Moors, and Byzantium mean there are more wrinkles that can make your best-laid plans unfurl (I’m looking at you, Byzantium!). It all comes together in a beautiful, glorious mess of a masterpiece that I probably will never play as often as I want, but like my perennial favorite, War of the Ring, I will make a conscious effort to get it played a few times each year going forward.
I’m glad I didn’t give up on this game. I wish I had been able to enjoy it properly a year ago, but some games just need to come along at the right time in order to get a better appreciation. And with more time at home right now, there is no solo game on my shelf that I have enjoyed playing more this year than Charlemagne, Master of Europe outside of the Lord of the Rings LCG, which speaks a lot to where this game can ultimately fall for me, both on my solo list of top games and for my overall.
At least until the next game in the series, Aurelian, Restorer of the World comes out. In case you didn’t guess, that will be an instant buy for me, although I am guessing it will be coming out AFTER my birthday in June. If it is half the game that Charlemagne, Master of Europe turned out to be, it’ll easily earn its home in my collection.
If you are newer to wargaming, start with Agricola, Master of Britain. However, if you are an old hat to wargames or have some experience under your belt and are looking for a satisfying, lengthy solo game to play there is no game I can recommend more strongly than this one. It’ll be the best $50 you could spend on a game, in my opinion.