Sunday, March 31, 2013

Chaos in the Old World Review

Today I am looking at Chaos in the Old World.  It's a fantastic marriage of American and European style gameplay principles.  It also has a fantastic theme if you are into the darker side of things.  It was published in  2009 by Fantasy Flight Games, and designed by Eric M Lang.  Eric M Lang has also designed many of my other favorite games, including Warhammer: Invasion and Quarriors.  But without further delay, lets get started.

Rule Summary

In Chaos in the Old World, each player takes the role of a chaos god.  There are four to choose from, and each has it's own special flavor and play style.  The board will be laid out, the threat dials all set to their starting positions, and an Old World deck will be created.  The player then takes that god's figures, upgrade cards, Chaos Cards, and power sheet.  Then players draw 3 Chaos Cards, place their power tracking token on the starting position of their power sheet, and then the game starts.

During a turn of Chaos in the Old World, first an Old World card is drawn and resolved.  Then players restores their power to full and draws 2 Chaos Cards, except for Tzeentch who always draws up to 5.  Then we get to the meat of the game.  Players take turns summoning figures and playing Chaos Cards, paying a power cost each turn to do so.  Once all the players have used up all their power or passed, there is a combat phase.

During the combat phase players roll dice to determine hits.  This is followed by a corruption phase where some player's figures will place corruption tokens into a region, and earn points for Dominating a region.  Finally comes the end phase where players will score points for Ruined regions, advance their threat dials, certain Old World cards will kick in, hero tokens will eliminate figures, and you check for the game to end.

Concerning the threat dials, each chaos god advances their threat dial through different gameplay conditions. Usually placing corruption in certain locations related to their god.  However one chaos god earns dial advancements by killing enemies in combat.

To determine the victor, first you check to see if anyone has completed their threat dial.  In case of a tie you see who has the most points.  If nobody has completed their threat dial, you see if anyone has scored over 50 points, in which case the person with the most points wins.


How accessible is the game to new players?

There is an incredible amount going on in this game.  You are constantly scheming against every other player, trying to play a few moves ahead of everyone else.  There is a lot to keep track of, between the Old World cards, the Chaos Cards, upgrade cards the players will get, all of which can be somewhat verbose and at times complicated.  The game even has a relatively complicating timing system where the specific phase of the game you commit an action during can have enormous repercussions.

And yet new players love this game.  They don't entirely understand it.  But they love it.  Maybe it's the theme.  Maybe it's that even from a losing position, you can still be clever and ruin someone else's turn.  Maybe it's because when no one else is looking, you can come back from behind and snatch a victory you've been quietly brewing.

What could have been done better?

As I already said, new players love this game, but they tend to not understand it.  They'll get wrapped up on the cheers and groans as turn after turn, huge hits are traded back and forth.  But there is always a bit of a blank look on their face when rule lawyering is resorted to.  And there will be lots of rules lawyering.  The game has a lengthy FAQ.  Because in typical Fantasy Flight Games style, the game just has a lot of ambiguously worded cards and rules.

This helps some

So the FAQ helps some, and the lengthy BoardGameGeek threads about various situations you will encounter helps too.  But mostly the game just requires an attention to detail in the specific wording of cards and abilities, and a thorough understanding of the phases of the game, and why the timing matters.  I've played over 20 times, and I still have to stare long and hard at the dial advancement conditions of certain chaos gods to make sure something clever I'm up to will still count as a dial advancement token.

Some of these stipulate that the dial advancement conditions
must be met in the same phase, and others don't.

What can be most frustrating is that in some situations, the phrasing doesn't matter.  "Move" is the same as "Summon" is the same as "Teleport" is the same as "Place" so far as all rules are concerned.  However when it comes to what constitutes "Cancelling a chaos card", well, the ruling is quite specific.  You can't undo anything that has been done.  It only cancels ongoing or yet to occur effects.  The constant confusion caused by sometimes brutally exact wording, then rather loose wording, can be incredibly frustrating.

And sadly, it's the sort of game where silent scheming is encouraged.  You don't exactly blurt out questions, asking what your secret hand of Chaos Cards do.  The game also packs a solid length, usually clocking in at 90 to 120 minutes.  So a "learning" game followed by a real one isn't exactly viable.  But oddly enough, for all these short comings, nobody ever seems to mind?  In fact people seem to enjoy all the arguing.  It seems to contribute to the titular sense of chaos.  Go figure.

