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Subject: Pax Baltica (3CG): A Review rss

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David Buckland
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Introduction

Pax Baltica is a two-player game of the Great Northern War (1700 to 1721) from 3CG (Three Crowns Games) of Sweden. A limited number of 3CG’s English edition went on sale earlier this year – my copy tells me it was #35 out of a batch of 55 – to generally positive reactions from those who played it. GMT have now included the game in their P500 scheme, where it seems to be generating plenty of interest, and this should bring Pax Baltica to a much wider audience.

This review is of the 3CG version, and is a lot longer than I planned, but I became more fascinated in the relationship of the game to history as I was writing. The images are from games using an enlarged map.


A game of The End Is Near scenario (1710-1721) in progress

Historical Background


Anglophone historians have not dwelt on the Great Northern War, if only because it coincided to a considerable degree with the even larger-scale War Of Spanish Succession, that in turn involved most of the other major European powers, including Britain. The Great Northern War, for all its drama and significance, has partly as a result been effectively relegated to “noises off” in many English-language accounts of the period.

In brief, Sweden’s rise to great power status in the 17th Century, signified most dramatically by the intervention of Gustav Adolf in the Thirty Years’ War, aroused the jealousy of most of Sweden’s immediate neighbours. Taking advantage of the untimely death of the formidable Swedish King Karl (Charles) XI, Sweden’s three main neighbours – Denmark, Poland (in effect, Saxony-Poland, as Poland was ruled by August II of Saxony), and Russia all conspired to attack Sweden, and her young and inexperienced King, Karl XII (aged 18), with the aim of undoing Sweden’s various advances at their expense in the last century.

Although the Coalition outnumbered the Swedes considerably, the war did not start well for the former. Denmark was very swiftly knocked out in the first year, and the Russians were humiliated at Narva in November. The Swedes then turned south, regularly beating Augustus and eventually (in 1706) dictating a peace in Saxony.

Russia was obviously next, but the Russians were too wary to be trapped into an open battle, where Swedish élan might win the day, and as they retreated, implemented a scorched earth policy. The Swedish army turned southwest into the Ukraine, partly for better supplies, partly to make contact with the rebellious Cossacks under Mazepa, and the Ottoman Turks, who were potential Swedish allies.

This eventually proved fatal, as the Swedish army was cut off from its sources of re-supply and reinforcement. The Russians gradually tightened the noose until the Swedes launched an ill-advised attack on the Russians at Poltava in 1709, rather than retreat. The result was a disaster, compounded by the Swedish army’s subsequent surrender, and in effect did much to decide the war.

Karl XII had escaped the catastrophe, but for the next five years was to all intents and purposes a Turkish prisoner. While Pjotr (Peter) The Great concentrated on conquering Sweden’s Baltic provinces and invading Finland, August retook Poland from its pro-Swedish King, and the Danes invaded southern Sweden. Hannover and Prussia were also eyeing the vulnerable Swedish holdings in northern Germany.

Nevertheless, the Swedes were not yet at the end of their tether, repulsing the Danish invasion. The German territories were overrun, but in 1718 the Swedes, having rebuilt their army, invaded Danish-ruled Norway. Karl XII was killed during the invasion, and his effective successor, his brother-in-law Frederik, wanted peace in the west in order to be able to concentrate on the Russians. However, the aid for which he was looking (from the Maritime Powers, Britain and Holland, in particular) was not forthcoming, and it was not long before Frederik recognised reality, and peace was signed with Russia at Nystadt, in 1721.

The end of the war marked the end also of Sweden’s great power status. The Baltic provinces were lost, and the territories in Germany much reduced. More importantly perhaps, it marked the emergence of Russia as a major European power.

Components

Like a number of features of Pax Baltica, the components are reminiscent of Columbia Games. The box is very similar, while blocks are a little larger than the average Columbia blocks, with the slightly rounded corners seen (at least in my copy) in “Hammer Of The Scots”. The block labels had to be cut out and then carefully detached from their backing before being placed on the blocks, and this was a fiddly process: the pre-cut block labels produced by Columbia and GMT are much easier to attach.

The blocks labels include a name (a historical commander for the armies, regimental names for the regiments), the strengths of the unit at various levels (4-3-2-1 for a four-step block), and movement and combat ratings. They are also illustrated with the national devices of their nations (for armies) and regimental banners of the period (for the regiments), and make an attractive show once mounted on their blocks – blue blocks for the Swedes and their allies (Turks, Ukrainians, etc), red for Denmark, green for Russia, and grey for Saxony-Poland (and Prussia). There is a possibility that some blocks of opposing colours will end up on the other side – specifically, the blue Hanoverians for the Coalition, and the grey Poles for the Swedes – but this is not a major issue, as it is orientation (towards the player) which decides ownership during play.

Garrisons (fortresses) play an important role in Pax Baltica, and conquest of these is indicated by using small plastic markers. These stand out well on the map – despite the presence of the larger blocks, it is easy to determine who has conquered which territories – but it is a problem that they only come in the four main block colours: blue, green, red, and white (not gray, surprisingly). This means that Turkish and Swedish conquests cannot be distinguished, and while this might not be terribly serious practically speaking, the inability to show the differences between Polish, Saxon, and Prussian conquests is more irritating.

The garrison markers are also supposed to be used to track replacement points and levels, and given that there are only four colours, but nine nations in the game (ten, if the British are counted), they are obviously inadequate to the purpose. These problems could have been easily addressed with some counters, perhaps using the national devices (from the army labels), though the markers provided do stand out well on the map to show which territories have been conquered.

