23rd Nov2020

‘Britannia: Classic and Duel Edition’ Board Game Review

by Matthew Smail

The original Britannia is something of a collectors item these days, having first been released just three years after I was born and since then having been published in numerous languages, including an English language re-release from industry giants, Fantasy Flight Games. The version that I’ve been playing for the past month or two is actually a new edition altogether, with both a streamlined remake of the original, and a specific two player variant. In this new guise, Britannia: Classic and Duel Edition is a recent Kickstarter from our friends at PSC Games, and I was hugely excited to try it out.

Britannia: Classic and Duel Edition ships in a larger than average box, and the front cover features all new artwork that demonstrates the kind of agressive, bearded men that The Dark Ages were famous for. Inside the box, you’ll find over 200 of these men (beards distinguishable on some) represented by blue, red, black and purple plastic models that stand about 3/4 of an inch high. Each one is well detailed given its size, and whilst there were a fair few bends and miscasts in my box, the overall effect on the board is that of massed armies chomping at the bit to destroy each other.

The board itself is a fairly large, six leaf foldout that has a map of England, Wales and Scotland on one side (Classic) and England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland on the other (for the Duel variant.) There are four large foldout player guides for Classic and two for Duel and there is a detailed, high gloss instruction manual weighing in at about sixty or so pages. The player aids are fantastic for informing players about one of the main features in the game – the ebb and flow of the different nations – but a brief description of the actual game rounds is sadly lacking.

Britannia: Classic and Duel Edition also contains a whole host of tokens for various purposes, including demonstrating which regions have been raided, tracking your points around the edge of the board, placing forts or burghs, and to track your population in the Classic game. All said and done, the overall package here is quite impressive, with a lot of content in the box, almost all of which is very nice. The miniatures are fine for their size, and the only other complaint I had is that there were quite a few fiddly rules that I had to look up, or play a round or two to then interpret. This might be because I am dimwitted, but I need to mention them.

To give you a couple of examples and to save you the same fate, one example was the Duel mode, which begins with a number of full-fat Roman troops on the board. I didn’t miss this, but you might, so it’s worth noting that unlike in the Classic game, these guys are “regular” rather than “elite,” making them easier to kill in the Duel mode. This is important, because Roman troops are not specifically described in Duel mode (but are in Classic) and neither is the strength of forts or how to destroy them.

This is important, because it would be natural to assume that to find the fort rules (destroyed on a 5 or 6, defending troops must be killed first) you’d look to the Classic mode, and indeed that is true. The thing is, right next to the fort description, you’ll also find the Roman elite description, and now all of a sudden you might be thinking that your Roman’s in Duel mode are also elite. Thankfully, I read the description for Duel mode, where this thought is specifically undone. Another issue is that at the end of the Saxon first turn in Duel mode, all of the classic Roman troops (who haven’t acted to date, and never do) will be removed and replaced with Romano-Britains, Welsh and other Briton armies (signalling the withdrawal of Rome).

In my first game, I took this to mean the end of the first round (so those troops never acted) and then wondered by the player who controlled that side (even if it was me) kept losing. The answer is because I was denying them a whole first turn, in effect. There’s a few other issues both of this magnitude and smaller, almost all of which can be worked through, but might put off a beginner. Another example is that I can’t find out anywhere whether Romano-British troops share the Roman elite status – I’ve guessed not, but the rulebook does seem to refer to them as Romans, so maybe I’m wrong.

In any case, some of these issues hint at what Britannia: Classic and Duel Edition is trying to achieve – which is a complete retelling of around 800-1000 years of ancient British history, from the initial Roman invasion (in Classic) to the Norman Conquest. The intricate and sometimes complex rules that I’ve mentioned above are designed for one thing, and one thing only – historical accuracy. Britannia: Classic and Duel Edition takes almost every major tribe or nation to have existed in Britain, from the Brigantes, Picts and Welsh to the Romans, Angles, Saxons and Danes and maps their rise and fall in painstaking detail.

In the timeline for the Classic variant, each of four players will take control of the pieces belonging to one colour – again, these are red, blue, black and purple. At any given time, this may amount to one, two or even three different nations, each of which has its own focus and historical scoring conditions. In the Duel mode, one player will control the black and purple pieces, the other the red and blue. The only difference is, well, everything. Duel has a different map, different rules and most crucially, it focusses on a different timeline.

