My latest foray into time-wasting is Pendragon: The Fall of Roman Britain by GMT Games. Pendragon is a card-driven board game set in the fourth and fifth centuries of our era. This is a time of civil unrest as the Pax Romana on the frontiers of the Empire began to crumble after the death of Marcus Aurelius in AD 180. Britannia was still a province of Rome but barbarian invasions and local rebellions had made it a troubled land and its overseers were increasingly uncertain about the future. Pendragon re-creates the conflicts among the Romanized citizenry, the imperial government, the unconquered tribes, and the many acquisitive foreigners.

I ordered the game when it was in pre-production last fall and it finally got published and printed this fall and arrived in the mail last week. The packaging is beautiful with quality parts, a large colorful board, and extremely detailed rules and player aids. When I say detailed I mean there is a 17-page tutorial to walk you through the game process! It will take me weeks to learn the system but it seems carefully constructed and play-tested. Pendragon is the eighth in a series that GMT calls COIN for COunter-INsurgency. The developer of the scheme and series is listed as Volko Ruhnke but Pendragon’s creator is Marc Gouyon-Rety. It’s not strictly about counter-insurgency but rather asymmetric conflict which of course is of continuing relevance in the 21st century.

One of the things that appealed to me about this game was the lack of solid information about this time and place in history. War games involving Napoleon, WWII, or the American Civil War are very popular and we know a lot about the historical settings, the units involved, their fighting strength and disposition, and the topography and terrain. The conflicts in Britannia 1500 years ago are shrouded in the mists of the past. Much of that time comes to us as fable or legend, King Arthur for example, and we have few first-hand accounts and little written material to study. The Peloponnesian War took place four hundred years before Christ but we have Thucydides to consult. Julius Caesar published books about his exploits in Gaul fifty years before Christ. We have no such comprehensive sources for the Empire’s woes in the British Isles four hundred years later.

Pendragon allows you to take on the role of either the Britons or the barbarians. The Britons are divided into two factions, the ‘Dux’ who represent the imperial army and administration, and the ‘Civitates’ who are the landed gentry, native chieftains and their tribes who depend on Roman support. The barbarians are also divided into two factions, the ‘Scotti’ or Celtic raiding parties from Ireland (Hibernia) and Scotland (Caledonia), and the ‘Saxons’ who are Germanic peoples looking for new lands to settle. The Briton factions seek to preserve the status quo and their prosperity while the barbarians seek plunder, prestige, and the disruption of Roman rule. The Briton factions can come into conflict with each other as the Civitates desire independence while the Dux hope to preserve the Empire. The barbarians can join together to fight the powerful cavalry and militia of the civilized people or they can fight each other while seeking loot, land, and glory.

Pendragon: The Fall of Roman Britain covers a span of about 150 years and big changes took place in the lives of the many people who inhabited Britain during that time. The collapse of Roman power and the rise of the early kingdoms must have been massive disruptions to the peace and prosperity of the populace. The game includes things like changing victory conditions to reflect the chaos of the times. I’ll admit it is overwhelming. The ‘Playbook’ (which includes the aforementioned tutorial) is 72 pages, and the ‘Rules of Play’ add 44 more. These are 8-1/2 by 11 pages with a two-column format and a typeface with capitals that aren’t quite 2.5 mm high. It takes some doing to figure it all out. But it brings out my inner geek, and I’m interested in the history. There’s a bibliography included in the material and a number of contemporary books listed seem promising.

I may be in way over my head on this, but I’m sufficiently intrigued to give it a shot. It can’t be THAT hard, right? These people can’t be THAT much smarter than me, can they?

We’ll find out.


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