War and Peace

Review of board game Krieg & Frieden by Pevans

This fascinating game offers all sorts of subtleties in play and tactics, yet somehow fails to deliver a rewarding experience. Let me see if I can explain how it does all this.

The first impression is sumptuous: this is a TM Spiele production, after all. The large, chunky box is illustrated to look like a book bound between board covers. Inside, the insert carefully contains all the components. The solid board is circular and brightly decorated. There are sets of wooden houses for each of the (up to) four players, two packs of cards, aide memoire cards for each player, thick card counters and - the pièce de resistance - six chunky wooden blocks that build into a model of a cathedral. Great stuff so far. A translation of the rules is available from the Gaming Dumpster and they are straightforward.

The object of the game is to score the most points by bidding to win 'agenda' cards each turn. More about this later, but more points are scored by placing the last piece - the roof - on the cathedral than anything else. The player who does this will almost certainly win. As this ends the game, it's certainly too late for anyone else to catch up. It is an important point to understand when you sit down to play the game, because this is clearly what you should be aiming your strategy at.

Before getting into the strategy you need to know a bit more about the mechanics. The story of the game is that the players are Barons, striving to impress the King so that they will be named his successor. Each turn in the game is a year, during which the players will solve the crisis facing the Kingdom, build up their domains (or do down their adversaries) and gain income from the same. The key element in doing this are the resource cards, which represent knights (shield), food (barley), workers (stonemason's mallet) and money (gold chalice). The cards have multiple uses, which means the players have to decide how they are going to use their cards each turn - and how to gain more.

The turn starts with Winter, when an agenda card is played. This indicates the problem facing the Kingdom: Unrest, Famine, War or Taxes. Players can change the agenda by discarding a privilege. Because privileges are valuable elsewhere this is not likely to happen early on, but almost certain at the end of the game. In Spring, players bid for the agenda card - the first use of resources. The value of the resources depends on the agenda: barley is most valuable when the agenda is Famine, knights when it is War and so on. To bid, players place cards in front of them. If they pass later on, they pick up only the last set of cards they played. So it is quite safe to make an initial bid because you will always get your cards back. However, a bidding war becomes increasingly painful as you stand to lose more and more cards if you pull out. Hence, the pre-emptive bid is often used to shut out everybody else. Bid the most you're prepared to play: you will either get the agenda or your cards back - the downside of this is that you might have been able to get the agenda more cheaply.

Whoever bids most for the agenda takes the card and becomes first player until the next agenda is won. This is quite significant, as we'll see later. Depending on the symbol shown on the agenda card, the player either gets a privilege and a victory point or builds a piece of the cathedral for one or more victory points. There are eight privileges, two of each of the same symbols as the resource cards. We've already seen one use of them - to change the agenda - but they also gain the player an extra resource card (of the type shown) each turn. Adding to the cathedral gets the player one point for any of the first three pieces, two points for the fourth and fifth and three points for the sixth and final piece. She will also get bonus points according to the number of houses in the construction worker area of her domain. Note that these have to be built at least one turn before they're used.

It is now Summer and the players can play resource cards, starting with the player who won the agenda. A barley card builds a farm in the player's domain, subject to the maximum of six. A mallet transfers a building from farming to construction, as long as the player has at least as many farms as construction workers' huts. A chalice bribes a knight to desert another player. A knight attacks another player's domain and, if not countered with another knight card, destroys a building. The attacker gets to draw two cards the first time he destroys a player's building - once per player. You can immediately see that the knights are the strongest cards, because they damage opponents while potentially being replaced themselves. Clearly a good strategy in this game is to draw knights from the deck (the knight privileges are correspondingly sought after since they automatically gain you a knight each turn).

It is also clear that the starting player is disadvantaged. First, he will have fewer cards in hand because he successfully bid for the agenda. Secondly, he is faced by players who have yet to play a card and must make all the running. Conversely, the player in last place knows that she does not have to hold back any cards for defence as the other players have already had their turns. You don't want to win too many agendas! Ideally, you want the player on your left to win lots.

In Winter players gain resources: they draw one card from the deck plus another one for every two farms in their domain. And they gain one for each privilege, of course. In practice, a player picking up four cards a turn is doing well. You can expect to play 3-4 cards each turn, so it is quite hard to build up your hand. A player who only gains one card and holds less than five may call for the King's Bounty from any other player who does not have fewer victory points. That player must donate half his hand of resource cards to the needy player, but takes a privilege in return. If another player has a large hand of cards, being able to claim King's Bounty can be very useful - you can gain more cards this way than any other. It also prevents that player making use of her large hand of cards. Then it's time for another turn.

The game has a lot of things going for it: each turn starts with a spirited auction, then you get some furious card-play - with the opportunity to damage your opponents - and then you get more cards and decide what you can do next turn. You will score a few points as the game goes on and it reaches a climax with a big fight. Through the game you will have to decide when to bid and when to conserve your cards. You will need to decide how to make best use of the cards in your hand. And build up to a good position at the end. Strategy, then, is to win two-three privilege agendas, building up your hand in between these and for the final bidding round. Taking privileges will gain you victory points, but so would building early parts of the cathedral. Privileges also ensure you get extra cards each round (though it may be worth being able to claim King's Bounty early in the game). The obvious privileges to select are the knights. The downside of this is that other people are likely to take them off you (if you're taking a privilege, you take them from other people when both of the type you want are already owned). So, taking others makes it more likely that you'll keep them, but they'll be less useful. More decisions!

The game will almost certainly take fourteen turns: there are sixteen agenda cards, eight each for privileges and cathedral building. As there are only six pieces of cathedral, two agendas are surplus to requirements. In theory, the game can end with some privilege agenda cards still outstanding. In practice the player in a winning position must overrule all the other players to keep the agenda he wants in play, which is unlikely to succeed. So, when it comes to the big fight, three of eight cards will be available: an easy bit of card counting during the game will make sure that you know which three they are. The aim, then, is to have a hand that's worth a lot of points when bidding for one of the last three agendas, together with sufficient privileges to be able to force the agenda to be the one you want. Overall you're looking for a few points during the game and three at the end for finishing the cathedral. A couple of bonus points for construction workers when building the cathedral and you've got it (seven points can be all you need to win, though the winner often has one or two more).

So why don't I find this game more interesting? It seems to have everything going for it: player interaction, luck, tactics, strategy, high production values. It is, perhaps, a little dry, but otherwise it sounds good. My problem is that the whole 90 minutes of play hinges on the final round of bidding. The winner will be the player whose hand is worth most in terms of the final agenda card. This is essentially random. Yes, there are things you can do throughout the game to improve your position. But it is all marginal. At the end of the game, you need to draw the right cards from the deck. I would be very pleased if anyone can persuade me differently, as so much about this game is good.

Krieg & Frieden was designed by Gerard Mulder and published in Germany by TM Spiele. It is for 3-4 players and takes 60-90 minutes to play. Pevans rates it 5/10.
This review was originally published in Games Games Games 150, January/February 2001.

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