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A Day in the Life of the Sultan: Foxes and Devils - Megagame Makers (08/04/17)

April 11, 2017

On Saturday I attended “Foxes and Devils”: a megagame by Brian Cameron about The Reformation in 16th Century Europe, and all the different political, military and religious concerns surrounding it. I would be leading the Ottoman Empire team as Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, a man with so many titles that I was impressed they all managed to fit on my name tag.

 

 

And as we all know, the number of titles you have is directly proportional to how magnificent you are.

 

 

The Setting

 

Foxes and Devils takes place in the early to mid 16th Century. Martin Luther has fragmented the Catholic church, creating the Lutheran movement and sparking a religious conflict of conversions and persecution. However, this is far from the only issue facing Europe at the time. France has recently invaded Milan, with Switzerland and the Italian city-states of Naples, Florence, and Venice getting involved in the conflict. The sprawling Habsburg family is one of the most dominant forces in Europe, with control of multiple states including Spain, Hungaria, Austria, the Netherlands and the Holy Roman Empire – and is ostensibly allied with the Catholics, though the Emperor has a less than friendly relationship with the Papacy. England has uncertain relationships with France and Spain, and Denmark is officially a Lutheran country, giving legitimacy and support to the scattered Lutheran leaders amongst the hundreds of tiny semi-independent states that make up the area of Germany.

 

In addition to all of these internal politics (and of particular relevance to my role), the Ottoman Empire is in the middle of a renewed expansion from their base in Constantinople – having recently taken Belgrade, opening up the path to the west through Hungary.

 

 

The Best Laid Plans of Mice and Sultans

 

As the Ottoman team, we wouldn't be taking part in the religious debate or conversion mechanics fought between the Catholics and the Lutherans. They were both heretics, which kept things simple. We also wouldn't be interested in marrying or producing any heirs with said heretics, so we'd be outside of the dynasty/families part of the game as well. Instead, we'd be focused on our own simple objectives, namely:

 

  1. Secure and extend the boundaries of the Ottoman Empire

  2. Ensure our fleets have the ability to operate anywhere in the Mediterranean

  3. Maintain the important trading relationship with Venice (except where this objective would conflict with objectives 1 and 2)

 

The position of the Ottomans was a unique one. Technically speaking, every single state in Europe had good reason to directly oppose us – we had historically been expanding closer and closer to them, and were of such a different culture and religion that typical alliances and diplomacy were impossible. However, the various Christian nations of Europe were far from a united group full of cooperative pragmatists – and that gave us options.

 

***

 

I came to the game with a plan. Well, it was less of a plan and more of a crudely drawn map and three lists.

 

The first list was labelled “Boo!”. These were our enemies – well, every other team in the game were our enemies in the long-term, but for the situation and objectives as they stood at the start of the game, these were the people we simply couldn't have any relationship with other than outright hostility. The first was the Habsburgs – Hungary was the one option (and it was a big one) for expanding our territory into Europe, and its king was a member of this superpower of a family. The second was the Papacy – not for any material reason, but purely a moral one (they were clearly the most heretical of all the heretics – we were just never going to get along).

 

The second list was the much more complicated “Make Nice”. These were teams that we would be trying to make deals and agreements with – they either had something we wanted, or wouldn't see our expansion as a priority, or both. Venice was one of the few nations to have a fleet, and we had a beneficial pre-existing trade agreement with them, so wanting their non-aggression was obvious – Venice was also *very* close to the current borders of the Empire, so we had leverage. The Lutherans were our next target for the smiles-and-sunshine approach. They'd be in direct competition with both the Papacy and the Habsburgs, so ensuring they saw success would distract and weaken our main enemies. France was the last on the list, as they were just far enough away that we weren't a direct threat to them – but they were close enough and powerful enough that they should be able to cause problems for anyone we didn't like if sufficiently incentivised.

 

The third list was merely “Just Far Away”, and included England and Denmark – two countries that were at such a distance that they were neither a threat nor of use.

 

Finally, the word “Genoa” was scrawled in the corner of the page, surrounded by question marks. They were an NPC nation (run by Control), but they were the only faction other than Venice and Habsburg Spain (and us) who had a fleet in the Mediterranean.

 

 

Pirates and Pretend Invasions

 

The game begins!

