The Turning of the Coat
In October of last year Shut Up & Sit Down posted a review of a game called Turncoats. Like others who watched that video, I placed an order for this odd and charming looking game. It’s handmade in Sweden by designer Matilda Simonnson, with art and graphic design from David Masnato, under their own imprint Milda Matilda Games. Now I’ve got it in my hands, was it worth the wait?
The production of this game was the first thing that drew me to it. A cloth bag holds all the components of game amounting to a second small bag and some glass stones. The outer bag flattens out to be the board. Turncoats feels instantly classic, like something that has been passed down. It could have been retrieved from an archaeological dig. Also kudos to the designer for including some spare stones.
The setting of Turncoats is similarly classic. Three factions battle over an unamed land. That land is split into pieces that only one of the factions can rule. The faction that rules the most pieces at the end of the game will elect the next leader. That leader will be the player who has the most of that faction’s stones in their hand.
In this way the players take on the role of opportunists. With only 8 stones to your name, the players manipulate the position of the factions across the land. In doing so they also change their allegiance to those factions.
Your turn is simple, with only 4 options to choose from.
Summon more of a faction to the board with the Recruit action, placing a stone wherever you like.
Marching allows you to place a stone on the flag and choose a territory. You move as many beads of the colour you placed on the flag from that territory to an adjacent one.
Battle sees you encouraging factions to spill blood. Placing a bead on the Axe you choose a territory. For every stone in the chosen territory that matches the colour you placed on the Axe, you can return a stone of a different colour to the bag.
Finally you can Negotiate. Pull a stone from the bag, put it in you hand. Then you return a stone to the bag, showing what you are returning. If everyone Negotiates in a round, the game is over.
Turncoats seems straightforward enough at first. It quickly evolves into a tight game of a anticipation, bold moves, and waiting for your time to act.
You can keep your powder dry by Negotiating. What if everyone negotiates though? Do you win? This consideration becomes even more fraught at lower player counts, and positively terrifying at 2. If you can’t take the risk then you have to play. In doing so you change the makeup of the board and the allegiance in your hand.
Battles seem wise to secure a factions hold. In doing so you return stones to the bag potentially giving opponents a higher chance of pulling the colour they want when negotiating. Can you misdirect with a March or even Recruit the faction you don’t want to manipulate your hand? Of course you can. The question is when it is safe to do so.
In a game with only 3 factions, tie breakers for control of an area become vital. Combat breaks ties first, with the dominant faction on the Axe being the tie breaker. After that it is who has moved the most with the dominant faction on the flag. These tie breakers are also used to determine which faction wins at the end of the game.
In making the tie breaker this way the designer introduces the potential for great sweeping changes to the world. A single attack can result in not only the elimination of pieces, but also the flipping of tied areas from one faction to another. A seemingly innocent move can send ripples throughout the regions, overturning control in the blink of an eye.
This lends Turncoats a feeling of drama. The theme initially feels like one of subtle manipulation and spymaster like tactics. As it reveals itself though you come to realise that it occasionally wants you to set the world on fire as well.
Turncoats has been compared to War of Whispers. I can see the reasons but I don’t fully agree with it. Turncoats does give that some sense of being the power behind the throne, it is not as easy to pivot on a dime like it is in War of Whispers. The latter allows you to suddenly change allegiance at the end of a round. Turncoats doesn’t often give you that choice. The landscape of Turncoats can change rapidly, but your allegiance change can not always keep pace. Turncoats makes you feel more like you need to ride out the storm and choose your moment to strike, rather than considering shifting your loyalties like War of Whispers encourages.
You can find yourself having some very short games of Turncoats. I’ve had the situation where everyone Negotiated on the first turn and the game played out as it started! The game is so quick to reset though, it doesn’t matter if you have the occasional weird experience. The only other issue to make you aware of is one of availability. It took a few months for this game to get to me because they are all hand made. However the game is now available on BGA, Tabletop Simulator, and Screentop. Beyond that there are print and play versions out there which the designer has no objections to people using (I checked).
Turncoats is one of the best things I’ve played this year. It’s tense, exciting, and full of moments of drama. It has a design that is simple to teach with difficult emergent decisions, the sort of thing i absolutely love. It really is true that good things come in small packages.
I bought Turncoats with my own money