Regular Price: $69.00 P500 Price: $47.00
This is a mid-complexity tabletop wargame (of sorts) for one or two players (according to the box, the Rules call it a solitaire game and it mainly is though there are rules for 2 players).
PUBLISHED 2013 DESIGNER Joel Toppen DEVELOPER Mike Bertucelli MAP & CARD ART Donal Hegarty
COUNTER ART Leland Myrick & Mark Simonitch ART DIRECTOR Rodger B. MacGowan
PRODUCERS Andy Lewis, Gene Billingsley, Tony Curtis, Rodger MacGowan, Mark Simonitch
CONTENTS 22x33 inch map 1 and 1/2 countersheets 80 cards & 20 wooden cubes 2 Player Aid Cards Full colour rulebook, Full colour playbook Bag to draw cubes from and Three 6-sided dice
AWARDS 2013 Golden Geek Best Wargame Nominee 2014 Origins Awards Best Historical Boardgame Nominee
I began playing Navajo Wars as a solo game because that's what it looks and feels like, and after punching out the die-cut counters, just one-and-a-half sheets which is enough but not too many, and opening the card packs and separating them into several small stacks and one larger stack, I was ready to read the rules. Naturally I picked up the "Rules of Play" booklet to start my learning but I only got as far as the introduction and then I quickly returned the Rules Book to the box and picked up the "Play Book", which I had previously assumed (I should know never to assume) was just a booklet of scenarios. I was somewhat cleared of my poor assumption because the front of this booklet does list six scenarios, just below the heading "Tutorial". It was of course the Tutorial that the Rules of Play was sending me to and once I started to read through it the idea behind the game play became apparent through the excellence of its construction, as well as by its instructions.
Every part of the tutorial has been broken down into bite-size pieces punctuated by the bold text junction word STOP. The way it works is that you read a section, looking at the board, the counters and the cards etc. as instructed, until you have familiarised yourself with everything there before moving past the STOP sign and onto the next section. The text is written in a conversation style so you get the feeling that the rules are being read to you, giving them the chance to sink in. This is deliberate and necessary because although this is like a "dummies guide to playing" there are still 16 pages of text, examples and illustrations so it is a fairly comprehensive walkthrough.
It isn’t the easiest solitaire game to get your head around even with the excellence of the Play Book and later the Rule Book. It makes demands of you that other solo games do not and as you read through the scenarios, I admit that I have only read through them all and not played them all, you can see the subtle changes in both the Navajo and the A.I. Actions and situations. Each new Nation presents new challenges to the Diné, it is not a case of just repeating the same moves and actions from game to game but against different opposition.
Navajo Wars covers three periods, Spanish (1598-1821), Mexican (1821-1847) and American (1847-1864) each period being a separate game in itself but contributing to a major campaign when played in chronological order. Continuing the "three" series there are three factors, Enemy Morale, Military Points and Culture Points that contribute critically to the gameplay. Cards, counters, rules and flowcharts, along with player intelligence and the occasional die roll move the game along at a fair pace. The rules, like the tutorial, are well appointed, complete with Headers, Sub-Headings and Chapters, plus the expected illustrations, examples etc. but should only be read once you have finished the tutorial pages; don't worry about rushing to get to the Rules Book though as there is enough of a challenge in the tutorial just playing between the STOP signs to satisfy even the most adept and experienced players.
The map board is quite unusual and a lot different from other wargame maps in as much as it doesn't have either a hex or square overlay, instead it has Areas inside Territories. For aesthetic reasons (and I have to say it works beautifully) instead of coloured dots or circles the artist, Donal Hegarty, has drawn 3D pebbles. Now whether these pebbles are authentic to the actual area or were truly used as decoration by the Navajo or any Indian Tribes I admit I do not know, but I will say that from reading books on the American West and watching documentaries as well as TV shows and movies, the stones on the map really give it a look and atmosphere of realism.
