Reviewer: Jacob Toman
Developer: Ed Beach
Published by: GMT Games
Genre: Strategy War Game
Virgin Queen is the sequel to the historical war simulation game “Here I Stand” from GMT Games. Game designer Ed Beach (who is also leading up development on Civilization 6 and developed Here I Stand) has outdone himself with another fantastic game that puts players in the midst of the power struggle of 16th century Europe.
My own favorite board games are games that offer difficult decisions for players to choose from. Virgin Queen challenges players in their decision making at every turn. Even the victory conditions add a layer to the challenge of decision making since there are multiple paths to victory.
Win condition 1: Have the most points after 6 turns.
Win condition 2: End a turn with 25 points or more
Win condition 3: Control enough Keys (particular cities)
Each player takes on the role of a major power seeking it’s glory around the globe. The major powers playable are Ottomans, Spanish, English, French, Holy Roman Empire and Protestants.
The game board is divided into one major primary action map, and several smaller action maps. Portions of the map are dedicated to representations of Europe, Asia, and the Americas. Conflict has overrun almost every city, port, and religious group. While the conflict is often represented by armies crossing borders and laying siege to cities, there is another persistent conflict throughout the length of the game that exists beyond the board: this is the dynamic conflict of personalities between players gathered at the table.
A typical turn lasts about an hour. Each player has a chance to play a card from their hand either for a special event, or for resources to be spent on various actions. Making a choice between using a card for a special event or resources can mean the difference between winning and losing.
There are three major components to gameplay: Diplomacy, Military Strategy, and Balance of Power.
The ongoing dynamic of relational diplomacy is the driving force behind the game. As each player makes decisions for their factions, there are rivals, friends, traitors, and informants that emerge. Every strategy game I've played includes dice, armies, and managing resources, but no other strategy war game combines tactical military knowhow with grand political strategy. Virgin Queen rewards those who are masters of deceit, negotiating, and organizing; between turns plays can negotiate for the exchange of lords and ladies in marriage, pursue scientists, renaissance artists, trade cities, troops, fleets, and action cards. Because players have such a wide variety of options for trade, enemies can emerge from negotiations as trusted allies, while trusted allies can leave negotiations as treacherous brutes. It is the human element that makes this game so compelling; no two turns are the same, and no two games repeat history.
Wielding the combined forces of both land and sea, players engage in deciding who to go to war with, when to strike peace, and when to pirate promising rival ports. Each city, fort, and port are connected via paths; this type of movement mechanic is called “point to point”. Some of the particular nuances of point to point based movement systems are found in the choke points created through the limitations of available moves. The choke points along two rivals borders demand the attention of players who hope to achieve victory on the battlefield. While there is a lack of tactical combat in the battle results themselves (battles are resolved with a few simple tosses of dice), the challenge of military strategy in Virgin Queen comes in when and where to strike.
Certain factions have stronger land armies than their opponents or neighbors along a border. Choosing to go to war can be the clinching plot to a player's victory...or it can fail, and create an enemy that has a long memory of betrayal. Knowing when and where to strike with your military’s strength isn’t just a differentiating factor between play styles; it’s the difference between winning and losing in Virgin Queen. A general proverb of wisdom: when there is a war between 3 armies, never be on the side without the ally.
Balance of Power:
In a game of 6 players with rules that allow for anyone and everyone to band together, or fight to the death, much of the game is balanced around each player keeping another opposing player in check. Some factions are uniquely positioned to prevent certain types of victories and goals from being achieved by other rival factions; an example of this would be If player A leading a faction decides to ally with player B when the rest of the players were expecting players A and B to go to war. This unexpected change in political alignment can mean a massive shift in the direction of gameplay for the duration of the alliance. 3 players could try to negotiate an anti-aggression pact against one player in particular. If the other 3 players don’t make an attempt to prevent or disrupt this type of anti-aggression pact, they will soon see themselves out of contention for victory.
This sort of negotiation is common in games of Virgin Queen. In this example, by a small power group of players narrowing down the contending parties for victory from 6 to 3, they have increased their own chances of winning, while also removing potential threats. It’s for this reason that maintaining the balance of power, and everyone at the table communicating clear expectations to both enemies and friends, is so important. I’ve more than once seen two allies disappointed with each other as they each thought the other was responsible to prevent another player from accomplishing a goal. It’s a bit like in baseball if you’ve ever seen two outfielders run into each other trying to catch a ball. To play good defence in baseball, there has to be clear communication. The same is true to maintain the balance of power in Virgin Queen.
While Virgin Queen is incredibly fun, it isn’t strategy alone that makes it great. The game’s excellence comes from the blending of a fascinating historical theme with compelling interactive mechanics. Each faction offer unique historical leaders, events, and paths to victory.
Ottomans: Suileman I
The Ottoman’s are a powerful force militarily at the start of the campaign. The Ottomans will be your favorite faction if you like bold aggression and the versatility to engage in war over land or sea.
Spanish: Philip II
The Spanish during this period of history are known for the construction of the great invasion fleet of England, the dreaded Armada. Players will enjoy leading the Spanish if they enjoy the multifaceted challenge of Juggling the many wars, alliances, and new world colonies.
English: Elizabeth I
Players take on the role of the Virgin Queen herself as they seek to expand the influence of the English empire across religious, political, and militaristic horizons. The English are for the sneaks, knaves, and rogues of gameplay.
French: Charles IX
The French player begins the campaign on the verge of victory. Centrally located between 4 other players, (Spanish, English, Protestant, and Holy Roman Empire) the French are in a tight spot diplomatically. France is best enjoyed by players who want to push themselves and their negotiations skills to the limits.
Holy Roman Empire: Maximilian II
Standing in the great gap between the ever expanding Ottoman horde and the west of Europe is the Holy Roman Empire. The Holy Roman Empire will be enjoyed by players that like to gauge their foes and wait for a decisive moment before making their game deciding play.
Protestants: Coligny, Henry Navarre, William of Orange, and Maurice of Nassau.
The Protestants are unique in Virgin Queen in that their lands are not their own at the outset of the game, nor are their lands united. Players who will enjoy playing as the Protestants thrive playing the role of spoiling upstart.
As a missionary that is pursuing relationships and seeking opportunities to listen to gamers and share Christ, this game provides a great platform for relationships that have already begun. I wouldn’t want to sit down and agree to a game of six, or eight, or twelve hours long with strangers or with people who didn’t want to share a daylong game. This game is analytical, strategic, and coercive, and that takes a special type of group to get together and play with.
I’m thankful that the Lord has allowed me to build relationships with many gamers in St. Louis to play Virgin Queen face-to-face with and around the world to play by email. At the end of one session of Virgin Queen, I had 2 friends who were atheists stay into the long dark hours of the morning talking about God. I strongly believe that conversation would never have happened had we not bonded and shared a day of gaming over Virgin Queen. You may never play a game of Virgin Queen, but would you be willing to pray for Gospel & Gaming as we play? Pray that the games we review, play, and share with others would be opportunities for God to be glorified!
Virgin Queen is not for the light hearted gamer. It’s long, and can at times be intense, but it’s near the top of my strategy games list right next to it’s predecessor Here I Stand. I’m hoping to play several more games of Virgin Queen this year by email, and maybe a few face-to-face. There aren’t many more ways I’d rather spend my board gaming time than with a masterpiece of historical theme, strategy, and diplomacy.
OVERALL SCORE: A-