Assyrian Wars – Boardgame Review
Jerusalem the Encircled
UGG’s Assyrian Wars Puts the War in Holy War
By Johnny L. Wilson
In 721 B.C. (BCE), Sargon II inaugurated his rule with a drive from the northern part of what is now Iraq, through portions of present day Syria, into the northern portion of Israel, and down to the area known today as Gaza. In so doing, the powerful empire alarmed Egypt, sent one king into hiding in Ethiopia, deported the populations of more than one civilization, and claimed sovereignty over the nearest Greek-controlled islands of the Mediterranean. Such a demonstration of power inevitably draws attention to itself. By 671 B.C. (BCE), the Assyrian Empire was occupying Egypt. But the furthest boundaries of its reign began to recede as the Medes allied with the Babylonians to bring down Ninevah, the capital of Assyria in 612 B.C. (BCE).
Assyrian Wars (AW) from Udo Grebe Games offers the opportunity to recreate this era of conquest, deportation, exploitation, extermination, obsequy, punishment and vengeance. As a card-driven game, it offers ample opportunity for visualizing massive troop movements across the so-called Fertile Crescent along with plenty of dirty tricks and diplomatic dances. At first glance, it seems like GMT’s Napoleonic Wars or upcoming Here I Stand, placed in the late 8th century B.C. (BCE). Yet, it is considerably more. It is considerably more complicated and, once one gets past the inevitable rules questions and learning curve, more satisfying to a group of players.
ANCIENT INSURGENTS: In the 8th-7th centuries B.C. (BCE), a proto-Iraqi empire called the Assyrians (black color) dominated the civilized world. Here, three players compete in the "Rise and Fall" scenario that simulates this 100 years of Assyrian history.
It’s in the Cards (Card-Driven Mechanics)
AW is consistent with the basic card-driven paradigm in that it uses cards which provide the options of Action Points versus Events. The events provide that sense of randomness and welcome dirty tricks that most of us enjoy in multiplayer games. The action points allow one to mobilize, purchase troops or mercenaries, purchase boxes on the diplomatic chart, or accomplish other optional tasks. There are even pre-assigned home cards that function as PLUS cards and let you do more than one thing in a given impulse. Sound familiar? It should. These are standard principles of card-driven games. Players with the most cards can "pre-empt" other players. Still sound familiar? Again, it should.
(left) ASHUR TO ASHUR: History depicts the Assyrians and their pseudonymous god of war, Ashur, as hostile and bloodthirsty. AW’s home cards depict both the bloodthirstiness with one card that allows an extra battle round with extra casualties and one card that adds one to the effectiveness of every Assyrian regular.
However, AW has different wrinkles, even on events. Most card-driven games have event cards that are required to be played-even if they hurt the one who has to play them (Here I Stand has a lot of these). Yet, AW depends mostly on an off-board timeline for those hard-wired events that must happen. Most prominent would be the death of Assyrian kings. One wouldn’t want Sargon II to go beyond Game Turn 1. Assyria has to get slightly weaker in order for the other powers to have a chance in the game and to reflect the historical reality. Sennacherib may have terrorized Israel and Judah, but he was not quite the general that Sargon II was.
With regard to action points, AW really changes the horizon. Each country gets ECO points (that go up and down with regard to conquest of ECO-rated cities, a trading mechanism built into the game, or playing of certain events cards) that affect the income available each impulse. This means that one can potentially buy units or hire mercenaries based on action points derived from one’s income, as well as use the APs on the card played to move the armies. This adds a new dimension to each impulse and makes the economic game quite worthwhile.
Emissary to Persia (Diplomacy Track)
Also consistent with many card-driven games is the diplomatic track. Major powers, controlled by individual players, use their points to advance or retreat the diplomatic chit of minor powers according to boxes on the diplomatic chart. Once the power gets the minor power’s chit to the alliance zone, the other players can’t touch it without conquering the minor power or invoking certain events cards. The alliance zone allows the major player to deploy the minor power’s forces and use them.
DIPLOMATIC COMPLEXITY: AW’s approach to diplomacy is slightly more complex than the average card-driven game. Moving up and down the track really changes what one can do with the minor power being influenced.
Unlike many card-driven games, privileges increase as the minor power chit moves up the track. Nothing happens from Box 0 to Box 3. Boxes 4-6, however, are the Trade zone. The major power who claims the minor power in his/her trade zone gets an extra trade point during the interphase (between complete game turns, not just impulses) for each trade relationship on his/her diplomatic track. Boxes 7-9 reflects a minor power that is positive toward the major power. Not only does the major power get the trade point during the interphase, but the minor power has to pay a point of tribute during the Tribute Phase. Boxes 10-12 is the March zone. The major power gets trade and tribute benefit, as well as the ability to treat the minor power’s territories (but not the cities themselves) as friendly territories. Finally, Boxes 13-15 reflect full alliance, allowing free passage, all previous benefits and full control.
AW also has an interesting optional rule called Secret Diplomacy. Under this rule, players secretly select an icon on the back of one of their home cards (Elam gets to select two icons because it has a weak economic and military base at the beginning). If one of the other powers is selected, it is possible to create a revolt in that power’s city. If the "minor city" icon is selected (in the picture below, next to the trade icon), one gets a free minor city pact. If one selects the trade marker (circled in the picture), one can either remove a rival’s trade marker from a city or conduct a free raid attempt on that city. This would seem like everyone automatically gets a piece of the action, but there is a little bit of feint and disinformation necessary because should two powers select the same icon during the same interphase, the two powers each forfeit the objective chosen on the respective card.
(left) DIP AND DUCK: The Secret Diplomacy round of the interphase gives one a chance to select one of these icons. Here, the Trade icon is circled. If a player is the only one to select the icon, the action happens automatically. With the icon circled here, the player can remove another player’s trade relationship with a minor city or conduct a raid without paying any action points. If two players select the same icon, both players lose the opportunity.
Chariots for Hire (Military Units)
In most card-driven games, the counters are merely placeholders representing strength points. This is true in the basic game of AW, as well. However, optional rule 9.7 offers different abilities for certain units. This adds more interesting flavor to combat and provides for more of an incentive to combine arms (for big attacks) or isolate cavalry types for additional movement. The disadvantage to the optional rule is that one must now pay extra for the special abilities in addition to the 2 points per combat strength.
The advantage is particularly useful for bow units. Bow units get an additional round of combat (in the first round) before anyone else can attack Horsebowmen and chariots get an ability to "ambush." They can fire in that extra round and then, try to evade the battle before the melee rounds (regular rounds) begin.
In addition, heavy infantry, heavy cavalry and chariots get a special ability to kill double their number of foes per round if they roll a 2 on the d6. However, chariots who have fired in the special bow round of the first combat round cannot take the heavy unit ability in the first round. Heavy units also have the advantage of canceling out some of the bow hits because of their superior armor. (Note: Heavy unit abilities do not apply to sieges-only to standard battles where they could run their opponents down and stomp them.)
All powers can hire mercenaries at a reduced rate. Their strength is equivalent to the combat strength of regulars, but mercenaries are notoriously unreliable. So, all mercenaries disappear during the interphase except for Assyria’s. Assyria keeps them on the board until its first impulse of the next game turn. This is because Assyria was the first country in the world to keep a standing army. Of course, Assyria must immediately pay for the mercenaries on that impulse or the greedy thieves disappear.
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