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Subject: Navajo Wars - The Chinese Plate Spinner of War Games rss

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Haakan Henriksson
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This year I finally got myself some vacation. Rummaging through one of my old hard drives, I came across some notes I had written about Navajo Wars. I live in Japan, and notorisously short of space I usually play my board games on Vassal. Reading them, I decided to give the game another go. I set it up. I played. I lost. So, I set it up again. And again. And again.

Until an old, familiar feeling crept back. Navajo Wars can give you a brutal gaming experience. It’s just that kind of game, insisting on scratching your paint on every turn. But despite the many (many, many) times I’ve lost, it has always kept me coming back for more. Like now.

Wondering if perhaps I had missed someting in game play, I plowed through the BBG forum for clues. I found the post “Understanding the unique gameplay” by Advanced Gameplay Reviews very informative.

But it seemed I had not made any mistakes in game play. At least no big ones. But I also realized that the Advanced Gameplay review didn’t really answer some of my more basic questions. I was thinking more about what culture points, military points, ferocity etc. were supposed to depict? And why they behaved like they did? For example, why would I automatically lose culture points, when I pushed up my military points? Was military and cultural independence really mutually exclusive?

And it kind of dawned on me, just how little knew about the Diné, their society, their struggle. This wasn't like some Second World War game, where I would have a ton of silent pre-knowledge. So I got myself some summer reading; Hampton Sides’ “Blood and Thunder” (a book mentioned by Joel Toppen in his designer’s notes), and some articles I found on the net. And I sat down on my first day of vacation, looking over those old notes of mine.

Of course, this is only what Navajo Wars told me. For all I know, I might have gotten it all ass-backwards (and I probably have). But once I had a firmer grip on these things, even if only in my own head, I felt I could start playing the game in a much more deliberate way. A few days ago, I pulled off my first major victory in the long campaign, winning a succession of automatic victories in each historical period. I must admit, it felt darn good!

The Diné
Basically, Navajo Wars portrays the Diné through three, thick brush-strokes: (1) Culture Points; (2) Military Points; and (3) Physical Base. Each of these are interdependent with the other.



Culture points and military points have in-game definitions. They are representations of the cultural and military independence of the Diné nation. The physical base doesn’t have an in-game definition, but I believe it can be gleaned from a number of factors, some of them printed directly on the game map: Land territories, population (further detailed by men, women, children and elders), food production (corn, sheep, the occasional horse), manufacturing (trade goods), fire arms, some cultural developments.

1. The idea (of cultural independence)
In political science, the idea of a state answers questions like why it exists, what its purpose is. And while the Diné doesn’t have a state, through this game I have come to understand that they have an idea of nationhood; Of what it means to be Diné. To me, what is being measured by culture points on the general track is the strength of this idea.

If they were to reach Zero, well, then the Diné would have ceased being Diné, having turned into something else. Something more Spanish, or Mexican, or American. So that, to the gamer, culture points are really not a nice to have; They’re a must have.

All the while, since the Diné are embroiled in an asymmetrical war against a much stronger opponent, the opponents’ culture points never appear on the same track.

But what does it mean, then, to be Diné? Sides has this to say: “The Navajos were far more than raiders of flocks; they also grew crops, tended orchards, carried on a vigorous trade, staged elaborate rituals, and composed epic stories and songs of a fastidious tonal complexity.” And in more detail: “The Navajo, almost alone among the American Indians of the West, were primarily a pastoral people… They did not have a reputation for being particularly fierce or effective warriors… [They] avoided killing whenever possible, because theirs was a culture that had a deep-seated fear and revulsion of death… The presence of death lead to witchcraft, it lured resentful ghosts and evil spirits, it upset the fragile order of things…”

There is certainly a reflection of this in the game. Digging on, I learned that according to their own world view, Diné regarded everything as constantly moving. Nothing in this world is ever static. But in this constantly moving world, everything is also interconnected. If one part were to fall out of place, this would affect all other parts, until the cycle itself became dysfunctional. Ceremonies, prayers, stories, chants (i.e. the Blessing Way) were there to re-establish the balance, putting things back in order again.

Admittedly, this may be a bit simplistic account of Navajo thought. But it occurred to me, that the game really did convey this feeling of interconnectedness, of constant movement, and of the need to reset imbalances; Imbalances caused either by the AI, or by you the player.

