GDW, SOLDIER KING (1982)

SOLDIER KING is a fantasy conflict simulation — based on the A HOUSE DIVIDED Game System — of a hypothetical war of succession set in a mythical European kingdom during the 18th Century. The game is intended to be played by two, three, or four players and is based very loosely on the major adversaries and events of the Seven years War; as such, SOLDIER KING presents a highly abstracted treatment of battle and diplomacy during the era of Frederick the Great. The game was designed by Frank A. Chadwick and published by Game Designer’s Workshop (GDW) in 1982.

HISTORICAL BACKGROUND

A Hunt in Honor of Charles V at the Castle of Torgau, painting by Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1544, Museo del Prado, Madrid

The Emperor had ruled over his people for almost four decades; however, his sudden death from an unlucky fall, while hunting stag, had unexpectedly thrown the Empire into turmoil. With no undisputed heir to the now empty Crimson Throne, four ambitious rivals hurriedly prepared to press their claims for the Imperial crown: King Ronalf of Arcadia; King Zog of Hrvatska; King Leonardo of Bravance; and King Ludwig of Argozia. Each of the four rulers saw himself as the natural and obvious successor to the Emperor, but each also knew that the imperial prize could only be gained through a combination of diplomacy, subterfuge, and warfare. Moreover, all four rivals knew that their long-term goals would have to be subordinated to short-term threats. King Ludwig’s territorial holdings were, by an accident of geography, particularly well positioned to support a successful early military advance into the heart of the old Empire; thus, if his three rivals were to have any chance at grabbing the imperial crown for themselves, they would have to put aside their mutual distrust and immediately unite to block the Argozian usurper before he could seize the throne. In short, Ludwig would have to be deceived and then lured into a trap.

To lull Ludwig into a false sense of security, peaceful delegations and offers of diplomatic support were quickly dispatched from Arcadia, Hrvatska, and Bravance to the Argozian capital. Ludwig, already blinded by ambition and conceit, foolishly received these overtures with barely concealed disdain. Clearly, the ruler of Argozia told himself, this was indisputable proof that the other kings, weaklings that they were, all sought to sit at his right hand once he had become Emperor. And so, while the various diplomatic missions sought to outdo each other in their craven fawning in front of the Argozian King, sinister plans for betrayal were being hatched behind the scenes. Unbeknownst to the over-confident King Ludwig, the natural advantages of his position had actually placed his life and throne in mortal danger. And while the King of Argozia prepared his army to take the field, his rivals completed the final steps in their plot against him.

With the onset of good campaign weather, all was ready. When spring at last arrived, the Argozian King’s troops began to advance south into the Imperial heartland with the still unsuspecting King Ludwig at their head; at the same time, three enemy armies marched out of winter quarters to intercept them. A battle was coming, and King Ludwig and his veteran troopers would soon unexpectedly find themselves attacked by enemy armies each approaching from three different directions.

DESCRIPTION

SOLDIER KING is an operational/strategic (division/corps) simulation of a fantasy war of succession fought over control of a mythical continent. The rules and game system are intended to represent, in relatively simple terms, 18th Century warfare as it was conducted during the time of Frederick the Great of Prussia. Interestingly, unlike most other games dealing with real or hypothetical conflicts on this scale, this title uses a point-to-point — rather than a hexagonal-grid or area-movement — map system. The four-color game map covers the mythical, vaguely Switzerland-shaped continent over which the four contesting armies maneuver and fight. The transportation lines on the game map link different cities and fortresses (permanent entrenchments) via highways, roads, or rivers. Only entrenchments and rivers affect combat. The unit counters represent abstract formations of infantry, light cavalry, and heavy cavalry; moreover, each of these types of units will display a combat strength rating based on the individual unit’s level of experience: levy, veteran, or guard. Also, one other particularly appealing aspect of the game is that it has only four pages of ‘Basic’ rules and two pages of ‘Advanced and/or Optional’ rules.

