Thursday, December 1, 2005

Triumph of Chaos, Part II

If you recall my report from the first half of our game, I was reasonably impressed. My main nervousness about Triumph of Chaos was always the complexity, with the long rulebook plus a supplement with lots of faction special rules, but my fears had been abated somewhat in actual play.

By the time we finished our second session with the game, though, the chrome and faction special rules combined with a lack of any acceptable player aids had started to weigh on us. None of the rules are tricky in and of themselves, but a combination of quantity and often-unclear presentation was a problem. Figuring out some of the setup charts for the Ukraine and Poland seemed to degenerate to guesswork at times. While playing the early game, with smaller and peripheral factions, was fine, entering the later game with larger and more complex factions (Ukraine, Poland, Mahkno), and where the victory conditions had become somewhat opaque, was definitely less satisfying. A game with this quantity of special-case rules really, really needs a decent reference sheet. How many games with potential have been sunk by the lack of a single well-thought-out, 1-page (front and back) reference sheet? Too many.

Another element of the game that seemed decent at first but wore thin with more play was the political phase. While I think the rules for politics are quite clever, I also think that from a game perspective, they just don't work very well. Each turn, players select action cards to commit to three political arenas, generically labeled "red", "white", and "other". Based on the amount of strength committed to each arena, a certain number of political cards will be selected, with the player who committed the most strength choosing a few from the pile, and the rest being selected randomly. Each card then has an effect on the allegiance of each political entity in the game.

This in theory sounds good. But each card, despite a thematic title, is essentially just an abstract collection of modifiers ("+1 White", "+2 Red"), often for 10 or more individual factions. Figuring out which cards to pick, especially if you get to pick a couple, is a mind-bending exercise in matrix manipulation. Even figuring out which arena to allocate to was opaque. And all of it was an exercise that doesn't offer much entertainment or interesting challenge.

I still think Triumph of Chaos does a lot of clever stuff, and while the second session with the game was tough, I like the design of the card decks a lot. I like the leader rules. I like the situation, with a combination of linear fronts and far-flung operations. I like the graphical presentation of the game, even if it's noisy in spots. But Matt showed little enthusiasm to play again, and in practice I have to admit that I do think it's over the complexity line of what most gamers are going to want to deal with, and, more to the point, the level of fiddly complexity presents a big barrier to feeling competent with the game in a reasonable amount of time. Paths of Glory and WWII: Barbarossa to Berlin are classics because they can be learned fairly thoroughly in an hour or so of play. Triumph of Chaos, it seems, cannot. There are just too many special cases. Wargaming is a very crowded field these days, and games have to be played with other people, who have to be convinced to sit down and learn the rules; and then the rules have to be grasped and the merits of the game have to be strongly apparent in the first couple hours of play. The complexity of Triumph of Chaos seems, unfortunately, to be just on the wrong side of manageable. It seems the effort to keep all the rules in your head requires playing more and more often than what the game grabs you for.

I think it's a shame, because Triumph of Chaos – even though I think it came out OK – did not need to be this way. I think there is clearly chaff here that could have been cut out, and if a harder line could had been taken on complexity, and if what remained could have been encapsulated in some good reference sheets, Triumph of Chaos could have been much more than the niche game it turned out to be.

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