The beehive murmur of an expectant crowd… the clink of cider-filled champagne flutes… Roman clutching an envelope the same colour as his lamé Nehru jacket… you don’t need to be Miss Marple to work out that the final act of the 2022 THC game jam – the announcement of the winner – is imminent. In January I invited Tally-Ho Cornerites to submit homemade digital or analogue games on the theme of ‘escape and evasion’. While me and my Chief Foxer Setter weren’t exactly snowed under by submissions, there were sufficient entries for a brief snowball fight and the construction of a recognisable 1/16 scale snowhetzer.
A Mriya-sized ‘thank you’ to everyone who took the time to engineer something escapist for the jam. Playtesting the designs has been a pleasure and a privilege. Among the entries that diverted, intrigued, or amused us, but ultimately failed to make our ‘Potential Winner’ shortlist was the one from Plan V.
A blackly humorous ‘Betjeman’ mode is described but, sadly, not actually implemented. In it your aim isn’t just to help London escape a pounding, it’s to lead Goering’s searchlight-dodgers to more deserving settlements like Slough.
If there’d been a prize for Most Promising Theme, a_monk’s submission probably would have scooped it. Although the judges felt fast-playing track-based board game ‘Flight to Varennes’ was a tad light in the ‘interesting decision-making’ département, the idea of a game based on Louis XVI and family’s ill-fated attempt to reach
Pont-à-Mousson Montmédy in 1791 greatly appealed. Via a variant, FtV allows the player to explore the event’s most fascinating ‘what-if ‘ (What if the royal family had decided to travel in two fast small carriages rather than one relatively ponderous large one) however most other facets of the adventure are decided by fickle dice and cards.
Fairly early in the judging process, it became clear that this year’s jam was going to be a two-horse race. Both of the pack-leading nags were replay-friendly solitaire games with novel military themes. Both utilized pipped cubes, standard playing cards, and a phalanx of random events tables to tell their memorable stories.
In TV-PressPass’s Panjshir ’82, your job is to maul Soviet forces in Afghanistan’s ‘Five Lions’ province then vanish into the hills. A pair of player-controlled Mujahideen bands roam a hexed valley attempting to amass the ‘Combat Power’ necessary to undertake two risky ‘Critical Strikes’ – the significant actions that presage game-ending withdrawals. Most of the time it’s in your interest to avoid the five Soviet companies that also wander the map. These formidable foes patrol randomly, but will bee-line towards player units in response to certain random encounters and battle results.
Other enemies such as hostile militia and police units don’t get their own counters. Encounter tables consulted every time one of your bands enters a symboled hex, determine when you cross Kalashnikovs with them. These same dice-reliant tables also decide when your men gain and lose CP through non-combat events such as arms deals, requisitioning, and training.
Much is in the lap of the dice and card gods in Panjshir ’82, but picking unit destinations and mulling over choices thrown up by the tables (Should I spend CP s on extended movement in an attempt to lose that nearby Hind? Should I take-on this police checkpoint in the hope of gaining CP from a win? Should I transfer CPs between my bands at this point?…) almost always kept me and Roman engaged.
The odd ambiguous rule and a slight disconnect between map graphics and the all-important terrain symbols, did lose the design a few marks. Instinctively drawn to the board’s peakier parts, the judges felt the Mujahideen’s mastery of the mountains wasn’t sufficiently reflected in Panjshir’s mechanics.
I doubt I could describe the premise of Addio, Panjshir’s chief rival for the first prize, any better than its creator, captaincabinets, does at the start of his three-page rules pamphlet:
“October 25, 1917. The Austro-Hungarian troops have broken through the Italian lines at Caporetto. As they march on Udine, the Italian soldiers retreat en masse towards a fall-back line established at the Tagliamento river. The Italian generals, incensed by what they see as a craven act of cowardice, order the caribinieri to capture and execute any officers seen fleeing from the fight.
You are one of those officers, an American who signed up to drive ambulances on the front lines. As any sense of order crumbles around you, you receive word from your English nurse lover, stationed north of Milan, that she is pregnant with your child.
She is waiting for you in a hotel on the shores of Lake Maggiore, where you can hire a rowboat and try to cross into Switzerland together in the dead of the night. Go to her.”
Inspired by a classic 20th Century novel written by a chap with first-hand experience of the Italian Front, Addio* maps Northern Italy using a board of brickworked playing cards. Then, splitting turns into day and night phases, it watches as you attempt to traverse that board, dodging manoeuvring armies as you go.
* “Farewell” in Italian
Failure can come in many forms. You can be captured by dynamic Italian or Austro-Hungarian units, fall victim to starvation, or arrive at Lake Maggiore too broke to purchase the rowing boat needed to reach safety.
At stages in your journey the player counter (the designer recommends using a shot of grappa for this, and dried fava beans and lira coins for food and money markers) will rest on cards representing towns, fields, and battles – opportunities, respectively, to find temporary employment and gather intel, forage for food (an activity not without risk), and fight or bribe your way out of trouble. If you opt to travel at night, there’s a fair chance now and again you’ll end up in places you had no intention of visiting.
Picture cards are the grated truffle stirred into Addio’s surprisingly rich mushroom risotto. Flip a knave, queen, or king during your flight, and you get the chance to ride trains, confuse nearby armies with bogus telegrams, and search ruined abodes for special items such as civilian clothes (useful in Milan), a German dictionary (expands your telegram options), and “a bottle of excellent Cognac” (a potent bribery aid).
There’s something decidedly Way of Defector about the game’s mood, preoccupations, and difficulty. The fact that, circa playtest #12, I abandoned the incredibly tough official victory conditions and decided that simply reaching Lake Maggiore constituted a win for me, possibly indicates that captaincabinets needs to tweak his ‘normal’ difficulty levels a tad. (To be fair, Panjshir 82 is also a bit of a ballbreaker).
This flaw and some minor rule ambiguity here and there damaged its victory prospects, but ultimately the jam judges decided that Addio explored the ‘escape and evasion’ theme more energetically and cleverly than any of the other entries, told the most captivating stories, and involved the most interesting decision-making. Congratulations captaincabinets, you are this year’s jam winner! I’ll be in touch soon to discuss your prize (either a handmade THC escape kit, or editorial/commissioning privileges).