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Cracked LCD- Eurogames Reclamation Project #3: Bohnanza


It’s 1997, I’m at Dragon Con in the gaming area at a random table I sat down at, and I’m dealt a hand of cards with German words on them and cartoon pictures of these bean characters. Beans. I start rifling through the cards and the guy teaching the game stops me. “No no no! You have to keep the cards in the order you get them, don’t change the order of them in your hand!” Right off the bat, this game is making a bad impression with the silly bean-people and this bizarre rule that defies the natural instincts of anyone who has ever played a card game of any type. My shirtless, leather bracers-wearing friend that fancies himself a modern barbarian leans over and says “Mike, I don’t know about this one.” I promise him that we’ll play Dungeonquest afterwards. I don’t want him to leave me alone at a table of strangers playing a game about bean farming. An hour or so later, we’re in the dealer’s room forking over the bucks for a copy of the game from a vendor that had some import copies.

Of course, the game on the table was Bohnanza, which was Uwe Rosenberg’s most notable contribution to the world of German-style game design until he started cranking out complicated resource management games like Agricola and Le Havre. Unfortunately, his more recent designs have completely shunned this game’s brilliant simplicity, pitched interaction and sharp focus on a core trading mechanic in favor of mostly solitaire exchanges between cards and processes with a VP tally at the end. There’s no heads-down staring at player boards and puzzling over how to make one resource turn into another here, it’s all about planting beans, cashing out fields, and begging somebody to take that Soybean you don’t want.

Everybody gets five cards to start with- remember not to rearrange them. You have two imaginary bean fields in front of you. On your turn, you have to plant the first bean. If you have an empty field, you’re good- any bean can be used to start it. If you have a bean field already sown with that type of bean, you add it and increase the overall cash-out value of it based on an escalating scale that varies between types of beans. If you have two fields each sown with beans not matching that first bean, you’ve got to make room for it by digging one of your fields up and receive its current value by flipping that many cards from the field over to their coin side. This often happens before you’ve had a chance to maximize the value of the field, a major source of grief in this game, and if you want you can buy a third field for three coins. You have the option to plant the second bean in your hand if you want.

After planting, you draw two cards off the top of the deck and put them in the middle of the table. You can take them if you want. Or you can entertain trade offers of one or more beans from other players’ hands who may be in the Wax or Chili bean business when you are looking for Coffee or Stink beans. If all else fails, you can offer the beans as a donation to anyone who will accept them. Or everyone at the table can cruelly leave you to take the beans you don’t want and can’t use. The catch to the trading phase is that any cards acquired have to be planted immediately. The turn ends with a three card draw.

Bohnanza is one of the best trading games ever published largely because like titles such as Intrige or Hols der Geier it is intensely focused on its core concept without a bunch of fluff or folderol. There are no complex mechanics, there are no complicated processes. It is direct and really quite merciless because of the restrictive hand management element, which also creates a very specific sense of incentivizing trade. You want to barter to get rid of beans that are either not your type, so to speak, or to effectively fix the sequence of cards you are holding to get the most profit from your fields.

Strategically, there is also the issue of bean rarity to consider. Some beans are more plentiful than others with the rarer varieties having higher payouts. This effects the overall valuation of trade offers but the funny thing is that even the rarest beans aren’t very valuable to a player with no free field . But that’s all mathy-math stuff, really, and that’s not really the most important part of Bohnanza. The funny thing is that over the course of the game the math goes south anyway as the distribution of beans changes as they are pulled from the deck to be used as money.

The part that really matters is the player interaction, because that is the heart and soul of the game. By playing Bohnanza, you’re mutually agreeing to buy into this ridiculous bean farming concept and then spending the next 30 minutes or so hollering, cajoling, brokering and pleading over these stupid beans. This is a game where smiles and laughs trump furrowed brows and scratched chins. It’s oddly disarming, entirely charming and I can’t say that out of over 100 plays that I’ve ever had a single game of it tank or end with someone not liking it.