But I would still like to see a more consistent attention to detail in the wording throughout this game.  It would only improve an already amazing game.

How does the new player versus old player match up go?

I've seen new players win this game almost as often as old players.  Partly because there is a strong gang up on the leader mechanic at play.  Although this is occasionally compounded by the fact that who the leader is won't always be obvious.  With so many different ways to win, it can become quite a challenge to assess the rankings at any given moment.  Which sometimes means it comes down to swagger and who draws the most attention to themselves.

One thing that fascinates me, is where Chaos in the Old World situates itself on the spectrum of how obvious the leader is.  Because there are games like Tribune or Cyclades where the information is public, but keeping track of all the various ways people can win becomes impractical about midway through.  Then the game just suddenly ends.  Contrast this with a simple push your luck dice game where the leader is always immediately obvious because of the running score tally.

But Chaos in the Old World is smack in the middle.  And it's nearly flawless.  You have a grasp of who's doing well.  But it's not perfect.  There is no hidden information.  But a perfect understanding of the board is just barely out of your grasp.  Perhaps this feeds into why the game plays so well regardless of experience level.

These will wreck your world

The Old World cards are another factor which can drastically level the playing field.  Many of them will disproportionately effect some gods more than others.  It's also not known how long those cards will stay out either.  So many times a great player will get hosed by the Old World cards, giving the new players a good chance.

What could have been done better?

The flip side of this, is that sometimes the Old World cards will hose a new player who has no idea how to cope with it.  I think there have been extensive statistics compiled on BoardGameGeek about the rates at which various gods win.  And it seems that on average, the game is pretty well balanced.  However, when it comes to specific games, things can be incredibly lopsided against certain gods.  If you only played this game once or twice, and the same Chaos Cards came out each time, you might think it's impossible to win as Khorne.  Or perhaps Nurgle.  Or maybe even Slaanesh and Tzeentch.  I've seen people level that accusation against all of them.

Sometimes your god just gets hosed.  The most recent game I played, an event caused the central location of the board, Empire, to be off limits for battle.  And that card stayed out almost the entire game.  Khorne was infuriated!  But as Nurgle, this was one of my key regions.  I Dominated it turn after turn, unstoppable.  I have to admit, the Old World cards pretty much handed me the game that time.

It won't happen every game.  But it can happen enough to rub people the wrong way, especially since this is a long game.  In theory the Old World cards aren't supposed to stay out the entire game.  New ones are supposed to bump the old ones off. However it sometimes works out that this just never happens, since not all cards are permanent.  There is a large deck of Old World cards, and you only pick 7 or 8 each game.

On the one side this keeps each game interesting.  On the other side, it results in a pretty inconsistent experience.  I think certain powerful Old World cards should have had a time limit imposed on them, beyond whatever random lifespan the existing game mechanics give them.

What are the feelings the game evokes and why?

This game is all about scheming, paranoia, and constrained resources.  You will constantly be looking sharply at your opponents, trying to get inside their heads.  Your heart will race when they make their play after a minute of deliberations.  Over and over in your head you'll be chanting "Don't use that last chaos card slot" or "Please don't put a warrior there, anywhere but there."  Then battle rolls around, and it's all up to chance now.  Maybe your puny cultist will survive the trio of warriors that have been slapped down on top of them.  So you hold your breath.  And the guy rolls a six!  He gets to roll it again.  You hold your breath harder.  What is it going to be?  This could make or break you!

What could have been done to make the game more enjoyable?

I think the biggest thing holding this game back is it's flow problems.  Phases 1, 2, 5 and 6 from the picture below help you unwind after an intense Summoning and Battle phase.  However they also take you out of the game.  It feels like you spend half the game paused as you update the Old World card, Ruin regions, fiddle with threat dials, count the corruption, check for Domination, score points, score more points, the heroes eliminate figures, and a host of other assorting game state tracking tasks between action rounds.

Look at all the phases where you aren't playing.

