Tabletop Review: Virgin Queen
by Justin Jeffers on June 6, 2012

Virgin Queen: Wars of Religion ~ 1559 – 1598
Publisher: GMT Games
Designer: Ed Beach
Release Date: 5/1/2012
Number of Players: 2-6
Playing Time: 4-8 hours
Cost: $89.00 (GMT Games) or $62.30 (Thoughthammer.com)
Get it here: GMT Games or Thoughthammer

Virgin Queen is the “sequel” to Here I Stand, a game also by designer Ed Beach and featuring essentially the same theme and same mechanics, taking place in the historic period just before the span of Virgin Queen. You might have noticed the price tag, it’s a bit expensive. Is it worth it? Let’s take a look.

Overview

In Virgin Queen players take control of one of six major European powers (if you just accept that the Ottomans are a European power): Spain, France, England, the Holy Roman Empire, the Ottoman Empire, and the Protestant forces. The Protestant forces encompass both the Dutch Protestants and the French Huguenots, which is why they have an encompassing title instead of a nationality. The game is played mainly on a map of Western Europe, with cities, fortresses, and capitals designated as spaces controlled by a major or minor power (or independent). Through war, intrigue, religious maneuvering, negotiation, and various other methods each power will try to attain their goals and win the game. The full “campaign” game lasts 7 turns, but it is entirely possible for someone to win before the end of the 7th turn.

The Powers and Mechanics

It will be no surprise to history buffs that Spain is the biggest force in the Western world at this point. They start off with ownership of spaces not just in Spain, but in Italy and the Netherlands, not to mention colonies in South and Central America. France and England lie mostly within their own boundaries, and the Holy Roman Empire sprawls across Southern Germany, Poland, Austria, and stretches toward the East to butt up against the Ottomans controlling Greece, Turkey, and Eastern Europe (as far as the map is concerned anyway). The Protestant has possibly the most interesting territory: nothing! At the start of the game (the campaign game) the Protestant player must bubble up through Spanish and French holdings to form Dutch and Huguenot positions respectively.

However, these designations I just mentioned are regarding political control, irrespective of religious alignment. Each space on the map (each city, fortress, or key) is either aligned with Catholics or Protestants (but Protestant religious affiliation is different from Protestant political control!). Kinda confusing eh? Well, thankfully there are lots of control tokens for each power that have a Catholic and Protestant side to remind you which space is which. During the game the religious struggle is something that players want to watch closely because it could mean the difference between winning and losing. For instance, if the number of Protestant spaces gets low enough then one of the Catholic-aligned countries automatically wins (Spain or France). England benefits if the Protestants prevail, and of course the Protestant player wins if they get enough Protestant spaces. One of the most interesting parts about the religious struggle is that at the beginning of a 6-player game, the Holy Roman Empire secretly chooses a side: Catholic, Protestant, or balanced (no clear winner). Basically, the HRE player places a bet at the beginning of the game, and tries to make sure that it pays off.

The game is card-driven. This means that each turn players will have a hand of cards that each have an event and a value given in “Command Points”(CP). The events are historical, sometimes very specific (like “Dragut Falls!” where an Ottoman sea captain may die), and sometimes very general (like “Elite Troops” which gives you more dice in a battle). The Command Points range from 1 to 5, and the more powerful the event the higher the value will be in Points. Players will take turns playing 1 card for either its Command Point value or to enact the event described on the card. Each play of a card is called an “impulse”. The players keep cycling through and playing cards until either they have none or they decide to pass, keeping a few cards in their hand. There are variables to which cards you can hold and which cards you must play that round (there are cards marked “Mandatory” which must be played the round they are drawn, for the event). The number of held cards also depends on which ruler is currently in charge of your major power. During the course of the game, having political control of important spaces called “keys” will be important for every power, since they are worth both victory points and give you more cards at the beginning of each round.

