Days of Decision

Days of Decision is the prequel to World in Flames, the playable WWII monster game from the Australian Design Group. It is a game of two parts; it can be played as a preliminary game before launching yourself into World in Flames utilising the results of your Days of Decision machinations, or it can be played as a stand-alone historical, diplomatic and political game. I will be basing my comments purely on the latter variant, though as will become apparent the two are occasionally intertwined.

In theory, because of the World in Flames link, the game can be played by two to seven players but we found it is realistically a two player game with one side playing the Axis and one the Allies. You can add more people, but their choices will be limited as the game is structured so that the major powers (Germany, Italy, Japan, Commonwealth, China, US, France, Russia) remain true to their historical allegiances. I believe this is the only major concession to fact, everything else can become a little peculiar in the historical sense.

This is because Days of Decision is essentially about late 1930's alternative history on a global scale. The appeal is to perform those momentous historical actions in the order you decide or even to take history down a new avenue altogether. Thankfully, from a gamer's and reviewer's standpoint, this has all been made possible with the minimum of fuss. Days of Decision uses an inventive card system which encapsulates the major events and a few new ones of the years between 1936 and the outbreak of war, which event either stops the game or switches you into World in Flames proper.

The scope of the game is enormous and I suspect ADG's main problem was what to leave out. There was an awful lot going on in the '30s and the permutations are wide ranging and quite crucial in some cases. Days of Decision covers this area well, offering a multitude of possibilities - I doubt you'll find two games developing the same. We sadly lose the interest of the early development of post- Weimar Germany but this is understandable - Days of Decision concerns itself with interaction between countries, not between domestic parties. The late 30's were also a time of conflict but although there is some low-key, abstracted combat this is a game that isn't just for wargame types; it should appeal to all gamers interested in history or decision-forcing game systems.

Days of Decision will cost you between £25 and £30 in the UK, depending on which retailer you choose. There was, at one time, a less expensive offer using plastic direct from ADG but I think this will have disappeared by now. Whatever, the game is not cheap, and I think we can blame the puzzlingly strong Australian currency for that, but the components are a bit sparse as well. The box is a luxury affair, featuring the prolific Mr MacGowan's artwork, and it contains, mostly in full colour, a map of Europe, 200 of ADG's excellent counters, option cards, several charts and two rulebooks, one of which is for the World in Flames campaign game which I haven't played.

The standard of production is high with the exception of the rather fuzzy rulebooks, but a little more thought (or perhaps money) could have gone into the components. Firstly (and inexcusably), there are not enough marker counters for anything past the first half-dozen turns (though we do get loads of new World in Flames counters, superfluous for the Days of Decision player) and secondly, a smaller grouse, it would have been nice to have the coloured option charts, now nine facing on each side of A4, as individual cards so that you could fan them in your hand. They play such a large part in the game that this extra cost would have been worthwhile.

The rulebook is where we start to find a few problems. The basic system is explained well enough, and I am pleased to say that it is a surprisingly simple repetitious mechanism, but the difficulty is caused by a confusion of terms all having similar meanings. As in most games there is a central resource system in Days of Decision. Unfortunately, World in Flames also uses resource, or build, points in its system. Days of Decision also makes reference to money. We end up with an almost interchangeable list of, wait for it, money, build points, resource points, resource multipliers, troop points and victory points. I am pretty sure we have worked out what they all mean now, but during the learning process it would have been nice to have clear definitions and a standardised unit of currency.

The reason it doesn't is that Days of Decision tries very hard to interface directly with World in Flames (which I suspect will prove to be its biggest marketing draw) but at the cost of intelligibility for we poor baffled Days of Decisioners. Sadly, this problem is repeated through the game to lesser or greater degrees and the picture ends up a bit muddled. Playing just Days of Decision, you have to ignore some of the commentary on your option cards (not difficult), work out which rules are in effect and generally blank out the World in Flames clutter. Frankly, I would have thought two entirely separate rule books would have been the answer. I don't want to overstate this complaint - the game is definitely playable on its own - I just feel it could have been achieved much easier as two independent projects.

