Pendragon: The Fall of Roman Britain first impressions

Moderator Level 1
Review

So, as I mentioned in my previous post, last Saturday I managed to play two games solo. The second of those two games was #Pendragon: The Fall of Roman Britain. This was my first play of this particular title. Now, I'm a person who believes that first impressions are important, and, sometimes, even edifying. So I resort to this medium to share mine.

Now, Pendragon: The Fall of Roman Britain, henceforth simply refered to as Pendragon, is a COIN game published by GMT games and designed by Marc Gouyen-Rety. Now this is my first COIN game, so take what I say about the system with a grain of salt. That notwithstanding, I do think that perhaps a bare introduction to what a COIN game is, is perhaps in order.

COIN is short for COunter INsurguncy, and is a series of euro inspired wargames published by  GMT. They are generally characterized by 4, though some only have 2 or 3, disparate factions battling for some sort of control in a region and a time. The factions are, typically, hugely asymmetrical and are working for hugely different goals. The engine that typically drives these games seem quite interesting. There is a deck of cards with semi-knowable game checks sown therein. If you have played a Pax game such as #Pax Pamir (Second Edition), this part will feel fairly familiar to you. Anyways, you proceed through the deck, and each turn up to two factions may act, according to the order depicted on the card. When a faction they can choose one of several options. They can play the card for the event. They can play one action, plus another action. Or they may take a more limited action. That all sounds pretty plain Jane. But here is where it gets interesting, you can see two cards and only two cards. AND, if you play on this card, you won't be eligible to play on the next card. FURTHERMORE the option that you take will drastically enable or limit the action that the second faction can take, this introduction of layers upon layers of consideration into the card game motor that drives the game is hugely compelling. The game check cards that are seeded into the deck pregame are times when changes can happen to the game, and are also times when the factions standing are checked to see if any have achieved victory or not.

Card showing player order on the top, and the potential events that the card could be played for. 


Now, that was a very short and incomplete explanation of the general conceit of a COIN game. There are, anymore, a number of titles in the series and they cover many periods in history. Shortly, we will even have a COIN game in a sci-fi universe. Any individual title may differ in all sorts of details from the very general and uneducated background I tried to give.

Now, for my background with this game.

I had been interested in COIN games for quite some time, and I had done a lot of research into them in trying to find my introduction to the genre. I read a lot of advice on getting into them. The advice seemed to fall into two general camps. There were those that advised to try Cuba Libre or Falling Sky as your first COIN game. These tend have smaller maps, and tend towards the slightly simpler side of the genre. The second camp loudly proclaimed that it was best to pick the historical period one was most interested in, and then find a COIN in that period. I ended up going with the second camp and chose Pendragon. I have no idea, really, why I chose it. It's a huge game. It's a long game. And, I'm only very slightly more interested in the period represented here than I am in the period represented by falling sky. And, it's a very heavy game. In BGG I believe it's ranked the second most complex of the COIN games, and many consider it the most of complex. But as is the wont of my people, I rushed where angels fear to tread. Anyways, it's the one I bought, and it waited on me, for months, in the USA until I had a chance to play it.

In Pendragon, you play as one of four factions.
The Dux are the old Roman chivalry who is desperately trying to maintain a semblance of the might and ancient power of Rome in Britain.

The Civitates are a mercantile people. They are concerned with making Britain prosperous in trade. They are loosely allied with the Dux, after all, they do consider themselves Romans as do the Dux. In fact, they pay for much of the infrastructure, and often even the troops, that the Dux are employing. However, the goals of the civitates are far different than than those of the militant Dux. And it is soon apparent that this marriage of convience is not a comfortable thing for either party.
The last two factions are similar, though they have their differences.
 Scotti are a fierce and proud people who are constantly raiding and terrorizing in the North and West of Britain. Not content with merely pillaging and raiding they are trying to set up permanent outposts on British land. Meanwhile, on the east coast of Britain, the Saxons are engaged in the same deplorable actions.


There are several scenarios available, I chose a shorter scenario. I did play this solo. There are flowchart style bots available for both sides. However, since I was learning the game, I elected to play all four sides myself.


So, without further ado, let's proceed to the Brian's Battery portion of these vapid vaporings.

Game Components ++
 know GMT has gotten a bad rap over the years for sub-par components. I know they used to have paper maps and all that rot. But, while I own only 5 games by GMT, the component quality on each one has been nothing short of superb. There hasn't been extraneous focus on "bling" just super solid, thoughtfully composed, components. The wood is nice, and pleasingly chunky. The cardboard is thick and finely grained. The cards are thick and sturdy. It's all just really nice.


