Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Command Arrows

Lords of War is a tactical fantasy battle game published by Black Box Games. The winner of the award for Best Strategic Card Game at UK Games Expo 2013, it pitches two armies into a fierce confrontation that can be played out in roughly thirty minutes. Designed for two players aged twelve and over, the original set consisted of Lords of War: Orcs versus Dwarves. It was quickly joined by Lords of War: Elves versus Lizardmen and then by Lords of War: Templar versus Undead which was funded via Kickstarter.

Each set is described as “Dual Deck Expandable Gaming Cards”, which means that the army decks from each set are interchangeable with those of another and that the cards in each army deck are also interchangeable with those of any other. This means that each army can be modified with cards from another deck and that rather than battles being fought between the armies in one set, they can be played out as 'Templars versus Orcs', 'Elves versus Dwarves', 'Lizardmen versus Undead', and so on. In this review, the Lords of War: Orcs versus Dwarves set will be under the spotlight. Not only because it is the first set in the line, but because a confrontation between Orcs and Dwarves is very traditional when it comes to fantasy battles.

Each set consists of two armies—represented by two thirty-six card decks, plus a rules sheet and a Battlemat. The latter is marked with a seven-by-six grid of spaces upon which the game’s cards will be placed and is done in a slightly mottled, golden brown. (The colour varies from set to set, so for example, the Battlemat in Lords of War: Elves versus Lizardmen is green, representing the swamps or forests that they fight over rather than the mountains or rough terrain of Lords of War: Orcs versus Dwarves). The rules sheet is large and double-sided, but is only done in black and white. It is easy to read and does a decent job of explain the rules. What stands out about Lords of War: Orcs versus Dwarves—and any of the three sets to date—are the cards that form each army and are the heart of the game.

All of the cards are done in full colour by artist Steve Cox, each one depicting a single warrior or unit in a style reminiscent of Games Workshop’s Warhammer Fantasy Battles. Which is no bad thing since it gives the game a certain familiarity. Besides its illustration, every card has a name; a number of Attack Aarrows that determine the direction in which the unit can attack—forward, back, to the sides, and diagonally out of the corners; and a Defence Value. Each Attack Arrow also has an Attack Value attached to it. The more Attack Arrows a unit has, the greater its flexibility on the battlefield, both in attacking enemy units and pinning them in place.

Every card also has a Class—Infantry, Cavalry, Spear, Ranged, and Berserker. Infantry units are generally balanced in terms of their Attack Arrows, Attack Values, and Defence Values; Cavalry units tend to have broad Attack Values, but low Defence Values; Spearmen have low Attack Values, but high Defence Values; Ranged units can attack enemy units at a distance; and Berserkers have limited Attack Arrows and high Attack Values, but low Defence Values. Every unit also has a Rank from Recruit and Regular up to Command and General. Six of the cards in a deck are Command units and one of these is the army’s general—unlike the standard units, they are all named. 

Throughout the game, each player will have a hand of six cards. At the start of the game, this hand will consist of five cards from his shuffled deck and his army’s General. Once each player has placed a unit in one of the Battlemat’s starting positions, the game begins. A turn consists of three phases.

In the Deployment phase, a player places a unit on the Battlemat orthogonally or diagonally adjacent to an enemy unit so that one of its Attack Arrows points at the enemy unit. A support unit like a Ranged or Spear unit can also be placed adjacent to any friendly unit so that its Attack Arrows do not engage it or it is not engaged by friendly Attack Arrows. This means particularly with Ranged units that they can be placed behind friendly units away from the front lines and enemy units that would attack them directly.

During the Elimination Phase, every unit on the Battlemat attacks—including those of both armies! Thus, if the combined Attack Values of the units attacking an enemy unit via their Attack Arrows exceed the enemy’s Defence Value, it is eliminated. This has to be done unit by unit until every unit on the Battlemat has been checked to see that it has not been eliminated. The result of this is that a player has to consider both how his unit can attack and how his unit might be attacked. 

The third and final phase is the Reinforcement Phase. During this, a player can either refresh his hand back up to six or have one retreat from the Battlemat into his hand. The latter unit must not have been placed or fought that turn, or be engaged by an enemy unit’s Attack Arrows. It is possible to pin an enemy unit to prevent it being removed from the Battlemat during the Reinforcement Phase.

The battle proceeds until one army can defeat four of its opponent’s Command units or any twenty of its units. Then it will have won the battle.

The key to Lords of War is positioning the units so that they make the best use of their Attack Arrows and avoid being subject to attack in return. Placement is all important to controlling the battlefield and as a game progresses, it becomes more and more difficult to find the weak spots in an opponent’s defences. The choice of army will also influence a player’s actions—with the Lords of War: Orcs versus Dwarves, each side has its own strengths. The Dwarves have better Defence Values, whilst the Orcs have better Attack Values.  

As good as Lords of War looks and as simple as the rules are, what it lacks is flavour. There is some that comes through in the cards, but there is none in the rules. For that the purchaser needs to visit the publisher’s website for the background to the game, where he will also find rules for multiplayer battles and more advanced rules. Whilst simplicity of the design does make Lords of War easy to play, the lack of flavour does leave the game lacking substance. Another issue is that there is a certain artifice to the game in that it does not feel as if you are fighting a battle except in an abstract way. This is fine in a game like Chess, but in Lords of War it feels as if you should be fighting each other for something rather than a simple stand-up confrontation because the art on the cards suggests so. Hopefully, the Terrain & Weather Expansion Pack will go some way to alleviate this issue and provide the game a bit more substance as well as variety.

Lords of War: Orcs versus Dwarves is a pleasingly simple combat card game that offers tactical challenges and thoughtful play without overwhelming the participants. The design is attractive and easily expandable and should also serve as solid introduction to wargaming fantasy battles too.