Saturday, May 21, 2016

Boardgame review — Navajo Wars

The Law of the Land

(Originally published on January 3, 2014)

Designer: Joel Toppen
Player count: 1
Publisher: GMT Games

The Navajo people were hunters and gatherers who peacefully inhabited the southwest of what is currently the United States until the Spanish showed up… and then the Mexicans… and finally the Americans. Their history—rife with conflict—is one upon which designer Joel Toppen has crafted an experience that is part simulation, part history lesson.
Listen closely.

Although Navajo Wars includes optional rules for two players, the game was built first and foremost as a solitaire engine. Now there’s something greatly liberating with a solitaire game: you don’t need anyone else to be available and in the right mood to play, you can stop whenever you feel like it, pick it up a moment’s notice, or play in your most humble of apparel… At the same time, the three vertigo-inducing pitfalls of a solitaire game revolve around whether the system lets you make significant decisions, whether the artificial intelligence (or whatever you want to call the engine that plays “the other side”) is balanced just right, and whether the game warrants repeated plays.
And we’ll soon come to the conclusion that Navajo Wars meets those three requirements with enough room to spare to ride a horse through.

The game is driven by a card deck, assembled differently for each scenario. Basically, the 40 cards are shuffled and divided into five piles, a scoring card is shuffled into each individual pile, and the piles are finally stacked in a precise order. So although you know what the game will look like as far as major plot points go, you’re kept in the dark when it comes to the exact timing of things.

And the game begins! Each turn starts with a card draw. Most of the time it’ll be an Operations card that features a cost for the player to go first (otherwise the AI plays first), a Major Event and a Minor Event (to be implemented after both the player and AI have played) as well as the occasional special instruction for the discard phase.

Possible actions for the player range from simple movement and agriculture to tribe diplomacy and raids on outposts—all vital to the survival of the Navajo families under the player’s care. Each action features a cost in movement points, and once all families have exhausted their allotted amount of points, the player’s turn is over.

When it comes to the AI, the brilliant twist is that the actions are not decided by the cards but rather by an Instruction Display where instruction counters are set up in two columns at the start of a scenario. Each Operations card specifies how many action points the AI gets, and those points are spent on instruction counters, starting with the one at the top of the “active” column. Then, if enough action points are left, the next instruction counter takes effect, and so on. At the end of the turn, used counters are cycled back to the bottom of the column, and everything shifts up in preparation for the next turn.
But wait! Subtle twists will modify the order of the counters, sometimes flipping them over (to reveal a different action to be undertaken by the AI), and sometimes switching them either within the same column, or with new instruction counters brought into play from the parallel, “standby” column.
In other words, you always have a pretty good idea of what will probably happen… but you can’t be completely sure of it. You need to keep your plans flexible.

Those plans unfold on a beautiful map that sports several area tracks for point-to-point movement. Each track represents a territory, and all territories are connected together to form a sprawling web. This is where the player moves Navajo family counters to perform their actions. This is also where one needs to deal with enemy outposts sprouting up like mushrooms, hostile tribe raids, and the drought that continually threatens to starve every last family member.

When the deck doesn’t spit out an Operations card, it’ll be an Ceremony card. If kept, such a card grants the player an edge over his automated opponent, but at a price: if it’s not used by the time another Ceremony card is drawn, a penalty needs to be paid for each such card the player is holding.
Treat that Ceremony stuff with respect.

And once in a while, a scoring card will pop out, sporting a game-altering event together with a victory check. If the player is not eliminated outright, he lives to fight another day. The last scoring card marks the end of the game, with a final victory check used to determine the player’s level of victory—or defeat. Careful planning, judicious use of resources (including the essential elders who help bring balance to the clan—and eventually die of old age) might allow you to extricate some sort of victory out of the whole thing. Otherwise, your people will be all but wiped out.


This is one beautiful game, from the evocative box cover to the stunning board (with colored stones used to represent the steps on territory tracks), right down to the various cards, all produced with the same earthy palette of soothing tones. If you’re going to stare at a game for a couple of hours, it might as well go easy on the eyes—and this one certainly does.

The game comes with a three-panel player aid which I really enjoy. It features pretty much everything you need to play the game without having to dig through the rulebook. I especially appreciate the way it was printed, because it makes it really easy (if you fold it right!) to flip between the player action and AI action sections—which are the two tables you’ll find yourself referring to again and again.

I’m thrilled with the colored cubes drawn at random to resolve raids. Not only is it a clever way to escalate the risk of a raid on an enemy outpost (because the less cubes left in the draw bag, the higher the danger of fishing out one of the bad ones), but it also provides a tactile experience that contributes to the overall feel of the game. Plus it takes a step away from the charts, which I always appreciate.

And there’s a ton of stuff in the box. So much so that I had to remove the insert to make it all fit once everything was punched.