 

 

The day began and I met my team – the Grand Vizier, Ibrahim Pasha, was my ever-loyal advisor [1], Admiral Barbarossa was the tactical-genius commander of my fleets, and Alaeddin Pasha was the Keeper of the Porte [2]. I presented my basic plan to them and everyone agreed it made sense (though whether this was an honest assessment or just unwavering loyalty to their Sultan I do not know!).

 

We started with a fairly basic outline of how we wanted to spend the first few turns. Our Empire actually extended off-map to the East, where we had our own set of enemies, primarily the Persians (an NPC, given they'd be far from the main action). When we raised our army [3], we could either send them to Europe, or to the East – the latter would be resolved manually by Control away from the map. We decided we would start the game with a few turns campaigning in the East – this would both give the Europeans time to lose focus on us as they fought amongst themselves, and also ensure that the Persians didn't hit us from behind if we started fighting in Hungary. During this time, we would also use our North Africa fleet to conduct pirate raids around Habsburg Spain, taking quick potshots at our enemy [4].

 

This plan was immediately reversed due to two completely unexpected developments.

 

On the first turn, Habsburg and Hungarian troops marched into Ottoman-owned Bosnia. A few minutes later, the King of Hungary and another Habsburg lackey approached our table – they cited incompetent local commanders as the cause of the invasion, and said they would be retreating and disbanding as soon as the next military phase came around. I was suitably outraged and demanded that these promises be fulfilled to the letter. I then ordered my Vizier to change his orders and raise the largest army he could and march it directly into Bosnia. The Habsburgs were clearly testing us – perhaps trying to prove a point to the other Europeans that they could invade Ottoman territory and get away with it. Well, it was time to make sure the Ottomans showed their strength! And we did, as an army approximately twice the size of theirs appeared on the Bosnia-Hungary border [5].

 

The invaders retreat.

 

 

The raids on Spanish shores were going well, then the Spanish attacked our fleets – our fleets were better and it was two on one – but some ludicrously bad die rolls saw our fleets damaged. Barbarossa's reputation as a tactical genius was called into question [6].

 

 

Campaigns and Crusades

 

With the Hungarian issue finally resolved, we turned our army back to the East. Over the next few turns Control would tell us that we gained much new territory from our Persian enemies in our Eastern campaign. Hoorah!

 

Algiers was soon targeted by a combined “Crusade” fleet of the Spanish, Genoans and Venetians – the Ottoman fleet, already damaged, attempted to defend our coastal city, but, outnumbered, the Ottoman fleet was lost and our North Africa fleet was trapped in the Algiers port.

 

Around this time, I had spent some money and influence on building a fantastic new mosque in the Empire. I had been unexpectedly rewarded a short time later with a “Good Things Happen to Good People” card that allowed any roll to be counted as a 6.

 

The ever-growing glories of the Ottoman Empire!

 

 

The crusading fleets attacked Algiers, threatening to destroy our second (and now only) fleet. Barbarossa had an idea though – if these men are pirates, might they be able to sneak out of the bay under cover of night? Control said they'd allow us to try but it was unlikely to be successful and grabbed a couple of dice. I saw the chance to avoid a huge loss, and threw the 'Good Things' card down almost instantly. Thanks to Barbarossa's ingenuity and my piety, we narrowly avoided losing our second fleet (and with it, all our power in the Mediterranean).

 

 

Damage Control and Diplomatic Treaties

 

Despite our continuing successes in the East, we'd been put on the back foot in the Mediterranean. One fleet was damaged and another was lost with all hands, and Algiers had been conquered with an army of Milanese mercenaries. I went to inspect the perpetrators and noticed that the fleets involved were the Spanish (predictably), Genoese and the Venetians. I had paid off the Genoese, but I guess someone else paid better. The Venetians though – ooooh those Venetians. These were meant to be our trade partners – they had agreed to not attack us, damn it!

 

Caught red handed at the scene of the crime!

 

 

I marched up to the Doge of Venice and asked him a simple question: “What the [expletive]?”. He claims that technically he hasn't attacked or invaded us – no he merely provided transport to our aggressors. I tell him this is an absolute betrayal. He says it was organised whilst he was away, and didn't make the decision. I march over to the Condottiere of Venice and ask him the same question – he claims he was just doing what the Doge ordered. It doesn't take a genius to realise these answers don't add up. Further interrogation of the Doge reveals he did make the decision, but he was "railroaded” into taking part.

