How do you feel about war games? No, not the miniatures-heavy, “throw a small mortgage and armfuls of dice at the table” affair that the term usually brings to mind these days, but actual games about war played on an actual board? If, like me, you immediately think beards and frowning over a map for days on end, counting hundreds of chits the size of a fingernail, then banish those thoughts immediately. GMT’s Plains Indian Wars is aimed squarely at those among us, who like the idea of historical war games, but don’t have a weekend to spare.
Not only will this play in under two hours but it is still meaty enough to provide a challenge to more seasoned board gamers. Perhaps more surprisingly, it even manages to be fun!
How To Play
Plains Indian Wars is a 1-4 player game, depicting the conflict between the combined US forces. The Cavalry and their allies and the Native American Northern and Southern Plains tribes. The game as noted above revolves around area control, where each faction’s coloured cubes denote presence in the territories on the board. Each side is attempting to gain victory points mainly through area control but also other objectives, depending on their factions.
The goals and strengths of each side are different and so the game itself is asymmetrical in design. The US side, for example, aims to complete the Transcontinental railroad and secure safe passage for the Wagons along the Western trails, while The Native forces aim to gain territories in the north and south while harrying the Cavalry and Settlers and picking off the wagons. The game is played over a series of rounds with the turn order being determined by a random disc draw at the start of each turn. Four of the factions, have Event Decks that will dictate how their forces are deployed and mobilised as well as some other in-game effects.
These events show real historical people or events (such as Geronimo, or the Pony Express) and add both flavour and tactical variety to each game. All factions take turns in the game depending on the order of the disc draw. When all have been drawn, they are returned to the bag and another round begins. The order of this disc draw is crucial- it can make or break a game in the final turns and is one of the many elements which can make Plains Indian Wars both fun and infuriating at times as a bad draw can leave you sat watching helplessly as your opponent goes to town on your forces.
The board itself is divided into territories representing the Northern Tribes and Southern tribes separated by spaces for the transcontinental railroad. Each of these territories has either orange or green borders to show which of the tribes controls these at the beginning of the game. In addition, the northernmost and southernmost territories are Enemy Tribe (Purple) regions and represent areas controlled by traditional tribal enemies of the Main Native American forces and as such are in an uneasy alliance with the US troops.
There are also Wagon trails where White cubes will move slowly West and represent targets for the Native American forces that need to be defended by the Cavalry (Blue) and Settlers (Brown) forces if they hope to win.
Every playable faction, and the Enemy Tribes, have their own specific dice for deciding the outcome of the inevitable skirmishes that will occur. These dice have different symbols for retreat, treaty (basically an end to violence for the turn), and hits, with different probabilities to represent their different strengths- the cavalry is the most effective in combat, the settlers are the least. These combat dice are the main feature of the game.
There is little “downtime”- turns are rarely spent preparing or amassing numbers as the board is too restrictive to enable forces to retreat and regroup at leisure. With few notable exceptions, opposing forces cannot coexist in the same territories, so whenever cubes are placed or move into areas containing the opposing forces, combat must occur until one side is wiped out or forced to retreat. This ensures that while tactical decisions have to be made, the game is fast-paced and encourages bold, high-risk tactics.
In Addition To The Dice
Other aspects add some tactical variability and thematic flavour to the game. For example, the Ambush rule means that whenever forces move into a territory with a single Native American cube, the defending player immediately gets one combat to die roll prior to the main engagement. This represents the flexible nature of the unconventional tactics employed by the Tribes to engage much larger forces in hit-and-run attacks, and within the game can lead to the balance of battle tipping considerably. Another interesting element of the game is the role of the “Enemy tribes” Faction.
These are based mainly in the North and South of the map. While these forces are controlled by the US player, they are not considered US forces themselves when calculating victory at the end of the game. As an added element of spice, the Enemies and Settlers, although ostensibly on the same side, harboured considerable enmity towards each other, and in the game, they cannot share territories unless Blue cavalry pieces are also present. They will also never fight together in conflicts meaning that occasionally, the US player will have to choose which ally they want to fight alongside in specific conflicts.
There is one more factor represented on the board- the Black railroad cubes. The railroad runs from one side of the board to the other and is built slowly from either side. If completed before the game ends, the US gains additional points. If it is incomplete the Native Americans gain points. The railroad divides the playing board and offers a different challenge to both opponents. If the Native Americans ignore the railroad, they will quickly be overwhelmed as it allows the cavalry and settlers to deploy deeper and more quickly into the heart of Tribal territories and they will soon see their numerical advantage start to diminish.
For the US, to concentrate too much on the railway and ignore the northern and southern areas of the map risks ceding too much territory and therefore the points that the Native American player needs to secure victory. It is an added dimension to an already intriguing puzzle. I have played the game several times now and as yet cannot decide which side has the advantage. The truth of the matter is that the card play and to a lesser extent how your dice roll will make a much greater difference to your chance of success than which side is chosen at the beginning, and ultimately this suggests the balance is about right.
The Buffalo In The Room
While many may refer to simpler times and view the use of language as incidental, I think it is unfortunate that the designers have chosen to use the outdated and insensitive term “Indian” to refer to the native American tribes in the title and the rules of the game. It feels jarring today and I can’t help feeling that the title alone may deter many gamers. The decision on language is all the more baffling as apart from the terminology, the depiction of events and individuals in the game generally shows respect and sympathy for the Native American combatants. The Faction decks do an excellent job of representing the historical setting and flavour of the era while still providing an entertaining gaming experience.
After playing my first couple of games, I found myself wanting to learn more about the conflict, and the historical figures depicted in the game, and I am sure that many other players like me, with limited knowledge of the historical context, will feel the same. It is just a shame that GMT dropped the ball in terms of the title and language used, as it will undoubtedly turn off some gamers who otherwise may have found the game enjoyable.
The Good, The Bad, And The Beige
Despite being a Historical wargame, Plains Indian Wars falls very much towards the lighter end of the gaming spectrum. The simple ruleset gears each turn towards snappy, game-changing decisions that come on the turn of a card. It’s fun, but the downside is that games can feel swingy and unpredictably can veer quickly into unfair if, as I inevitably find in dice games, Luck decides she doesn’t want to be a Lady tonight.
If you have a bad draw or your dice go cold on, it can feel rough. The hard-fought progress of your last turns can suddenly evaporate and that is never nice to see. Unless it’s your opponent in which case it’s hilarious. Some of this swing can be mitigated, I am sure, by knowledge of the card decks and anticipating the big Events that both you and your opponent will have, or saving your best cards for damage limitation- much the same as in the other GMT Stalwart ‘Twilight Struggle’.
But for players who prefer a more measured, logical gaming experience that rewards patience and planning this will be a turn-off. For all its serious war game trappings, Plains Indian Wars favours fun and surprises over strategic depth and in my view, it is all the better for it.
A further niggle is that while the rules have been admirably streamlined, they can also be a little woolly in places and frankly could have used some proofreading. Luckily the game designer has already produced an errata/ clarification and published this on Board Game Geek so hopefully, your first game will be a slightly less confusing one than mine. Also, another possible downside depending on your taste in aesthetics, the board will not appeal to everyone.
While it is clear the art is going for traditional and old fashioned, it looks underwhelming. Personally, I like it, I think beige is calming, but I’m prepared to admit I may be in a minority on that one.
So, if you are at all “war game curious” and want to dip your toe into historical war games without booking a week off, then give some serious thought to this. If the theme of the Wild West appeals, then definitely, give it a go. And if you also happen to really love cubes, then just click “Buy” now. Trust me, on this: Today is a good day to Dice!