Triumph & Tragedy is a triumph and a tragedy. Sorry. I had to get that out of my system. Today we’re looking at the GMT Games release Triumph & Tragedy which has been described as, among other things, a World War II sandbox. Consequently, I’m going to break down some early thoughts about the game and share some experiences I had recently playing this game.
It’s 1936 and the world has not yet exploded…unless of course you live in China and well…this game doesn’t care about you because it only covers from the eastern half of the United States in the far west to India in the east. I like a game that knows what it’s about.
Russia, Germany, Italy, and Great Britain stand ready to slug it out. Sort of. They each have cadres of military units huddled close to their capital cities and on some of the frontiers to discourage gamey opening moves by a savvy Russian or German player in particular. The German player is responsible for the Italians while the English and Russian players just need to fend for themselves.
Players take turns, in random order, managing their economy by building their industrial base, securing diplomatic contracts, negotiating with their frenemies, building units, and acquiring technologies. Nations can also mobilize their units and attempt to take land areas by force.
Everything is pretty straight forward and the layout of the game facilitates a rules overview prior to play. During the game turn, the decisions aren’t often brain burners, but there’s definitely some strategy that must be employed. It’s far more likely to get bogged down in player negotiation and feeling out the strategic priorities of each country rather than what to build or how to improve your economy.
One does not simply win WW2…
The game is won in one of three ways:
Economic Victory – You have a peace dividend victory point total and industrial capacity of at least 25 at the start of a turn.
Military Victory – You have captured 2 of an enemy’s capital locations.
Technological Victory – You escape earth. Wait..that’s civilization, but it’s pretty similar here. You need to build an A-bomb which happens through research and you need 4 different stages. You will build the F-Bomb pretty early on given the combat model.
These straightforward objectives make the game focused and give players distinctive pathways in the various systems that make up the game’s design.
In Four Part Harmony
Rather than going through a play-by-play of the game I played, I will instead share some strategic thoughts about the various phases of the game. There are essentially four distinct phases to any game of Triumph & Tragedy.
The Early War
The First Loser
These phases can be derailed by a runaway leader or as I like to call the cunning advantage provided by good luck with dice, cards, or oblivious opponents. Thankfully, that last one shouldn’t happen too often, even in a first play through! The game is straightforward enough that the possibility of a player creating some kind of devastating charade are next to nothing.
Every gambler knows That the secret to survivin’ Is knowin’ what to throw away And knowin’ what to keep ‘Cause every hand’s a winner And every hand’s a loser And the best that you can hope for is to die in your sleep Kenny Rogers “The Gambler”
The pre-war phase can’t win you the war to come, but it can certainly lose it for you. That ultimately comes down to your willingness to adapt your strategy to the cards that keep coming your way.
It’s in Germany’s best interest to try and lock up countries as satellites early on through diplomacy because it can create walls between Russia and the Great Britain. Further complicating Germany’s predicament is rampant diplomatic success by either Great Britain or the Soviets. Germany is easy pickings in the middle of the map, so they need to find a way to create enough pressure to sue for peace with one of the other powers. Diplomacy can be a great way to do that.
The Austrian satellite emerges
Technological Investment & the Eastern Front
One of the things that can be tricky, especially early on, is technological investment. It limits your hand size by one which doesn’t necessarily hurt you until later, but it can limit your options of what cards to carry between turns. This is painful as you need to keep cards that counter your opponents handy. Russia is a great example of a country that needs to keep their options open. After all, they have access to the Middle East and Southern Asi…they don’t NEED Great Britain if they can strike a deal with the Germans. Putting together an early tech that makes them punch a little harder might be a convincing way to negotiate with the Germans.
Big Sticks should be on your shopping list
The other strategic consideration here is how quickly to build units. This was a KEY mistake in the game I played. There’s so much other exciting stuff going on like building up your industrial capacity (“Just Do It!”) and diplomacy that you can forget that you’re going to need to carry a big stick if you want to speak softly with your potential allies or enemies. Again, Germany is the lynchpin to the whole thing and in order for the diplomatic strength to sway to either Great Britain or Russian, Germany has to be willing to deal.
Ultimately, you need to be improving existing units or buying new ones. How you want to approach that depends on how you want to apply diplomatic pressure to your two opponents.
Dollar Tree Aircraft Carriers!
I only point this out because I think it’s worth noting. While I completely understand buying an Aircraft Carrier is a different scale than raising an Army or a Corps it still “feels” odd that everything costs a single resource point. Blocks definitely limit what you’re able to do so there are limits on what you can build and in how much quantity, the potential for abuse (I’ve not landed on this just yet) seems to exist. Surely playtesters knocked this thing around BECAUSE it seems so ripe for exploitation, but you can use the “everything’s a buck” to your advantage. Don’t be intimidated by taking a naval strategy or increasing your airpower (more on this later).
Nobody is Anybody’s Somebody
This is the most confusing way to simply remind players that there are no pre-enforced diplomatic or military relationships. It’s not a given that the Germans will ally with Spain or that Russia won’t simply swoop down into India and throw the Brits out while the Brits invade Finland. The game is the Wild Wild EuroFront.
