In the Machiavellian land of Gravos, powerful noble houses play the deadliest of games. It is a bizarre and grotesque landscape where capricious alliances rise and fall. Great ancient families maneuver for dominance via dark intrigue, seduction and open warfare. They unflinchingly use any means at their disposal, be it mechanically macabre automatons, arcane religious fervor, murderous pirates and even mystical arts. And then there’s you. Into this world you step as an eminent soldier-for-hire seeking your own fortune, influence and destiny. The question is do you become a pawn in their greater game? Or your own influential condottiere, mastering the puppet strings of Gravos?
How it Plays
In Dogs of War, you embody one of Gravos’ infamous condottiere – shrewd and scheming warlords with private armies for hire. Previously allied with one of the land’s dominant noble families, those loyalties have vanished in the cold mist along with the mysterious disappearance of the kingdom’s last monarch, Harran Ethelred. In this dangerously shifting political milieu, your services are now, shall we say, “negotiable and opportunistic.” Seeking to wield as much influence as the aristocrats themselves, you’ll commit your forces to support various sides in a series of battles over the course of four years, or game rounds. The captain who amasses the most influence, wealth, strength, and tactical renown may just be able to enforce his or her will upon all of Gravos.
Dogs of War is a worker placement game with a ton of flair and a little added layer. You start the game with a few coins and three captain pawns. Or since you’re the mercenary captain, perhaps they’re best explained as lieutenants? Nonetheless, these are superbly, intricately and delicately sculpted. Little works of tabletop art. You’ll feel lavishly wasteful using them merely to select actions.
The structure is rather simple, although the game board belies that notion. At first appearing extremely confused, it’s essentially three columns which represent separate “battles” that rage every round. Each year cards portraying the six dominant houses are randomly assigned to the top and bottom of each column denoting the pairs of dueling nobles that round. Also in each half are areas to randomly place Order of Battle cards. These have spaces, many of which contain rewards, to place your workers, aka captains. The columns also have Army card boxes for each side where players will commit their men-at-arms in support of one house or the other. There is also a spot to randomly assign a bonus token which is awarded to the strongest captain on the victorious side. Finally, there is a running battle track for each engagement to mark the fights’ progress.
Once you’ve grasped the board, the action is simple and moves quickly. In the first year you receive three pawns for action selection. That allotment increases by one each ensuing year. The minis for each captain are unique sculpts, and the character you choose also has a special ability. Before the placement phase, players simultaneously hire soldiers with their annual stipend, plus any money earned the previous year. Troops come in four denominations: Footmen (strength of 1), Arquebusers (3), Knights (5) and War Machines (7).
After everyone is armed to the teeth – or nearly so – the worker placement phase begins. This part will be completely familiar to anyone acquainted with the genre. In alternating turns, players use their captains to claim boxes on the Order of Battle cards. You’re not just claiming rewards, but also throwing your weight to one side or the other. When selecting an Order, you’re committing to its associated house. If there are one or more reward icons in the selected box, you collect it. If it’s empty, that’s fine too. It may still affect the battle, because in addition to your miniature captain, you must also play at least one Army card supporting that side. If you’re out of men, you can longer place your captains and must pass for the remainder of the round.
There are a few other restrictions. Some boxes require you to play a certain strength Army card in order to claim it. There is a limit of one captain per box. And once you’ve committed to a house in a particular battle, you may not switch sides and begin placing in the opposing Order of Battle – although there is one exception to that rule.
As you play troops to these encounters, you’ll adjust the battle track according to who you supported and the strength of your units. For example, if you played an Arquebuser for House Hackett, you’ll move the marker three ticks along the scale in favor of that side. At the end of the round, the winning house of each battle moves up the Influence track. Any captain supporting a victorious family gains a number of points equal to the captains on the defeated field. The strongest captain also gets that battle’s bonus reward. So in addition to the worker placement, the Army card mechanic functions as a form of bidding for support of one house over another.
Finally, there are Tactic cards. Beginning with two and collecting more through play, these provide some special rules-breaking abilities on your turn. The powers are pretty nifty and handy in a pinch. If you can’t or don’t use them all, they’re worth a point each at the end of the game.
As you play, you’ll win influence tokens from the various houses, collect coins, grow in military strength and gather Tactic cards. After the fourth year, the noble houses apparently agree to a sort of armistice. At that point, the captains account for their renown. You earn points for each house’s influence token multiplied by its position on the Influence track and then add points for remaining coins, Army cards and Tactic cards – plus whatever points you earned during play. The mercenary with the most points is the true Dog of War. That may not sound as exciting and glorious as victory by sweeping conquest or romantic intrigue, but there you have it.
All Bark and No Bite?
