"Schlacht am Weißen Berg", 1620, Pieters Snayers. Imperial-Spanish forces under Johan Tzerclaes, Count of Tilly won a decisive victory at White Mountain in November 1620.
When Mary and I first started serious discussions about Hollandspiele a little over a year ago, one of the many little ideas we kicked around was doing a little freebie game that we'd give away as part of our December Holiday Sale. People like getting free stuff, after all, and we thought it might serve as some slight additional incentive for people to purchase multiple games as part of the sale. Once we launched the enterprise, and our games got such a wonderful, positive reception from the gaming community, we became even more convinced that, yes, we would indeed be offering a freebie game to promote our holiday sale.
So, that immediately brought up a couple of questions. The first was, what would the game be about? I briefly flirted with the Battle of Trenton, and with the Battle of Tucapel. Both battles had the advantage of taking place on December 25, but I couldn't think of a good way to approach Trenton, and I didn't know enough about Tucapel to make a really interesting game. Other December battles - after all, Christmas isn't the only December holiday - posed similar problems.
And that was the other question: how do I make an interesting freebie game? There are a lot of free micro-games out there, but many of them have developed a reputation for being "cute" at best or "awful" at worst. I've certainly been underwhelmed by any number of postcard games. There are very few of them that feel like they're worth playing more than once, let alone with an opponent, and the majority of them give you the feeling that you got precisely what you paid for.
Well, we didn't want that. If it was between creating a freebie game that was a dud, or no freebie game at all, we'd rather have no game at all. It'd be like the time someone gave me stationary for my birthday. It's like, "Thanks, I guess, but this isn't really something I want or need?" We wanted our freebie game to be something that you actually wanted, and that would actually see the table. That's what we want with all of our games, regardless of price tag, but we certainly didn't want to throw money away on a game - after all, every copy of the freebie produced is produced at a loss - if we shouldn't have bothered.
"Battle of Waterloo", William Sadler II
While I was puzzling this out, I procured a copy of the dazzling W1815. This small fifteen minute game on the Battle of Waterloo has gotten lots of attention, and with good reason. There is about a page of "actual" rules, with all the rest subsumed into cards for each unit that explain what it can do and who it attacks; each card has its own built-in CRT, which you roll on when you choose to activate that unit. The interplay of these units and their abilities recreate some of the elements and flavor of the historical conflict in a fairly seamless and ingenious way. It's easy to learn and to teach, and an absolute joy to play.
And I started thinking, well, I could do that. Now, I didn't mean, "I could take the W1815 system and do my own thing with it," because I'm not at all comfortable with taking someone else's work and just reskinning it. Now, the history of commercial wargaming is very much the history of building on what's been done before; I use hex-grids and EZOCs all the time without any hand-wringing, and I have no problems with folks using odds-based CRTs to resolve combat (I've actually only done that in one of my designs, oddly enough). So I don't necessarily have any problem with borrowing from others, or with being borrowed from; really, whatever talent I have as a designer is a talent for synthesis, for borrowing and reimplementing, rather than creating new things and concepts. So, what gives? It's a weird and wobbly line that I'm drawing here, perhaps a very fine and imaginary distinction, but as a fallible human being, I reserve the right to say "it feels right to borrow heavily from this, but it doesn't feel right to borrow too heavily from that." It might just be that W1815 was such a thing unto itself, completely sui generis, that it would feel wrong to build a new creature over its bones.
Whatever my neuroses, I felt that I could take the philosophy of W1815, the idea and the feel of it, and use that to create a game that scratched a somewhat similar itch. I settled on the Battle of White Mountain because I had some familiarity with it. I had played a couple of other wargames on the battle (one of which, interestingly enough, was a disappointing freebie), and had done a fair amount of reading on the Thirty Years War (Peter Wilson's book on the conflict and its complicated causes is invaluable). The reason why the resultant game is called Christmas on White Mountain is because I liked the way it sounds, probably because of Carl Barks's seminal Christmas on Bear Mountain. Anyway...
Like W1815, my White Mountain game models losses by the removal of bits from the board, and has unit abilities "built-in" in the form of Boxes that explain what each Unit can do. But I didn't give each unit its own CRT. Partially this is because, as I mentioned above, I wouldn't have felt comfortable doing that. But a bigger part of it is that that was one element I found somewhat frustrating about W1815: I would activate a unit, I would roll on the CRT, and the roll was a dud. I'm used to bad CRT rolls - boy, am I ever - but in most games bad CRT rolls are mitigated because you're doing multiple things over the course of a turn. In W1815, that was it, that was my whole turn, wasted, and now it's the other guy's turn, and he always rolls better than I do anyway.
Royal Arms of Bohemia
What I decided to do instead was to take a page from dice-placement games like Alien Frontiers or To Court The King (which in turn built on DNA established by Yahtzee and folk games like Farkle). Each player has a pool of dice that he rolls each turn, and then he commits dice to a particular unit's box, according to the type and number of dice that can be placed in that box. For example, the Bohemian Right and his opponent's Catholic League Infantry both use sixes, but the latter can gain at most one die per turn. It's not that the Bohemians are more ferocious or better-led (they're not!), but rather that they are fighting (albeit poorly) from a strong defensive position, while mounting an attack on that position takes time and preparation. When a unit is activated, all the stored dice are removed, and losses are incurred depending on the number of dice.
Or not; one of the signal features of this particular design is the ability of cavalry and artillery to screen and discourage enemy attacks. If I have the right number of dice in my cavalry box when you attack an infantry unit under that cavalry's protection, I can expend those dice to cancel your attack. In fact, it's not just that I can do it, but that I'm required to, and so both the attacking unit and the screening unit have their dice cleared out. When I perform that Reaction, it robs me of the ability to make an Attack on my own turn immediately following. This means that there's a definite cat-and-mouse feel, with each side struggling for control of tempo. You don't want to just prevent your enemy from attacking, you also want to get the leverage you need to launch a successful attack yourself. You want to set up your cavalry so as to screen effectively, but if that's all you're doing, you won't have sufficient dice to press your advantage when it appears.
Flag of the Catholic League in Germany during the Thirty Years' War.
In general, the Imperial/Catholic League position is a more flexible one, representative of the superiority of their commanders and the bifurcated command structure. Not only may they place in two boxes per turn (one per army), but between them there's at least one box that can potentially utilize each die result. The Bohemian Player on the other hand places in only one box per turn, and any ones, twos, or threes are absolutely worthless. Because of his defensive position, he can place more dice for his infantry divisions - if you roll three sixes, you can place three sixes, while the enemy infantry places at most one at a time.
So, each side has its strengths and weaknesses, and if I've done my job right, while your decisions are driven by your dice, they are still meaningful decisions. The game typically plays out in less than thirty minutes, with the exact time depending on the aggressiveness of the players. You'll need twelve dice and fifty little cubes or tokens - the rules and board being free, we hope you don't mind.