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Cracked LCD- Navajo Wars in Review

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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.

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Cracked LCD- Duel of Ages II in Review

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When Brett Murrell’s Duel of Ages appeared back in 2003, it was sort of a strange entity. Its marketing materials and website conveyed an ambitious- and seemingly venture capital backed- line of products that were very much not in step with the current design trends at the time. Puerto Rico was still considered one of the top games in the hobby and the first “hybrid” American games with Eurogame influences such as Christian Petersen’s A Game of Thrones and Glenn Drover’s Age of Mythology were starting to appear. Heroscape and War of the Ring were right around the corner.

With this context in mind, I have to admit that when I first played Duel of Ages ten years ago I didn’t like it very much. It felt old fashioned and not in a good way. I wasn’t really sold on the concept of bringing together characters from four different eras and kitting them out with mismatched gear. It was a highly idiosyncratic game, with unusual sawblade-shaped modular map tiles (“platters”) that were notorious for warping. I felt like the game was clunky, clumsy, and retrogressive. Yet it persevered, becoming something of a cult classic among its fans that just couldn’t get enough of putting William Wallace on a bicycle, armed with a plasma rifle and with a grenade-hurling wizard and an angry bear in hot pursuit.

Now it’s 2013 and a lot has changed not only in game design concepts, how games are marketed, and what players expect but also in how I am approaching the newly released Duel of Ages II. Returning to the game for a decade-late second chance has been revelatory- this game, in many ways, is the one that I wish that I had been playing for the past ten years while in search of great narratives, player agency, and endless possibilities. It is a dramatically unbalanced, open-ended, volatile, combat game that offers a completely player-owned and crafted narrative. It is a game that feels like some of the better elements of classics like Gunslinger, Wiz-War, Talisman, Squad Leader, and Cosmic Encounter but not nearly as cumbersome as a mash-up of those things should be by rights. It is a game that is often amazing, frequently ridiculous, sometimes infuriating, and never quite like anything else you have on your shelf.

There’s a lot of fluff involving the “Worldspanner” concept, including short stories on the back of each of the 144 or so character cards in the game. But all you really need to know is that a stupendous range of personalities ranging from superheroes to historical figures to killer robots to average Joes from Ancient, Colonial, Modern, and Future eras are sent to duke it out across hex-based map platters. Each has a special ability or two and a range of stats that are generally used in comparative resolutions involving a card flip to determine a degree of success or failure. There are hundreds and hundreds of cards representing weapons, items, pets, armor, vehicles and other equipment that characters can pick up and hurt others with. You don’t just pick up a sword, you pick up a specific kind of sword. The variety- and specificity- is kind of astonishing.

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The focus of the game is maneuver and combat, complete with a full range of simple wargame-descended rules for terrain, opportunity fire, and line-of-sight. But there are also adventure game qualities, as characters can descend into “labyrinths” corresponding to each era that link the map platters together for all kinds of crazy challenges that yield rewards including item cards and advancement toward achieving team-wide bonuses. You can send a team over to the enemy base to infiltrate it and either wreck it or break some of your captured teammates out of prison. There’s a sort of goddess-thing that oversees the events of the game and you can go take her gifts (such as a side of bacon, the Mona Lisa, and a Valentine) to win her favor.

As for the goal, it’s really kind of up to the players. You can play for points, earning them for kills or captures as well as labyrinth achievements. You can choose to do an all-in deathmatch to the last man. Or you can play a two hour game or one that runs 12 rounds. Three map platters, five map platters, six characters to a side, two players, sixteen players, 20 characters total from a completely random draft, all characters with beards, only monsters and ancient items- the choice is completely up to you.

And that is just the beginning of where the player’s ownership of the DOAII experience begins. The rules are definitely a few steps up from something like Heroscape so there is some complexity (particularly when you’re figuring in various effects, bonuses, and other factors) but it’s all very systemic and much smoother-running than the original version of the game. I love that a single card flip from the Challenge deck gives you a full CRT’s worth of results and there’s always a chance that a no-hope melee contest between a fairy and a prizefighter could end in an “Amaze” result for the former and a shameful beatdown for the latter. It’s up to you to tell the story of why that happens.