Box/Storage +?
I must confess something. I bought this game used, and it came with a GMT counter tray. I don't know if a tray comes with the game or not. I know that GMT does include them with some games, and I know they don't include them with others. If this came with the counter tray included than this is a ++. But, even if it didn't come with the tray it's still a plus, for there aren't that many counters and baggies would work just fine for storage. Furthermore, the box is just the prefect size to hold the components comfortably without much wasted space. Also, one of my pet peeves is when the rulebook, or board, or player aids, or etc.... Take up all the interior area of a box. If they do so you can't really get your fingers down there to get it/them out so you must sorta awkwardly dump them out. Every game I have gotten from GMT has been so good about making sure that their boards and other components don't fill up the whole interior area. You can easily get your fingers down there. That is such a great thing, and I feel like I need to call it out when I see it. Furthermore, and I realize that this is even more personal some of my other opinions about this game. I do think that the box dimensions that GMT uses may be my favorite box size. I really don't like the standard sized game box. It's ok, but it tempts the publishers to commit too many sins. Furthermore, the standard size is too wide to display on some bookshelves. And, don't tell me to get a kallax. I live in a country without any Ikeas. Furthermore even when I move back to the states, I'm not aware of any Ikeas in my state.

Rulebooks/player aids ++
This is a big, heavy, highly complex game. It may be even more complex then HF4a. But, the rulebooks are great, and I found the game very learnable from the rulebooks. Also, I must explain something about the various actions available to each faction. Each faction has a whole menu of different "commands" potentially available to them if/when they get a chance to play. In addition to these, they have another whole menu of "feats" that they may or may not be able to perform in conjunction with their "command." These commands and feats are different for every faction. This sounds like a recipe for AP, and it probably is. After all, if I'm eligible to play this turn, by the choice I make I'm explicitly allowing another faction to play the card for its affect, or to do a command + feat, or a limited command. And if all the player commands and feats are different..... Bring on the AP. That's probably the reason that GMT included for full menus of actions for each player. If I'm playing as the Dux, I will also have the menu of actions of every other faction so that I can better understand what my enemies are capable of.


Dux menu of actions 
Art +-
I'm not a huge fan of the box cover. Some of stuff on it almost looks a bit contorted. Also, on some of the cards the art looks just a tad muddy. That being said, it's all, at least, serviceable. In fact, I would say most of the cards are pretty nice. Furthermore, the board is gorgeous. Its easily in my top three beautiful boards.



Usability -
I do have several, very minor, concerns about usability. You do use dice in this game. They aren't used for anything to important, and they certainly don't seem to add any swingyness to the game. Anyways, in the name of thematic integration they made the numbers on them Roman numerals. I don't really have to much of a problem with that, but I do have enough dyslexic friends and family that do struggle quite a bit with a few Roman numerals, for instance IV and VI, that this does seem somewhat concerning to me. My second concern is the beautiful map. An individual territory will quickly fill up with beautiful chunky wooden pieces. This does obscure place names, and these place names are important for gameplay. Add to the potential confusion, these are all latin, or latinized, names. So, even if you are eminently familiar with the geography of Great Britain, that won't help you to much here. They do include a map index that is nice and helpful. Again, these are minor concerns. And, personally, I wasn't affected by the dice. And I feel like the beautiful map with latinized names was worth the few times I needed to hunt for a specific region or city.


Soloability +
So, I bought this game to play solo, exclusively. I really don't enjoy teaching very heavy games. I'm comfortable up to a 3.5-4 on the BGG weight scale, but I quickly chicken out after that. So, how well does this game solo? Included in the box are flowchart style bots. One for each faction. These flowcharts look ridiculously complicated, but supposedly they are really good. You can also play the game by playing all four factions against each other. This is something I'm generally opposed too, except when I'm learning a game. But here, that actually made a lot of sense. I expect I'll probably play the game more just playing all four factions. But, I wouldn't be surprised if I try out the bots at some point. And, it is worth mentioning, all four factions must be in the game for the game to work. That means if you have you have to run all four factions, or 3 flowcharts, etc... For the game to work.

Non player Dux flowchart


Story ++
It was interesting playing this after JiME. I realize that in JiME the story will probably get better, but there is not denying that the story beats in the first chapter left me cold. This one had no story beats. This had no "good writing." But, it told a story that was truly epic nature. It told me a story of a proud and decaying race of conquerors who were desperately trying to maintain some semblance of legitimacy. How they stooped to infighting, and robbing Peter to pay Paul. How the military powers that were stooped to hiring their enemies to serve as militias. How those same militias turned on their lords, and destroyed them. It told me a story of a mighty empire sinking in utter despair beneath waves of raiders and warbands. And, finally it told me how the military might and pride of the empire failed so utterly, that the commercial side of the same began leaning on Scotti and Saxon allies to protect their interests. And what rose out of the wrack and ruin that had been Roman Britain was a race of mercantile minded "Romans" who depended on hired muscle to keep their holdings secure. This is a game I believe can almost be played meditatively, just for the story that unfolds.

Game length +-
I don't know how long I played this game. But it's a long game. I imagine that once I had it down decently it would take me 3-8 hours to do a solo play of this game. It all depends on which scenario I choose. This is a negative, because it does limit the opportunities I'll have to play. But, I do also feel like it's a positive. Stories like the ones this game can tell need room to develop and breathe.

