Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Warriors of God - Chaos Management 101

Warriors of God is the latest game in the ambitiously-named International Game Series from Multiman Publishing, so far developed by Adam Starkweather. So far, all of the games have been designed by the Japanese, so perhaps "international" isn't quite the right word just yet, but then again the designers aren't Americans and MMP is an American company, so we'll let it slide for now.

The game was designed, I believe, to cover the 100 Years War, although there is a second "scenario" that has a completely different set of leaders and a handful of different special rules taking place 300 years earlier. That's pretty astonishing - that warfare would change so little, at least to our 21st Century eyes. Between the Christian-Muslim antagonism engendered by the Crusades preventing trade with the other civilizations of the world and the hegemony of the Papacy, it's definitely understandable. It's also very nice that you can get two completely different games under the same system in one package, making replayability high. 

This is an extremely low-level wargame, quite suitable for beginners. In fact, there is an extremely high degree of chaos in the game focusing on the rather, shall we say, mutable life expectancy of your average military leader. It's possible for one to die in battle, but it's also quite possible for them to die one turn after entry, almost certainly because of icky venereal diseases and/or blood poisoning after stubbing your toe. Imagine what it was like for the hoi-polloi. 

I've discussed the game in general before, but now that I've had the chance to play the first half of the Lion in Winter scenario against Matt R, I feel I have a better grasp on what this game is about. At first blush, it appears to be a dice fest, but I think it's much deeper than that. This is a game about chaos management, and believe me, it is manageable. And the key is in the control of areas. 

Controlling an area in WofG (WoG sounds too much like Worthy Oriental Gentleman, a British derogatory term for those who were not only not British, but had the audacity to not be Caucasian either. A little like having a game whose acronym was NiGR) confers several benefits:
  • You get VP for every area you control at the end of the turn, and I'd estimate the percentage of VP coming from this source (vs leaders killed in combat and captured leaders left to rot) at something like 65-85% of a given side's total. 
  • You can raise troops in controlled areas. That doesn't mean you'll get them, of course. 
  • You can move troops around between contiguous controlled areas. This is Important. 
  • It is hard to wrest control away from the other player. You must either manage to have more leaders than they do in the area (and the control marker counts, so you'd need two leaders just to remove one lonely marker), or else control the area outright at the end of your turn. You can't add in a control marker easily unless it's your "home" area (matches the herald on your leader in the area). 
Here's the trick. Once all movement and battle is done, you place new troops in controlled areas, regardless of who is actually in them. In other words, if the English control Normandy, but the French kicked them out in battle, there are still troops raised in the area. It doesn't mean the French will get them (far from it), but it does mean they get a shot at them. 

Then, you get to move the unassigned units around, if you can. This helps you get said troops *out* of Normandy in our example, but only if you control an adjacent area. You also can't move or take control of Mercs unless you're in their area, or control an area next to where they are.

Now for the chaos part. Every leader on the board rolls to see if they survive or die. On the first turn a leader is on the board, they only die on a roll of '1'. If they've been on the board for six turns, they're toast. In between the odds increase just like you'd expect them to. In our Normandy example, that means that the French leader in that area, the ones that kicked out the English (assuming there was just one)? A bad roll, and suddenly that's an area not only with the new troops in it, but also the ones the French leader had with him, all up for grabs.

Next come the new leaders to pick up all of those troops that are scattered about. You bring back leaders that were routed in the previous turn, also leaders that were sprung from the joint. However, those leaders also roll for mortality. No one gets out of here alive. In addition, whoever lost the initiative last turn gets to pick which of the two new unaligned leaders they wish to add to their forces, plus two new leaders that are a given. 

Keep in mind that you can place a leader in a friendly or an uncontrolled space, or (and here's another Important concept) in their home area, based on their herald. In fact, if they end up in their home area, they also get attached troops equal to their rank, which ranges from 1-3, usually in the 1-2 range. The area can be controlled by the other side, but if there are unassigned troops there, the new leader has a chance to pick them up. And the non-initiative player gets first pick of those troops at turn end, when they all get assigned. 

If all of that sounds wacky, it really isn't. Out of what appears to be a lot of chaos, the only real chaos is which leaders will stick around and which won't. And you know the odds of a leader surviving or not surviving the turn in advance. And you know what leaders will be introduced, and what areas they'll be able to start in. And what areas you can move units between (although you have to roll for any area that is uncontrolled with a non-home leader in it, and at best it's a 50/50 proposition). 

In other words, there appears to be quite a bit of chaos. In truth, there's very little. This game rewards looking ahead and playing the odds. And it does it in a fairly manageable fashion, as there are usually around six or seven leaders on a side in any given turn, and six more leaders that will be coming in the next turn. 

The sequence of play has ten steps, but in fully half you have maybe one decision if you're lucky. The rest are fairly wide open, and that's where the chaos management comes into play. As such, it's an excellent introductory wargame that feels like a medium weight Euro. You would be mistaken to think that. It's a brilliant design that takes a basic reality of Medieval Western Europe and creates a game of maneuver, of thrust and parry. Do you defend a critical controlled space with an extra unit, or keep one in reserve to force your opponent to come after it with extra strength that could be put to better use elsewhere? If you attack a weak leader for an easy victory, will that put your aging leader out of position to keep his troops loyal if he dies? There are a lot of things to think about in a game with fairly simple mechanisms. 

The IGS series has already brought us a wonderful "throwback" game in the form of A Victory Lost, as well as a couple of other games I haven't spent as much time with, Fire in the Sky and Red Star Rising (PTO and strategic Russian Front). I have a sneaking suspicion that WofG will be dismissed by grognards because of it's system simplicity and apparent chaos, but that would be a huge mistake. You aren't running huge stacks of panzers through southern Russia, but there are rewards other than complexity, at least as far as the rules go. And the whole *point* of the game is to manage chaos and take calculated risks. Give this one a look, I don't think you'll be disappointed.

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