Paradox Interactive is known for heavy strategy videogames, especially those in the 4X genre (ex-plore, expand, exploit, exterminate), including their 1999 title Europa Universalis, a video-game adaptation of one of those legendary board games that has a zillion pieces, a rule book the size of a Russian novel, and a playing time measured in the hundreds or thousands of minutes. At last month’s PDXCon in Stockholm, the company announced its first foray into tabletop gaming with four board game adaptations of some of its most popular videogame titles, including, yes, a new physical version of Europa Universalis that promises to be more playable than the orig-inal version.
The four titles run the gamut in accessibility and strategic depth from a gateway game, Cities Skylines, to two long, crunchy strategy titles. I was one of four US-based gaming writers the company flew to Stockholm to see the announcement and early versions of the four games.
I got to demo two of the titles, and saw prototypes of the two heavier ones. The first demo was of Crusader Kings, a sort of Diplomacy meets hand management meets soap opera title, where three to five players represent different dynasties in medieval Europe. They fight for control of the map, build their dynastic lines by marrying and bearing children, and send members of their royal families, possibly even the king himself, to the Holy Land to join the Crusades. Although there’s a dudes-on-a-map element here, the area control aspect of the game is really tertiary; it would be quite hard to truly take over large portions of other players’ territories, as maintaining a large army is expensive and it’s not difficult to set up enough of a defense to discourage any for-eign incursions into your territory. Instead, you will divide your actions—twenty four over the course of the whole game, among raising taxes, adding development cards that give you certain technologies or special skills from advisers, and the aforementioned crusades. You also get to po-tentially marry or divorce your regent, and when he ages out or is killed in the Crusades or via card, your heir succeeds to the thrown and you get to do it all over again.
Characters in the game have certain attributes, positive (green) or negative (red), that live in your individual bag of traits to be used for various random draws whenever you try to do something like attacking another territory or trying to win the hand of a potential queen with a positive trait on her card. If you pull a green trait or the specific red trait associated with that action (as ‘critical,’ famil-iar to role-playing veterans), you get to do the action. You can also spend gold to draw further to-kens and increase your odds of success.
In each of the game’s three eras (generations), you’ll draw eight cards at random from several different decks representing different action types. You know the action available in each deck, but individual cards have different events listed, and that portion is completely random. You undertake the chosen action, then read the event listed, which may apply to you, or to the next player around the table, and generally is either bad for you or good for someone else. You’ll only play six of those eight cards in an era, discarding the last two, so you do have a method of escape if one of the cards is too harmful.
After three eras, there’s a bit of point salad in the scoring, as you count up areas, see who has the most development cards, who has the most shields on the crusades track, and count up gold, which makes it a little unclear (after one play) how transparent the scoring will be, especially for new players. There’s a very high interactive component in Crusader Kings, and the idea of a map game that doesn’t just rely on who takes over the most regions is very appealing. It’ll be published by Free League and just hit Kickstarter on May 19th.
The lightest game of the three was Cities Skylines, an awkward name for what is really just a lightweight city builder. Players begin the game with five random objective cards that score when buildings placed on the variable map meet the criteria on the cards, which show one or more building types in varying numbers lying on or adjacent to certain terrain tiles on the board. If you score one, whether it’s because you placed a building or someone else did, you gain from one to seven coins as a reward, and then draw a fresh objective card from the deck.
Standard buildings come in three heights, small, medium, and large, and each building shows one, two, or three icons on top for its building type—commercial, residential, industrial, etc. There are also special buildings with stars on them that bring special rules into play, and the available buildings can change each time you play.
On your turn, you roll the two dice, and can then choose buildings from the two tiles matching the numbers shown; if you roll doubles, you can choose from any tile. You must choose from the smallest buildings on the tile. You also have three special abilities you can use at least once during the game—build one size bigger, thus selecting a medium even if small buildings are available on the tile, or a large even if there are still mediums; skip the die roll and choose a building from any tile, still following the rule to take from the smallest ones; or move one small building that’s already on the board.
There’s a very high degree of randomness in Cities Skylines and very little interaction; if someone else places a building that satisfies the conditions on your objective card, you can reveal it and take the reward, but that’s it. You may inadvertently block another player, but you don’t know other players’ objectives. If you have an objective card you don’t want or that becomes impossible to finish late in the game, you can discard and replace it for one coin. (I didn’t find this useful in the demo; with five cards, I always had 2-3 that were feasible, and knew I could just finish one and replace it.) The game ends when the objective deck is exhausted or when five of the six building supply tiles are empty, so games seem likely to last under an hour. It’s designed by Rustan Håkansson, best known as the designer of Nations.
The other two games I saw were both in ‘pre-alpha’ and thus were concepts, not demos, although since they are derived from existing videogame titles, the general rules exist and the designers are working on more specifics or how much to take out from under the hood. Hearts of Iron is a World War II-themed war game that covers a rather huge map from western Europe to north Africa and the Levant. It’s a worker placement game with heavy strategy and a lot of pieces, with players representing two to four powers in the base game and a planned standalone companion game, Red Tide Rising, that will allow for two more. Running from 1938 to 1942, the game will combine area control aspects with an economic component—you’ll have to build, fuel, and feed those armies somehow—while also fending off your opponents. It will allow players to alter history as well, playing scenarios where Germany overthrows the Nazi regime, for example. It’s due to hit Kickstarter in Q1 of next year and is being designed and published by Eagle-Gryphon Games.
And then there is Europa Universalis, which I say without acrimony looks completely bonk-ers, both in video and tabletop forms. Spanning nearly four centuries of history, the game allows players to start from something as small as a town in feudal Europe and build an empire, growing an economy, building up a military force, hiring advisors in three main functional areas, gaining influence around the map—and it’s a big map—and often doing things just for their own sake. The videogame has no real victory condition; it simply ends in 1821, but because players can begin from differing starting points, scores aren’t necessarily comparable, although the designer, Eivind Vetleson, strongly implied that the board game will at least tweak that mechanic. It too should have a million pieces and lots of cards as well. The idea of the video and board games alike is to produce a 4X game like Civilization but more realistic and granular, so that you’re really building something. This is probably not quite the game for me, with playing times that will likely run to six hours, but the videogame has its devotees and the original board game, released in 1991, has ac-quired a cult following, with intact copies selling for $175 and up. The publisher is still not an-nounced and the game probably won’t see Kickstarter (if it goes there at all) until next year.
Keith Law is a senior baseball writer for ESPN.com and an analyst on ESPN’s Baseball Tonight. You can read his baseball content at search.espn.go.com/keith-law and his personal blog the dish, covering games, literature, and more, at meadowparty.com/blog.