The map is perfectly serviceable – attractive even – except perhaps for where the difference between black borders and red borders (the latter is more restrictive in terms of movement and battle) is obscured in Norway by the fact that the province borders are also red (signifying that Norway is a Danish possession in 1700). The map is also too small, and it is good news that GMT intend to roughly double the size – I did so myself (using four A3 sheets): this seems just about right for the number of blocks involved. There are moreover apparently some errors in the Polish place-names.

The map also contains the table showing replacement points, and apart from the issue noted above of needing potentially to track nine different nations, it also does not distinguish between the underlying replacement level (as affected by conquest of home areas), and that which might apply in the next replacement phase at year-end (which can be affected by one-off events). It does show the initial replacement levels for the nine nations, but of course these can alter in play.

Nevertheless, despite these caveats, Pax Baltica is physically attractive – impressive, even – especially considering that this is in effect a desktop-published game: 3CG have managed to produce a very professional-looking product.

Rules

Pax Baltica’s rules have a very definite provenance: they clearly derive from the Columbia system first used in “Victory”, and then refined in subsequent games: the closest relations to Pax Baltica are games like “Hammer Of The Scots” and “Liberty”.

This rules relationship is most clearly apparent in the combat system. Blocks are rated by letter (from A to C) and number (1 to 4). These ratings affect when in battle the unit fires (defenders first, A before B before C), and a to-hit number (a ‘2’ rated unit will hit by rolling a 1 or a 2 on a six-sided die).

Columbia have arguably over-used this system, employing it in games from the Crusades to World War II in the Pacific, but in Pax Baltica, it achieves some important effects with relatively little rules overhead. In particular, Sweden has the only ‘A’-rated land blocks: half the four army units, and six out of nine regiments. This gives the Swedes a very distinct qualitative advantage over their opponents, whose land blocks are all rated ‘B’ or ‘C’, and allows them to attack with considerably less risk – an ‘A’-rated force which does not like the look of the odds in battle can normally slip away before any damage is done. On the other hand, with a much smaller force pool, the risk is always there that sooner or later the gods will be against Sweden, and they will commit themselves to a battle where they come disastrously unstuck – anyone with a deal of experience of “to-hit” combat systems knows how supposedly extreme results seem to crop up with uncanny frequency (at least in the mind of the affected gamer). This seems to offer a reasonable facsimile of the position during the Great Northern War: the Swedes often enjoyed a qualitative superiority (but were numerically inferior), and were disposed to attack in most situations, virtually regardless of the apparent odds – and this worked like a charm, up until Poltava at least.

However, 3CG have introduced a number of unique features in “Pax Baltica” to the basic Columbia system. One obvious difference is the distinction between armies and regiments. Generally, the former are more powerful, being 4-step units, and with better “to hit” ratings – regiments do not exceed 3 steps, and often hit only on a ‘1’. Armies are also the only units which can besiege fortresses with a strength greater than one – which means that armies are required to make virtually any significant progress. As against this, they cost 2 replacement points per step, and a further 2 if newly-placed, while regiments are only 1 replacement point per step.

In addition, every area on the map has forage rating, from ‘4’ for wealthy areas of Germany like Saxony, to ‘1’ for the remoter forests of Finland. Stockholm (Svaelland), København (Sjaelland) and Moskva are all rated ‘3’, which is above average. The rating shows the number of units that can be maintained in the area (though the Karl XII Swedish block is effectively free of forage costs): anything over this number costs one step per excess block per turn. It is therefore possible to concentrate any number of blocks in a single area – for battle, for example – but not to maintain them there without losses.

Each area also contains a garrison, or fortress, which must be overcome, if the area is to be conquered. In the absence of defending blocks, these garrisons do not impede movement, but in fact it would be a rash invader who elected to ignore them. The garrisons range in strength from ‘1’s in the less-populated areas of the map, to ‘4’s for the more formidable fortresses, such as Viborg and Riga. To besiege any garrison other than a ‘1’ requires army blocks, and the fortress’s strength must be matched by the besieger’s hits in one round (not three, as for field battles) for it to fall.

Ignoring a garrison is rash because without a successful siege, the area is not controlled by the invading nation. Retreats may only be made through or to friendly areas, and supplies – vital for replacements – are not possible through unfriendly areas. Unable to replace losses, and with its retreat cut off, an invading force is likely to be in danger if it advances without bothering to subdue the enemy garrisons first.

However, this all takes time, and is not easy in the case of the larger fortresses. Three full-strength army blocks would likely be required to subdue a ‘4’ strength garrison, and although all the major powers (Sweden, Russia, Denmark, Saxony) have this number of armies, the commitment would still be considerable: it would represent three-quarters of Sweden’s army blocks, for example. Then forage needs to be taken into account: Viborg, for example, is a ‘4’ strength fortress in a ‘1’ Forage Level area, so a besieging force with any chance of taking Viborg is going to lose heavily to attrition, especially if the first attempt at siege fails.

Supply is also crucial. To receive replacements, a block must either be on national territory, or have a line of communication back to national territory, through conquered areas or sea zones occupied by friendly fleets. In the very short run, there is no immediate penalty to ignoring supply – the armies of the combatants can subsist on forage. However, this is a very short-term expedient, as combat and attrition losses will quickly whittle away the strength of an isolated force. One point to note with these rules is that “supply” in Pax Baltica might perhaps have been better termed “lines of communication”, since supply in a more general sense is termed “forage”, discussed above.

