“Here I Stand” is a map-based boardgame somewhat in the vein of Risk, Axis & Allies, or Diplomacy, set in 16th century Europe, during the Protestant Reformation. Wait, where are you going? This is fun, I promise.
Now, I’m not one of those people who really focuses on gameplay, and how all the mechanics interact, and whether or not they are as refined or elegant (or balanced) as they could be. So, this post is not about that sort of stuff. Thematically, though, this game is really kind of great. All sorts of things that happened in the 16th century can come up in the game – it’s not just political/military maneuvers. This makes it quite complex – from New World exploration & conquests to Theological Debates, from rolling on the Pregnancy Table to see if Henry VIII’s latest wife has given him an heir, to interactions with Minor Powers such as Scotland, Venice, and the Knights of St John, to the possibility of having to devote resources to fighting a war in Persia – and yet, the game is truly not overwhelming, boring, or frustrating in its complexity.
Actually, the gameplay has, in some ways, a pretty easy learning curve, and you can sort of ease into the game, learning a bit more about how to play each turn, or each time you play. That’s certainly what we’ve done, learning it a bit better each time. But, still, there is a lot to it in the end, which makes it difficult to know where to start, or what to say about the game without first repeating basically the entire rulebook. I think my blog posts tend to be long enough without that.
Both times that we played this summer, we only had four players, so two of us had to take on multiple roles (multiple Powers) – instead of playing only England, I had to control both England and the Protestants, as if I were two players, with two separate hands of cards, two separate sets of agendas, etc. (though England’s & the Protestant agenda do tend to overlap somewhat, as do those of the Hapsburgs & the Papacy). I’m eager to try playing with a full six players, so each person can control just one power. Then, as the England player, I wouldn’t be allying with myself, but would actually be working to work with and help another player (e.g. the Protestants), and it’d be a somewhat more vibrant, social experience.
I suppose the main things I enjoy about this game are:
*The layering of both “national” sort of powers and interactions, e.g. between England and France or between the Hapsburgs and the Ottomans, and “religious” interactions, e.g. between the Papacy and the Protestants. Every Power has the ability to raise troops and invade and take over territories militarily, but in addition, the Papacy and the Protestants (and England, in a limited fashion) can engage in a variety of different tactics, all with completely different mechanics from the military battles, to expand their religious influence. Any given location on the map can be politically controlled by a given power and simultaneously being either Catholic or Protestant religiously. The game generally starts off with everything on the map being Catholic (or, I guess, Muslim, but in terms of religious gameplay mechanics Islam doesn’t enter into it at all), and after certain events take place, a whole bunch of places in Germany become Protestant. The Protestants gain tons of Victory Points (and the Papacy loses a whole bunch), proportional to how many religiously Protestant spaces there are on the map. At this point, neither the Protestants nor the Papacy control very much territory politically (militarily), but that’s an entirely separate mechanic.
*The varying different mechanics and gameplay experience for each power. As in most games, of course, geography has a profound effect. England has to keep up its naval supremacy, or it risks being invaded by France (or simply being blocked out); the Hapsburgs, who control both Spain and much of Italy/Eastern Europe, have to deal with events on multiple fronts. But, this game takes it a lot further. Controlling “keys”, i.e. major cities, is certainly one way to gain VPs, and to expand your hand size, so in that respect taking over territory can be quite advantageous. But this is certainly not Risk, or even Diplomacy or Axis & Allies, and the game doesn’t really lend itself towards a heavily military approach.
Whereas in a game like Diplomacy each power is essentially identical in what it can do and how it can do it, with the key difference being geography, in Here I Stand, each power has very different ways of gaining VPs, and different actions it can take. Only the Ottomans can engage in Piracy, and that’s one of the ways they gain VPs. France can pour Card Points (CPs; the points you spend to do actions) into improving its Chateaux, for pure VPs, while the Papacy can do the same for the Sistine Chapel. England, meanwhile, gains VPs for each Protestant space in England (once the Church of England is established), and in addition has its own mechanics for Henry axing a Queen and obtaining a new one in the hopes of gaining an heir. France, England, and the Hapsburgs can also engage in exploration, conquest, and colonization in the New World. And, of course, as I already touched upon, there are the various religious actions, including theological debates, translating the Bible into the vernacular, burning Protestant debaters at the stake, and issuing religious treatises.
*The complex ways that a myriad of historical factors (mainly on cards that can come into play) play into the game. When Henry VIII divorces Catherine of Aragon, England gives her to the Hapsburg player (i.e. sending her back home to Aragon), who can then spend that chit for a discount on the cost of declaring war on England. Cards can create a Diplomatic Marriage, allowing you to take control of a Minor Power as appropriate for your role – e.g. England can gain Scotland, the Papacy can gain Venice. Foreign Wars in Egypt or Persia can tie up Ottoman resources, while a revolt in Ireland can do the same to the England player. Raiders can harass colonies, and the natives can kill your explorers. Each theological debaters, from Calvin and Luther to various pro-Papacy debaters, has a power as well that can be used to aid one’s religious conversion efforts. And various cards force a Power’s leader (e.g. the King or the Pope) to change, often altering some element of the basic way in which that Power functions. As England, for example, watch out if Mary Queen of Scots takes over, because she’ll practically hand over control of England to the Papacy.
I love games that have a wide range of “random” effects that can come up, making the gameplay so much more colorful and more complex than pure mechanics, and that is what these cards, and other effects, do. They add in a myriad of different historical events and factors that not only make the setting feel fuller, but help make it different every time, improving replay value dramatically, and helping balance the game, too, so that no one player can “game” the system, strategizing out the ideal moves for every player or every situation, as in chess, or Axis & Allies. Finally, since many events are mandatory on certain turns, this keeps the game dynamic, changing and developing from turn to turn, and simulates in a sense the actual progression of history. The game is set up with pretty much all of Europe Catholic, as I mentioned before, and then the “Luther’s 95 Theses” event takes place on the first turn. Kings and Popes die and get replaced; when Henry VIII leaves Catherine of Aragon for Anne Boleyn, the Church of England is established on the next turn, and the England player begins being able to gain VPs for controlling Protestant spaces. In this way, options expand or change, and the game is prevented from becoming too repetitive, or too same-samey, from one turn to the next.
So, in summary, I recommend “Here I Stand.” Go check it out. I hope to get to play it again sometime soon myself, and to eventually get to try out the sequel, The Virgin Queen, as well.