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Duel Britannia design notes

(I've not been repeating my blog on blogspot here, for quite some time. Perhaps I'll catch up.)

Duel Britannia was released in late August 2020. This standalone game is included in a package with classic Britannia, an unchanged Britannia in the rules, but changed in the interface. It uses plastic figures for armies, for example.

This is not a variant of Britannia, however, it's a standalone game covering some of the same period, in this case 350 A.D. to 1050, and it includes Ireland. It uses methods resembling and sometimes identical to those of Britannia, but for two players. It's a great deal shorter than Britannia, and feels something like a quick Brit.

This is one of two of my published games that originated with someone else's idea. The other is Valley of the Four Winds from 1980, Games Workshop’s first boardgame. This time, PSC Games (UK) asked me to design a sort of intro game for two players that used Britannia methods more or less, but was playable and 60 to 90 minutes, and that would be included with the reissue of the classic (second, FFG) edition of Britannia.

I did this using a new board, which is printed on the other side of the Britannia board.. Dragon Rage second edition in 2011 showed me that two-sided boards are quite practical. The problem that required a new board was that the Britannia game system was not devised for two players, it was devised for four players. Long ago I tried to adapt Britannia for two players, but too much depended on the dice, or to put it another way, there's too much variability in combat for two players only. I actually played it a couple times with somebody else, but it just did not work satisfactorily.

Britannia is not designed to be short. The board is too big, that is to say there are too many areas for a two player game with the system. There were also way too many rounds (16) and too many nations (17). If you want a shorter game, you’ve got to reduce all that. Fortunately I dealt with the length problems in a prototype called Conquer Britannia, a prototype that hasn't been submitted yet although I've worked on it for years. It provided me with an example of a board with just 18 areas (Britannia has 37 not counting seas). The Duel board is 24 land areas. Conquer Britannia is a four player, six turn game using plastic figures, starting after the Romans leave Britain through 1066, unlike Duel Britannia which ends about 1050. The king competition in 1066 and after is a three or four sided situation, which makes it impractical for two players. Duel instead ends with Cnut and Edmund Ironside more or less.

I was able to adapt the Conquer combat method, a simple enough variation of Britannia. Roll two dice for each army instead of one, and it takes two hits to eliminate an enemy (you cannoa divide hits up amongst your armies). It’s still a hit on a die roll of 5or 6. This reduces the standard deviation of the results. It also makes land combat less lethal, which makes a difference to how the game is played. If you have a one versus one there’s only one chance in nine of one Army killing the other on the first roll, because that Army needs to get a five or six on both dice to get two hits. What this method also does is make for a lot of dice rolling!

There are various other ways to reduce the length. For example, fewer units. I use a maintenance economy, not cumulative, in other words, you pay for existing units first. Because there are only 24 land areas there are fewer units, though I did arrange the maintenance so that even a weak nation is likely to be able to get a new army in a turn. Maintenance also eliminates the overpopulation rule, simplifying things a bit.

It's seven turns beginning just before the Romans leave. A simple calculation of number of nations times and number of rounds gives you a rough idea of how long a Britannia-like game is going to last. 7*12 = 84 is less than a third of 16*17 = 272.

Scoring occurs after each nation turn because people expect immediate feedback these days, also encouraging aggression. With only seven turns, having scoring after each nation turn still works out, but it's after each nation turn, not at the end of the round. Scoring is also simpler. Each nation has a scoring center or two and, as it’s printed on the board, the players don't spend time looking up scoring points, they just look at the board. Again that's from Conquer Britannia.

Other rules are simplified, for example, no King or Bretwalda, no movement from one sea zone to another, there's only four sea zones, no straits, no extended raiding, with the new interface. There are no nation cards while both players have cards showing the appearance.

I decided to have one player defending against the Anglo-Saxon invaders other invaders, and then the Anglo-Saxon player defends against the Vikings, so one player starts as a defender and ends the game as an attacker; the other player starts as an attacker, ends as a defender. I think that gives a game a seesaw aspect that makes it much more interesting than when the sides are more or less equal from the start.

Some asymmetric two player games tend to snowball, especially if ferociously asymmetric; that is, if one player gets ahead after a certain juncture in a game, perhaps midway through the game in this case, that player tends to get further and further ahead. This one seems to work that way. Unfortunately, this is just as two players on the second edition board worked, but that was worse. Toward the end of development I found myself reducing the maximum armies of some nations in order to reduce the swing effect they could have on the game if they got to their maximum.

I tend to design and develop games over a long time, usually several years. I only had a year and part of a month to do this one. I really had to get at it, which was kind of nerve-racking. Designers of course always wish they could get more playtesting and this one was particularly sensitive to changes. Ideally, I wanted all the Vikings on the same side as the original inhabitants of Britain. But that was unbalancing things. At one time after some testing at Prezcon I actually split ownership of the Norse to try to fine tune balance. But that didn't work out, too many possibilities of shenanigans.

As it’s difficult for me to find testers for two player wargames, I relied heavily on blind testing. The blind testing results were all over the map. Some people said that one side had a strong advantage, some people the other side had the advantage, some people were in between, and I had my own results from playing solo. I've never played as many solo games of anything as of Duel Britannia.

Would this make a good tournament game? It's relatively short and simple, 90 minutes is sufficient unless you have “deliberate” players, that is, slow, so we'll see how that goes. I’d probably let players bid victory points for which side they want to play, so you might say “I'll sacrifice two victory points in order to play such and such side,” and at the end of the game two victory points are subtracted from your final score if you play the side you wanted. Some people don't like that method, but it's kind of a self balancing method. A lot depends on play style, even in Britannia itself. I recall with the Avalon Hill version some people who played regularly in Canada saying they didn't see how one particular color could ever win, but the people who played at WBC had figured it out and the results were relatively even between the four colors.

I don't like “living rules,” which is changes in the rules after publication. But if a very large number of plays, especially in tournaments, shows that one side has an advantage, the rules can be changed and publicized to adjust the balance.

The length, the resemblance to and feel of Britannia all work well. You can see that the existence of Conquer Britannia allowed me to use well tested mechanisms and that helped a lot. The system works fine. It's the play balance that was difficult to achieve, and without Conquer Britannia I’d never have managed in 13 months.

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blog | by Dr. Radut