Some Tips about Approaching and Playing Britannia

Lewis Pulsipher

I did not write the “Tips on Play” section in the Britannia rules. I am not an expert player, but I have watched expert players many times, and as designer of the game I believe I can explain the multi-level nature of the game play.

There’s a lot more to enjoying a game than winning. Britannia can be played at several levels. Ultimately it works well as a tournament game, played in a nearly chess-like manner (an odd thing to say for a game with so much dice rolling, but accurate nonetheless). Inexperienced players, no matter how good they are as game players, require several plays to “get up to speed” and have a good idea of what is required to win. In a game with one “shark” player and three casual or inexperienced players, the shark will usually win.

In many though not all Euro-style games, if someone without experience is playing with several experienced players, he has a significant chance of winning. That's not true in Britannia. If the experienced players are win-oriented, the newbie has virtually no chance.

Fortunately, the game can be enjoyed when played many ways, especially when all the players are playing in the same style. These styles include the “conquest” style, the "casual" style, the "history" style, and the "shark" style. These and more-personal styles of play make a difference in which colors tend to do well.

You are unlikely to win if you play Britannia as a “conquest game” in the style of Risk, unless everyone else is playing the same way. The objective is not simply to occupy lots of areas and move lots of troops. You can have dozens of pieces on the board, but if they’re not in the right places at the right time you won’t score enough points. Most nations have “their time”, and most decline at some point. Small nations can be almost as important as large ones, because the difference, in the end, is whether you do better than normal with each nation, rather than whether a nation scores a lot of points or relatively few. For example, the Romano-British will never score as many as the Romans, but if the Roman score is lower than usual, a higher-than-usual Romano-British score can save the yellow player. Conquest players, looking to maximize territory rather than points, usually don’t score enough.

“History” players play each of their nations independently, trying to accomplish as much as possible for that nation. This would be common in solitaire play. I like to play this way myself, but this is not the best way to score points as a color.

This FFG edition is a better representation of history than the original versions, but Britannia is a very broad-strokes history game, given the time scale. In the end, the gameplay has always been more important than the history. While Britannia has been used to teach history, people who really know the history can pick all kinds of holes in the game. People who don’t know the history can learn a lot.

“Casual” players look ahead a Round or two at most, rather than see the game as a strategic whole. They’re aware of how they can score points, and make short-term efforts to acquire those points. This helps them be successful when playing with “conquest” players or “history” players, but is not usually sufficient against the “sharks”.

When played at top level, Britannia is a strategy game requiring mastery of detail and understanding of the entire course of the game. Every move (or non-move) is important. The “sharks” know the game so well that they can look at the board at the end of a scoring turn and add up the scores without referring to the written material. They can look at the board at any given time, refer to the current scores, and pretty accurately project who is winning and who is not, and even what the final scores will be. This is analogous to the chess master’s ability to look at a chess match and quickly recognize who is ahead owing to strength and position. (As the scoring and strategy for the FantasyFlight version is slightly different at times, it will take the sharks a while to come back up to speed. They will.)

The sharks see the game as a strategic whole, recognizing that a move in Round VI can have repercussions many Rounds later. They play their color as a whole, rather than as separate nations. For example, a "shark" will often make every effort to get the Romans up into Scotland in order to hinder the Picts, because the Scots may need help to acquire a good position in Scotland after the Romans are gone. Strong Picts make it harder for the yellow Scots.

“Sharks” often do not care to have an inexperienced player in a game, because even though that player is most unlikely to win, he may make “odd” moves that throw off the calculations of the sharks.

At the PrezCon Britannia tournament final in 2006 I asked one of the top-class players how many times he had played. He did some calculations and said “five hundred”! Another one nodded his head to agree with that estimate for himself. If you play a game five hundred times, you’re likely to know all the details.

There is no article yet that reflects this depth of understanding of the new version, because no one has played it enough times against other similarly experienced players. You can read an article about playing the original Avalon Hill version to understand this point of view. It is the lead article in the first issue of “Sweep of History Games Magazine”, a free electronic magazine that you can read or download at Just remember that the new version of the game is different, so you cannot depend on the best ways to play the older versions. Remember also as you read that the points in the old versions were half what they are now (this eliminated half points).

If you want to be a "shark", eventually you'll have to play against really good players. Until then, play solitaire. Two-player scenarios are a good place to start, to help you become familiar with the points that are available. E-mail play is possible (there will be an article about this on the Web site eventually). The ultimate "hang-out" for expert players is the World Boardgaming Championships in Lancaster, PA in August.