Reviewed by James Davis
VERSAILLES 1919 (GMT Games, 1 to 4 players, ages 13 and up, 60-120 minutes; $89)
On June 28th, 1914, the Austro-Hungarian heir, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, was assassinated in Sarajevo by a member of a revolutionary Yugoslavist group called Mlada Bosna, supplied with arms by a secret military society called the Black Hand. An assassination attempt was made earlier in the day, with a grenade thrown at the Archduke’s car, missing it and injuring spectators. However, about an hour later on the way back from the hospital, where Ferdinand had visited those who were injured, his convoy took a wrong turn onto a street right past where Cavrilo Princip, one of the assassins who had failed earlier, was sitting at a café. His assassination of the Archduke turned the decades-long buildup of tense relationships between the European nations into a horrific four-year conflagration.
On the 10th of January 1920, the allied powers came together to sign the Treaty of Versailles and officially end World War I. The negotiations between the nations to create the treaty is the surprising and unique subject of GMT’s new game, designed by Mark Herman and Geoff Engelstein: Versailles 1919. It is a 1 to 4 player game where you step into the role of one of the “Big Four” who negotiated the details of the end of World War I: Prime Minister David Lloyd George of Britain, Prime Minister Vittorio Orlando of Italy, Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau of France, and President Woodrow Wilson of America. Each of these country’s competing goals, as well as the objectives of other nations and organizations around the world, were on the table beginning January18th 1919, in the Salle de l’Horloge at the French Foreign Ministry on the Quai d’Orsay in Paris.
The game simulates the complex diplomatic landmine that the “Big Four” needed to navigate. The players attempt to gain victory point “Stars” that represent shaping the treaty’s outcome to align with your nation’s strategic vision. The Stars come primarily from controlling Issue cards representing the many issues of the treaty, as well as an end-of-game Strategy card that delineates victory conditions, and other factors such as National Happiness. Unexpectedly, considering the complexity of the negotiation process it simulates, the flow of the game is rather simple. Once the rules are learned, each turn can be quite quick. At least it could be quick if it wasn’t for the weighty analysis the repercussions of your decisions can cause. You very much need to keep your eye on a lot of moving parts.
The game board is divided into six sections. The On the Table and Waiting Room sections are used to track what Issue cards are presented for negotiations. The Region track represent the Unrest of five areas of the world. Your game pieces are placed in the Exhausted Box when used. And the Demobilize track allows you to remove a Military disk to gain points on the National Happiness track. To the side of the board are dealt, face up, a number of Strategy cards equal to one plus the number of players.
Each player will have 15 Influence (cubes) and 3 Military tokens (disks). (To their credit, GMT typically adds extra pieces to their games, so check to make sure they are placed back in the box.) Two Issue cards are placed in the On the Table section, which represents active negotiations of those issues, and three in the Waiting Room where players can see what might be brought to the table soon. There is also an Event card in the On the Table section that triggers when an Issue is Settled, and two Event cards in the Waiting Room that the active player can choose from to replace the just-activated Event card.
As mentioned, the Region track is a table that represents the level of Unrest (from 1 to 8) in five areas in the world: Europe, Balkans, Middle East, Africa and the Pacific. Resolved Issues and Events may cause the Unrest counters to move up or down on these tracks. At certain points an Uprising check may occur, which might trigger an Uprising for the region or regions that have the most Unrest. You really don’t want an Uprising if you control the most Issue cards from that region. But more on that later.
The Turn Sequence is quite simple. There is a single mandatory Political Action and an optional single Military Action for each player’s turn. Either action can go first. This sequence is followed until the Game End card (the 21st card from the bottom) is controlled by a player, or the deck is empty. The Political Action gives you three options: Place Influence, Reclaim Influence and Military, and Settle an Issue. There are two options for the Military Action: Deploy or Demobilize.
