Reviewed by James Davis
COMANCHERIA: THE RISE AND FALL OF THE COMANCHE EMPIRE (GMT Games, 1 player, ages 14 and up, 60-360 minutes; $60)
Games that simulate an event or concept have always appealed to me. I like the ability to experiment with the subject, to try out different strategies and ideas. I love the way simulation games can teach me new things. I find it fascinating that a period of history or a hypothetical idea can take shape and come to life on my dining room table with a few rules and some cardboard.
I grew up with Avalon Hill and SPI games such as Advanced Civilization and Freedom in the Galaxy. And I’ve spent a lot of time trying out different tactics in war games such as Advanced Squad Leader and Up Front. And so it’s not surprising that the games I enjoyed back then influence my tastes now. I very much enjoy a good Euro, or a co-op or a dungeon-delving miniature game. But I have a special love for the games that I can learn from.
The latest game I’ve come across that perfectly fits in this mold is GMT Games’ Comancheria: The Rise and Fall of the Comanche Empire. This game is exactly the type of simulation I enjoy. The history of the Comanche people comes to life in this game. But I also found it is much more accessible than the sometimes overly complicated and confusing war games I grew up with. GMT has done an excellent job to bring the player up to speed quickly. But first let me explain the game.
Comancheria is a simulation game created by Joel Toppen about the Comanche people in the southern plains of the United States between 1700 and 1875. It is actually the second in a series by the same designer, the first one being the excellent Navajo Wars. Like it’s predecessor, it is a solitaire game. But this time you play the Comanche people, the Lords of the Southern Plains, against the encroaching northern tribes and other surrounding forces. Joel Toppen has done an excellent job of providing the feel of the desperate need of the Comanche people to retain their culture against the aggressive tribes and hostile colonists who wish to drive them off the plains. And as a player, you get to make the decisions that will mean the survival of your people. And each decision counts.
The map board consists of 36 map spaces that regulate movement around the southern plains. Those spaces are divided into six regions of six spaces each. There is one space alone called the Palo Duro Canyon which is a refuge for your tribes. (It was one of the last areas of land that remained under American Indian control in the region until an expedition was sent in 1874 to remove them to reservations in Oklahoma.) The game begins with one Rancheria belonging to you. Rancheria is the Spanish word for a small, rural settlement that was often applied to native villages. Scattered across the map are tribe counters that represent the other tribes such as the Apaches, Pawnee and Cheyenne. There are also many Bison tokens you can acquire by hunting that will help your tribe survive.
In the corner of the game board is the Enemy Instruction Display. It is a grid of spaces where you will place two sided tokens containing the instructions for the game’s enemies. There are four enemies: West, South, East and North. Depending upon which scenario you are playing, those will represent different colonists or tribes, typically Spain, Texas and the invading tribes from the north. Regularly during the game, this display will be referenced to determine how an enemy will act against you. Some of these actions are: Encroach (add an additional tribe to the board), Hunt (remove a Bison marker that your tribes need to survive), War (create a War Column that will actively move and attack your tribes) and Settle (place an enemy settlement on the map that you will need to raid and destroy).
Without going into detail, the tokens on the Enemy Instruction Display are selected from the top of a column and activated if there are enough enemy action points left to purchase it. Enemy action points are accumulated mainly by your actions. So the more you do to help your tribes, the more activity the enemies will be able to do against it. And each enemy’s token mix is different, so the northern tribes have a different mix of instructions than would the Spanish. The game mechanic behind the enemy actions is quite clever. It allows the game to randomly work against you while avoiding repetition and bogging down game play.
Above the Enemy Instruction Display is the Rancheria Display. This is the game’s representation of each of your tribes. You keep all of your resources such as horses there as well as your war bands of various strengths. There are two tracks for the two main headmen of each tribe: the war chief called the Mahimiana and the civil leader called the Paraibo. The Mahimiana also is represented by a token that can travel with your war bands as a leader. These two headmen are placed on tracks that symbolize their medicine, or leadership ability. In essence, the greater the Paraibo, the more you can do on your turn and the greater the Mahimiana the more successful your tribe will become.
Lastly come the cards used in the game. There are four types: Culture, Development, History and War cards. The Culture cards represent abilities that your tribes possess. For example, the tutorial begins with the “Horsemanship” card that gives you a +1 modifier in combat if you have a horse counter with your war band. The Development cards are basically event cards that drives the game’s simulation through historical events. Each scenario will show you how to assemble this deck to match the time frame. There are four History cards, one for each historical period that the game can be played in. Unless you are playing an extended game, you will only use one of these. It mainly controls which enemies are chosen each round and adds some additional rules. Lastly are the War cards. These do two things: control how War Columns move against you and add war events or conditions to combat.
The sequence of play is very simple. At the beginning of each turn check to see if there is a War Column on the map. If so, use the War deck to control its movement and combat. You then select an Operation. Your choices are: Take Actions (Hunt, Move, Raid and Trade), Culture (avoids loss of the game), Planning (improves headmen and move Rancheria counters) and Passage of Time (reset tokens, check for headmen death and check for victory). Then there is an Operation Cleanup Phase where you set things up for the next turn. And that’s it. Once you get the hang of how the operations play out, you can run through turns very quickly. This is part of the reason I mentioned above that, unlike the older war games, this is very accessible to younger gamers. It is simple to play. There’s no complex and involved sequence of play that requires you to memorize 20 pages of arcane rules.
Speaking of the rules, that’s the other thing that Toppen and GMT have done right to make this accessible. Yes, there is a somewhat intimidating book called the Rules of Play. Don’t read it first, at least not without some caffeine. Instead pick up the Play Book. This is a well-written and well thought out tutorial that will take you step by step through the game. You should physically set up the game board and pieces as it describes and follow through each step on the board as you read. The Play Book regularly asks you to stop and read a few rules from the Rules book to get you up to speed, and then describes how those rules affect the gameplay with examples, hints and suggestions. It is a very effective way to learn. I wish many other games would use this method. It works.
I have, of course, only scratched the surface of the interplay between the concept of the game and how the rules simulate it. But I can safely say that Comancheria does an excellent job of placing me into the history of the Lords of the Southern Plains. It gives me a small inkling of what choices the headmen needed to make to survive. And it did a great job of teaching me a little about a slice of history I hadn’t known much about before now. And learning something new happens to be my favorite part of simulation games. – – – – – – – – – James Davis
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