Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Review - Dogs of War

By Paolo Mori

Published by Cool Mini or Not

"Conceived by renowned game designer Paolo Mori, Dogs of War is an elegant game set in a steampunk-influenced renaissance universe. Noble houses engage each other in a series of fierce battles, and it is up to the players and the Dogs of War they control to deploy their private armies in support of whatever house they wish to favor.

Clockwork knights and imposing war machines shift the tides of war as they enter the battlefields, but the interest of their Dog of War captains actually lie in the rewards offered by each noble house to its supporters.

Players will want to gain influence with the noble houses and make sure those houses are victorious in battle so that their influence is more valuable at the end of the game. Thus the Dogs of War flock to support a house on the rise and are all too quick to betray their previous patrons if things go awry. There are several pathways to victory, from crushing your opponents in battle to managing to gain influence with the right houses, or simply reaping the best battle rewards offered by them."

I usually reserve my 'this is a great looking game and has high production values' comments for another publisher Who I Will Not Name, but if I didn't know better I'd assume that this wonderfully illustrated and hefty box had been produced by that other publisher Who I Will Not Name and had followed their usual standard. I'm new to Cool Mini Or Not and straight away I'm impressed by their product. It's well packed, there's plenty of components and it feels like a worthwhile spend of RRP £44.99. It's at all gaming stores now, so find your local store here.

Speaking of contents, inside the hardy box you get a game board, coins and tokens of various use, cards for all occasions, some nifty player's screens that keep your machinations secret, and some plainly coloured but well sculpted playing pieces, like busts, that act as representations of the mercenary captain each player wants to play. It's all of very good quality and there's plenty of material, so at first it may seem a little daunting and complicated but it really isn't that bad once you get into the flow of the game.

And what a simple game it is - after a game overview there's just six pages of rules that are easily interpreted and will get you up and running in about an hour, based on playing the game with three players as we did. In fact, the majority of the rulebook is background material which fills you in with the backstory of each of the captains and the world they live in. It's the kind of thing you'd expect to see in a wargame or tabletop RPG, and it's an interesting world and adds flavour but doesn't influence gameplay.

It's at this point I'd usually explain how the game works, but you can download the rules for free here and straight away you can see how the game works, what's involved and read about the history of the world.

So let me tell you how this game worked for us.

First and foremost, we had a lot of fun with it. It was easy to grasp but even though we were playing with the minimum number of players - it's for 3 to 5 people - it did take a while to get set up correctly. I think our mistake was handing the rulebook around, but what we should have done was leave it with one person to instruct the others and then step in if they weren't sure about something.

So, we chose our captains and regaled each other with stories about the mercenary we had chosen. That's not part of the game, we just did that for fun, but after reading the background it seemed a shame not to reference it and add some atmosphere.

Then we started to hire armies and choose our battles. It was going swimmingly... and then the scheming started. And with scheming come suspicion. And with suspicion comes ATTACK HIM FIRST BEFORE HE DOES THE SAME TO ME, GODDAMIT!

This is where Dogs of War is a very fun game. You choose where to place your captains to win the victory and claim the prize, but it also pits you against the other players around the table as well as form uneasy - and potentially fatal - alliances. We were choosing the house we wished to support and then started to commit. At first we were enjoying the game but it really doesn't take long before you realise that everyone around that table that's not you wants you to fail. And fail big time. So, all you can do is hit back. I can't go into what was actually said - the language is far too colourful - but there were some amazingly heated debates around the table that night, and once it rose to fever pitch we called it a night, with the promise that we would play again with cooler heads.

Don't get me wrong; this game may seem like it makes you hate your friends, and that they hate you, but that's the fun of it - there are games out there where you play, lose, then graciously shake the hand of your opponent with a muttered 'good game'. Not Dogs of War. We were ready to flip the table, accuse each other of either betrayal or simply cheating, and start jamming the pieces where they weren't supposed to go. This game isn't just about winning tokens or cards, it's about being the best and everyone - everyone - wants to be the best.

Perhaps we missed the point. Perhaps it was just meant to be a simple strategy game that you'd play for an evening and have a good laugh about, but that's not what happened. I blame the fact that there's no dice, no element of chance so that you can say 'that's the luck of the draw' and blame it on fate. Although there is an element of chance, it's primarily down to the decisions and deviousness of the players, and that's what makes it playable over and over again.

Dogs of War is a cracking game. It won't tear friends apart but it will certainly make for some interesting conversations both during and after the game and it makes for an evening of surprises and shocks. It makes me laugh even now how fast alliances would change every turn, and that 'what will happen next?' factor will make you want to come back to it on a regular basis.

Recommended.