But I have played a lot of games of Bohnanza that likely sold one or more copies of the game, which is kind of how it got around back in the late 1990s. You’d have someone introduce it to you, you’d scoff, and then you’d be online at one of the early online game shops looking for your own copy. For years, it seemed like Bohnanza was everywhere. Everybody vaguely interested in hobby games knew it, and Rio Grande’s domestic edition certainly added to its stature. There were a number of expansions produced including High Bohn, which introduces a somewhat odd Western town-building element and Bohnaparte, which finds the players bean sales funding a somewhat perfunctory dudes-on-a-map wargame with a card-based board. Then there was Al Cabohn, Space Beans and the Bean Trader board game. Truth be told, I kind of felt like the beans jumped the shark a bit.

But Bohnanza remains. It’s still in print, still relatively inexpensive, and still plenty of fun. I brought it out recently at a game night after a couple of years’ absence and everybody was like “oh hell yes!” And everyone remembered how to play without us once peeking into the rulebook. We laughed, we haggled, we had a bean-blast.

Cracked LCD- Thunder Alley in Review

thunder alley 2

Thunder Alley is the new NASCAR-style stock car racing game from GMT and in the blink of an eye this 250 MPH masterpiece has become one of the best racing games that I’ve ever played. It’s a brilliant piece of design that nails down the most important elements drivers at Talledega or Daytona experience while also creating compelling spaces for tactical movement decisions and coordinated, team-focused gameplay. It is a design clearly descended from Wolfgang Kramer’s card-driven race designs, wherein cardplay often demands that players weigh the decision to move cars that are not their own in order to gain ground themselves.

This kind of gameplay based around mutual movement also creates an important sense of pace and forward velocity that sometimes feels like you’re right on the edge of losing control. It’s exhilarating, as far as board games can possibly be, to pull off that perfect play where you pull out of the pack with a couple of drafting teammates and put your cars into the lead with tires burning and transmissions screaming in denial. But then on the next turn someone else nudges you out of the way and you fall back. Indeed, rubbin’ is racing in Thunder Alley.

The genius of Jeff and Carla Horger’s design lies in smart decisions to effectively abstract the subject matter down to a couple of core elements that completely sell the stock car racing concept without bogging down in detail or the kinds of cold calculation that slows other racing games down. I tend to generally feel that racing games should be fast-paced and focused on track action, and this game manages that quite well although with more than five players (it plays up to seven) it can run a little long. But even with seven players, the turn-to-turn gameplay is so accessible and consistently exciting that the longer-than-expected playtime isn’t much of a liability.

Unlike almost any other racing game out there, this one actually scales down to two players without losing much. With more players, the game feels wilder and woolier because there are up to 21 cars on the track at a time. One of the most important concepts in Thunder Alley is that you’re not controlling a single competitor as is the case in just about every other racing game out there with the notable exception of Um Reifenbreite, a Spiel Des Jahres-winning team cycling game that may have been something of an influence on the Horgers’ design. You’re in charge of up to six cars on the track at a given time, and learning to coordinate their movement, manage your hand of cards, and time each car’s activation are core competencies.

Despite there being so many cars on the track and an ever-changing board state this is, rules-wise, a simple game where all you do on your turn is play a card, move a car or cars, and flip it over to show that it has been moved. Each card offers one of four different types of movement and a number of movement points, sometimes with a knock-on special effect that might cause you to drift or allow for a diagonal move, for example. Solo movement means that you move a single car with no drafters- ideal for charging forward at a crucial moment. Drafting moves an entire line of cars- you can be the next to last car in a line and a draft move will move everyone in the line with you. Pursuit movement is similar to drafting, but you leave anyone behind the moving car in the dust. Lead movement lets you pull cars out of a pack and they’ll follow your racing line. Lateral movement (lane-changing) is fairly free, and there are no kinds of rules to meter speed through corners. It’s just not about those kinds of things, so along with the enormous lap counts of NASCAR races elements such as those are wisely abstracted.

But it wouldn’t be a game with that NASCAR atmosphere if there weren’t a healthy dose of paint-trading so there are significant rules for displacing cars both laterally and in front of you. Displacement can knock a rival out of a pack or there are some cards that let you effectively push your way through a line. It costs extra movement points, but it’s a critical strategy considering that the tracks have four lanes at most and some narrow down to two in tight banks.