The heart of the game, and where Days of Decision starts to hum, is the play of option cards. These cover all the main historical actions plus a load of fictional ones. Using a straightforward initiative system, each player will get to play one or two cards per turn; in some cases he will know what is coming from his opponent while in others play is simultaneous. The only restrictions on play of cards is that the relevant government permits it, you can afford it (payment is by money, RPs, BPs or VPs - its all the same in the end) and that you have played all the prerequisite cards dictated; this, for instance, precludes the Austrian Anschluss before the Germans have sufficiently improved their war footing.

Each card shows a newspaper headline with the gist of what is happening, the impact on other countries (see below) and any special effects of the card. Fine so far. Even more interesting is that each card has a complementary or opposite effect that can be played instead. The former is often more costly but more severe in its results, the latter is the U-Turn. As an example, axis card 5 declares 'Hitler supports Bulgarian Land Claim against Rumania'. The alternative reverses the two countries for the same cost. Once played, the cards are not available for use again. I have nothing but praise for the card play system, and it replicates the historical options well, albeit in much simplified form.

There are about forty cards available to each side (including a repeatable 'pass' option) which, with the sub-options, gives you an awful lot of alternatives so most of your time is used mulling over what is the best play both short and long term. This can take ages - Days of Decision is a good title. To avoid brain overload, I play the game with an overall strategy in mind, concentrating on restricted options or swaying a few certain countries, and play cards accordingly. This enables you to eliminate whole sections of cards from the reckoning and saves having to read each one. The other vital aid, and one which ADG should consider making official, is a set of charts included in a recent Canadian Wargamer's Journal. These group the card options into areas, such as international relations, military, economic and so on, thus enabling the correct card to be tracked down easily once you have decided what you broadly want to achieve. Your only problem then is what you do, not how you go about finding it.

The play of the cards results in both micro and macro game effects. The micro level is where events influence individual countries' alignment, resource output, financial reserves, domestic political situations and so on. These swings are represented numerically and are logged on the various tracks on the game board. Although important, this housekeeping is the weakest part of the game for me and also the most tiresome and fiddly. Among others, each country has a marker on a status track that shows its political neutrality or axis/allied leanings - the nearer the ends of the track, the stronger its allegiance to one of the power bases. If you annex a country or indulge in some sabre-rattling, the neighbours get shirty and their counters hurtle round towards the opponent. Conversely, the UK offering aid to Turkey on the other side of the continent causes just a ripple of interest in Belgium - a move of one box in many - but one that has to be recorded.

So, because each card played impacts, however slightly, on almost every one of the twenty minor countries you have to move the twenty status counters twice or more each turn. This would be fine as a system as long as the moves were mainly significant and easy to do, but the shift in sympathy is usually minimal (nil, one or two boxes), there are one-way gates on the track (clever, but another delaying factor) and the housekeeping takes ages; by the end of the game, it is a pain. Personally, I question whether Belgium would worry overly about such a move, but nevertheless every country sways a little each time. I can see why in game terms (they have to move a little or they don't move at all), but not in history. In fact, a few of the swings are opposite to what you might expect and I found myself struggling to rationalise these odd reactions, but then I concede my knowledge of '30s history will not be up to Harry Rowland's.

The macro effect of the card play (or the sum effect of the micro shifts, if you prefer) is to shove history around within generally credible parameters - this is mainly historical allegiances and antagonisms, but can often result in ahistorical events or sequencing. As a rule, you will find that Finland does indeed remain swayed towards the Axis powers and Italy and Germany will usually form the Pact of Steel, but in turn (and with much concerted effort) Sweden can be swung into either the German or Allied camp and its substantial assets brought to bear, or you may find the French occupying the Rhineland early on in the game if it serves their purposes.

The clever part is that, because of the global impact, there will always be a sizeable entry in the debit column balancing any such non-historical moves in your favour. As with all these games, you are asked to suspend disbelief on the fringe pseudo-history and enjoy experiencing what might have happened; the what-ifs of those history books seem to come to life here in a way you seldom see in gaming and the overall picture is impressive. The flavour of the 30's is recreated and the feel is quite remarkable. Consequently, I have few quibbles with the consequences of the system or actions, simply the work you have to do to get there.

The cards have other effects, principally influencing future political effectiveness (the chance of the major country allowing the card to be played - dictatorships have no problems, liberal Frenchies have a tough time) and US entry. The latter is a clean, abstracted treatment of the American stance but which is vital in the victory reckoning - an Axis player who has manipulated events to keep the US inactive (as far as Europe is concerned) has scored a mighty political victory. Sadly, this was the least lucid of all the rules and I still don't know if I am handling the die rolls and modifiers correctly. Nevertheless, I can recognise that the system handles these elements ingeniously, even if the execution is not perfect.

