There are lots of different games in the Lite Civ Building “Dudes on a Map” Area Control genre. It is very popular and has provided many great games including titles such as Dark Ages: Holy Roman Empire and Dark Ages: Heritage of Charlemagne from Board & Dice, Kemet from Matagot, Clash of Cultures from WizKids, Twilight Imperium and Civilization: A New Dawn from Fantasy Flight Games, and Ancient Civilizations of the Inner Sea from GMT Games to name just a few. These games all focus around the same principle of building up an economy, developing technology, maintaining a standing army to defend your kingdom and then milling victory points in a variety of ways from building, technology development, meeting hidden objectives, controlling key cities or areas and winning battles. Most of these Lite Civ Building games can be won though without ever fighting a battle or even threatening any other civilization. Players can simply turtle in a corner, do what they do and end up winning the game without ever having interacted with any other civilization. I don’t like that element about these games. In fact, it really turns me off!
But, there is good news as there is a new upcoming game in this genre that has some rather unique elements and attempts to do what Civ Builders do but do it in a novel and different way…and also finds a way to incentivize combat, which was really a breath of fresh air for me. Bretwalda from PHALANX is a game for 1-4 players that plays in around 2 1/2 hours. Each player takes charge of one of the kingdoms of medieval England, including Northumbria, Mercia, Wessex and East Anglea, and each of these kingdoms has unique leaders and abilities. The goal is to be crowned the Bretwalda of England and victory will be achieved through a combination of controlling key areas with victory points, completing Chronicle cards in the form of hidden objectives and also focusing on building various buildings such as Abbeys.
In this piece, I would like to discuss how Bretwalda does things that are expected in a Lite Civ Building Dudes on a Map Area Control game but how they do them differently.
Each Kingdom Offers Unique Rulers with Strategy Defining Special Abilities
I know you are going to say that this is not unique, and you would be absolutely correct in that regard. But what it does differently is that 3 differing Rulers are offered with unique and strategy defining bonuses. As you can see in the picture below, this king for East Anglea is Eadwald and he offers a very unique ability that allows him to place a Ceorl unit down in an area that was just controlled by an army that he is with. This is a very good ability early in the game as you want to spread your influence into areas surrounding your Capital and the game doesn’t allow you to collect resources from areas unless a unit is present so having a unit placed down frees up your Ruler and his army to move on in a later turn to take over other areas. It also reinforces one of the most important aspects of almost all Civ Building games in that efficiency in actions is key. You don’t get a lot of Actions each turn in Bretwalda with just 2 actions per Season and you really have to be efficient with them in order to do well.
Another example of a different East Anglea Ruler ability is extra defense when attacking in an area you control. I really like that each Ruler is unique but also that you can use them to establish your strategy and then maintain as you develop your kingdom. It is important to remember though that these Rulers can also be killed in battle so you have to be a bit careful with them until their ability becomes expendable. Once they meet their untimely end, you can simply fill in with the next Ruler up and ever so slightly course correct your strategy to take advantage of their ability. But beware as if you ever lose all 3 Rulers you will automatically end the game and lose in defeat. A very cool part of the design that will allow lots of flexibly and crafting of strategy in each play of the game.
Very Little Assymetry
I initially thought that this would be a bad thing for the design but really enjoyed how they did make each kingdom feel different, also how they provided unique choices in the area of Kingdom Tiles and the development of your kingdom. The Kingdoms differ in three main aspects. First, they are located in different areas on the map. Now this might not seem very important but there are advantages to each of these locations. East Anglea has access to several Areas that produce Food. This is very good as you have to feed your soldiers at the start of each Winter Phase and you will always be on the lookout for how to get more Food. This is a very good advantage but the tradeoff is that they are very open and spread-out on the map in the east and have more areas susceptible to attack which requires more troops for defense. Northumbria is located in the north of England up against Hadrian’s Wall which provides some form of protection as it provides extra defense if attacked. They can also conquer the area to the north of their kingdom and have very little worry about any threat from that side so they can focus on defending other areas.
