Britannia (Fantasy Flight Games, 2006 - Lewis Pulshiper) is actually a reworking of the same game designed in 1986. Mr. Pulshiper stated that the new FFG is simply a fine tuning of the system with few major changes. Having never played the older Avalon Hill game, I was still intrigued to give this game a shot. I'm not normally a big fan of war games, but Britannia's theme, the history of the invasions of Great Britain, really intrigued me along with the high reviews the original game received.
Since I knew the game had the complications of a war game, I was expecting something rather difficult; but Britannia was actually fairly simple to play and understand. Learning the strategy was another story, and I found that Britannia was a deep, intriguing game. It plays well with two or three players but is incredibly good with four. It is an extremely long game and can feel a bit scripted at times, but the historical feel and the immersion into theme are rather well done. I'm not going to want to play Britannia all the time, as it's a game that one has to plan a game session around; but it certainly will be an experience we remember after each playing.
Some comments on the game:
1.) Components: Fantasy Flight is one of the top game companies when it comes to quality game bits, and Britannia is no exception to that rule. In fact, one of my biggest complaints with many war games is the "cheap" feel that they exude, but Britannia is really top notch. There are 219 two-sided, chunky cardboard counters in the game - separated by four colors (for the different players) with different artwork and symbols on each to help players differentiate their nations. Occasionally I would forget which nation was which; but usually the nations that have the same color are in completely different parts of the island, resulting in less confusion. The map itself is a work of art, with enough room for the pieces, and three nice tracks that help track game play. A pile of Victory point markers (cardboard coins) are included in three denominations, although there came a point where we simply started keeping track of the points on paper instead. Nation cards for the seventeen different nations contain detailed information about each one's victory points and special rules; and while a lot of room is required to set everything up on the table, it doesn't look too cluttered and looks rather attractive. Everything fits inside a large square box; and I bagged every army, simply to make setup a little quicker.
2.) Rules: I was a bit intimidated by the twenty-four page rulebook and read it slowly over a couple of days - a bit at a time. But really, I could have grasped things earlier, because the core rules aren't very detailed at all. The full-color rules include many examples, designer's notes, strategy hints, variants, and more - along with some detailed tips for a player's first game (VERY helpful). I discovered that the game was entirely easier to teach than it was for me to learn from the rules, and usually could get a game going after only about fifteen minutes. Make no mistake, however - the rules themselves may be simple, but the strategy and tactics have many nuances that will take more than a couple games to grasp.
3.) Nations: There are seventeen nations in the game, split between four players. Yellow controls the Romans, the Romano-British, the Scots, the Dubliners, and the Norwegians. Red controls the Brigantes, the Irish, the Norsemen, and the Saxon. Blue controls the Belgae, the Picts, the Angles, and the Normans; and Green uses the Caledonians, the Danes, the Jutes, and the Welsh. At the beginning of the game only six of the nations start on the board, with the remainder phasing in as time goes by. Every player controls some strong nations and some that are considerably weaker, but overall, everything seems extremely balanced. At first the Romans seem unstoppable, but they weaken over time; and the other players get their own massive armies on later turns. I've read on the internet that some colors are stronger than others, but I've read just as many counter with different colors. I myself seem to find that they are all balanced; for while Yellow seems overpowered in the beginning, that quickly changes; and early battles often have major impacts later on down the road.
4.) History: There is no denying that the history of Great Britain just oozes out of the pores of this game; the major invasions of history are covered and simulated to a fairly accurate degree. I thought I knew a great deal about this period of history, but I learned many things during my playings, and I can say that the game gave me a greater appreciation for the time period. I realize that sounds a bit corny, and that education alone doesn't make a game good (if you're not sure about that - simply check out a teacher supply store) but Britannia manages to wrap its mechanics around theme.
5.) Constraints: Along with this immersion with theme, however, is a tendency for many games to play out in similar (not exact) ways. Each country receives points for capturing and/or holding certain areas on the board. This often has the effect of giving each nation only a few options. Some nations are more constrained than others, but a few in my group didn't like the fact that they couldn't move too far away from history and have any chance for winning the game. For me, I was happy with the framework that I had to work with and especially enjoyed the latitude that a few of the countries had. In particular, the Romans have a huge effect on the first several turns and shape the course of the first half of the game. Once an invasion occurs, the course for the next part of the game is set, so they tend to be important; and what may seem to be a minor variance to some is merely the first domino in a series of events. Perhaps the game will have less replayability after a couple dozen plays; but since it tends to become an epic event, I don't know that it will be played enough to matter.
