Recently I have become quite interested in historical literature. As the late doctor Carl Sagan so eloquently stated “You have to know the past to understand the present”, a sentiment that has never rung truer than in these rather tumultuous times we find ourselves in. As an example, I am currently reading The Crusades: The Authoritative History of the War for the Holy Land by author and professor Thomas Asbridge which as a sidenote is a really good read for those interested. So when Tristan Hall of Hall Or Nothing Productions announced that he was designing a game depicting the great siege of Malta in 1565 that could be played solo I was immediately interested to learn more, both about the game but also the historical backdrop of this bloody story of revenge.
Full disclosure: a review copy of 1565, St. Elmo’s Pay was kindly provided by publisher Hall Or Nothing Productions.
As a publisher Hall Or Nothing Productions has definitely carved out a niche for producing games that put an emphasis on the artwork and 1565, St. Elmo’s Pay is certainly no exception as it features some of the most impressive illustrations I have ever seen. Honestly, some of the artwork depicted on the character cards evokes a sensation of admiring a renaissance oil painting hanging on the wall of a museum it really is that good. The illustrations depicting the Ottoman Turks and the Knights of St. John truly convey the intensity and brutalities associated with armed combat. The same can be said for the artwork on the box cover, featuring the battle-scared Captain Medrano amidst the ruins of the war-torn fort. In terms of actual components, I also really enjoyed the inclusion of a cardboard dial used for tracking the resources of the solo opponent which definitely contributed to a smooth solitaire game experience.
“Remembering the treatment that had been accorded the Knights and soldiers of St. Elmo, the Maltese inhabitants of Senglea took no prisoners. Hence there arose the expression (used in Malta to this day) ‘St. Elmo’s pay’ for any action in which no mercy is given.” – Ernle Bradford, The Great Siege: Malta 1565
1565, St. Elmo’s Pay tells the story of the armed conflict between the Ottoman Turks and the Order of Knights of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem that transpired on the island of Malta, an event that historians refer to as ‘the greatest siege in history’. As a consequence of escalating tensions between the Christian alliances and the Islamic Ottoman Empire vying for control over the Mediterranean, the siege lasted nearly four months where the Knights of St. John found themselves vastly outnumbered and yet managed to repel the onslaught of the Ottoman forces. 1565, St. Elmo’s Pay is an asymmetrical and highly tactical card-based conflict game where one or two players take on the role of key historical figures leading their armies in an attempt to lay waste to the opposing forces. The game can be described as a two-act play, where each player is racing to complete a certain number of objective cards before reaching the final battlegrounds known as the Frontiers. In addition to providing a historical context by depicting locations of strategic importance during the siege, these cards also act as one of the main ways to win the game where the first player to conquer two frontiers is declared victorious.
Whether you are playing as the Ottoman Turks or the Knights of St. John the goal of the game remains the same: to reach the frontiers and inflict enough damage to the opposing forces thus ending the conflict in your favour. In order to achieve victory, you need to amass an army capable of dealing with not just the final battle but also objectives along the way. A game of 1565, St. Elmo’s Pay is played over a series of rounds during which each player will take turn to perform one of the main available actions, the most common one being adding new army cards to their individual tableau known as the Battlefield which is constructed in a grid of three rows and columns respectively. These cards represent units and prominent characters under your command as well as tactics and events that can be employed to shift the tides of war to your advantage. In addition to providing really interesting historical quotes and background information, each army card has an associated Zeal and Might battle value that is of vital importance.
Each of these two combat focused attributes is used at the end of each round to determine whether or not you are successful in completing the current objective which is achieved by adding all of the available battle values in your tableau of the requested attribute and then comparing it to the objective card’s threshold. Succeed and you move on to the next card taking you one step closer to the frontiers, if however you cannot complete the objective in one fell swoop then the inflicted damage carries over to the subsequent round. What this creates is a game experience that most certainly can be described as a race, seeing how an uncontested player can start to hack away at the frontiers unless you can marshal your army to reach the battlegrounds in time. The flipside to all this, and this is where the true genius of the game design comes into play, is the fact that another win-condition is to have your opponent run out of cards in their deck. At the start of each round a certain number of cards will be drawn from the deck and added to your hand, the exact number is dependent on whether or not you are playing with the vanilla version of the rules as opposed to incorporating one of the suggested more advanced draft variants. This notion of bleeding your enemy on resources creates an almost perverse incentive to stall your own advancement towards the frontiers if the opponent has already reached the barricades and is starting to run low on cards to draw from their deck, simulating the tactic of starving your enemy thus forcing them to surrender. It is a brilliant nod to the historic backdrop of the siege of Malta whilst also providing an additional tactical wrinkle to consider when adding new army cards to your tableau.
