The Spiel des Jahre-nominated Kremlin was arguably the first real “euro” game Avalon Hill did, back in 1988. With a paltry couple pages of rules and a modest playing time, but a wonderfully flavorful and humorous backdrop, this is a game that I have fond memories of. It’s like Junta, but with a) a game, b) quality, and c) fun.
The basic idea is that each player represents a faction in Soviet politics. You secretly allocate influence to amusingly-named politicians (like Purgemoff or Shootemdedsky), which you can then later reveal and “declare” at your discretion. The player with the most “declared” influence on a politician is allowed to use the power of his office. Nine politicians occupy the Politburo: the Party Chief (who can reorganize everyone else on a whim, as well as having first option on promoting and demoting politicians), the KGB Chief (who can purge you off to Siberia), Foreign Minister (who has some control over the succession to party chief), and Defense Minister (who can bring accusations of treason – same practical upshot as being purged, but if you can bribe a couple other politicians into believing you’re innocent, you can escape), and then some low-level flunkies like the Sport minister who only have real power if someone else croaks (which happens about as often as you might expect, that is to say, a fair amount). The rest are waiting out in the wings, ready to take over once the inevitable purges get rolling.
The limits on the exercise of these powers, such as they are, are your age. Most of these guys start out old, and at best age slowly. Purging people, being accused of treason, and other activities of office will age you before your time, as you accumulate “stress points” – which is really just taking years off of your life one at a time. As you get older, you get more likely to get sick (which negatively impacts your job performance), keel over, and die.
The object of the game is to control the Party Chief. If you can do that three times, you win.
With one significant caveat (which we’ll come to in a moment), I really enjoyed playing Kremlin again. Many of the games from this time period are not ones I’d generally go back to, but this is one where the fond memories were not spoiled by playing it again, and it’s a game that holds up rather well to modern designs. It’s fast-paced. There is always stuff to do. There is plenty of opportunity for planning and scheming, with both strategic and tactical depth to the gameplay. There is just a touch of negotiation if you want to play it that way, but like the recent Shadow of the Emperor, it’s not really a negotiation game. There is little downtime. It’s a very dynamic, fluid situation – one moment you’re sitting pretty with control of the Party Chief and the KGB Chief, the next moment someone is declaring another couple points of influence on the KGB Chief, purging your supporters, and then sending you to Siberia after being on the wrong end of a spy investigation – but despite the chaotic situation I feel like I have control, generally. Since the vast majority of your influence is allocated up-front, it’s possible to be unlucky and not ultimately control many politicians, but since there is significant incentive to hold influence in reserve and “undeclared”, even if in the end you are hosed you’ll probably have plenty to do along the way, and you won’t know until the end most likely. And, of course, even though the system is very Teutonic, it’s very flavorful. For me, this is definitely one of the successful mergings of German and American design sensibilities. A game I’d like to try to play again soon.
The only problem I had with the game, and it’s admittedly non-trivial, is the tie-breaker victory conditions. The idea is to control the Party Chief during three – not necessarily consecutive – years (well, actually, the goal is to “wave” throughout the October parade, which gets harder if you are sick, but close enough). If nobody has done this by the end, you go into tie-breaker mode, which means that you play one more turn and whoever controls the highest-ranking politician, regardless of game performance before this point, wins. At this point, Kim leaned over to me and said, “I think this game might have a kingmaking problem”. Ah, yeah. It’s hard to imagine anyone controlling the Party Chief long enough to wave 3 times (out of 10 turns) in a 6 player game, and it seems a bit dicey in a 5-player game. This is the crux of the matter; if this tie-breaker were comparatively rare, I think it would be OK, as it favors players who put a lot of influence on low-ranking, and so late-game, politicians; but I’m not sure it’s rare enough with large numbers of players. I don’t recall it being that much of an issue when we played in the late 80s, but I would have been playing with 4 primarily back then. Anyway, playing more turns is impractical, since most of the pool of politicians are going to be dead or in Siberia at this point. A better solution should not be beyond the wit of man, though; I’d suggest that the “bonus” turn should be ditched and if nobody has waved three times at the end of turn 10, the player who has waved the most should win, and if there is a tie, the tied player who holds the highest ranking politician should win. It’s not perfect either, but I think it would be a better solution than the somewhat arbitrary way its done now.