This gave me the first clue, that Navajo Wars might not be the “tug of war” kind of game of the Advanced Gameplay Review (though it sure has some of those qualities), but more of a game of balance; Everything is moving, get's knocked out of whack, and you're the one who have to reset it.

Thinking about culture points in this way could also help explain why you should lose points when elders agitade for a more militarized society (and vice versa). A highly militarized society is not the Diné way.

2. The tangible and intangible sides of military independence
Navajo Wars has units; Hard power assets called families. It also has military points tracked on the general track. So, just how are these two supposed to be different and depict different things? How are they interconneted?

Playing the game, it’s easy to forget the map covers such a huge area; some 71 000 square kilometres (about the size of Ireland in a European comparison). And since the Diné population probably counted less than 10 000 at the time, it would only have had a population density of roughly 0.14.

It is my guess, that other peoples had no real idea of Diné numbers or capabilities. Only that this area was “… so wrinkled, so maze-like, and so huge that expeditions were scarcely worth the exertion…”. The first real attempt at reconnoitring it came as late as 1849.

Over this vast area, “The Navajo lived far away, yet paradoxically they seemed to be close at hand, as though the desert distances did not apply to them…”. Navajo raiders gave life in New Mexico “… an undertow of anxiety”, as settlers “… dwelled in a state of vigilance, always half-listening, scanning the sagebrush for movement.”

Clearly, the New Mexicans feared the unknown. And so, I have come to regard military points as a sort of power projection: The ability of the Diné to project (a real or imagined) military power over their lands, irrespective of where families are concentrated. Once again, being an asymetrical conflict, the military points of the enemy are never counted on the same track.

However, deterrence is only as effective as the enemy’s unwillingness to brave it. And the true measure of this factor, is the difference between military points and enemy morale. In order to secure their independence, the Diné have to project more (real or perceived) military power over their vast lands, than the Spaniards, Mexicans, and Americans have the will to pursue them.

Periodically, the game will through a victory check at you. And when this happens, all is brought into the light. If the Diné cannot back up their military claims at this time (i.e. they don’t control enough territories for victory points), well, then their enemies will see it for what it is; An empty show of prestige. And Diné military points will plummet.

The connection between families and the points on the track, is ferocity. I will be returning to this in a moment.

3. The (sometimes overlooked) physical base
Land, people, food, trade goods, fire arms, cultural developments. This is the stuff that makes up the physical base. Each is important in its own right, but land and trade goods really towers above the rest.

Land, because it feeds the population, gives space to retreat through, and hide in. Trade goods, because in Navajo Wars, if you have nothing other people want, coexistence with your neighbours will become very difficult.

The Diné produced, and I believe still do, some of the finest loomed wool blankets in the world. Back in those days, a single blanket was worth ten bison hides, says Sides, and their churro sheep were the centrepiece of their seminomadic, pastoral way of life. Having something to trade adds flexibility to a game in which flexibility is hard to come by.

Using trade goods, you can: (1) Keep a stash of ready-to-use APs; (2) Buy horses to instantly equip an exposed family; (3) Buy sheep, to stop a famine; (4) Re-roll a die; (5) Return a drawn cube to the raid pool; (6) Cancel the flipping of an instruction; or (7) Cancel a minor event or enemy way. None of this would be possible with nothing to trade.

The Struggle
As aready mentioned, the Diné are embroiled in an asymmetrical conflict. They're not the stronger side. No matter how ferocious families get, they’ll never be able to match the enemy in a set-piece battle. Not in the long run. And the player is really better served thinking about making appropriate resistance over time (or rather, to reset imbalances), than fighting battles.

I don't think of families as ‘units’, the good old ‘boots on the ground’ found in many other board games. I see them as concentrations of population, having men, women, children and elders.

Thus, to me ferocity is not really a combat value. It is the level of social constraints put on the use of violence. Seen in this light, a high ferocity, whether it is voluntarily (when goaded by elders) or involuntary (as a result of participating in raids or battles), actually runs contrary to the player's long-term goals. Yes, less constraints on the use of violence will make warriors fight better. But, it will also inflame Diné society, if you will; Make it less Diné. Thus, ferocity is really just another unbalance the game throws as you, and one that could come back to haunt you if you don't correct it. This of course, is the rationale I have given for ferocity tying into culture and military points the way it does.

