Category: War Game
Designer: Mark Herman
Publisher: GMT Games
Year Published: 2015
Playing Time: 120-300 mins.
To Play or Not To Play: Play (with massive caveats)
Several weeks ago, I reviewed one of my favorite board games: Star Wars Rebellion. I categorized Rebellion as a “war game,” because it functions like one. It’s not just a game of moving troops around a board and engaging in battle, it’s a detailed simulation of a documented conflict. Generally, “war games” are simulations of battles or wars that allow players to assume command of a side. For thousands of years military commanders have engaged in these simulations as training and preparation for potential conflicts, so they are often incredibly detailed to ensure players experience the most realistic scenario possible. Modern hobby war games tend to sacrifice a bit of realism in favor of better gameplay, but they are still known for having incredibly detailed and precise rules to govern myriad scenarios.
Star Wars Rebellion is a complicated game. Each player has to balance troop production, area control, and at least three different decks of cards while also engaging in the overall hide-and-seek between the Alliance and the Empire. But among “war gamers,” Star Wars Rebellion is more of an introductory game. With its well-known theme, Rebellion introduces players to mechanics and concepts that are more common in war games than in more abstract strategy games. In other words, Star Wars Rebellion is on the simpler end of the spectrum. Today, we’re going to talk about a heavy war game. Let’s talk about Churchill.
Churchill is pretty unconventional for its genre. Most war games simulate battles or campaigns within a war, or sometimes the war as a whole. Churchill simulates the diplomatic conflicts between the three major allied powers in World War II. Yes, Churchill is a three-player game. You can play it with just 1 or 2 (the game provides rudimentary AI directions for each faction), but it’s at its best with three. The game has two main phases to each round. First, in the "conference" phase, the nations argue about various issues to coordinate the war effort. Then, in the "war" phase, the players execute the results of the conference. Sounds like a cooperative game, right? Wrong.
Churchill is absolutely a competitive game, and the mechanism for determining a winner should sound familiar. The goal is to earn victory points. The challenge is that having the most victory points doesn’t necessarily mean you win. The Allies are trying to defeat the Axis powers, yes. But you also want your nation to be in a good position after the game is over. And “good” is an interesting word. It doesn’t always mean what you think. Churchill offers three different end-game scenarios.
The first is an alliance victory, which happens if both Axis powers surrender (Italy doesn’t really matter in this game) and the first and last place players are within 20 victory points of each other. In this scenario, all three nations are relatively equal in strength and influence after the war, so the player that has a narrow lead wins. But if the player with the most points is more than 20 points ahead of the last player, we get a Broken Alliance victory where one player has accumulated so much power that they have become a threat to the post-war world.
In this scenario, the player with the most points compares their score to the combined score of the other two players. If it’s lower than the combined scored, then the player with the second-highest score wins as the new leader of the joint effort to oppose the new global threat. On the other hand, if the score is higher than the combined score of the other two players, then the high scoring player just wins outright for being the most powerful and dominant nation in the world, period.
The third scenario, Axis Conditional Surrender, occurs if the players do not successfully force the Axis powers to surrender by the end of the game (more on that later). In this case, the player with the most points loses 5, the second player loses 3, and the last place player gains 5 points due to the chaotic restructuring of the world once the Axis powers negotiate a surrender under more favorable terms. After the VP adjustments, the player with the highest score wins.
This is the part of the game that I find absolutely fascinating. The three players have to cooperate to defeat the Axis, but their goals are all different. Depending on how the war effort is going, the players may find that aiming for an Alliance Victory is not in their advantage, and they may minimize their contributions in favor of earning points. But the other two players could then work together to push for the broken alliance instead, which would allow one of them to win despite the lower scores. The result is a fascinating dynamic, but it’s also a confusing one. If you’re accustomed to just aiming for the high score, you’ll probably lose this game a lot. You need to internalize these end game conditions and re-evaluate your strategy with those in mind each round. And, unfortunately, that’s rather difficult. But at least the game helpfully provides a summary of the three end game situations on the player aid.