Fiddliness -

This game has a number of fiddly aspects. Military, at times, physically retreat into forts, you put their cubes on a fort. Raiders come and grab plunder, you literally put a gold plunder cube on their shoulders. Romans will hire barbarians. They will even allow them to build settlements in Britain, you place a token on those pieces to show their allegiance. Furthermore, the game setup is quite fiddly. It's fiddlier than I idealize, but I'm not sure how to fix it without making other areas more complicated.

Scotti Raiders carrying plunder

Saxon allies of the Dux

Misc.
There are several things that bear mentioning before I go into my final thoughts. Firstly, I might just mention that there are a lot of interactions in this game that are highly procedural. I don't mind procedural games, but I know some do, so I do want to warn ya'll of that. Secondly, for a solo game, the space taken by this game isn't too bad. But, I do imagine that if you were playing a 4 person game of this, it would be quite a table hog, everybody would want their player aids and etc... And that would make the game a chunk bigger. Not much if any bigger than a 4 person game of something like scythe, but I do think it bears mentioning. And, lastly, the historicity displayed in this game. The designers and developers saw fit to include things in this game, that while not false, are somewhat disputed in the historical community. I don't have a problem with that. I tend to believe, about that period of Romano/Anglo history much like the game portrays. But, if you are a person who wants everything "proven" before its included in a game, well then, a few of the cards might stick in your craw.

Final thoughts.
I think this is the longest "first impressions" post I've ever done. And, there's so so much I didn't even hint at, I didn't talk any about taxes, about the affect that sea patrols and costal forts have on raiders. I didn't talk about so so much of the game. In case you didn't notice throughout this post, I sorta fell in love with this game. I don't know where it will end up after the honeymoon period is over. But, for now, this game is fun to play, it tells a hugely compelling (to me) story, and it examines one of my favorite periods in history. I don't know that this game is for you. It's a heavy game. And, while the engine that drives the COIN system is hugely compelling, I don't know that the juice is worth the squeeze here, if you aren't interested in the theme. But the way that the engine can tell such a good story just really elevates this game a lot. I can see myself setting this game up in my office and playing for 15-45 minutes every day until the game is finished. And, I do think, that the way the game works, something like that would work well.

I would suggest, that if you are a solo gamer, and you like heavier games, you really should give a COIN game a try. Pick a period of history that you like, and see if there's a COIN for you in that period.

Based purely on first impressions, I would give this a 9-9.5/10.

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Supporter3 months ago

I've looked at both this one and Falling Skies so many times. I think based on your thoughts here when I do have a chance I'll go for Pendragon. 

Moderator Level 13 months ago

👍

I definitely enjoyed it. 

3 months ago

Thanks for the review!

I've played #Andean Abyss and #A Distant Plain and while I enjoyed them, I've never had the urge to own a COIN game. Something about applying the same system to so many different conflicts feels off to me.

As for playing solo, you are a braver man than I! :)

Owner3 months ago

Will have to give this a thorough read tonight! Thanks :)

Premium User3 months ago

Very good overview of the game!  I was thinking of doing a review of the game as well but I don't think I have to now as you have covered it very well. :)

As someone who owns quite a few COIN games I have to say that Pendragon is a big one to start with!  It is also in a different vein from many of the other COIN games.  Combat is more complicated and the way the factions interelate is different.  The Dux/Civiates relationship has a ton of nuance to it although I've only played it solo at this point I can see that is going to be an interesting one to balance multiplayer.

And it's a tricky solo game as well.  Lots of rules to lookup and situations to try to get correct.  However, if you enjoyed that then the other COIN games shouldn't be an issue for you.  

Moderator Level 13 months ago

Thanks for your kind words. They mean a lot coming from a voice of experience such as yours.

I do definitely think that I will try other COIN titles. 

Premium User3 months ago

You are too kind!  My review writing is "enthusiastic amateur" level at best which is ok because that is what I am!

My COIN abilities are about the same too at this point.  I'm pretty new to the genre.

The COIN series is so interesting to me because each game is subtly different from the others and each faction has it's own nuances with how it plays and especially with how it relates to other factions. 

Moderator Level 13 months ago

Ah... That vaunted amateur level... Perhaps someday I can aspire to that.... LOL

Premium User3 months ago

I think you did a really good write up!

I keep thinking that I have to do another review and I have photos and whatnot for a couple of games but I have just been so busy that I haven't had the impetous to put one together.   I might do a general one on COIN games instead of a specific one as I am quite enthusiastic for them at the moment!

Moderator Level 13 months ago

Please do that write up.... I imagine that would be very interesting.

 

Edit: spelling. 

Premium User3 months ago

I'll see what I can do! :)

Moderator Level 13 months ago

Perfect. 

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Pendragon: The Fall of Roman Britain