Let me talk about battles quickly, since I can’t imagine a game going by without plenty of battles. Basically you’ve got Regulars, who are the staid fighting force of your power, and you have mercenaries, fighting for whoever pays. From what I’ve read, Here I Stand has more cards that can decimate mercenaries (through desertion or similar means) than Virgin Queen does. This is important because mercenaries cost half as much as Regulars to raise (1 CP as opposed to 2 CP), and in this game your mercenaries are a bit more of a safe bet. You’ve got your standard field battle: one land force against another; if the defending army retreats into their fortified space a more protracted and thorny siege will occur where the attacker may be scattered by relief forces or gain control of an important city; there are naval battles where stacks of ships (trust me, you want to go in with a stack of ships) meet in swift combat. Basically in all of these situations you’re going to be rolling 1 six-sided die for each point of strength in your stack. Ships are generally 2 dice each, and land units 1. Combat is kind of quick and dirty that way: both sides add up dice to roll, play any combat cards, then roll dice and subtract casualties. Loser runs (if not eliminated), winner stays. Leaders with no army left after a battle will be captured and ransomed back to the owning power in the following turn.

Alright, there is so much more I could write about what you can do in this game, but it would take a lot of pixel-space. Let me give you a brief rundown of what a player might do on their turn:

– Raise troops or mercenaries
– Build an expedition to the New World
– Move armies across the map
– Engage in piracy against the ports of an enemy (or the Spanish treasure fleet)
– Assassinate the leader of another power
– Sponsor a scientist or artist
– Improve diplomatic relations with a minor power
– Suppress heresy (yippee!)
– Attempt to convert Catholics to Protestantism or vice-versa
So much more…

Gameplay

Playing Virgin Queen feels like you are swinging a large, unwieldy bucket to put out lots of small fires: there are going to be so many things you want to do, but you can’t do them all. Maybe it is also like throwing a Dixie cup full of water on a roaring fire: sometimes you just don’t have the resources to take care of a big problem to your satisfaction. In short, it’s like being the leader of a political entity powerful enough to influence the rest of Europe, but not powerful enough to conquer and bend it to your will (at least, not at first). Whenever you venture to accomplish something outside of your country’s homelands, you are going to run into resistance from the other powers in one way or another.

Ok, resistance is fine. You are a world leader so you can make tough decisions. Want to ally with someone so you can move troops through their territory freely? They are probably going to want something in return, like a card, or political control of a city, or a favorable marriage, or perhaps a more tenuous agreement like: “I won’t mess with you for two turns”. This kind of stuff happens during a Negotiation Phase that precedes the card-playing each turn. Basically, the players get a certain amount of time (the rules suggest 10 minutes) to make agreements amongst themselves including alliances, marriages, and the other things I mentioned above. Before the free-for-all negotiation begins, powers have a chance to declare war on each other or the hapless minor powers (like Scotland, or Venice). There are certain rules as to what a power can and can’t do with negotiation, for instance two powers can’t agree to trade political control of half of their respective countries to each other. You can “loan” another power some ships for a turn, or give them some mercenaries, just be careful it doesn’t come back to bite you.

After negotiation, there is a sort of pre-turn setup (called “Spring Deployment”), players take turns using their cards, as discussed above, and then the “Winter” phase begins, which signals the end of the turn and basically entails some cleanup and special occurences. Marriages are resolved (players will roll a die for their noble and consult a table with the results, it is possible that one of them will die), troops and ships are returned to major cities or ports, artists and scientists that were sponsored get a roll to see if they produced anything of value, etc.

During the course of the game, the Protestant player is expected to gain quite a bit of ground (there are some very strong cards meant to represent the rise of Protestant sympathizers in the Netherlands and France. The Protestant player begins the game with one of their “Home” cards (each power has two of these cards that they automatically get in their hand each turn) that allows them to cause powerful rebellions, which is basically how they get on the map in the first place.

Players will have to choose how they will use their powers’ strengths and weaknesses. For instance, Spain has a lot of money, represented by New World treasures, which grant Command Points or other bonuses in addition to their hand of cards. They also have a ton of colonies in the New World (which other powers may pirate, and they may try and protect with patrols). The Protestant player has virtually nothing to start with but powerful cards that let can overturn Spanish and French territories. The Ottoman player has some great resources at his disposal as well as being a sort of outsider, where he doesn’t care about the religious struggle, and is more about being a thorn in the side of Spain and the Holy Roman Empire (oh yeah, and rampant piracy).

