Joan of Arc

Designed by Pascal Bernard
Published by Tilsit Editions/Clash of Arms
Reviewed by Mike Siggins

£30 ($45)
3-6 players
150 minutes

Originally published in France as Montjoie!, Joan of Arc is the latest game from the so far productive joint venture between Tilsit Editions and Clash of Arms. Following on from the interesting Africa 1880, and similar in style, Joan of Arc provides us with a light-heavyweight game with superb components that, while not inspirational, does work well enough. Set in the Hundred Years War, a handful of factions fight it out for control of medieval France. But for those anticipating a deep historical treatment, read no further. Any history generated by the game is purely tangential and the simplistic, equitable start 'expansion and conquest' core system is one familiar to gamers who know Diplomacy, Risk or History of the World.

Each player takes the role of a major combatant - the English, various French regions, or the popular (and wealthy) Men of Flanders. Players start with a handful of armies (non moving) who 'garrison' towns on the area gridded map. Each turn new armies are gained, and expansion takes place. Regions are conquered (Paris being the most valuable), income is earned, victory points are logged. The money can be spent on combat cards (see below), and fortifications to strengthen your garrison to castle strength, and then to fortified castle. Each turn players choose whether they are 'peaceful' or on a war footing - harking back to Africa 1880 - events and new cards being more numerous if the latter is chosen by the majority of players.

In time, the map fills up with the expanding armies. Broadly speaking, towns are garrisoned, then strengthened, and the battle lines are drawn. While you can whittle away at your rivals with pillage actions, eventually, to expand at all you are going to have to commit big style to a siege, which is where we return to the game's roots. The core combat device, and also the game's partial undoing, is 'derived' from the clever card system featured in Condottiere. I am not saying it is a straight lift, but there are clear similarities and no acknowledgement as far as I can see, even in the designer's notes.

To quickly recap, Condottiere is essentially a card game with a board to aid scoring. Each card hand has a range of actions that loosely simulate a siege - exactly what we are usually dealing with here (the correctly rare open field battles only occur through event chits). Numbered troop cards are aided by a mixture of specials - cards to retreat troops, weather effects, heroes, divine intervention and the powerful key cards by which the result of the siege is often decided. Some cards multiply the basic troop strength, others reduce them to unitary value, others end the battle before you were quite ready. There is even a neat system to represent defensive benefits and 'sallying forth'.

Joan of Arc uses just a subset of these and instead of 'rolling' tricks and drawn out card play, you can lay just a couple of cards on offence and one on defence. The problem is that, by removing the trick structure, the interesting timing and the multi-player card play aspect of Condottiere, we don't have much left. Cards are played, fortification bonuses are added, a small element of bluff is considered and sometimes implemented, bonus chits are committed 'in the fist'. More often than not, the result will come down to a competitive die roll. The strengths of the Condottiere card system are lost, only to be replaced by a dull, anticlimactic and strangely fiddly fudge. There is little interest beyond the play of the few special cards, and outcomes often turn on the roll of a six or a one.

Hardly the stuff of exciting sieges then, or perhaps that is what was intended. My hunch is that (like History of the World) the game is slanted to encourage attacking, since the poor old defenders do get a hard time of it on occasion (worse if you lose a key town as the attacker gains the castle untouched). But even so, castles and fortifications do secure your lines, gradually promoting inertia and a 'hide in the corner' mentality. The cries of indignation as an opponent attacks you, rather than his two or three other possible targets, have to be heard! And if you are the leader, expect plenty of attention.

The event chits, appearing at a rate of one or two per turn, can be very influential. They also run off the rather dubious system of sometimes benefitting the lead player - he chooses who is to suffer from uprisings or devastation (and the latter word is entirely fitting). Since the lead player is determined by chit draw, and it is easy to be lead player by sheer good luck, this seems a little unbalanced. Other events serve to add spice to the game - turns are skipped due to plague, abstract naval combat takes place, and armies are allowed to make long range attacks - and others in a similar vein.

And that is it. Play proceeds for up to ten turns, with a much needed random end sequence, and the player with the most victory points (largely a function of siege victories and cumulative control of regions) becomes King of France and wins. What the game lacks is any real sense of history or an engaging theme. Replace the armies with green blobs and the castles with moonbases and events with ray guns, and you have the same game set on Mingo VI. Africa 1880 suffered from the same shortcoming - map, counters and factions may have interesting historical names, but the game feels quite abstract. Add sieges to time-honoured multi-player combat and you have a game that has more chance of inducing tedium than excitement. It's the old story - you expand, gain cash and build steadily (all good stuff) but ultimately you are going to have to fight. If you attack you might make one or two areas progress but in so doing you weaken yourself for others to pounce. At the same time the map feels relatively 'solid' once the cleverly placed fortifications start going in. There are no Risk mobile armies here, so it is hard attritional going to change the political map substantially (and ironically in a hundred years war game, there is not much time to do this!).To his credit, the designer has neatly avoided the common 'big stack' pitfall - using the combat cards and the special effects, you often have no real idea if an opponent is weak or strong. That in itself has a downside though, in that attacking an opponent has a slightly random quality.

Whatever Clash of Arms may say to the contrary, and I have had an exchange of emails with Ed Wimble, the English rules provided are a little woolly. We had several major queries in the first game, now improved by two pages of official clarifications which you should definitely obtain before playing (The Rules Bank can supply). The trouble is that Joan of Arc is one of those games that experienced gamers can bluster through, filling in or making up rules as necessary, but for us (hardly an inexperienced bunch) there were sticking points - notably on income and fortifications. Other rules seem odd, as they are illogical, but are in fact correct. The ability of combat winner's cards to be used again in that turn on defence, anywhere on the map, does seem to be stretching the bounds of history and logic. But as I said initially, this isn't history except in its loosest sense. And the fact that you can expand to anywhere connected by roads feels wrong - it would have been useful to have an example or six to confirm our suspicions.

Joan of Arc is very much the archetypal average game. It doesn't excel in any area, but then it all works as far as it goes. It lacks spark, has an unexciting feel, and there is nothing new here. The buying decision will be based on whether you like this type of 'expansion with economy leading to enforced conflict' style of design, and we have seen a few of these over the years. I can take it or leave it - and as it is slightly overlong and lacking much historical flavour, I will probably quickly tend to the latter option. The irony, for those familiar with Condottiere, is that while the games are quite different in weight and approach, their net feel is much the same and the older game certainly wins out for me. So, while it will look as if I am damning with faint praise, Joan of Arc is just about okay. If you like this sort of game, and many do, then you will mark it up slightly and I would suggest you will not be disappointed in the purchase - the components alone will swing most wavering buyers. If you don't, then Joan of Arc can safely stay on the shelf.

The Game Cabinet - - Ken Tidwell