It's not an enormous issue.  But it does take you out of the game.  Which can be obnoxious because you will get really, really into this game.  So even a small issue like this can be magnified.  The best solution I can think is to combine a lot of these phases into a single one.  So instead of sweeping the board from top to bottom, because region order also matters, 5 or 6 times between each action phase, do it once, and combine all the phases together.  Off the top of my head I can't think of any ways this alters the game, and I'm sure any changes would have a negligible effect on game balance.  I would love to visit each region once, and score points for Domination, Ruination, then have heroes and Old World cards kick in.

Long term strategy, short term tactics, both or neither?

Chaos in the Old World is one of the most tactically rich games I've played.  It is truly all about the Chaos Cards.  Since only two can be played to any one region, and you only get to draw two per turn (except Tzeench), these tend to be what the game revolves around for many players.  All the best plans are made or broken by the Chaos Cards.  Using them well, with proper timing, can be an amazing feeling.

Understanding these is the key to the game

At the same time, your strategy tends to go down one of two paths.  Are you going for a dial victory or a point victory?  Some gods are better suited for one than the other, although anything is possible.  Even inside this decision, you are constantly wrestling with your board positioning, placing your corruption tokens, and Dominating areas.

What really stands out about Chaos in the Old World is the asymmetric play.  Everything about each chaos god is radically different from the others.  But not so much that the players feel like they are playing a completely different game, as in games with a traitor mechanic, or a hero/bad guy mechanic.  The different god's just have very different capabilities.

For example, with respect to earning points from Ruination, the viability of that strategy varies from god to god.  Khorne only has 4 cultist, hamstringing his efforts to pursue an effective Ruination strategy.  Tzeentch however has 8 cultist, the most of any of the gods.  Ruination is his best friend.  Nurgle and Slaanesh are in the middle with 6 cultist and represent a sort of base line concerning how effective Ruination is as a strategy.

In any given strategy you choose to pursue, which upgrades you chose and which Chaos Cards you play has an enormous impact.  However it also telegraphs your over all objectives.  It can also be used to bluff, however it is an expensive bluff.

I once chose an upgrade as Khorne which made my Greater Demon super effective at Dominating regions.  Everyone freaked out that I was going for a point victory.  Khorne never goes for a point victory!  So what happened instead is that everyone tried to oust my Greater Demon from the board... resulting in lots of dial advancement tokens since Khorne earns them off battle.  I ended up in an even better position to win off the threat dial.  I didn't intend it to be a bluff, but it sort of turned into one.

All in all, I have to say that Chaos in the Old World is a perfect balance of strategy and tactics.  You won't be able to plan in specifics straight through the end of the game.  But it can be possible to shift gears even as late as halfway through.  I've seen games where someone can play a purely tactical game, and ignore long term planning completely and win.  I've also seen the opposite.  However this is not a game where you can neglect either.

Are the dilemmas the player is presented with of sufficient quality?

The game poses the same questions to the player again and again.  Do I help myself, or hurt my opponent?  How long do I delay in doing so?  The amount of power you have to spend on each turn is a precious commodity, too quickly spent.  But timing can be even more important, with so many competing plans.  Keeping to yourself rarely works, but neither does wasting all your power hindering others.  The players are pulled in a half dozen different directions, and seeing the best path can be a fascinating experience.

The experience of constantly plotting is just fantastic.  Every card someone plays you will pay rapt attention to, trying to read into their plans.  Every upgrade card that is chosen you will take as a sign to a larger purpose.  You will agonize over how to spend your precious power to get your units just where you want them, with the right Chaos Cards, and a few bluffs to throw people off the scent.  But it's never enough.  There is always something you have to cut from the plan and hope it didn't matter.  Almost every single round seems to build up to your last move of the round.  And then hoping that nobody had anything left in reserve to tamper with it.

What could have improved the dilemmas?

I can think of nothing that would improve the dilemmas in this game.  For all the games short comings, the fuzzy wording, the awkward litany of phases, the muddy artwork, the bendy plastic figures, the dilemmas in this game are top notch.  Hand management, area control, bluffing, double bluffing, upgrades and corruption.  The list of considerations on your turn is great, and it's fantastic when your plan comes together.  I would neither simplify it or add anything to it.  It's perfect just the way it is.

Physical component design and limitations?

