Thirty Years War - Europe in Agony (GMT Games)
As the Thirty Years War has long been a period of interest to me, I was delighted to discover that GMT had decided to publish a strategic game on this complex and interesting conflict.
Certainly, the components are the usual superb effort from GMT, with the unit counters featuring not only full colour troop icons, but also the coat-of-arms of the relevant nation - very nice!
 Similarly, many of the leader counters feature a period-style portrait of that leader. The cards are also a delight to the eye, with engraving-style illustrations and portraits in the style of the era.The map is perhaps more functional than attractive, being covered in circular city spaces (star-shaped ones for fortresses), but is still a nice effort, liberally sprinkled with the coats-of-arms of each state.
The game system will be familiar to anyone who has played games such as AH's "Hannibal", Successors", or GMT's "Paths of Glory". It is a card-driven system, in which the cards can be used a number of ways - to move leaders and their armies, make events happen, recruit new units or gain "aid points" from friendly powers to help pay your troops. Each turn represents 2 years of campaigning, and each unit 3000 to 5000 men.
Combat units come in three types - Veterans (the strongest, but cannot be recruited once lost - they are gone forever), Mercenaries (good fighters, but inclined to run amok if not paid) and Militia (mainly useful as loss absorbers).
Now for the bad news. So far , I have only made a start on the early part of the full campaign game, but there are already some difficulties. Unless I am misinterpreting the rules, the Protestant player, who gets to go first in each card phase, can use his first card to activate Mansfeldt (in Pilsen with 5 Mercenary units and Anhalt) and send him charging down to Vienna in a kind of "blitzkrieg" attack.
By simply pasing through Budweis, Mansfeldt can pick up another leader and 3 Militia units (the maximum stack allowed in the game is 8 units). He then has an army of 5 mercenaries and 3 militia (total strength 21) against Bucquoy's 3 Imperial veterans (total strength 12) in Vienna.
The Catholic player is immediately faced with two  unpleasant options - accept battle at very unfavourable odds, or retreat Bucquoy into Vienna, risking a total wipe out of the Imperialist army on the next round through siege combat. As the rules prohibit Bavarian and Imperialist units from stacking together in the early phase of the war, Tilly's Catholic League army in Munich cannot be sent to rescue Bucquoy from imminent disaster.
This is all very unhistorical. By 1620 (the game's starting point), the Protestants were in disarray, their troops unpaid and mutinous. Furthermore, Mansfeldt, also due to lack of pay, was on the point of deserting his employer (The King of Bohemia), and only grudgingly agreed to hold the town of Pilsen for the Protestant cause (which he did very passively, failing to harrass the rear of the Catholic League army on its way to Prague). Neither Mansfeldt nor his troops played any part in the decisive Battle of the White Mountain, which effectively ended the Bohemian Revolt (one of history's "what ifs?").
I think this underlines a problem inherent in many wargames, which rarely take into account the character and motivations of the leaders. They are reduced to simple numeric values, reflecting the game designer's assessment of their battlefield abilities. However, real people are not chess pieces, which always move where you direct them without question or argument. Certainly in the case of mercenary leaders, their commitment to a cause is suspect at even the best of times, and 1620 was not a good year for Ernst von Mansfeldt.
I've been kicking around some ideas for solving the above problem and the following is a first try at a variant designed to reflect more accurately what happened in 1620. These changes will make life even harder for the Protestant player, but that's as it should be, given what happened historically (you'll just have to wait for the King of Denmark to pull his finger out!).
A. Setup: In line with the countermix, which contains 4 Imperial veteran units, give Bucquoy 4 vets instead of 3 as in the setup instructions. Since veterans cannot be recruited, the presence of a fourth such unit in the countermix makes no sense, as it will never enter the game. This implies that the setup instructions may be wrong and the Imperialists should start with 4 vets on the map.
  Also, the sources I've read indicate that the Catholic League army was 25,000 strong at the start of the 1620 campaign. Therefore Tilly and Pappenheim should start with 5 Bavarian mercs, not 4 as in the setup instructions.
B Card Play: On the first round (only) of the first turn card phase, the Protestant player may not activate Mansfeldt. Nor may Thurn and Schlick's Protestant militia (the Bohemian army) stack with Mansfeldt's troops. If desired, Anhalt (who is stacked with Mansfeldt), may be moved to join the Bohemian army, but may not take any troops with him. These restrictions apply only to the first round of the card phase. On the second and subsequent rounds, the standard game rules apply.
This should prevent the Protestant player from making an unrealistic "blitzkrieg" strike on Vienna as his first action, and should force him onto the defensive (as the Protestants were in 1620) in the opening round of play. It also, I think, better reflects Mansfeldt,s attitude (as we say in Australia, he had "spat the dummy" and wouldn't move out of Pilsen).
Another somewhat odd feature of the game is that armies may not retreat before combat unless in a friendly fortified space, in which case the army may evade combat by withdrawing into the fortress. This means that an army in a non-fortified space, if confronted by a far superior enemy force, may not even attempt a withdrawl, but must sit passively waiting to be hammered into oblivion. This seems unrealistic for any historical period. I'm sure seventeenth century commanders were intelligent enough to take the Monty Python option ("Run away, run away!") if the situation warranted it. I would be interested to hear the game designer's rationale for such a rule.
Despite the above problems, I would still recommend this game to anyone with an interest in the period, as it is a visually stunning item which oozes period "chrome". The game system is simple enough to stand a little tinkering if, like me, you are not entirely happy with the way it reflects some aspects of history. It is still a fairly solid game system at heart, which has been used successfully a number of times before.
Certainly I would rate it higher than the other games on this subject published so far. It is even more visually impressive than the Wargamer's "Holy Roman Empire" (and has fewer errors in it), and far superior to the similarly named S&T game.
Best wishes, and keep your powder dry!