Endurance and wear is another critical element that the Horgers smartly preserve without overdoing it. Most movement cards cause the car to incur wear on the tires or suspension, reduce fuel or cause some kind of permanent damage that can’t be repaired. As cars take on three or more wear chits, they suffer a penalty to any movement points provided by a card- although they can still be pushed and pulled by other cars, which is again where teamwork among your cars is crucial. Six damage chits puts your car out of the race, but at the end of each round of play there is an option to pit- a simple procedure where you move the pitting car down to the apron and back five spaces, remove non-permanent damage chits and then play a reduced movement card in the next round to get back in the race. Each type of damage is functionally the same- until an event card tells you otherwise.

thunder alley

The event cards cover a lot of specific details simply and effectively. One is drawn at the end of each round, and their effects can be dramatic. Some events will cause the car with the most of a specific type of damage to convert a regular wear chit into a permanent one. Or they may take a car completely out of the race. Some events cause a yellow-flag restart, which can be a tremendous field-leveler if someone is running away with the race- or about to get lapped. Drawing two Rain event cards after at least one lap is completed ends the whole thing right there. And of course, there’s always a chance of a massive pile-up.

Four tracks are generously included and each offers a different experience. Each is completed in two or three laps (which, again, abstract far more than that) and there are points at the end assigned to each finishing position as well as bonus points for the cars that hold the most lap leader chits, indicating rounds in which the car was in the lead. That’s a smart incentive to gun for the lead each round. When the checkered flag is waved, you can win first place and still have your team lose the race if your other cars didn’t finish well or if your overall performance was subpar.

Win or lose, I love playing this game. Some will undoubtedly bemoan that the situation changes each time a player moves in such a way that advance planning of cardplay is pretty much impossible, especially with many players. But I like the seat-of-the-pants approach and I think it reflects really well the kinds of second-to-second decisions race drivers have to make. This is a wholly tactical game, but with that said the strategic angle is definitely there. Deciding whether or not to pit a leading car with two wear tokens or let it go to the next round can be agonizing. Playing a high-value movement card that’s going to put a second tire wear chit on a car could give you an advantage or it could destroy you if the wrong event card comes up. You’ve got to make long-term decisions about what cars you’re going to push to the limit and which you’re going let slip. And there are always opportunities for your cars to piggyback movement and wind up in better positions for the next round.

If there’s one area where Thunder Alley disappoints, it’s in one that has nothing to do with the top-notch gameplay, production or overall value of this product. It may not even be anything that GMT can do anything about. But given GMT’s track record of really great historical notes and background material, I’m a little disappointed that the game doesn’t do much to explain the history of stock car racing, NASCAR, facts about real-world tracks or anything like that. But in order to accomplish that, I’m sure a NASCAR license would be necessary and I’m I’m guessing that would likely be very expensive and out of reach for an fundamentally small publisher of hobby games to approach. So the tracks have ersatz names and the teams are all full of made-up drivers in cars with phony liveries. This is a shame, because this is the definitive NASCAR/stock car racing game and it deserves the prestige- and attention- that would come with the license.


Cracked LCD- Galactic Strike Force in Review


Galactic Strike Fore comes in hot, all guns blazing, with a great-looking science fiction style and a cool concept. The bad guys seeking galactic dominion in this one aren’t up against some benevolent planetary federation or other official Organization of Good Guys United for the Common Good. They are fighting for control of a galaxy defended chiefly by a ragtag bunch of anti-heroic scoundrels, pirates, freelancers and other spacefaring riff-raff. Han Solo types, if Han Solo were a Neo-Elf or a Techno Dwarf. While you’re at it, maybe imagine that the Millennium Falcon is a giant cellular mass with tentacles that fights a Laser Dragon.

You and up to five teammates will pilot your ships between three different sectors, playing credit-generating cards from your unique deck to purchase upgrades from three Station decks in each location. These might increase your weaponry or your shields (collectively these numbers indicate your ship’s energy vis a vis its health) or they may provide other benefits. Then you’ll face off with the opposition, engaging with an opposition ship in the area and possibly calling on your allies to join the battle as a secondary engager, imparting a special combat ability and possibly turning the tide with a little teamwork. If any opposition ships are unengaged, they actually flip the ship-upgrading Station cards over, not only denying you that equipment but also giving the bad guys benefits and possibly even adding more ships to the sector. If they manage to flip three Station cards in a sector, it is overrun and that’s bad news for the good guys. It’s up to your gang to keep the sectors under control while building strength to defeat a boss ship.