SOLDIER KING is played in game turns each of which is divided into four player turns: the first player and subsequent turn order varies from game to game and is determined, once players have all selected their individual sides, with a die roll. The player with the highest die roll sets up his starting forces and becomes the first to act for the rest of the game; the other players then set up and move in a clock-wise sequence beginning with the player to the left of the die-roll winner. During each player turn, the ‘phasing’ player performs a simple sequence of game actions: Movement, Combat, and Recovery; each player then repeats the same sequence, after which the game turn ends and the Game Turn Marker is advanced one space on the Turn/Season Record Track. The Movement Rules are simple, but quite interesting. At the beginning of his turn, the ‘phasing’ player rolls a single die; the number rolled indicates the number of ‘Marches’ or individual groups (from six to two: a die roll of ‘one’ still permits two marches) that he may move. Players allot their marches to different city boxes, and all units in a single box count as one ‘march’. Moreover, a single force may receive a maximum of two ‘march orders’ in the same game turn. All infantry may move one space (city box) along a road or up-river; they may move two boxes along a highway or down-river, but only if the first space entered was not occupied by enemy units. Both heavy and light cavalry may move two city boxes along roads or highways, but may not combine water with road movement. In addition, light cavalry (only) may make a ‘Jump Move’ by passing through an enemy occupied city, so long as the second space is not also occupied by an opposing unit or units. In both the ‘Basic’ and the ‘Advanced’ versions of SOLDIER KING, a unit may expend one march in a ‘recruitment city’ or two marches in a regular box and ‘entrench’ rather than move to a different city box.

Supply rules are not used in the ‘Basic’ version of SOLDIER KING, but become quite important in the play of the ‘Advanced’ game. To begin with, supply depends on the players’ total control of individual provinces; all four players begin the game with two provinces, but can acquire more through one of two ways: either via a Plebiscite or through a Direct Grant. For a successful Plebiscite to take place, the prospective provincial ruler must have a unit in each and every recruitment city in the targeted province, and the Plebiscite must be called at the beginning of the player’s turn, prior to any movement. A Direct Grant, on the other hand, occurs when one player voluntarily gives control of a province to another, typically allied player. The actual mechanics of supply are comparatively simple: at the beginning of every spring game turn, each player receives a single ‘magazine’ for every province that he controls, and this ‘magazine’ can be placed in any city within its province of origin. Thus, if the king of Argozia controls four provinces, he may place four ‘magazines’ on the game map; but only one ‘magazine’ can be sited in each of the four Argozia-controlled provinces. Once placed, a ‘magazine’ may be moved, but only by river. In addition, each ‘magazine’ move requires its own specific ‘march’. The total number of ‘magazines’ that a player possesses is important because this total determines the maximum number of attacks that he can make on each game turn. In order for an army to use a friendly ‘magazine’ to supply an attack, the units being supplied must be able to trace a path along conventional transportation lines that is unobstructed by enemy ruled or controlled cities. Finally, ‘magazines’ like combat units are not immune to enemy action. For example, if a box containing a ‘magazine’ is occupied solely by a unit or units from the army of another commander, several different things can happen: it can be destroyed at the occupying player’s option; alternatively, the ‘magazine’ could also be left undamaged and, with the acquiescence of the occupying player, continue to serve as a normal supply source for the owning player. This second possibility, of course, would typically arise when both the owning and the occupying commanders are allied against one or more of the other players.

The Combat system used in SOLDIER KING is both familiar and intuitively reasonable. Battles are initiated when enemy units move into a movement box already occupied by an opposing unit or units. Once the phasing player has completed all of his marches, any battles that have been created by his movement are resolved, one-by-one, in any order that the phasing player wishes. The actual battle subroutine is very simple: much like naval battles in WAR AT SEA (1975), the opposing units are lined up opposite each other and blast away in successive battle rounds until one side retreats or is eliminated completely. Excess units may be added to any attack or attacks the owning player wishes, but unlike WAS, defensive and offensive fires are not simultaneous. Thus, because the defender always shoots first, it is possible to eliminate attacking units prior to the target unit’s own round of offensive combat. Each unit fires at an enemy unit and scores a hit or miss depending on whether its combat die roll is higher than, equal to, or lower than the unit’s combat factor. For example, a ‘2’ strength levy infantry unit firing at any other type of enemy unit (other than ‘guard’ infantry) would score a ‘hit’ on a die roll of ‘1’ or ‘2’, and a miss on any other result. This means that combat effects are apportioned on the basis of ‘hits’ and two hits are required to eliminate an enemy unit. To keep track of hits, the game uses a modified (inverted counter) step-reduction system to account for combat losses. As might be expected, attacks against ‘guard’ infantry, entrenchments, or across rivers are penalized in regards to combat resolution. Heavy cavalry units present a special case. During the first round of combat — and ONLY during the first round of combat — heavy cavalry may ‘charge’ enemy units that are not entrenched. During a cavalry charge, each heavy cavalry unit is permitted to attack a target unit twice. After the resolution of this one turn of cavalry ‘charge’ combat, heavy cavalry units fire just like other types of units. Beginning with the second round of combat, both players may reinforce the battle with units in adjacent boxes. This reinforcing action takes place just prior to the fire phase, with one unit per adjacent box being allowed to move into the battle at the beginning of each fire phase. This means, just to be clear, that a stack of three units in a single adjacent space would require three rounds of combat for all three units to finally enter onto the battlefield. Once the outcome of a battle has been resolved, the Recovery Phase immediately follows, during which the attacking player returns any ‘flipped’ (hit) units to their normal (undamaged) side. Finally, the victorious player — whether he was the attacker or the defender — is permitted to ‘promote’ (if possible) any one of his surviving units.

