Published by Casper (Target Games)
Designed by Dan Glimne and Henrik Strandberg
Reviewed by Mike Siggins
Article published at The Game Cabinet
2 to 5 players
about 120 mins
Why is it that some good games are actively played for a month or two and then cruelly abandoned on the shelf? It would be true to say that my copy of Republic of Rome, one of the worst sufferers of this malaise, has not been out of its box since it was released, what, five years ago? This is a great shame, since although it was on the long side, it was a very good system that would doubtless age well, and one that has not, against all the odds, yet been emulated or adapted. Until now. Svea Rike is not the same game by a long chalk, but shares some of the earlier game's better ideas: alternating co-operative and combative player roles, a card deck that drives the game and unites the players, and a strong historical and economic basis. Does it work? Yes, very well in the main, and we have enjoyed several games recently.
Svea Rike concerns itself with 300 years of Swedish history. Opening with the reign of Gustav Vasa in 1523, it encompasses around twenty successive monarchs, of which most of us would recognise Gustavus Adolphus, concluding with Karl XIII in 1825. The three eras covered are typical of European powers of the time: expansion, consolidation and the imperial age. The players take the roles of powerful, and omnipresent, noble families and your aim is to make money, claim lands, holdings and suitable brides and, when required, fight for your country's freedom. All in the eternal search for victory points. The winner is the player who has gained a good mix of land, income, troops, spoils of war, and cash by the end of the game.
Now many of you may already be thinking that this is a typical Siggins 'scoop' - recent but obscure, historically themed, deeply foreign and, perhaps, of little interest to most of the normal gaming population. I am rather mindful of Lords of the Sierra Madre and Ostindinska Kompaniet at this point, and hold up my hands to the charges (though I still like them!). But bear with me. Svea Rike is foreign, emanating from its native Sweden and festooned with 'muppet chef' lingo, but we can work around that, and when we have the system works and could easily be applied to Germany, France or any similar country. Even Britain or America might work with some amendments. Any one of these could be a big seller, and educational to boot, pitched as it is at the family gaming market - this is not a wargame; well, certainly less than Republic of Rome was. Perhaps Casper or others will pursue those alternate country scenarios in time. To add to the pedigree, the game has just won Game of the Year in Sweden and is co-designed by Dan Glimne, international poker authority, writer, creator of the aforementioned Ostindiska Kompaniet, Spionage, Andy Capp and Dungeonquest and an all round good egg.
Svea Rike is superbly produced. Reflecting the high standards of the German games we have known for years, this easily stands beside any of them. The whole game, from box to faction markers, sports excellent graphics and the whole feel is one of quality. The board is especially attractive, showing Sweden separated into its constituent regions, with links to its main neighbours and enemies of the period (Prussia, Denmark, Russia and Poland) and potential overseas colonies. Around the map are the images of the monarchs which regulate play length (rarely over two hours, sometimes less) and the three eras. The game features several sets of full colour cards, many with scanned period artwork, which represent events, holdings and the driver deck, all of which are lovely to look at. The rules have already been translated by the publisher into excellent English (but have not included this in the box - look for it soon on the Cabinet) and these include full translations of all the cards. Unfortunately, while all the cards were there, they weren't listed in Swedish, so I had to laboriously work out which card was which and then put them in alphabetical order - all of which smooths the reading of the Swedish card text which is so vital to gameplay. Again, the play sheet is in the Sumo Rules Bank and we may get round to putting pictures with the text to make things even easier.
So how does the game work? A typical turn (corresponding to a reign) sees a series of decisions which have both immediate, tactical impact as well as a strategic result. There are usually three options in any given reign: agricultural, commercial and culture & science. The former enables you to gain steady income by claiming new fiefs across the country. The second option is far more risky, but lucrative, as you build up a network of overseas trade - the downside being ejection, and needing to start from scratch, in event of war with the trade partner. And the third option means you collect, Settlers Special card fashion, palaces, princesses and personalities from diplomacy and science to boost your coffers come game end.
At first, we all thought that the agriculture option was by far the strongest, even those that decided against it. It is low in risk, permits steady income and provides a lot of domestic clout. However, while it was a good policy in the early games, by game three we had seen the rise of commerce (plenty of income if you are lucky) and the portfolio strategy (agriculture plus trade and the odd palace) and also the agricultural players being picked on - verbally and in real terms...! Game four was won by a mile by a commercially bold player (who managed to keep his traders in hiding during a major war) and game five was secured by a mix of strategies, revolving around several luxurious palaces. So, an interesting situation and balance, with several routes to victory, which leads me neatly to the most influential element of the system.
