In the North American Britannia hobby, purple and red are widely regarded as being the two strongest sides. Tournament results bear this out. Of those two, playing red isn’t all that different from the other colors. Of course, there are significant differences between red, blue, and green, but their similarities outweigh these. For example, they all have one big dominant people in England sometime in the mid-game which you expect to score 50 or so points and win some kingships (Saxons, Angles, Danes), a tribe that starts off on the board whose main goal is to survive and pick up 20 points or so (Brigantes, Picts, Caledonians), and a minor nation that’s highly dependent on luck (Irish, Belgae, Jutes).
Playing purple is significantly different.
There are two reasons for this. First, structural factors mean that purple’s points will generally have a limited upside but also a limited downside. Second, the relative weakness and geographical restrictions of purple’s midgame peoples means that the purple player will have less opportunity than the other three to play a “game balancing” role. As experienced players know, you must not only strive to maximize your own score, but also ensure that no other color gets an undue advantage.
The challenge for purple, then, is that it needs to play game balancing the most. However, it has the least opportunity to do so. Structural factors limiting its upside imply that purple is unlikely to win a high-scoring shootout with another player who is inching toward 125 points. The limited downside means that in a game without a breakout player, purple is usually in it until the end.
Successful players have solved these challenges and leveraged purple’s natural advantages (and there are plenty – as noted above, purple and red win a disproportionate number of games). But before we move onto strategy, let’s prove our two key propositions: first, that purple is structurally biased to score in a tight range; and second, that purple has a limited ability to play a game balancing role. Once we’ve proven these points, then we’ll turn strategies and tactics that can allow a purple player to be successful.
1. Scoring in a tight range
Purple will generally score around 90-110. It’s hard to score less or to score more. There are a few reasons for this:
∙Unique position of the Romans:
oThe absolute maximum a Roman player can score by turn 3 is 36 points. That includes the Welsh areas, which are hard to conquer and generally a terrible idea to do (we’ll explain why when we discuss game balance). Taking out all of the Welsh areas except Devon leaves a maximum of 33. Those 33 are all pretty easy to get – the worst that normally happens to the Romans is they only get one of Alban and Dalriada instead of both. So that’s 30 points. Maybe a couple of Belgae survived in Lindsey or you didn’t get Devon. So for territory, you are looking at only about a 5-point range (28 to 33).
oSimilarly, with Limes, you’re just not going to get all of the potential points. You won’t have enough units to protect all your forts, and if you do, any competent blue or red player will realize that you might be running away with the game and will use stacks of 6 Angles or 6 Saxons to blast away 3 point forts. So there’s a realistic maximum of about 25 points. On the lower end, you are guaranteed by the rules to have 10 legions for turn 4 and turn 5 (the raiding turns), so 10 legions should be able to defend 15-20 points even with bad luck.
oThe end result is that it’s hard for the Romans to score less than 45 or more than 60. You don’t want to score 60 or more with the Romans anyway – it will just make everyone pay attention to you, and, as we’ll discuss, the purple nations are highly vulnerable to being ganged up on. Don’t be the early leader as purple (not until your Scots are well established, anyway)
∙Limited upside for other peoples: Unlike the Romans, the other purple peoples can easily fall flat on their face (though with the Norweigians it takes some work). However, like the Romans, these peoples’ upside is limited by the point cards:
oThe Romano British can’t score points for territory after turn 7
oThe Norwegians have a maximum of 14 territory points on turn 15 (and one per area on turn 16),
oThe Scots pretty much only get points for Scotland, and trying to maximize your Scottish score often means spending turn after turn fighting two entrenched enemy armies in a highland area while breeding slowly.
oDubliners get two areas that are worth more than 1 point. That’s it.
∙Other players have a lot of time and ability to react to you: Other colors have an ability to strike a “death blow” that gives them a dominant position that can resist even combined attacks from other players and give them the win. Saxons piling on kingship after kingship can have the game effectively won by turn 13 or so. A Danish invasion that clears the board can do the same for green around the same time. Or a highly-successful Angle game that has not only scored a lot of points but decimated potential opponents of the Normans can have the game in blue hands. Purple – much harder.
oRoman scores are inherently balancing: Other players can’t control how well your turn 1-3 goes, but if you score high and have lots of legions left, nations that raid your forts can take more risks and go after better-defended and more valuable areas to reduce your score. Similarly, when things are going badly, the rest of the board may open up. In the World Boardgaming Championship semifinals in 2004, I played the Romans and was down to, literally, three legions by the end of turn 2. The other players realized that I wasn’t the big threat and allowed me some breathing room so that the presumed beneficiary of my misfortune (blue) could be limited. Because my limes were mostly left alone, I ended up scoring more points as the Romans than I did in the finals, where my Romans lost only two legions on turns 1-3.
