Navajo Wars’ tabletop epic of once upon a time in the West

, | Game reviews

Navajo Wars, a solitaire boardgame from superserious publisher GMT, is tightly straightjacketed into some very specific historical beats. They happen every time you play. For instance, the first of the three scenarios — string them all together for the full Navajo wars — covers the arrival of Spanish settlers in the American Southwest. It opens with a looming military crackdown, visited first upon the neighboring Pueblo and then turning its focus on the Navajo. Then the Franciscans will always drop two missions in Navajo territory, followed by Viceroy De Galvez arming the Comanche and Ute to keep pressure on the Navajo, and then the establishment of a Catholic colonial base in New Mexico. These very specific gameplay beats are always and only how Navajo Wars plays out. The length of time and the minor incidents between these events varies. The major events themselves do not.

This is, of course, exactly as designer Joel Toppen intended. But is it the best way to make a game about the Navajo? Doesn’t it imply a sort of fatalism, as if these people were always and only resigned to the same sad fate? These Navajo wars will always and only end in the creation of two American forts, the death of the beloved Navajo/US government go-between Henry Linn Dodge, the insurgency of Manuelito, and finally Kit Carson’s campaign to forcibly relocate the entire Navajo civilization to an ill-equipped reservation called Bosque Redondo.

Doing well in Navajo Wars, a game about a culture persevering in the face of inevitable decline, is often a matter of memorizing the pieces Toppen has assembled to re-render history. It’s not so much about reacting to unfolding events as it’s about anticipating what you know is coming and getting all your ducks in a row before it arrives. Is this really the best way to tell the story of the decline and fall of the Navajo?

After the jump, everyone expects the Spanish subjugation!

I’m inclined to say ‘yes’. As I was learning Navajo Wars, setting up yet another game by carefully seeding the event deck with specific events at specific intervals as per the rulebook, I was reminded of the hand-wringing over Paradox’s initial release of Victoria, a computer game that models the world during the Industrial Revolution. The American Civil War would always trigger in 1861. Always. This was outrageous for folks who expected a sandbox. They wanted to delay the Civil War, or even circumvent it. They chafed at the idea of a history ‘what if?’ — or at least a historical strategy videogame — being driven by narrative.

But Toppen isn’t making a sandbox. He’s telling a story. He puts forth a fascinating framework for a solitaire game, and he builds into the historical straightjacketing plenty of wiggle room with a clever AI system, card draws, and especially dice. Oh those goddamnable clacking brutal dice. So much of the outcome is based on getting a very specific roll at a very specific moment. You will look back on that time you needed a five or higher, but you only rolled a four. That goddamnable four was the turning point. How the fate of an entire people was decided by that unkind four!

But even with fives and sixes, Navajo Wars puts you on the receiving end of an inexorable history, with events you must pass like checkpoints on a rally race or displays on a museum tour. There’s a certain helpless quality to it all. This is very different from some of GMT’s other history-oriented card games, like 1960, Twilight Struggle, and Labyrinth, where there’s a possible detour around nearly every historical highlight. In those card games, nothing is set in stone. Everything can be avoided. History is possibility instead of scripting. But in Navajo Wars, the Franciscans will arrive, come hell or high water. You can only endure. I suspect that’s Toppen’s point exactly. Those other games are about history’s power brokers. Navajo Wars is about one of history’s victims.

The more avoidable problem is that the systems and their relationships to each other aren’t always clear. You can say many many things about Navajo Wars, most of them positive, but you cannot say it’s elegant. It’s complex. It’s complicated. At times, it’s downright tortured. And you have to learn the interaction of these sometimes tortured systems before you can wrap your head around the history they’re recreating, the story they’re telling. It’s like learning a new language or watching Shakespeare or listening to an opera. You can follow along, but to really appreciate the story, you want to know the nuances of the words.

Sure, I understand the idea of enemy morale, a value on a scale on the left side of the board. But I have to learn how to manage it. I have to learn what sets it apart from the other six markers on the same scale. I have to bang my dice against this game, enduring a procession of painful fours before I learn that enemy morale is almost solely a matter of causing the enemy to not win battles. I have to hold out until the time is right, and then I have to lure an enemy raid deep into Navajo country to hand them a humiliating non-win. If there’s another way to prevail in Navajo Wars, I haven’t stumbled across it yet. Or I should say Toppen’s design hasn’t revealed it to me yet. The model is for the Navajo to weather military attacks and thereby discourage the Spanish, Mexicans, or Americans, hoping they lose the will to fight. It’s like the Eastern Front of WWII. It’s like Vietnam. It’s like the war on terror. Why didn’t Navajo Wars tell me this up front? Again, I suspect that’s Toppen’s point exactly. You learn in the telling of the story.