Second, each kingdom has its own permanent, unique special rule that provides them with an advantage. East Anglea starts with 3 Food in their capital while other kingdoms start with just 1 and they also obtain 2 Food at the start of each Spring Season. Wessex will draw one extra Lordship Card after winning a battle. This is very important as these cards are very versatile special benefit cards that can be used in battle to do several things like reroll dice, add reinforcements, bring back a destroyed unit, etc. They also though have other uses through other phases of the game including scouting your opponents stash of cards before attacking, cancelling played card effects, gaining additional Gold, amongst other benefits. Mercia is able to Recruit 1 additional land unit when they take the Fyrd (Recruit) action. This gives them access to larger armies more quickly than other kingdoms so you have to watch out for them to be aggressive early. Finally, Northumbria may build Abbeys for 1 less Gold. This is probably the most simple benefit but Gold is at a premium and this really helps them to get more Gold as Abbeys give victory points (called Dalcs) as well as provide 1 additional Gold during the Collect Action. These benefits are not massive or game breaking but really add some flavor to each kingdom. Third and finally, as already discussed in the point above, each of the kingdoms has a set of its own unique historical Rulers, each with a different ability. I wont say anymore about this here but I really liked this part of the assymetry and thought it worked really well without breaking the game or making it more difficult than it had to be.
The area that I really wanted to cover in this section though was the Kingdom Tiles. During the Development Action, each player can pay 3 Gold and place 1 Kingdom Tile on their board. These Kingdom Tiles are divided into 4 different categories (you can see the four categories on the Kingdom Board shown above) tied to the four available Actions for players, including Development, Collection, Fyrd (Recruit) and Movement. The surprising thing about these tiles was that they are all the same for each kingdom. At first I thought maybe this was a missed opportunity but then after playing I saw that each having the same access to the same tiles was smarter as it gave the game balance. Also, each of the categories offers 3 possible Kingdom Tiles to develop and each player only has 2 spots on their board so you cannot develop all 3 in each category and each player will have to choose what makes the most sense for them at the time. I have seen this done in several of the Lite Civ Dudes on a Map Area Control games but they tend to overcomplicate it and make it clunky whereas in Bretwalda it is streamlined and simple yet there are options and paths to develop. I will discuss these Kingdom Tiles a bit more later on in the article.
So the asymmetry of kingdoms is a combination of these three factors and makes for a very interesting experience in learning and playing the different kingdoms. Nothing over done. Nothing too complex. But thoughtfully and historically integrated into the design to make a very enjoyable and interesting experience.
Encourages Combat both in the Tightness of the Map and in Incentives
Combat is almost always shied away from in these type of games in my opinion. It is expensive as you have to buy and develop units, move them around the map, feed them and then replace them after battle when destroyed. Also, lots of these Lite Civ Dudes on a Map Area Control games are focused on building your economic and technological side of your nations and if you overspend on military then you are limiting how far you can get in the other areas. Opportunity Cost is an economic principle after all and most of these games do that aspect well. I have always been on the lookout for a game that encouraged and rewarded combat as that is how these kingdoms were normally built….through conquest! Bretwalda incentivizes combat in several key ways, including in the lay out and design of the board, the need to gain new resources, the fact that victory points (called Dalcs) don’t come from buildings (mostly) or development of technology in the form of Kingdom Tiles and in rewards from accomplishing Chronicle Cards. Let’s take a look at each of these aspects.