o“Mid-game” purple nations are very dependent on other nations’ actions:
▪A dominant Roman game (or one in which it looks like the Scots will do well, if the Romans and/or the Romano-British have beaten up on the Picts) will often leave Angles and Saxons agreeing to carve up the Romano-British, and/or Caledonians and/or Brigantes aiding the Picts against the Scots. None of the Romano-British, Scots, or Dubliners are strong enough to succeed when their key neighbors are cooperating against them. And no matter how good your Roman game, you need these other peoples (especially the Scots) to throw in 25-30 points at an absolute minimum.
▪However, if purple isn’t doing so well, rewards like a generous deal for the Scots vis-à-vis the Picts, or York being offered to the Dubliners uncontested are not uncommon.
▪While this type of game-balancing diplomacy moderates all colors’ total scores, it affects purple more since A) it’s clearer earlier in the game how well purple is doing (by turn 5 you know the Roman score as well as, by looking at the Picts and Brigantes, you should have a general idea of where the Scots are trending), and B) purple’s midgame peoples are more dependent on how other players reach to them than peoples in the same era belonging to other colors.
2.Less ability to provide game balance
Once you play purple a few times, you’ll realize that a major limitation of your position lies in your reduced ability to bring down a potential runaway leader. And that’s trouble, because as we noted above, you’re not likely to win a high-scoring shootout.
Generally, it is each color’s major power which has the most scope for game balancing. Usually major powers get points for virtually anywhere so, for example, it’s all the same to the Danes on turn 13 whether they use their last armies to take 2 points from South Mercia or 2 points from Lothian…but attacking Saxons in the former versus Angles in the latter can have game-balancing implications, and strong peoples make a couple dozen decisions like this every game
Purple’s big power is the Romans. When they are on the board, there is unlikely to be much sign of an “early leader” – unless you as purple did something to create one!
A similar factor is that most game balancing goes on in the mid-game (turns 6-14 or so). These are precisely the turns in which Purple is weakest. The Romano British have a little bit of opportunity to do some game balancing, but mostly against blue. The Romano British are expected to attack Saxons, so attacking Saxons doesn’t do much for balance if red is out to an early lead. And the Romano British usually can’t do much that is significant against green (advanced players will be aware of exceptions to this). The Scots are usually preoccupied with their own survival. Even if they have extra armies, attacking the Caledonians, Picts, or Brigantes only limits that color’s growth a little bit. A red player with a runaway Saxon game, for example, can easily shrug off Scottish attacks on the Brigantes. And finally, the Dubliners need to go for York or Cumbria. They have a major invasion, so they can take a creative way to get there (if red is ahead, you can usually land a big force in Hwicce in round 1 of the turn 13 major invasion to knock off some Saxons on your way to York), but the overall effect isn’t all that significant.
Compare this to the flexibility and options enjoyed by other colors
GREEN: The Welsh, provided that they are not back on their heels defending Wales, generally have the armies and scope to raid into England. They can choose whether Angles or Saxons will bear the brunt. Similarly, the Caledonians can intervene in the Pict-Scot dynamic, and taking either side wholeheartedly can yield a devastating result to the other. The Jutes are made for game balancing – they are unlikely to score territory points without a deal with the Saxons. And the Danes score points for almost everywhere in England – you can easily pick the point areas that have the leader’s colors in them.
RED: The Irish are great game balancers between blue and green (can raid Angles on the west coast or Welsh in Wales). The Brigantes, and to a lesser extent the Norsemen, can go out of their way to help or hurt the Picts or Scots, depending on the game situation. And, of course, the Saxons should get so powerful around turn 10 and 11 that they should be able to deploy armies to cut back a presumed leader.
BLUE: Angles can deeply hurt a purple lead with a joint Angle-Pict attack on the Scots. Very aggressive Angle play against the Saxons can limit red (though usually at the cost of helping green). Or, using the Angles even slightly to spite green (denying the Welsh York on turns 8-9 for example, or working with the Saxons to defend against the Danes) can easily reverse an early green lead.
So, that’s all well and good, but given all of this, how do you win as purple?
1.Limit other players’ points during the Roman era.