And that is the new game from Christopher Badell and the gang at Greater Than Games, whom you may remember as the folks behind the popular Sentinels of the Multiverse superhero game. Fans of that title will be pleased to discover that most of that game’s best design elements make a curtain call in Galactic Strike Force and to some degree it feels like a bigger, more ambitious sequel despite the shift in genre and greater complexity. It feels like a more confident design, but with that confidence comes a sense of sprawl that threatens to bury the experience under piles of markers, tiny card text describing conditional effects and administration that too often interferes with the excitement this game is capable of generating.

I loved the modularity of Sentinels, where there were so many ingredients that could be modified in a given session. Number of players, which heroes the players took, who the villain was and where the battle was going down all could be mixed and matched for a wide variety of experiences. It isn’t necessarily a design issue, but this kind of pick-and-mix setup naturally leads to highly volatile gameplay where balance is out the window and you could lose due to a combination of bad card draws (originating both from the hero decks as well as the villain decks) and by simply not having the right character or characters on the table to handle a particular situation. Or it could be a total cakewalk. Galactic Strike Force’s modularity is just as variable and volatile, and that could be a selling point for many.

Each player picks a ship individually represented by a display card, a starter deck of eight cards and a cardboard standup. Each ship has a unique deck that defines its characteristics and special abilities and yes, as a matter of fact this is something of a deckbuilding game. So there is a wide range of possible ship combinations for two to six players right there. Then there are three randomly chosen galactic sectors chosen that define where the battle against the Big Bad will take place. Then there’s the selection of the Big Bad, each of which comes with a stack of ship cards and mission cards that provide some storyline and short-term objectives, not to mention a dual-state character card that has different effects when “impending” and when the Big Bad’s ship is actually on the table wreaking havoc.

So the mix-and-match style sets up a unique adventure for your team every game. Unlike Sentinels it seems like “brutally hard” is the default setting for just about any assortment of elements. This is a tough game in both its standard and “elite” modes, but I’m not sure if the challenge is a result of smart design and forcing player choices as it is just amping up the output of random die-or-die situations. The AI is limited to simple algorithms such as “put this card where there are the most ships”. Sometimes the game does an outstanding job of creating a certain arc where you’re just getting hammered at the outset, but eventually your team starts to turn the tide for an endgame where you actually might have a shot at winning. Other times, you’re just getting hammered.

Like Sentinels, when one of your team goes down (which will happen, mark my words) they have some abilities that can be used to continue to contribute to the fight. I really like this idea, but there are times when it almost feels like some of these “grounded” abilities are worth more than having another ship out there. But then again, having a team member down just accelerates a tragic end for the Galaxy. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by Galactic Strike Force, and not just by the mechanics that keep the opposition in your face for the whole game.

Undoubtedly, knowing every card in the game- including every ship, upgrade, mission and so forth- along with play experience will result in players having a better success rate. The question is whether it’s worth it to dig in to Galactic Strike Force like that. I like so much of what this game is attempting, including the novel setup and the almost FTL-like sense of developing your ship over the course of the game to hurl it against impossible odds. But I am just not having as much fun with the game as I would like.

Going back to the Sentinels comparison once again, one of the chief issues is an administrative one. Sentinels had players juggling modifiers, damage types and other effects, resulting in low-level math and futzing around with counters (at least in the second edition, the original didn’t even have any). Galactic Strike Force takes this to a new level. There are something like four counter sheets of numerical weaponry and shield markers. Your ship card gets some. Every upgrade you install to a ship gets a few. Every opposition ship gets some of both. Looking at this game on the table, you see a mass of counters and cards which make this relatively simple game look like a burden to play. It doesn’t help that the rulebook is strangely obtuse and not particularly clear about some aspects of gameplay and some elements, such as splitting ship energy between two values but referring to them as one, aren’t very intuitive.

Then there are the cards themselves, most with tiny type describing effects. Most players with reasonable eyesight won’t be able to read anything on them across a table, let alone upside down. Expect to pass cards around so everyone can read them, and then hope that everyone remembers what all nine available Station cards do at a given time as well as the effect of every opposition card, any Mission cards that are on the table and what the enemy boss does.