The supply and garrison rules slow the progress of campaigns considerably. This is not with the effect of making the game boring – rather, these are vital in ensuring that the game has the proper pace. The Great Northern War lasted for over twenty years, and one reason for this was that it took time to mount and execute campaigns. After their defeat at Narva, and despite the fact that Karl XII and the main Swedish army was embroiled in Poland, it was not until 1704 that the Russians managed to retake the city. Similarly, Karl XII, having beaten the Russians at Narva in November 1700 did not mount the crucial invasion of Poland-Lithuania until January1702. The ultimate objective at this point was to deal with Russia once Sweden’s other enemies had been forced out of the war, but it was not until 1708 that this invasion could be put in train.

It is not that everything in Pax Baltica proceeds at a snail’s pace – rather that there are never enough activations to do everything the player would like to do, and supporting two different simultaneous campaigns in different sectors is very difficult, given the variable nature of the resources (ie. activations) at the player’s disposal. And this is very right and proper – it is one reason why Sweden was able to hold out so long against an apparently overwhelming combination of enemies, both in the game and in reality.

Pax Baltica dispenses with the cards of the Columbia games, but the essence is there in terms of activations and events. In the 3CG game, rather than a hand of cards, the players roll at the start of each turn: 6 is an Event, 4 & 5 means three activations, 2 & 3 two activations, and a 1 just one activation. Having seen Karl XII stall at a crucial moment for a year (four sixes in a row), I would recommend the optional rule which allows players to re-roll if they get two Events in a row.

The Events themselves are organised into a General Events table, and national tables for each of the four main combatant nations (each table with six events). The Events themselves fall into several main categories, the most prevalent of which is some form of strength point loss (plagues, epidemics, attrition). Then there are the changes to recruitment during the next yearly interphase, both good (“The Nation Prospers”) or not so good (“Bad Harvests”). There are also some diplomatic events (enabling the Russians to make peace with the Turks, for example). My favourite is from the Russian table, with its dire warning; “Treason: the garrison of Kremenchuk joins the Turks without bloodshed. This will be remembered.”

Most Events will have an effect, but this is fairly limited in the majority of cases. There are some exceptions, for example the Saxony-Poland event “The Polish Parliament Assembles” which may causes Poland to change sides (a 1-in-6 chance, meaning 1-in-36 altogether). Also “Russian Nature Strikes Back” from the Russian Event table, which inflicts two losses on any hostile blocks in Russia. In this case, although only combat and force-marching can eliminate a block, the likely outcome is to halve an invading army. This is a powerful deterrent to an invasion of Russia, as one option for activation is to roll on a selected national Event table – and although there is only a 1-in-6 chance with each activation/roll, trying for “Russian Nature Strikes Back” is an obvious Russian defensive tactic if invaded.

Victory is solely in terms of how well Sweden manages to hang on to its territorial position at the start. This might seem slightly odd, but in fact captures the essence of the war: the Swedes were fighting grimly to hang on to earlier conquests, while the various Coalition partners wanted their slice of Sweden’s Baltic empire. Indeed, for Karl XII it seems to have been something of a sacred duty to maintain Sweden’s dominions at the same extent that he had inherited them from his much-admired father.

However, the Victory Conditions as they stand do lead to some odd effects, especially when related to the Truce and Replacement rules. A nation can be knocked out of the war, at least temporarily (for a minimum of three years), by having its capital conquered (or its monarch-led army unit destroyed), which leads to a Truce, in which the victors have to return all the loser’s conquered territories, bar one (and this one retained territory cannot be the capital). This can mean that if the Coalition mounts a successful invasion of Sweden late in a scenario, they might not actually want to conquer Stockholm (and knowing this, the Swedes can afford to leave it undefended) because conquering the capital means a compulsory Truce, in which the victors have to return all the loser’s conquered territories, bar one – and victory is assessed in terms of how many of their original provinces the Swedes retain at game-end. Or to give another example, it might in some cases be in Sweden’s interests not to take Moskva, thus leading to a Truce, but to conquer sufficient Russian territories to drive the Russian Replacement Point total to zero (each lost territory subtracts 4 RPs), meaning that the Russians could not replace any losses. This could leave the Russians more effectively knocked out of the war for longer than a Truce – though on the other hand, Karl XII normally needs to move fast to annihilate whichever opponent is currently chiefly in his sights, before the others revive, so may not have the time to make such extensive Russian conquests.

Overall then, the rules do have a certain colander-like quality. A careful reading of the latest rules (version 1.1) has clarified a number of uncertain points, but quite a few remain; I found understanding how naval transport works particularly difficult, for example, and the rules for Truces had not, I felt, been completely thought through, especially the provisions concerning ceding one conquered territory to the victor. However, the GMT version should clear up most of these problems. And in any event, there is no reason why two reasonable players could not reach reasonable compromises on most disputed points with the rules as they stand – just that this is not currently perhaps the best game to essay with disputatious opponents.


Fighting in Norway

Overview of Play

In the scenarios starting in 1700 (On the Road To Glory and Grand Campaign), the Swedes have to redeploy their army eastwards swiftly, using their naval supremacy in the Baltic, to prevent August II’s Saxons and Pjotr I’s Russians from making too much progress in the East while the Swedes have been concentrating on Denmark. Assuming superior Swedish troop quality beats off the immediate threat, the next question is – as it was historically – whether to concentrate on attacking the Russians, or the Saxons and Poles. The clock is ticking, as Denmark will rejoin the war at some point, challenging Swedish naval mastery of the Baltic, and if Sweden is committed far to the east or south, the Swedes may have difficulty meeting the new threat.