Toppen’s more obvious accomplishment in Navajo Wars is stitching together interesting systems to convey the unique situation of the Navajo, or the Dine as they call themselves in their own language and as Toppen carefully calls them in the manual. Toppen’s respect is evident in every corner of this game, and particularly memorable as he explains it in his excellent designer’s notes. This isn’t just a game about Native Americans. It’s specific to the Navajo culture, customs, land, and aesthetic. For instance, the map, laid out on an expansive and gorgeous board, is about three times as large as it needs to be. What a refreshing change from the usual cramped boards. And what a way to render the wide-open expanse of the Southwest.

But this isn’t your usual map of conquest, because this isn’t a game about conquest or even combat. The map represents six distinct regions radiating out from Canyon de Chelly, the Navajo stronghold in modern day Arizona where peaches once grew. These regions are sets of adjoining points, bounded by four sacred mountains, each point represented by a colored stone. The points span a continuum from defensible barren terrain to vulnerable arable terrain. Do you position your families closer to the enemy for easier raids into Santa Fe and more bountiful harvests? Or do you hang back in the shelter of canyons where it’s not so easy to grow corn? It’s not an either/or proposition. It’s a choice from one to six that, like many parts of Navajo Wars, is neatly tailored to six-sided die rolls.

The map changes over time, and with successive scenarios. Droughts make it harder to grow corn. Whereas the Spanish just build missions, the Mexicans and Americans build cattle ranches that aggressively roll back your farming land. Later scenarios keep you running around to intercept “intruders”, face down chits that serve as random encounters with trappers, traders, slavers, firearms caches, wandering tribes, and so forth. Whereas the first scenario with Spanish settlers is relatively static, the map in the Mexican and American scenarios are dotted with these unexpected misfortunes and pleasant surprises.

The most important fact of the map, and arguably one of the most important facts of Native American culture in the Southwest, is that it doesn’t sustain concentrated population. You have to spread your people thin. Clustering them can be temporarily beneficial, but it’s horribly punishing if you get caught off guard. The scoring system is largely about making sure your families thrive enough to spread out.

The concept of families is another unique system in Navajo Wars. This population model is a thing of poignant beauty. Your Navajo units aren’t armies, or war parties, or raiders. They’re called “families”, although they represent much larger population groups than a single family. It’s an abstracted representation of dispersed Navajo social groups. In the context of the game, a complete family consists of a man for war, a woman for culture, and a child for scoring when the scoring round comes around. Children being the future and all.

But what happens in the course of the game is that families fall apart, either by war, by deprivation, by Comanche raids, by slavery. The Dine become a people of gaps where fathers, wives, and children should be. Much of the challenge is trying to fill those gaps, struggling to make the Dine whole again. In fact, the overall objective above and beyond the military aspect is to form complete families, and spread them across the land. Or, in the words of another ancient tradition from a distant shore, to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.

Furthermore, a collection of elders represents the number of actions you can take, with older elders making actions more effective. But the older an elder, the more likely he (or she) is to die. If you can’t populate your families, how are you going to maintime a council of elders? It all has a very wistful quality, resigned to death and passing time. We’re used to videogames emotionally engaging us. How often can boardgames manage that?

Another beautiful concept is how Navajo Wars measures time. You play in a series of turns, of course. But for each turn, you choose one of three options: direct action, planning, or the passage of time. Direct action uses your families on the board, for raiding, for agriculture, for tribal gatherings, for investigating intruders. Planning brings your elders into play, making them more powerful, giving you more points to intercede enemy actions, and laying the foundation for future families. Then there is the passage of time, which lets you bring new families into play and replenish the inevitable losses in your existing families. Here is where a new brave steps into the empty slot next to a fatherless child and husbandless wife. Here is where a man marries and a child grows up. Here is where children are especially powerful for how you can convert them into anyone you want. Death, birth, adulthood, marriage, death.

This means that for all the historical straightjacketing seeded into the event deck, you control how time proceeds. You control when Navajo Wars models the fast decisive action of a few weeks or the coming of a new generation. You know what to expect in the event deck. But every turn, every drawn event card, can be accompanied by a very different set of actions. I might know a scoring card is coming within the next three draws, but will those turns be tactical, strategic, or a time of growth?

