[Originally posted on May 28, 2015]
Reviewer: Jacob Toman
Developer: GMT Games
Publisher: GMT Games
Here I Stand (shorthand HIS) is a table top grand strategy wargame that covers the events of Europe during the 16th century political and religious struggles known as the Reformation period.
I’ve had the chance to play a few games personally over the last few months. This review will be partitioned into two sections: the first part is general game information, and the second is about each faction in detail.
Section 1: About GMT Games’ “Here I Stand”
For starters, this game is NOT for anyone who is in the genesis of their gaming hobby. This isn’t an “opener”, an “ice breaker”, or a “Micro”, this is an intense game that takes at least 2-3 hours to READ the rules (let alone comprehend & remember). When playing Here I Stand you will always have one friend you want to keep close by your side, and that’s a copy of the rules. Thankfully the rules are readily available in PDF format. The group I’ve been playing with actually asks new players to read a copy of the rules prior to attending the game session, and then arriving 1 hour early for explanation and clarification of questions.
The game itself has a rather simple victory condition. Be the player with the most points after 9 turns, or finish a turn above 25 points. The game has several scenarios that change the state of the starting setup. Each game I’ve played has been under the 1517 scenario. All specifics on points, placements, and strategies are in reference to that particular scenario.
Each of the six factions have unique abilities which primarily are derived from leaders. Some leaders are static throughout the game, with both the Ottoman and the Protestant factions keeping Sulieman and Luther respectively throughout the game, whereas the French, Catholics, Brits, and Hapsburgs all have the potential to change leaders throughout the game.
Hundreds of pieces, 6 factions, 3 boards, and 1 massive rule book.
The game itself is a blend of several major game mechanics that individually can stand alone in entirely separate games. A couple of these major game mechanics are as follows:
*Card Driven Strategy
A Card driven strategy game is one in which players are given choices based on a set of cards that are dealt out each turn or round. These cards are related to the game’s theme, and often are named after an event or historical figure who was prominent during the game’s time period.
The anatomy of the cards in Here I Stand are as follows: A number is displayed in the top left corner in a yellow shield. A picture of the event named is displayed, with a card number directly above the picture. The name of the card is then in bold under the picture. Below the name of the card is the card’s text. A card typically can either be used for it’s specific game text, or be spent for actions points based on the number in the top left.
An example card is shown here.
Other games that use this mechanic (Click on any of the links to read more):
Many games use dice as a randomizing factor to add unpredictability and present the challenge of adaptation for players. Multiple sizes of dice can be used similar to a pen & paper RPG. These dice can vary from 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, or even 20 sided dice. Typically wargames use 6 sided dice. Dice are usually used in strategy war games to represent the performance of particular units or troops engaged in battle. Games that actually seek to allow players to tactically engage with battle maneuvers are called “tactical wargames”, which is a different genre entirely.
Other games in that use this mechanic (Click on any of the links to read more)
Not all strategy games are based on dice and cards. Many games include mechanics that can cause tension between players. For many games social mechanics provide players with opportunities that would otherwise be considered table talk and not allowed. Social diplomacy takes players involved in the game and turns them into dynamic, randomizing factors that must be taken into consideration with each choice. Social Diplomacy adds a relational element to what could otherwise be a rather non-interactive set of options. In HIS this mechanic actually allows players to have private discussions between played turns; players have a limited number of tradeable offers to make, and can only make decisions that affect the state of gameplay during the negotiations phase between each turn.
Other games in that use this mechanic (Click on any of the links to read more)
Because each faction can score points in their own unique way, conflicts will often arise in the following format.
Player 1: “I don’t want to do X, but if I don’t do X, then Y may grab 3 points that could lead to a win”
Player 2: “You could do that to me, or you could do Z, which would lead to a point for me, but it would also benefit you by giving you an extra card next turn”
Player 3: “I think you’re both wrong, if we don’t all 3 game up on player 4, the game ends next turn”
Player 4: “What? What’d I do? Go back to scheming against player 2 please, let me quietly climb to victory in peace.”
Player’s 5 & 6 nod knowingly at one another and agree to gang up on Player 3 the following turn.
The politics of the game are intriguing, thrilling, and dynamic, and no two games I’ve played have gone the same way. There are certainly concepts and opening strategies that are constant from game to game, but because of the many randomizing factors - dice, cards, players involved, faction being played - each game feels as though it carries a unique version of history within itself.