The board is very tight and players will start out the game only a few areas away from their neighbors. The game also has neutral factions (in our 4-player game they were the white units) and they are located in areas that each of the kingdoms need and want to conquer. This spatial relationship creates many opportunities for combat and players will have to move about the board and get into position to take what they want from the get go. Abbeys, which provide victory points, can only be built in the countryside, which is defined as an area that doesn’t have a city icon. So if you want to build Abbeys, and you do because they give more Gold each Collection Action but also provide Dalcs per 3 that you build, then you will have to conquer countryside areas as you start in your capital which is a city space and Abbeys cannot be built there. The map also has Areas that will always have a Dalc placed at the beginning of the game, such as the center space of Hamptun. In order to gain these Dalcs, you will be forced to go and attack whoever is there with them, either a neutral faction or an opposing kingdom. The designer also included a variant option where you can place the special Dalc tokens in random Areas about the map. This means that which areas will be crucial during the game will depend on the distribution of victory points on the map and players will be forced to go after them or sit back and watch someone else win the title of Bretwalda.
One of the best parts of the design is the choice that players will gain very few Dalcs from their buildings or technologies (Kingdom Tiles). They can sit back and build, develop and build all day long but they might gain 1 or 2 Dalcs and the winner needs to obtain a minimum of 7 to win in a 4-player game. This doesn’t in anyway cheapen the need to develop and build buildings. You have to do them to make your kingdom competitive and provide the needed benefits for movement, recruiting, collection and development but you are just not rewarded with Dalc for doing so….you have to take these Dalcs by force and that equates to combat.
A very important aspect of combat is the completion of Chronicle Cards. In order to complete the Chronicle Card, a player has to perform some significant act that will go down in the annals of history. There are 16 such Chronicle Cards (think of them as special missions) in the game, and they provide Dalcs when completed. These Chronicle Cards include all types of things such as capturing a certain number of cities, controlling specific Areas of the map, having a certain number of Gold or Food icons in controlled territories to making a holy pilgrimage to Rome itself. Each player can complete just two chronicles during the game and players receive permanent victory points, which they cannot lose. This really incentivizes combat and I think their addition to the game solidified that combat is important.
One other really important aspect of this combat and the incentives for players is understanding how victory is achieved. Players must score a certain number of Victory Points called Dalcs. Depending on the number of players, the number of points needed to win the game varies. The winner is the first player to get to the threshold at the end of any Season. These Dalcs are tracked on the board and the player’s Kingdom Boards but as players near the magic number everyone begins to focus on how they are going to either get to that number or prevent another player from doing so. In our game, this caused me as East Anglea to lunge out during one of the final Summer Seasons because I was within just 2 points of winning the game. I had 4 Dalcs shown on the board from controlling 3 areas with Dalc Tokens and also 1 Dalc because I controlled 3 Abbeys that I had built. I also had a permanent Dalc on my Kingdom Board because I had completed one of my Chronicle Cards before that by controlling the middle space on the board and 3 adjacent Areas. This meant that I had a total of 5 Dalcs and I saw an opportunity.
Alexander was playing as Wessex and had just moved his Ruler to defend a Dalc Token on the map. But he had only 1 Thegn unit and 1 Ceorl with that Ruler. I had a good sized force within movement distance of that Area and saw an opportunity to move there and win that space, gaining the Dalc Token and taking me to 6 Dalcs. But I also had a Chronicle Card in my hand that required me to win a battle and kill the opposing Ruler. I saw that I could kill two birds with this same stone and moved my units, which included my Ruler, an Ealdorman and a Ceorl. A pretty significant force and I also had several Lordship Cards in my hand that gave me rerolls and a few other tricks but nothing really spectacular (I had already spent those in a gambit the last Season that gained me several Areas and accomplished a Chronicle Card). I did know however that I could always discard my cards to add 1 Sword (hit) in battle per card discarded and I had 3 cards. In doing this action, I was selling out as I was going to either win and hold or lose and then be summarily wiped out as Wessex could roll into my kingdom pretty easily as I was short on defending troops behind my offensive.