There is a lot of preparation required before you can actually start to play; the decks have to be separated into Operations (the larger deck), Historical, Transitional, Cultural Development and (to prove this can be played two players) a Headman card which solo players do not use. With the cards sorted each Territory used, according to the scenario, has to be prepared with Families (Men, Women and Children) and Elders. The wooden cubes are Raid tokens which are placed into the black drawstring bag according to the scenario and are drawn randomly as required. The drawstring bag is one of the game's components but the two draw cups you need for the counters (Intruder and Corn) have to be supplied by the player - we at GGO suggest something like the dvGames (dvgiochi.com) Geekboxes as being good for this. The scenarios explain in detail which counters, pieces and cards are required, just follow the very well detailed instructions and you won't go wrong. Depending on the chosen scenario certain cards are specifically prepared prior to play beginning.
The counters for each period Nationality are colour coded, Yellow = Spain, Blue = America and Green = Mexico, and the specified counters for the scenario being played are constructed on the 18 spaces of the Enemy Instruction Display which is part of the map board playing arena. Once you are set up flip over the top card of the deck you prepared comprising of the Operation and Ceremony cards for the scenario and work through it from top to bottom. Obviously you need to have a good idea of the rules and that's what the tutorial will do for you. Amidst the rules you will find a few abbreviations, most of which you should already be familiar with. AP = Action Points, DRM = Die Roll Modifier, MA = Movement Allowance, MP = Movement Points, VP = Victory Points and new for this game NM = New Mexico, you will also find some of these abbreviations on the counters used on the General Records Track (left hand side of the Map Board).
The wooden blocks are colour representative of the Resources and Defenders of New Mexico. Black = Animals (Horses or Sheep), Blue = American soldiers, Brown = Horses (not also Sheep), Green = Spanish, Mexican and New Mexican soldiers and Volunteers, Red = Colonial stability for NM, Yellow = Slaves and White = Sheep (not also Horses). The drawstring bag is called the Raid Pool in the Rules because it is used during Raids but it's easier to just say "pass the bag please".
Once you understand the rules you can play using mainly the two reference cards - well in truth one is a double-sided letter-sized sheet and the other is a double-side-printed, twin-fold, 6-sided card quite similar to a Role-play game's GM's screen, though of course it isn't used as a screen. Apart from the occasional need to double check a rule, usually when I had an idea of what I wanted to do but needed to know it was both possible and allowable, the game flows well from these two resources.
There are many solo board games where you play against an Artificial Intelligence or the System and so many of them depend on either a set routine, as in the A.I. opponent follows a predetermined path, or by the flip of a card/roll of a die cross-referenced against a chart. In Navajo Wars the A.I. can react to the player's Actions and the player can react to the A.I.s Actions. Yes these A.I. Actions are determined by dice and card but not in a totally abstract or chaotic manner, there is reasoning, based on the current situation/scenario, behind them. Also it is possible to play the scenarios multiple times without finding a routine that will guarantee you a win. This is because the cards are shuffled before every game thus ensuring a random drawing and thus an unpredictability that gives the impression you are playing against a thinking opponent and not a series of statistics and probabilities.
If you open your mind to the theme, the life and culture of the North American Navajo Indian Tribe, you may be able to imagine the hardships and tribulations suffered by these semi-nomadic Nation. The Navajo (aka the Diné) were/are unusual tribes in as much as they weren't a large volume of people led by a main Tribal Chief, instead they were mostly smaller groups of families following the decisions and commands of a strong and charismatic individual; the game relates this lifestyle rather well. Ranches and Missions located in areas with Navajo families are representative of the intrusions foreigners made and can be removed through raiding, though unlike TV shows and Movies where the Indians find such a settlement and then simply attack it because they are Indians (and presumably the bad guys because the Ranch or Mission is run by other nationalities - generally white if you believe what you see), a planned raid is better than an impulsive one.