6.) Length and Players: The rules include a way to play two or three players; but because you have to use nations of different colors, I found it slightly confusing at times. Besides, the game seems remarkably balanced with four players, and it's a little off balance with a different number of players. No matter what the amount of players, one thing that slightly detracts from the game is the amount of time. Our games lasted about five hours each. These times are action packed, and there's very little downtime in the game. Each nation takes their turn fairly quickly (except perhaps the Romans on the first two turns), and players have nations all over the board; so there really isn't a dull moment. At the same time, I don't really have much time for five hour games these days; they're the type of games that I have to plan for quite a bit in advance. I think that Britannia is a worthy five hours but possibly a little long for some folks. (By the way, the box time says four hours, and I suppose that's possible; but if you have people who move even a bit slowly, it's going to be more).
7.) Combat: The combat system was designed in the early eighties, and it shows; as it's simply variations on the "roll dice and hope for high numbers" system. Oddly, though, the combat in the game didn't feel like simply luck to me. As I watched the Roman units decimate the nations they initially invade, occasionally a lucky shot would take one out - but everything evened out. Over the course of the games I played, there were certainly grumblings about specific die rolls, but very few players actually got upset over the combat system itself.
8.) Elimination: In a multi-player war game, the part I dislike more than any other is player elimination, especially in a game that lasts as long as this one. However, one of the truly enjoyable features of Britannia is that if one of your nations is eliminated, you still have three others to use! There are even special rules that allow certain nations to submit to the Romans on the first turn. This hands the Romans quite a few points but saves those nations from total annihilation, and it makes for an interesting choice. As the red player, I found that I wasn't pleased how the Brigantes got completely decimated in the beginning of the game but felt a lot happier later on when the Saxons made their powerful invasion. And managing to keep small tribes of a nation (those annoying Scotts!) alive for lengthy periods of times is a satisfying feature.
9.) Diplomacy: Occasionally a player will have two of their nations in adjacent areas, causing for some unique situations. The game allows for a player to attack their own nations (for points purposes), but it's usually best for a player to have a mutually friendly border. This does make parts of the game odd, but the color distribution of the nations seems well enough done that I didn't find it too big of a problem. There's a bit of diplomacy between players, but most of it often is simply verbally encouraging the player to not attack oneself but rather the "more powerful" opponent. The good thing (in my opinion) is that the game is scripted in such a way that players usually don't gang up on others; it's more advantageous to attack one's weaker neighbors. The only time I've seen three players collaborate against one is when a massive invasion (such as the initial one by the Romans) occurs. But the Romans have such an advantage at that point that players honestly do have a common enemy (the same thing happens near the end of the game with the Normans).
10.) Fun Factor: The most fun I had in the game was simply watching history unfold as the game progressed. The basic invasions happened, and leaders rise and fall; but the nuances change. Perhaps the Belgae will submit in one game and fight to the death in another. Perhaps the Irish will gain a foothold in one game and be beaten back in another. Exactly what shore will the Angles land when they attack? Yes, the game is long; but it's one of the few long games that I'll keep and try to play a few times a year. You can see the designers love for the theme throughout, and I especially enjoyed his historical background and strategy articles. In fact, you can find out more about the game from his perspective here: http://www.pulsipher.net/britannia/index.htm, along with strategy articles and variants.
11.) Errata: Every war game seems to have that dreaded thing - errata. Thankfully, there's only a bit of that in Britannia, and it mostly is rather easy to remember. Romans have some city/road/special army rules, some nations can submit, some leaders rise and fall - giving advantages, and there are a few changes to landings in the last couple turns of the game. Most of this is dealt with on a turn by turn basis, and we usually quickly consulted the rulebook. A little errata is good for theme, and it's okay in Britannia (although game purists might be annoyed at the slight "fiddliness" it adds).
Throughout my review, you might find a few niggling problems I have with Britannia. Some of those are due to its age, which shows slightly, even underneath the chrome and beautiful components. At the same time, there are those days in which I'm looking for a thematic, involved light war game; and Britannia is one such game. I enjoy the historical aspect, the multiple nations per player is intriguing, and the components truly are outstanding. While not for everyone, people who enjoy "light" games should duck and cover - Britannia may satisfy the itch in players looking for a deeper encounter, an epic game that is all about the experience.
"Real men play board games"
You can buy this game directly from Funagain games.
BoardGameGeek entry for Britannia