The dice were unkind to me and I was going to take 6 wounds, which would kill my Ruler and my Ealdorman and leave me with only 1 Ceorl. I rolled fine with 2 hits which was not enough to kill the Ruler but only his Thegn and leave me in the 2nd round of battle poorly equipped to win. I looked at my Lordship Cards and decided to discard 3 of them to add 3 hits to the battle which ended up killing the opposite Ruler and winning the battle. I then simply had to survive the final Action by the other 3 players, who didn’t expect that I had an ace up my sleeve in my final Chronicle Card and went about plotting my demise with several Fyrd Actions and Movement to get in position for attack next Season. At the end of the Summer Season where players reveal their Chronicle Cards completed that turn, I threw the card down for killing an enemy king and winning the battle to gain my 7th Dalc resulting in a victory at that point. What a way to end the game! And the victory was created through combat, which was incentivized with the Chronicle Cards and the Dalc Token in the area. Such a great implementation of combat and I am glad that the game encourages it as it makes the game so much fun but also tense as you never know when it might end.
Focus on Economy is Important but not the Be-All-End-All
In most of these Lite Civ Building Dudes on a Map Area Control games, economy is the most important aspect. I would say that in Bretwalda, this is also the case but the difference is that it is not everything. We saw that the player that gets off to a great start economically, by building the correct buildings (I would say that Gold production/bonuses are the most important but so is Food production) will have a huge advantage and be able to get a good lead. This will then lead to them being able to build more troops, and keep them in the field because they can feed them as well, and see them taking over areas for resources and Dalc.
Makes sense right? Well, you would think so but according to the designer, that isn’t always the best way to go about it, jumping out to an early lead and then becoming a target. Leo Soloviey had this to share about the nuances of playing in the framework of the game and using your economy and power wisely:
I can give you a piece of old Anglo-Saxon advice: The fuller the chalice, the more carefully it must be carried. [Which simply means…] The closer you are to victory, the more you will become the focus of attention of the other players, so the easiest way to win is by appearing to be weak.
I thought of this advice when playing and kept myself in check as much as I could while also building a stirling economy. Also, keep in mind that players will gain no direct Dalc from their buildings or technologies (Kingdom Tiles). They will aid in gaining them resources and advantages during each of the 4 Actions but not lead directly to points. This is a huge difference from other games in the genre. In other games, you get points for each building, level of buildings, adjacency to other building types, number of technologies developed, sets of matching technology type, etc. etc. etc. and so on and so forth. That is why the other games don’t incentivize combat because you would rather spend time building your economy as there are infinitely more points to be had. In Bretwalda, the building of your economy is for the ability to build armies and move around to fight battles and take over the control of key Areas and gain victory points.
We have all heard the analogy of the carrot and stick, right? This metaphor teaches us about the use of a combination of a reward and a punishment that will induce people to take the desired behavior. It is based on the idea that a wagon driver can try to get a lazy and reluctant horse to get hauling by simply dangling a juicy carrot in front of it and then smacking it on the rear with a stick to get it moving. That is Bretwalda. The carrot is the Dalc and the stick is the economy but not as the be-all-end-all but rather as a means to an end. The designer is treating us like the reluctant horse and if you want to win you will embrace the carrot as it is way better than the stick. I think that this is the single best aspect of this game and makes it more unique than other game offerings in the genre.
Control of an Area is Not Enough to Collect Resources
One of the things that I have noticed about a lot of these Lite Civ Building Dudes on a Map Area Control games is that players gain resources simply by controlling a space. As long as you have occupied that space previously, or even built some type of improvement there, that space will earn you money, food, ore, wood, etc. There is no need for the presence of a unit, or worker, or overseer there to ensure that the property produces. It simply produces each and every round. Automatically! I think that you are sick of me saying this….but in Bretwalda control of an area is not enough to collect resources. You have to have a unit in an Area for it to produce and this adds a whole additional layer of angst as you are out trying to spread the boundaries of your kingdom. You simply do not have enough units on the board to keep one in every space but you have to have resources to do what you need to do so you need each and every Area to pull its weight. This is a major addition to this design and makes is very unique amongst other games in the genre. I also think that it makes it superior in many ways and creates a new experience as you simply have to worry about and focus on something else.
