Over-Groomed But No Less Vicious
Dogs of War is a weird looking game, and not only because there isn’t a single dog in it. It comes with a nice enough board, your usual dinky cardboard tokens, and some of the most fabulous, over-produced miniatures you’ve ever seen, complete with detailed feathers sprouting from their floppy hats. They’re colorful, shiny, and utterly lovely to look at — and seem particularly incongruous when you realize they’re pretty much worker placement tokens.
At its heart, that’s exactly what Dogs of War is: a highly confrontational worker placement game where your workers are mercenary captains and the spots for their placement are the contracts offered by noble households. Most turns consist of deploying a captain miniature and a soldier card onto one side of a conflict, collecting one of the immediate rewards offered by that household, and marching the battle counter a few spaces in your side’s favor depending on the strength of your deployed soldier. A footman, for example, does hardly anything, while a knight or war machine does some real damage. Occasionally, you’ll have to play a certain strength of soldiers — say, an arquebusier or better — in order to claim a particularly enticing reward from one of the houses.
What makes this simple process so appealing is that the six warring households are desperate enough that they’re willing to offer all sorts of tasty goodies in order to claim your allegiance. At any given time you’ll have to manage a few different resources, from money and influence to manpower of both captain and soldiery varieties, and these are utterly interconnected. Spend too much time winning battles and you’ll likely gain lots of influence but very little coin to spend on the soldiers you need to win the fights of later years; expend too much effort assembling your forces and you may not have enough captains to deploy them. It’s much like a juggling act, provided you’re juggling a sack of coins, a razor-sharp sword, some noble’s silly coat-of-arms, and the aforementioned floppy hat.
As such, Dogs of War is as much about the long game as it is about what’s going on right now. It may be tempting to mess with your opponents’ plans by deploying your best soldiers into every battle, but there’s a good chance that will deplete your forces and cash reserves. It’s often better to bide your time rather than rushing in. Victory, after all, is cobbled together from practically any source, your spare cards and leftover money and undeployed soldiers, but the most lucrative font is usually the influence of the very same households that are bent on exterminating one another. However, not all influence is created equal; each token only gives you as many points as that household is successful. If the house you were backing wins a bunch of battles, their influence tokens will be worth a lot. If they were kicked to the curb over and over, chances are you’ll lose points for backing them. This isn’t a game that rewards the mediocre. Unless we’re talking about the morally mediocre, because yes, it rewards them in spades.
One of the coolest things about Dogs of War is how you’ll adopt shifting allegiances even within the same “year.” There are always three battles going on at once, random in which households are at each other’s throats this time, and with both immediate and end-of-year bonuses laid out for everyone to contemplate before the action starts. It’s entirely possible that you might be allied with someone in one battle, cheering each other on when one of you deploys a knight to swing the fight back into your favor; but bitter enemies in a different fight, gnashing your teeth and sending way too many troops into a frustrating tug-of-war, the other players’ wolfish grins and opportunistic eyes glinting in the candlelight.
The very same random battles also mean it’s possible that you’ll be backing two households, only for the new year to pit them against each other and force you to carefully manage the fight so that neither side wins by enough of a margin to really smash the other. If you pull it off, you’ll feel like a mercenary genius.
There are other nuances to it: it’s often advisable to forfeit a year in order to save up money for later, or to foster some friendly table-talk to take the sting out of your inevitable betrayal, or to use one of your tactics cards at a laughably opportune moment.
Oh my. The tactics cards. Let’s talk about these, because they’re awful in the best possible way. One of them lets you enter a fight and — sorry, ostensible ally! — rather than moving the battle counter, you double your reward. Which means you just grabbed four allegiance tokens with House Mallory instead of only two, and didn’t do a damn thing to help win the battle. Another tactic lets you skip a turn, just to wait and see how the myriad alliances shape up before sneaking onto the winning side of each battle. And then there’s the one that lets you muster mid-fight instead of only at the start of your turn, and another that upgrades one of your soldiers for free, turning a knight into a surprise war machine. The coolest by far is the one that lets you betray yourself, adding captains to both sides of a battle. Hey, whoever wins, wins. In either case, you’ll be there, grinning that silly grin of yours up on the victor’s podium.
Dogs of War is a pleasant surprise, unaccountably smart thanks to its tight resource management, negotiation-based gameplay, and alliances that shift like… well, like those of a fair-weather mercenary captain. It occasionally feels imbalanced, especially once the different faction powers start bouncing off each other, and I suspect the designers intended players to self-balance by ganging up on whoever’s winning. It’s much easier to just house-rule the faction powers out altogether if they hamper your machinations. Also, nearly everything in the box could have been shrunk down by maybe a third, the lavish miniatures demoted into wooden cubes, and all the relevant information would have gotten across just fine. The price might have come down a bit in the process.
Still, I’m not complaining about that last bit — the real downside is that more people could have afforded the price of admission, because ultimately, for all its prettiness, this Dog of War is a Belgian Shepherd, doing great at the local dog show before turning around and proving it’s still got something of a bite.