Don't expect to open the box and be playing in minutes even though the setup for a number of the scenarios is rather sparse. This is a fairly heavy, time-consuming game where you can lose by lack of concentration, over concentrating, thought or planning, even though you are, in a way, playing against yourself. In fact I have yet to win a game, mainly because I see an opening (or what I think is an opening) to go for the kill and then find out I have walked (okay run blindly) into a mess of trouble. It is easy to blindside yourself by taking what seems to be a strong route, forgetting that there are more ways to lose than just the one. There is no easy way to victory.
One of the scenarios brings the famed "Indian Fighter" Kit Carson into play. As a child I remember watching a TV show called the Adventures of Kit Carson (I just looked this up on Google and found it ran until 1955 so I must have seen re-runs as I would have been about 4 years old for the original series) where the titular character was hailed as a dashing hero. In reality he was a man who did what he needed to do to survive and from what I have read recently he seemed also to have a deep hatred of "Redskins" and was more an Indian Murderer than Indian Fighter. I guess I was personally drawn to Christopher "Kit" Carson because he was born on the same date as myself, December 24th, albeit 141 years earlier - hmm wonder why I never got the nickname "Kit"? I have yet to play the scenario involving Carson "The Rope Thrower" and from reading through it, and the historical notes, it appears to be one that should be built up to, i.e. I feel I need to have a much better feel to the A.I. and a complete understanding of the rules before contemplating taking Mr Carson on. I mention this because although you are free to play the scenarios in any order you wish to you will only understand the plight of the Navajo by playing them through in chronological order.
Due to its title "Navajo Wars" and because it is a GMT P500 game, you would immediately class this as a wargame and yet it is also a management resource game with Corn and Trade Goods often having an impact on both the player's decisions and the A.I.'s Actions. I really cannot state enough how much playing against the A.I. is like playing against an actual opposing player; it's very much like playing a solo computer game. I haven't tried it as a 2-player game mainly because it is semi-cooperative and I like to make my own mistakes.
Combat obviously is a part of the game but it despite the name "Navajo Wars" it is not as prominent as you might expect. Culture and Military are somewhat married to each other so if one of them reaches zero value then the other also takes a dip; if both of these reach zero the game ends for you. The Navajo were more intent on surviving than fighting, especially against the Americans who they first thought of as allies, and this is reflected in the possible ferocity values of the enemy and the families. The Navajo losing a battle can be quite devastating in the greater scheme as each loss makes it easier for the enemy to build Forts and Outposts. Families can opt to evade rather than fight but a failed evasion generally results in the loss of a family member anyway.
As a last word I should tell you to remember to play through the tutorial even if you are core GMT games players with prior knowledge of the Navajo history. Navajo Wars probably plays quite differently from any other GMT or solitaire game you are acquainted with - I certainly cannot think of one that I have played which comes close to this, though I am expecting GMT’s COMANCHERIA, the second of Joel Toppen’s games from this continent and period to be the first.
Great review! Thanks for that.
It really is a wonderful game.
And what become of her new straw hat that should have come to me?
I need to get this to my table again!
Thank you for a thorough, thoughtful review. This is a tough game to learn and even tougher to play well. Even though I am moving pieces around on a very abstract game board, I feel so strongly that I am moving people and dealing with lives. It's devastating to lose people, and I find myself often taking a break before resolving punitive attacks by the army or raids by hostile neighbors.
In reality [Kit Carson] was a man who did what he needed to do to survive and from what I have read recently he seemed also to have a deep hatred of "Redskins" and was more an Indian Murderer than Indian Fighter.
Hampton Sides wrote the superb Blood and Thunder, which is excellent reading for enjoying the game Navajo Wars. Kit Carson features prominently in the book. He is not depicted as hating Indians. He befriended them, spoke several native languages, and married native women. He was, however, a tough man living in tough times, and he could be a brutal and ruthless killer especially when under orders. Here is a good review: