|This atmospheric photo produced by Cornelius Rosenkrantz|
How are all of these competing interests distilled into a three player game? The designer brilliantly attends to this by one player controlling France & Bavaria, the second handling Austria and the third playing both Prussia and the Pragmatic Army.
But wait, those of you who know the history of this conflict are entitled to ask 'how come the same player handles Austria's enemy - Prussia - and its ally, the Prags?' On this score, you can relax - the game functions perfectly well under this arrangement, largely due to the map being split into two regions, resulting in the French and Prags duking it out in the West, and the French, Austrians and Prussians (and their minor allies) on the march in the east.
So what's so great about this title? Without going into too much detail, the design, play experience and components are all outstanding. At little more than 10 pages, the rulebook won't give you palpitations. A game can be played out in a single afternoon. In Maria, thanks to players secretly allocating a certain number of available armies to each general, you don't know your opponent's strength until you start a battle. Movement is point-to-point along roads linking towns and cities.
Here's a Vassal screenshot by Steve Bishop, of a Prussian player's troop allocation sheet - kept hidden from other players:
Another clever aspect to the game is that - as with Friedrich - the map is overlaid with a grid in which each square is coded according to a playing card suit - hearts, diamonds, clubs or spades. Once battle is joined, whatever suit your army occupies determines what cards you can play from your hand. Reserve cards act as wilds, representing any suit. What then develops is a poker-like duel between you and your adversary. Whoever is defeated or chooses to cut their losses and withdraw, then has to face the consequences: retreating and losing troop points.
The standard of the map, playing pieces and cards are all top-notch. The cards deserve special mention: they are simply wonderful to look at, gorgeously evoking the period:
|Photo by William Hunt|
What I have described so far covers the gist of the introductory game. In a departure from Friedrich, the Expert Game adds rules and cards that account for the political intrigue that was such a significant part of the conflict. Through the exercise of various political factors - mainly by successfully bidding for political cards that come into play each turn - players can use these cards to do things like shift markers left or right along political tracks that either favour themselves or penalise their opponents, provide troop reinforcements, or force the evil Prussians to withdraw a general and his army from the map, to attend to those pesky Russians (ok, I admit to a bit of bias there!). Winning battles also conveys political advantages, awarding prestige/victory points. At one point, an election for Holy Roman Emperor comes up. Controlling specific fortresses at the time of voting can deliver a distinct advantage in the election.
I've played Maria about 4 times now (twice using the Expert Rules) and found there is much to admire and enjoy in this game. Sadly, I don't yet own a physical copy of the game, but hope to attend to that deficiency in the future. In the meantime, I look forward to my next game.
Regarding book titles, I have not yet read anything dedicated to the War of Succession, so have no recommendations to offer for this one. Someone more in the know may like to put forward a suggestion!