Being Tzeentch: Chaos in the Old World

Captioned because I don't know how to get WordPress pics to work without a caption. The shame.

Chaos in the Old World. Box art.

Hypothetical time! What would happen if you sat your deity of choice (if you’re an atheist, plug a lightning-empowered Christopher Hitchens in there) at a table with a handful of opposing deities, placed the world in the middle, and fired a starter pistol into the air?

And that’s basically what Chaos in the Old World proposes, except its deities are probably meaner than yours—they worked hard to earn that “Ruinous Powers” nickname, after all. It’s a superb game that lets you be the worst of bad guys, and it oozes theme like a pus from a wound.

Here’s an example that segues nicely into the article proper: So these four Chaos Gods (plus a fifth pseudo-god if you’ve got the expansion) have sat themselves down at a table, made a few unholy wagers, and pulled out a map of the Old World. And that map looks exactly the way you’d expect an evil god’s map to look:

I once studied a second-edition Vesalius that had originally had a human-skin binding. Thankfully, it had been rebound in the centuries since.

A Chaos God’s map of the Old World.

That’s right, it’s made out of horrifically stretched-out human skin, with the mountains and forests tattooed into it, and the boundaries between nations scratched into it by demonic talons.

And within a few turns, that map is going to look more like this:

Okay, that thing I said in the alt-text above about being glad that the human-skin binding had been replaced? I lied. It would have been *rockin'* to see a human-skin binding. Just once. Don't report me to the FBI or anything.

The map on round 4 or so.

So not only are you playing on a nasty human-skin map, but it will quickly fill up with cultists and demons and monstrous horrors and markers indicating how successful you’ve been at corrupting the locals. There will be mutation-causing warpstones and hordes of rat-men and regional nobles just begging to be seduced to darker paths. There will also be a few desperate heroes fighting back, but they’re little more than a nuisance, and you probably use them to your own ends, wiping out cultists that you’ve grown tired of.

And if you’re thinking to yourself, “Man, that looks great, but I like to play games with my daughters and this is too horrible,” I have two things to say to you: First, your daughters will love it. You know, maybe. Don’t blame me if that doesn’t work out. And second, even if you’re thinking that you can explain away the map as poorly-tanned cowhide, you’re still going to have to deal with the various Chaos Gods’ powers, which are things like this:

Mmm tasty.

A chaos card, used to weaken or strengthen a region.

So yeah, this probably isn’t a game for the young’uns (though I will say that I would have adored this kind of game as a kid). But if you’ve got a strong stomach, this just might be the perfect game to slate your primal hunger.

One of the most appealing aspect of Chaos in the Old World is that it plays completely asymmetrically. After all, if Jesus, Buddha, and Pikkiwoki were competing for the souls of mankind, they’d probably go about it in completely different ways, right? I mean, one would send conquistadors, one would build temples in ridiculously high mountains, and the last would hand out all the coconuts you can carry—and yes, I realize this is really showing the limitations of that theology degree I printed off the internet.

Well, that’s what this game does. These four (maybe five) gods aren’t playing by the same rules, because each one of them is the god of a different aspect of mankind. In gameplay terms, this means that any Chaos God can win one of two ways: either by earning victory points, which everyone earns in the same way, or by fulfilling unique conditions that advance their threat dial.

The pieces are bright to help with board readability, but they wreak havoc on my camera's ability to focus.

Nurgle (green) and Khorne (red) square off for control of The Empire.

So Nurgle, the Lord of Pestilence, is all about spreading disease. As such, he’s going to focus the entirety of his attention on regions that have a high enough population to make that happen. The upside is that only four of the Old World’s nine regions are “populous,” so Nurgle should be able to focus all his forces in those locations; the downside is that they’re the four most central regions, so enemy cultists and demons are going to be passing through with regularity. Even worse, once a region has been sufficiently hashed by these chaotic conflicts, they’ll be completely ruined, leaving them worthless to the occupying Chaos Gods. This is usually a good thing, since of course a Chaos God would like to ruin an entire nation, but it means that if Nurgle isn’t the primary dude doing the ruining in one of those four populous countries, he’s going to lose out on a fat wad of victory points.