Playing Sweden is a tightrope act in these scenarios, trying to knock out one opponent, while fending off the others, and dealing with the various blows of fate. For the Coalition, the aim is to parry the main Swedish main attack, and try to get all three main allies as belligerents at the same time, overwhelming Sweden and annexing the more desirable parts of the Swedish empire.

In the later post-Poltava scenario, The End Is Near, the challenge for Sweden is somewhat different. The Swedes have been pushed back, and are barely clinging on in the Eastern Baltic and Germany. If the Coalition can drive them out of these outlying territories for good, then Sweden has lost, since although they can (and should) attack Norway, they cannot win unless the outlying provinces are recaptured. And without a bridgehead, this can be difficult. In this later period, naval forces assume greater prominence, as command of the Baltic cannot be taken for granted by either side – though the Coalition has a distinct advantage (four naval units to two – or three, if the Royal Navy appears).

Historicity: Tactical

At a tactical level, obviously Pax Baltica is not trying to recreate in even approximate detail battles from the Great Northern War. However, the size, ratings, and composition of the various armies reflect some of the apparent differences between the participants quite well.

For example, the Russian army is the largest in the game, with 6 army units, and 8 regiments. Apart from Pjotr himself (B3) and Sjeremetev (B2, one of the Tsar’s better generals), the army blocks are all C2 until 1710, when they become B2, reflecting the gradual improvement in the Russian army during the war. Although the size and staying power of the Russian army were later to become legendary, it was perhaps in the Great Northern War that these traits first became apparent to the rest of Europe.

The Poles, on the other hand, have a tiny army compared to their size – the basic Polish RP level is sufficient to replace the entire Polish army one-and-a-half times over. This illustrates one of the weaknesses of the Commonwealth, in that the nobility who dominated the government would not pay for a larger army, fearing that it would be an instrument of royal power (a chicken that came home to roost with a vengeance later in the century).

The Swedes have a high-quality army but it is relatively small. The Swedish RP level of 40 is more than adequate to keep this army at full strength, but if the Coalition start conquering some Swedish provinces, and the Swedes suffer some adverse Events, suddenly they will look a lot more fragile.

One puzzle is the role – or absence of a role – of cavalry in the game. During this period, armies regularly consisted of far more cavalry than was to be the case later, or indeed at the time in Western Europe. So, at Poltava, the Swedish army had in total more horse than foot (13,000 to 8,800, according to Englund 1), while at the Battle of Kliszów, the Saxons and Poles had 15,000 cavalry and 7,500 infantry (in the same battle, the Swedes numbered 4,000 and 8,000 respectively, according to Frost 2). Despite this, cavalry units in Pax Baltica are in a distinct minority: the Russians have 3 cavalry regiments out of a total of 14 land units; the Swedes 2 out of 13. The only benefit conferred by cavalry is that it has a movement allowance of 3, rather than 2, and although this can occasionally be critical, for the most part there is little difference.

Historicity: Strategic

For a game like Pax Baltica, however, the key level of historicity that should be applied is the strategic and perhaps operational, since these are where the scope and scale of the game are focused. One way to approach this is to look at the key decisions of the War, and see whether the game gives the player plausible reasons for following in the footsteps of the historical commanders, even if other courses of action should also have their attractions.

The Move East

The Grand Campaign and On The Road To Glory scenarios both start in Autumn 1700, just after the Danes, part of the original Coalition, had been driven out of the war. This might seem odd, but it is fact fair enough. The Danes sued for peace not just because of Swedish pressure, but crucially because the Maritime Powers joined the Swedes in forcing the Danes to negotiate an early exit from the war at the peace of Travendal. Apart from some guest appearances by the Royal Navy, the Maritime Powers had little further role in the Great Northern War, concentrating instead on their involvement in the War of Spanish Succession. It would perhaps therefore have been a lot of rules overhead for not much simulation gain, had the designers decided to incorporate the required special rules and units for the first three turns of the game (out of a total of 88). So while some may regret the exclusion of the Danish preliminaries, it is at least understandable.

Having driven the Danes out of the war, Sweden’s next move was against the Russians who had invaded Ingermanland, defeating them at Narva in November 1700. This is a fairly plausible course of events in game terms. The Swedish army starts deployed in the west, against the Danes, and will need to be transported. This gives the Russians and Saxons a brief opportunity to make hay before Karl XII turns up. The two allies might combine to defend themselves better, but this is complicated by forage constraints, and the inability of the Saxons to move or retreat into Russia, so a battle between Swedes and Russians at this point in the game is quite likely, and Sweden should be favoured.

The Attack on Poland

The next key strategic decision, and perhaps the most controversial of the entire war, was Sweden’s turn southwards. Rather than march on to Moscow, with the aim of forcing the newly-beaten Russians out of the war, Sweden instead marched south into Poland – which at that point was not even formally at war with Sweden – Poland’s king, August II, had invaded Livland (Latvia), but only with his Saxon army, not with Poles.

