History is a struggle: First impressions of Navajo Wars

His desire was not for reform, but for restitution, and that was past the power of any Government. I went to bed in the loft in a sad, reflective mood, considering how in speeding our newfangled plough we must break down a multitude of molehills and how desirable and unreplaceable was the life of the moles. John Buchan: Mr. Standfast

These sentences went through my head several times on Friday as I was playing a game that models the struggles of a people on the "wrong end" of colonialism. I was struggling to maintain my culture and way of life, in the face of a overwhelming colonial force.

This is another first impressions writeup. This time I am addressing the game #Navajo Wars designed by Joel Toppen, and published by GMT games for 1-2 players. About the player count, this is a solitaire game. Toppen did include rules for a second player, but it isn't really designed for a second player. This game is subtitled: A History of the American Southwest. 1598-1864. I believe that this subtitle more acurately captures the thrust of the game.

Again, I want to stress that this is a first impressions writeup. I have played only the introductory scenario, and I am far from being an expert on this game. My first impressions are exactly what they sound like, they are most clearly NOT a exhaustive review.

Who are you in this game? You, the player, are the Navajo struggling to survive in the face of encroaching colonialistic influences. The game has several scenarios which can pit up against Spain, or Mexico, or even the United States depending on the age in which you are playing. You can even play one long campaign where you play against each one in succession. 

What are you trying to do in this game? What does victory look llike? Your goal in this game is to survive. You, with the materials given, cannot hope to conquer, at least I don't think so. Your highest goal is to preserve your cultural heritage and way of life in the face of insurmountable odds. This does not feel like a wargame, though BGG clasifies it as such. There isn't much fighting that occurs in this game, and you aren't really trying for a military victory.


Let us go through the flow of the game just a little bit. This is going to be the most basic of overviews, and I will leave a lot out of this description.

You start by drawing a card from a deck you constructed beforehand. Generally the enemy goes first, and then you can go, and then you resolve the effects on the card. Let us look at what the enemy does.

The enemy gets a certain number of Action Points (AP) that he will spend on his turn. And, there is a AI "brain" with actions that he will choose from.

This is the enemy AI's brain. And, the way it works is quite simple, and very elegant. The way it works is thusly. You begin by rolling two dice. If you then take those to numbers and flip the tile in the active column that corresponds to that number, unless it has a red bar on the bottom, those cannot be flipped. The reverse of the tile contains another action, or another version of the same action. If you roll doubles, you swap the tiles from the standby, and the active column, corresponding to the number you rolled. For example, of you rolled double 3s you would swap the "Utes!" tile with the "Build" tile. You then spend the enemies action points (AP) on the actions, starting at the top of the active column. Let us say the enemy has 4 AP available. He will begin by subjugating, you do the subjugate action, for one AP. You then slide that tile over to the Inactive column. You have 3 AP left, so, you do the second subjugate action for 2 AP and slide that over to the inactive column. The enemy has only 1 AP left, that is insuficient to do the build action, which costs three, so the enemies turn is over. You now take all the tiles in the "active" column and slide them up to fill the two spaces that you emptied. You then slide the two actions in the "inactive" column, the ones the enemy did take, to the bottom, and back over to the "active" column.

I love this system. It shows you what will probably happen. You know about how much AP the enemy will get, and you know what actions are first priority. However, the die rolls do make so that you are not 100% sure. And, in spite of my clumsy explanation, the "brain" is really very elegant, and even intuitive, in actual play. There is the small matter of learning what all those actions mean, and that is maybe less elegant and intuitive...... But that is the way these things go sometimes. 


Now the enemy has taken his turn, you may take yours. There are three basic types of turns you may take. I will briefly write about each one.

Firstly, you may choose to take actions. As the player you are in control of a number of indivdual Navajo families. These families are scattered over the map, and each one of them will be granted movement points depending on how many family members there are, if they have horses or not, etc.... You may take these and conduct raids on Santa Fe, you may move, you may try to find waterholes that remove drought counters, you may raid a mission or rancho, you may plant corn etc..... Each family is a seperate entity and will take it's actions seperately. I do like this, because it feels like you are taking a lot of turns to the enemies one turn.

Another option is to do a "planning" turn. This is a bit complicated and procedural. But basically you can add people to the "passage of time" box, these may be able to form new families etc... later. Your elders can attempt to do various tasks.

Finally, you may choose to take a "passage of time" turn. These turns are highly abstracted, your elders age, and some may even die. You may be able to form new families. You harvest the corn you planted. You have to feed your people and animals. Your animals reproduce. 

The last two options I outlined, the "planning" turn and the "passage of time" turn are highly procedural, and have a lot of steps to keep track of. On the one hand, they seem like you aren't doing much on the board, and really you aren't making that much of a difference on the board, but on the other hand, they seem essential to playing the game well.


Let's go over some of my general thoughts of about the game. But, first of all, another disclaimer, I have the first edition. There is a second edition. I think they cleaned up a little bit of errata, and gave it a 3 inch box instead of a 2 inch box. I don't know of any other changes right off the top of my head.