I must touch a bit on the errata. Navajo Wars comes with its fair share of mistakes, but no more than the average wargame production, I would say. Most of them are minor things, although a couple will dramatically alter the game if you’re not aware of them. (One being that only RED cubes in the subjugation box add action points for the enemy on each turn. My first game saw about half a dozen black cubes end up in the subjugation box, which made my life absolutely miserable.) I especially loathe errata in a tutorial and on player aids, and although they unfortunately exist in Navajo Wars, they were kept to a bare minimum.
So make sure you look up the errata before your first game. Don’t suffer my terrible fate!


Navajo Wars runs on few rules—19 pages of them, to be exact. Which is impressive considering the scope of actions (both for the player and the AI) possible within the game. And reading the rules is a piece of cake, not only because they’re written clearly and concisely, but also—and perhaps especially—because many of the procedures are, well, procedural. (Duh.) And since they’re handled like large, interactive checklists, you can initially just skim them to get an idea of what will happen and what you’ll need. Or, if you like to learn on the fly, you can skip those sections altogether and see what’s up when you get there. This might create tough situations when you encounter each procedure for the first time (“Man, I didn’t know I needed so much food!”) but you’ll certainly know what’s what in no time.

There’s a third way to learn the game, and that’s using the tutorial provided with the playbook. It’s a 16-page guided tour of the game that does a good job of explaining all of the moving parts. You can literally open the box, punch all the counters and start playing using the tutorial.

The rest of the playbook sports six scenarios, a handful of very simple optional rules, designer and historical notes, as well as three pages of rules for the two-player, semi-cooperative game.


I’m not a huge solitaire gamer, but I do enjoy a nice, quiet evening with one of my favorite cardboard computers, and I’ve played my fair share of solo games—mostly wargames. Now this one is not a wargame at all (more on that later), but I am forced to admit that Navajo Wars is the best solitaire game I’ve played so far.
Remember those three solo criteria I mentioned at the top of the review? Well, let’s look at them again.

Significant decisions. The game forces you—and gives you the means to—make meaningful decisions throughout. What a family needs to do is rarely an obvious or easy thing, and there are so many different possible actions that it’s difficult to imagine someone feeling restrained in that department. If anything, the breadth of the action matrix might overwhelm some newbies; the game certainly doesn’t railroad the player into attacking a headquarters, or cornering a piece of territory. It’s all about reacting to what’s coming up, and that is in constant flux.

Balanced AI. Does the artificial intelligence present a challenge and yet remain beatable? Yes. Does it vary its actions? Hell yes. Each nationality (Spanish, Mexican and American) comes with its own set of action tokens, with a different mix of actions printed on both sides of them. This gives each nation about a dozen different actions to perform, from advancing outposts deeper into Navajo territory (which slowly erodes Navajo culture—and ultimately brings about defeat) to sending out raids to terrorize the neighborhood.

Replayability. Because the aforementioned action tokens always come up in wildly different orders, no two games are alike. At all. Multiply that by the number of different scenarios included with the game (six), and by the variations in deck shuffling, and you get a dizzying array of possible outcomes. Even the short-term objective is always different, because the whole point is to react to what the enemy is doing. That’s how you win, i.e. you need to manage to survive and ultimately thrive. If you see that several raids in a row are coming, you need, above all, to prepare for those raids. If, on the other hand, peace is at your doorstep, use that time to maximize what your family can do… but keep watching over your shoulder, because when the enemy decides that it’s had enough of twiddling its thumbs, it’ll bite back with a vengeance.
Adding yet more variations, the player can purchase Cultural Advancement cards in exchange for culture points. Things like Cunning, Religion or Horsemanship bestow a special ability upon your families, and contribute to the flavor that makes each game unique.

I’ve played every single scenario (some of them several times) and I’m far from having had enough.


Again, Navajo Wars is not a wargame. It’s a resource-management engine at heart… but with many of the wargame sensibilities. It feels a lot more like a conflict than a puzzle, and because of it, the game has a narrative flow that I find fascinating.
Each scoring card is essentially a historical event that brings the game a little more in line with “what actually happened.” This also boosts the narrative (and teaches some bits of history en passant), which raises the experience way above basic arithmetics. You end up not summarizing your game for your friends (“Major victory last time, 34 points, man!”), but telling it like a story.
(After one particular game, I mesmerized my three girls with tales of a decimated family, youngsters enslaved, quasi-catastrophic famine, and then daring raids to steal horses, difficult negotiations with rival tribes and the heroic destruction of two strongly guarded forts!)

Another thing I really like here is the play time. Once you know the game, a single scenario will clock in at an hour and a half. So you can play against the Spanish for 90 minutes, or against the Mexicans for 90 minutes, or against the Americans for 90 minutes. Or you can string historical periods together for a campaign game that takes up an afternoon. And that’s exactly the way I like it.

(I can’t comment on the two-player variation yet, as I haven’t tried it. But the semi-cooperative rules are very intriguing indeed.)

You can read my review of the second game in the First Nations series, Comancheria, here.

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