Recommendation Contigent on Insanity
I think it’s critical to start this review off by saying I’m completely insane. And really, Triumph of Chaos is a damn good game. If you’re also completely insane.
I submitted this as an article I think a week or two ago but there has been a ton of ameritrash news in the meantime and I was drunk while I wrote it so it was pretty messy [editor's note: When it came to our attention that we had misplaced Gary Sax's article, we considered putting up his original article, but after reading it, well...yeah, we decided to go with this version]. I think I'm just going to put this in the blog area and post it on BGG... it's a rather special interest topic anyway so it's no big deal. I'd be glad to answer any questions about the game in the comments:
I’ve been really marinating this review for a long time because I was trying to figure out how to really phrase my review of Triumph of Chaos (TOC), a card driven wargame created by POG shark David Docktor depicting the Russian Civil War. I also wanted to get enough plays in that I felt comfortable saying some things about the game. I’ve played a number of times, about 5, all by e-mail. And this is a long game so that’s all you’re going to get from me before I review. I try not to dick around with too much collector component fondling in my reviews but I’ll start with that. Finally, if you want pictures and a sense of the game, here’s a link to a two turn illustrated AAR I made. I won’t be completing it, as I’m just too lazy, but you can see how the game plays:
What is the Game and Components
It is a CDG of Russian Civil War a la Twilight Struggle or Paths of Glory. 2 players. White and Red forces. And a cornucopia of system controlled neutral nations that can fall into your paws throughout the game.
The components are this strange mix of shoddy and really nice. It has normal wargame components in general. The map is a huge paper map of Russia. With respect to the map, I really like it, though it’s a little busy. It can be slightly difficult to visualize the connections. But all in all I think it’s one of the more characterful CDG point to point maps I’ve seen. CDG maps can end up being quite bland physical maps overlaid with white boxes and lines of various types of the important points and the TOC map is about as far as you can get from that boring version of a point to point map as possible. Very stylish. Perhaps a little too stylish.
Counters. Lots of them. With respect to the counters, I think they’re one of the high points of the design. Big thick counters with some great art on them. Hard to punch too… Again, sometimes a little busy but they do an excellent job of reinforcing the bizarre rag tag of groups and nations fighting in the Russian civil war. Definite thumbs up.
The cards have some very nice artwork and photos, kudos. Unfortunately the stock is pretty suspect. They are cut pretty poorly and thin. I haven’t played the game face to face, but I will definitely be buying some card protectors for when (really if) I do. I’d be concerned about these seeing heavy use as is.
Beyond that, you have 2 really, really long paper rulebooks. I don’t know what else to say other than that I consider them extremely poorly organized. I have trouble finding anything. Information is spread throughout two books. There are a million and one rules. We will be getting to that in the gameplay section. But from a components standpoint this was not looking good as I got the thing ready to play and found an opponent online.
More than that, you need the living rules. Those rulebooks that came with the game? Not so good—they feature a game that is too heavily favored towards the Reds. So you need to download those living rules and rely on them to get a more tense, even contest. I hate doing this, it’s a big pet peeve of mine. I accept it because I’m a wargamer and I accept a lot of things, and my time isn’t so important that printing out a new copy of rules is really that big a deal. On top of that I know how impossible it would be to design a game with this many mind boggling card interactions.
Finally, a quick word about the expansion, the Comrade’s Guide. I have to say it probably isn’t worth it. It is edited abominably, has pictures blown up from tiny resolutions and has a lot of poorly written amateur historical stuff in it. Which is a shame. The game is so complex and multifaceted that I think it could have used an entire issue just discussing tactics. I would have valued that immensely, it is a missed opportunity to have a volume that instead has half a magazine of throwaway historical articles. The counters and optional rules introduced are interesting but sometimes only cover situations that would rarely happen ingame. Overall I’d have to say don’t buy this when you first get the game.
Where to start... I think I’ll start with the bad. I’m putting this upfront. I should probably put it in big, red, flashing letters: this game is a nightmare. A terrible, terrible nightmare of rules. Getting back to that insane part at the beginning of the review. This is everything bad about wargames you hear about that all the sassy eurogamers talk about. Lots of exceptions you’ll never remember. i.e. “God damn it, I haven’t been moving the IGSR train [the Tsar’s train full of gold captured by the Czech Legion] toward my Urals home spots every turn for free like I am supposed to be able to!” I can’t even begin to remember them all, if X, then Y but only if Z types of thing. That example is a very obvious one.
Fundamentally, though, the game is a traditional POG style CDG. Units have strength, health and movement printed on them. So you have a baseline set of rules that function as the heart of the game—a familiar set of rules. The chrome on top of that is truly breathtaking, however. Describing them would be impossible but I already gave you the flavor. So stop here if you don’t like complicated rules and exceptions and rule referencing. You’ve already bailed out of this plane: don’t play this game.
