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Reader Requested Review: Chaos in the Old World

 “We aCitowre each our own devil, and we make this world our hell.” – Oscar Wilde

I’m…not in a good way. I’m restless. My nervous system is a wreck, and the only things twitching more than my hands are my eyes. I’m hearing voices. My brow singes to the touch. I have cold sweats. I see things on the edge of my periphery that aren’t there when I look closer. My tongue is swollen to a point where I can’t speak coherently, which is a moot point as my voice can barely raise above a hoarse whisper. As you may have guessed, it’s been a while since I’ve played Chaos in the Old World.

What is it?

Chaos in the Old World is an area control game designed by Eric Lang and published by Fantasy Flight Games. Set in the Warhammer universe, CitOW, has 4 players (no more, no less) assume the roles of the Ruinous Powers, evil deities who wish to corrupt the world, but prevent the others from doing the same. It blends its theme and mechanics seamlessly, creating an experience I have not personally seen rivaled by other games in the genre.

 

You’ve got my attention…tell me more.

The coolest part about this game are the characters. Everyone starts as one of the Ruinous Powers, which all play differently than one another. My well-known affinity for (read: being a sucker for) asymmetrical starting points was born with this game. A brief intro to your fearsome foursome.

Khorne (red) – The Blood God. War. Death. Bloodlust. Skulls. Khorne is all about killing. His units are pound for pound the most heavily skewed towards mass murder. Khorne advances his Threat Dial (more on that below) by killing enemy units in as many different places as possible. Khorne plays a unique role in the game as the Grand Arbiter of Lethal Force. The other three gods play variations of the same game with each other, trying to corrupt areas to their eventual collapse, but Khorne doesn’t really care about that. He cares about punching faces, all day long, all night strong. It is the job of the non-Khorne players to work in tandem to contain Khorne, or he *will* run away with the game.

Nurgle (green) is the god of disease, death, and despair. His followers do his work by spreading these plagues while Nurgle shields them from the suffering generally caused by such maladies. Nurgle advances his Threat Dial by corrupting regions on the board marked Populous. Nurgle is the king of points and corruption. Slow and steady wins the race.

Tzeentch (blue) is the god of change, magic and fate. He has more units that place corruption than any of the others, and most of the abilities associated with Tzeentch are ones of trickery, deceit and de-buffing. Tzeentch advances his Threat Dial by placing corruption tokens in places with Warpstones and/or Magic Symbols, places where powerful sorceries have occurred.

Slaanesh (purple) is the god of vice. Pleasure, lust, desire and excess are all hallmarks of his domain. Slaanesh advances his threat dial by corrupting areas containing influential people.

 

These sound pretty cool…how do I win?

There are several triggers to the end game.

1) Threat Dial – The game ends when one of the powers moves their Threat Dial to the “Victory” space. The four each have different conditions to spin their dial, and a different number of times they have to spin in order to claim victory in this way. The spaces between the game start and the victory space are all rewards for furthering your god’s sinister agenda. The Threat Dial also acts as a barometer for how thoroughly terrified the general populace is of your cult. The highest ranking player on the Threat Dial is often the target of game mechanics referencing the people fighting back against the players. The lowest ranked player on the Threat Dial makes decisions on some of these mechanics when there are choices to be made. Khorne tends to favor the Threat Dial. Tzeentch and Slaanesh are “switch-hitters” in that they are flexible enough to win by either points or by dial. I have never seen, or even heard of a Nurgle dial victory. I’m not saying it can’t happen, but if it does, the other players were specifically letting it happen. The Threat Dial victory is the first one to be checked, which gives it a higher priority than…

2) The game ends on a turn where one (or more) of the Powers ends the turn at 50 or more Victory Points. Points are scored mainly by corrupting various places on the map and eventually causing them to crumble. The player (or players) who contributed the most to the region’s destruction score more points. All four of the powers have the ability to win by victory points, but Nurgle is better at this than the others for reasons unique to him.

3) 5 Regions are destroyed. Cultists of the 4 gods place corruption tokens during the Corruption Phase of the turn. A region with 12 or more corruption tokens will be destroyed. Generally speaking, one of the other conditions will happen before this.

4) The Old World deck runs out. The Old World deck is a small pile of cards that reference events happening during the game. When the Old World deck runs out, the people have had enough of our collective shit and throw off our oppressive yokes. When this happens, no one wins. I have seen this happen exactly once in what I’m guessing at this point is 40+ plays.

 

Yeah, thanks for that. Now how about answering my question?

Right. Each turn is broken into a number of phases.

Draw Phase: where you draw cards. Doi.