So how do you play this thing? Like I mentioned above, the game is divided into two phases each round: “conference” and “war.” The conference phase presents an abstract debate between the three leaders and their diplomatic representatives. To that end each player has a deck of staff cards, with each representing an actual historical figure. At the beginning of the conference phase, each player draws a hand of seven staff cards. Staff card decks are reshuffled every other conference phase, even if there are still cards left in the deck.
First, one player draws a “Conference card.” This card explains the global scenario and context for that round’s conference. It will outline a specific scenario for each player to follow that round, including nation-specific instructions and changes to the global board that may alter a player’s strategy.
Next, the players must set the agenda for the conference. Each player plays a staff card representing the diplomat who will be setting the agenda for that conference. The player with the highest number (the highest ranking diplomat) gets to pick an issue to debate first. Then the next player clockwise picks two, then the third player picks two, and then back to the first player to pick two more. These are the seven issues that will be debated that round, unless the conference card added any as well. Each issue is represented by a small token, which gets placed at the center of the conference table board. These issues represent all of the myriad things allied nations at war would discuss, from opening a second front against Germany by launching D-Day to supreme command of the Atlantic or Pacific Theaters, to material or military support for specific objectives, to atomic bomb research.
And now it’s time for the game to really begin. Starting with the player to the left of the agenda setter, each player plays a staff card to move an issue several spaces along their nations track to the edge of the table. If an issue moves seven spaces along the track, it is no longer on the table (hah!) and that nation has won the issue. It can no longer be discussed. This is a rare occurrence, as all cards in the deck range from 1-6 in strength. Additionally, after a player plays a card, the other two players have the option of debating. In clockwise order, each player decides to debate or pass. If they debate, they play a staff card of their own to move the issue back down the track towards the center of the table. Since that player is now down a card, they gain a “pass” token, which allows them to skip their next turn to play a staff card. But the option is a one-time offer. If you don’t use it, then you lose it immediately and are just short a card for the rest of the conference.
After every player has used their hand of staff cards, the side with the most issues on their track wins the conference and earns several victory points. But every issue also has a game effect, so it becomes time to resolve all of those. Also during this phase, each nation gets to use their “production.” These are tokens that represent the output of that nation’s industrial sector to contribute to the war effort. If a player won another nation’s “Production” issue, they’ll gain one of that player’s production tokens for that round. All production is not created equal. The USSR has the least, followed by the UK, and the USA has the most. Unsurprisingly, US production is often claimed by the other two nations to bolster their efforts during the conference phase.
What do you use production for? All kinds of things. Most often, players will spend production to purchase “offensive support” and “naval support” tokens to place on the various military fronts advancing toward the Axis powers. Since this game’s focus is on diplomacy, not combat, the war effort is abstracted by tokens representing offensive and naval military support, rather than specific units of troops. The more military support a front has, the more likely it is to advance. More on that during the “War” phase.
Other issues also require production. “Directed Offensives” represent a nation calling for specific military aid from another nation to push a front forward. Let’s say the UK wins a USA directed offensive issue. That means the USA must allocate two production units toward “Offensive Support,” which the UK gets to place on one front. Generally, the USA is more concerned with the Pacific theater, as it will lose points if it does not advance far enough along those fronts. But the UK may be more focused on preventing the USSR from defeating the Germans single-handedly, so that player may force the USA to allocate resources toward the Western front in Europe to maintain parity with the USSR. Conversely, the USSR may use a US Directed Offensive to gain extra support in the Eastern Front and break through the Axis forces. It all depends on how the conference goes.
But there are other issues at play than just military strength. For example, Atom Bomb research. Any time Atom Bomb research is discussed at the conference, the US player will roll a d6 and on a 4-6, the US A-bomb marker advances on space on the track. Any player may spend production to give the die roll a plus 1 modifier. If the USSR won the issue at the conference, then regardless of the die roll, the Soviet marker advances on the track as well to simulate Soviet spies stealing information from within the Manhattan Project research facility.
