When I first played Churchill I was in the middle of reading a book about Stalin. The moustachioed mass-murderer who killed twenty million of his own people. "I'm not playing Stalin," I muttered as I wrestled to unfold the board. "I'll be Churchill, or Roosevelt, but Stalin was just a bastard." Then the board popped flat with that famous moustache and paranoid smirk right where I was sat. Sometimes, you can't argue with fate.
That first game was a Kafkaesque nightmare of which Stalin would have approved. The title simulates the conferences between the allied powers of World War 2 which shaped the post-war world. Players pick political issues to debate. Then they try to win them by playing numerical cards representing historic diplomats. Winning issues allows you to influence the course of the war which, in turn, earns you victory points. The game isn't hard to learn. And you can play it in under three hours. What's difficult is that you win points two steps away from your actual decision making.
Afterwards we sat, sweaty and dishevelled, in a nest of discard chits and beer bottles like the aftermath of some nerdy ménage à trois. We weren't exactly sure how we'd got to where we were, but the journey had been thrilling. The earth had moved for us all.
At first, Churchill felt like a puzzle box in the form of a game. We understood the rules. All we had to do was figure out the best strategies for putting decisions in to get points out. The trouble is that whenever you push a button or a lever on the box, the results happen somewhere else entirely. It's fascinating, intricate and addictive. Like every geek presented with a conundrum, we were full of fire to work it out.
So we reconvened a second session. This time, we knew what to expect. This time, we were going to pull all the right levers and push all the right buttons. This time, we were going to play this as the serious, intense strategy game for grown-ups it was obviously intended to be.
That lasted one turn before we decided it was far more fun to talk smack instead. As a game about debates, Churchill demands that you rain insults on your opponents with every card. Both Roosevelt and I and noticed in the first game that spreading political influence was a good route to points. Every time he chose a Political issue, I debated him. Debating is a way of stymieing other player's moves and it's what the Russians do best. "You Commie fuck. Why not debate the British?" he shouted, knowing full well I wouldn't. "Why do you keep picking the issues I need?" I countered, knowing full well he'd carry on.
Of course the end result was a British victory. But that made us notice something else. The UK and US earn most of their points together, because they had joint investment in armies and the A-bomb. So tiny things like whether Italy or Normandy get invaded first can determine which of the two gets the edge. The Russians are rubbish at winning conferences so they have to grub for points doing grunt work. Getting spies into Eastern Europe and the Manhattan Project. Defeating the Nazis. That sort of thing.
There are some other oddities about winning. If the lead player wins by too much, then the second-place player gets the victory. The rules say this is to simulate one ally becoming too dominant and having the other two conspire against them in the post-war world. I wanted to understand this, and the other historical nuances of the victory conditions, better.
Churchill is at its best with three players. With less, one or more positions get controlled by a flowchart of decisions. So I had a go at playing with myself. That is, I took Stalin again and used the flowcharts for the UK and US to play a game and see if I could figure out the history. And, secretly, I was hoping for clues to help me solve the puzzle box better, faster than my friends.
The flowcharts are no replacement for a human player. They don't offer the satisfaction of reacting angrily to your merciless gloating, for one thing. For another, while they're effective at playing their own country they care far less about winning the war. In that solo game, for the first time, I changed the course of history for the worst. I invaded Germany, but Japan still stood proud and undefeated.
It felt like a loss. It kind of was a loss. It's clear that players should work together to beat the Axis powers as well as working against each other to win. Otherwise a winner gets determined partly at random, by adding or subtracting a die of victory points. The practical reason for this is to stop a lagging player deliberately collapsing the game into a group loss. It feels contrived but it does function as a spur for the players to co-operate just enough to win the war.
Armed with this new knowledge, we tried again. And this time, finally, things began to click. Instead of mere trash talk, we were badgering each other to gain an edge. Roosevelt and Churchill were pleading with me to open a front against Japan, because it's hard to win the war without it. In turn, I used that leverage to insist on finishing off the Germans first. It wasn't just trading insults any more. It felt like a real debate, political brinksmanship over the fate of cardboard Europe.
We started paying attention to what the diplomat cards in our hands actually did. Each has a special ability which works in conjunction with particular kinds of issue. So picking conference issues became a balance between what you actually needed to debate and what you can do so most effectively. Exactly the sort of problems which face genuine diplomats to this day.
Once understood, you begin to see these trade-offs everywhere in the game. You accumulate political power only at the expense of military power. You put issues up for debate at the risk of someone else stealing them. Some of the aged and most experienced diplomats carry the risk of dying if you use them.
This is the framework for that fiendish puzzle box. Slide away one section and see if you can solve it for yourself. Try it again the next game and someone will push the other way to see if they can beat you. As you learn to unlock each layer, there are fresh ones beneath to explore, each more intricate than the last. You can even start to manipulate those victory conditions. In one game, as Britain pulled ahead, the US and Russia conspired to fund their armies and feed them victory points. They won so many that the second-place player clause kicked in and the USSR took a deserved win.
Fittingly for a history game, Churchill feels like it belongs to a different time. We play in an era of fast-food titles. Cheap to buy, easy to learn, addictive to play and then just as easy to throw in the cupboard and move on. Churchill, by contrast, takes as long to appreciate as the entire shelf lives of some of its peers. It is not as clumsy or as random as your average family game. A more elegant title, for a more civilized age.