Like the previous article in the series, this one looks in-depth at a Wargame, trying to find elements that are interesting or good, which can be used to learn because the best games are yet to be made. The game for today is Chaos in the Old World, and was published in 2009 by Fantasy Flight Games.
Wait a minute, you might say, this looks like a Euro game! It is. Who told you that Wargames and Euros are mutually exclusive categories? Especially from a design perspective, there are too many similarities to ignore all the things which can be learned by cross-examination.
This game caught my attention for a variety of reasons, not the least was my love of the rich depth of literature in the Warhammer universe in which the game is set. Primary though is its theme: Instead of playing as good versus evil, differing nations, or trying to take territory, the players play as the four dark gods of Chaos.
You get to be evil and it feels amazing as you send your daemons and cultists out to corrupt and slay. You are swept into the gleeful spirit of vultures picking at a not-quite-dead corpse as the game fights back weakly against your malevolence. The game map on the board is depicted on a stretched out piece of skin. This is my ultimate power-trip candy and even when I lose, I look at the plight of the humans of the Old World after we stop play and shake my head with laughter.
Theme is critical to a game feeling right, and so many Wargames get this wrong. Are you playing a faction, or are you playing an army of a differently-colored flag? Do your soldiers have the nuance of their allegiance to your cause subtly flavoring their being, or are they stat blocks? Players may be comfortable playing a good game, but they will want to play a game that feels good or right, preferably both. In a World War II or American Civil War game, do the Germans or Confederates feel like they’re fighting desperately with all they have every battle, or are they just soldiers? In Chaos in the Old World, each of the different Chaos Gods feels exactly how you want them to feel: Khorne, the blood god of battle and death and violence, feels best chasing down the other players with a reckless abandon and taking heads; Tzeentch, the changer of ways and magical meddler, lets you confound and manipulate and it feels so good you sometimes forget the frustration you cause is not the end in and of itself… The other gods/factions are just as good. Everyone might score points the same way, but it feels so different playing one god verses the next that it may as well be a different game.
The asymmetric feel is further flavored by the decision to have multiple objectives: You can win either on points or on objectives. Just like a good wargame, you can pick your angle of attack, except it feels like a free-for-all and the game is exactly what it says on the tin: Chaos in the Old World. However, it is reined in by the set turn order and the simplicity of each turn’s play: The chaos is in the player’s hands, not from the system. Additionally, each god has a pretty well-defined optimum strategy in their different objectives, lending roles and almost archetypes that feel open-ended and flexible.
That said, some of the thematic issues have gotten in the way in this game. Firstly, the board is horribly dark, and for the amount of tokens and figures and how hard the board is to see clearly without perfect conditions…well, it’s pretty rotten. There are times I haven’t played on a quarter of the map because the designers cramped those sectors together, while not using a big swath of space on the other side of the board for anything at all. Too unwilling to abstractify the universe’s much-beloved map, and too loathe to diminish the clear view of the hooks holding the flesh-map up to improve the gameplay. A shame, because the gameplay’s so good and the art is so dark. Layout and graphic design shouldn’t get in the way so severely. Can you imagine a Risk game where the countries were represented perfectly to reality? How on earth would you fit your pieces on Panama?! Simple mistakes, and too much love for the cool theme diminished a great game.
If you haven’t played it, Chaos in the Old World is fantastic, and plays easily in an evening. They make some interesting choices fitting their theme to the mechanics—and do an amazing job getting the feel right of whooping and cawing chaos clawing at a puny, weak world…but it’s not perfection. Let’s take what we can learn and turn with hope towards the future games that can come—a future not shared by the peasant tokens littering Khorne’s scorecard. We won’t take them with us.