Pax Baltica – Boardgame Review
Pax Baltica. Boardgame. Published by GMT Games. Designed by Stefan Ekström and Göran Björkman. $55.00
Passed Inspection: Typical high-standard production from GMT. Captures two decades of warfare in a playable system perfect for novices and veterans alike. Quick to set up and get into a game. Highly replayable.
Failed Basic: Bad dice can seal a side’s fate.
Rode to certain death and pain
Swedish soldiers met their bane
Sacrificed their lives in vain
—”Poltava,” by Sabaton, from their album Carolus Rex
While designers of historical wargames have thousands of years of conflict to draw upon, their choices usually revolve around the Second World War, Napoleonic Wars, and the American Civil War. Lesser known wars and campaigns tend to be left to the DTP crowd, but even within that group you won’t see dozens of titles on say, the Anglo-Zanzibar War of 1896. So a game from a major publisher on the Great Northern War is a tad out of the ordinary.
The Great Northern War lasted from 1700 until 1721, the two major actors being Sweden and Russia. Russia formed a Coalition with Denmark and Saxony to break up the Swedish Empire that had dominated the Baltics and claim the region for their own. In the end Sweden was no longer a major power, while Russia transformed into an European-like nation that has since influenced the world stage for hundreds of years.
In 2009 Three Crowns Game Productions of Sweden released a limited run of fifty-five copies of their game on the conflict, Pax Baltica. GMT, obviously impressed with the design, has now published the title under its own banner. Not only does this make Pax Baltica widely available, it allows the game to have some great production values, common to GMT titles: a full-color rule book and playbook, great-looking heavy-cardstock area map of Northern Europe, and numerous wooden blocks. Additionally, developer Scott Muldoon, working with the original Swedish designers, has refined the original mechanics.
Wargames set prior to the 19th century often feel intimidating, typically because the further back one goes the less likely the player will have specific knowledge of the era without already being a student of the period. Even though the Great Northern War is not widely studied outside of Sweden, Pax Baltica does an excellent job of making a highly playable game on the subject thanks to its simple (but not simplistic) approach.
To begin with, the rule book clocks in at a mere fifteen pages. The playbook is twice as long, and is comprised mostly of historical facts to bring players up to speed on the conflict. Overall, the game’s rule book is good, but its brevity can lead to a few questionable situations—nothing that can’t be “house ruled,” of course.
Pax Baltica is a two-player block game, and although published by GMT Games it could have easily been published by Columbia Games, as the system is practically identical to many of their games. A single block represents an army, regiment, or naval force. Colored wooden cubes are used for area control markers and record keeping. Since we’re dealing with the early 18th century the number of blocks in the game is low. The two largest belligerents in the game, Russia and Sweden, have respectively twenty and fifteen blocks representing their forces. Don’t expect Sweden’s incursion into Russia to look anything like the German adventure in the mid-20th century.
Each turn represents a year and is divided into four seasonal game turns. Unlike many pre-20th century wargames the winter turn has no special gameplay effects, other than the ability for the Swedes to go on a Winter Campaign. Effectively, this allows the Swedes a limited ability to act twice during the winter turns, but there are enough restrictions on the Winter Campaign that it will be used rarely.
Each seasonal turn consists of four phases: an action roll phase, action phase, battle phase, and finally a forage phase. Unlike many games, the forage phase occurs each turn, instead of simply during the winter. Foraging is the ability of armies to live off the land, and provides a reason to not simply create some sort of unrealistic superstack and burn your way across Europe. Basically, too many armies in one region equals supply depletion.
The action roll phase has both sides rolling for the number of actions available to their side, or the possibility of a random event instead. The number of actions range from one to three. Choices include moving any number of units within a territory, performing recon (looking at your opponent’s blocks in an area), declaring siege, playing politics, or adding replacements. Thanks to the low unit count even a bad action roll won’t utterly handicap a player.
Random events, though, can really create a handicap. Not only does an event mean that the player can do nothing else that turn, the majority of events seem to be negative. In one game for the review, thanks to how the dice fell random events overall did more damage to the Swedish Alliance than the Coalition. Who likes to be put into a bad position due to a bad die roll (or, in this case, several)?
The overall flow of the game is pretty basic. Units are moved. Units located in the same area as enemy units pin an equal number of units, forcing those units to engage in combat, while unpinned units are free to move. Combat occurs and must end with only one side in an area. Each year players get replacement points to build and/or rebuild armies.
Combat will be instantly familiar to anyone who has played a Columbia Games’ title, the company that popularized the block-game concept. Each unit is rated with a letter and a number. The letter represents when a unit attacks, with A units going first, followed by B units, and so on. The number is the maximum number that counts as a hit. The number of dice rolled is equal to the number of steps, and defenders always go first. So a defending A3 unit goes before an attacking A2 unit, rolling a number of dice equal to its strength in steps, and looking for one, two, or three on each die. Each hit takes one step off the strongest unit on the other side. There are three rounds of combat and if no one has wiped out the opposing forces one side must retreat.
Movement to combat is hindered by the terrain, with clear terrain sides allowing a larger force to enter than a rough terrain side. Combine this with the fact defenders always fire first, and damage results are not simultaneous, and you have a system that favors the defender. One thing that helps though is that the Swedish forces generally are better rated than the Russians, allowing the Swedes to have a decent chance at bringing the fight east.
As Napoleon and Hitler will learn years later, driving into Russia can have severe consequences. In Pax Baltica, to represent the manpower shortage Sweden will face once its armies start to take losses, there are two attrition tracks. If Sweden has not invaded Russia the track can hurt, but the pain is much more severe once in Russia. As Sweden takes losses it becomes harder to try to activate allies, and much more expensive to replace troops.
On the subject of activating allies, the political game in Pax Baltica is a very basic affair. Once a year a player may roll a single die to activate an ally as defined by the scenario. A six activates the nation. Each nation has some basic rules for its play (such as the Ottomans can only enter certain regions). These minor nations can then be knocked out of the overall war for three years and then allowed to activate again after the penalty period.
A game on the Great Northern War with dozens of pages of rules, hundreds of counters, and a long playing time would limit its potential audience. The designers of Pax Baltica wisely chose to make a more open, and playable, game on the subject.
With a low unit count, games can be set up in a matter of minutes. Thanks again to the unit count and the straightforward mechanics of move, fight, and maybe replace, each seasonal turn can last a matter of minutes. The entire campaign, lasting 86 seasonal turns, can be played in a (long) day. None of the mechanics are complex, making this a game that can be easily taught to non-wargamers. The developers should also be commended for how well the system integrates the various strengths and weaknesses of the combatants without bogging the game down. All in all, the ease of the game makes it a great beer and pretzels simulation.
One knock, though, against the low unit count is the fact that a few bad die rolls, whether in combat or as a result of a random event, can really impact a side. Once one side begins a decline it’s very hard to come back. This may be historical, but it’s not necessarily a fun ride.
Pax Baltica can easily be recommended to gamers of all levels of experience. It makes for an enjoyable afternoon of grand strategy that does not involve the usual panzer pushing, and with the topic being one rarely examined in the West the game feels fresh and exciting.
Armchair General Rating: 87%
Solitaire Rating (1 is low, 5 is high): 3 of 5
About the Author:
Scott R. Krol has been writing professionally about games for almost twenty years now, on both sides of the critic/publisher fence, but has loved them for even longer. He resides in the historic Southern city of Roswell, Georgia, which was surprisingly not burned to the ground by Sherman on his way to Atlanta.