The US wants the Atom bomb to be researched because it is one of the conditions needed for Japanese surrender: the atom bomb must be researched, at least one US Pacific front must be on a “B-29” space (representing an island that is close enough to Japan that a B-29 bomber armed with an atom bomb could take off, drop the bomb, and land safely), and the USSR must be at least at the Manchuria space on their Pacific Theater front. If the atom bomb isn’t researched, then the only way to achieve Japanese surrender is by advancing a front all the way to the Tokyo space. But the USSR also has an interest in A-Bomb research. The further they advance their marker along the A-Bomb track, the more victory points they will earn.
Can you see the wheels turning in this game’s mechanics? The US might not want the USSR to win an A-bomb issue because it’ll improve his score relative to the other players. But the UK might want the USSR to win the issue because that might help maintain a closer relative score between everyone, which will be important for an Alliance Victory scenario.
I’m fascinated by how Churchill simulates all of these real-world situations with simple tokens, so I’m going to talk a bout a few more that I find really cool. One of the more important ones are “Political-Military” issues. Winning one of these issues allows you to spend a production to activate clandestine networks in smaller countries and colonies around the world, or once the network is established you can place a political alignment marker to represent an alliance with the country. For example, the Pol-Mil 1/2 issue lets a player spend 1 production to earn 1 political alignment marker and 2 clandestine network tokens. These markers do absolutely nothing to contribute to the war effort. They are simply other ways to score victory points. Each Clandestine Network on the board at the end of the game is worth 1 VP. Each political alignment marker is worth 3.
The existence of these markers makes for some really interesting situations. If you see a player pushing pol-mil issues during the agenda, you know that they’re not really interested in advancing the military fronts. That may cause you to aim for that country’s Production and Directed Offensive issues to force them to allocate resources to the war effort in ways that benefit you. But even if you do that, they may earn too many victory points for you to recover by the end of the game. So you might be forced to waste resources on pol-mil issues too. But if all the players ignore the war effort to just go for victory points, that will lead to a scenario three ending, where the most points wins. Wouldn’t it be better to push for scenario 2, where the player with too many points loses? Absolutely! But that player might notice, and find ways to keep the player in last place closer in, maybe by letting that player win a conference . . . the strategies circle around and around!
And really, that’s what makes Churchill such a fascinating and fun game. Sure, simulating WW2 is kind of interesting, and playing cards to win issues is an amusing little mini-game. But the overall strategy where you want to win, but not by too much, except in certain situations where you want to win by a whole lot, is really cool. And what makes it even better is that it’s a 3-player game. If one player starts running away with the game, the other two can work together to bring them back in check fairly easily. Most times when I play a 3-player game, two of the players end up beating up each other while the third cruises to a major victory. Churchill’s structure provides ample opportunity to prevent that from happening.
Every player is engaged in a three-way tug of war at every turn, and the combination of cooperation and competition required throughout makes this a uniquely compelling game. I mentioned in my Fog of Love review that what makes that game interesting is that cooperation is not required. You can aim to break up with your partner at any point in the game. You have to actively choose to cooperate because the game doesn’t force you like The Fox in the Forest: Duet or Pandemic: Legacy. Churchill is the same, only with three players.
And we’ve only talked about phase 1 of the game! What about phase 2? The “war” phase?
Honestly, the “war” phase is not terribly interesting. It’s mostly just bureaucratic upkeep. It begins with each player placing their clandestine network markers and political alignment markers (if they have any) on the board. You can place them in empty countries, or use them to remove other players’ markers. Basically, you’re jockeying for political influence in smaller countries to modify your scores. Then we get to the actual war. Each front resolves a battle using the directions printed on the board that I won’t bother copying here. Essentially, there is a series of directions that specifies how the Axis power will arrange its troops along each of the fronts it faces that round. For example, in the Atlantic theater, if the Allies have not launched D-Day yet, the Germans will direct nearly all of their reserves to the Eastern front to oppose the USSR. Once D-Day is launched, the Germans will have to split their forces more evenly, allowing both sides a better opportunity to advance.
Once the Axis troops are distributed, the player who controls that front gets to see if they advance. First, if they are advancing to a Naval space, there must be enough “naval support” for that front. Otherwise, the attempt fails before anything else happens. If it’s a ground-based advancement, or if there is sufficient naval support, then the player controlling the front gets to roll a d10. The front’s base strength is 2, and each offensive support token on that front increases that by 2. Each Axis troop on that front subtracts 2. If the die roll is less than the modified strength of that front, then the front advances. So if there are three offensive support tokens, the front strength is 8, but then if there are two axis troops, that drops the strength to 4. That means the player must roll a 4 or less on a d10 to advance.
