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Friday 18 May 2018

Friday Filler: The Cousins' Filler

In the second half of the fifteenth century, the Wars of the Roses were fought between two rival branches of the royal House of Plantagenet—the House of Lancaster and the House of York—to determine who would rule England. Ultimately, it would lead to the extinction of the House of Lancaster, the defeat of the House of York, and the founding of the House of Tudor, which would rule England until the beginning of the seventeenth century. Were you to want to explore this dynastic conflict by playing a game or two, then the classic boardgame, Kingmaker, is the perfect choice, but that game is out of print and if you can track down a copy, it takes multiple players, and it takes several hours to play. The Cousins’ War, published by Surprised Stare Games, offers an alternative. It is a two-player game, for players aged twelve and over, designed to be played in roughly thirty minutes. Distilling a thirty-year conflict down into micro-wargame, The Cousins’ War combines area control, action card, dice and bluffing mechanics to present a game with a solid theme, involving mechanics, and easy portability. 

The Cousins’ War consists a game board, seventeen Action cards, one Play Aid card, twenty-six wooden cubes, one black cylinder, and three six-sided dice, plus a twelve-page rulebook. The game board is done on thick card and depicts England and Wales and a Turn Track. England and Wales are divided into three areas—South, Central (the Midlands and Wales), and North—and marked with the site of the conflict’s seven major battles. A short history of the Wars of the Roses is given on the back, a nice touch as that would otherwise have been in the rulebook. The Action cards are divided into two types. There is one for each battle, each Battle card giving its date and location, the starting forces present, and the number of Command Points it grants. Command Points are used to add Troops to a player’s Reserve or the Battlefield; Move or Place Influence; Remove an opponent’s Influence. The remaining ten Action cards are Event cards, which can be used in one of two ways. They can be used to generate Command Points or to bring its Primary Event into play. Each Event card also has a Secondary Event which affects an opponent and is triggered if the Event Card’s Round number matches the current Round number.

For example, the ‘Earl of Northumberland’ Event card grants on the one Command Point, but as an Event, it enables a player to ‘Add 1 or 2 cubes to the North Region from your Reserve.’ If played on the second or fourth Round, then the Opponent or Lancaster player may ‘Add 1 cube to any single Region from their Reserve.’

The represent both the Influence and the troops of each House. There are twelve red cubes for Lancaster and twelve white cubes for York, whilst the French are represented by two blue cubes. When placed on the game board, the cubes represent a House’s Influence in each Region, but serve as Troops in a Battle—the French cubes are always Troops. Although nicely presented, the rulebook is not as clearly written as it could be and it assumes that the players have some experience with the mechanics in The Cousins’ War. A careful read through of the rulebook is probably a good idea as is a careful play through.

The Cousins’ War is played out over five Rounds, each consisting of seven Phases. In the first few Phases, players draw and swap Action cards and determine which Battle will be fought during the Round. In the later Phases, the players take it in turn to use Action cards to alter their Influence in the three regions of England and Wales or to bring Troops into a Battle. Attempts to alter a House’s Influence are not a given. There is a chance it may fail, which increases the greater the Influence already has in a Region. Then any Battle is resolved, the winner gaining Influence in the Region where the Battle was fought or an adjacent Region.

Mechanics for battles in The Cousins’ War are essentially ‘Liar’s Dice’. Players take it in turn to roll the three dice and declare the result. The player with the worst result loses cubes or Troops from the Battle and once all of his Troops have been forced from the Battle, he also loses the Battle. The mechanics being ‘Liar’s Dice’ means that the active player does not have to declare the actual result of his dice roll, but can instead Bluff his opponent. His Opponent can either believe him and accept the result, or challenge him as to the veracity of the dice roll. If the challenged declaration is true, the Opponent loses, but if not, the active player loses. What The Cousins’ War allows though, is for a player to actually alter his dice roll by playing an Action card and spending Command Points to alter the values on the dice. Both players continue rolling, declaring, bluffing, and challenging until one House has troops left on the Battle. The winner gains Influence in the Region as well as the Battle card itself.

The end of each Round involves checking to see if the victory conditions have been met. These are met if a player controls all three Regions on the game board; by the player who controls the most Regions at the end of the game; or by the player who has won the most Battles if both players control the same number of Regions.

Despite its size and play time—both small—The Cousins’ War presents each player with plenty of tactical choice. Of course, there is choice to bluff or challenge in Battles, but in the Event cards, each player will really need to give careful thought as to how to get the best out of each card. This is because each has three options—use its Command Points, use its Event, and whether or not its Secondary Event will benefit his opponent. Plus, where to spend Command Points—Influence on the game board or Battles. Winning Battles affects the outcome of The Cousins’ War and may be key to winning it if neither House has sufficient Influence in play.

Physically, The Cousins’ War is very nicely presented. Both cards and game board are well designed and nicely carry through the Wars of the Roses theme. The illustration on the cover of the box is really quite good and it is a pity that none of the cards are illustrated. The rulebook is slightly underwritten, especially if coming to the Action card mechanic for the first time. There are two things that the game could benefit from. One is a second Play Aid card and the second is another set of dice, since the players will ultimately be comparing dice rolls in Battles.

Even though a microgame, The Cousins’ War does feel a bit fiddly in places, especially in the number of Phases which have to played through each turn. It also feels odd to have the three-different mechanics in the one game—the area control, action cards, and ‘Liar’s Dice’—as they would seem to be a bad fit. That said, the luck element of the dice mechanics, both for Battles and determining Influence do balance out the non-luck element of the Action cards. Further, once you play through a game or two, it becomes clear that they each work to direct each player’s Command Points and Influence. It is just not as clear as it should be that the mechanics do interlock.

As a microgame, The Cousins’ War streamlines thirty years of history and conflict with three interlocking mechanics that offer solid play and tactical choice.


Surprised Stare Games will be at
UK Games Expo which will take place between June 1st and June 3rd, 2018 at Birmingham NEC. This is the world’s fourth largest gaming convention and the biggest in the United Kingdom.

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