cover
Designer Richard Sivél
Publisher histogame
released 2004
Players 2-4
Playing Time 150 minutes

Friedrich

reviewed by Moritz Eggert

In the last years there was a definite trend to "Europeanize" American board game concepts. Prominent recent examples are games like "Age of Mythology" (a wargame/Puerto Rico-hybrid) and "Bootleggers" (American "theme", Euro-game concepts and game length) by Eagle games. So it was only to be expected that the trend might be reversed, that European (in this case German) game designers are tempted by American concepts (in this case the historical wargame genre, practically unheard of in German produced games). Of course this has happened before, but rarely was the attempt so successful as in "Friedrich" by Histogame.

The game takes place in one of the more interesting periods of European history - Friedrich the Great's solitary defence of Prussia against enemies from all sides: The French, the Austrians, The Swedish, The Russians and the "Reichsarmee". "Friedrich" attempts successfully to bridge the gap between a detailed but complicated and long wargame, and a playable but still historic "Eurogame".

One player represents Prussia and its wimpy ally, Hanover; two or three other players represent France, Russia and Austria. The smaller factions (Sweden and Reichsarmee) can change owner depending on the game-setup or the game situation.

The board is very large and consists of a layer of hundreds of dots (cities and villages) connected by lines, vaguely reminiscent of the boring travelling games like "Deutschlandreise" that we played as kids. The topography is very complicated, and even after several games you will overlook certain connections. But exactly this is what makes the map so beautiful and intriguing!

The factions either are in their own countries and always supplied (like the Prussians), or are travelling in large armies (like the Russians or the French) in unsupportive countries. The various colour codes used in the game are usually good, the only problem (in bad light) is recognizing the difference between the light yellow Reichsarmee-objectives or the grey Austrian objectives.

cards

The factions all get a number of "generals" (pawns) and "Trosse" (supply trains). Each country also has a set number of "armies", represented simply by numbers that are allocated secretly to each general. A general (all the historic leaders are represented) needs at least 1 army to "exist" and is eliminated when he loses the last one. Only when armies are eliminated they can be replaced, so each faction has a set strength that can never be surpassed.

The most important mechanic in the game is the cards, at first glance an ordinary set of playing cards coming in 4 suits and 2 jokers (there are 4 decks that are run through in succession, to assure a relatively equal distribution). Each faction gets a set number of cards each turn (this number can change trough events, but doesn't vary wildly).

On the board there are sectors (squares) that correspond to the colours of the suits. The idea is simple: an army attacking or defending while residing in a certain "suit sector" can only use cards with that suit. As the players know their cards they will usually try to move their armies to positions of advantage, but of course that's not always possible. You might want to defend a spade area but be weak in spades, for example. The combat system itself is very simple, it is basically an open bidding process with players using the cards as a kind of money, once a player can't play the suit anymore (or chooses not to) he loses armies in the amount of the difference between his bid and the other player's bid. If his general still lives, his pawn is moved the same number of spaces away from the winner, decided by the winner, usually resulting in the army being out of supply the next turn, as armies are only supplied when in their home country or within 6 spaces of supply train. Unsupplied armies can function normally the next turn, but are eliminated if they are still unsupplied at the end of this turn.

Of course fighting a massive battle usually means being depleted of a certain suit - the next player in turn will then try to exactly attack in this suit, but of course this is not always possible.

The battles are necessary to conquer "objectives" - a faction that can conquer all of it's objectives wins the game! Generals "protect" objectives not further away then 3 spaces, which means that even if you move over these objectives, they are not conquered. Beating an army can result in retroactive conquests of already passed over objectives, an interesting mechanic.

The game ends through an artificial mechanic that introduces event cards at the end of the 6th turn and every turn thereafter. These events either give minor advantages to different players, or reduce or raise the number of cards they draw, and finally remove one attacking nation after the other from the game (this is when ownership of Reichsarmee and Sweden switch to keep the players whose nation was terminated in the game. These players can still win!). If Friedrich survives, he wins, but he never knows how long he has to persevere.

This mechanic is historical (all the events are based on actual events) but of course it also brings a certain element of luck in the game.

Friedrich has a huge advantage at the beginning, he gets 7 cards, Hanover 2, whereas France gets 3, Russia 4, and Austria 5, and both minor factions only 1. Individually no nation stands a chance against Prussia, but the longer the game goes on the bigger the numerical advantage will become, especially if the smaller nations bide their time instead of attacking immediately. Prussia has to move her armies into well-defended positions, constantly avoiding to get overrun, as bringing new armies into play is costly, and armies move very slowly on the map. The other factions rather have a "motivational" problem: As each of them is weaker than the Prussians, the will to attack first is rather small, as usually your partners will benefit more of the depletion of Prussian resources than you, as you will have to slowly build up your power again after a hard-fought battle. On the other hand Friedrich can't allow enemy nations to build up their hands - if they hoard cards he has to attack them to use his advantage! France, although having a rather boring position on the map and little to do, has the advantage of being pitted against Hanover instead of heartland Prussia, which is considerably easier. The well-rounded Prussia player has to take note of this, though, and send additional forces to defend Hanover, a fact that benefits the two other nations.

Characteristics
Playing time: 150+ minutes
Explaining the rules: 5-10 minutes
Downtime: high, if Prussia plays it slow
Excitement factor: high, lots of tense and close battles that play very quickly
Brain: required!
Luck: considerable, but not overpowering
Best trait: delivers a fresh concept in a wonderfully simple package

"Friedrich" is a very subtle kingmaker game, as the decisions of Friedrich basically decide who will win the game. To win with Friedrich is very hard, but you decide where the action is. If you concentrate on one front you basically make it easier for the enemies on the other side of the board. But there is one trait that saves "Friedrich" from being an unbalanced wargame, and that is it's "card shark" element. The basic mechanic is so beautifully simple and elegant that the gamer never bogs down. The rules are covered in little more than 5 pages, and once they are understood the game can be explained to newbies in as little as 5-10 minutes. Bluffing, hand management and simple gaming joy in a light historical context are the main assets of "Friedrich", and they make the game a winner. The game also easily adapts to 3 players, is in fact especially playable with that number of players (the distribution of forces is much more equal in the 3-player game).

"Friedrich" can appeal to the strict Eurogamer, the serious wargamer or even the history buff. It is longish in playing time, and the game can become kind of slow if the "Friedrich" player is inexperienced (always let the most experienced player play Friedrich!), but it still plays amazingly quick for a game of its scope. "Friedrich" is a labour of love by the game designer, and it is clear that he spend years honing the game design and balancing it, and the work shows off. As it is the game can be fully recommended, it is much more interesting than it looks at first glance! A next edition could use a different system then writing the armies down, though, it would be nice to have counters or pawns for the armies, and to position them behind a screen, like in "Samurai Swords" ("Shogun"). But players can easily find their own solutions here.

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2005, Westpark Gamers