This article appeared originally on everydayolympia.com. I am archiving it, publicly, here.
A Game by Richard Sivel
Today we will be reviewing the board game Friedrich. It is a four to five hour game for 3-4 players that sets out to simulate the Seven Year War between Prussia and the rest of Europe. It is my second favorite game, a legitimate piece of art, and another example of how beautifully crazy the human mind can work–what grand things can be thought of from disparate sparks of whimsy and then melded into some new whole. It is also, of course, incredibly fun.
The game pits three players against one. The three represent the major powers of Europe at the time-Austria, France and Russia along with some other minor powers. The unlucky player is Prussia-Friedrich the Great- the country and leader that everyone is out to get. Luckily for Friedrich the three Europeans aren’t actually allied, they all have selfish goals in mind, cities each needs to conquer to be declared sole winner. Friedrich just needs to survive long enough until the other country leaders either die or surrender out of exhaustion. It is quite hard to win as Friedrich. Signing up to play as him is like signing up to play “Stop Hitting Yourself” with your older brother, both of you knowing you can’t stop hitting yourself until he lets go of your hand but you can’t figure out how to make him stop. The game plays differently each time you depending on which country you choose. Sometimes you want the slow behemoth of Austria, sometimes the darting nimble France or the desperate, fatalistic Russia. And sometimes you want to have a small aneurysm while everyone yells at you for four hours and you panic sweat through your shirt so hard it becomes unusable. Then you’d volunteer to play Friedrich.
The game was created by Richard Sivel, springing from an idea he got while watching TV. If only all our TV watching led to such results! He wanted to make a game that combined the troop management and tactical maneuvering of war games with battles fought using only playing cards. Also, he wanted it to be historically accurate while also endlessly replayable. And he wanted it simple enough to keep the rules to a few pages. It took him fourteen years. Friedrich succeeds on all fronts. To me, playing Friedrich is similar to reading Nabokov or Flann O’Brien. The treat is peeking into a gorgeous brain and seeing the Babbage-like machine within producing such wonderful thoughts, thoughts as intricate as the network of branches on a tree.
The game is played with a large battle map of Prussia and its surrounding environs and five decks of playing cards. Players move their wooden generals around from point to point in a meticulously detailed board where the distance from point to point is based on the actual topography of the land. The map is overlaid with a grid, with each box of the grid bearing a card suit. When Friedrich and another country meet they fight using cards, playing only in the suit their pieces are currently located in. At the end of the round a card of fate is pulled. Mostly the cards say trivial things like, “Voltaire writes Friedrich a letter. He thinks Friedrich is cool.” Other times the card will say, “the Queen of Russia dies. Russia surrenders.” If this happens, Russia has to immediately leave the game, no matter how well the player is doing. When every country has left like this, Friedrich wins. If one of the countries conquers Prussia before this happens, then they win.
The intricacies of the game are in the subtle rule details. The different amount of cards each country gets each turn, the rules for retreating and defending cities, the strategic possibilities of the country’s landscapes carried through by the pointillist map. The game should not work, the battles should not work, but somehow it does. And it does so dramatically. You feel the storm and sweep of an epic war. Friedrich is juggling multiple theatres, the other players have short and long goals they slowly see realized through grand tide-changing battles or just well maneuvered troops that cut off Friedrich’s supply by surprise and make him retreat back to Potsdam. And all of this happens without the players realizing it. There’s an embarrassing side effect to boardgaming. When someone gets really into the game they stand up, as if that extra height perspective will somehow help them. No one realizes they’re doing it or how stupid they look, like playing guitar with your mouth open. You’ll go into Olympic Cards and Comics and see some calm game of Magic: the Gathering happening, everyone sitting down except one excitable youth, standing, with his fists planted intensely on the table. Whenever I play Friedrich, everyone ends up standing. Every time. All four of us there with our chairs forgotten, looming over the map, scanning the countryside, shuffling, stressed, through our piles of cards. Last game, after six hours of the game, it came down to Prussia and Austria in one last battle. My friend Zatarain was playing Austria, and as he stared at the board and put his first card down he said, “I’m sweating. Why am I sweating?!”
Also, each time we play Friedrich, all though it takes half a day, as soon as it ends one of us invariably wants to play again.
This game does take a long time, somewhere between two and eight hours depending on how the cards of fate play. You will not notice the time. This game is an event, as are all the great games. It is a great testament to what happens when you listen to those plucks of inspiration, and have the patience and discipline to see them realized. Lucky for us, Richard Sivel had an inspiration that is fantastic to play. I hope you enjoy the game.