It’s late 1944 and the Western Allies have broken through my Axis forces in Southern Germany, exploiting on to Berlin. A counter attack from the Ruhr by my new heavy tanks cuts them off from their supply securing me just enough breathing space to regroup. Soon my Austrian armies will counter attack the now beleaguered Western Allies.
I breathe a sigh of relief as the Soviet Union declares a surprise attack on the decadent West. Soviet forces thrust out of Persia into British India whilst simultaneously launching an assault on the still beleaguered Western Allies holding onto Berlin. As both Pakistan and Berlin fall under Russian control they win a military auto-victory and I hold the Western Allies player entirely responsible for our loss, “You had one job! All you had to do was defend Berlin!” I cry.
Triumph & Tragedy is a three-player sandbox WW2 strategic level block board game that was released in 2015 and was overshadowed at the time by the innovative Churchill wargame that came out at the same time. Triumph & Tragedy was perhaps seen as a little light weight in a field already groaning with heavy weight strategic WW2 games. So, while it took a little time for the game to get noticed and played, it’s now ranked the 5th best war game ever on BoardGameGeek.
It will shock some wargamers to know that I sold all my strategic level WW2 games after discovering Triumph & Tragedy. “Why would you do that for a beer and pretzels game?” friends asked. My answer is that Triumph & Tragedy is a plausible sandbox game that achieves a high level of playability by refined mechanics and ditching chrome. Conflict, politics, research and force development combine to form a challenging, evolving, narrative that is fun and can be played by, and this is awesome, non-wargamers who are happy to play a longer game.
On the surface Triumph & Tragedy is a traditional block war game and whilst that mechanic loses some unit designation granularity it works delightfully here. With a 1936 start it allows for pre-war planning and development you can only dream of in the likes of Hearts of Iron (Er, you what mate? -ED). Want to build a massive secret Soviet strategic bomber programme for a long term conflict? Or a capable Allied wide ranging ASW capability in 1938? Go for it. Although if the Axis suddenly attacks with a small, high powered all mechanized force then make sure you have a fairly good impression of a Downfall meme that you can roll out.
Equally the game allows for alternative political developments. Pretty much anything can happen within the confines of an alt-history WW2 game but the cards are weighted to make more historically unlikely events such as Turkey joining the Soviets or a Nazi atomic victory harder to achieve.
Triumph & Tragedy is technically a card driven game but it bears little resemblance to its cousins. Every year your very limited Industrial production points can be spent 1:1 on reinforcing blocks, acquiring new blocks, industry/ research cards or activation/ diplomacy cards. The dual role of the cards is very finely tuned, a unique mechanic system that allows the narrative to smoothly transition from peace to war without need for more chrome.
This causes endless heart-breaking trade-offs; do you gamble and hope to make a breakthrough in radar technology or do you build that card to get another factory? Do you forgo the opportunity to delay American entrance into the war in order to pull off a dramatic combined arms move on Scandinavia to secure vital resources? Invariably this just means that the rare Spanish diplomacy card you have has to be spent as an action propping up some weak front you hoped that no one would notice.
Rarely do you get an opportunity without potential sacrifice; there’s a constant barrage of meaningful but costly decisions that you get to implement. You can’t simply sit in Bertesgaden eating crème cakes, but neither do you need to do a maths quiz on how many hexes the 11th army can move before it gets cut off. But if you dare to dream about an Axis Spain closing up the Mediterranean or green lighting Operation Sealion, then this game allows you to draw up operational plans to do so without recourse to the rule book.
The beauty of Triumph & Tragedy is that it is truly a three player game that reflects the reality in the European Theatre of operations. The Soviets and the Western Allies need to keep a close eye not just on Germany but each other as well or face the risk of the opposing ally running away with the game. Knowing when to shift approach with the other ‘ally’ is hard; bluster and (mis)perception play a big part in this game.
At some point the reward from diplomatic efforts tail off as the neutrals pool begins to thin out. Judging that critical moment requires both knack and bravado and can lead to fascinating spirals that set up a credible narrative.
The tension is compounded because the country that declares war gets to fire first in every combat for a season. This is a huge advantage that can devastate opponents; you can bag tens of divisions in massive pockets. The result is that you all sit around the table Reservoir Dogs style in a tense trigger standoff. However, timing the best moment is harder than it sounds and it’s just as probable to blow the advantage and find your Tarantino/Pearl Harbour Operation turning into the Dieppe raid.
It could be argued that there is a tad too much direct conflict between the Soviets and the Western Allies for the purists but both sides can deprive each other of political allies through card play if they think ahead. This is of course easier said than done when you’ve just found out that the huge stack of Axis blocks in East Germany isn’t a Panzer Army because they just moved into the Western approaches and are now sat quietly on your convoy routes.
Most strategic level WW2 games take days to play but Triumph & Tragedy can be reliably played from 1936-45 in 5-7 hours. Make sure to add another hour for the debrief because with so much intention and data obscured for most of the day you can easily lose the next day of work explaining the ‘logic’ of why you would have won if you hadn’t stripped Moscow and Leningrad for the Caucasus Front.
After fifteen playthroughs I was fairly sure that we had mastered at least the basic strategies of the game. I asked for playthrough data on BGG and was astonished to find that the game was being played fundamentally differently by other people. The sandbox nature of the game allowed for a proliferation of viable strategies and outcomes that I hadn’t considered as realistic.
For those of you who are already Triumph & Tragedy converts you will be pleased to know that the designer, Craig Besinque, is already working on a Pacific theatre sister game provisionally called Conquest and Consequences that will allow up to five players to play out the entire war, although it may be sometime before we see it. Until then I will be perfecting my axis ‘win by 1940’ strategy doodles and trying to procure a much bigger table.