Heptarchy and Bretwalda
Twin Variants Based on Ancient Britain

Geoff Bache


(Seven players, standard rules)


(For a build-up of how Heptarchy works, see the article I wrote for the Fall 1996 Movement issue of the Diplomatic Pouch.)

Heptarchy was first played in June 1996, and has been extensively play-tested in the intervening period since then. The background is (roughly) 7th century Britain, but it was mainly intended to be a British variant familiar to those familiar with the British Isles. For this reason, modern town names were used, and the historical political geography only adhered to vaguely as a basis for the game.

The variant is now on the USTR judge , (which is currently running 2 games of it), and there have also been 5 off-judge internet games being run by various people. In December a variant home page was set up, and this has been used to monitor the progress of all these games.

Heptarchy map

The home page has also been used as a receptacle for comments on the variant and suggestions for improvement. To clarify these, a few words on the various powers and how they've done thus far in the games played...

The suggestions made

(and what's been done)

The lack of Northumbrian options was the first point picked out about the board - Scotland is a very obvious target and intervening in the south tends to give the spoils to others. In answer to this, Heptarchy II was set up, basically moving a Northumbrian centre inland to York from Hull, leaving the Northumbrians with more options, and better chances in the south.

But Northumbria still has no way of building fleets on the west coast of Britain, and Mercia's weakness is if anything accentuated by the strengthening of Northumbria. Heptarchy III attempts to redress both these issues, moving a Northumbrian home centre to Lancaster on the West Coast, and adding a neutral in for Mercia to compensate for this. A game has been set up using this board, Beowulf, with some slightly wild rule changes introduced as well for this game (see later...)

The more fundamental problems, however, were pointed out in some detail by Gary Duke: powers having only 2 neighbours can be a real problem, and particularly in the case of Scotland, where Ireland and Northumbria can often have an early kill. Anglia in the south is also a common casualty. Of course, good diplomacy and tactics can mean these countries last long enough to be able to get back, and persuade non-neighbours to be the enemy of their enemy. But it's often reckoned good practice to have at least 3 options for every country.

Then there's the historians. After a while, you get sick of people saying that Birmingham really didn't exist in A.D. 650. I became determined that reading some history books and providing an accurate dark ages variant was a thing worth doing - while the modern placenames seemed to be good in terms of familiarity, they get unsatisfying if you know anything about history...

These last 2 points clearly required a new variant. Enter Bretwalda...



Bretwalda is a very new variant which may not even be finalised at the time of going to press! It is the result of lots of historical research, although I've still used some poetic licence in places where this has failed. It is also attempting to be introduce more adjacency, and to be more balanced.

The rules

I've decided to introduce some different rules in this game, for more flexibility. Basically, there is a third type of unit (U), which represents a fighting force with a collection of boats. These are constructed by ordering a coastal army to "build boats" at the start. This enables powers without a home centre on the opposite side of the country to still get across the seas there. A U, on landing, can simply move inland, by virtue of which it becomes an army again.

This concept has been used before, but I propose to modify it by having normal fleets as well. The large sea areas round the edge of the board are out of bounds to a U, but may be used by fleets to get around very quickly. Each power has at least 1 "port": these are the only places fleets can be built. A fleet can convoy as normal, a U cannot.

The game starts in Winter 620/1, with a set of builds for everyone, as they see fit...

The Bretwalda Map (may be updated in place - at time of writing a few territories need naming...) Bretwalda map

The nine powers

So the Picts get 2 ports, to compensate for their remoteness. It is hoped this will encourage interaction further south for the Pictish player.

Bretwalda has never been played before, and I'd very much like to try it out, obviously! It seems Heptarchy has been a relative success, although not totally balanced, there's no hopeless power and no over-strong power. I hope Bretwalda can do as well.

I'll thus open a waiting list for people willing to play test it! If you're reading this, and have some spare time to play, I'd love to hear from you.

Geoff Bache

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