 

I'm offended – no, I'm outraged. I tell him I want to see action, real action, as recompense, or that short distance between the Ottoman Empire and Venice's borders is going to start getting real small, real fast. I manage to get him to sign a treaty clearly stating that Venice will never attack or assist in any attacks on us going forward, and in return, we won't invade them. With that, I had one of the three European fleets in the Mediterranean staying out of our way.

 

At the same time, the Spanish and Milanese realised they couldn't realistically hold onto Algiers for very long considering the cost involved. We would be able to raise an army to retake it, but this would completely interrupt our successful operations in the East. Instead we come to a compromise – we sign a treaty whereby Algiers is returned to us, and we don't conduct any raids on Spain (or Western Italy) for two turns – given the state of our fleets, we were going to be more defensive anyway, so I was happy with that. I also included that Genoa and Spain were not to attack our fleets again. This treaty was limited to two turns, but it got us Algiers back, and gave our fleets the breathing time they sorely needed. The next couple of turns would involve a massive financial focus on getting enough money to repair our North Africa fleet and rebuild the Ottoman fleet – which was a massive time and financial cost.

 

 

The Sudden but Inevitable Invasion of Hungary

 

It was just next door.

 

 

Through a couple of turns of continued reports from Control about the East, we had made significant territory gains for the Empire and also earned a lot of money from looting that would go straight to our fleet repairs. However, all good campaigns must come to an end, and eventually we exhausted how much could be reasonably achieved in the East.

 

With our off-map borders now secure from any Persian attack, and with no other choices for expansion (not including very risky and expensive movements transporting soldiers across the Mediterranean on our fleets), the Ottomans moved on Hungary. The war started poorly, with the Hapsburg/Hungarian forces taking Bosnia from us.

 

I tried to do everything I could to push the war in our favour. I spent two Persuasion Cards and a lot of money to convince the Vivode of Transylvania (another NPC run by Control) not to join his Hungarian ruler (that he despised), and refuse to raise troops in Hungary's defence against us. I even promised him Eastern Hungary if he attacked the king.

 

Our fleets eventually returned to full working order, and I ordered raids to begin immediately on Hungary's coastline, denying them a small amount of cash.

 

A turn later, the Transylvanians raised their army against us, betraying me – I shouldn't have expected anything better from these heretics! (I learned after the game that the King of Hungary had used his influence to bring the Vivode to heel – and I had basically given that player exactly what he wanted, as one of his objectives was to demonstrate he could stand up to the Vivode and bring him in line!)

 

War: huh, yeah. What is it good for? Taking central Hungary.

 

There was a lot of back and forth between the armies, lasting all the way until the game's end. At one point we even successfully took control of Middle Hungary before being pushed back again. Map Control estimated that there were over 200,000 casualties from the conflict over the course of the game – but it was all worth it to work towards expanding our glorious empire.

 

 

The Bit Where I Talk about The Lutherans and The French

 

At this point in the write up I'm forced to abandon trying to keep things in any sort of chronological order: we had several interactions with France and the Lutherans throughout the day, but they were short and sporadic and I have no idea at what stage they occurred amongst everything else.

 

The Lutherans were hard to talk to because they frequently disappeared to the map and to regular Diets and debates in the other room. However, one Lutheran in particular was very helpful in exchanging information for Florins after we agreed that we had a common enemy in the Papacy. He dropped a good few hints to me about how ready the Europeans were to attack us and also how close certain factions were to going to war with each other, and I dropped a good few florins in the general area of his pocket. I don't know if everything he said was true or accurate, but from what I could observe it did seem to match up with how things went in the next turn or so and definitely helped inform some of my decisions. The lesson here was, if we can both agree the Papacy are wrong, let's just not question how we feel about each other and everything can work out great!

 

Semi-Related photo: This is what the situation in Europe looked like. You can see how it was worth getting a little help with knowing what's going on.

