What: A dense, asymmetrical strategy game that pits two against two
Players: 2-4
Time: 90-150 minutes
People: You’ll need at least one serious player to drive things along
Available: Originally on Kickstarter, but now listed on Amazon

Why we recommend it

It’s Christmas Eve 2016, and most of my immediate family have gone to bed. It’s late – 3am, in fact – and it’s been a fun night of quizzes and board games so far. With my parents around, it means most of the games have so far been accessible Best Play-approved selections, such as Sheriff of Nottingham, Hanabi and Werewolf.

My brother decides that now would be the perfect time to crack out Victory or Death. He’d funded it six months earlier on Kickstarter, and had yet to open the box. It had never been the right time. Neither of us knew the rules and we’d both had ‘quite a lot to drink’. But hey, we’d had ‘quite a lot of drink’ so we go for it, our girlfriends chatting at our sides as I desperately try to make my way through the rule-book.

Victory or Death was conceived in Brighton, just like Best Play was. It’s the followup to Quartermaster General and is optimised for four players, but rather wonderfully pitches two of them against the other two. That means if you want to play with only two or three players, one of you will have to control more than one force to maintain the 2v2 dynamic.

The setting is the Peloponnesian war, pitting The Delian League and Athens against Sparta and Corinth. Play takes place across an ancient map of the Mediterranean, and each city-state has access to a various amount of ground units and ships.

The actual flow of the game follows a series of familiar mechanics. Draw cards, which you can then use to build, move and attack in the next action. There’s a great deal of nuance available in the structure of the game that I won’t go into detail about, but the overall feeling that you get when playing is similar to games like Chess. You’ll be constantly formulating plans for two or three moves in advance, only to have them scuppered by other players at the last moment. The game genuinely isn’t particularly complicated, but the overall theme and aesthetic of the game is likely to put less experienced players off.

Victory or Death isn’t like Risk or Twilight Imperium, where the board quickly becomes cluttered with huge armies marauding around the board as players start building up their war machines. Instead, resources are tight and units must be continually supplied, helping keep fleet sizes low and maintaining the equilibrium of power.

The supply system is what sets Victory or Death apart. Sure, you can send out your forces to lucrative corners of the map, but fail to keep them connected to the motherland by the end of the go and you’ll lose them. This is where the unique alliance system comes in. The two sides can make use of their sister city-state’s network of cities and units to keep their own forces supplied. Cooperation is enmeshed into the fabric of Victory or Death, and strategy very much becomes a two-way responsibility.

Further expanding on the scope of the game is that each of the four city-states is unlike the others. Some may be better at seafaring. Another might be experts at land battle, or have access to greater wealth. Each nation must work with its own strengths and weaknesses and complement them with those of their partner state.

It can be a lot to take in, which might be making you wonder why we’re recommending a game like this to our readers at all – Best Play’s whole thing is about bringing board games to new people.

Well, despite its intimidating appearance, Victory or Death is actually quite kind on newbies. Providing you have an expert on either side, it’s a great way to bring curious players into deeper types of gaming. With a pro driving the bike and looking out for you, it’s reassuring and welcoming to sit alongside in the sidecar – but every bit as thrilling.

Victory or Death offers something that very few games manage. It provides a way for experienced and inexperienced players to enjoy a game together, as long as you both have the patience and desire to give it a try.

For me and my brother, our girlfriends did end up going to bed before the game’s climax, but only because it was so late on a night it’s unwise to stay up on. He and I continued onwards regardless, seamlessly assuming the roles of their city-states after they headed for the bedroom (another bonus to the game’s appeal). It was 6.30am by the time we were done, but we enjoyed an extremely tight game that not even Father Christmas could put to a stop to.

Playing Victory or Death clearly has a time and a place to be played, and a pretty narrow one at that. Whether it’s Christmas Eve or on an exotic holiday, if you find yourself with the unusual luxury of plenty of time and a gang of gamers with mixed experience but a hungry appetite, then this could be the game you’re looking for.

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