From time to time, often because of player influence but sometimes randomly, wars will start up between the minor powers. This could be France and Italy, Japan and China or, most likely, the Spanish Civil War. This signals a series of campaigns controlled by both players (taking the relevant side) and is as close to a wargame as we get in Days of Decision. Each turn, the opposing sides choose a number of troops to commit and a tactical option such as Blitzkrieg, flank attack, defence in depth, entrenched etc. Resolution is by way of a dice-free matrix and results in a reasonable, if a little confusing, outcome involving a fair bit of maths and careful re-reading. Instead, it would have been nice to read-off a result (retaining percentage terminology) that gave intuitive defender/attacker losses so you could instantly see who had won. Again, the explanation and resolution seems too involved for the 'rock, paper, scissors' level of the combat system which otherwise works fine. After a series of defeats and victories, the war will be decided or the loser will sue for peace, and this too feels spot on.

Aside from all this, you can start coups in minor countries, US elections crop up occasionally and income rolls steadily in from your factories. These occurrences are incidental to the basic system though, and the trend is to build your power base using the option cards, draw minor countries into your net, and build up steadily to war. When war breaks out between any two major powers, the game ends and it's time to add up the effect of all those cards. Points are awarded for money in hand, successful options, control of minor countries and resource centres and then the US entry is factored in one way or the other. The calculation is quite complex so you are not going to be able to do a rough reckoning during the game, but in all our games the results reflected the correct winner based on a subjective evaluation of the play.

I am not sure what ADG claim for playing time but several reviews have mentioned two to three hours per game. I wish. Game one, which is admittedly not a good indication, took five and a half hours and it went by in a blur of gaming frenzy. Seldom have I experienced such an engrossing long game in recent years. Game two dropped to four hours but we didn't finish again, and game three was much the same. To be honest, I think this is a bit long, especially after the novelty wears off (and we aren't exactly slow players). The cause of the sluggish play is partly decisions, which is acceptable, but the housekeeping, as mentioned above, really takes its toll. What about a computer version - that would be really impressive. I will also say that, because of the required steady build up and low overall impact of each card, my opponent got to the point in the third game where he was making rash moves (such as occupying the Rhineland or starting wars) just to get things moving along with the big modifiers - this can't be a good development and I hope future games speed up a bit.

I suppose it is inevitable that there will be minor gripes about a game as novel, flexible and wide ranging as Days of Decision. The game is not complex as such, it is the myriad decisions and possibilities that cause the bewilderment. In turn, there have been criticisms from other parties about loopholes in the rules and system; I have to be honest and say that in three long games, I have discovered no anomalies and feel confident that the card system is tight enough - there is a lot built into the cards and the neat prerequisite rule prevents total historical chaos. On the other hand, historical anomalies are frequent but this is alternative history after all.

I question, from my viewpoint, whether the game needed to be quite as detailed as it is (though again this will be the World in Flames influence and possibly designer/reviewer preference) and whether the systens could have been polished and simplified a little more but, again, the entire system works and creates exactly the right atmosphere. As ever, the option to change the systems is available to the players and I don't feel ADG have put out an unfinished game - simply that its appeal will be more to the taste of the detail merchants. If I'd done it, I would have abstracted a few more areas and zapped others completely while trying to get the game to move along more rapidly, but this is personal taste.

Overall then, Days of Decision is on the expensive side in the UK, there are some tweakable niggles, the game lasts rather too long for what it is and the component mix needs a slight re-think, but the sum total is most definitely a rich, flavoursome treat for anyone interested in the period or games of this sort. World in Flames junkies must love it. When playing Days of Decision, I was reminded of the disappointment I felt when playing Origins of WWII and the excitement and overpowering frustration of my early forays with Third Reich; Days of Decision has no such disappointments and few problems while retaining the 'Great, now's my chance to annex the Sudetenland' fascination. It makes you feel as if you are up there, making those grand history-changing decisions in the tumultuous 1930s period. So then, a qualified success permitting a Buy recommendation and, in the admirable (though costly) ADG tradition, I very much look forward to the second edition upgrade to see what they think needs improvement.

On to the review of Robin Hood or back to the Introduction.

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