In SOLDIER KING, promotion — that is: replacing a unit with the next stronger version of the unit — can occur in one of two ways: as a result of a victorious battle and/or as a normal consequence of the once-per-game-year promotion phase. In the second instance, each player is allowed to promote two or more units during the movement phase of the winter game turn, whether the promoted units have participated in any battles or not. Each ‘winter promotion’, however, requires the expenditure of a ‘march’. In addition, during the ‘recovery phase’ of his winter game turn (only), the phasing player completes his part of the game turn by ‘recruiting’ any available levy units (of any type) not already in play. These incoming units must each be placed in a different recruitment city, and only one can appear in any city during the same recruitment phase. ‘Recruitment’ is limited to the pool of available (off-map) levy units, and it may not exceed the phasing player’s current ‘Maximum Army Size’. Each player begins the game with an army made up of any eight veteran and four guards units of his choice; from there on out, however, a player’s Maximum Army Size is based exclusively on the number of friendly recruitment cities that he controls as the game continues. As should be obvious, a player’s Maximum Army Size will be reduced by the value of any friendly recruitment cities that fall into enemy hands, and increased by the value of any enemy or neutral recruitment cities that can be brought under the player’s control.

A player wins SOLDIER KING when he controls (through capture or rule) four of the seven ‘electoral’ cities — those marked with a crown — on the game map. To be counted for control, all four cities must be held against all comers for one complete non-winter game turn.

SOLDIER KING offers only the open-ended (unlimited game turns) Standard Campaign Game, but the standard game can be played using either the 'Basic' or the 'Advanced' rules. The ‘Advanced and/or Optional’ rules increase complexity and uncertainty by adding two new strategic factors to the game: Supply and Random Events. Supply affects the number of Attacks that a player may make per game turn. Uncertainty — that is: both good and bad effects — are introduced into the game through the use of sixteen (two markers per event) Random Events counters. At the beginning of every spring game turn, each player blindly draws a single Random Events marker and, before examining the effects of the counter, assigns it to a specific province (enemy or friendly). Random Events include the following eight — four good, four bad — possible outcomes: Good Harvest; Healthy Troops; Natural Fortress; Drillmaster; Poor Harvest; Typhus; Equine Encephalitis; and Revolt. It should be noted that, because of the simplicity of the basic game system, most players will almost immediately incorporate the ‘Advanced and Optional’ rules into their play.

A PERSONAL OBSERVATION

Although a reader might reasonably conclude, based on the preceding description, that SOLDIER KING is pretty much a multi-player version of A HOUSE DIVIDED (1981), I contend that such a conclusion would be wrong. Three factors really set this game apart from its Civil War cousin: first, the ability of all four players’ to choose the specific make-up of their own starting armies; second, each game’s randomly determined order of play; and third, the influence of changing diplomacy on the course of the game. The combination of these three design features tend — at, least among experienced players — to neutralize positional or other advantages as the game progresses. Moreover, when these game elements are combined with the Random Events rule and with the standard (variable ‘marches’) movement rules, play — despite the game’s apparent simplicity — can get very tricky, indeed. Of course, if players decide to just wade in against each other in a general mêlée, then much of the cleverness of the game design is lost. However, for those gamers with a little DIPLOMACY (1959) experience in their background, and particularly for those with a taste for subterfuge and duplicity, SOLDIER KING can become quite an interesting challenge. There is, unfortunately, one downside to playing the game with experienced, patient, and cunning opponents: each match will almost always end up being a lot longer than one in which players decide on an “every man for himself” free-for-all approach to the game. But then again, the Seven Years War got its name for a reason, so maybe a game based, however loosely, on its mix of strategic elements shouldn’t be all that easy to play to a quick conclusion.

SOLDIER KING, for those readers looking for a short, snappy profile, can probably be best described — at least in the view of one of my regular opponents who was also a big fan of the game — as a stir-fried mix of A HOUSE DIVIDED and KING MAKER (1974). This description underscores the game’s greatest strength and also its greatest weakness: it is an excellent and challenging (if long) four-player contest that cleverly combines diplomacy and luck, with treachery and toe-to-toe combat; unfortunately, the two and three player versions just don’t seem to work that well. So, unless a gamer can round up three other players who are prepared to invest a long afternoon in the game, SOLDIER KING tends to be a bit unbalanced and disappointing in its play. This also means, by the way, that the game is very susceptible to the DIPLOMACY Syndrome; that is: it tends to ‘blow up’ unless all four players are fairly evenly-matched in both skill and experience.

