Long live the King with Bretwalda


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16 April 2023
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We get to grips with becoming the boss of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms

Words by Christopher John Eggett

The Anglo-Saxon king was referred to as the Bretwalda – the ‘Britain-ruler’ (or, alternatively, ‘wide-ruler’ – which is slightly less straightforward). And he’s dead. Naturally, when something like this happens, we get a little bit of unrest in the muddy lands of Northumbria, Mercia, Wessex and East Angles – the four biggest kingdoms of Britain. Someone has to be king after all, and why shouldn’t it be you?

Bretwalda is a tactical area control game from Phalanx, inhabiting that classic ‘war on a board’ space that many of us love. We spoke to the game’s designer, Leo Soloviey, about creating this game of clashes in the Anglo-Saxon kingdom.

 

ARCHITECT OF A KINGDOM

Soloviey was an architecture student – “however, instead of becoming a building architect, I decided to become a game architect.”

“I am just starting my career in board game design,” he says, “Bretwalda is my first project to be released, so readers are unlikely to be familiar with my name, but hopefully that will change after Bretwalda.

Like many game designers, the desire to create something came from hacking something they already loved.

“I started my path in game design by creating with some friends a home rule set for Game of Thrones Second Edition before moving on to original projects. These were interesting but complex and probably not publishable. Then in the summer of 2019 I started working on Bretwalda.”

Soloviey says he came to the modern board game scene “late” – by which he means at the end of high-school – but to many that’s early enough, as many gamers have a break until their twenties. It was only after Game of Thrones that he started to become interested in area control games.

While Soloviey started out as someone homebrewing a fantasy world, his interests were much more grounded in the familiar territory of publisher Phalanx, that of history.

I have always been fascinated by historical strategy games. In elementary school, I discovered the computer game series Total War, building kingdoms, empires, and playing epic battles - that was it,” says Soloviey, “then I started collecting figures from the Lord of the Rings: Strategy Battle Game system, as a teenager I played a lot in tournaments, once I even managed to win the Polish Solo Championship.”

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SUTTON WHEN?

“Since I was a child I have been fascinated by the image of the Sutton Hoo helmet. As an 11-year-old I once even drew a fantasy warrior wearing this artifact,” says Soloviey.

The Sutton Hoo helmet is the classic image that many associate with the period. A helm that functions as a crown (for King Rædwald, an East Anglian king) and a piece of armour.

“Awareness of Anglo-Saxon culture has always been somewhere in my head,” Soloviey tells us, “in 2018, the computer game Thrones of Britannia: Total War appeared. I spent many hours playing it – I think that was when the first seed for the game Bretwalda was sown. If I remember correctly, the idea of ​​the game itself started with reading the Osprey book Anglo-Saxon Thegn while travelling by train. There is a map of England from around 800AD in the publication, and I immediately started to sketch my first illustrations on it.”

This sketch lead to further research, and being drawn in by the aesthetic of the period.

“I was captivated primarily by the visual magic of the world of Anglo-Saxon England, its material culture, the combination of Germanic elements with Celtic aesthetics, and the fading heritage of Rome in the background. A great cultural mix, settled Anglo-Saxons, native Britons pushed to the frontiers of the land, loot-hungry Vikings from the east, Frankish missionaries, Irish monks writing holy books. In addition, the ongoing dispute between the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms over who would claim the title of Bretwalda. It was crying out to be turned into a game.”

As always with games like this, we like to ask if we’re in danger of learning something the about history of the subject. This is less an academic game than a taster – albeit one that fully assaults you with its lush visuals.

“The game’s task is to introduce players to the world of Britain from the beginning of the nineth century. The starting point is historical – and during the game certain period-specific events take place, such as the Vikings’ raids – but it is the players who decide how the fate of the land will unfold,” says Soloviey.

Bretwalda is not a narrative or roleplaying game, so it won’t tell the story itself. However, it offers a rich, historical backdrop and will encourage the players to write their own story.”

 

WHAT IT TAKES TO WEAR THE CROWN

But how then does one become the Anglo-Saxon king? Like most games, it does come down to points – but it’s about how you get them.

“The object of the game is to get a certain number of Dalcs – Anglo-Saxon brooches that were once a symbol of power and status,” explains Soloviey, “players can earn them in three ways. The first and the most common one is to take control of the areas where the Dalcs are located. The second is to build abbeys in your kingdom. The third is to write a chronicle of your deeds.”

These are all carried out by taking actions fit for a king. Development actions let you upgrade your actions and build building likes abbeys. Collection is the ‘tax them’ action (as well as harvesting food), and the classic ‘muster’ action is called ‘Fyrd’ – the term for a ‘bring your own weapons’ militia. And of course, movement allows you to take control of new areas – or start a fight – depending on how close you get to someone. Players will be taking two of these four actions per turn, “so each choice is crucial.”

And while the game might offer these tougher choices, the rules are simple – and Soloviey wants to create a very fast-paced game.

“From the beginning, my assumption was that the game should be relatively fast and accessible. The key is clear, intuitive rules and a system calibrated to minimize player downtime,” he tells us.

Of course, not every kingdom is the same. Bretwalda offers each leader a certain amount of asymmetry – whether that’s through the locations they start on the map, or the kingdom rules (like getting bonus food in East Anglia, or more recruits in Mercia).

“There is no one path for each kingdom, the adopted strategy depends on the player, the choice of his or her ruler and the actions of other players; the choice of strategies is very wide,” says Soloviey.

There’s also a solo mode of the game in the works, “we are still working on it, but the main theme of the solo mode is to score a very high number of Dalcs over 12 rounds,” explains the designer, “it is a logic puzzle with imposed time pressure.”

Adding things like this takes a lot of development work. While much of the game was playtested over 2020-2021, Phalanx have stepped in to add further tweaks.

“In the last nine months, based on extensive external tests, together with the publisher, we have introduced a number of changes so that the game becomes even better,” says Soloviey, “I’m now confident it can compete in the market with the best area control games. My observations have been that people appreciate the pace and intensity of the game the most, and that every choice matters.”

The game itself looks incredible. The Gamefound page shows off the beautiful carved-looking ‘pawns’ to show the placement of your leader, troops and so on, and the board is presented in lush and textured detail.

I am the author of both the mechanics and the visual setting of the project. As a game architect, I have to be responsible for the function and form of my creation,” says Soloviey, “the main conceptual assumption of the project was to create a game that would give the impression that the game actually came from the period. I believe that historical games should be written in the language of their time.”

WHAT’S NEXT?

Soloviey has plans for more games of the same vein – in the sense that they’re going to be more civilization-building war-orientated historical area control games. He claims that there are 16 new games in his head, but won’t decide what to complete until the Bretwalda campaign is finished.

“Some of the designs are more advanced, and some are just a sketch of the map and the cover of the box – I always start with this,” says Soloviey.


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