03rd Jun2019

‘Europe Divided’ Board Game Preview

by Matthew Smail


With the current cataclysm that is Brexit, you’d be forgiven for assuming that Europe Divided was a game specifically about the cumbling state of European politics in the present day, and whilst that’s not quite accurate, it’s clearly an inspirational factor for Phalanx Games’ latest wargame. Another obvious inspiration is the GMT Games classic Twilight Struggle, which we reviewed back in April of 2018. Despite these fairly unsubtle familiarities, my first three games of Europe Divided have certainly been intriguing enough to inspire me to write this preview.

Europe Divided is literally a game of two halves, and the first of these two distinct periods of time begins just after The Cold War. With Russia in turmoil, the buoyant European Union (backed by NATO) will need to make big strides during this period, using its powerful influence to sway former Communist states to join Europe and adopt western ideologies. During this half of the game, the reclusive and poorly funded Russian player is on the back foot, managing European expansion and disrupting their plans, rather than expanding outwards on its own.

In the second half of the game, the tables turn. Europe is in recession and the Union is called into question, whilst Russia, under Vladimir Putin rekindles its military, political and economic might. During this phase, Europe will struggle to cling on to what it has gained, whilst the Russian player will make large strides into previously lost territories. Sometimes this will be through show of force, whilst on other occasions the expansion will be more subtle. War never breaks out in Europe Divided, but just as tensions have simmered close to boiling point in real life over the past few years, they do so here on frequent occasions.

Europe Divided is a card driven game for two players only, although I’ve no doubt that someone could probably conceive an automa mode to enable solo play. It’s not a difficult game to learn or to teach based on the in-progress manual that I’ve been provided with, but there are likely to be frequent occasions when the cards drawn into your hand don’t feel as powerful as you might like (or offer the options you want) so the gameplay weight comes from optimising decisions and outwitting the opposing player.

There are two basic kinds of card in Europe Divided, but each is then split into several sub decks. The Headline cards are split into Phase 1 and Phase 2 cards and are organised somewhat randomly at the beginning of the game (with some being secretly removed.) Some of these cards favour Russia and others the European Union, but after an initial pairing is drawn, the deck will be randomised with both sets of cards being mixed together. The Phase 1 cards are then placed on top of the Phase 2 cards so that all the Phase 1 cards will be exhausted before the Phase 2 cards appear.

The second set of cards are called Action cards. These are split into Russia and Europe decks, and each side uses them to form a hand and a draw deck. Russia begins the game with a much smaller deck relating to specific actions that it can take to swing the balance of power, whilst Europe’s cards each feature a country within the EU. Two decks of identical Action cards feature all of the contested countries (like Poland, for example) and will be added to the deck of the side that is considered to be in control of that nation, once a certain level of influence is reached. In this way, the Russian player builds out their deck over the course of the game.

The card play and relative strengths of each deck are interesting features in Europe Divided, since Russia has fewer cards, but on average I’d say that they are of a more consistent average power level. Europe, on the other hand, has some very powerful cards like Germany, and some relatively weak ones like Finland. When cards are played at the beginning of each turn, each player places a pair of cards face down. The combined initiative value of these cards will determine who acts first – with the player who has the highest valued pair of cards leading the way.

This gives the Europe player some interesting choices. Do they pair two powerful cards together to have an almost certain impact that will have a huge on board effect, or do they mitigate some of their weaker cards by playing them alongside a more powerful one? Russia, on the other hand, has some powerful effects, but most of them are very specific, whilst the European cards offer a wide variety of actions that can be very powerful when paired correctly. It’s also worth noting that most of the contested region cards are weaker than even the mid range starting cards, so they essential lower the overall power level of each player deck as they are added to it.

Controlling certain groups of regions can offer other benefits and tweak some of the rules in other areas slightly. For example, there are separate cards for both the Black Sea and the Baltic Sea, both of which can be controlled by one side other the other for an additional, passive benefit. Other cards, like those labelled “Advantage Russia” or “Advantage Europe” change the game further, adding thematic events that also have a powerful or swingy effect, but which might require some setup or foresight to fully enable. Again, these features felt reminiscent of Twilight Struggle on several levels, which is actually quite a compliment.

Whilst the Action cards drive the turn by turn gameplay by allowing the players to place influence dice on the board, increase their influence on existing dice, move armies, gain money and so on, the Headline cards also provide an input. These cards are advanced into play and activated depending on the turn track that runs along the top of the board and in general, they will benefit on side or the other. The Bosnian War, for example, favours the European side whilst the Georgian Civil War assists the Russian side. These events, whilst occasionally inconvenient enough to annoy one player, are generally balanced and introduce an unknown twist based on mostly real world political events.

Whilst it’s too early to say whether Europe Divided will live up to the exact expectations that being compared to Twilight Struggle will place on it, I can say that as of now, it has certainly piqued my interest. The political gameplay features military influence without combat, which keeps the game feeling tense but doesn’t introduce clumsy or time consuming combat. Sadly, I’d also say that I felt that Europe Divided could do with a similar “game ending” scenario where war does break out, if the two players don’t behave in an at least cordial manner. There were several times when I felt that both sides were acting with a level of belligerence that could (and should) have resulted in war, but it never does.

The copy I was sent is a preview and therefore I cannot judge the final product, but based on previous Phalanx Games productions, I have no reason to believe that Europe Divided will be anything less than stellar. What I can say is that the cards, tokens and board are all decent to look at, but since the game doesn’t require miniatures or overly elaborate pieces, the price point should be kept at an affordable level for this kind of war game. There’s no printed manual for me to access as yet, but the rules I have read appear to be close to (but not quite) final and I spotted very few errors. The game itself is easy to learn and can be taught fairly rapidly thanks to its intuitive systems.

Overall, Europe Divided is an interesting and relevant war game that feels as though it will promote political conversation at your table whilst also teaching the players and remaining fairly enjoyable. Since it’s head to head, it obviously lends itself better to playing with the same partner several times and there’s definitely a marked improvement in standard of play from the first game to the second or third. That said, Europe Divided is easy enough to teach to a novice board gamer who is familiar with any other card driven game or even the average area control or influence game (sans combat.) I’m very keen to see the final components and I think that as always, Phalanx Games are likely to have backed a winning, albeit niche game that will be popular with war game fans of all experience levels.


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