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Board Game Review of Virgin Queen
Published by GMT Games
Review by Jim Cirigliano, 28 June 2012
Jim Cirigliano takes GMT's new boardgame Virgin Queen for a spin, and has her home before curfew!
The Ottoman Empire, the Spanish Armada, the Virgin Queen—these are just a few of the key players in Europe in the late 1500s that we recognize from history books. GMT Games’ Virgin Queen: Wars of Religion provides an immersive and complex strategy board game based on outmaneuvering, disrupting, and negotiating with rival powers during your rise to glory in the rapidly changing world of 1559 – 1598. Each turn of the game represents a four- to six-year period of history, and world-shaping historical events mirroring the real-life drama of that era unfold throughout the game. Kings die. Upheaval rocks the continent as rebellions sprout up across Europe. Leaders suffer untimely demises. Each player attempts to navigate these events—and fend off the other players, who usually have competing interests—in order to achieve an advantage and ultimately victory.
My first impression upon opening the box was the outstanding quality of the game board, cards, and pieces. Everything feels sturdy and durable, and although nearly all of the components are paper products (primarily thick cardboard and cardstock), nothing feels cheap or disposable—a measure of true quality. The cardstock chosen for the playing cards feels even thicker and more durable than any mass-market game I’ve played.
Perhaps my second impression of the game—after handling all of the pieces with a series of satisfied oohs and ahhs—was a rapidly rising feeling of being overwhelmed by the game’s apparent complexity. There were lots of charts and cards that didn't intuitively make much sense at first glance. Naturally I turned to the rule book to explain these components. The rules come in the form of a 44-page booklet of full-sized 8 ½ x 11 paper, as well as a scenario book of another 32 pages. Fair warning: Unless you’re already familiar with the rules of the game’s predecessor (Here I Stand), Virgin Queen requires a bit of reading before you can really do anything or even understand what you’re looking at when you open the box.
Once you begin to get your bearings, however, it quickly becomes clear that Virgin Queen has a lot to offer. History buffs will appreciate the game for its ability to immerse the players in the roiling conflicts that defined 16th-century Europe. Veterans of wargames will enjoy the multifaceted and deeply strategic gameplay. If you happen to love both European history and complex wargames, then Virgin Queen is a slam-dunk for you.
A full game (called the “Campaign” scenario) of Virgin Queen includes seven turns, each with several phases that Europe’s major powers undertake in a predetermined “impulse” order (Ottoman Empire, Spain, England, France, Holy Roman Empire, and Protestants). Every turn represents a time period of between four and six years, and contains separate phases in which to resolve the various aspects of control in Europe—diplomacy, movement and clashes between military units, naval affairs, religious struggles, espionage, and others. Players have the opportunity to arrange marriages between eligible royals and sponsor artists and scientists for bonuses and chances at additional victory points.
Some turn phases are inherently more meaningful to some powers than to others. For example, the “Marriages” phase may mean a bit more to France because that power has lots of royals to marry and receives additional victory points for arranging their marriages, whereas England has fewer royals and actually receives a "Virgin Queen" bonus if Elizabeth I remains unmarried. The Ottomans do not have any eligible royal bachelors or bachelorettes to engage in marriages at all.
Diplomacy adds a fun element to the game. Players have the opportunity to discuss strategy and make deals with one another in secret, away from the table. Real-life negotiating skills factor into the game in a meaningful way, so it isn't just luck of the draw or based entirely on dice rolls. It also opens the door to back-room deals and intrigue around the table. What’s a little treachery among friends, right?
Virgin Queen isn’t designed to be won through the outright military domination of one of the players. The six powers are balanced so that each has its own strengths and weakness, and achieves victory by pursuing different military, religious, or diplomatic goals. Each player accumulates victory points during the course of the game, and these points determine the eventual winner most of the time. The first player to 25 victory points wins the game.
When I first learned to play, I was at first discouraged by the somewhat confusing arrangement of the rules. They would benefit from being organized a bit differently, with a beginner in mind. For example, a new player would expect the rule book to begin with an overview, set-up instructions, and a basic "how to play" section.
More in-depth explanations of rules, military units, and so on would follow later in the book, after the player has gotten a general sense of the goals of the game and how play proceeds. Instead, the rule book begins immediately into explanations of map spaces and military units with which a new player is completely unfamiliar, with the rules about how to set up a game in the first place tucked away in the scenario book.
The core rules about how the game is actually played and examples of how turns are supposed to unfold are scattered throughout the two books. I personally would have benefited from additional attempts to cross-reference rules and key terms defined elsewhere in the rule book. Although the table of contents is complete and thorough, an index of key terms would be appropriate and helpful to new players.
The game is almost as complex as the real-world geopolitics of late-16th-century Europe. Simulating some of the historical twists and turns in the game required the addition of separate phases or special sets of rules. For example, whole sections of play are devoted to espionage, New World colonies, piracy, arts and sciences, and so on. Although all of these add depth to the experience, the sheer number of them can make the game overwhelming at first. In gameplay terms, attempting to include so many aspects of the time period’s history means countless wrinkles in the rules: caveats, exceptions, mandatory events, and lots of additional tables to consult.
If you’ve played the game’s predecessor, Here I Stand, you are already well on your way to learning Virgin Queen; the basic gameplay is similar, although a few mechanics have changed and several improvements have been made. Otherwise you would do well to find a knowledgeable player to mentor or teach you how to play the game in order to fully enjoy it. It isn't the kind of game that you can pick up off the store shelf, teach yourself in a casual afternoon by the pool, and then throw at your regular gaming group for them to learn on the fly.
If you find a group of players who know the rules or have the patience to learn, Virgin Queen will provide a rich gaming experience with many twists and turns. I appreciated the way the game’s developers offered variants for playing the game with fewer than six players. Some variants balanced for smaller groups are included, and these involve rule changes and removing several cards and pieces from the game.
But Virgin Queen really shines when you can assemble six players—one for each of the major powers. The interplay of six personalities working toward six sets of goals brings VQ to its utmost potential.Just be prepared for a lengthy game. When there are six players around the table, a full game of Virgin Queen should be expected to take all day (eight hours or more). You can set one of a few different time limits, but because victory points are unbalanced (by design) until at least turn four, ending the game before then tips the scales in favor of some powers over others. The shortest mode of play is the “Tutorial” scenario, which takes roughly 90 – 120 minutes and accommodates only two players. For larger groups, your best bet at an abbreviated game that remains fairly balanced is the “Tournament” scenario with a four-hour time limit.
The fact that you can play the game by e-mail—like a game of chess by mail on steroids—provides another way to reach the optimal group size of six and avoid the constraints of time limits. The rule book includes tips on how to go about this alternate style of play as well. Active groups of Virgin Queen players exist on platforms such as Vassal and elsewhere online, so you may want to look there to get started.
I admit I never had a European history class, but after playing Virgin Queen I feel a little more educated about this pivotal time in human history. If nothing else, my brain got a workout trying to strategize and work my way through the challenging and changing landscape presented in the game. Don’t be intimidated by game’s complexity. If you’re willing to put in the time to learn it, Virgin Queen will reward you and your fellow players with many hours of multi-faceted, strategic, and engaging play.
• Great quality of game materials
• Complex, engaging gameplay that’s never the same twice.
• Offers different modes of play to fit different group sizes and time limits.
• Steep learning curve.
• Requires a full complement of 6 players to truly get the full experience.
• Takes a long time to complete the game.
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