Francis Tresham may be in the pantheon of all-time great game designers, but he’s done this on the strength of remarkably few designs: 1829, Civilization, 1853, 1825. And now, Revolution: The Dutch Revolt, 1568 – 1648 (hereafter know as Revolution). Revolution has reputedly been in the works for ages, and it’s Mr. Tresham’s first new game in about a decade. Was it worth the wait?
The first thing you notice when sitting down to play Revolution: the graphics are very nice, and within 10 minutes we were trying to figure out how to get around using them. As is by now traditional for Phalanx games, there are all sorts of minor usability problems: most things are too dark and with not enough contrast, and many important game features don’t stand out enough. There was some debate as to whether it was better than War of the Ring, and the consensus seemed to be it was – so while that’s a low bar, it’s serviceable … but I wish it were better. Particularly, the cities with Universities and commercial towns don’t stand out enough, and the city names are not clear. It’s overall an improvement over some of the Phalanx games with more serious problems (Waterloo’s invisible terrain, Nero’s hard-to-use cards, Age of Napoleon’s impossible-to-distinguish terrain types), but it’s still a ways away from the sweet spot between appearance and functionality.
Upon reading the rules, there seem to be great similarities between Revolution and Civilization. You have the same dynamic of a fixed pool of tokens being used to represent both influence and cash, and managing your faction’s balance between the two. You have cities which you can tax, turning tokens into cash. Factions compete for areas, which have occupation limits, and conflict is resolved identically to Civilization (or Mammoth Hunters, for those who may have played that but not the classic), by simply eliminating excess units from each faction in turn.
Given how similar many of the superficial mechanisms are, I was surprised that the play is almost entirely dissimilar to Civilization.
Revolution is, at its heart, a compete-for-areas game. Players pour resources into areas, which after conflict can be used to control cities (themselves mini-areas that have to be competed for), which provide cash and points, or the countryside, which provides influence and some tactical advantages in deploying future influence. The tools you wield to wrest control of these areas from your opponents are influence (tokens), armies, and cash. Influence is cheap and generally available, but usable only in areas where you already have some influence to begin with and hard to reposition once put on the board. Armies are expensive to build and maintain, can be more easily countered by opposing armies, but can move around easily and can be used to break into new areas, can influence a lot of territory, and are very effective against opposing cities. Cash can be used to not only to raise armies, but also can be used to directly sway the public opinion in cities, which can result in big wins for some of the factions.
The key element to the game is balancing your efforts among these three tools, because they tend to be mutually exclusive: not only can tokens be used only for influence or cash, but the sources are different: cities will generate cash, but the towns and countryside generate influence. When you are consolidating your own holdings or fighting for your base, influence is key; but when you are trying to break into other players’ areas, you’ll need cash and armies. Timing these cycles is important, because the choices you make this turn affect your capabilities for the next turn or two (and there are only 5 turns). Further complicating your timing, there are external factions (The Huguenots, Spanish, French, English Bankers, etc.) who will provide support to your faction, and they seems to function like a strategic reserve: you can build up influence with them over time, and then when you decide to use them you can deploy it all of a sudden, ignoring the usual limits on deploying influence, in a (hopefully) decisive stroke … but once spent, it takes time to build up again to meaningful levels. Co-ordinating your taxation and army building and foreign allies gives you lots of options and lots of things to worry about.
All this is rather interesting, but might be somewhat mechanical in and of itself. The cool thing about Revolution though are the 5 different factions. These are the Catholics, Hapsburgs, Nobility, Burghers, and Reformers, and they all have different objectives and capabilities. The Catholics want to control Bishoprics, the Hapsburgs want military control, the Nobility wants influence with the peasants, the Burghers want control of critical trade towns, and the Reformers want control of Universities; and everyone wants control of cities and provinces. The cool thing is that while all these objectives have peripheral conflict, none of the agendas will collide head-on, so there aren’t factions that simply have to beat each other up all game. However, they do create natural alliances – the right-wing types (Hapsburgs and Catholics) share some common interests and lack fundamental conflict, as do the left-wingers (Burghers and Reformers). While there is nothing to say that the Catholics and Reformers can’t make temporary arrangements of convenience, and while the Burghers and Hapsburgs may have to act as a check on their more-extreme partners on occasion, such alliances are extremely unstable and short-term. So while there is certainly significant scope for deal-making, this is much more of a management and tactical game than a free-form negotiation game. I like this. There is certainly much more direct competition than in, say, Die Macher, but it doesn’t seem to come down to the somewhat degenerate whack-the-leader-fest that you get in The Napoleonic Wars or Sword of Rome either. Also, each of the factions has subtly different parameters: the Reformers get cheap armies and can pop up anywhere, sometimes throwing entire cities into revolt, but start with no cash and almost nothing on the board. The Catholics start with a strong board position and cash, but their armies are expensive. Both the Catholics and the Reformers suffer because their units are the first to be eliminated in battle. The Burghers and Hapsburgs have nice foreign support and when they campaign with the Reformers or Catholics respectively, their allies are likely to take most of the losses while they reap the benefits. And so on.
This faction differentiation is Revolution’s real strong suit. In the post-game discussion, which was generally quite favorable, most players indicated that they felt they knew how to play now … at least the faction they were playing, and that playing a different faction would almost be a completely different game. This is pretty impressive given that there are minimal faction special rules, just a few different parameters (like army costs), different victory conditions, different setups, and different sets of off-board allies. I’d almost say it does a better job than Sword of Rome, despite Sword of Rome’s much higher overhead (all the different card decks and faction special rules).
The other neat thing is how positions solidify over the game. While some have complained about this, saying it’s too hard to break into other players’ positions in the late-game, I see this as a feature. One of the problems with a game like The Napoleonic Wars or A Game of Thrones is that it seems a bit too easy to rein in anyone who gets ahead. In Revolution, carefully built-up positions can’t simply be wrecked because you’re ahead on the last turn, and so there is some incentive to invest rather than just trying to hang back and then make a late-game surge. Likewise, you want to keep an eye on your opponents lest they build up too strong a position, and try to intervene early. This is good. And unlike Civilization (or especially Advanced Civilization), the game doesn’t seem to go past the point where the outcome is apparent, although one player doing poorly may suffer through the last turn.
The big question hanging over Revolution is that of playing time. The box gives the rather wide and uninformative range of between 4 and 8 hours (perhaps after Phalanx’ ridiculous underestimate of playing time for previous games). We played in 4.5, despite a couple of handicaps: it was everyone’s first game and we had to go to the rules to figure stuff out on a number of occasions; and we were playing at Bay Area Games Day XXXVIII, which can be rather crowded, loud, and so a bit disconcerting. I’ve heard reports of much longer playing times, though. 4.5 hours was quite comfortable; I think I could have gone to 5 or 5.5 hours and still been happy. Much beyond that and it might get problematic. There is definitely opportunity here for analysis paralysis; there are a lot of things to work through, and the situation can get complicated. I think you want to try to peg this at 5 hours, and make sure that people are thinking while others are moving, and do stuff in parallel when possible.
Bottom line, I quite liked this play-through of Revolution and am looking forward to trying it again sometime soon. While it doesn’t quite have the obvious visceral thrill of, say, A Game of Thrones (a game I can’t help thinking of it alongside, despite their lack of any real similarities other than being multi-player and conflict-based), on the other hand it seems like a fundamentally very well-crafted game, as most Tresham games are, and really makes an effort to address the fundamental problems of these free-form multi-player conflict games. And it seems to succeed.