Wednesday, 18 November 2020

Unhappy King Charles - Vassal


Steve and my adventures into the fun world of Vassal remote interactive boardgaming has continued following the fun we had with Mr Madison's War to take a look at another Card Driven Game (CDG) from GMT, this time focussing on the dramatic events of the English Civil War in the Charles Vasey designed game, Unhappy King Charles (UKC).

As in previous 'getting to grips with a new module process' we spent the first few turns of play working our way through setting up the game, made somewhat easier in Vassal, with the module allowing the card decks to be easily arranged at the click of a button and with units already in position on the map at start of play.

We have now got into a very well practiced modus operandi when starting to play a module which we are unfamiliar with, by doing a bit of warm up reading of the rules and various playbooks, sharing the knowledge on a pre-game chat online, with us then following the step by step of the sequence of play, very often trying things out just to see how to follow the rules, for example in this case, running a siege or playing a field battle, whilst feeling out what the game is offering in terms of victory conditions that drive the opposing strategies of play.

Usually as here, the end result is not really the objective, but rather both of us getting a feel for the way the game plays and trying out things recommended in the playbook guidance to gradually develop our own sense of the mechanics and work out our own strategies.

The UKC map as depicted on Vassal shows the position of our game at the end of 1642 as both sides have staked out their respective territory and the likely areas of battle in the midlands and north to secure political control and securing of vital national assets that will reward one side at the expense of the other.

Of course knowing the rules of play is one thing, but, as with all CDG's, the core of the action is very much determined with the cards one holds versus that of the enemy and very often the ability to play a poor hand just as well as when the poker face is driven to the extreme hiding an unbelievable one.

As with all CDG's the cards really create the historical flavour that underpins all the on map activity and the decision points to play for the event described or use the action points for movement and other such activity.

So for our playtest Steve took the role of the King, whilst I ran the clippers around the fringe to assume the role of a Godly Puritan Parliamentary Grandee.

Being very familiar with games like Washington's War, a close relative in many ways to UKC, Steve and I were well versed in the placing of political control markers and looking to strangle enemy areas by cutting them off with a PC marker at an important node or junction.

The map key illustrates the key features that keep the map equally functional and attractive to the eye

Equally the role of field armies to protect and police those areas was also very familiar, all be it with several differences that make the English Civil War quite different from the American War of Independence.

In UKC the players soon start to appreciate that their respective armies are a lot more unwieldy and problematic in keeping them in the field, so no marching between towns dropping off brigades enroute, a continual loss of manpower through desertion checks at the end of each turn and small armies of two to four brigades moving further than the larger gathering of troops, with battle casualties often limited to a brigade at most and two in the worst cases, making battles for less decisive than in other horse and musket eras, but with casualties suffered being taken off the order of battle permanently and thus irrevocably reducing the manpower available in an area for future recruitment.

Late 1643 and the war tilts slightly in favour of Parliament as the Navy increases their support and vital areas in the North and Midlands go blue as the the Earl of Essex takes Reading in the south after a siege and field battle, driving off a relief force from Oxford. 

As well as difficulties raising, maintaining and moving armies, the commanders on each side present different issues, with Field Army Commanders such as Rupert able to command and move without hindrance across the country, whilst local regional commanders, Waller and Hopton for example, tend to perform best when fighting in their home regions, and then another group of minor commanders donated as local notables who fortify their domain and are able to raid enemy areas and convert them rapidly to the cause as well as providing secure strongpoints to raise army's in.

The difference in the quality of the various commanders is captured with their command stats carried on the counter with better commanders adding to the combat effectiveness of their force and usually being able to activate for less activation cost. In addition the better commanders are more able at intercepting and avoiding the enemy, which proved very useful to the Fairfaxes in their battles with the King and Rupert in the north. 

Late 1643 and the Scots have arrived in the north, tying up Newcastle, whilst the Fairfaxes keep Rupert and the King busy as London keeps on turning out soldiers for Parliament as the south goes orange.

Steve and I played our game over two sessions to get to the Late 1643 position as illustrated, but decided to stop at that point, so why?

Well I have to say, for various reasons, that UKC didn't quite grab the love that the other CDG's we have played managed to do despite some very clever design ideas that really capture what the English Civil War was all about, namely a war of attrition with both sides desperate to knock the other over before they ran out of money and troops.

That model is very appealing from a history nerd perspective at it seems to really create a great feel for the war, but can leave players feeling just as worn down and battered as their historical counterparts by the grinding war of attrition created and facing yet another hand of cards where sixty percent of them are events for the opposing side, thus leaving the options for your side quite limited, something that seemed to happen quite regularly for both of us.

In addition I speak as someone who loves this period of history as opposed to Steve who probably at best can be described as one who has a passing interest.

Thus I would still be happy to play UKC again but I think it would have to be with another ECW aficionado who would appreciate the effort Charles Vasey has put into the game in terms of period feel as compensation for the effort to learn and develop the best play approaches needed to make this game come alive, something Steve and I didn't manage in our single unfinished game.

I am starting to appreciate more that there are some game periods that require the players to be really into the history and get the design to fully enjoy and for me UKC is in that category and one I will no doubt come back to.

So putting UKC to one side, Steve and I decided to shift period yet again and return to an old favourite, not played for quite a while, Rommel in the Desert, the block game by Columbia.

More anon.

Next up, the Spanish Third Rates of Renown end on a high point with a look at, as it was described at the time, one of the most perfect ships in Europe, Argonaute of 80-guns, plus I have another book review to do before moving on to look at some completed conversion work on the Warlord generic third rate ships.


  1. I'd been tempted by UKC but reading your review it sounds a bit like Paths of Glory which I played recently... quite good fun but quite wearing. We ended up abandoning WW1 in 1916 as the grind was getting too much and this sounds similar.

  2. I really want to like UKC, but as a game it's quite hard work either over vassal or solo. As you say, I think you'd need two dedicated afficionados prepared to fight it out face to face. Five games in I think it would be one you'd love for life.

  3. Thanks for your comments chaps.

    I had a feeling that mine and Steve's experience wasn't unique after taking a look at comments on other forums, but I should stress that I think UKC is a good game for those of us interested in the ECW and I wouldn't want to put any fans of this period interested in playing UKC off.

    My steer to those folks would be to play it, but preferably with a friend similarly interested in doing so, as I think the reward would be there for persisting with the learning curve of getting to grips with the mechanisms and nuances of play and I would definitely play it again under those circumstances.