The one way around this limitation though is the development of a single Kingdom Tile called Tax Collectors. There is a tile that you can develop that allows players to produce even with no unit present in an Area. Well Grant that simply shoots in the foot your theory about this one being unique? Well, no it doesn’t as in order to do this, the player will have to sacrifice the other far superior Collection Kingdom Tiles in order to develop this one. Remember you only have 2 spots on your Kingdom Board in each of the areas and there are 3 available Kingdom Tiles in each catergory. For me, I will almost always choose to develop the Tithe Tile that allows me to collect an additional Food each time I Collect and the Overseas Merchants Tile that allows the Collection of 2 additional Gold per Port I have built.
Neutral Kingdoms and Danes are Controlled by Highest Bidder
Most of the Lite Civ Building Dudes on a Map Area Control games have neutral factions on the board that provide the resistance to kingdoms growth and expansion until they are removed or assimilated. This is usually about the only direct conflict that is offered in these games. But in Bretwalda, the players actually have the opportunity to control or direct these neutrals and the Danes if they are invading or have already previously landed in order to hinder or attack enemies or at a minimum to clear them out of your zone of influence.
At the start of the Summer Season, Danes sail to Britain from lands to the east. Historically, there were annual raids from the Vikings and the Kingdoms of Anglo-Saxon England had to prepare for them or perish. They are rebellious and aggressive and their only goal is to raid, pillage and plunder the wealth of the British isles. Players will have the opportunity though to harness this aggressiveness by bidding Gold to control where the Danes will land. At the bottom of each of the Summer Cards there is information on how many Danes will appear that Season. Players then have the chance to secretly bid Gold and Treasury Gold (which is a catchup mechanic that gives tokens to players based on how far they are behind the leader in Dalc) to control their landings. Think of this as paying off the hostiles to attack your neighbor’s kingdoms and leave your holdings be. The player who bids the most Gold at that time, including bonus Treasury Gold, will be declared the winner of the bribing and the prize is deciding where the Danes will land. Oh this is so delicious!
Next, the winner will draw a number of Danes Cards equal to the total amount of Gold bid and will get to play one of these cards with the rest being discarded to the bottom of the Danes Card deck. The Danes arrive on their Drakkar in the Sea space adjacent to the Danes landing area on the selected card. If there is a player’s Ship in this Sea, a Sea Battle immediately takes place. If the Danes lose the Sea Battle but are not Destroyed, the bid winner Retreats the Drakkar to an empty adjacent Sea. If this isn’t possible, the Drakkar and the Vikings on it are Destroyed. This is an incentive to build at least 1 Ship to protect your ports. Then if Danes won the Sea battle, the Danes units stay on the Drakkar and do not land this Season as the rules say that they may be moved or disembarked as part of a subsequent Autumn Movement. The player will place Danes units equal to the amount shown on the Summer Card next to the Drakkar. They are considered embarked and are ready to wreak havoc at a later point in the year. But if there is no player Ship in the Sea area, you get to place the Danes units in the specified Land area equal to the amount shown on the Summer card a that time. If there are units other than Danes in that area, a battle immediately takes place. If the Danes lose they must Retreat to the Drakkar, ending the Raid. If the Danes win the fight, they will remain in the area and Pillage which means that they stomp their feat, scream and holler and remove Control tokens in that area. This is very bad as you have just had all of your hard work undone.
Also players will bid at the start of the Autumn phase to control the neutral units on the board and the Danes. You have to pay the costs to move each unit shown on the player aid, which can be pretty expensive, to get them to move in the direction you want them to. Big units, including the Thegn and Ealdormen cost more to move than the puny Ceorls, but this costs the players and will be a decision that must be thought about before using. But, if you can pull it off and have money left in your hold you can have these enemies cause some serious damage to your competitors and it is really great to see as their kingdoms burn and are pillaged under the boots of the Danes and the rival neutrals. I really find this to be unique and a very interesting mechanic. It forces players to protect their backsides as a poorly timed invasion by Danes can spell disaster at the wrong time.