In the game, as in real life, there is a strong case to be made for continuing the main focus against Russia, but there are also good reasons to go south, instead of east. Here perhaps these are as much game reasons than real-life reasons: so (to take one example) the need to succour the pro-Swedish party in Poland-Lithuania does not exist in the game Pax Baltica (indeed, the complexities of the Commonwealth’s politics are radically simplified in the game) – but there are still good reasons in the game for pursuing the historical path.

One is that if the Ukraine has not yet revolted, it might be better to tackle Russia only after Mazepa has thrown off Russian rule. This adds forces to the Swedish cause (admittedly only one weak regiment), but more importantly significantly reduces the Russian Replacement Point total from 40 to 28. Then there is the fact that taking Poland actually adds forces to the Swedish side, in the shape of the Polish forces (one army and two regiments), and – as historically – the conquest of Poland and its recruitment to the Swedish cause under a puppet king should have as a natural corollary settling accounts with August II of Saxony.

Historically, this all took considerably longer than expected: the Treaty of Altränstadt, by which August II surrendered his claim to the Polish throne (at least for as long as the main Swedish army was encamped in Saxony) was not until September 1706. In addition to August’s dogged resistance, and the strength of the anti-Swedish party in Poland, one of the main reasons for the delay was that the Allies in the War of Spanish Succession would not tolerate Swedish intervention in the Empire, at least until after Blenheim and Ramillies had put paid to any French threat to Germany. These diplomatic constraints are absent in the game, but it is certainly possible that it could take some time to bring Poland and Saxony to heel.

The Invasion of Russia

The third key decision was made by Karl XII in September 1708. Russia had been invaded, but in the face of a widespread scorched earth policy ruthlessly implemented by the Russians along the direct route from Smolensk to Moscow, the Swedes turned southeast, into the Ukraine. It was thought that supplies would be more easily come by, and a link could be established with Mazepa, and possibly the Turks as well.

This decision turned out to be a catastrophe of course, leading directly to the disasters at Poltava and Pereovolochna. And here, for the first time, Pax Baltica seems to me to fail to offer convincing reasons for the gamer to follow the historical participants. The Turks and the Ukrainians will or will not come in, regardless of where the Swedish army is located (possibly, a link should be established, but it is not in the 3CG game). Indeed, given Forage limitations, if the Turks with their fairly large army do enter the war, having the Swedes also in the Ukraine is likely to lead to supply problems – better to have the two converge on Moskva. Also, there is nothing in the rules to allow a scorched earth policy, or its game equivalent, to have the appropriate effects. The “Russian Nature Strikes back” event can certainly devastate an invader, but this applies to all invasions of Russia, regardless of direction or period. It seems unlikely, frankly, that any player would get to the borders of Russia, and then change their minds at that point because of this event, which was always a possibility.

It would be preferable if there were specific reasons in the game for the turn to the south-east. These could be either relating to Russian actions – some form of scorched earth effects covering the direct approaches to Moskva for a period – or relating to Sweden, such as a positive modifier for bringing in the Turks (and the Ukrainians perhaps, but if the game recreates 1708, then Mazepa has already revolted).

Invading Norway

Lastly, there is the determination of Karl XII, once he had returned to Sweden, to attack Norway, mounting campaigns in 1716 and 1718. This is often dismissed as evidence of the King’s obsession with war, but does the game offer any reasons for pursuing this course? Here Pax Baltica does better, since there are valid reasons for invading Norway.

This is graphically illustrated by The End Is Near scenario, 1710-1721, where Sweden is on the defensive against its many enemies. Sweden’s empire in Germany and the Eastern Baltic, including Finland, are particularly threatened. The problem is that the Swedes have lost control of the Baltic Sea, since the Danish and Russian fleets outnumber and outclass their Swedish opposite numbers. Without naval control, reinforcement of the threatened provinces would be extremely difficult, and Sweden itself might be attacked directly by sea.

Invading Norway and conquering its constituent territories weakens the Danes, and if their replacement rate can be reduced enough, then the Coalition navies can be confronted. Even if the Swedes are worsted, whittling down the now-irreplaceable Danish navy should eventually enable Sweden to transport troops to bolster its overseas defences (the key issue with this plan is, even if successful, will it all take too long?). This is very much a game reason, rather than having a direct analogy with historical events, but it does mean Pax Baltica might plausibly recreate Karl XII’s Norwegian campaigns.


Sweden in 1713

Politics And Diplomacy

Pax Baltica is a two-player game, and this inevitably means that the diplomatic aspects of the War are simplified or in some cases omitted.

Thus, one obvious historical possibility for the Swedes was to try to divide the Coalition against them, and in the closing years of the War, after the death of Karl XII, it became a chief objective of Swedish diplomacy, aided by growing fears of the power of Russia.

In the game, there is a modest version of the policy pursued by Frederik I, whereby the Swedes can buy the neutrality of Hannover and Prussia by ceding Bremen-Verden and Pommern respectively. However, it is not possible to settle with the three key opponents (Russia, Denmark, and Saxony), though they can be driven out of the war temporarily.

On the other hand, a case can be made that the three major allies actually lasted the course more or less (once the Danes and Saxons rejoined hostilities after Poltava), and that Karl XII was not minded to compromise with anyone. One of the key criticisms made of Karl has been his refusal to agree to the peace terms offered by Russia prior and during the Swedish invasion of 1708-1709, where Pjotr offered to restore all Sweden’s losses, except for St. Petersburg and Nyen. Whether these criticisms are justly founded or not, in game terms at that point, with both Denmark and Saxony out of the war, Sweden would have nothing to gain by agreeing to such terms, since the loss of the province would mean (at least in the Grand Campaign and On The Road To Glory scenarios) a step towards defeat (and the end of the chances of a Major Victory) for Sweden, regardless of conquests elsewhere.