Interestingly, despite a game system that is virtually errata-free, SOLDIER KING never managed to garner the kind of long-term interest that led to the extensive post-production design improvements that fans like Alan Emerich lavished on A HOUSE DIVIDED. This is probably too bad. The addition of STRATEGO type counter-stands to hide unit strengths (to create an element of the ‘fog of war’), and even the addition of a few leader counters might have added significantly to the excitement level of this game. A more interesting game map, and nicer unit counters probably wouldn’t have hurt the game either. In any case, none of that happened; so SOLDIER KING remains the same today as it was when it first appeared, twenty-eight years ago.

Finally, there is the inevitable question: which types of players do I think might actually like SOLDIER KING, despite its several flaws? This is — for me, at least — a difficult question to answer. Certainly, with only six pages of rules, it is an easy-to-learn introductory game; and four novices battling it out until only one is left standing would, I think, probably provide those players with an action-packed, enjoyable time. However, my personal opinion is that, because this game really only comes into its own when it is played by seasoned gamers, it is probably precisely those players who would enjoy the game the most. Moreover, I think that the perfect type of player for this title, based on my own experience, would be a cut-throat competitor who plays both multi-player wargames and DIPLOMACY; and who plays both types of games well. If someone is lucky enough to be able to sit three other players who fit that description around a SOLDIER KING game map, then I think that he is virtually guaranteed to have a real nail-biter of a struggle on his hands.

Design Characteristics:

  • Time Scale: 3 months (one season) per game turn
  • Map Scale: (irrelevant) point to point movement system
  • Unit Size: division/corps (10,000 to 15,000 infantry; 7,000 to 10,000 cavalry)
  • Unit Types: levy/veteran/guard infantry, levy/veteran/guard heavy cavalry, levy/veteran light cavalry, and information counters
  • Number of Players: two, three, or four (best with four)
  • Complexity: average
  • Solitaire Suitability: average
  • Average Playing Time: 3- 5+ hours

Game Components:

  • Two 17” x 22” point-to-point Map Sheets (with Turn/Season Record and Army Maximum Size Track incorporated)
  • 320 ⅝” back-printed cardboard Counters
  • One 8½” x 11” SOLDIER KING Rules Booklet (with Set-up Instructions and Examples of Play incorporated)
  • One 8½” x 11” back-printed Advanced and Optional Rules Sheet
  • One 4” x 6” GDW Customer Survey Card
  • Two six-sided Dice
  • One 9¼” x 11½” x 2” bookcase-style Game Box

2 comments:

  • Dear JCB III,
    Just discovered your site and your excellent review of GDW's Soldier King. Your perceptive analysis and summary of the game is first class!
    I shall now explore your game reviews further.
    It is a long time since I played the game due, as you remarked, to the need to assemble 4 players to really get the best out of it.
    I did in fact compile a variant for 2 or 3 players so it could be played more often. This variant sees the imperial provinces, sensing the turmoil and consequences of the empires breakup, initially aligning themselves with the appropriate adjacent player state. Each state absorbs the 3 provinces on its respective frontiers (except for Arcadia which, due to geography, aborbs Upper & Lower Waldow and the Midlands). The initial troop strengths all start at 18 units (except for Hrvatska which has 17 recruitment points). These absorbed provinces are 'controlled' (not 'ruled') for the first year (due to the turmoil) until there are plebiscites in the Winter turn. N.B. The Electoral cities are ignored - heresy!.The game then becomes a contest (with 2, 3 or 4 player states) trying to hold onto their newly absorbed provinces and seeking to expand further at the expense of the other participants. Non participant states are neutral and may not be attacked. The winner is the state with the most recruitment city points values at the end of a predetermined time cycle. Apart from these changes all the other rules are unchanged.
    Regards John.

  • Greetings John:

    Thank you for your kind words and for your thoughtful suggestions for improving the two and three player versions of the game.

    I fear that 'SOLDIER KING' is just one of those under-appreciated little gems that interested players will have to discover for themselves. Although there is little that can be done about it now, this deceptively clever multi-player design is pretty much stuck in amber. Hence, it is -- as I noted in my game profile -- truly unfortunate, but understandable, that no one ever made the effort, years ago, to overhaul the game with the same type of "loving care" that was invested in 'A HOUSE DIVIDED'.

    Thanks again for visiting and

    Best Regards, Joe

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