Keep on rockin’ in the old world
I hear you talking you know. When you think I’m not around. I know you all think I’ve got it easy, being the incarnate manifestation of an aspect of evil birthed by the psychic agony of all the sentient beings of the universe. But it’s not all roses you know. For instance, after a hard day at the office, corrupting the pure and tending my pestilential wastes (yes, I know, there’s a cream for that), I love nothing more than unwinding over a nice board game. I know, I know… you’d think the last thing I’d want to do in my downtime is emulate my work slog, but it’s alright for the renaissance merchants and galactic warlords amongst you. Always managing to convert your real-life expertise into effortless victories – you don’t know how lucky you are. But where’s my game? Something that lets me take advantage of my… Wait! What’s this come tumbling through the vortex of despair to land at the foot of my throne of bone and brass? ‘Chaos in the Old World’ eh? Okidoke, let’s take a look.
Chaos in the Old World invites you and three of your friends to take on the role of the Ruinous Powers of Chaos, the dark gods of Games Workshop’s Warhammer universe. As you may have inferred from the title, this is the original grimdark fantasy-esque setting, not to be confused with the grimdark sci-fi setting of Warhammer 40k. If you’re only familiar with the latter, meh, the gods are the same in both strands, just think Orcs not Orcz. If you’re familiar with neither, don’t worry too much, it won’t be a problem. Knowledge of the backdrop to these exploits is not necessary to play and enjoy the game, but I shan’t lie to ya, there’s definitely an extra kick of pleasure to be had from familiarity with the lore and bestiary of the universe, little touches of flavour text and small thematic flourishes will pull you deeper into the game if you get them, but won’t exclude you if not. It’s a tough tightrope to walk, but it’s just the first example of the excellent balancing act on display inside this box.
Anyway, enough of such fripperies; To the game! Once everyone has selected and gathered to them the player sheet, tokens, upgrade cards, chaos cards and awesomely sculpted army of miniatures appropriate to their god, the board is randomly seeded with a few starting tokens and the unholy crusade for the hearts and souls of the hapless peoples of this benighted world begins.
Each player takes it in turns to exercise their godly powers by either summoning their minions on to the board, or playing their chaos cards into the regions of the map. These cards act as orders or magic spells that affect the targeted region and/or any minions therein. Each card will cost you power points to use, and of course if you’re summoning things that’ll cost you too. Your use of these power points is tracked on the player mat with an upsettingly-easy-to-lose marker. There’s three flavours of unit for each player, Cultists, Warriors, and the subtly named Greater Demon. Warriors and Greater Demons are mainly for intimidation and fighting, whereas any Cultists that survive the oncoming battles will deposit little corruption tokens in their regions.
Ah, yes, the battles. once everyone’s summoned and cast to their heart’s content, or their power is exhausted, any areas containing opposing forces see battle fought with heretical warcubes… okay, dice if you must. Following the slaughter comes the chance to score points. If any player has enough minions and/or expensive enough cards to exceed the value printed on the region containing them, they score some lovely points, and the first to fifty is the winner. Mind you, that’s only one way to score points…
Another is with those puny cultists you’ll have spread across the board. While they’re useless in a fight, what with doing nothing but praying and sacrificing, if any survive the battle round they drop corruption tokens for you. If any region ever contains twelve or more, then that region is ruined. This means the farmer’s market there will have to close, and also that the whole map is scored, with a set number of points going to each player depending on the number of their corruption tokens present. There can be five of these ruinations in a game, and if nobody’s edged past the magic fifty points when they’re all gone, whoever has the highest score is the winner.
What Chaos in the Old World is then, is that hoariest of game mechanics – area majority – decided not with numbers of troops but with these corruption tokens. What sets it apart is the layers of finesse and theme draped over it by the finest of publisher Fantasy Flight’s chrome-weavers. Well, that’s one of the things…
The main selling point is really the third way to win the game. Threat. As well as the decidedly genteel point-gathering routes to victory, and thrumming away profanely beneath the whole affair, is the ichorous pulse of the third route to victory. You see, each of the four gods available to play has a slightly different… peccadillo. Bloodthirsty Khorne cares only for the slaughter of war, pestilent Nurgle wishes to see all things end in corruption and disease, Tzeench the fate-weaver seeks the fearful beauty of change and mutation while Slaanesh pretty much just loves to fu… party.
By pandering to your god’s desires, be it instigating battles say, or corrupting populous regions with plague after plague, you will earn the much-coveted threat advancement tokens. These will allow you to tick forward your threat dial on the board and be rewarded with points, upgrades or other useful things. Tick forward enough and the little window in the dial will show text declaring you the winner.