Much has been said for and against event cards. I like them if they work well, and usually put up with any problems for the atmosphere and chaos thus generated. Svea Rike comes with two flavours - the major driver cards that will determine Sweden's fate for a generation or two, and transient event cards that are acquired, held and freely deployed by the players. The driver cards are turned over each turn and dictate what the country, and by extension the players, are up to that turn. It may be peace, in which case everyone ploughs fields or trades and makes money, or it may be something nasty, or worse - it may be war - cue groans from the players and a hard time for all. War means two things. Firstly, all traders present in the enemy country are ejected resulting in loss of income and the need to build them up again slowly. Secondly, it means the Poles, or the Danes or hopefully not the mighty Russians, will need to be beaten off. Players decide whether to send their troops (if they don't, they risk being branded a traitor and the Crown confiscating their lands), pay extra for their maintenance on campaign, and fight the invading hordes. Sometimes the combined players win, and spoils are awarded. Sometimes, and regularly against Russia, they lose and the winner retrieves a disputed territory.
The specific event cards are rather double edged. They add much period feel - sudden death of the monarch, protectorates, murder at the opera - and also keep the game from becoming a predictable procession. Few gamers like those (Outpost fans excepted), fewer still like games over which they can exercise little control. Overall, Svea Rike successfully steers a path through the middle ground but it is in this area that I have my only major criticism of Svea Rike. It is the old one of play balance. The cause is almost certainly the event cards and their related effects, and their crime, which partly sunk Automania, is their relative strengths. There are cards that are subtle and flavoursome which no one really minds. There are also cards, and others in combination, that really hurt the balance. Spread around 'fairly' these cards can be tolerated, rationalised and worked around. Targetted at one person, or encountered early in the game when your empire is still a fledgling, the recipient can be as good as dead. Not eliminated, but not exactly participating to the max. We saw this in game two, early on, to two of the players. Not good, but worse there was a knock on effect where the others saw the problem and switched off. We folded the game after half an hour due to lack of interest. This was doubly odd since the first game had not suffered noticeably and was deemed a huge success.
Interestingly, there were few adverse comments about the driver cards though these two can cause great inconvenience, or even a lost game. A succession of nasty cards, generating famines or repeated wars, will bring most of the players to their knees, but can effectively take the weaker players out of the game. The difference is that they are seen to affect everyone, positively or adversely, and that the events stipulated are somehow more easily rationalised. One can relate to famine, or war at the worst possible time, and all Swedes band together in a common aim. But when your lands revolt, or your hard earned palace is torched, it is harder to attribute the act to fate. This is largely because there is a grinning nerk across the table who has played the offending card. Okay, so this is true of most "Hah! Take That!" systems but it is the scale and severity of some cards that causes the pain.
While the game seems to work best with five (each one taking a family) we have also played with three and four with few problems. For some reason there doesn't seem to be much escalation in time with five players, perhaps because ones actual turn is so quick and 'joint' turns (wars) are common to all games.
Svea Rike is a very good game. Not great, missing that evasive special ingredient, but still very good. It represents one of the surprises of this year as far as 'gamer's games' go, has some interesting systems, is easy to pick up, has clearly been well designed and plays in a surprisingly short time - like the best European designs, it feels longer than it is, and is full of variety and action. The theme is appealing, the flavour strong and the mechanisms are largely sound and Dan Glimne is already working on expansion kits - the in activity for 1997 apparently. What lets it down occasionally are those event cards. Most are fine, some are too strong, a few can be cripplingly powerful - especially in combination, or when concentrated. Fortunately, it is easy to leave out or tone down cards that you consider too potent (probably after the first game). If you see fit, it should also be possible to agree a house rule restricting their acquisition and perhaps play - one in, one out per turn might be a good starting point.
Balance issues resolved, this would be an outstanding game and one that marks a smooth evolution from Republic of Rome. I don't think it has the depth or quite the political feel of that excellent but underplayed game, but since this is aimed at a different audience, is more broad brush in both respects, isn't so fiddly, and features far less scheming (and shorter rules!), I much prefer the later arrival. It is quick, fun and original and our first game, slight problems aside, was one of the gaming highlights of 1997. If you can handle tweaking the cards, looking up the Swedish text, can enjoy a two hour game with a fascinating mix of empire building and co-operation, and a richly historic background, then Svea Rike will be well worth your time. With those provisos, highly recommended.
Svea Rike is available from Casper/Target Games AB, Box 4628, 11691 Stockholm, Sweden.
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