 

 

The French were a very interesting mixed bag. Things started off quiet with them, but word got around that things were getting very complicated in France. They attempted to invade Milan, and also got invaded by the English and Habsburgs in Calais. At some point the King of France was excommunicated, and I heard rumours that they had a military commander that had gone rogue. However, anyone wreaking confusion and distrust amongst the Europeans was welcome to my admiration and so we did have a few significant interactions. About halfway through the game they said they needed money to raise troops, and I negotiated that I would give them 3 florins to help invade Spain, with another 3 once I saw them there. They claimed they would invade, but failed to do so, claiming they couldn't get a casus belli. They would petition me for military funding several more times throughout the game but that was the last time they saw my florins up front for anything. I repeatedly promised them money if I saw them attacking Habsburg territories (I was still looking for ways to have any effect on Hungary's ability to fight). After all, promises are free, and any influence it might have had on their actions would have been useful. I couldn't devote time to watching the French and they didn't come back to me much, so I have no idea how effective it was in the end though, and I didn't pay them any more.

 

 

Crusades 2: Rhodian Boogaloo

 

With our fleets weakened, a second crusade managed to successfully take Rhodes, one of the islands the Ottomans had historically taken shortly before the game's start. Again though, the Europeans were having trouble with the cost of holding on to it, and offered us another deal. We had a plan to retake the island by fighting off the Spanish fleets with our very recently rebuilt navy, and cutting off the invaders from supplies, but considering the potential risk of losing the fleet again, we took the deal instead – Rhodes would get a year of demilitarisation wherein the newly re-homed Knights of St John would get to decide their own future, with European and Ottoman advisors present. I agreed, and immediately spent the next 10 minutes with NPC Control hashing out a deal with the Knights – they would have no Ottoman soldiers on their island, but they would recognise the Ottoman Empire and the Sultan as rulers, becoming a Vassal. A couple of Persuasion Cards and a handful of Florins secured the deal. They would also pay tax to the Empire, which unexpectedly came in the form of solid gold animal statues, which I was delighted to put on my Sultan-mantelpiece.

 

Resplendent.

 

 

Just before game end, a third crusade was launched [7] [8], this time against Algiers again. They had roped in the English fleet somehow for this one, who came racing down towards the Mediterranean. The Venetians wisely stayed out of it this time, but the Genoans joined again, and the Spanish had us in a 3-against-1 against our Ottoman fleet, as our North African fleet was defending against the possibility of a rumoured crusade against out Anatolian territory.

 

A little late to the party, but just as unwelcome as everyone else.

 

 

In an incredible reflection of our naval failure at the beginning of the game, spectacularly lucky rolling by Barbarossa against the combined English, Spanish and Genoese fleet resulted in a tie, and he had managed to outwit and outmanoeuvre the enemy fleets, preventing them from landing in Algiers for the turn. The game end was called, but not before I met up with NPC Control and paid a fistful of florins to “suggest” that the Genoese fleet would suffer “weather problems” and would be “forced” to return to their home port on the next attempt – bringing a few thousand Italian mercenaries with them. This would not happen in game time of course, and there's no guarantee the Genoese would keep their end of the bargain, but I like to think that the follow up attack on Algiers might have had an unexpected change in circumstance for the crusaders.

 

 

Some Analysis

 

Disclaimer: The following is some analytical observation of what I think did or didn’t work well. It's all my uneducated opinion, my only qualification being that I overthink things. If you disagree with anything I've said, please comment - I'd be interested to know.

 

It's hard to provide much analysis on the game considering that I was on a team outside of the major mechanical systems, and even within that team I had a mostly political role rather than engaging with any the more tangible rules. With that said, there are a few observations I do have, some of which were reported to me by my team mates or other players.

 

For the Ottomans specifically, our income was 2D6 per turn. This seemed massively variable. We actually got obscenely lucky and rolled either 10, 11 or 12 for every single turn except the last. Whilst we could raise and move armies for free, moving/repairing navies was very expensive and a lot of my interactions with other teams and NPCs involved using money – if we had simply had the reverse luck and been stuck with only 3 or 4 florins every turn, our game could have felt extremely limited, with not many options. As it stands, this mechanic could leave the Ottomans either miserably limited or somewhat overpowered (which I think we were to an extent) based on luck alone. Perhaps an income of something similar to 4+D6 would be more reasonable.