As I just alluded to, there are some component quality issues.  The plastic the figures are made out of is the standard Fantasy Flight Games plastic they've seemingly always used.  So it bends super easy.  Most of the figures in my game have bent arms, legs, standards, weapons, etc.  I suppose it's better than the figures being brittle.  But I wish Fantasy Flight Games would keep the bendiness of their plastic in mind when designing their figures.  Stop putting in so many long skinny ornaments which are clearly supposed to be straight!  You know the figures are going to bend.  At least pretend to plan around it.

The one on the left actually looks right.
The other two not so much.

Plus, the map is a red and brown mess.  I feel like Fantasy Flight Games has entered the age of "realism" that first person shooters went into in the 2000's.  Where red, green and brown were a "realistic" color palette.  All it does is make their maps hard to read.  The borders between the three southern most regions are especially odious in this regard.  Every game at least one person plans their entire turn around erroneously thinking regions in that area are adjacent which really aren't.  Even experienced players fall prey to this, since this is a once a month sort of game and things get forgotten.

What could have been better?

Aside from better plastic or better sculpts to take into account the bendy plastic, the art direction on the board needs serious work.  It reminds me once more of first person shooters.  The designers go to all this work to fill their games with shiny bells and whistles.  And the first thing competitive players do is turn them all off, lower all the settings, then max out the brightness and contrast.  It's just easier to perceive the game environment when you do that.

People always think Tilea and The Badlands are connected by that river

The same applies to this map.  I love the artwork on the map.  But I hate how it sometimes obscures the game.  The regions need clearer borders, period.  The arrows denoting what is standard region order could be more clear.  Just in general the map should be informative first, decorative second.  The information the board contains feels more like an afterthought once they got done making it pretty.

Long term prospects?

This game has seen constant table time.  It was one of the first games I got, back at PAX East in 2010.  Since then, I've played it over 20 times.  It just never gets old.  The asymmetric play has been an enormous boon for this game.  Possibly the sole reason it's overcome it's deficiencies.  What is also impressive is that it is one of the few Fantasy Flight Games that has withstood the test of time for me.  Many of their designs seem to revolve around constantly asking the question "Wouldn't it be cool if...?" with little thought to balance.  But this game is expertly balanced with a few small rough edges in the Old World cards.

Very few of the games I bought when I first discovered board games still get played.  Most have just been thoroughly played out.  Or over time I realized they weren't as great as I first thought.  I think most of them I've long since traded away.  But Chaos in the Old World is a permanent fixture.  It's the one game I've had friends tell me "Whatever you do, never trade it."  It is not without it's short comings.  But it rose above them in magnificent fashion.


  1. Excellent reveiew! Really one of the best I've seen so far.

    I feel like I am the only person in the world who doesn't like this game. I have to also disclose that I LOVE the Warhammer Universe (I have several actual Warhammer tabletop armies in fact, as well as several 40K armies) and I have been a fan of most things GW for 15 years or more. I am also a huge FFG fanboy.

    It would be a waste of time to go into what I don't like, as a response to such a great review. In short though I find this game produces too much down time, arguing, and just frustration (not in a good or fun way either). This is after about 20 games with a variety of players.

    1. You know, I find a lot of Fantasy Flight Games succeed or fail entirely based upon the personalities in the group. Because they tend to have a lot of downtime, and a lot of ambiguity. If you have a group that works together to move the game along, and tries to be consistent and fair concerning rules questions, you are in for a good time. But if you have only one person with any interest in all the upkeep phases, and everyone is arguing for their own self serving rule interpretations, their games can often be torture. It's not a purely FFG problem, but I find them to be the worst culprit. I definitely count myself lucky for having a good group to play Chaos in the Old World with.

  2. Nice review, Kyle. The only point I disagree with you on is new players vs. experienced players. Given, an inexperienced player's blunders might cause an experienced player a mild short-lived confusion, but that's about it. This more than any other game I can think of is rewarded by an equal skill among player levels. When 4 experienced players sit down with the game, it just sings. This is a game that makes it to the table almost every gaming event, and is the very first game I think of as soon as I have 4 people. I wrote a comprehensive strategy guide for it on my game blog which is routinely one of the most viewed things there. Love love love this wonderful game.