Saturday, January 16, 2010

Corn is red ! (Chaos in the Old World x2)

I'm often on the lookout for games that manage to blend the elegance of euro games with the thematic gameplay of american style games. Although I like the clever mechanics, the streamlined gameplay, etc of the euros there is also a part of me that likes the miniatures and cards and *fun* that the thematically superior american games offer. Unfortunately, I've tried lots of the themey games and have usually been disappointed. They are either too long, too random, too fiddly or they have too much downtime (even some I like, like Fury of Dracula, have these problems).

Chaos in the Old World is a game that was getting a good amount of buzz because it apparently did a great job of providing a thematic experience within the framework of a solid and compelling game system. The length of the game was apparently just 90 minutes, the mechanics were supposed to be a blend of area control and combat. Sounded interesting.

The theme. Players play evil gods (from the Warhammer universe, apparently. I know nothing of it), bent on the ruination of the world. Each represents a specific vice, and uses a combination of magical powers and a variety of demonic creatures to bring about their personal brand of corruption into the world. The game goes to great lengths to bring out the theme in the art (the board is a depiction of stretched skin, for example). The cards back it up with explicit names and illustrations, like the disease god's "Rain of Pus" for example. Kozure wrote a separate post about how some aspects of the theme bothers him, how impersonating a character engaging in acts of such depravity felt wrong to him. Personally, I just find it corny. The surface theme of evils gods doing evil things doesn't strike me as better or worse than any other theme, but I find the specific references to pus, torture, disease and depravity very adolescent (comparable to teenage vampire movies, or just about anything else goth). It almost put me off buying it, but with Christmas gift certificate in hand and many people at BGG talking about it as game of the year, I decided to go for it.

The game does get points for naming one of the gods Khorne (Corn!), and making that god the red one.

Mechanically, the gameplay works with the theme but isn't particularly suggestive of it. Turns start with the revelation of an event card which has an effect on the game for that turn (such as announcing the arrival of elvish corsairs that will do battle with units present in certain spaces). Following this, the turn consists mostly of placing influence on the board (cards and units) and resolving combat between the creatures that have been unleashed there. After the combat has been resolved, VPs are awarded and "ruination" tokens are added to the board based on a kind of area control mechanic.

One of the defining characteristics of the game is that each god has the potential to improve his position by fulfilling a certain condition. Khorne does it by killing opposing creatures, Nurgle does it by corrupting populous areas, etc. At the end of each round, if a god has fulfilled this condition at least once they get to turn a dial on the board one step and receive the reward listed on the dial. If they fulfilled their condition more times than any other god, they can rotate it twice. If the god manages to reach the end of his dial, he wins.

This means that there are a few different path to victory... VPs or dial clicks. Each god has apparently been balanced a little differently. Each god has a different deck of chaos cards (magical powers that are used as effects on the board), different creatures with different stats, etc. The end result is that playing a different god should lead to a different experience.

I'll preface the session reports by saying that there is a small but extremely significant error on the card for one of the gods, Slannesh, which incorrectly describes the condition for dial click advancement. We didn't know about it and that god ended up being extremely unbalanced and won handily both games because of it.

I played Khorne in both sessions. Shemp played Slannesh in both sessions, but Kozure switched from Nurgle to Tzeentch in his second game. In both games, Shemp managed to get a number of noble tokens on the board in hard to get places and was generating dial clicks and corruption like it was going out of style. There were a number of entertaining battles and swings of events, but ultimately it was impossible to stop Slannesh from winning. It was impossible even to come close. Now that we know the correct rules, it will be fun to see how it plays when things are balanced. The god's personalities definitely come through with their abilities, and each player's gameplay is definitely affected by that. I was pure combat, but Shemp was very strong defensively. When Kozure played Tzeentch, he was creating chaos on the board with teleportations and other unexpected magical effects.

Despite the balance problems and some aspects of the theme, I quite enjoyed the game. The theme of gods trying to exert influence on the world through combat and magic comes through well, and the various moving parts do a good job of giving the game a sense of progression and variability without ever feeling fiddly (I'm talking about the hero, noble and skaven tokens, the Old World start of round cards, the god's upgrade abilities, etc). There appears to be more repetition than I'd like in the various card decks, but hopefully there will be enough combinations that will keep things feeling fresh. I also really like having alternate victory conditions in a game (another recent game, Power Struggle, has caught my eye for the same reason). I wouldn't say Chaos in the Old World blew me away, but does a good job at scratching the american style game itch in a euro timeframe and level of complexity.

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