The rules do not describe a story, this is not a narrative explained by process or resources. The flavor text on the adventures the characters face is spare, so you get to fill in the blanks as to why Stephen Decatur wound up holding off an Orcish siege or how Clara Barton went into the future and was on an intergalactic dating show. As players get involved with elaborating on events or trying to parse some of the absurd tactical situations that might occur the narrative is organically grown into the metagame from what develops on the board.

It helps that the game is highly detailed, but not in a way that interferes with the rock-solid core gameplay. There’s so much that can happen and so many different tactical situations. There are wolves you can send out to track down enemies, sentinels you can post to guard territories, and character-specific specializations for different equipment types to gain bonuses if you luck up and find (or trade) for the right gun or knife. Horses to ride, secret missions to undertake, henchmen to martial…when you play the full game with the Master Set’s increased range of- well, everything- the potential variety is insane.

 

But that does mean that some games play out better than others, and you’ve got to be willing to roll with that. For best results, play with people that care more about fun than winning or rigid mechanics. If nobody is having fun with their characters and equipment just reboot it. Own the experience- if you don’t like the labyrinths, use the included encounter chits instead. If you feel like characters should start with at least one weapon matching their specializations, do it. You can’t break this game by seasoning to taste, and its flexibility effectively bridges the gap between more closed system board games and the more customizable elements of tabletop miniatures or even collectible card games.

Like those types of games, which tend to reward commitment, it’s also important to note that DOAII is not a game to play two or three times and then put on the shelf. It’s simply not designed for you to dip your toes in, see what the mechanics do, and then kindly excuse itself for you to move on to the next week’s new hotness. It invites you back not to experience the strategic possibilities within its process, but to see what kind of story you can tell the next time. It somehow manages to capture a very modular, customizable, and open concept within the confines of a board game format. Thinking back to my first two or three games back in ’03, I wonder if the problem I had with it was that I just didn’t play it enough to get to the good stuff. I’ve now played DOAII than I have more than any other game this year and I’m ready for more.

One of the squishier, more subjective things that keep me coming back to DOAII is that it comes across as something very personal, very much a product of an author. But that author has put a really uncommon level of trust in the players to finish his creation by playing the game and I find that terrifically compelling. I get a sense that this game, for all of its scope and range, is very personal and speaks to Mr. Murrell’s interests, influences, and passions. It’s a subtle aura about the game juxtaposing ambition and player agency with intimacy that serves to set it apart from almost anything else on the market right now.

While we’re in squishy territory, I think anyone will appreciate that there is an overriding, welcoming sense of play in this game that is quite arresting. There’s something in this game about raiding bases, getting cool items, and running a cowboy through the woods to get into a sword fight with a science fiction cat-man that reminds me of playing army or other make-believe games when I was a kid- you can even get shot at and then say “shields!”, revealing a shield card. It feels youthful, enthusiastic, and liberating. After some time spent with DOAII, you might find yourself wondering why you’re not feeling this element of pure play as much in other games.

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Cracked LCD- Robinson Crusoe: Adventures on the Cursed Island in Review

 

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When we talk about hybrids in terms of game design, what we tend to mean are American-style, narrative-focused and explicitly themed games that have accrued certain mechanical and design elements of the “Eurogames” sensibility. Robinson Crusoe: Adventures on the Cursed Island, designed by Polish designer Ignacy Trzewiczek and published in the US by Z-Man Games, approaches the concept of hybridization backwards. Despite how it may appear on the surface, this title is really a “hardcore”, complex Eurogame. Paradoxically, it is also one of the very best adventure games that I’ve ever played. Its idiosyncrasy means that the design references Agricola more than Talisman, its genius is that it manages to create a tremendously malleable, modular survival story rife with life-or-death decisions, branching narrative paths, and a more complete sense of setting than many other adventure games are able to manage with reams of flavor text or illustrations.

