It being Cinco de Mayo, last night’s games had no Mexican theme whatsoever. The closest we got was the Boy sitting at one end of the table practicing Spanish with Duolingo on his phone.
We had five people, and everyone’s first name except for mine began with J: Jim, J.R., Jessie, Julie. It’s bizarre. I may have to start going by my middle name just to blend in. (Go ahead, feel free to guess.)
We were fortunate enough to have some good options for five players. We ended up with Dogs of War, from designer Paolo Mori, manufactured/published/distributed by Cool Mini or Not, Edge Entertainment, and Spaghetti Western Games. Deceptively simple and very well put-together, the game places 3-5 players into a struggle to influence six warring families, using their captains – really wonderful plastic figurines, most with ridiculous hats – and soldiers of different values/strengths to dictate the tide of battle. There are slight game play differences between a 3P game and a 4- or 5P game; the following description is for the 5P.
In each of four “years,” the six families pair off randomly to engage in one of three battles. Each side of each battle gets a randomly-selected “order of battle” card, which provide several places to place a captain, most of which entail a reward for the player. In addition, each battle gets a randomly-selected bonus tile, which will give a (wait for it) bonus to whoever has the most captains on the winning side of the battle.
Each year begins with players collecting income – money is very tight – and spending some or all of it on soldiers. There is an increasing strength-to-cost ratio (from footsoldiers at the bottom, costing 1 coin for a strength of 1; to war machines, costing 4 coins but providing 7 strength).
Once all players have mustered their armies, the players take it in turn to place one captain and one soldier on one side of any of the three battles. The captain goes to a spot on the order of battle card, the soldier goes on a designated pile, and the battle tracker is adjusted toward the appropriate family’s side by the strength of the soldier. The player receives the reward for whichever spot their captain occupies, and the next player goes. At any time, a player may pass, but that means they are out for the rest of the year. When a player runs out of captains, they must pass. (In year 1, each player starts with three captains; in years 2 and 3, they start with four; and in year 4, they start with five; there are ways to get additional captains for use in a given year.)
Each battle is thus a tug-of-war, with the soldiers on each side tilting the balance of victory to one family or the other. When all players have passed, the year ends. The family that won each battle moves up in value on a track (and in a decisive enough victory, that family will move up two spaces on the track while the losing family moves down one). The players whose captains were on the wining side get points equal to the number of captains on the losing side. Then, whoever had the most captains on the winning side gets whatever bonus is provided by the bonus tile for that battle. Lather, rinse, repeat for three battles per year times four years. So that’s … carry the one … twelve battles total. And each year, the family pairings, order of battle cards, and bonus tiles are randomized, so you can never be sure what you’re going to have the opportunity to get.
And it’s important what you get when you send your captains out, because among the rewards, you may (and will want to) collect shields representing the family for whom you are fighting. At the end of the game, each player gets victory points equal to the number of shields for each family multiplied by the value of the position that family has reached on the that power track. The track runs from a value of -1 (where all families start) up to 7. Part of the strategy lies in figuring out which families are winning battles (and which ones you can help win battles) and increasing in value and getting those families’ shields.
That last point was brought home sharply last night, when Jessie managed to get 10 of the 12 shields for one family, which also happened to be the one that reached the highest value on the power track. His shields were worth 3 points apiece, and those 30 points – not even considering the other points he had accumulated over the course of the game – exceeded one player’s total score, and nearly matched two other players’ total scores. Despite the trouncing, we all agreed that it was an excellent game, with one caveat: among the tactics cards, there are some that are just more valuable than others. A card that allows a player to add +3 to their soldier’s strength at any time is strictly better than a card that allows a player to add +2 to their soldier’s strength when playing on the losing side of a battle. Other cards are useful only in specific circumstances, which makes them less valuable than other cards that are always useful.
That aside, though, the game is really a blast. It has a lot of “take-that” kind of interaction, a lot of planning and trying to predict what your opponents will do, and a lot of frustration as you realize that in order to get an order of battle reward you really need, you have to support the “wrong” side of a battle (i.e., where you want the other family to win). And aside from a few instances of analysis paralysis, it is a very quick game. Easy to learn – there are only six pages of rules, with the rest of the 25-30 page rule book being taken up by backstory for the families and the captains – quick to play. This one will definitely hit the table again.
Jim left after we finished Dogs of War, leaving us with four players. We didn’t want a long game, so we settled on Artipia Games’ Shadows Over the Empire, which has a fair amount of depth despite taking as little as fifteen minutes to play. This is another influence struggle, with each player taking the role of a leader in the city of Cardis (linking the game thematically to Aritipia’s worker-placement/deck-building game Archon: Glory and Machinations). In this case, the city is represented by a five-by-five card layout, with the cards representing leaders at the corners, card representing a Distinct Personality (e.g., a prince) in the center, and cards representing other people filling out the array.
Players take turns trying to spread their network of influence from their leader across the city, placing tokens on cards to control those people, and using the special abilities of the people they then control. Each round, each player in turn may either influence a person, use a controlled person’s special ability, or pass. When a person has either influenced or been influenced in a given round, that person may not be used to influence any other person, but a player who controls that person may use the special ability. (Special abilities can generally be used only once per round; a card gets rotated to show its ability has been used.) When all players have passed, the round ends. Conflicts – cards on which more than one player has tokens – are resolved at the end of each round by removing tokens, one-for-one from all players with tokens on the card, until only one player’s (or no players’) tokens remain. The players check to see if anybody has won, and if not, all rotated cards are reset and every person becomes eligible to try to influence another person in the next round. A new first player is determined (whoever has the fewest tokens on the board), and the next round begins.
This is a race game: if, at the end of a round, a player has deployed all of their influence tokens on the people of the city, and either (a) is not in conflict anywhere or (b) they control the Distinct Personality (i.e., they are the only player with tokens on the card), they win. Players have to keep their eyes on how many tokens their opponents have left to put on the board, and try to remove their opponents’ tokens (using a special ability of a person they control) and/or put their own tokens on their opponents’ controlled people, creating a conflict. There is thus a tension between trying to get one’s own tokens onto the board and trying to get rid of your opponents’ tokens. Special abilities may allow a player to move cards or tokens, add or subtract tokens, or a number of other functions.
Because each player starts with 18 tokens, and most actions result in placing 2-4 tokens on a card, the game very quickly moves toward the vicinity of the endgame. In last night’s struggle, J.R. and I focused attention on Julie, who was poised to win, but unfortunately, left Jessie in control of the Distinct Personality for one round too many, allowing him to sneak his way to a second victory for the night.
For some reason, I always feel kind of blah about this game when J.R. suggests playing it, but once we get into it, I remember how interesting it is and how much fun it is to play. And it’s very fast. I think our game last night took 45 minutes, including teaching Julie how to play. This is another one that should get played more, especially since there are multiple decks of cards to choose from that can make it a very different game. The A deck that we played with last night is the simplest. I’ve played the B deck in the past – there are three different Distinct Personalities to choose from, and the cards’ special abilities become more complex. We have yet to play the C deck, which – according to J.R. – contains cards with some really mind-bending special abilities. Next time.
By he way, Jessie has now won two games on two consecutive game nights. If you don’t hear from hi for a while, don’t worry. I’m sure he’s off doing good works somewhere with no wi-fi or cell reception, and he’ll turn up eventually. Now excuse me, I have to go wash this shovel.