This being a solitaire game, it needs a mechanism to push back. Toppen does a couple of smart things here. The first is a bowl of cubes that represent the spoils of raiding. This was a way of life for the Navajo, both as the perpetrators and the victims of raiding. When you conduct a raid, you take a colored cube from the bowl, resolve it, and then set it aside. Most of the cubes represent stolen livestock or captives. Some of them represent military reprisals. You can only raid so much before you provoke a response. But a passage of time action stirs the cubes back into the bowl, making it safer to raid again.

But the more prominent AI engine, if you will, is a column of chits on the right side of the board. You resolve them one at a time based on how active the enemy is. Each scenario has its own chits. The Spanish act differently from the Mexicans who act differently from the Americans. But you can clearly see the chits lined up in sequence. You know exactly what’s coming at any given time. First a build action, then a subvert action, then another build, then an expand action, then slaves, then a raid of a specific strength. This will inform how you proceed.

But Toppen makes these chits unstable. As with many Native Americans, the Navajo had a hard time parsing what these Europeans wanted. It was a classic example of two cultures so different from each other that communication didn’t necessarily lead to understanding. For instance, when America’s war with Mexico ended, the Navajo didn’t understand why the Americans suddenly wanted to protect the Mexicans they had been fighting for years. The Navajo had no concept of conquest and subjugation, so it made no sense that America’s enemies would become her protected subjects. When the Americans pressed the Navajo to stop raiding Mexican settlements, the same settlements the Americans had been attacking, it seemed random.

Similarly, that line of chits for upcoming enemy actions is never entirely reliable. Sometimes the chits flip to reveal something different. You expected a raid, but instead the Americans declared an extended period of peace. Sometimes chits swap places with a column of alternate actions out of play. You thought you were safe from slave raids, but here they come again. Sometimes the chits move up or down. Now that aggressive burst of colonial expansion is closer and you’re not going to be able to harvest your corn in time. Navajo Wars forces you to deal with an erratic way of thinking beyond your ken. You see what’s going to happen, but you can never be sure. It’s frustrating. It’s supposed to be. These are people you can’t possibly understand. In Kelly Reichardt’s existential frontier movie, Meek’s Cutoff, a group of settlers on the Oregon Trail captures an Indian. One of them considers the Indian while mending his moccasin. “You can’t even imagine the things we’ve done,” she says, “the cities we’ve built.” It works both ways.

One of my favorite elements of the design is how it occasionally lets you do an endrun around the die rolls. You don’t have to spend the entirety of Navajo Wars afraid of that goddamnable four when you need a five or higher. Because among the event cards are boons called ceremony cards. These are important for how they stock your future generations with more population. But they can also stay in your hand to let you declare a specific number for some future die rolls. So if you get a ceremony card for a six, you can set up what would have been an unlikely military situation. Then you just play the card instead of rolling the die. Ha! Take that, America, with your five-in-six chance of running down my Navajo family in the San Juan Valley.

Navajo Wars has a fiendish solution to keep these ceremony cards in check. Because whenever you draw a ceremony card, every ceremony card you’re holding has a serious negative effect. That six you’re holding while you try to lure out an enemy raid has basically just exploded in your hand like an misfiring artillery shell. And don’t even think about saving up anything resembling a hand of ceremony cards. Getting caught with more than a couple of these will make those painful fours seem like a walk in the park.

Navajo Wars also includes cultural developments that tweak the rules and lend the game a little extra replayability. As you progress through the historical stages, you pick out cards from a deck of cultural developments. These are technologies you can assemble to sort of build your own faction. Are your Navajo a warrior society, elder-centric, or astute traders? Do you level up one cultural development all the way, or focus more broadly on multiple lower-level developments? It’s a skill tree smack dab in the middle of your historical strategy game, and it’s as gratifying as anything in Diablo or Kemet. In the designer notes, Toppen even suggests a historical build. The real world Navajo worked on their weaving and horsemanship, and eventually maxxed out their Master of the Mesa skill.

This is the sort of wiggle room Navajo Wars allows as it hits its staccato historical beats. And I ultimately agree with Toppen that the beats shouldn’t be compromised. This isn’t an alternate history. It’s about weathering — indeed, being conscious of — the actual history. The Spanish, Mexicans, and Americans will all arrive, one after the other, as sure as the sun rises in the morning. In their campaign, the Mexicans will fight a proxy war with enemy Navajo from New Mexico, a serious drought will kick in, and then Narbona will arrive on the scene.