And while the Coalition in Pax Baltica is one player who does not have to worry about the rifts within the anti-Swedish alliance (eg. the growing tensions between Russian and Poland), these rifts had relatively little discernible effect on military operations.

Meanwhile, the Turks might well help the Swedes by distracting Russia at a key moment, but they were no mere catspaws of the Swedes, and this is reflected in the game by Russian Diplomacy (one of the Russian events) which enables the Russians to conclude a peace with the Turks (or the Ukrainians).

Some of the more serious reservations concerning the diplomatic aspects of the game have been noted above: the odd effects of the Truce and Replacement Point rules, which result in it being better in some cases to conquer large tracts of the enemy’s country, but not their capital; and the absence of the constraints on Sweden imposed by the War of Spanish Succession.

There are two others: firstly, the considerable simplification of Polish politics. There was a pro-Swedish party in Poland, and although the Swedes over-estimated its strength when they intervened in Poland, they would not have intervened at all without it. In the game, the Polish army is either for one side, or the other, and the Polish civil war which was one facet of the Great Northern War is in effect ignored.

Secondly, there is one area where I feel the designers may have made a mistake – though the paucity of English language materials on the Great Northern War means this is a tentative conclusion – and this relates to the role of the Hanoverians and the British. The more fundamental problem is that there is no link between the two in the game. The Royal Navy appears solely in a pro-Swedish role, if the Coalition appears to have naval superiority. In 1715, Hannover joins the Coalition. It is therefore entirely possible that the army of Elector Georg Ludwig of Hannover will be attacking Sweden, while the navy of King George of England will simultaneously be defending it. While the British were wary of being exploited by their new king to further his continental ambitions, ending up on opposite sides in this fashion seems unlikely. In other words, from 1714 (the accession of George I) onwards, the British and the Hanoverians should be linked in some way.

Moreover, the role of the royal Navy was much more ambivalent – anti-Swedish even – than the rules seem to allow. Norris’ fleet in the later part of the war often played what can even at the best be described as an ambivalent role, while Karl XII’s leading English-language biographer describes the positions thus, “In retrospect, it seemed as if the English, rather than the Danes and the Russians, had been his (Karl’s) most serious naval enemies in 1715.”3 Sadly, this is not remotely possible in Pax Baltica, where the Royal Navy is present solely in a pro-Swedish role.

Nevertheless, and taking everything together, though there are inevitable simplifications and a few problems, the designers of Pax Baltica have come up with a quite reasonable two-player facsimile of a multi-faceted war.

Summary

Pax Baltica is an attempt to simulate a long and complex War which lasted over 20 years, and in which there were at least ten belligerent powers at various times on either side, and battles were fought from Norway to the Ukraine. There are inevitably some weak points, and some over-simplifications, but I have to say I was very impressed.

For every wargamer, what makes a successful game is different – this is an entirely subjective area. For myself, I want a good game – the game-play must maintain the interest of both sides – but it is also crucial that the historical course of events be plausibly possible.

Pax Baltica passes this test with flying colours, I believe. The intrinsic situation is interesting, especially in the earlier scenarios, with Sweden tying to beat off multifarious enemies. The system works well to convey this, and to give a reasonable outcome to the manoeuvring and fighting, while most of the key decisions in the war itself are well-modelled in the game. To put the icing on the cake, the components and graphics are very well done for what is in effect a glorified DTP title.

It is excellent news that GMT are planning an edition of Pax Baltica, which should bring this fascinating game to a wider audience, and perhaps address some of the minor weaknesses in this 3CG version.

Notes:
1 Peter Englund, “The Battle That Shook Europe: Poltava And The Birth Of The Russian Empire”
2 Robert Frost, “The Northern Wars 1558-1721”
3 Ragnhild Hatton, “Charles XII King Of Sweden”
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Sean Chick (Formerly Paul O'Sullivan)
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Great review and well written. I will pre-order this game this month.

Charles XII was a fool for not accepting Russia's peace terms, but diplomacy was never his forte.
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Nate Merchant
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Quite the review, David! I especially like your description of foraging, and I hope the art department in GMT can detail the different provinces so they aren't just numbers, but actual forests, mountains, steppes, etc.

My big issue with the game is the Events; I wish the system could be re-worked to make it less chaotic and random. Being a huge fan of any game that models "Russian Winter/Attrition"--either in boardgames or PC games--I really wish the Russian Winter could make itself felt more without a random die roll.

Agree with you about the cavalry; it would be nice to see them enhanced a bit.

From what I'm hearing, Scott Muldoon nee Berardino is doing a great job smoothing out the bumps from the first version; I know he'll love this review.

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Scott Muldoon (silentdibs)
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David,

Thank you for your very thoughtful and thorough review.

As you know, we are working hard to polish the Three Crowns' edition to make it even more of what it already is: an interesting and fun game on an overlooked topic.

Much of what you consider hypothetically in your review, is in fact being taken up in revisions to the game for the GMT edition. I can spill a bit of a preview here, inline...

davidbuck wrote:

There is a possibility that some blocks of opposing colours will end up on the other side – specifically, the blue Hanoverians for the Coalition, and the grey Poles for the Swedes – but this is not a major issue, as it is orientation (towards the player) which decides ownership during play.

