GrogHeads Reviews High Treason!
See you in court! ~
Jim Owczarski, 18 February 2017
My love of the Napoleonic era is high, wide, and deep, but I’ve always taken the age of empire to be my second true love, if such a thing can be countenanced. Much of my early study of the era came from Jan Morris’ Pax Britannica trilogy, particularly the first volume, Heaven’s Command. Far from an academic exercise, it’s an evocative series of sketches of the men and women who peopled the British empire, giving more weight, it has always seemed to me, to the interesting as opposed to the more objectively significant, although one can certainly be both.
It was in this book that I first met Louis Riel. A colossal historical figure for Canadians, or so I am told, he’s not well known in America. More’s the pity as his story well illustrates the differences in the Westward expansions of the United States and Canada. Where the former is told within the framework of the conflict with the native Indian tribes, the latter is more often about the efforts of the Anglophone, protestant, East seeking to assert its control over the Francophone, Catholic, West and their native allies. Riel was twice brought to rebellion as part of this struggle and the second time resulted in his arrest, trial, and death by hanging in the Summer of 1885.
It is this trial, believe it or not, that is the basis for Victory Point Games’ offering High Treason!: The Trial of Louis Riel, July 1885. Having the passion for this era that I do, this was an easy purchase for me, so, when it arrived a little while ago, my son and I had straight at it.
This is a card game, designed for two players, that imagines one player as Riel’s prosecutor and the other as his defense attorney. The game plays out over three phases; jury selection, trial, and summation; followed by a scoring phase to determine the victor. In the hazard is a pool of nameless jurors — aren’t they always — who have to be persuaded to either convict or acquit mad Louis. Each juror is randomly assigned a set of traits (called “aspects”) reflecting one of the socioeconomic factors that played into the trial. They can be, for example, catholic or protestant; English- or French-speaking; or employed in business, government, or agriculture.
In the jury selection phase, cards are played to “peek” at individuals juror’s traits or reveal them to both players. After several rounds of card play, players take turns striking individual jurors until, from an original pool of 12, only six remain. The goal, of course, is to keep those most likely to favor your side while depriving your opponent of those that favor his.
The trial phase takes place over two rounds. Here cards are played, as is often the case in these sorts of games, for a wide range of purposes. They can be played for action points which allow players to increase or decrease the significance of particular aspects. One mechanism I particularly like is that every time an action point is spent for this purpose, a “sway” token is placed next to that aspect. When three sway tokens are placed, the jury has had enough of that particular argument and no further action points can be used for that purpose.
Action points can also be used to “sway” individual jurors and eventually “lock” them to your side. Some cards allow the prosecution to provide evidence against Riel that increases the likelihood of later conviction. Other cards allow the defense to argue for insanity. And then there are attorney cards — seemingly the most powerful in the game — that allow players to “reset” locked jurors and even aspects that have been “talked to death”. They also allow players to “super sway” jurors (placing more than one sway token) and object to another player’s card, nullifying it.
After two rounds of trial, a summation phase is played. This is played out with cards “buried” by the players during the course of the game. Players, therefore, must always be thinking about this final phase and what cards they want to have in their hands for the last round. Charmingly, this phase is played out with six cards spread out three for the prosecution, six for the defense, and then three for the prosecution. The old policy debater in me smiled mightily at this.
After the summation is played out, there is a single round in which locked jurors try to persuade the unlocked. The game is then scored. Each juror receives a score based on the value of the aspects with which he is associated. Jurors locked for the prosecution then have their score doubled. Jurors locked for the defense have their score halved. To win, the prosecution must score 100 or more points. In my experience this has proved a tough mountain to climb — as it should be in a capital murder trial. Once rules are learned, this game will easily play within the 40 minutes estimated on the box.
The components in High Treason! are an oddly mixed bag, but only because some of them are so good. On one hand are the counters. They are again the heavy, laser-cut creatures for which Victory Point Games is justly well known. Even the little markers are lovely. To all in the wargaming hobby: this really does need to become the standard.
The cards are also very good. I particularly like that they’re oversized. The stock is good enough and the layout, although not brilliant, is serviceable. Huge points for the flavor text that, although it doesn’t directly affect gameplay, introduces the player to the events and personalities of the rebellion and the trial and makes the game a strong teaching tool for those so employed. My son and I quickly took to announcing the appearance of certain witnesses in the courtroom in fine Perry Mason style.
All this is what makes the rule book and the game board stand out so. The former is essentially a four-color pamphlet with too-small printing. It’s reasonably well set up — never once was I unable to find an answer to a rule question — but I could have done without the sidebars, and, again, the typeface is on the small side. The game board is done on a flimsy stock that had me worried for bending it; a real pity.
I really, really like this game. The jury selection process is, to my knowledge, unique, and the card-driven play really does begin to feel as it you’re trying to persuade those six stone-faced bastards sitting in the jury box. The prosecution has all the evidence on his side, but his mark is set so high that there are regular openings for the defense. Each of the games my son and I played were tense and immense fun as we adopted appropriate accents and imagined the blandishments we were throwing at the jurors to persuade them our way.
If you’ve any interest in a game of this type or the story of Louis Riel, this is a very easy game to recommend. Even more exciting, the publisher’s notes at the end say that this is the first of what will hopefully be a “World on Trial” series which could take up cases as disparate as Socrates, Jesus, and Nuremberg.
Before I go, I’d offer a pair of responses to those who think this a bit off the track for a wargamer. Point the first is that those who think court rooms and war rooms have nothing to do with each other have little familiarity with either. Point the second is that this trial resulted from an actual shooty-type war that deserves to be better known. I hope you take the chance.