Review: Red Flag Over Paris (GMT Games)

Ever heard of the Paris Commune? Know its importance to France, Europe and the history of social movements? I certainly hadn’t. But thanks to GMT and Fred Serval, we now have a mainstream, engaging CDG that is as educational as it is entertaining.

As one would imagine, Red Flag Over Paris depicts the political and military struggle over Paris in the wake of the Franco-Prussian War. The capture of Napoleon III precipitated the collapse of the Second Empire and in its stead came a provisional government responsible for continuing the war with Prussia, as its armies encircled Paris and began a brutal, months long siege. But as the war ended, tensions mounted between the government in Versailles and the working-class elements of Paris, with a full fissure erupting when Versailles attempted to preemptively disarm the National Guard by seizing cannons from Montmartre in the northern neighborhoods of Paris. From there, the Commune was declared as sovereign and separate from the rest of France and they enacted a series of progressive policies informed heavily by socialist thought. But the provisional government was not content to let the open rebellion persist, so set about reclaiming Paris. Over the next two months, the two sides would vie for the political and military control of the city.

Thematically, this contest plays out how you would expect in a CDG. Each turn you are dealt cards, playing three and saving the last for use during the Final Crisis – more on that later.

The cards are inspired by notable participants and influential events, including Bismarck, Thiers, Delescluze, the execution of generals, socialist newspaper ban and many others. All add historical flavor and more importantly, variability as to how you can normally place cubes and influence.

Of course, when you don’t use the card for its intended event, you can use the operations value to spread influence either in the surrounding forts and city itself, or the political dimensions, comprised of the institutions and public opinion spheres. Placement and removal in the political dimension is automatic, provided its in an eligible space. However, in the military dimensions, an operation may not immediately be successful – one must calculate a value and compare it to the value of the next event card in the strategy deck.

Central to all of this are Pivotal spaces that if controlled, award a set of optional bonus actions that could tip the balance in your favor. They include replacing the opponent’s influence with your own, de-escalating influence in one dimension thereby freeing it up for use elsewhere, or spreading influence within the same dimension. If you control all the spaces in a particular dimension, you score a point that correlates with the type of dimension (military/political).

To further direct your efforts, every turn you will secretly choose one of two objectives dealt to you – again if you control that space, then another point is awarded to you.

To add more thematic flair, each side has a player momentum track that demonstrates how committed the denizens of Paris are to the Commune and how much the Versailles government is actively collaborating with the Prussians. For the Commune it is vital that momentum is increased and maintained, because unlike Versailles, their cube pool is limited by this momentum. Versailles, reflecting the resources at their disposal, has unlimited room in their cube pool. But Versailles can’t afford to slouch in their collaboration with the Prussians. This unlocks more cubes and influence, enables western access to Paris and will award a military victory point.

The game is played over three rounds (unless both sides trigger the final crisis early). Once the Final Crisis begins you play the hand you set aside for the events only. After the dust has settled, you tally your score and see who has emerged the victor. How does one win? The Commune needs more political points, Versailles more military points.

Now how do all these mechanisms interact? In short – wonderfully.

Given the asymmetry of the opposing sides, the Commune must shore up its support among the institutions and public opinion spheres, while preventing a complete government takeover of Paris. Conversely, Versailles needs to seize Paris before the Commune can turn the political tide against them. This naturally delineates which theatre either side is going to focus on, but it does allow for interference to be run.

Unlike Fort Sumter by Mark Herman, adjacency is of supreme importance. You must make in roads and control certain spaces before spreading your troops or influence elsewhere. This makes the back and forth more specific and less abstract as you vie for crucial spaces. But not all spaces are created equal- shrewd leveraging of Pivotal Spaces can upend the balance in a Crisis Dimension, especially when you have a razor thin margin in control.

While you’ll need to be skillful, luck does play a large role, after all you must play what you are dealt. Getting a hand of the opposing side’s cards may allow them to use whatever you discard. And you must be conscious of what cards you hold back for the Final Crisis, its painful to be stuck playing opponent’s cards when things come down to the wire.

The game includes rules for a solo opponent which is how I played the game the most. The bot, designed by Jason Carr, is crafted very well and is a suitable challenge. It’s even more impressive that two bots were designed, one for each faction as they behave differently.

The game is beautifully supplemented by a concise rulebook and a voluminous playbook that is chock full of historical detail, analysis and a handy bibliography. If you are looking for a short playing card driven game that layers political machinations with the ever hanging threat of violence and a design that sheds light on a watershed moment in European history, then this game will not disappoint. It raises great historical questions and posits that the Commune did not have to end in violence and death.

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