In summary, there are 6 factions, each of which has an important role to play in maintaining the balance of power (not letting someone run away with the game too easily). If all the players involved are playing for their own faction to win (not kingmaking and choosing another player to win the game - this is highly frowned upon and shows a genuine disinterest in having vested involvement in the game) this is what political alignments typically look like throughout a game of HIS.
Balance of power is a HUGE factor in this game. Each faction has both a duty and the capability at the start of the game to counter other factions. Relative geographic proximity as well as mutually shared points of interest create tension and collaboration between players. If a player decides to disregard a faction that his faction is capable of keeping in check, the game could quickly (relative to the game’s length of 8-12 hours) get out of hand. In this way, HIS plays like a massive game of checks & balances, with the political intrigue each player brings to the table adding to the unique experience each playthrough offers.
Section 2: Individual Faction Details & Descriptions
Here is a quick breakdown of each faction and playstyle. They are listed in level of difficulty to play through managing their political opportunities, mechanics, and ease of entry for new players.
Difficulty: Easiest (New Player Recommended)
Starting Points: 8
Natural Foes: Hapsburgs, Pope
The Ottoman Turks are one of the two more welcoming factions, not only in my opinion, but in the minds of many veteran players. Historically the Turks represented a huge threat to what is now eastern Europe. As the only faction that is not involved in the dispute over Christianity, the game does not force the Turkish player into any of the religious mechanics that dictate the pace of play from the Pope & Protestants. The Ottomans primarily score points through 2 means: land war to conquer Prague & Vienna, and pirating the Mediterranean. The Ottoman player can expect to be mainly fighting against the Hapsburgs, don’t play against anyone you can’t stand losing to.
Difficulty: Easier (New Player Recommended)
Starting Points: 9
Natural Foes: French & Hapsburgs
The English are the second of the two “welcoming factions”. They are a bit more challenging than the Ottomans as there is more diplomacy involved. Initially the English typically start negotiating a French settlement for the troops & land of Scotland. One of the reasons why most rank the Turks as easier to play than the English is that the Ottomans require no knowledge of the political landscape - simply attack what cities you can by land, and pirate what harbors you can by sea. The English are a stark contrast to that as their unique faction power allows them to actually declare war on another faction during the course of a turn. This is something no one else in the game can do, which lends to a deceptive play style. One of the more unique aspects of English play is the scoring system which is based entirely upon Henry’s wives’ pregnancy, and in classic board gaming fasion - yes, there is dice rolling, and a separate part of card board just for tracking the progress of Henry VIII’s desire for an heir.
Difficulty: Difficult (Play once or twice as Ottoman or English prior to Protestants)
Starting Points: 0
Playstyle: Strategically Aggressive
Interactions: Antagonistic towards the Papacy
Natural Foes: Pope & Hapsburgs
The Protestants are a step up from the Turks and English in that they have completely different objectives and mechanics for scoring than the previously two factions. At the beginning of the game (and potentially for the first 2 turns) the Protestants don’t exist as a nation with troops and political control. Much of the gameplay of the Protestants is dictated by dice rolling and card power. While more difficult than the Turks or English, the Protestants are the easier of the two religious factions as the Pope has several political dangers to worry about. Historically the Turks actually helped fund the German wars against the Pope and the game themes this very well by simply making Germany worth zero points to the Turkish player. The Reformation spreads quickly over four decades from Luther’s famous 95 Theses in Wittenberg, to France and England. This is captured through the progression of the game by more Protestant Reformers becoming available for use in religious debates, translating scripture, and wresting geographic religious control from the Pope.
Difficulty: Veteran (Play at least English & Protestants before playing France)
Starting Points: 12
Playstyle: Passive Progressive
Interactions: Monkey in the Middle with the Hapsburgs, Papacy, English & Protestants
Natural Foe: English
The French are one of the more difficult factions to play due to their geography. This difficulty stems from the availability of almost every player to hurt France for points - even the Ottomans can come pirate the south of France! The French start out with some controlled units in Scotland, and lay as the closest target for England to grab points off of warfare. For the first few turns, the French & English play nice, but watch out, French player! There is a massive force being trained in London that will no doubt soon cross the channel! France is also located near the Pope’s northwestern border, and directly between the Loyal Catholic troops of the Hapsburgs in Germany and Spain. The French score points by pursuing the arts, which is a slow but steady climb. It caps out at a lower point total than the Ottomans’ piracy, but it cannot be prevented by any other players or cards. Simply keep dumping actions into patronage, and 6 points will certainly come your way.
