Originally designed by Lew Pulsipher back in 1986, Britannia has been around for more than three decades. We've seen editions published in the past by the likes of Avalon Hill and Fantasy Flight Games, but Britannia's latest iteration is brought to us by the appropriately British publisher PSC Games. The new edition allows players to explore the original game in the classic mode with 3 or 4 players but the key bonus is that it introduces a new streamlined Duel mode for two players.
Both modes attempt to recreate early British history through the successive waves of invasions from the Romans (AD 43) up to the Norman Conquest (1066 and all that) for the classic version, with the new Duel version using a new board that includes Ireland and a reduced timeline that spans between AD 350 and 1050. Much has been said about the original game (Classic) and for that reason this review will focus on PSC's new Duel mode.
Britannia's main allure has always been its ability to recreate Ancient Britain's turbulent history, focusing on how different tribes and people visited to fight, raid, pillage but also to settle and grow. Think, perhaps, Small World (Days of Wonder) transposed from a fantasy realm into a historical simulation. During a Duel mode game, each player controls two of four available colours. Each colour is made of several tribes: for example, red contains miniatures for the Irish, Jutes and Saxon tribes. To win the game you need to be player with most points at the end seven rounds.
This game edition contains more than 200 tiny miniatures and there is lot of detail in them. However, perhaps unsurprisingly, there is also only a limited number of different miniatures that get repeated for each one of the different colours available. Some larger minis represent leaders and infantry, and they too may disappoint some for being generic rather than unique for each leader. However, the greatest issue with the miniatures is the fact that their size and the decision to not have a different colour for each tribe can make it difficult at times to distinguish them apart on the board. Each tribe takes its own turn, so you really do need to be able to differentiate your Romano-British from your Norse, which isn't always easy on a battle-filled map.
Play order is quite unique in this game by being pre-defined in each play mode and built around historic accuracy of how different tribes and people came to occupy Britain. In the Duel mode, for example, the Ostman kick off the hostilities through to the Picts that play last.
The game comes with a double-sided reference sheet that covers play order and army limits on one side and provides an overview of when certain events, scoring, leaders and reinforcements are introduced in the game. This is a helpful adjunct to the chunky rulebook, although I'd still have liked to see in the rules a few more graphic examples to illustrate how certain rules work.
Each tribe's turn is made of five phases in the Duel mode. The first one is Population Changes, followed by Appearance/Reinforcements, Movement, Combat and finally Scoring. The first two phases are all about getting more units to fight. The first check is about ensuring the current held territories are able to support the current number of units; this means it is possible to lose troops during this phase depending on the number and type of territories a player holds at the start of his turn. The second phase highlights another interesting aspect of this game by allowing certain tribes to receive Leaders, cavalry, and additional reinforcements as per the reference sheet. This gain is independent of the first phase.
Movement is the most straightforward phase in this game: each unit can move up to two territories unless it moves into enemy-occupied territory or harsh terrain, subject to a few additional rules that add a bit more complexity and provide more options to reaching scoring areas.
Combat is all about chucking dice, with each player rolling simultaneously a couple of dice for each unit in combat. If you roll a 5 or 6, that's generally a hit, and each unit requires two hits to be removed. It is a simple, practical, and quick system that gets the job done.
The last phase is Scoring. After all battles are resolved, the active player can score points, with the largest majority of points generated from occupying his tribe’s scoring centre(s) and adjacent areas. However, it is also possible to score by destroying/protecting forts, raiding instead of controlling and by killing leaders.
Each tribe's scoring centre(s) is based on its history. And while the scoring system is interesting and provides one of the most unique aspects that will draw many players to the game, it can also be the factor that will push some others away. This is because the historic accuracy behind the scoring system ends up limiting the players' ability to create their own counterhistorical story. If a player is focused in getting as many points as he can then he is not going to move into areas that will not score him anything. This will prevent, for example, the Scots and Welsh from moving towards Kent. You can always try to rewrite history but you have to remember that it isn't just history that's written by the victors; it's the scoring rules too.
If you have a regular game group that shares your interest in Ancient British history and how it has been shaped by all the different tribes that have come to occupy it then this game just might be what you are looking for. You'll probably benefit from a couple of learning games to familiarise everyone with the rules and, crucially, how the game's preset historical timeline affects strategic play. If you make that investment of time, then you'll be in for an epic experience.
It's great that PSC have breathed some fresh life into what was originally a ground-breaking but now inevitably dated board game. However, if you are just a casual player that does not like a large rules overhead and loves to chuck dice, you might just settle for the infinitely simpler Risk (Hasbro). If you are a more experienced player, then another good alternative could be 878 Vikings (Academy Games) that uses personalised dice and decks for each faction, albeit with the action confined to a much narrower timeline. It's only Britannia tho' that delivers such a magnificent sweep through the changing tides of history.
(Review by Rui Marques)