Old World Phase: where you draw a card from the Old World deck and see what’s happening outside of our squabbling.

Summoning Phase: This is the one that matters. Summoning phase is where the players spend their power to summon figures to the board to run away from Khorne and play cards to stymie Khorne (and each other) This always follows a very specific order, and once you’re out of power, you’re done with the turn.

Battle Phase: This is where Khorne murders people to death and the other three get in occasional slapping fights.

Corruption Phase: Survivors of the previous phases get to place Corruption tokens, score points and all sorts of other delightful things.

End Phase: has a bunch of clean up effects, including scoring places what done blowed up and checking for the game end conditions. If none have been met, wash, rinse, repeat.

 

Things what I like about Chaos in the Old World.

Oh man. I could go on for 3 days about this, but I’ll try to do it in two.

1) Asymmetrical starts lead to more replay value. Playing Khorne does not feel like playing Nurgle does not feel like playing Tzeentch does not feel like playing Slaanesh. While they all exist in the same rule structure, they play very differently.

2) Cool components. It’s Fantasy Flight. This is kind of a given.

3) The board is a map on drawn on human skin stretched by hooks. Totally thematic and Metal. As. Fuck.

4) Juuuuuuuust right. It doesn’t play super quick, and it doesn’t overstay its welcome. More often than not, it’s a good tense game with a strong narrative tempo.

 

Okay…and what about the bad parts?

Sad to say, this game is not perfect. It’s almost perfect, but there are a couple of problems. Namely…

1) Someone has to be the new guy. More than any other game I can think of, disparity in skill level hurts the game for everyone. When you have four players of relatively equal skill, the game balance sings. When you don’t, it can be a rocky road.

2) ONLY Four? Yep. Supposedly you can play with 3, but I think this would be a terrible idea. There is also a fifth player expansion, The Horned Rat, but after several plays, the original game is soooo much better than the expansion. While I like the idea of more of this wonderful game, the execution left much to be desired. Part of the charm of the game is that balancing act of strengths and weaknesses. Giving Khorne more avenues for points and Nurgle more ways for dial turns takes one of the interesting things about the game and tries to homogenize it.

3) It’s not fair! He ALWAYS wins! This game is dumb! This is a common (and horribly incorrect) assumption about this game. It starts off “This game is broken. Khorne always wins.” for a few games or so. Then for another few games it’s “This game is broken. Nurgle always wins”. Then a few games after that, it’s “This game is perfectly balanced and I love it” Stick with it, your persistence will be rewarded.

 

Thoughts as a Designer:

Before I say another thing here, I want to emphasize that my thoughts here in no way reflect a failing on the designer’s part. I’ve been fortunate enough to meet some really awesome people in my life. I’ve gone out drinking with nationally touring bands after the show, I’ve run into celebrities of varying levels and chatted them up. I’ve been star-struck exactly twice in my life. The first time was with Patrick Rothfuss, the the other time was when Eric Lang was setting up a demo a few tables away from me at a local convention. I was bug eyed and quiet. I wanted to go talk to him but was afraid I would just blather on all kinds of nonsense. For the record, I did get up the nerve to go talk to him, and he is seriously one of the nicest, most sweet guys ever.

Now, my love for this game is well known. If I have 4 people, I want to play Chaos. If I have 4 seasoned players, I want to play it badly. If I have some newbs, I want to turn them into seasoned players. There are a few things I would have liked to see different.

Weak Chaos cards. Some of the Chaos cards are too situational to see regular use, and some of them are just plain weak. One of Tzeentch’s cards relies on killing an opposing unit in order to get the full value of the card. The problem is threefold here. A) Tzeentch’s units that are capable of fighting are awful and a waste of time and power to summon in 95% of occasions. B) You have to have someone to fight in the region where this is happening C) You have to win that fight. After all of that, the reward is actually pretty weak, it allows you to pretty much lock in a Magic Symbol for the next turn. Tzeentch doesn’t really have too many problems coming up with Warpstones and/or Magic Symbols to spin his Threat Dial. While this is one of the more extreme examples, most of the decks have a few duds in them. Slaanesh’s deck is the strongest of the 4, but that doesn’t mean he is exempt. I’ve considered building “super decks,” removing the worst cards from the decks and replacing them with (ideally) similarly costed cards from the Horned Rat expansion. I haven’t actually done this yet, and I should experiment to see if this theory holds validity, but it’s a tricky proposition, as the game is pretty wonderfully balanced as is, and maybe some of the underpowered cards are intentionally designed that way.