Difficulty: Veteran (Play all the previous factions prior to the Papacy)
Starting Points: 19
Natural Foe: Protestants
The Pope is by far one of the top two most difficult factions to play in HIS. One simple reason is that the Pope starts out much closer to the game’s victory objective than any other player. At 19 starting points the Pope can potentially pull off a turn 2 victory (in under 3 hours) if unchecked. The game balances this by making the Pope an attractive target for pirating from the Ottomans, a commodity for France, and finally with the 95 Theses acting as catalyst for the German reformation as the first action of the game. The Papal military is rather weak, making the land a target from neighboring factions. While the Papal player may be closest to winning at the beginning, they have the toughest road to haul. Several early cards help the Protestant player expand, and several cards that come out in the early to mid game actually actively hurt the Papal player. Combine this with a very weak leader to begin the game, and you’ve got the perfect recipe for an uphill battle towards victory. Much of the strategy and enjoyment from playing the Pope is the ability to excommunicate everyone at the table (except the Ottoman player) and trying to stamp out the reformation through debates. The Papal player is actually awarded points based on the amount of debaters burned at the stake.
Starting Points: 9
Natural Foes: Everyone except the Pope
There is no faction in this game with more to do than the Hapsburgs. Every game mechanic is relevant to the Hapsburg player. This requires an immense amount of game knowledge to proactively engage in conflicts that are very present all over the game world. The Hapsburg player has a vested interest in Hungary, Vienna, the north African Coast, the South of Italy, Spain, the lowlands of the Netherlands, and all of Germany. This means that virtually everyone else who is taking an action is either directly hurting, or directly helping the Hapsburg player. For all the difficulty the Hapsburgs present, in my 4 games of HIS I’ve seen 3 Hapsburg victories, indicating both their strength on the board and the amount of actions they can take. The game provides the Hapsburgs with the opportunity to have more cards in hand than any other player, which is a tremendous power. I’m not ready to say it’s over powered in an unbalanced way, as without that card advantage over other individual players, the Hapsburgs would easily get thrown out of their various holdings throughout Europe which are as far apart as this game presents. The Hapsburgs can score points through sending explorers to the New World, winning land wars, fighting naval battles, aiding the Pope, and stamping out the reformation in Germany.
A comment from a Gaming Missionary
I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the opportunities I’ve gotten to play Here I Stand. I’ve got hours worth of stories to tell & share about the individuals I’ve gotten to know and build relationship with while play Here I Stand. While quicker board games can act as Icebreakers for beginning a new relationship with a gamer, Here I Stand has solidified my relationship with multiple groups of good friends who do not share my faith in Christ. Playing Here I Stand gives a natural opportunity to discuss the politics of religion, and contrast the faith of the bible with man made beliefs. I can’t recommend Here I Stand to everyone in our audience; it’s an incredibly long game and it certainly requires patience and a strong relationship to both handle the politics within the game, and to leave the politics “at the table” when the game is finished. But while I can’t recommend this game to everyone, I can certainly tell you I’m going to keep playing Here I Stand and look forward to the next time I play.
Prior to playing I had a real sense of apprehension about dedicating this amount of time to playing one particular board game. 8-12 Hours is about the commitment time to play Here I Stand, and that’s about the same time commitment an entire game day is hosted at our home or at a local church. I had questions like, “would this be worth it? Is this a wise use of my time in forwarding God’s Kingdom? Will there be opportunity to build relationships & partake in gospel conversations?” God provided the answers through my first play-through of Here I Stand and he continues to provide opportunities to love gamers in a very intentional and deliberate way. While Micro games have the advantage of being quick, Here I Stand has the advantage of being committed to a group of people for a much longer period of time, and this further opens the door for building Kingdom-oriented relationships that lead to Christ-following challenges.
Final Thoughts on Here I Stand strengths & Weaknesses.
This is far and away my favorite game that I’ve played. The interactions between players, the strategy, and the cards make for a game of epic proportions. I would not recommend this game to anyone who hasn’t spent much time gaming. The length of the game, difficulty in reading the rules (44 pages of rules is a bit much for new comers) and strategic complications of each faction make this the pinnacle of my board gaming experience. It's akin to great Jazz music - you don't learn to play great Jazz, without first having both knowledge & talent of music fundamentals. You won't be able to enjoy Here I Stand without first having both knowledge & talent of gaming concepts.
The weaknesses of this game also are it’s strength. It’s long, it’s complex, the choices available to players are dynamic and change depending on the choices that other players make. The intrigue of the game is driven by the randomizing factors of cards, dice, and players. This makes the game have a high level of replayability