There are three game modes that come in the scenario book, one for a 3-turn, 2-player tutorial featuring only the Spanish and Ottoman major powers; one for the “tournament” game which begins on turn 3 and is meant to be a faster version of the full game; and the full game which can last all 7 turns. Be aware that even the 2-player tutorial can last for 1.5-2 hours easily, and be ready to dedicate an entire day or several sessions to playing out a full campaign game. The main difference between campaign and tournament scenarios besides set-up and length are that, beginning on turn 3, espionage can take place. With espionage, you can spy on another power (look at cards in their hand), assassinate a leader, and generally mess with them. Of course, they can do the same to you. Tournament games begin with espionage allowed, campaign games don’t.

What Do I Think?

Virgin Queen is like a wargame in many respects, in fact the designer mentioned that he wanted to create “a wargame with religious struggle aspects” (paraphrasing here). When I started getting into board games, I didn’t think I would be interested in playing wargames ever, ever, ever. I was scarred for life by my youthful experiences with Risk (and later with Warhammer 40,000 ). However, as I have started to branch out and try any games at least once, I have found a healthy appreciation for games that feature combat as a primary part of the game (or some sort of direct conflict). Games like Battles of Westeros have become welcome at my table thanks to the focused tactics and uncertain outcome of any overarching plan.

Virgin Queen is great because it is much like a wargame, but it has a richness to it that goes beyond moving chits from hex to hex, or stands full of beautifully sculpted, unnervingly bloodthirsty models across a table in a bid to roll more hits than the opponent. The event cards, the choices between general Command Point actions and specific event actions, the beautiful board, the historical context, and more, all come together to make this game an experience that is really palpable and thoroughly enjoyable. Even if the game is somehow unbalanced, or some strategy is broken, or something is somehow fundamentally wrong with the card distribution or way the powers interact with each other, I can’t tell. The game is long and detailed enough where you feel that every decision is meaningful enough to think about but not so meaningful that it is going to make or break your ability to affect the board (of course, there will be those “make or break” moments occasionally), and complex enough that any one winning strategy is nearly imperceptible (if there is one) at least as far as I have experienced it.

Strategies abound. They must, because there is simply so much that one can do on their turn. Even if you’re England and you’re stuck on an island in the Atlantic and you feel like you don’t have a direct hand in anything, you can still sponsor a scientist and hope that at the end of the turn he produces some technology that will give you an edge the next time France decides to ruffle your lace collar, taking the “tech up” approach. You can control portions of the Mediterranean or the Atlantic coast with a powerful navy, restricting the ability of your opponents to move or conduct piracy. There is all sorts of stuff you can do, but a fair amount of it is limited if you are not at war or allied with another major power. Things really start to go into motion if you can manage to get someone on your side or involve yourself in a bitter struggle against an opponent.

Because the game seems to float aimlessly without conflict, players are probably going to want to get moving on alliances and declarations of war soon in the game. This is one of the things that makes it much different than a Euro. There is a lot of interaction, a lot of maneuvering, plotting, surprising, etc. Especially with the negotiation part of the game, it could happen that one turn someone is your ally and the next turn they threaten to declare war on you if you don’t pony up a card or control of a city. There are just so many variables and options, I don’t see how anyone could get bored unless they aren’t trying.

As far as other aspects about the game, the components are excellent. I do wish that the budget could have allowed for thicker power cards (the card that each power gets with its own specific places for tokens and leaders etc.) since those are used constantly in the game. There are tons of cardboard chits and things in various sizes, and that all came out very well. All of the graphic design is well done, things are clear and distinguishable, and the use of color to help differentiate things is nice. The cards are very stiff and have a plastic feel to them, but I put them in sleeves anyway so I don’t really care. Those who want to shuffle them will have to manhandle them until they become pliable enough, and may want to watch out for warpage. The box is a very sturdy box, the kind I’ve come to expect from GMT.

Whew. Well, overall this game is absolutely amazing and I love it. The only problem is getting people to play it with you for several hours at a time or over several sessions. Some of you may be gifted with gaming groups that embrace this game, and I envy you. If a long, interesting game of struggle over the hearts and minds of Europe in the 16th century interests you, then I definitely recommend this. If you do pick it up, be sure to check out the official errata and FAQ on the GMT website for a few small error corrections and clarifications. Cheers, and kudos to GMT and Ed Beach for bringing this fantastic game to life.



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