Each Season Offers Unique Advantages and Disadvantages
Most of the Lite Civ Building Dudes on a Map Area Control games have events that happen by card draw, with some effects being bad and others being positive. Bretwalda also does this but it is very different as they are tied to the Season Cards. On the Season Cards is listed an event that will happen during the entire time that play happens in that Season, which amounts to 2 Actions. Each of the Seasons, Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter, have their own unique themed cards and there are 4 in each Season so you never know what card will come out at what time. Their timing does matter and can really, really help players get a good start or really hurt them and hinder their advancement.
The cards have various effects that can impact the Action phase. For example, the event Bloody Spring (which is a very good one by the way) allows players to gain Gold for destroying opposing units during a battle. In addition to the Season Card event effect, each of the Seasons has a specific impact with the exception of Spring. In Summer, Danes will land in spaces on the board as previously discussed. In Autumn, Danes and Neutral Units may be moved by players to cause havoc and in Winter, players will
have to feed their armies, and no Food may be collected through use of the Collect Action.
I really like the way these Season Cards work and enjoy how they are multi-use simliar to the Lordship Cards and this goes along with the theme and history of the game subject.
Chronicle Cards Offer Many Avenues to Victory
We have already covered this part a bit, but the Chronicle Cards are a very unique additon to the game. They somewhat resemble the cards in Clash of Cultures that are goals but the Chronicle Cards are also very thematic and a very good addition to the game that creates some really fun and surprising changes of fortune. As I already mentioned above, these can be used purposefully or be used as a bonus when unexpected after doing something that you weren’t planning on accomplishing. What I mean by this is that you will sometimes look at these cards in your hand and ask yourself “How in the world am I going to get that accomplished?” Then you will work, and work, and plan and all of sudden you are within striking distance of your goal and because they are hidden no one knows what you are working toward unless players have played the game enough to know these cards intimately and memorize their goals. They can happen at anytime and lead to the end of the game as if they are completed after the Action phase leads to a player having the minimum Dalc required to win, the game is over at that point. So the end can be very sudden and I really liked that!
I just really like the Chronicle Cards as they give you an incentive to be brash and go for it when you are near to victory! I just love how they work and cannot wait to play more to see how they are used by players and how they effect the outcome.
So, my goal in writing this was to convince you that Bretwalda is a unique game amongst the many Lite Civ Building Dudes on a Map Area Control games out there. What are your thouths after reading this? Am I crazy in my assessment? Have I simply missed playing a game that does these things like Bretwalda out there?
Thank you for following me through this rather lengthy article. I had a great time playing the game as well as remembering it and writing about it. It has reinforced my desire to play it again sometime soon…hopefully when it is finished funding on the Gamefound campaign and has a lot of new additions through stretch goals. There are lots of different games in the Lite Civ Building “Dudes on a Map” Area Control genre. Too many probably. But Bretwalda has some rather unique elements and attempts to do what these games do but does them in a novel and different way. From how resources are collected (only with a unit in that space) to incentivizing combat with the Chronicle Cards (you have to go out and control Dalc spaces) and a very interesting and fun combat system with custom dice for each unit type and Lordship Cards that add special abilities. This game is special and beautiful and thematic and earns a spot on my shelf as a game that I want to play again and again.
If you are interested, we posted an interview on the blog with the game designer Leo Soloviey and you can read that at the following link: https://theplayersaid.com/2022/06/13/interview-with-leo-soloviey-designer-of-bretwalda-from-phalanx-coming-to-gamefound-soon/
We also posted a preview video on our YouTube Channel and you can view that at the following link:
If you are interested in Bretwalda, you can check out the Gamefound page at the following link: https://gamefound.com/projects/phalanx/bretwalda