The Early War
In order to increase population, a step necessary to deal with sustaining a wartime economy, it’s important to make those neutral nations not so neutral any longer.
The good news is that beating up on say Czechoslovakia won’t inherently take you to war with another major power. Consequently, it’s important to know when you’ve exhausted useful diplomacy and can transition into spreading your military wings to fly.
A word on combat
Combat is handled in this game a lot like Axis & Allies in that units take turns rolling and everything is weapon system dependent. This is, honestly, something I expected to hate but ended up enjoying. I know that might not float everyone’s boat and they might want some additional depth to their game, but is a game like Triumph & Tragedy well served by a complex combat system?
Finland is Finished…
The answer, of course, is no. The famous film critic Roger Ebert and I rarely saw eye-to-eye on every movie. Ebert famously advocated, however, that movies should be taken for what they are. Ace Ventura: Pet Detective isn’t trying to be Casablanca and viewing it with the same lens as you might view Casablanca will not only leave you disappointed, but missing the intent of the movie. This is an assessment where I whole-heartedly agree with Ebert.
Combat is just one area where this game can quickly get a “bum-rap.” The reality is that this game isn’t trying to be anything more than a light fast-playing sandbox that occurs during the WW2 era. Any critiques I make, I’ve tried to make them targeted to the game in its own context. Consequently, I can’t fault the combat and it serves the overall design well.
The First Loser
Ultimately, the early war phase will go on even through the opening hostilities however they might shake out. The next thing that everyone is going to try to work for is securing the “first loser.” This isn’t the runner-up who must step in for the overall winner in case they cannot live up to their esteemed duties.
Instead, Triumph & Tragedy rewards players who act like sharks. When there is blood in the water, it’s time to roll your eyes back and go all-in to eliminate the player who bleeds first.
One of the things I like most about this game is the delicate dance of diplomacy mechanics, face-to-face negotiation, and combat. The discussions are often about what you CAN do since a lot of what might normally be held close to the chest in international negotiations is largely known by the other players. I always advocate for the strategy of never threatening anything I cannot deliver. Sometimes that means force, but sometimes that I can mean helping your negotiation partner against a common enemy.
As we played, I was struck by the idea that someone might try to bluff! After all, the map is, in many cases, is knife-fight close. It is even more so once the navy has opened up sea lanes for strategic movement if you’re Great Britain. The result is swift retribution against someone who is revealed to be a liar. Sometimes, avoiding being the first-loser is the difference between bluffing and making your truths feel more powerful than they are for another player.
Once the first player is eliminated…then it’s a pretty straightforward race to the endgame.
Like the Avengers…all things must come to an end…presumably. The endgame of Triumph & Tragedy is one where the final conflict between the now two-relevant powers will be determined by dice rolling and what’s still on the board.
That seems like the most “well duh” statement ever, but the endgame is almost entirely reliant upon who suffered the least during the first-loser phase of the game. Consequently, it’s essential to find ways to help your short-term opponent while preventing their overall victory AND remaining powerful enough to finish up the game.
A power can get beat up badly, but if they manage to steal enough capitals or, more likely, they manage to be hanging onto 5 – 6 Peace Dividends AND have an industrial capacity of ~20 then you can STILL lose.
I want to take a brief aside here to talk about Peace Dividends. There are 24 of them in the game (IIRC) and 12 are value zero while the remaining are split between 8 one-point chits and 4 two-point chits. The rulebook says for you to imagine that your opponents are earning roughly .6 Peace Dividends per turn.
That’s of course a gross oversimplification. Instead, I like to consider best and worst case and give those a small range of possibilities.
Keeping your frenemies aware of who holds how many tokens and using that unknown in negotiation is a powerful strategy. Especially as the game moves into the first-loser phase it can be critical to getting a little blood in the water in fact! The peace dividends may be one of the best concepts to come out of this game because they add a great variety of the timing of an overall winner.
Those who don’t pay attention to peace dividends are condemned to lose on account of them!
Back to the endgame
As the final two powers circle each other, flexibility and mobility are going to be the key to the endgame. While infantry units are the backbone of the land forces, more combats are swung by smart placement and use of air forces and naval transport than you might imagine.
After all, your opponent cannot be everywhere at once!
Finding your opponent’s “soft underbelly” and gutting them from there is the key. It’s another component of Triumph & Tragedy’s design that shines. You cannot build an all-powerful army. You can only accomplish, at best, a temporarily superior force in one area to carry out an offensive. Therefore, your flexibility and force composition are critically important.
The Germans head south…
I can’t possibly pass judgement on this game without a lot more plays. Suffice it to say, however, that I think this game is solidly designed when viewed in the context of what it is. This is not Advanced Third Reich, Cataclysm, A World At War, Totaler Krieg! or other grand strategic approaches to the European Theater of Operations (ETO) in WW2! Evaluating it alongside these titles misses the point completely.
Instead, Triumph & Tragedy has accomplished a noble design task. Make an ETO game that provides a little more strategic depth and consideration than something like Axis & Allies. The table-talk and fun that this game generates in a SIGNIFICANTLY shorter period of time is well worth the investment of an afternoon.
Triumph & Tragedy is more triumph than tragedy even with some rough edges.