Given that I love card-driven wargames, and that I love multi-player wargames and that I find Here I Stand difficult to get to the table due to the length and number of players, it’s natural that I should eventually gravitate toward what’s usually labelled as the most approachable of the multi-player CDG’s, Successors, re-released by GMT last year in a spanking reprint with new art and a mounted board. This was an interesting game for me to try because it was the first time ever that I’d played a historical game entirely on the basis of mechanical appeal rather than historical interest: my knowledge of pre-Roman history is sketchy at best, and my awareness of the post-Alexandrian classical world in which Successors is based is zero.
Players in the game represent one of the loose coalitions of Alexander’s generals who struggled for control of his huge empire after his death. At the start of the game each player is given two or more initial areas of the board to control and some starting forces. These are randomly drawn and yet the game tends to start out fairly balanced which is a pretty impressive achievement that adds greatly to the re-playability of the game since you’ll rarely find yourself in the same starting position twice. After that the game conforms pretty much to the standard CDG fare: all players draw from the same card deck and take it in turns to play a card from their hand. Each card can either be played for it’s event effect, or for a number of operations points which can be used to move or recruit troops. Anyone familiar with one of the other CDG’s in this family such as Hannibal should be able to pick this up fairly easily. For anyone else the game offers a moderately steep learning curve and I would suggest trying a read-through of the rules before deciding on a purchase.
Successors, however has a number of unique features which set is aside from the pack. On trawling the rules the most notable of these is the byzantine and confusing set of victory conditions. There are two sets of scores (victory and legitimacy) to keep track of for starters, which don’t just come from the things you might expect like bashing other players and conquering territory but rather for strange actions like ensuring Alexanders’ body gets a decent funeral or marrying one of his relatives. You can also be declared regent if you’re in control of one his heirs when they come of age which occurs on different turns depending on the heir in question. To make matters worse these things get recalculated constantly and can be the source of auto-wins, leading to the situation amongst inexperienced gamers of someone checking a totally unconnected rule and suddenly announcing “oh, it appears I’ve won”. Of course this issue disappears with repeat plays but it adds an irritating dimension of complexity to an already reasonably hefty game, not to mention the ugly possibility to repeat plays of a 4-5 hour game that end unsatisfactorily before you get the hang of it. On the plus side though, it doesn’t half add to the depth of strategy once you get used to it.
Another curious thing about Successors is that unlike any other war game I’ve ever come across, the players are actively discouraged from fighting one another. Everyone starts out as a “champion” but the instant you attack another champion you loose some legitimacy points and are open to attack by other players without fear of similar penalty. In a fun twist however this rule doesn’t apply to the player in the lead on whom the other players can declare open season without fear of penalty. Inevitably all players will eventually come to blows, but the rules encourage leaving this general melee as late as possible unless there’s a potentially huge gain for doing so. Instead most of the action on the board comes from a player using an event to activate one of the large collection of neutral armies on the board which represent non-Greek peoples seeking to carve a chunk for themselves out of the post-Alexandrian chaos. This may very well be a good way of simulating the history, but I found it terribly frustrating and it remains my biggest black mark against the game: if I feel another player deserves a good kicking, I want to be able to give it to them without worrying about how the mass of Macedonian aristocracy will view my actions. I’m supposed to be the one with the massive armies, after all!
In a similar vein the initial random setup coupled with the shape of gorgeous-looking mounted map mean that it’s quite common for you to start out sharing one or more borders. That tends to limit the amount of meta-game diplomacy that goes on since it’s difficult to negotiate the required multi-ways deals. There is some scope for it, of course, especially when it comes to the free-for-all against the Usurper but the design tries - and succeeds - in ensuring that it becomes an aspect of the overall strategy rather than dominating the play as is so common in multi-way conflict games of this type. It’s interesting to note though that of course this approach of limiting both excessive agression and negotiation also kicks a lot of the stuff that’s commonly held to be undesirable about multi-player conflict games such as kingmaking and the like into the long grass. Given that the original version of Successors hails from way back in 1993 this is actually a really impressive piece of creative and forward-thinking game design from an era where these “problems” were seen as part and parcel of gaming rather than issues to be solved.
Like a lot of other CDG’s based on this system, combat is incredibly brutal and unforgiving. You total the strength of your forces and their leader, roll two dice and cross reference the two on a table which tends to smooth the odds down so that superior forces still have a significant chance of loosing. The winner takes a single casualty while the poor old looser has all his mercenaries (the most common troop type in the game) slaughtered and the rest of his forces dispersed and in need of spending ops points to rebuild. This uncertain and bloody resolution is historically accurate for ancients battles but it won’t suit everyone. However unlike other ancients CDG’s which have been criticised for the randomness of their combat systems, Successors offers some interesting ways to ameliorate the problem. It’s not terribly hard to get more troops, for starters, as long as you’re prepared to buy mercenaries and therein lies the second point of interest because as I’ve already pointed out, mercenaries aren’t a whole lot of use and die very easily. So there’s some strategic decision making woven into the chaos as well.
Successors is a fun game but ultimately it can’t quite compete with the best of its 2-player brethren such as Hannibal or Twilight Struggle which are about as much fun as 2 people can have with their clothes on. But it remains the most accessible of the multi-player CDG’s with a manageable play time, complexity level and the ability to scale reasonably well to both three and four players. Personally I found the limitations placed on player interaction to be mildly irritating, but the fact remains that it’s de rigueur for most modern multi-player conflict games and I think my discomfort with it here has more to do with its marriage to some old-style combat mechanics than anything else. It’s also interesting to note that some of my feelings about the game are almost certainly down to my ignorance of the source material on which it is based. Playing Successors has forced me to consider the interesting question of whether ConSims of any stripe are likely to fall flat for players who are ignorant of the history behind their designs. So if you’re got a thirst for classical history and are looking to scratch that multi-player CDG itch after enjoying some 2-player fare, Successors is certainly the game for you.
Matt is the founder of Fortress: Ameritrash. He is also a regular columnist for Board Game News.