And then there is the turn structure, which feels overly complicated. I like that much of what goes down on a turn can actually be done simultaneously by all players, which reduces downtime, but the game still feels cumbersome. During each step of the five phase turn, you’ve got to check every card on the table to see if there is an effect keyed to that particular phase. Both good guy and bad guy cards might have these. With three or four players at the table, the eyes of the group certainly help but it’s still a tedious administrative step. In comparison, it isn’t much more complicated than managing something like Arkham Horror so if your group can manage that without grumbling or disconnecting from the narrative then it may not be as major an issue as it is for me and my friends. There’s just a lot to keep track of in general and you’re going to miss something important at some point. Expect several “oh wait” and “hang on, we skipped this part” moments.

Galactic Strike Force comes across as a game that I want to love despite its missteps. I like so much of the design, and I am happy to see some of the best things from Sentinels ported over but I’m disappointed that some of the not-so-good things from that game also came across and somehow mutated into larger problems. I think the narrative of this game is spot- on, with a great concept and lots of unique ships, characters and equipment in the against-the-odds battles it depicts but I’m finding myself pushed away from the appealing qualities. There is definitely a good game here- and a lot of it- that just needs to be streamlined and refined so that players are focusing on the drama and tension rather than what card does what when. An IOS app of this game could potentially be amazing. A second edition with refinements could potentially be as popular as Sentinels has become.

Cracked LCD- Warhammer: Diskwars in Review


My first reaction to Fantasy Flight Games’ Warhammer: Diskwars was “they’re bringing back Diskwars? What’s next, Vortex?” My second reaction, after reading the advance post of the rules was “hey, this actually looks pretty fun.” My third reaction after playing it was “holy shit, I’ve been waiting for this game my entire gaming life.”

Pause for confessional. Even though I’ve gone through spells over the years, I’m not much of a traditional miniatures gamer these days. I do not like assembling, painting and basing figures. I do not like building terrain. I’m not much of a craftsman. And aside from Warmachine, I’ve never found a miniatures system that had rules that I actually like. Sure- the lore of some of these games is awesome. Games Workshop’s Warhammer lines in particular. And I do generally like the concepts of miniatures wargaming, so it’s always been something of a quandary for me

So I’m usually first in line when an no-paint/no-build “alternative” miniatures game appears on store shelves, and to this end I ordered Warhammer: Diskwars the day it was made available at my favorite online retailer. Cutting to what matters most, this game is one of the best of these kinds of games to date, it blows away the competition because it bridges that gap between the awesome allure of the Games Workshop world and the low commitment demanded by casual tabletoppers such as myself.

But really, I had played Diskwars before it had the taint of Chaos. The original Tom Jolly (that’s Mr. Wiz-War to you) had a generic fantasy theme and I had a couple of packs- it was originally a collectible game. The Star Trek: Red Alert version was much better, an ultra- nerdy game that suspiciously looked like pogs for Trekkers. The high level concept is that Diskwars is a miniatures game but with cardboard discs instead of figures. All stats and abilities are printed right there on the discs- no need to reference a codex or rulebook. Put the tape measure back in the tool box where it belongs. You move these armies by flipping them end over end a number of times equal to a movement rating.

The Warhammer Diskwars core box comes packed with an unusually generous assortment of these discs representing Empire, Ork, Chaos and High Elf units. You get enough to field three regiments for each faction and a two regiment game is a de facto standard for a 45-60 minute, five round game. Adding another core box, of course, drastically increases your ability to customize army lists and gives you much more versatility. With that said, this is one of the most “complete” core sets I’ve ever seen and if the game never saw another expansion I think it would still represent one of the best values in hobby gaming today with a $28 street price. For less than the cost of a Warhammer Fantasy Battles miniatures unit, you also get a couple of 2D terrain pieces, deployment zone cards, dice (used only for ranged attacks), administrative tokens and a small pile of Command cards that drive the flow of the game. All you need other than the box is a $2.99 piece of 3”x3” green felt from the craft store.

Rules are simple but expect to lean on the rulebook for a couple of games. Setup is easy. Once armies are built (a simple point-based process, as expected), players draw a card that provides an overall condition for the battle as well as cards that define goals such as earning VPs for defeating enemy heroes or having units overlapping the other side of the playfield by the end of the game. Troops are deployed in deployment zones, which may provide cover or other special abilities. Terrain is placed for strategic purposes by both sides. It’s your choice rather to place that lake in the middle of the enemy’s deployment lane to slow their advance or to put it where it can provide some defense for your Bolt Thrower.