Quite so. We would, of course, love to have extra differently-colored blocks for the minors that can switch sides, but the added cost is not worth it. As you say, in practice it's not an issue since orientation is more important.

Quote:
Garrisons (fortresses) play an important role in Pax Baltica, and conquest of these is indicated by using small plastic markers. These stand out well on the map – despite the presence of the larger blocks, it is easy to determine who has conquered which territories – but it is a problem that they only come in the four main block colours: blue, green, red, and white (not gray, surprisingly). This means that Turkish and Swedish conquests cannot be distinguished, and while this might not be terribly serious practically speaking, the inability to show the differences between Polish, Saxon, and Prussian conquests is more irritating.

It doesn't matter much who conquered what, given that allies can use any of their side's garrisons for supply purposes. I suppose it does make a difference when a power is forced into a Truce, so we'll keep an eye on that.

Quote:
The garrison markers are also supposed to be used to track replacement points and levels, and given that there are only four colours, but nine nations in the game (ten, if the British are counted), they are obviously inadequate to the purpose. These problems could have been easily addressed with some counters, perhaps using the national devices (from the army labels), though the markers provided do stand out well on the map to show which territories have been conquered.

We've given some thought to adding a countersheet, but to be honest it would add more to the cost of the game at this stage, since it adds an entirely new type of component to the package. We'll look at these options once we reach the actual art production part of the process (after 500 orders).

Quote:
One point to note with these rules is that “supply” in Pax Baltica might perhaps have been better termed “lines of communication”, since supply in a more general sense is termed “forage”, discussed above.

This is exactly what we're doing in the revised rules.

Quote:
Having seen Karl XII stall at a crucial moment for a year (four sixes in a row), I would recommend the optional rule which allows players to re-roll if they get two Events in a row.

Such collapses reflect the problems inherent in shoestring 18th century operations... though the optional rule is there for players who are luck-averse.

Quote:
However, the Victory Conditions as they stand do lead to some odd effects, especially when related to the Truce and Replacement rules. A nation can be knocked out of the war, at least temporarily (for a minimum of three years), by having its capital conquered (or its monarch-led army unit destroyed), which leads to a Truce, in which the victors have to return all the loser’s conquered territories, bar one (and this one retained territory cannot be the capital).

This is getting changed -- now all territories are handed back after a truce. Simplifies things enormously.

Quote:
This can mean that if the Coalition mounts a successful invasion of Sweden late in a scenario, they might not actually want to conquer Stockholm (and knowing this, the Swedes can afford to leave it undefended) because conquering the capital means a compulsory Truce, in which the victors have to return all the loser’s conquered territories, bar one – and victory is assessed in terms of how many of their original provinces the Swedes retain at game-end.

To clarify, and this should apply in the 3CG edition as well, if Stockholm falls, the game ends with a decisive Coalition victory.

Quote:
Or to give another example, it might in some cases be in Sweden’s interests not to take Moskva, thus leading to a Truce, but to conquer sufficient Russian territories to drive the Russian Replacement Point total to zero (each lost territory subtracts 4 RPs), meaning that the Russians could not replace any losses. This could leave the Russians more effectively knocked out of the war for longer than a Truce – though on the other hand, Karl XII normally needs to move fast to annihilate whichever opponent is currently chiefly in his sights, before the others revive, so may not have the time to make such extensive Russian conquests.

Karl needs those truces so he can have a few years off to deal with other threats. The Swedish army is not large enough to properly defend all that territory and deal with other major powers.

Quote:
The Poles, on the other hand, have a tiny army compared to their size – the basic Polish RP level is sufficient to replace the entire Polish army one-and-a-half times over. This illustrates one of the weaknesses of the Commonwealth, in that the nobility who dominated the government would not pay for a larger army, fearing that it would be an instrument of royal power (a chicken that came home to roost with a vengeance later in the century).

We are hoping to bring some added nuance to the Polish situation, with more blocks and some special political rules.

Quote:
So while some may regret the exclusion of the Danish preliminaries, it is at least understandable.

Precisely -- the first campaign against the Danes was over before Saxony and Russia had even mobilized! Rather than try to shoehorn such a result into the scenario rules, it's easier to just start after it.

Quote:
In the game, as in real life, there is a strong case to be made for continuing the main focus against Russia, but there are also good reasons to go south, instead of east. Here perhaps these are as much game reasons than real-life reasons: so (to take one example) the need to succour the pro-Swedish party in Poland-Lithuania does not exist in the game Pax Baltica (indeed, the complexities of the Commonwealth’s politics are radically simplified in the game) – but there are still good reasons in the game for pursuing the historical path.

We are looking at ways to enhance this part of the game -- and for certain a Poland that looks favorably on Sweden will be part of the victory conditions in the revised rules.

Quote:
The third key decision was made by Karl XII in September 1708. Russia had been invaded, but in the face of a widespread scorched earth policy ruthlessly implemented by the Russians along the direct route from Smolensk to Moscow, the Swedes turned southeast, into the Ukraine. It was thought that supplies would be more easily come by, and a link could be established with Mazepa, and possibly the Turks as well.

