In game design it is important to keep a balance. If a card, ability, or player becomes too powerful a game can end in a lopsided victory; the experience could be less enjoyable; and imbalance could possibly ruin a game. Balance is a good thing. The question is, could it be too much of a good thing in Balance of Power?
Balance of Power is set in 1815 Europe after the Napoleonic Wars. This was a period of revolution, scientific advancement, nationalism, and political upheaval. The empires of Europe sought to create and maintain balance and stability within their own boarders as well with other countries. Nationalism, imperialism, militarism, and alliances competed against this and would eventually lead to World War.
The production for Balance of Power is top notch. The components are beautiful and of very high quality. The game board is very nice and shows the countries of Europe from around 1815. The boarders aren’t exactly right and some places are larger than they really were. This isn’t a mistake. It was done to make game play easier. Otherwise some areas would be too small to fit all the game pieces.
There are three types of wooden pawns, the general shaped like bicorne hat, the banker in a circle shape, and the king shaped like a crown. They included two extra of each color. This was a good thing because a few of the generals were damaged in our game. Otherwise these were very nice as well.
Each of the six empires also has a token that shows their flag and Empire name. There are also some nice thick card-stock reference cards that are helpful during game play. These list the actions taken on a turn and the “rock-paper-scissors” hierarchy of the pawns.
The last component is a scoring track. Players can choose to play without the scoring track to keep that “fog of war” feeling of not knowing exactly when the game will end or who is in the lead. I recommend using the score track so you aren’t constantly counting points.
To set up the game, each player takes an empire token. They should be adjacent empire. For example if there is a three-player game and two players choose the Ottoman Empire and the Russian Empire, the third should not France because they are not connected. Unselected empires are considered neutral territories. Players are free to choose which color tokens they play with; they do not need to take the same color as their empire. Which this is nice, I would find it confusing so I stick to using the same color the empire is colored on the map.
Now the players each take one general, banker, and king pawn. These are placed in the capital of their empire. Players randomly choose the starting player and they place one more of each pawn in any other of their empires territories, but not in the capital. After the start player the other players also get to put one of each type of pawn into their territories.
During each turn, each player gets 1 King, Banker, and General Action. It doesn’t matter how many of each pawn they have, they only get one action for each class. Achieving Empire, which will be discussed later, gives a player an extra bonus action.
There are three types of actions a player can take for each class: Move Action, Attack Action, or Duplicate Action.
A player may move a pawn into any adjacent territory during a move action. That territory must have two are less pawns because a territory may never contain more than three pawns. This is the case even if the pawns are from different empires. There are some territories on the board that are connected by dotted lines through water regions. These are considered adjacent. When a pawn is moved into a territory with an enemy pawn a pawn can be eliminated there is no attack. It must be done during a separate attack action.
A player can choose to move a pawn into an adjacent territory with three or less pawns to attack. The territory can have three pawns because the attacking pawn eliminates an enemy pawn as they move into the territory. Players can also choose to not move out of the territory. They may also attack a pawn in their territory. If a pawns attacks without moving, that pawn cannot move into another territory on the same turn. An attack only eliminates one pawn. The eliminated pawn is put back in the players’ pool.
Pawns attack and eliminate others in a rock-paper-scissors type hierarchy. A General eliminates a King. A King eliminates a Banker. A Banker eliminates a General. Its very simple but for the first few games you may find yourself looking at your reference card to remember it.
The third type of action a player may take is a duplicate action. A pawn can duplicated, add one pawn of the same kind, in its territory.
If all of a class of pawns is eliminated for a player, they can no longer use that class of pawn.
When a player begins their turn with sole control over all the territories of their empire and they receive one extra bonus action. This means they have at least one pawn in all their empires territories and their are no enemy pawns in their territories.
The action can be completed with a new pawn or a pawn that has already been used.
Winning the Game
As players gain territories, they gain points. Depending on the number of players a different number of points are needed to win the game. For example 30 points are needed in a two player game, while 18 are needed in a six player the game. The winning totals are highlighted on the score track.
Players get points in the following ways.
– Each territory the player controls, with no other players pawns but their own, gives the player one point
– Each capital territory, where the player has one of each of the pawn classes (King, General, Banker) gives a bonus of three points (1 point for controlling the territory, plus three points for the pawns)
When a player reaches the needed point value for the number of players, they win the game.
The game will also end when a player wishes to duplicate a class of pawn on their turn but cannot because all pawns of that type are already on the game board. The player with the highest score wins in this instance.
If there is a tie for points, the winner is the player with the most pawns on the board. If there is still a tie, players share the victory.
The production of Balance of Power is outstanding. The board is so easy to read with the contrasting colors and borders. The graphic design is outstanding. There was a lot of thought that went into it and it makes for a much better gaming experience. You can easily tell the difference between the empires and individual territories no matter what color they are.
The scale of each territory was also nicely done and each one could fit the three pawns allowed without overlapping other areas.
The pawns are also very nice. As I said a few generals were damaged but it wasn’t bad enough to affect their use in the game. Plus, the extras were suitable to replace all the pieces. Their colors were also nice, and it was nice to see orange used as a player color since it rare in many games.
Each country also seems to have a different feel when you use them. For example, Russia is connected to many territories but is only on one side of the board making movement out of the country difficult. It also has a lot of sea routes. Austria is right in the middle of the but only has one connecting sea route, while the Island Nation of Great Britain must make use of its abundant sea connections. I like that the countries offer different strategies, helping the re-playability of the game.
Another positive are the simple rules. It would be really easy to teach and pick up the game. The rock/ paper/ scissors mechanism is something many people would understand, even if they need to reference sheet to remember the order. This also makes attack actions quick and easy. Only one pawn is eliminated and there are no questions. The rulebook also provides two examples of play and accompanying pictures. These can help answer questions players may have after reading the rules.
While the rules are simple, strategy is a bit more complex. You will want to think turns ahead, deciding where to place pawns, plan your moves, and keep track of your opponents to prepare for their actions.
Another element of balance is important in strategy. Moving, duplicating, and attack are all important. It is also important to not have too many or two few of any one pawn class in an area. I closed myself off a few times leaving no banker pawns in one area to eliminate the general taking out my kings. It is easy to do, but must be avoided.
Players are also given different reasons to attack or move. You may move into an enemy territory with a pawn that is sure to be eliminated just to prevent an opponent from gaining empire the next turn. Or you may stay back to not lose you pawns. Sometimes these options lead to analysis paralysis in players.
Extra options for play are also including in the rulebook. This allows groups to play according to their play style. Though I don’t think I would ever recommend playing the “total domination” variant.
As I have hinted at, the balance in the game can also be its undoing. It seemed to overstay its welcome. There was a lot of player interaction, but when one player moved ahead the other seemed to close in or overcome the other. The points went back and forth and it was difficult to reach the victory total. The fun was lost as the game continued. It also got to thinking for the simplicity of the rules. Perhaps a time limit would help or players could agree to play to a lower point total.
The production of the game is outstanding. I liked the rock-paper-scissors mechanic, even though I know it has been criticized greatly by others. Some people will like that there is no luck in the game. Still, it is difficult to pick a player who would like the game. The best fit would be someone who likes area control games, with simpler rules and a deeper strategy. They like must also like conflict and player interaction. Many will be turned off by the lack of fun. Maybe some special pawn abilities, to upset the balance just a little bit, would create a little more in the game.
Designer: Brian Knudson, Brent Knudson
Artists: Brent Knudson
Publishers: Catalyst Game Labs
Game Length: 120 minutes
Ages: 10 and up