You know that with decent play and decent luck that you will get 50-55 points. You don’t want too many more so as not to freak out the board. So make sure you limit other player’s scores. Avoid giving the Brigantes the opportunity to fight large battles in the mountains or to send a large army after an isolated legion. 3 points per Roman legion killed really can add up. Similarly, don’t let the Picts run wild destroying northern Roman forts. You don’t get any points for defending forts north of Lothian, but until you need your legions in the south on turn 4, it’s a good idea to protect the forts that you can to deny the Picts 3 points for each--especially the lowland forts. For this reason, I find it very useful as the Romans to take Mar. Mar is a great jumping-off point for Pict raiders (they can raid as far south as York from there by sea) and denying to them can be a major blow.
In contrast, the Welsh earn 1 point per legion or fort, the Brigantes earn 1 point per fort, and the Picts earn 1 point per legion. So if you need to give somewhere, let the Welsh blow up your forts (Avalon and March, next to the Welsh border, are only worth one point anyway), and be willing to destroy Picts in the field rather than letting them blow up your forts.
2.“Set up the board” as the Romans and Romano-British
From turns 1-5, you have most of the strategic initiative. You need to get your points, of course, but you (and the dice) are primarily responsible for deciding what the board will look like on turn 6. You have two goals here – one is to optimize the chances of success for the Scots (and to a lesser extent the Romano British) and the second is to make sure that the game is roughly balanced between the other 3 players.
We’ll talk about balance first.
It’s assumed that the Romans will kill all the Belgae and make the Brigantes submit. I can’t imagine a successful Roman game that leaves a lot of Belgae, so let’s dismiss that idea. However, many Roman players let the Brigantes breed or even strike a deal with them. This is usually a mistake. The Angles will have a hard enough job as it is keeping the Saxons under control. Even 2 extra Brigante armies allied to the Saxons can be enough to make an already-challenging task fiendishly difficult. So make sure you get the Brigantes down to 6, and don’t let them expand into empty areas or breed. At least until you know what you’re doing. All rules are meant to be broken, and there are situations where you may want the Brigantes to grow, but this should be reserved for experienced players only.
The other place that you can go wrong is with the Picts or the Welsh.
The Welsh must be left able to adequately defend themselves from the Irish and Saxons (and possibly Brigantes), and even to launch raids into England to weaken the Saxons. By the time your Romans leave, they should be at or close to their maximum number of armies. You may need to kill some Welsh earlier on, especially if they are being too aggressive, but go easy on them. Those points in Wales aren’t worth it. (Take Devon if you can. It’s worth 1 point, and it gives the Welsh something to do to recapture it which may distract them from your more valuable forts)
The Picts are trickier. In an ideal world, you would reduce the Picts to 2 areas (where they can submit) and then use the Romano British to wipe them out. You should get a strong Scottish score that way. However, the rest of the board (if they are any good) will not let you do this. For one thing, the blue player will use his Angles to try to save the Picts. Your Scots can’t stand up to the Angles, and even if they could, having Angles distracted in the far north means that the Saxons are not being supervised appropriately in the south. Result is likely a strong red game.
What if you eliminate the Picts so quickly and effectively that there is nothing for the Angles to save? Well, you’ve most likely cost blue the game. It’s very tough for blue to win without any significant Pictish points. The blue player will either wipe your Scots out immediately out of spite, or, when the Normans invade on turn 15 and blue realizes that he cannot win, he’ll likely pick someone else to win that isn’t you. And you’ll deserve what you get.
On the other hand, you can’t leave strong Picts. Your Scots may never get ashore. The Picts have the advantage of defense, of mountains, and of Angle allies. And on Pictish turns 6 and 7 there are few major threats to the Picts on the board (assuming the Romano British are in the south). They can spread to some lowland areas and grow very quickly. As a rule of thumb, try not to leave more than 4-5 Picts by the end of turn 5. If you’ve done that, they won’t grow back to an unmanageable side before the Scots land on turn 7.
3.Pave the way for Scots and Romano British
If you’ve kept the Picts down to 4-5 units, and submitted the Brigantes at 6 units, you’ve done all that you can be expected to for the Scots.
The Romano-British are not big point scorers, but you can help them out with the Romans. For one thing, make sure you don’t let anyone submit in, or occupy, the three English hiland areas (Downlands, Lindsey, Pennines). Romano British need to live there.
For extra credit, if you have a spare legion or two, it can be worth holding onto Devon (or even taking Gwent if the Welsh can be compensated elsewhere). Having Devon and Gwent (with the Downlands) as a base of operations for the Romano British is fantastic. You’ll have some influence over the mid-game and also a decent chance to score points.
4.Use the Norwegians as a last-minute game balancing tool
The Norwegians usually have a fairly easy time getting their 14 points on turn 15, barring something like a Danish stack in York or a Saxon one in North Mercia. And since it’s a major invasion, you have even more flexibility. If you’re close to one other player, you can usually use the Norwegians to inflict some damage.