If you choose to place Influence with your Political Action, you can place any number of available Influence cubes on any of the five Issue cards on the board; either the two in the On the Table section or the three in the Waiting Room. You are required to place cubes on exactly two Issue cards, and you must have the most influence and thus control both cards when you are done. When you choose to reclaim your Influence and Military, you simply grab up to six Influence cubes and all Military disks from the Exhausted Box. But Settling an Issue has the most impact on the game. The active player can choose to Settle either of the two Issue cards in the On the Table section, even if that player does not control them. And is often asked to do just that from another player as part of a negotiation. Here’s how it’s done:
- The player who controls the Settled Issue (has the most cubes on it) resolves it by placing the card in front of them, and then moving all of his or her cubes to the Exhausted Box. If the active player is not the controlling player, the active player gets all of their Influence cubes on the card back, an important point to remember. All other players get half (rounded down) of their cubes back and the rest go to the Exhausted Box. Then if the Issue card has a choice of options, the controlling player picks one and makes those changes to the game.
- The Event cards have two separate sections: A Conference event that takes up most of the card, and a Crisis event at the top. The Conference event is triggered at this step for the Event card in the On the Table section. Unless someone’s Influence cube is on the Event card, the active player chooses how the event is resolved. Else the player who owns the Influence cube makes that choice. Some events are optional.
- Then the Settled Issue card and the Event card are replaced. The active player picks one of the three Issue cards in the Waiting Room to move down. All Influence goes with it. And then one of the two Event cards in the Waiting Room are moved. If that Event card has an Influence icon printed on it, the active player can place an Influence cube which ensures he or she will decide how it will be resolved when it is triggered in a later turn.
- You then add a new Issue card to the empty space in the Waiting Room. You can either draw two cards and pick one and discard the other, or you can spend Influence cubes to go dumpster diving into the top of the discard pile.
- Last, you draw a new Event card into the Waiting Room and perform the Crisis event at the top of that card.
To Deploy, using your optional Military Action, you take one of your Military disks and place it on one of the four right-most columns (5, 6, 7 or 8) of one of the Regions on the game board. You do this to attempt to reduce the Unrest for that region. An Unrest counter cannot be placed on or to the right of a Military disk. Depending on where the disk is placed, you will gain a number of Influence cubes from the Exhausted Box. But you will lose up to four levels of National Happiness because your nation’s people are weary of war. Having a Military disk on a region that suffers an Uprising gives you an opportunity to modify the Uprising die roll and more bidding power on an Issue that becomes Unsettled, as described below.
When you Demobilize a Military unit, it is removed from the game. You place the disk on the Demobilize track that is numbered: 5, 4, 3, 2, 2, 2, 1. Except for the last one, there can only be a single disk on each location. You then increase your National Happiness by that number. Since Happiness is factored into your final score this is quite useful, but at the expense of losing Military power over the game’s regions.
As you can tell, the game hinges around the Issue cards which I will describe in more detail. An Issue card will either have the name of a country or a principle that is debated at the conference, such as ‘Somalia’ or ‘Labor Reform’. Beneath that is the name of the Region that could Unsettle that card during an Uprising. Next is the number of victory points the card will give you at game’s end. The rest of the card is given to the possible options that the controlling player can choose when the Issue card is Settled. These options will change the status of the game as shown by a list of icons for each choice.
To give you a better idea, let’s pick a card: Disarmament. The excellent playbook included with the game has a quick overview of the history behind each Issue card. It states that this card represents how much the German military should be disarmed after the war. The Region for this card is Europe and it has 7 victory points. The options are: Limited, Moderate and Extreme. (The historical outcome was Extreme.) A limited and moderate choice will upset the European populace, and the extreme choice will unsettle the European region, increase the British naval power, and the severity of German reparations will increase. In game terms, that means that a limited choice will decrease the happiness of Britain by 3, Italy by 1 and France by 2. A moderate choice will decrease happiness for Britain by 2 and France by 1 and the Unrest counter for Europe goes up by one. An extreme choice will make the Unrest for Europe raise by three.
And for this card, some Strategy counters may be placed. These counters tie in to the Strategy cards that give players game-end victory points based on the end-state of the game. For example, the extreme option adds two German Reparations and one British Naval Squadron counters to the card. If your Strategy card gives you victory points for German Reparations tokens in the game, you’ll be very happy with that option.