For many gamers, the co-op trend has run its course and undoubtedly some will groan when they hear that Robinson Crusoe is another “us versus the game” title. This would be a grievous mistake. Mr. Trzewiczek’s design, which essentially has not so much to do with the Daniel Defoe novel as it does a general “stranded on a mysterious island” archetype, manages to create a stronger, more meaningful sense of collusion and codependency in its mechanics than other games in its class. Other gamers may balk at the fact that this title runs on a worker placement chassis, claiming that mechanical construct is somehow anti-thematic, but that again would be an error of prejudice. You can’t tell me that it doesn’t make holistic narrative sense to indicate by worker placement that the Explorer is spending the day hacking through the brush, looking for a river to build a dam across while the Cook is out foraging for wood and food sources.

One to four players take on the roles of these and other shipwrecked survivors, each with a number of special talents and each with a special invention that they can share with the group if they decide to build it. There are also options to include a Man Friday and a dog to aid lower player counts or to make the game easier for a full group. On a turn, players essentially place two pawns on the actions they’ll take for the day: dealing with event card-driven situations, hunting the native fauna, building accommodations or makeshift inventions, exploring new island tiles, arranging the camp to improve morale, or simply resting. The trick is that if you only place one pawn to perform the core building, foraging, and exploring actions then you’ve got to roll three dice to see if you succeed or not, if you get hurt doing it, and if you draw an event card. Bring along another player’s pawn or one of the helper pawns earned in different ways throughout the game, and it’s an automatic success. You really have to come together in a meaningful, thematic way if you’re going to survive.

This means that division of labor, situational awareness, anticipation of coming events or shortages, and keeping pace with each of the six scenarios’ timelines is essential to a successful group strategy. But then there are matters such as weather die rolls at the end of each round that may cause you to burn up all your wood if it gets cold or to discard your ruined food if the rain destroys the roof of your ramshackle shelter. Then there are the occasional booby-trapped ruined temples, in which treasure-seekers might find a useful weapon or tool and discoveries earned from venturing deeper into the island’s interior. Morale is a constant concern, and it worsens as players become injured and exhausted.

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All of this detail comes at a cost. This is a quite complex game with lots of things to consider at any given time and one of the only complaints I have is that the rulebook isn’t the best at explaining it all and the cards create a host of potential FAQ candidates. The complexity and occasional confusion are absolutely worth it for the rich level of detail and story-building that this game accomplishes. I don’t even really care if the game tops four hours, or if someone spends too long trying to work out how we’re going to get an extra food to make sure someone doesn’t starve while also building a roof. It’s immersive in a way that few Eurogames have ever been. It all comes back to the stories this game is capable of telling.

The six scenarios are outstanding, ranging from a simple castaways setup to a really awesome one telling the tale of a failed expedition to exorcise a cursed island. The ship wrecks and the survivors that make it to the beach go about the task of building crosses on it while an ominous fog rolls in over the course of the game. There’s a Swiss Family Robinson- themed story, a rescue mission, and a pulpy volcano island setup focused on treasure-hunting. And then there’s one where the island is populated by cannibals- one of the more direct references to the titular source material. Player-made scenarios based on King Kong and the voyages of the H.M.S Beagle are already online. It’s just a matter of time before Lost and Gilligan’s Island ones appear.

The great storytelling isn’t just in these scenarios and the special rules that define them, it’s also written directly into the mechanics. One of my favorite elements of the game is how an event card will often offer the player a decision or create a lasting injury marker. These cards get shuffled into the main event card deck, and later in the game that gash you got on your head while digging a pit to store food might come back to reduce your health or morale later on- unless you and your mates spent some time to try to find the terrain type that unlocks the Cure invention. Or you may be offered some wood at an opportune moment- only to find out later those poor materials causes your roof to take damage. This is a brilliant way of maintaining storyline and making events have resonance throughout the game. It also creates immediate short-term goals to mitigate loss or damage.

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Beautifully produced, wonderfully illustrated, and atmospheric, Robinson Crusoe is also one of the best looking games of the year. It’s the kind of title that sits on your shelf and when you see it, you think “oh man, that game is really awesome”. Hands down, it is the best game that I’ve played this year. It’s a bona fide masterpiece of adventure game design- very modern, very evolutionary, and very innovative. I’ve played the game every day since I received my press copy from Z-Man, with other players and also by myself- it’s on track to become one of my favorite solitaire games. I find myself still wanting to go back to that island again to try different characters, different inventions, and just to see what happens as the stories unfold.

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