Here’s where that balancing act comes back to the fore. Chaos exhibits the best kind of asymmetry in games – asymmetry done well. Each of the gods will have to tick that dial round a varying amount, and each of the different prerequisites to do so have different levels of ease to accomplish, meaning for some players this route to the win is a more valid prospect than for others. Khorne, for instance, just has to kill something to earn a token, and doesn’t have to tick it as far to win as poor Nurgle, who has to get nearly all the way round by trying to preserve two cultists per turn in the heavily-contested populous regions. This is offset though by Nurgle’s ability to summon swarms of cheap units in an attempt to reach the points victory. Of course, both these strategies are in danger as soon as other players realise what you’re up to and react accordingly.
If I have a serious, or semi-serious, reservation about Chaos, this is it. It will take a few games before everyone at the table is able to spot the weaknesses each god’s likely strategy. Initially everybody at the table will swear blind that Khorne has a far too easy ride on the threat dial. A few games in, you’ll all be certain there’s nothing to be done about Nurgle’s corruption tokens being strewn willy-nilly across the board. Then Tzeench’s card’s are overpowered. Then, having worked out what to do about all of these, it seems obvious that Slaanesh’s dial advancements are earned far too easily. Only then will you look down and realise you’ve all been perched on a tightrope so fine as to be rendered invisible this whole time. This is when you’ll start doing a lot more counting of corruption tokens and ruination-based maths. My only other slight quibble is that the box says this plays 3-4. It does play with three, sorta, I guess. The problem is the four gods consist, more-or-less, of two mutually antagonistic pairs. Once you’ve seen the tightrope, if you’re playing with three, the player lacking their ‘opposite’ will, more often than not, be more secure in their footing and take victory.
To hell with it though, that only matters if you’re considering Chaos as a finely balanced area-majority based eurogame. Which it is. But, wait for it, it is also a trashy, dice based, plastic-laden pile of fun. The components, from the myriad tokens, via the gruesome plastic minis, to the lush board trompe-l’oeiled onto stretched human skin, are as lush and lovely as they are unwholesome.
Yeah, just a word about that, if you’re not the kind of person who can happily recognise/wallow in the campily dark-and-evil overtones for the nonsense that they are, you’ll have a hard time enjoying the game no matter how good it is. Back to the point though, the crowning achievement here is, at least for me, the way the game encourages you to almost start role-playing your character without even noticing it. If you’re Khorne you’ll be spending all your points throwing down terrifying monstrosities amongst your opponent’s forces just itching to start a scrap. Before long you’ll actually begin to feel a thrill of glee at the inevitable demise of those pathetic whelps. As Nurgle your cultists will move in clusters far and wide to both avoid conflict and extend your infestations across the world. Tzeench, whose card-drawing mechanism is slightly different to everyone else’s, will be covering the board in magic, to both cycle through spells faster and facilitate those dial advancements, all the while influencing what your opponents can do and trying to predict what cards will be useful where and when. Playing as Slaanesh requires you concentrate your cultists in areas with noble or hero tokens, as well as trying to get everyone else to just stop fighting and fu… party already.
Ah – hang on, I haven’t told you about the Old World deck. At the start of the game this is going to be built from the large deck of Old World cards supplied. From this you’ll extract, at random, one card per game turn. That’s seven or eight if you weren’t paying attention earlier. At the start of each round one of these is going to be drawn and placed onto the board. Up to two of these can be in effect at once and they do things like add tokens to the board, give out points for various things, or (particularly unwelcome once when I was playing as Tzeench,) forbid the playing of chaos cards. These global effects mean that every game of Chaos has a slightly different flavour, that the gameplay will flow in subtly and not-so-subtly different ways depending what comes out and in what order, adding some excellent replay value to the whole thing. Oh, and here’s a fun thing, if the Old World deck is exhausted without anyone winning, that symbolises the peasants and princes of the Old World resisting your nefarious advances and everybody loses. Ha!
Here then, is a game deserving of your attention. It is both a knife-edge points race and dice-fuelled confrontation. What’s more impressive is that these two conflicting halves of its psyche sit so beautifully together, and while a player’s character certainly influences the way they’ll play it, a canny god can still confound their enemies’ expectations and adapt to changing circumstances. It’s not unheard of for Nurgle to win through threat, or Khorne through points. As a three-player game it’s an excellently atmospheric iteration of dudes-on-a-map, and as a four-player it absolutely sings.
At last! Finally my day-to-day life as an unspeakable entity of the Pit has stood me in good stead for a game I can share with my friends. To celebrate why don’t you all come over and after a game or two of Chaos in the Old World, we’ll slaughter a couple of innocents, scrape off our buboes and retire to the blood pools where we can all fu