You’ll notice I’ve mentioned Uprisings often. This is a very important part of the game as it tends to upset the balance of power quite effectively. As well as placing a predictable check on players with too much power. An Uprising Check occurs usually from a Conference or Crisis event just after an Issue card is Settled. When one happens, find the Regions that have the most Unrest. There can be more than one. For each of these Regions determine if an Uprising actually occurs by rolling a six-sided die if the Unrest counter is on the third space or beyond. A 6 must be rolled on the third space, a 5 or 6 on the fourth space, and decreasing by one until it is automatic (1+) on the eighth space. It is possible to modify the die roll if players have a Military disk on that track.
For each Uprising that occurs, find the player who has the most Settled Issue cards in that Region. Then from those cards, find the one with the most victory points. That card is Unsettled by the Uprising. A bid then starts for the card using Military disks, with Influence cubes as tiebreakers. Military disks already in that Region count double. The winner gains the card, moves all bid tokens to the Exhausted Box, and loses a National Happiness for each Military disk used. The Unrest counter for that Region is then moved down to the lowest space on the row. And, most importantly, the new owner of the Issue card selects one of the options on the card and makes the modifications to the game, as if the card was just Settled. If this was the first Uprising in the game, the players now choose one of the Strategy cards laid out on the table during setup.
The game ends when the Game End Issue card makes its way from the deck to the Waiting Room, to the On the Table section, and then is Settled by a player for its seven victory points. Then everyone adds up the victory points from the Issue cards they control, the Strategy card they chose and points from having the most National Happiness.
As you can see, despite the simple turn mechanics, there is quite a lot of interwoven details to keep track of. Which is exactly what is being simulated by this game: the scheming of worldwide national and security interests and the enormous historical repercussions those choices will create.
Obviously, given its theme, this is a heavy negotiation game. It shouldn’t be played without some wheeling and dealing. Three or four players is highly recommended to get the full experience. Historically three players are appropriate, as the Italian Prime Minister left the negotiations. But given our need to be socially distant because of the pandemic, I’d be remis if I didn’t bring up the excellent two player and solitaire options.
The two player option pits France and the UK against each other. The US is also present, but only as a Political Action controlled by the active player at the end of each turn. The US cannot Settle an Issue for the active player. Otherwise, it is effectively the same game.
In the solitaire game, the player controls one of the three factions, the US, France or UK, with the others run by “Bots”. The main rule that stands out is that when an Issue is Unsettled by an Uprising, the player must take control of the faction with the lowest strength. The strength of each faction is equal to the victory points of Issues it controls and a specific set of three Strategy tokens that are in play. The Bot has a set list of priorities to follow, similar to other solitaire mechanics. But unlike other solitaire games, you don’t want to always make the best move for the Bot. Instead, unless the Bot rules state a specific choice must be made, you choose. The solitaire game is, unavoidably, entirely different from the multi-player game because it lacks any form of negotiation. But given that limitation, it is still a unique system where the player is faced with many hard decisions to control the outcome, even during the Bot’s turns.
Personally, I feel that the game ends too soon, which is a very good complaint to have actually. Being a person who loves historical simulations, I would very much like to see how my decisions influence the world outside of the game’s parameters. I want to know more about how, for example, a decision to not form a UK Mandate in Mesopotamia would alter the creation of new countries such as Iraq. But of course, that would ensure that the game would be much more complex instead of the streamlined and elegant system it is now. And so, I believe the designers made the right choice to focus on simulating the negotiation process instead of the outcome. But maybe a sequel or an add-on for us history buffs?
Versailles 1919 does exactly what it sets out to do: simulate the process of an important historical event. And it does so with rules that are simple to play and understand with enough depth to create a fun simulation. This game will return to my table. And I’m looking forward to the time I can play in person, and try to convince my friends that, yes, it really is in their best interest if they give Smyrna to Italy. – – – – – James Davis
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