See what I mean? It’s super abstract, with no opportunity for tactics to influence the course of battle. The more offensive support tokens you stick onto a front, the more likely you’ll advance the front. So why do you care if fronts advance? Simple: it’s how you force the Axis surrender. The Germans will only surrender if a front makes it into Berlin. Like I mentioned above, the Japanese surrender if you make it into Tokyo, or if you fulfill the conditions to drop an atom bomb. But in addition to triggering surrender, each faction has different ways to earn points by advancing fronts towards their enemies.
The UK gets points for advancing the Mediterranean Front into Italy. The US and the UK earn points for advancing the Western Front, while the USSR earns points for advancing along the Eastern Front. If the fronts advance simultaneously, there’s not much net change in points. But if one pulls ahead, that player may end the game with more points than the others. Also, any fronts present in Berlin when Germany surrenders get to claim “German Technology” markers for extra points. If the USSR gets into Berlin from the East before the Western front catches up, they get all those markers for themselves!
I’ve now written over 3000 words about this game, and there’s still things I haven’t touched. For example, each of the three nations has a unique power. The UK is diplomatically experienced, so they get a +1 modifier to the strength of their diplomat to determine who goes first during the agenda phase. This lets them save stronger diplomats for the actual conference without sacrificing the opportunity to go first, or lets them essentially guarantee first pick. The Soviets have the power of “Nyet!” which gives their diplomats a +1 bonus when debating against another player’s card. Basically, the Soviet diplomats aren’t as skilled as the other two players’, but they are really good at saying “no” and pulling issues to their favor by getting in the way. The USA are the Arsenal of Democracy, and their power is to be the decider if there’s a tie. For example, let’s say a conference ends with the UK winning three issues, the USSR winning three, and the USA winning one. The USA now gets to decide which player won the conference and earns victory points: the UK or the USSR.
Each player also has access to their national leader to use during debates. The leaders each have 7 strength, so using them can pull an issue off the table immediately. The other players can still debate against them, but only by using their own leader. If you debate against a leader, though, that means the third player can use their own leader freely, without any fear of opposition.
The leaders each have unique strengths and weaknesses. Stalin cannot be debated if he advances the A-bomb issue, and earns two extra clandestine markers when advancing or debating a pol-mil issue. But he’s paranoid, so after he is played you roll 2d6 and on a 2-4, all other Soviet staff cards get -1 strength for the rest of the conference. Churchill gets a bonus for being played on the “Global” issue (another thing I didn’t talk about . . . this game has a lot going on!), but after you use him you roll 2d6 and on a 2-4 he has a heart attack and can’t be used in the next conference phase while he recovers. You might guess where this is going for the USA. Roosevelt gets a bonus when played on the Global issue if that issue is on the UK or USSR track at the time. But after you use him, you roll 2d6 and on a 2-3, he straight up dies in office. And then his VP replaces him: Harry Truman. Truman is inexperienced, and when he is played you have to roll 2d6. On a 2-5, he’s only strength 4 instead of 7 for that issue. Ouch. But once the A-bomb is fully researched, he loses that penalty for any issue played. Basically, once he has his technological trump card, he’s good to go.
As you can see, there’s so much going on in this game. It’s nearly impossible to keep it all in your head while you’re playing. You should fully expect to spend the bulk of the game studying your player aid for victory point conditions and end game scenarios to try and figure out your best path to victory. And nearly every round will find players nose-deep in the rulebook to follow the very specific procedure that governs each phase of the game. But concealed within this absurdly complex framework of rules sits a fascinating, one-of-a-kind experience. Churchill forces both cooperation and competition from three asymmetric powers.