Against Red: Plow some Norweigians straight into Strathclyde if there are Brigantes there. Brigantes get 5 points for the area on turn 16, and it’s pretty easy to deny it to them with Norwegian help. Strathclyde isn’t all that out of the way, either. Remember that you have boats, so you can use the second phase of the major invasion to end up in Cheshire, which, as will be discussed in the new point, is a great place for them to end the turn. Also it clears some space for your Scots.
Against Blue: Slap the Picts a bit. Picts in Dunedin are especially vulnerable, but don’t be shy about dropping Harald with 4 friends into Mar on the first phase of your invasion (provided that you don’t anticipate problems getting your 14 points). Picts get 3 points for Alban/Mar/Moray and 2 points for just about any area adjacent to those, and Picts are usually held back from lack of numbers (and the fact that they move early in the turn…tough on point-scoring turns) so a Pictish slap can go a long way. As with the Brigantes, attacking the Picts also can clear some space for your Scots.
Against Green: Harder to knock off a lot of green points by turn 15. However, there are a couple of areas where green armies may be hiding out that not only deny points to green but are also great end-of-turn-15 spots for Harald: Lindsey and Powys. Both deny 2 points to green, both make a counter-attack by Saxons or Normans unlikely (provided that you’re there in force), and both are near enough the center of the action that you can use Harald productively in turn 16.
5.Get the Norweigian / Dubliner “dance” right
The Norwegians and Dubliners are a mess. They have to do a lot of complicated things in order to maximize their points and not get in each other’s way.
Here’s what you need to do. None of these are difficult in isolation. Doing them all can be tough.
1.On Dubliner turn 15, get all of your Dubliners out of the Norwegians’ way, so the Norwegians can take or pass through their 5 point-scoring areas of York, Cumbria, North Mercia, March, and Bernicia. Of those, York and Cumbria tend to be the most difficult.
2.On Norwegian turn 15, get all of your Norwegians out of the Dubliners’ way, because the Dubliners should be trying to get back to York and Cumbria for turn 16. This means collecting points from, but not ending the turn in, York and Cumbria. For extra value the Norwegians should attack other peoples near these areas, to help the Dubliners hold on.
3.On Dubliner turn 16, occupy York and Cumbria without getting back in the Norwegians’ way. This is tough if you have a lot of Norwegian reinforcements coming, because they can only land straight from the North Sea, and going through York is the only way to get to the south with the new armies.
Here are some tips to accomplishing this:
∙If you can, leave some Dubliners at sea. When you land an army, you need to find places to keep it, and it can get attacked by others. Obviously you need to land some Dubliners to get York and Cumbria and other areas, but if you can afford to hold one or two back, it makes the “dance” a lot easier
∙Dubliners should try to get the Pennines. It’s adjacent to York and Cumbria and the Norwegians don’t need it. Get it early, even during your major invasion, and use it as your base.
∙Get the Cumbria points for the Norwegians by passing through instead of ending the turn there. If Cumbria has an enemy army in it, use Harald to bring armies NOS-LOT-GAL-CUM or NOS-YOR-CHE-CUM in the first phase of the major invasion. If it’s empty, take Galloway or Cheshire on the first phase, and then move an army CHE-CUM-CHE in the second phase. If neither option is suitable (maybe you need Harald for other things in Phase I), and Cumbria is empty, then Harald can walk through in phase 2.
∙Be aware that your Norwegian reinforcements will not be able to get involved in turn 16 battles in the south if you are leaving the Dubliners in York. So position your armies such that the reinforcements can collect points from northern areas that they can reach (Bernicia, Lothian, Galloway, Pennines) while your turn 15 armies are in areas that allow them to move south (Cheshire is great for this. Lindsey or Powys aren’t bad either).
∙When all else fails, remember that you can attack yourself (rather, two peoples of the same color can attack each other). Just remember to leave yourself a retreat!
∙Be realistic. If there are 4 Danes in Lindsey and you have 2 Dubliners on the board, don’t bother with complex maneuvering to slide them into York for turn 16 (unless this is your only chance to win, of course). The Danes get 4 points for York and move after the Dubliners but before the Norwegians. This, by the way, is why it’s often a great idea to take Lindsey for the Norwegians, as it gives your Dubliners in York a fighting chance (watch for approaches through North Mercia though).
There are a lot more subtleties and tactics to successful purple play that we barely touched on. The aim here is to get you thinking about the broader context of purple play – especially in how to manage game balance and how to take a long-term people with each people.
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