Remember that I mentioned earlier how the Roman units are elite in Classic? Well that’s because they begin the first turn off the board – 17 full armies of them – and must fight their way in. Before this, each of the other three players will have taken their turns, continuing the petty squablles between Brigantes and the Belgae or the Picts and the Caledonians in an effort to score minor victories whilst (thematically) unaware of the approaching tidal wave. Even though the human players will know the Romans are coming – not least because they’ll see the amassing forces in the English Channel – they will be compelled to act their part in accordance with history, such is the way that Britannia: Classic and Duel Edition focusses entirely on realistic goals for scoring purposes.

As the game develops in Classic mode, the Romans will have their day and fall into decline, and the once powerful Brigantes (among others) will fall – first submitting to Rome and then dissapearing entirely. The Irish will rise and make a claim for their own lands, whilst Angles, Saxons and Jutes will all turn their eye towards the British Isles. Again, with the coming of the various Dane’s, most of these will be swept aside, with the climax of this mode – some two or three hours after the game begins – usually involving the unification of England prior to the Norman Conquest.

The Duel mode starts slightly later and begins with the Romans already in decline. There are fewer rounds in this mode and the game plays in around half the time, but the action is no less bloody. If anything, the Duel mode in Britannia: Classic and Duel Edition is actually more focussed on combat, which in both games is resolved based on dice. When two opposing armies meet after the movement phase, two dice per army will roll (with forts also rolling two.) Units will hit on fours, fives and sixes, depending on whether a leader is with them (enabling fours to hit) and what they are hitting (cavalry, Roman elite units and units in defensible terrain require sixes.)

Every unit can be hit twice in the same combat before it is killed, with the first hit forcing it to be laid down. Players cannot choose to lay down multiple units, so if an army of three takes two hits, then one piece will be removed entirely. Cavalry can be used to screen units (forcing the opposing side to roll two sixes before any other unit can be harmed) and leaders adding their attack bonus modifier, but adding no dice of their own. As I mentioned earlier, as far as I can tell, forts can’t be destroyed until all defenders are dealt with.

This combat system is far from elegant, but in general it does result in the most likely outcome, most of the time. For example, a large force with a leader attacking a small enemy in open ground will almost always win, and is unlikely to suffer casualties. The same force attacking a similar sized enemy in tough terrain would be a much more challenging prospect, and that’s enough to give an agressive player pause – especially in Classic mode where nations are in the game for longer. The half-life of a nation in Duel mode might only be one or two rounds, so players are more tempted to figuratively “throw them at the walls” to score points.

I realise of course that I need to wrap this review up at some point, but have hardly mentioned any of how Britannia: Classic and Duel Edition does what it does. This idea of nations rising and falling, how does it work? Well, this is probably the most simple aspect of an otherwise quite complex game. Simply put, each player aid explains how to set up any changes to the nations in play at the beginning of the round – including those either already on the board, or being added to it. It also briefly describes the stance of that nation – such as raiding, or intruding (or neither) and any leaders they receive.

This, in addition to the population based systems used to calculate “normal” reinforcements (which is different in both Duel and Classic mode) determines the strength of each nation for the turn ahead. For example, in the Duel mode, the North and East Angles both begin in the North Sea, whilst the Saxons and Jutes begin in the English Channel. All four of these nations begin with the raiding stance, which means they score points for raiding, but not for settling in this round. On the next turn, those same nations (having liked what they saw) are more open to settling, and therefore more of their people arrive by sea, and their raiding stance is removed.

In the same way, at the end of the first round in the Duel mode (and I touched on this earlier) the Roman armies are replaced by Romano-British, Welsh and so on. In the Classic mode, there are moments in the game where entire tribes surrender to Rome (the Brigantes, for example) and whatever the board state was, it will be changed in line with some really clear and simple rules. The great thing is that this information is all open to the players and historically correct, so you’d already be playing really, really badly if you walked one of your nations into a situation where the rules no longer supported them, or where they made the game feel broken.

To wrap things up, I’ve had a really excellent time with Britannia: Classic and Duel Edition in both of its modes. There was admittedly a steep learning curve to learning the game (and bearing in mind I’ve played a lot of COIN games and so on) but once I was over it, Britannia: Classic and Duel Edition really started to sing to me.

There’s a feel of 878 Vikings here, and given that the original Britannia came out nearly 35 years ago, I dare say it was part of the inspiration for 878’s much simpler variant on the ebb and flow of invasion concept. Either way, if you liked 878 Vikings and wanted more – especially with a lot of historical detail – then you cannot go wrong here. Britannia: Classic and Duel Edition is a very robust, sometimes challenging, but always painstakingly detailed simulation, but it’s also extremely good fun to play.

**** 4/5

A copy of Britannia: Classic and Duel Edition was provided by PSC Games for review.

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