Putting it all together
OK, admittedly, that was a whole lot of words. So, I’ll try and condense it into a few pointers on game pay.

1) Each and every card drawn from the deck will try to upset the balance of the Navajo universe, posing a military threat, a cultural threat, or a threat to the physical base.

2) As the player, you can try to interdict the enemy’s supply of APs by adding raided cubes, or by pre-empting when prudent. This way you can mitigate quite a number of enemy instructions over the course of a game. However, when the enemy is preoccupied fighting someone else, don't disturb him.

3) Raiding the enemy won’t bring you victory. The only time a Diné raid can lower enemy moral, is when drawing a green or blue cube, choosing to fight, and actually winning the battle. However, odds will be stacked against you. And even if you do win, the enemy will only get more ferocious for it. Regard the raid as having other purposes (interdicting enemy APs, destroying outposts, stealing resources). Try to move in smaller motions, so as not to upset the balance of the game. Apply some ferocity management to “heal” inflamed families after a raid or battle.

4) Fighting battles won’t bring you victory, either. It is the goal of the enemy raid to catch your families. Denying him this will knock down his morale a peg. It’s just that you don’t really have to fight battles to do that. Negotiating with the enemy won’t bring him any morale points (although negotiations can still backfire on a bad roll). Negotiating is still safer and far more flexible than battles, as you can add trade goods. Also, don’t overlook tribal diplomacy. It can be very effective.

5) Resetting imbalances will (bring you victory).

6) Run your military points as high as possible by elders. Then increase culture points by adding new elders to the elders track. Repeat. I find that it’s sometimes worthwhile to do a passage of time, just to add more elders to the track (as opposed to getting new families). For each elder you add, you gain one culture point. Don’t worry if some of the established ones perish in the process. Just add the minimum number you can live with; Then it won’t matter if you lose all the others. Getting the religion cultural development will give you a bonus point each time.

7) Keep your military points above enemy morale by a good margin, taking height for the next VC if necessary. Then, try to keep your cultural points above your military points. At all times.

8) How do you tell,if you're winning or losing? If the enemy has higher morale than you have military points, this means that his willingness to pursue you is higher than your ability to deter him. Thus, you are in fact out of balance and losing. This problem must be addressed immediately.

9) Unless I have acquired the warrior society culture development, or equipped my warriors with horses or fire arms, I think of their combat value as Zero. Why? Because I don’t really equate ferocity with combat value. It reminds me, that to succeed in battle I will have to add every scrap of resource just to even out the odds.

10) If you have to fight, do it quick and hard. Enemy raids can be daunting, but once you know how to deal with them, they also represent great opportunities. To set an ambush, you must have at least one AP (but usually more), and a family with a ferocity of 1 (but usually more). Add every resource you can muster. Position your families so that you can draw out the raid in the direction you want it to go, stretch it thin, then ambush it in a more or less preselected area. If you can’t make these preparations; Evade, negotiate. Evade, negotiate.

11) If you're about to go on a raid or fight a battle – make sure to do the proper preparations. By proper, I mean get some ceremony cards on hand and enough trade goods to off-set at least one bad draw or roll of the die. If you can’t make these preparations; Don’t go. Remember: Small motions, small footprint. Only do this when you can safely get away with it. (This is reminiscent of how Sides’ describe Diné war preparations: Sitting in sweat lodges, singing songs, tattooing their bodies, making themselves symbolically invisible by sprinkling pollen on their shields – and still being skittish enough to instantly abort if they found the situation anything less than promising.)

12) If at all possible, I go for the weaving and sharp traders’ combo. I cannot overstate the importance of trade goods. Other techs I find usable are religion level 1, and all levels of horsemanship and masters of the Mesa.

13) Keep your distance. Don’t place your families too close to the enemy (i.e. in number ‘1’ areas). If the enemy executes a sudden build instruction followed by a raid, they could be in trouble. (Families can only react if they’re not in the same or lower area as an outpost.)

14) Have a strategy for when to keep ceremony cards. Before taking one on, plan for when you are going to use it (the sooner the better). I usually get them more for their die roll than the population counter, and how that die roll fits into my plans.