Then it’s on. Each player selects an Command card which operates on a rock-paper-scissors-dynamite scheme. These define the number of units you can activate that turn and any special advantages. Discs start flipping into place. Ranged units get to take their shots, rolling dice to see if there’s a hit, a critical, a scatter or the dreaded Mark of Chaos. Once every unit has been activated- or is pinned by another unit, initiating melee-all engaged units exchange blows in piles of engaged discs called “scrums”.

The catch is that units need to take enough damage in a single round to receive a wound because all hits come off at the end of it. So coordinating attacks is essential to eliminate units before the reset. Inevitably, an assault turns into a full-on fracas as defending units pile on to protect whoever’s on the bottom of the pile. Melee can be somewhat complicated when several units are involved in a scrum, but a simple top-down resolution order and simple comparatives between attack or counter attack values and defense numbers keeps things from bogging down.

There’s lots of great detail. Firing a Helblaster cannon into a scrum might result in it accidentally hitting your own units if it scatters. Or you might get a result that causes the damn thing to malfunction, flipping over and killing the Talabheim Greatswords unit you have protecting its flank. Some units do damage as soon as they pin another. Others fly, avoiding terrain penalties. Magic users are a great way to get those guaranteed extra two hits or so that you need to put an enemy hero down- provided that they’re not magic resistant. There are units that can scout before the game actually begins and others that can deploy from any side of the playfield to flank the enemy. Every unit plays differently and has unique strengths and weaknesses. And above it all- most importantly- it totally feels like Warhammer even though diehard WHFB players will likely lament the distinct lack of wheeling formations.

Bottom line is that this game is fun. The rules complexity is just right, avoiding the sacrifice of either accessibility or depth. The units are exciting and offer lots of tactical possibilities within regimental builds. It’s an effortless design that has clearly been heavily analyzed, redeveloped and sharply refined not only to smooth out the Diskwars system (no more dropping ranged attack counters from above the table, for example) but also to make it work for Warhammer. This is the best game that Fantasy Flight has released since X-Wing. Go ahead and sign me up for every expansion.


Cracked LCD- Navajo Wars in Review


Joel Toppen’s Navajo Wars: A History of the American Southwest, 1598-1864 is the story of the slow-motion apocalypse of a people. The game is, as you might guess from the title, about the Navajo (Dine) people of the American Southwest and their struggle to maintain their families, culture and ways of life in the face of Spanish, Mexican and American encroachment. Long before Kit Carson comes onto the scene during the Civil War to rope the Navajo onto a reservation, it’s clear that this is not a battle the Dine are going to win. This is, quite wilfully, a game about the twilight of these people and your success in guiding their fate is measured by a degree of inevitable failure. The game has much in common with other card-driven wargames in that specific historical beats, personalities and turns of events are unavoidable and your ability to anticipate and mitigate the script of history is critical. But it doesn’t really play like anything descended from We The People.

Mr. Toppen’s take on the subject is unusually sensitive, heartfelt and compassionate. He believes the Dine can survive, even if the history states otherwise. And as someone that has grown up in and around the Navajo people as they exist today, he’s certainly a qualified observer of their traditions and values. There is a palpable sense of respect in this game, a passionate sense of understanding that this game is about families more than it is about armies. Planting or harvesting corn, having children, seeing people grow old and die, moving to more arable land and listening to the wisdom of an elder talking down a particularly ferocious bunch of raid-happy braves are some of the smaller yet more profound moments of this game.

It’s designed as a solitaire experience- Mr. Toppen explicitly states in his notes that he didn’t want one player to have the extermination or subjugation of the Dine as a goal. So instead, he designed an absolutely brilliant mechanic that automates the opposition. It’s a fairly complicated system, but the short version is that it operates on a sequenced series of chit activations that determine what your Spanish, Mexican or American adversaries are going to do. They might conduct raids, build missions, attempt to subjugate, or even do nothing during periods of relative piece. This system works in concert with a cube drawing mechanic that reflects the effects of raiding and occasional die rolls so that it’s never completely predictable.

The kicker is that certain effects might cause these chits to flip over or move in their sequence, effectively simulating an intelligent adversary that adjusts plans according to the player’s actions. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it “feels” like playing against a live opponent, but it does generate a sense of shifting priorities, simulated tactical judgment and shifts in long-term agendas. It’s a distant cry from the usual “whack a mole” card flipping or triage-based activation systems that drive most solitaire games.

There is a cooperative option, but to be honest I didn’t even try it because I didn’t think it looked particularly interesting. I think this is a game that is actually best experienced by yourself. Freed form the social expectations of tabletop gaming, you’re better able to dig into the game’s very complicated mechanics and rich story. And frankly, I think you kind of need that space because this is not a simple game in any way. It’s not one of those that’s “actually pretty simple once you get the system down”. The rules are reasonably easy to grasp and a playbook tutorial is an absolute must. But once you’re in the wilderness with this game, pouring over its charts and flowcharts, flipping through the player aids, and referencing the rulebook at almost every turn the last thing you want is to feel responsible for someone else’s fun.

In addition to the amazing AI system that makes this one of the more robust single player options available, there are other absolutely brilliant mechanics at work. In particular, I love that certain benefit cards (Blessing Way) cards can be held in the hand but they are a liability. If a card comes up that activates the Enemy Way that is on every Blessing Way card, you’re hit with a negative effect. It’s a great decision point- hold on to a valuable card at risk. The familial systems are smart, simple and appropriately abstract. Men can lead the kinds of raids and counter-raids that typified the conflict of the titular Navajo Wars. Raiding a lot increases your family’s ferocity and lowers their ability to evade when interlopers conduct raids of their own. Women produce trade goods. Children grow up- or they might be captured in one of the nasty slave raids that occurred during this period. All may become elders, in time. The sense of organization and community is handled at the highest level, but it imparts a strong sense of who these people were and what their drives were.

There’s just so much to this game. Managing morale. Balancing the military footing of the Dine versus their cultural level. Dealing with the effects of drought. Feeding your people. Raiding to try to get horses or sheep. Trading with local forts or tribes. Developing cultural advancements. Fighting (or evading) battles. Dealing with random encounters. And there’s always the need to mitigate the effects of looming historical events that can seriously alter the course of the game.

All of the above means that Navajo Wars is a very complicated game with complex, interlocking systems. It can be quite intimidating and at times even rather opaque. And then there’s the fact that playing it one thing, but playing it correctly is another. Playing it well is another proposition. It is most definitely not a game to pop open, punch, and get to playing the first night you bring it home. After playing through the tutorial, several false start games, quite a few abandoned ones and just a couple of complete to-the-bitter-end ones I still feel like I don’t have a handle on how to win it. I’m still not even able to sit down to play without having the rulebook and player aids open the entire time. But it feels worth the effort (and wading through its fussy administrative processes) because playing Navajo Wars is mostly a sublime pleasure punctuated by moments where not only do you get it, you get how profoundly impactful and resonant this game and its historical narrative can be when it is at its best .

Fittingly, I think it’s one of the best-looking titles GMT has produced to date, a handsome game that captures the spirit of the people and their story. I love that the family member chits have actual photographs of Navajo on them. The board looks like the work of a Navajo craftsman, with simulated materials like polished stones to mark each of the point-to-point geographical areas. The look is appropriate because everything about this game feels carefully handcrafted, meticulous and detailed.

I haven’t reviewed a GMT game in quite some time, even though I strongly believe that they are one of the most consistent and valuable publishers working in hobby games today. You can always count on a GMT game to not only be well-supported, but also immaculately presented with great rules writing and clear, concise graphic design. By sticking to historical and real-world topics, I’ve found that GMT’s titles are among those most likely to get into some of the more interesting possibilities of game design. My 2010 pick for Game of the Year, Labyrinth, for example, was a brilliant analysis of the War on Terror with a very specific political perspective that invites the player to engage the content and participate with the designer in not just creating a hypothetical construct of possible military outcomes but also in exploring the social, cultural and political aspects that define the great conflicts of history.

For me, this holistic view of history is what defines GMT’s top games and distinguishes them from the more traditional “conflict simulation” titles. It’s one of the knock-on effects of the influence of card-driven wargames over the past decade and a half, this notion of wargames telling broader, more inclusive stories far beyond the hex-and-counter games of the 1970s and 1980s. Not that games focused on battles, troop movements and so forth are somehow lesser. But every so often GMT releases a game that is more than that, something that reaches for a more widescreen view of history. A game like Labyrinth or Twilight Struggle. Navajo Wars, a game that I took the liberty of listing as one of 2013’s Barnes’ Best before a formal review, is one of these landmark titles.