Tuesday, 17 May 2016

1631: Empire in Flames

My precious

Hot off the press, I hold in my hands my first commercially published wargame, 1631: Empire in Flames. The game is a culmination of two years' work and is published and distributed by French gaming magazine VaeVictis, who are also responsible for the superb graphics.

The game is a two-player operational level wargame set during the Thirty Years War. 1631 was one of the pivotal years of that long and gruesome war, during which the Swedes under Gustav Adolf overwhelmeed the Imperial armies sent against them and managed to gain control of most of northern Germany. The campaign was dominated by the drama of the siege and subsequent sack of Magdeburg and culminated in the battle of Breitenfeld, which ended in a resounding Swedish victory.

The game comes with issue 127 of VaeVictis



The Imperial defenders are caught off-guard in 1631 both militarily and politically. Imperial forces are in a sorry state, dispersed and weakened, which makes it difficult for them to counter the Swedes' initial advance. Massive reinforcements are on the way though, and skillful Fabian tactics followed by a counter-attack should halt the Swedish invasion before it snowballs out of control.

The Swedes' main objective is to gain an alliance with the powerful electorates of Brandenburg and Saxony - protestant powers that are initially neutral in the struggle but which might eventually join the Lion of the North, at least if he shows himself capable. Ultimately, the Swedes are seeking to penetrate deep south into the Imperial heartlands, which is represented in the game by awarding victory points for Swedish units that move into various strategic areas (Silesia and Franconia being the most important targets).

Jacques Callot - The Enlistment of Troops (1633)

Basic mechanics

Each game turn represents a month in real time, during which the players take alternate actions to move individual armies, regroup or pursue diplomatic negotiations. One player has the initiative, which gives a massive advantage as that player can conduct one more action and (in all likelihood) conduct two consecutive manoeuvres. The game takes about three hours to play and is of "medium complexity".


Following historical precedent, the game revolves around control of cities and resources. Rivers play a major role as they can only be crossed via friendly cities and the defender can easily repel any attempted crossings with inferior forces. On the other hand, moving an army along the length of a river is much easier, which enables an army to move and attack further if moving along rivers.

The combat mechanics are simple, yet capture the nature of various tactical situations and emphasize the different roles of infantry, cavalry and artillery. The defender is at an advantage, as defenders gain bonuses in combat and are able to avoid battle by evading or bring up reinforcements with an intercept move. The attacker will also be slowed down with the necessity of capturing the enemy's strongholds.

I wanted to represent the "high stakes" nature of battles and explain the sudden collapse of armies in certain situations with the victory conditions of combats. Units that are "spent" (have suffered losses, have not been supplied properly, etc.) fight almost as well as fresh units but lack their staying power. Battlefield victory is more about staying power than damage inflicted, which is why it is a liability to fight with an army comprising mostly of spent units. Such an army will also be more likely to rout, turning an otherwise minor defeat into a catastrophic affair.

Attrition - theme of the game

During the Thirty Years' War, most of the belligerents were fighting a war they could not possibly afford and, even if they could, poor logistics would ruin their plans more often than the enemy. In 1631: Empire in Flames both sides are struggling with the problem of how to supply their forces. The commanders must balance between concentrating their forces to overwhelm the enemy, and spreading them out to facilitate logistics. Armies can't remain in the same place too long lest they run out of supplies. On the other hand, defeat is not final as losses can be slowly replenished by recruiting more mercenaries.

It's not a happy war (Jacques Callot - The Hanging (1633))

Why did I make this game?

This game started off as a university project, which then took on a life of its own. Making this game was a fun way to combine my hobby with my academic work of research in the field of early modern military history. I chose to concentrate on the operational level for several reasons. Firstly, this is the level at which early modern generals normally operated and at which campaigns (and often wars themselves) were won or lost. I find this topic immensely interesting and fun to play, reserving the tactical level gaming to be done with miniatures and a different mindset.

My biggest challenge with making this game was to find a balance between complexity and playability (including ease of learning the rules and speed of play). I had to leave out a number of elements, such as, such as the possibility to recruit enemies captured in the field or further rules for lines of communication. A more complex representation of the nuances of the "neutral" state of Brandenburg and Saxony during the 1631 campaign had to be left out as well. However, in many ways "less is more" holds true and rigorous play testing plus the view of "new people" helped me focus on the most important aspects and get the balance right. I am quite pleased with the end result, which is the type of game I like to play.

How do I buy the game?

The game can be purchased via VaeVictis at http://www.vaevictismag.fr/en/special-game-issue/79-vaevictis-n127-game-issue-empire-in-flammes-1631.html

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