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Hands On: March Of The Eagles

More of a strut, really

I didn't expect it to happen like this. I knew that one day I'd end up sucked into a multiplayer affair that left me checking over my shoulder, erasing entries in my diary and losing sleep, but I figured it'd be Planetside 2 or Day Z, not a strategic wargame. In the last week, I've spent a few hours playing March of the Eagles and Europa Universalis IV multiplayer and, despite myself, I'm ready to admit there's a future in this 'gaming with other people' malarkey. More on EU IV soon. First, it's Napoleon time.

I’ve had a preview copy of March of the Eagles marauding about my hard drive since December but despite playing for a good few hours, I haven’t known what to write about it until now, which is fortunate since the embargo for previews passed yesterday. The problem was this: March of the Eagles looks like a Paradox grand strategy game, it has been designed by the folks who make Paradox grand strategy games, but it’s a wargame. There are many choices to be made, some of which seem political or progressive, but they all serve one purpose – the recruitment of men (and horses), the picking of fights and the execution of large scale strategic manoeuvres.

My greatest pleasure is in the avoidance of war, whether by establishing myself as a useful trading partner or by stabbing those who would fight with my nation before the fight can begin. March of the Eagles does not care for men like me. It’s a compact version of Paradox’ usual fare, spanning decades rather than centuries, and that is in keeping with its focus on war. Despite that, this take on the Napoleonic Wars doesn’t have the complexity of Hearts of Iron, and the experience is much more like a stripped back Europa Universalis than a simulation of warfare.

Given that description, March of the Eagles doesn’t sound particularly necessary and that was precisely my view, until last week when my opinion was violently altered by something I’d never experienced before. I’ve been playing Paradox’ big four (CK, EU, Vic and HOI) for more than a decade but I’ve never dipped so much as a war-toe in multiplayer. There are several reasons: I like to pause every three seconds for neurotic plan-checking, the functionality hasn’t been great in the past and I don’t know many people who enjoy manipulating maps quite as much as I do.

At the Paradox Convention last week I took part in what was optimistically called a “Strategy Masterclass”. On day one, that involved EU IV, and screaming at Lollards and Austrians as my Least Serene Republic collapsed around my ears (more on that later in the week), and on day two it involved taking control of the Ottomans as fellow journalists prepared to turn central Europe into a meatgrinder.

Unlike Europa Universalis or indeed Crusader Kings II, March of the Eagles provides the player with a purpose. Out goes the roleplay aspect, which leaves players free to discern the character of their nation or ruler and act accordingly, in this short-form variant of their core titles, Paradox provide clear goals for each nation. Well, to be more accurate, there are specific goals for each major nation, of which there are eight. Those are the powers with enough clout to win the war, and include France, the UK and Russia in the top tier, with Prussia and Austria somewhere in the middle, and the Ottomans, Span and Sweden playing in the lower leagues.

I, along with a partner, was given control of the Ottomans. He would handle the nitty-gritty of managing our provinces while I stalked around the room, sowing dissent, whispering like Wormtongue in the ears of our neighbours. Once we began, the first task was to cycle through map modes until we found the one that outlined our targets.

To win a game of March of the Eagles – and how odd it is to talk about winning a Paradox strategy game – a country must have naval and land dominance. This is measured in key territories, which are different for each of the major nations. To be dominant at land or sea, a country must control a certain number of its target provinces but, more than that, it must also dislodge whichever power is currently dominant in that sphere.

This leads to mayhem and mirth. France begins the game with land dominance and Napoleon’s Grand Armee poised to assault England, but because of its position of power, le petit caporal’s country is unlikely to win many friends. But, hey, England is the dominant naval power, needing only to grab Gibraltar and a few coastal territories to entrench its rule of the waves, so perhaps it’s best to let the two bleed each other dry.

March of the Eagles is tightly knit with alliances, betrayals, attacks of opportunity and nervous tension. As the Ottomans, we hassled Egypt first, gaining Cairo and other lands necessary for our own land dominance. That war was a minor conquest though and even as the last shots were fired, we had declared our intention to annihilate the cities on our Northern border with Austria. The Austrian player was knee-deep in his own fallen armies fighting a war in the West and so we struck.

Declaring war is a case of clicking on a country and then a WAR button. There are complexities once the fighting begins, with leaders to assign to flanks, centre and support slots, and terrain and fortifications should be taken into account. Furthermore, although technology doesn’t move quickly in this short period, there are ‘ideas’ that can change the course of combat. These ‘ideas’ act almost exactly like technology in other games, but with a clever twist – losing a large battle provides more idea points than winning one. Loss is a learning experience.

This contributes to the ebb and flow that might otherwise be missing. In our own game, we appeared to be on the verge of triumph – we hadn’t secured enough of our target territories to win the game but we had seized two key cities from the besieged Austrians and were ready to assault Russia, a smash and grab across the Moldavian border to secure more of the necessaries for land dominance. The Russians were to our right, calm, but locked into conflict with Prussia and it sounded like they were losing troops by the tens of thousands.

Time to strike and, as with the Austrians, to take what we needed and then make our peace. Our strategy was to be a fish too small to fry, suddenly transformed into an all-devouring whale while everybody had their back turned.

But Russia. We were allies – not in the game, where coalitions can be formed – but in the room. We had spoken and agreed that while we concentrated on Austria, Russia would leave our borders alone and concentrate on Prussia. Our moment of betrayal was also our moment of failure because, of COURSE, the Russian player hadn’t trusted us for a moment and within days of invading, we were facing armies far larger than our own and our reinforcements were weeks behind.

I haven’t had as much fun in a multiplayer game for years, but that’s slightly problematic. Against the AI, March of the Eagles is fine and it may, as Paradox intend, serve to introduce people to the greater complexities of the core grand strategy titles. Personally, I doubt I’ll go back to the single player game very often, but I would like to gather a group and campaign against them on a regular basis. It’s short enough to play in a couple of evenings, and provides enough options in terms of starting nations and possibilities for victory within those nations to allow for unpredictable strategies.

In brief, it’s a Paradox strategy game with victory conditions and it’s a wargame that doesn’t demand a huge time investment. It also has the friendship-shattering flow of a particularly devious boardgame. Ideally it’d be played by people in one room, as we experienced it, but failing the resurrection of LAN parties, conquest from afar might work for you. I didn't attach to my nation or its people as I so often do, but I did attach to the people in that multiplayer session. I wanted to attach myself to their throats, half of them, in a bid to strangulate. Good times. Just remember: today’s friend is tomorrow’s enemy. And in the game.

March of the Eagles is out on February 18th.

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