Khorne, on the other hand, has simple tastes. As the Blood God, he revels in bloodshed and combat, so his warriors are cheap, hit hard, and die easily. This means that his goal is to wage war across as much of the map as possible, and to do so every turn. Actually winning battles is a secondary concern—he’s happy so long as he manages to kill even a handful of his enemies’ followers. The problem is that the other Ruinous Powers know this, and so Khorne tends to be ganged up on any time he starts to build an actual army. Still, his conditions for victory are the most straightforward in the game.

I had no picture with just Tzeentch and Slaanesh, so you get an exclusive spoiler that the Horned Rat was in this game too.

Tzeentch (blue), Slaanesh (purple), and the Horned Rat (grey) fight over Estalia.

Tzeentch is the Changer of Ways, meaning he gets his jollies by shaking up the status quo. Some chaos cards have a magic symbol on them, and by corrupting regions that have two of these magic symbols, or warpstones, or a mix of the two, Tzeentch accomplishes his goals. The main problem is that he can draw more chaos cards than any other god, but only if he uses them—where most gods draw two cards per turn, Tzeentch draws until he has five in his hand. Which means that in order to cycle through his cards, Tzeentch often drops them all over the board, changing the dynamics for— and annoying—all the other players.

Slaanesh is the Prince of Pleasure, so his goal is to corrupt nobles and heroes, which can appear anywhere. Of course, Slaanesh has a few ways to ensure they appear in out-of-the-way regions, meaning that he’s often operating on the periphery, seducing the wealthy without much competition—after all, nobody is really all that interested in fighting over places called “Troll Country” or “The Badlands,” but their nobles corrupt just as well as those living in Bretonnia.

The Samuelson Law of Board Games is that the BEST of games contain dials, but Picktwick's Corollary is that the exception is Summoner Wars.

The threat dials, one of the ways to win the game.

If you manage to get your hands on The Horned Rat expansion, you’ll also have access to the titular Horned Rat and his faction of Skaven, which adds another delicious asymmetrical layer to this already-layered bean dip. Their focus is, unsurprisingly, to move around in hordes and steal victories and region ruinations out from under their enemies with their massive numbers of cheap and weak clan rats. It’s not uncommon to see hordes so dense that even a turn of concerted battle won’t thin them out:

I can't even imagine playing this game *without* the Skaven now. They're such a natural fit.

A horde of Skaven annoys Nurgle.

In addition, the expansion adds new upgrade and chaos cards for each of the original four Chaos Gods. These are advertised as fine-tuning the game by making it possible to win by either the threat dial or victory points for any god—in the original, each faction was optimized for one or the other—though some have criticized these as homogenizing the brilliantly-different strategies that each Chaos God pursues. I haven’t played the game enough to make a call either way, but my group has sidestepped the problem by playing with the original cards plus the Horned Rat, and we’ve had an even victory spread and feel that the game is balanced enough when played that way.

I know you're intimidated by how busy this board is, but really, it's not that bad. It all makes sense after ten minutes.

A game at its end, with 5 ruined regions.

Another nice aspect of Chaos in the Old World is that it’s a lot simpler than it looks, and takes less than two hours to complete. The game ends either when someone wins, when five regions are ruined, or after eight “Old World cards” are resolved, which represents the people and forces of the Old World fighting back against your hellish wager.

And as I’ve said and can’t reiterate enough, it oozes theme. It screams theme. As soon as you realize that you’ve just spent the last minute discussing the pros and cons of wiping out a hamlet of villagers on the off-chance that a card will grant victory points for their removal, or that you’ve just blown the game pursuing a petty vendetta that makes sense because you’re basically the Lord of Petty Vendettas, or that you’re plotting how to eliminate your enemy’s Greater Daemon without him blaming you, you’ll realize that you’ve put on a freakish mask, and you’re role-playing one of the darkest forces ever conceived. You’ll shudder, and then you’ll get on with loving it.

Posted on July 13, 2012, in Board Game and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. This is one of my favorite boardgames, for exactly the reasons you describe.

  2. digitalpariah76

    All hail Grandfather Nurgle!

  3. Somerset Winters

    I didn’t realize the Nurgle strategy until too late in the game to pull off a win and we ended up ruining the world before anyone could win. Mwaahahhaahhahaaaaa

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