15) It is possible to trade land for peace in this game, simply giving up on some territory (at least for the low victory point ones). It’s just that it’s generally not very advisable! If you do, make sure to take height for the inevitable loss of military points come next victory check. This way, taking height by a good margin, there’s no real hurry getting more families into play. (When I first started playing NW, I felt such a pressure get new families, now I usually get around just fine with four or five.)

The reviewy bit
So, what can a newcomer to Navajo Wars expect? I believe they can expect a stunningly beautiful game (the game map is just a feast for the eyes), but also a game that works at a high level of abstraction. The game map is perfectly in line with this level of abstraction, and pure genious.

They can expext a game of strong themes; Everything being constantly moving, everything being interconnected, everything being neatly balanced (or, as is more often the case,whacked horribly out of balance). It is not your run of the mill war game. It’s a game of balance, of harmony. It’s just that the AI will constantly upset that balance in so many, tremendously frustrating ways, playing it can have masochistic undertones.

Other themes are violence begetting violence, ferocity begetting ferocity, those living by the sword having to keep living by the sword. And to defeat your enemy, you might end up having become your enemy (in effect, losing the game).

They can expect a war game where you have to carefully chose when to fight and when to negotiate. Unlike many war games, fighting battles create ferocity, inflaming society. In this narrative, only a society with a strong idea of self can sustain a high degree of militarization without losing itself. I find these ideas very interesting and very well portrayed.

My only caveats with the game are few and minor.

I do feel that the game has a tendency to tank at times. When pushed out of balance, Navajo Wars can plow on in the same direction like a supertanker. There's just nothing you can do. Victory checks hit the reset button, but if it’s a reset, why should only the player lose all APs and not the enemy? During a victory check, it could be argued that it’s not the enemy that is emboldened by having outposts on Diné lands (increasing enemy morale); It’s Diné power projection which is weakened (Diné military points that should be lowered instead). But this is just a design choice. I might have liked to see the Navajo churro sheep getting a more central role, then just being a food source, by tying them closer to the manufacture of trade goods, or somehow linking them stronger to culture. The sheep were not only the source of Diné wealth but the rationale for their entire lifestyle.

Overall, I find the game system very interesting in its portrayal of asymmetrical conflict where matters of culture and identity are at stake. How do you resist, without losing yourself? And I can’t help thinking, how would it play out on some other, maybe even modern topic?

(Edit: Why the title? Because Navajo Wars in its quest for balance reminded me of a circus act, originally Chinese I think, where a person is trying to balance a large number of plates by spinning them on top of long sticks.)

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Pete Belli
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Superb analysis.

Quote:
Why the title? Because Navajo Wars in its quest for balance reminded me of a circus act, originally Chinese I think, where a person is trying to balance a large number of plates by spinning them on top of long sticks.


It is a clever title. thumbsup

Cirque du Soleil featured that act when I attended a performance.
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Patrick Casey
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Thanks so much for all of the pointers. I've followed along with the intro scenario but I haven't tried the game on my own. You've given me more confidence that I can get finally get through it.
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Haakan Henriksson
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You're welcome! I'm glad I was able to of help. The first couple of times I played Navajo Wars, quite frankly, I was hugely frustrated. These days, I regard it as one of the best games I've ever played. /H
 
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Haakan Henriksson
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Hi there, Pete! Thank's. As I've hinted all over this thread, my first ventures into NW, no matter how much I ran between the bewildering number of sticks, it always ended with the plates coming down with a crash! I'm faring a bit better now. /H
 
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Haakan Henriksson
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Looking at the number of edits: I wish I wasn't such a sloppy writer! But, this is how usually get it done. "The first draft is always shit" has never deterred me from posting something way too soon. whistle (Admittedly, this time, number of misspellings was unusually high!)
 
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champalaune christ
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I have read many times your review,

it will help me to dive into the game with a perspective view more effective,

thank you,

I love this game so I translate the whole files (rules, play book and so on ) in french,

christ from Grenoble
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Haakan Henriksson
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I'm glad to be of help, Christ!

I guess I'm more of a solitaire gamer these days. It's only too bad, I have such trouble finding time to play much. Though, I had a blast with Navajo Wars. Currently, I'm kind of looking at Commancheria, without seeming to be able to make up my mind, should I get it?

/H
 
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