 

NPCs seemed somewhat difficult to manage. I could explain several thoughts I had on NPC Control, but really they would just be a repeat of the general unsolvable problems that arise from any Control team, and how sometimes you just can't know everything. I think the main identifiable problem was that the NPCs could be incredibly critical (such as Genoa being 1 of only 3 powers capable of opposing us in the Mediterranean), yet it took an incredibly long time to first find NPC Control, then wait for them to finish dealing with someone else, then explain what the situation is and what you want, then negotiate back and forth with the NPC itself, then have them simulate the decision and pass that information on to relevant people. It was a massive amount of time and with the addition of how unreliable it was (which was in all fairness, realistic), it was just sort of draining and seemed like a distraction, but still something you were forced to do. I don't know what the solution would be to this one, but if I had to think of one, I'd try and make more significant NPCs into smaller player teams, or perhaps have a more transparent system for NPCs and their significant relationships that Controls can manage rather than needing a Control team member to discuss everything at length and force them to understand everything required. Though these would likely come with their own problems.

 

 

In Summary

 

The game in action.

 

 

I had an enormous amount of fun at Foxes and Devils. The Ottoman team was definitely an outlier in terms of the game's typical experience, but I don't think my experience of the game suffered for it at all. It was a really satisfying and tense diplomatic challenge to simultaneously be everybody's enemies yet also be able to carefully deal and negotiate with people who had other priorities and common enemies.

 

Objectives-wise, whilst the Mediterranean still remains plagued by heretics, at least we have two full-strength fleets again and the Venetians are leaving us alone. We expanded our territories to the East and campaigning in Hungary was mixed, but with some promising successes, so perhaps we'll have some new provinces in future...? I was pretty happy with how our team did and I would like to give a massive thank you to everyone on the Ottoman team for doing a great job.

 

Me with my magnificent team-mates.

 

Oh, and being outraged at Venice, then turning that into a threat-backed treaty that all but assured Venice would never oppose us, will go down as one of my all time favourite moments. So, thanks for betraying me I guess...?

 

 

Footnotes

 

[1] The Vizier was not just my advisor, but also chosen on turn one to be the commander of the land forces for the Empire, as no-one was officially given that role from the brief.

 

[2] I couldn't figure out what a Keeper of the Porte does! The briefing says he was meant to conduct any diplomatic missions, but seeing as my game was all about talking to the other players anyway, there wasn't much distinction between his function and mine, mechanically speaking. I also wanted to note that the player who represented Alaeddin Pasha never really received much direction from me, nor did he ask for any – he seemed to just disappear at will and come back with useful information about what other teams were saying or wanted from/would offer us. In the chaos of the day I didn't have much of an opportunity to stop and talk to him about how things were going for him – I sincerely hope he was having a good time!

 

[3] We could raise a very large army, but could still only have one army at any one time.

 

[4] The Viceroy of Spain and the King of Hungary were different people entirely of course, but they were both part of the same giant family, and it felt more effective than doing nothing!

 

[5] I told the Hungarian king that I would watch the Habsburg armies in Hungary to make sure that they didn't remain raised there – I said I wouldn't have him so openly threatening my borders. He quickly responded that given our rapid expansion, how could I condemn him for protecting his own borders from me? I pointed out that all those brought under the Empire's protection had benefited from our scientific and cultural advancements (remember, we own Greece!) and that our expansion had simply been a reasonable response to improve countries that needed our help. If Hungary didn't feel that way, they had nothing to fear from us – especially as we had a whole Eastern half of our Empire to look after, so there would be even less reason for any attacks on Hungary in the near future. This was all a completely hollow and insincere statement intended to dodge an obviously valid concern, and I doubt the king believed a word of it. But what was I supposed to do, tell the truth?

 

[6] My briefing told me that the Grand Vizier and Keeper of the Porte were definitely loyal, but didn't mention anything about the Admiral's loyalty, which made me slightly suspicious. The incredible bad luck required to lose this battle, which I didn't witness, also raised my eyebrows slightly – so I asked the Grand Vizier to check in on Barbarossa occasionally in case he did anything... less-than-ideal. After the game I actually talked to him out of character, and he revealed his only secret objective was to spend as much time at sea as possible – something I gave him plenty of opportunity to do anyway!

 

[7] The original plan for the crusade was the port city of Paphos, which due to a geographical misunderstanding, the planners of the crusade didn't realise was actually in Cyprus, which is a Venetian territory not an Ottoman one! I do wonder how far that crusade would have gotten before anyone realised...

 

[8] As I was learning about the third crusade, and how it was supposedly a united effort by the major European powers, I overheard another player yelling angrily about France, and was happy to hear things were going less smoothly than expected!

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