Ok. For those of you still here. Fellow asylum inmates. The game features some really awesome innovations that expand the genre. The essential backdrop of the historical situation is that there are two main forces, the Siberian and Southern White forces, fighting the centrally located Reds (Lenin et al). The Whites are spread throughout the winds on all sides of the Reds who are in the middle—so the Whites have a ton of rules making coordination impossible and making life difficult. Meanwhile the Reds deal with their own problems of fronts opening all around them, on all sides. A very, very interesting CDG scenario.
There are a ton of other forces besides those two White and Red factions. Docktor goes way beyond what a traditional CDG would do with this situation—specifically make an event card for each force. "I play this card and the Finnish come in!" Docktor reckons that a lot of the sides could have come in on either side that made it worth their while. Instead, he designs an entire subsystem to the game—the political phase. Essentially, at the beginning of each turn you play a blind bid political phase to pick up political cards using your normal event/operation cards. You make the tradeoff between using your resources to woo factions and gain control of their countries, cities and armies vs. moving, replacing and fighting with your armies already on the table. The political phase is a push-pull between the two sides for all the (almost 20) different factions that start neutral in the game. So you commit cards to try to bring new forces in on your side.
It’s hard to overstate how ingenious an advance this is. The CDG, for my money, is the biggest advance in wargames in forever. Why? One reason is tension and tradeoffs, but for me, the reason is politics and economics. CDGs let the wargamer simulate politics. This is the next step here. In previous games politics was deterministic—Italy would come in for the Allies when they played that card as event in POG. Docktor envisions politics as a process: if I come into a game I can think to myself, “This game I want to try to bring all the Baltic States in, hell or high water, and make a quick strike on Red Leningrad with their forces.” If he realizes it, my opponent can try to prevent me from doing that with his own political card selections. The political phase is a little clunky and takes a long time but I think, streamlined, it is potentially a step forward for wargames.
Beyond that, the other feature of the game is the chaos. You know, the third word in the game title. This game plays havoc on your plans. For me, this is in a good way. Units can enter from all sides. The game can be totally swung with new forces coming in during a particular phase. Your own forces don’t always obey you. The enemy can bring in forces controlled by the system, rather than the player! I love this. I really enjoy chaos and chance in my games, wrenches that make me react to the situation. Especially probabilistic stuff that I have some control over. Sometimes this game has a Player 1 vs. Player 2 vs. The System vibe. I dig this. You’ll have to decide for yourself how you feel about it, but I find it thrilling in many instances—you’re on the ropes only to play the right political cards and have Ukraine’s powerful forces join on your side. Alternatively the enemy is making an advance and you happen to play the switch sides card on an army that foolishly doesn’t have any elite units with it—suddenly you have a new army and the enemy has to retreat.
How does it play, overall? I can’t speak to balance too carefully but as is, with all the changes made to the game post release, I have experienced fairly good balance. I was crushed in early games with a veteran but have also surged ahead in other games with both sides. The sides’ player powers are nicely differentiated and the trade off tensions of having a lot to do and no time to do it are there, as most CDGs have.
My one complaint in this respect is that there are almost too many units and replacements. I feel that there are *far* too many RP in the game, especially for Red. My experience is that both sides find it easy to replace many of their losses due to the many 4 and 5 value cards in the deck. Red especially, since it has few restrictions on RP, can replace entire armies extremely quickly. I hate playing games where it feels like I haven’t made any real lasting impact on the enemy even after great successes. This game sometimes felt that way.
The theme in this game is so over the top it is almost overwhelming sometimes. All the cards have great theme and the game really feels like both sides are guiding a ship with half a rudder left, meanwhile drunkenly clubbing at each other. Having read up on the Russian civil war now (thanks TOC), that is exactly what the participants were experiencing. On top of that the units themselves, even boiled down to stats, are differentiated substantially. As Red, for example, you might be loathe to use certain disloyal units who disband at the drop of the hat. Other units (the Konarmii) are your rock—loyal elite units with virtually no ill effects that you must use as the communist hammer.
This is a tough review to call to score.
Really, you have to be insane to want to play a game like this, much less master it. The rules are a nightmare. The game is at times very hard to play. Almost impossible to play correctly unless one player is a real rules lawyer. I would have a hard time recommending to almost anyone on BGG. The rules are not just poorly organized, they are also complex, with lots of conditionals. A lot of things feel out of the players hands at times—-the game sometimes happens to you.
Luckily, I am completely insane. The game’s theme is drilled into the game. The game plays well even when you screw up most of the rules. The flavor of the 20 different factions and the political phase are great. There is no feeling like getting your ass handed to you on a front and then managing to just barely wrangle in a new country or republic to help you: what other game can you bring in the anarchists to fight on your side? The game still retains what is good from CDGs, if you can get past the absurd rules. It can be tense, close fought and historically enjoyable.
It is a game I can recommend to almost no one, but tell you that I always like to have a least one game of going by e-mail at all times for the unexpected pleasures it provides. I give it about an 8, conditional on being insane. I am also interested in Docktor's next CDG, the Spanish Civil War.