I also wouldn’t mind seeing alternate uses for cards, like perhaps a Chaos card that gets a power boost or a cost reduction by discarding another card, or perhaps a unit upgrade with an ability powered by discarding. What red-blooded Khorne player wouldn’t toss a card (or two) to +1 to die rolls for a turn?

Some of the Old World cards are too swingy in one man’s opinion. The event that creates two battle free zones for a couple of turns can completely and irrevocably wreck Khorne’s game. Couple that with some of the events that don’t stay in the queue to make the first event last longer and one player is removed from play for reasons completely beyond his or her control. Admittedly, this is rare, but I’ve seen it happen and it sucked to be Khorne that day. If that were to happen on someone’s first game, they might not come back for a second, which would be a shame.

Make an axe out of lemons.
Make an axe out of lemons.

In summation:

Chaos in the Old World is a perfect blend of classic Ameritrash and sensible Euro. Despite my zealous devotion to this game and intense love for it, I’m going to say (at GREAT pain and displeasure to myself) that not every game is for everybody. If your taste in gaming doesn’t include room for a heavier, meatier game, Chaos is not for you. If you are a die-hard Euro fan who doesn’t like any random elements to their game (Chaos has a few minor ones in battle and Old World cards) then aspects of this game might chafe a bit. If you’re put off by the idea of playing an evil god who thrives from the corruption and destruction of mankind by way of violence, pestilence, deceit and decadence, all while playing on a map of human skin…ok, get over yourself because that is fucking awesome.

Fans of area control games like Kemet should find this a no-brainer (and superior title). The upcoming Cthulhu Wars looks like a larger scale Chaos in the Old World and the designer himself has said that Cthulhu Wars was influenced by Chaos in the Old World.

If the above sounds even a little interesting, I strongly recommend you find 3 friends and give it a try. It’s an immensely interesting game that had me from my first run with it and has never let go. I even host an Annual Pretty Sneaky Sis Chaos in the Old World Invitational Championship tournament every year at Gen Con…which I have yet to win. But there’s always next year!

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6 thoughts on “Reader Requested Review: Chaos in the Old World

  1. Joe: One thing worth mentioning that stuck out to me in my one play of Chaos is that each character has their own set of cards. I think that’s particularly innovative. There are lots of games with asymmetric powers, but very few where those powers are represented by a deck of cards created just for them. The recent Imperial Settlers also comes to mind.

    Thanks for writing this! It was a great read, as usual.

    1. Also, one quick question: In a game that features lots of direct conflict, how does the game manage to prevent one player from getting pushed around and beaten so much that the game is no longer fun for them?

      1. You can see that again in Sentinels of the Multiverse, which is an outstanding example of that particular design idea. The Chaos decks are definitely a HUGE part of both flavor and mechanics of the game. Slaanesh wouldn’t make very good use of Khorne’s cards, who would make poor use of Nurgle’s cards, etc. etc.

        Regarding the mad beatz: The only person who really has to worry about getting pushed around is Khorne. And by “pushed around” I mean “fled from in abject terror” People are going to go out of their way to avoid conflict with you. It’s your job to create a board state where there are no safe havens. And generally speaking, the game has a built-in deterrent towards bullying in that the main guy beating people up does not get rewarded for how many he kills, but rather how many different places he kills them. So in any given region, the savvy Khorne player will make selections based on who will be the most affected by the violence, not necessarily who he wants to beat up on. Nurgle fights more frequently than Tzeentch or Slaanesh, but that’s due to his figures being less expensive. Generally speaking, there will be little violence betwixt the other three, and Nurgle will be making decisions along logics similar to Khorne. That all having been said, the game cannot account for a spoilsport who is willing to throw away his chance at winning and make intentionally bad play decisions in order to play kingmaker…but no game can. And on the flip side of *that* coin, I have been cornered before and had someone hit a hot streak and completely wipe me out while I had vastly superior numbers (numbers don’t matter when you’re not fighting back) and while it DEFINITELY put a serious crunch on my odds of winning, I stayed in and tried to stabilize. It was a masterfully orchestrated play and had exactly nothing to do with the players and everything to do with the opportunities available on the board.

        I played and enjoyed Kemet, there are definitely some cool things in the game (namely the bigger figures like the giant scorpion) but it felt much lighter to me than Chaos does, and I love the strategy Chaos provides a great deal more than Kemet. Both are fine games, but if I had to choose one, I would choose Chaos every single time. Most of the people I know who own both make the same choice. 🙂

    1. I want to make a prompt response, but I also want to make an informed one, so to that end, let me have a bit to dig into the Horned Rat cards and think about how they might interact with the classics. I agree with the comments on BGG saying that Havoc/Mystical Disregard is bad news. I will report back after some research. Thanks for reading!

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