Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Dogs of War: A quick review

Just wanted to throw out a quick review of Dogs of War
Picture courtesy of Board Game Geek
, designed by Paolo Mori, published by Coolminiornot, and originally funded through Kickstarter, because it's a great game, albeit with not a lot of lasting power. This is a game by a European designer, it does have some Eurogame sensibilities, but it combines it with the quality of pieces and directly competitive cutthroat gameplay of North American games. The game is played out over the course of four rounds, each round the players (3 to 5 players, 4 or 5 players is best) buy soldiers, then play soldiers and captains (a soldier must be played with a captain and the number of captains the player gets is fixed each round - although opportunities to gain new captains exist, more on that in a bit), to support 1 of 6 noble houses. Now, each player controls a mercenary company that secretly supports one of the houses, but you don't have to support any particular house, so that adds more intrigue to the game. Each house is accompanied by an "Order of Battle" card which is randomized every round. When you play a captain, that captain is placed on a sport on this Order of Battle card which grants the player immediate bonus (extra money, extra troops, extra captains, victory points, etc.) but no one can they go on the same spot (going other spots on the same Order of Battle card is fine though). Players can support the same House, improving its chances of success, or throw down armies in support of opposing houses. So like the Game of Thrones game, there is a constant tug-of-war over which house has a higher battle score, which particularly desirable spots on Order of Battle cards (6 are in play in every round) are occupied and which aren't, and players are constantly at each other's throats. Combined with the fact that each mercenary company has its own special power, and also a deck of Tactics cards that let players perform some sneaky moves (one card is simply titled Betrayal - you can switch sides and even defeat your own captains thereby giving you more victory points!), there are lots of options and opportunities for players to claw their way back to the top.

What I really like about the game is how simple the rules are to explain and start playing, and yet
Picture courtesy of Dice Tower News
how much complexity exists in the game. There are so many different ways to collect victory points. Do you collect House influence tokens that are worth anywhere between -1 (yes, you can actually lose points) to 7 (depending on how well your House performs)? Do you hoard gold, tactics cards, or soldiers (all of which are worth victory points)? Do you throw down all you have to perform a crushing victory for a House and reap a bunch of victory points? Do you form lasting alliances, or stab a fellow player in the back just when he least expects it? Anyone who likes Risk, Game of Thrones, Coup, or Smallworld, would feel right at home. Another thing to like is how gorgeous everything looks. Each mercenary company has their own unique captain sculptures and those are gorgeous looking, the other components are sturdy and beautiful to look at. The manual is very well-written, the rules are very clearly spelled out, and half the manual is actually dedicated to the lore of the setting, the noble Houses, and the individual Dogs of War. I liked the writing and the illustrations are just amazing (reminded me a lot of Warhammer Fantasy with the more colourful palette of Cadwallon). Also, each game is quite fast once everyone understands the rules, a game of 3 players takes about 45 minutes at most.

It's not completely perfect however. For one thing, there are six Houses, but other than being a different colour, there is no difference between them. The Dogs of War (mercenary companies controlled by players) only number 5, I hope they'll come out with expansions to add more, or a way to customize the special ability of each company. Furthermore, with three players it's possible that the Houses players secretly support do not directly oppose each other, which leads each player to simply throw support behind her/her house every round, and no conflict thus arises. The game is better with 4 or 5 players, when it forces players to directly oppose each other. There are only 8 Order of Battle cards (6 random ones drawn every round), I feel like more Order of Battle cards or more variety of options on each of these cards would inject more variety that would add staying power to the game. Otherwise, I feel like a group that played Dogs of War 4 or 5 times would quickly play out the game's appeal. Finally, as great as the components look, the soldier and Tactics cards use this tiny card size format (I think Arkham Horror used them too) which is hard to handle and pick up, but that's a very personal preference. Other than these relatively minor problems, I highly recommend Dogs of War if you're looking for something that lasts longer than Coup, but shorter than Game of Thrones, and has the same cutthroat conflict gameplay.