From what we know of Navajo history, Narbona was their greatest leader, waging war against the Spanish and the Mexicans. As he got older, as he watched the procession of one imperial power after another, as he saw the inevitability of the situation, he advocated for peace with the Americans. In his waning years, when he was far too old for the ride but it was far too important a ride not to make, he traveled to meet with American officers to negotiate a peace treaty. After the terms had been settled, an American soldier claimed one of the Navajo in attendance was riding a horse that had been stolen. An ultimatum was delivered to return the horse. It was one of those failures of communication. Why were the Americans demanding a specific horse? The ensuing confusion turned into a massacre. Narbona was killed by an artillery blast fired at fleeing Navajo.

This isn’t explicitly a part of the game, but for me, it’s part of the moment when the event card for “Narbona’s War” turns up. This is a chance late in the Mexican campaign to drive settlements out of Navajo lands, to recreate Narbona’s military victory and end with a decisive win before the Americans arrive. Fifteen years later, Narbona will die by canister shot from a cannon that had made its way from a thousand miles to the east, where Washington poured men into the West by way of Missouri, fulfilling America’s Manifest Destiny. The oppressive weight of inevitability is a sad fact of Navajo Wars.

The game takes a turn for the brutal in the American campaign. You know the Americans will build two forts at some point during the first nine event cards, which all but shuts down raiding in the Zuni and Hopi lands on the bottom of the board. Of course, it also protects Navajo families from raids and slavery. But then again it saps the Navajo of their culture, which is one of the game’s measures of your success. Once these forts appear, a storied Navajo insurgent named Manuelito will appear. And then the American Civil War kicks in, drawing American attention from the territory.

At this point, you’re afforded a brief opportunity to achieve victory while the Americans fight each other. But if you can’t clear the forts — I’ve never been able to do it — Kit Carson will arrive as an unbeatable end boss appearing on the ultimate historical card, the one that draws it all to a close. Carson looks proud but forlorn. Almost apologetic. He initiates a final campaign modeled as a series of powerful raids to seize the Navajo families. Hold out long enough and you’ll earn a minor victory. Otherwise, the outcome is the historical outcome, with the Navajo marched en masse 450 miles away to Bosque Redondo, where they’re settled with their traditional enemies, the Apaches, to farm a plot of barren land. The government project was characterized by benign neglect at best and gross mismanagement at worst. It lasted four years before the less numerous Apaches fled and then the Navajo were finally granted a reservation on their original land.

Bosque Redondo isn’t in Toppen’s game, because it takes place after the end of the Navajo wars. But the implication is that the best you can do for the Dine is spare them those four years on a mismanaged reservation. This isn’t one of those games where Germany wins World War II, the Civil War never happens, or America doesn’t invade Iraq. The oppressive weight of inevitability is a sad fact of Navajo Wars all the way through to the end.

This is a hardcore solitaire game, and it demands a lot of time to learn and then play. Unfortunately, the rules are a mess, full of exceptions and little caveats. Even when you’ve learned the rules, they’re unwieldy. Navajo Wars comes with a rules book, a play book, and two separate player aids. Each of these four sources has unique information cross referenced from the other sources. As you learn Navajo Wars, and even as you play after you’ve learned, you’ll constantly have to refer to these various sources. A game this complex, with rules this meticulous and specific, needs the rules completely self-contained in one source. A player aid should be a reminder, not an addendum. And although the board is gorgeous, I almost wish it featured more player aids and less open space. Aesthetics are fine. Playability is better.

But if you’re willing to suck it up and deal with the intricate rules, this is a uniquely rewarding game, unlike anything I’ve ever played. It’s a poignant narrative with a clear voice (complex rules notwithstanding) telling a powerful story about American history.

(Order Navajo Wars from Amazon.com here to support Qt3. Furthermore, I highly recommend Hampton Sides’ down-in-the-sagebrush chronicle of the period, Blood and Thunder: The Epic Story of Kit Carson and the Conquest of the American West, which Navajo Wars designer Joel Toppen cites as a major influence for the game.)

  • Navajo Wars

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  • In Navajo Wars, you will face a constantly changing and aggressive enemy. You will face Spanish, Mexican, and American soldiers and settlers. You must [verb missing for some weird reason] skillful planning and resource management in order to maintain your tribe's freedom. Navajo Wars uses a unique mixture of cards and enemy instruction matrix to drive the actions of the Navajo's opponents. More than just chart-checking and die-rolling, in Navajo Wars you have to make lots of meaningful decisions in order to win!
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