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Pragmatic Preview:
The Playbook Edition

Some weeks ago, I had to make some pragmatic decisions about a number of our games, including Soldier Kings: Pragmatic Sanction. Over the 25 years of two iterations of Avalanche Press, we’ve made some fairly boneheaded production decisions. We have to stop doing that, even when it involves a game I want to publish.

Soldier Kings: Pragmatic Sanction is just such a game. It’s a game for two to eight players, based on the 1740-1748 War of the Austrian Succession and using the same game engine as our old Soldier Kings: The Seven Years War game. It’s a topic that intrigues me and plays right into what was my research interest back in the day. And I like working with that game engine, which is very similar to Soldier Emperor and Indian Empires.

A game on the War of the Austrian Succession is unlikely to sell in the same numbers as our World War II naval and tank battle games. That’s just a given. Other publishers make games like that, because they’re at the mercy of what free-lance game designers give them. If they had their druthers, they’d make games filled with tanks, battleships and jet fighters instead of Prussian Giant Grenadiers.

As both designer and publisher, I have more control over both ends of that spectrum than most. And so, I’ve decided to use that ability and modify Pragmatic Sanction so it can be published without wrecking my poor little company’s finances.

We’ll do away with the box, and publish Pragmatic Sanction in Playbook format (our game-in-a-book package). Instead of playing cards, we’ll use tiles - which are used exactly the same way, but we can put them in the book in a flat sheet while the deck of cards won’t fit in the package. Since Pragmatic Sanction stands alone as a board game - you don’t need to own, or have ever played, Soldier Kings in order to play Pragmatic Sanction - then the tiles don’t have to match up with the cards from any other game. You don’t have to even be aware that the older game exists.

That said, Pragmatic Sanction is very similar to Soldier Kings, but the situation is very different. Sweden is a major power in Pragmatic Sanction while the Netherlands is not (it’s the other way around in Soldier Kings). Pragmatic Sanction takes place solely in Europe, as I wanted to maintain a tight focus on the issues surrounding the Austrian Succession.

The short version of the war is that Emperor Charles VI ate a bad mushroom in the fall of 1740 and died. That’s also the backstory of Babar the Elephant, but I assure you, this is a thing that really happened. Charles’ 23-year-old daughter Maria Theresa inherited a patchwork of kingdoms, archduchies, principalities and similar lands in 1740. Most of Europe decided to strip her of as much property as they could: despite having agreed to the “Pragmatic Sanction” supporting Maria Theresa’s inheritance, Prussia, France, Spain and many of the German states attacked. After eight years of war, Maria Theresa still had almost all of her territories, and the crown of the Holy Roman Empire had been restored to the House of Habsburg.

Soldier Kings is a fun game, but I didn’t think it as good a simulation of the Seven Years’ War as it could have been. Austria went to war in 1756 primarily to recover Silesia, but in the standard game the Austrian player could garner the exact same benefit by capturing Ceylon. The major powers differed in terms of geography and force structure, and in the number of victory points needed, but seemed to lack flavor to me.

I set out from the start to give Pragmatic Sanction that missing flavor, looking to give each player a set of goals matching those of the nation portrayed. Austria is far more interested in preserving her ancient crown lands than capturing fresh territory. Prussia is out for raw selfish gain; France is continuing her long-standing ambitions to dominate a fractured Germany. Britain wishes to cripple France.

But this is more than a free-for-all land-grab; behind the French, Prussian and Austrian agendas stands the Imperial crown. It’s not enough just to capture territory: you need to elect your guy to the throne. And keep him there. And should be inconveniently drop dead (as did the French proxy, Charles VII of Bavaria in 1745), then you’ll need to put a replacement there.

To do that, you need to control electoral votes. These can be influenced through bribery, or in some cases through outright conquest (the French ejected the Austrian candidate by seizing Bohemia). The game’s called Pragmatic Sanction because for France and Austria it’s all about the throne; stringing together an ephemeral empire of expensive bits and pieces around the globe is nice, but it’s not what the war is all about. And their allies are dragged into the contest as well. It’s not enough for Spain or Russia to grab a few choice provinces; if they wish to hold them, their ally’s candidate must win the crown.

That dynamic makes this game play very differently than Soldier Kings, even with an almost-identical rulebook (though it’s been completely re-written to reflect years of feedback and thought). Movement and combat works exactly the same way, as does card play – you can slap down a card (in this case, a tile) at any time, inducing all sorts of world-bending chaos at the best (or worst) possible moment.

Fighting also took place in North America and India, but I kept Pragmatic Sanction focused on Europe and the struggle for the Holy Roman Empire’s destiny. The Seven Years’ War is referred to as the first true world war, because it could be won or lost (for at least some of the powers involved) outside Europe.

That’s not the case in 1740; there would be huge changes over the next 16 years. European holdings in India in 1740 were tiny; Joseph Dupleix arrived in India in 1741 and Robert Clive in 1744, each determined to build an empire. Britain’s North American colonies tripled in export value between 1700 and 1750, with similar growth seen in the Caribbean sugar islands as new mills made plantations much more productive. The West India Interest, a lobbying combine of planters and merchants, oversaw massive increases in sugar imports into Britain during the 1740’s (including sugar-based products like molasses and rum).

Pragmatic Sanction superficially resembles Soldier Kings; we used the same graphic style for its armies, fleets and leaders. The map likewise is based on a topographic map of Europe with provinces overlaid for point-to-point area movement, but I thought the Soldier Kings map somewhat cramped and altered the scale slightly for Pragmatic Sanction. It’s a significantly larger map, since it covers only Europe and not the rest of the world. There are more provinces in Europe, and not all of them are the same as those of Soldier Kings. There’s also a great deal more of Europe – this map includes the northern fringe of Africa as well as a great deal more of Russia and the Ottoman Empire, with all of the Black Sea present on the map.

And that’s the story of Pragmatic Sanction.

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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and NASA Journalist in Space finalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.