This decision turned out to be a catastrophe of course, leading directly to the disasters at Poltava and Pereovolochna. And here, for the first time, Pax Baltica seems to me to fail to offer convincing reasons for the gamer to follow the historical participants. The Turks and the Ukrainians will or will not come in, regardless of where the Swedish army is located (possibly, a link should be established, but it is not in the 3CG game). Indeed, given Forage limitations, if the Turks with their fairly large army do enter the war, having the Swedes also in the Ukraine is likely to lead to supply problems – better to have the two converge on Moskva. Also, there is nothing in the rules to allow a scorched earth policy, or its game equivalent, to have the appropriate effects. The “Russian Nature Strikes back” event can certainly devastate an invader, but this applies to all invasions of Russia, regardless of direction or period. It seems unlikely, frankly, that any player would get to the borders of Russia, and then change their minds at that point because of this event, which was always a possibility.

It would be preferable if there were specific reasons in the game for the turn to the south-east. These could be either relating to Russian actions – some form of scorched earth effects covering the direct approaches to Moskva for a period – or relating to Sweden, such as a positive modifier for bringing in the Turks (and the Ukrainians perhaps, but if the game recreates 1708, then Mazepa has already revolted).

We have added some political incentives to help promote a campaign in the Ukraine. Logistical incentives are harder to model -- there is no depletion of provinces, for instance -- but do note that the Ukraine has better forage available than most of Russia, so a southern route is attractive in that sense.

Quote:
Secondly, there is one area where I feel the designers may have made a mistake – though the paucity of English language materials on the Great Northern War means this is a tentative conclusion – and this relates to the role of the Hanoverians and the British. The more fundamental problem is that there is no link between the two in the game. The Royal Navy appears solely in a pro-Swedish role, if the Coalition appears to have naval superiority. In 1715, Hannover joins the Coalition. It is therefore entirely possible that the army of Elector Georg Ludwig of Hannover will be attacking Sweden, while the navy of King George of England will simultaneously be defending it. While the British were wary of being exploited by their new king to further his continental ambitions, ending up on opposite sides in this fashion seems unlikely. In other words, from 1714 (the accession of George I) onwards, the British and the Hanoverians should be linked in some way.

This has been noted, and you can expect it will be addressed in a simple fashion.

Thanks again for your detailed review! Commentary such as this is very instructive and useful as we hone Pax Baltica until it is sharp and bright!
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Robert Helbing
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davidbuck wrote:

Secondly, there is one area where I feel the designers may have made a mistake – though the paucity of English language materials on the Great Northern War means this is a tentative conclusion – and this relates to the role of the Hanoverians and the British. The more fundamental problem is that there is no link between the two in the game. The Royal Navy appears solely in a pro-Swedish role, if the Coalition appears to have naval superiority. In 1715, Hannover joins the Coalition. It is therefore entirely possible that the army of Elector Georg Ludwig of Hannover will be attacking Sweden, while the navy of King George of England will simultaneously be defending it. While the British were wary of being exploited by their new king to further his continental ambitions, ending up on opposite sides in this fashion seems unlikely. In other words, from 1714 (the accession of George I) onwards, the British and the Hanoverians should be linked in some way.

Moreover, the role of the royal Navy was much more ambivalent – anti-Swedish even – than the rules seem to allow. Norris’ fleet in the later part of the war often played what can even at the best be described as an ambivalent role, while Karl XII’s leading English-language biographer describes the positions thus, “In retrospect, it seemed as if the English, rather than the Danes and the Russians, had been his (Karl’s) most serious naval enemies in 1715.”3 Sadly, this is not remotely possible in Pax Baltica, where the Royal Navy is present solely in a pro-Swedish role.



For questions regarding the Hannoverian/British role in the Great Northern War, I'd recommend sections of "Three Victories and a Defeat" by Brendan Simms, published just last year. He covers this issue in excellent detail.

The ambivalence you see in the game reflects a real dilemma faced by Elector Georg of Hannover. During the early phase of the Great Northern War, Georg hoped to join the ranks of nations eager to grab a slice of the Swedish Empire. Georg wanted Sweden's two ports on the German North Sea coast to aid the economic development of his electorate, as the Swedish occupation of Verden and Bremen blocked the outlets of the rivers Weser and Elbe that flowed through Hannoveran territory. Hence in Pax Balitica, the Hannoverians are potential members of the Coalition. In the end Hannover did succeed in annexing Bremen and Verden, securing its outlets to the sea.

However, neither Georg's Hannoverian advisors nor his British ministers missed how the Great Northern War was promoting the rising power of Russia in the Baltic. At one point, Pyotr sent Russian troops to Northern Germany (Mecklenburg and Oldenburg), right on Hannover's border. The Russians there were, however, dependent on sea communications, so Admiral Norris was sent with a squadron to the Baltic. Norris was to serve as a "gentle" reminder to the Tsar that his men on the Hannoverian frontier were vulnerable, and the Russians eventually pulled out.
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Sean Chick (Formerly Paul O'Sullivan)
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I just took the plunge and pre-ordered.
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Scott Muldoon (silentdibs)
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Thank you Paul, er Sean, er "gittes"...

Your support is appreciated!
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Christian Moura
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Pre-ordered. Hoping GMT gives this game the same treatment they gave Hellenes.

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Leonardo Martino
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How much is gaming time? I see scenarios in the rules mentions years: is it is it like Columbia Games where mostly a year is equal to 1 hour of gaming time...
 
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Scott Muldoon (silentdibs)
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I would say less for experienced players, with each game year (4 seasonal turns) being about 30-40 minutes. Most turns go very quick, since you only have a couple of activations usually, and you won't always want to dive straight into battle.
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