Another aspect of 1565, St. Elmo’s Pay that I found really fascinating is the asymmetry between the two warring factions. The strength of the Ottoman Turks lies in the immense armada led by Suleiman the Magnificent. The game models this aspect of the great siege by having the deck of the Ottoman Turks being comprised of cards with a low resource cost to play to the tableau, whilst favouring the Might battle value which coincidentally is represented by the canon icon. However, despite his rather impressive epithet Suleiman or rather the army he commands has a significant Achilles’ heel and that is the fact that the majority of the featured units in the Ottoman Turks deck of cards have a rather low health value making them vulnerable to attacks from the enemy. Meanwhile the Knights of St. John are seriously outnumbered and outgunned. Their cards are often quite expensive in terms of resources, sometimes requiring more than one round just to get them into play. But once added to the battlefield these knights are a powerful force to be reckoned with, often having the ability to fend off all applied damage by exhausting the card in question. These days many board game designs pride themselves of providing asymmetrical play, few manage to live up to these lofty ambitions. 1565, St. Elmo’s Pay definitely delivers on the promise of being both asymmetric and tactical and does so to a remarkably high degree.
PLAYING 1565, ST. ELMO’S PAY SOLO
1565, St. Elmo’s Pay features an official solo mode where you will be competing against an automated opponent known as the Foe. Playing the game solitaire, you have the option of competing against either the Ottoman Turks or the Knights of St. John which I really appreciated as the solo mode manages to preserve the asymmetry of each warring party which in of itself is such a vital part of the overall game design. At its core, the Foe relies heavily on the influx of resources which in turn dictates what course of action the automated opponent will attempt to perform. At the start of the solo session you will choose a difficulty level, this influences the amount of resources the Foe has at its disposal each round to acquire new cards. Playing on one the easier difficulty settings will actually result in a negative point value in the early rounds of the game, restricting the automated opponent to only being able to acquire cheap and subsequently less powerful characters and units.
What makes the solo mode in 1565, St. Elmo’s Pay really interesting from a tactical point of view is the way you can significantly reduce the resource flow of the Foe by forcing the automated opponent to exhaust deployed characters in the battlefield that provide additional resource income. This notion of cutting off the head of the figurative snake allows the solitaire player to dictate the rhythm of the game to a certain extent, as the Foe is forced to fill its tableau will lower tier cards or even being unable to perform any additional actions for the remainder of the current round. The downside to this particular aspect of the solo mode is that it is possible for the automated opponent to get stuck in something resembling a loop, where it lacks sufficient resources to add any additional cards and the tableau is already filled with what it can scrape by. It is worth emphasising that this is only an issue in the early stages of the game, after a couple of rounds the revenue of resources will have increased significantly for the Foe making it a worthy adversary! As far as managing the actions of the automated opponent goes the solo mode in 1565, St. Elmo’s Pay is overall a very pleasant experience seeing how well the rules are laid out in terms of how the Foe prioritises between available actions. That being said, there are a fair bit of exceptions that one needs to internalise and take into consideration, it took me a couple of plays before I was confident in performing the Foe’s actions properly.
I think it is safe to say that the year of our Lord 2020 will not go down in history as a particular joyous one. However, there is one silver lining and that is the fact that this has been an absolutely incredible year for those of us who enjoy playing board, card, and roleplaying games solitary. 1565, St. Elmo’s Pay joins this illustrious band of brothers, the way designer Tristan Hall has managed to capture the essence of complex war games and condense it into a highly tactical, asymmetric card game is an impressive feat. Even if you are only going to play it solo, I highly recommend taking a closer look at 1565, St. Elmo’s Pay from publisher Hall or Nothing Productions.
As a final note, I feel it is important to emphasise the representation of the historical events upon this game is modelled. Throughout the course of history mankind has repeatedly shown its inherent capability for committing truly heinous acts of war and the siege of Malta is no exception. Rather than shying away from its source material the game instead fully displays the level of atrocity that both warring factions were capable of, like for example the order of knights slaughtering all Turkish prisoners only to proceed firing the decapitated heads into the Ottoman camp. Personally, I think it is vitally important to actually shine a light onto this aspect of warfare regardless of medium and 1565, St. Elmo’s Pay does so admirably.