Firstly, let's talk about the art. This is a GMT game, so that means it has no art.... right? Wrong. This game is beautiful. I love the art. The tokens that have art, the mounted map, the rulebooks, even the box cover, are all hugely evocotive. The only game I can think of that does a clearly better job, in my mind, in terms of art presentation is #Pax Pamir (Second Edition).  Of course I realize that part of this is subjective. But, one thing that Pax Pamir 2E and this both share, is having really nice evocative art, that does does not make the board hard to read. Truly, I consider this to be a masterpiece of game art.

Let us consider game storage. You get a box, and you get plastic baggies. Under the circumstances this is ok, but not a bit more than ok. I do think some counter trays would be very helpful for a game like this.  I do want to give them high marks for how the stuff fits however. The board, when folded,  and the rulebooks fit in the box with about 3/4 inch or so gap on the top. This makes it super easy to get them out. I wish that more publishers would do it like that, rather than making it take up the whole interior footprint of the box.

Components are very good. You get a 22"x34" mounted map, a bunch of counters that are perfectly decent thickness and very readable, and a deck of cards that are good quality, though not linen finish.

The rules presentation: This is a complex game, in terms of rules, it feels like one of the most, if not the most, complex game I have played. But, I consider the rules presentation to be truly inspired. You have a rulebook and a playbook. You start out with the playbook, and it tells you how to set up for a game, and then it guides you through the first number of turns of a game. Every little bit it has you stopping and reading the pertinant rules from the rulebook to explain the action you are about to take. When the playbook finally leaves in the middle of the scenario, you feel more or less to tackle the beast by yourself. And, the way the initial playthrough is designed, you do most of the actions you need to do with the book holding your hand and guiding you through it. And, ALL OF THE RULES ARE IN THE RULEBOOK. This is the way to do rules. I hate it when you get two rulebooks, and some rules are in one, and some are in the other, and you are never quite sure where the rule is that you are looking for. I am looking at you #Star Trek: Frontiers.

Gameplay: This feels like an engrossing game. But, knowing what you need to do, at least initially, is very hard. I don't think this game was designed to be easy to win. And, I think it will take me a number of plays before I can figure out how to win. It is hard for me to see whether I need to take actions this turn, or to plan, or to take a passage of time turn. I think with more plays the long term effects of those decisions will impress themselves more on me. I am fascinated by the gameplay, But, I do think that there is a steep learning curve for anyone trying to play this to win.

What does it feel like to play:? YMV but for my first play, I felt like it was a pretty thematic. It definately didn't feel like a "wargame" or a combative game. But, it did feel like a fight for survival, it felt like you were striving to keep your culture, and to stand in the face of encroaching enemies, without going to heavily on military, because military saps the Navajo culture. It feels like you have very limited resources, just a few families and some animals, against the might of an empire. I can't praise this highly enough. But, it does mean that this is most clearly NOT a "beer and pretzals game." This could easily be one of my favorite solo games, I think. But, it will probably always be one that I have to be "in the mood for." 


What do I wish would be different.

I wish sheep would be a bigger deal, and maybe they are bigger than I see them being. But sheep were a really big deal in post spanish navajo culture, and it doesn't feel like they are hugely important here. Now, don't get me wrong, they are still important, they just seem like they could be more important.

I think the procedural parts of the games are necessary, and I believe that they will become easier. However, it is easy to forget a small, but important step.


So, who is this game for? I don't really know. I am proud to own it, and I am proud to have played it a little bit, and I expect to continue playing it.... I imagine that this game is maybe for those people who don't mind rules complexity. I think this game will appeal to people who are interested in exploring interesting systems and subsystems. But, most of all, I think it might be for those who wish to see stories in their games, and those who wish to feel what it felt like to be on the other side of the colonial push. This is a game with a message, and the message comes through loud and clear, like the message or dislike.... But either way it is a profoundly worthwhile message to tangle with. And, an exceedingly fine game on top of that.


Do I recomend this for other solo gamers? Maybe? If you are interested in the history, then yes, get it. If you can't stand rules overhead, then don't get it. If you are interested in a game where the goal is surviving instead of thriving, than maybe look into this one. If you need a game with a clear end goal, than maybe steer clear of this one. All I can definitely say is that for me, this game was a very very good purchase, and I am very happy to have it on my shelf as an option.



I was going to post more pics in the article, but it wouldn't let me, so, I will try to post them in the comments.

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Supporter8 months ago

Yes it works. Don't know why I couldn't see it earlier. I'll read in a minute. 

Supporter8 months ago

Perfect, thanks. 

Supporter9 months ago


This is the board. It is divided into territories, and each territory has its own colour stones ss separate areas within the territory. Under each stone are written the  movement costs to travel through if you have horses, and if you don't. 

Supporter9 months ago

This is a track that is used to track things like moral, culture, military, ferocity, AP, movement points and more. 

Supporter9 months ago

A Navajo family. Notice especially the expressions on their faces.

One Navajo family. Notice especially the expressions on the their faces. 

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Navajo Wars