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Churchill Review

MT Updated May 02, 2019
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Churchill Review

Game Information

Game Name
There Will Be Games

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.

Editor reviews

1 reviews

There's a absolutely brilliant game in this box. But it requires a lot more time and effort to tease out than most gamers are willing to give it. The scoring rules, although not long, are incomprehensible at first and it takes several plays to understand how to win. And it needs three exactly to play and to play together repeatedly to get to grips with the strategy. If you want one game, for three, for years, get Churchill. If you want variety, don't.
#1 Reviewer 286 reviews
Matt Thrower (He/Him)
Head Writer

Matt has been writing about tabletop games professional since 2012, blogging since 2006 and playing them since he could talk.


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SuperFlySwatter's Avatar
SuperFlySwatter replied the topic: #216135 30 Nov 2015 03:32
I have taken you to task Before Matt, paticularly with your phillistine lack of appreciation for the genius of Knizia, but this Review was fucking fantastic.

Unfortunately as I get older (wiser? doubt it) I realise that it requires a proper commitment with some games, and they are no doubt Worth it but you need also some fellow players who are willing and interested to invest the time and energy in it. Many, many times I have bought these kinds of games in some kind of weird fantasy hope that this will occur for me, but the reality is I dont have the time or energy to take on too many big games at once, nor do I have access to a Group of people I like enough to play regularly enough with for a long enough time to make these things work for me.

I could probably ascribe the bulk of my Comedy buying, and Selling, and trading and buying again the hundreds of games that have come in and out of my ownership to this same disconnect between me being a lot more "into" the hobby than really meshes with the reality of my time/social circle. Its taken me a good many years to really Wake up to this fact

anyway that was a long rambling way to say that I can still appreciate great Writing like this, that captures the essence of game that I find very interesting, even if the reality is I doubt I will find the time to experience this. So I'll vicariously say thanks for taking the time to put this article together and now I'll bob off and play Troyes with the wife instead :)
Gary Sax's Avatar
Gary Sax replied the topic: #216138 30 Nov 2015 07:56
I have heard incredibly mixed things about this game...
Matt Thrower's Avatar
Matt Thrower replied the topic: #216148 30 Nov 2015 10:01

I have heard incredibly mixed things about this game...

That's likely because the amount of effort to demands is going to be divisive. I thought it peculiar at first. Even now I've decided that it's very good, I'm not sure I can really give it the time it needs.
JEM's Avatar
JEM replied the topic: #216150 30 Nov 2015 10:14
I really enjoyed this review. You have touched on that basic issue with the game, the need to play it more than once. That's going to be the main sticking point.
DukeofChutney's Avatar
DukeofChutney replied the topic: #216189 30 Nov 2015 14:58
This is a great review Matt shame SUSD or someone did not buy it from you but such is the interest in war* games in the wider market i guess. What you say is consistent with what I have heard about this game, it is not guaranteed first time fun and it requires players to invest in it to get a serious return rather than simply complaining if they think they can game the system first time. I've also heard that the longer game is the one to go for.

My friend has bought it, and it might be our new years eve game.
ratpfink's Avatar
ratpfink replied the topic: #216695 05 Dec 2015 20:54
I played my second game of Churchill tonight. I liked it a lot more and kept my meltdown about the incomprehensible scoring rules and some of the visual design decisions for the very end. We mostly did not keep score which seems to help move it along. We only did a check at the halfway point and then before the last turn.

The puzzle box comparison is pretty apt I think. It's not really clear to me if what I'm doing is the best way to get points. That's mostly compounded because I'm never sure exactly how many points you should be getting, and at which other player's expense. Plus while there's a lot of levers and buttons, I'm not always able to pull or push them because I'm stymied by the other players or possibly some bad luck.

I agree that it requires some effort and the full campaign is maybe too long for an average weeknight game, and it occupies a weird 3-player game space, so I'm not sure how often it'll get out but I'm now more interested in trying again than I was after my first play a few months ago.