Our family never owned any sterling cutlery. We come from poor and humble folk stock with no need for any of that highfalutin finery. Good old nickel-plated stainless steel suits us fine. After all, a fork’s only good for shoving food down your gullet. True silverware is just a fancy façade on what is essentially a utilitarian tool. Plus it tarnishes, takes more work to shine up and you have to hide it when Cousin Jesse visits. Dogs of War is sort of like silverware – superfluously ornate and lavish that, when it comes down to it, just performs a simple job.
Of course, that’s what Cool Mini or Not is all about – sweet looking miniatures! After all, their name isn’t Cool Token or Not, for a reason. And while the amazing sculpts certainly aren’t necessary, just like silverware they make you feel snooty and sophisticated when fondling them. The accompanying production value is nearly as stellar, if not as stunningly head-turning. While the game board is appalling at first, it grows on you and works as an effective interface. Meanwhile, the cards and cardboard bits are sturdy and of high quality. The illustrations are extraordinary – inventive, highly stylized and equally freakish as they are beautiful. Still, that aesthetic quality unfortunately drives the sticker price above the pay grade of an average worker placement game.
That said, Dogs of War is not an average worker placement game, proving you can teach an old genre new tricks. Whether or not its unique twists are worth the upgrade in cost largely depends on your affinity for the category. The style is popular at my house and I particularly like the Renaissance meets steampunk theme. The world setting is also fascinating, creative and engaging. The rule book reads like a novel as it dives into each captain’s backstories and expounds upon the political intrigue of the strange noble houses and peculiar history of Gravos. Indeed, I quickly found myself wanting to play a game exactly like the story I was reading, rather than the abstracted worker placement design based upon it that was set before me.
Be forewarned that there is also a slight bait and switch with respect to the theme and design, but nothing criminal. The back of the box speaks of controlling territory, resources and people with visions of armies dancing in your head. In reality, you’re placing pawns in boxes to collect tokens with no other connection than to collect points. Not that this is anything new in the hobby. It’s just that the pawns happen to be really cool looking miniatures, so one might suspect a bigger bite along with its menacing bark.
Still, the extra level of worker placement elevates the design above the routine monotony that many in the genre can fall victim to. The Army card mechanic is interesting in that instead of one game piece to claim a space, you’re now required at least two – your pawn and a troop card. If you’re out of pawns, extra Army cards lay idle and can no longer influence any battle. Likewise, if you run out of soldiers, you can’t play your captains for the remainder of the round, an oversight you want to avoid.
At the same time, those cards create a curious hybrid of worker placement and auction game. While selecting actions, you’re simultaneously bidding for one side to win by committing military strength. While only one Army is required, you can always muster more forces to tip the scales in your favor. However, coin is tight in this game and your ranks may exhibit that meager economy. The balance becomes one of rationing your troops between ensuring victory in one area and/or diversifying across the board. Then again, you can always play the ‘Betrayal’ Tactic card which allows you to fight for both sides in a selected battle. Played effectively, it opens up your options giving you access to more rewards and a little leeway in manipulating fights to your advantage. It feels thematically strange, but devilishly satisfying.
The three placement arenas also create some good tension. As you’re normally only allowed to support one house in a fight, you have to juggle a desire to advance particular houses along in Influence versus grabbing the best spaces. Invariably, the sweetest spots will commit you to support a noble family you care for the least. But even if you spend a captain for only one action in a battle, it generally never feels wasted. That’s because the three battles have a surprising synergy. Coalitions are fluid and change year to year, even battle to battle. In a given round it’s very likely you’ll be allied with and working against every other opponent between the trio of engagements. And if you find yourself a minor actor on one of the stages, you can still play antagonist to make another player nervous…or worse.
Game play moves rapidly, especially in the first couple of years with only three and four pawns respectively – although some reward boxes gain an extra pawn to place. Calculating the victors of each round and setting up for the new year takes just as long, or longer, as actually playing out a round. So this dog doesn’t out-stay its welcome. And that’s good, otherwise it would definitely grow stale. Although the combative protagonists and Orders of Battle change every round, it doesn’t really lend itself to more variety or replayability. You’re still selecting more of the same. Those actions just happen to be in evolving areas. As most sessions wrap up in around an hour for experienced players, it’s not huge issue.
Dogs of War is certainly attractive and grandiose. Its stunning artwork and fancy minis draw you into its backstory in defiance of its narrative deficiencies. And while the production value is wantonly exorbitant, all it need do is pull you in long enough to experience the tense, nuanced worker placement design that lies underneath in all its abstracted glory. For gamers not enamored with the style, this breed is probably just an over-priced hound. For fans of the category, steampunk, macabre fiction and general attention to detail, Dogs of War will prove a beautiful purebred to have in the gaming kennel.
iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Cool Mini or Not for providing a review copy of Dogs of War.