Naturally, this game is LOOOONG. I have managed to play a game in about two hours, but that was with two rather experienced players and all of us rushing through turns. Fortunately, the game offers three different modes for you to customize your experience: Campaign, Tournament, and Training. Training mode begins the game with conference 8, and you play through to conference 10. In this scenario, the game is nearly over and most of the interesting decisions have already been made. The purpose of this is to let players play the last three turns of the game to understand how the basic mechanics work: how to run the conference phase, resolve issues, advance fronts, and calculate final scores at the end.
The Tournament scenario is the one I have played the most. It begins with conference 6 and goes through conference 10. In this scenario, the UK has already made it into Italy, D-Day has not been launched yet, and the USSR has not invaded Manchuria in the Pacific theater. This leaves all of the major interesting decisions open for the players, but they have to be made soon. If the allies don’t launch the D-Day invasion quickly, there won’t be enough time to catch up to the Soviet front in the East. This lets players play five rounds, and if players are relatively familiar with the game it should last about 3-4 hours.
The campaign scenario is the full game. The board starts as a completely blank slate with all the fronts as far away as possible. This starts with conference 1 and runs all the way to conference 10. The players will have to navigate the full length of the war over ten rounds, and it’s a marathon, not a sprint. I played this solitaire once to try and get a grasp of the rules. It took me over 10 hours. Experienced players can probably cut that down to 6-8. It’s still a huge experience.
And I’m somehow not done yet. Let’s talk about components! GMT is currently one of the premier publishers for war games. The box is made of high quality cardboard that will last a long time. The cards are really thick and stiff, which takes a lot of getting used to while shuffling, but ensures that they will also last a long time. The cards forego traditional art in favor of portraits of the person depicted. Sure, FDR, Stalin, and Churchill have well-known faces, but this game showcases the other staff members who made WW2 a success as well.
GMT is also known for using simple, functional, pieces. There are no custom sculpted plastic miniatures here. Just pained wood tokens, translucent plastic discs, and cardboard tokens to punch out. If you see a token that looks like it has more intricate art, that’s actually a sticker that you have to affix to the piece before you can start playing. One thing that’s really fun about Star Wars Rebellion is taking your enormous Death Star that floats above the board on its plastic stand and moving it to a system, taking with it an enormous fleet of Tie Fighters to wipe out any Rebel ships it might encounter. Churchill doesn’t have anything like that. These components are not fun to play with. They’re simple, functional, and informative, but they don’t generate an emotional response. Their role is to exist, not to contribute to the fun.
Where does that leave us? Well, Churchill is humongous. Learning it is not easy. It takes a lot of time, energy, and desire to power through its dense rulebook. And for the vast majority of people, it’s not worth it. But if you are willing to make that investment, you will find that Churchill is absolutely unique. It offers challenges and decisions that are hard to find in most other games. And, to be honest, I have thoroughly enjoyed every game of this I’ve played. I’ve never won, but I’ve had a fantastic time living the simulation and wracking my brain trying to find the strategy that might let me win, only to find myself out-maneuvered by more experienced opponents every time.
The rulebook expects players to only calculate their score at the end of the game. When there are rewards that happen during the game, like winning a conference, the game comes with little tokens to hang on to so you can remember to add them during the final tally. What’s nice about this is that it means that the final outcome is a bit of a surprise, which is kind of fun. But what’s awful about this is when you’re learning the game, you have no idea where people stand relative to each other. Sure, the UK won three conferences, they may seem like they’re winning, but the USA has political alignment markers in nearly every country, and the Axis is nowhere near surrender. Maybe the USA is actually winning? What I recommend you do, at least for your first couple games, is keep score as you go. This is actually a major pain in the butt. You will constantly be adjusting score trackers as clandestine networks and political alignment markers get added and subtracted from the board. But this will help you understand exactly where each player stands, and what priorities to pursue to try to achieve victory.
I created To Play or Not To Play to evaluate whether or not a game was worth your time to learn and play. Churchill falls into a weird space for that. Learning this game is likely to be a 5-6 hour investment, and you’ll need many more to fully grasp how the mechanics work together. But despite all of that, I have to say this game is worth it. You have to work to find the spark that makes Churchill brilliant. If you’re willing to put in that work, Churchill will reward you for it. I think you should play Churchill, but take this 7-page review as a massive caveat.
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