Chaos. Order. Back Together.
I’ll confess I have no idea what’s going on in Circadians: Chaos Order, the handsome but oh-so-drab title by Sam Macdonald and Zach Smith. Six factions, their skin tones and general aesthetic helpfully color-coded, have gone to war. What are they warring over? What are these strange artifacts? Is this what it would be like to dip into the Marvel Cinematic Universe with Avengers: Endgame? Am I ignorant because I didn’t play the previous title, Circadians: First Light? Must board games have cinematic universes too?
Never mind all that. Klaxons are sounding. Missiles are incoming. We dive into battle — by setting some prices. Booyah.
Circadians: Chaos Order is a study in oxymoron, and not only because its title is “Chaos Order.” Its landscape and peoples are alien, terrain and species alike endowed with unique colors, yet those colors have been dialed to their drabbest contrast. Its factions are asymmetrical, but carry the most burdensome traits in common. It pitches its conflict as a ticking time bomb, only to pause, and pause, and pause again, so that players can adjust action prices and tinker with turn order. It sends grand armies marching across the landscape, but lets its players’ heads go fuzzy with intrusion and duration.
I sort of dig it. But that’s in spite of itself.
First, the pitch. Six factions have gone to war. Their objective is the six artifacts that straddle the landscape like great metal spiders. At the conclusion of every round, you check these artifacts. If one faction controls them all, they win outright. Of course, that’s impossible. Which is where the game’s cleverest twist comes in. The first artifact is removed from the board, gifted to the faction who controlled it. Now there are only five of the things to control. Then four. Then three. Now the objective is wandering into achievable territory. And all the while, each faction has its own alternate objective as well. Accomplish that and the artifacts cease to matter.
We’ve seen a handful of games headlined by asymmetric factions lately, no doubt inspired by the success of titles like Vast and Root. To its credit, Chaos Order pitches its teams as unique but not too unique, and moreover as entirely distinct entities, as opposed to something like Crescent Moon, with its fascinating but tricky ecosystem of interconnected political entities. The most familiar faces are the Circadians, boilerplate humans, an irony since they’re very much unlike the others in a few key ways. Where everybody else gets a home region, the Circadians are mobile, jetting around in a drop ship that spits out larger-than-life warriors. Where sci-fi games often pitch humans as blandly familiar, the cone stuck in the middle of the highway, here they’re the outliers.
But they’re outliers among outliers, at least. Each faction has its own routine. The Oxataya use combos of elite leaders to win battles at the last moment. The Leyrian hop between swamps for hit-and-run strikes. The AI builds countless troops. The Zcharo lean into research. The Jrayek populate the map with anti-leaders to hunt down. These archetypes are reinforced by a multitude of small modifiers: how troops are recruited, how incomes are generated, which structures cost extra to build and which perks they produce, the abilities fielded by leaders and attribute cards — plus their abilities after being upgraded. It’s a lot. Frankly, sometimes it’s too much. I don’t think we’ve ever gone a game without somebody realizing they forgot to add some crucial modifier to a now-concluded battle.
Okay, so it’s overstuffed. For one more example, take structures. They can’t be built anywhere. First, you’ll need a foundation. A few foundations are seeded across the map when the game is set up, including some faction-specific foundations that yield special bonuses when built on. As you play, these are soon snapped up. To place more, you’ll need to purchase them from your faction board. There they function as minor upgrades. These upgrades are the same between factions — thank heavens, since they’re smaller than my thumbnail and not especially legible — but they never quite seem like something that absolutely needed to be included. They’re just more. Chits on the board that let you place structures on the board. Once everybody’s armies bulk up, they’re one more thing to jostle out of place.
Or the action-pricing system. Last example, I promise. At the start of each round, everybody uses a tile to determine the cost of an action. Some portion of that cost will be paid to the bank, while the remainder goes straight to the player who priced it. Except of course there’s more to it than that. Some tiles come with bonuses. Some spaces award bonuses when covered. The actions themselves are a mishmash of primary actions, secondary actions, and one-time perks when you level them up — including icons that appear here and nowhere else. The result is a swirling eddy of icons that’s at once incomprehensible to newcomers and readily gamed by veterans.
Despite Chaos Order’s assumption that a game’s quality is commensurate with the size of its reference sheet, there’s a solid control and battle game peering through the cracks. Even the action pricing system works, thematic rheumatism aside, as an approximation of economic warfare. Locking somebody out of an action is one thing. Forcing them to pay you through the nose to complete a much-needed harvest is another. The actions themselves resolve in a stutter: everybody gets a chance to purchase one action, then the next, and so forth. But it keeps everybody on the same page. Even better, it creates a building tempo. First everybody upgrades their actions. Then structures are built. The harvest comes in. Recruits appear. Only then will armies march and clash. It’s a slow and uneven process, but it builds to an earsplitting crescendo.
It helps that combat is always tense. Tense to the point of frustration, at times. But it’s also a suitable conclusion to the mounting upgrades, recruitments, and construction projects that were the norm until the fangs came out. Combat behaves not unlike the clashes in Dune. Both parties set a strategy via a dial, perhaps adding a card to further massage the odds in their favor. Here, though, one’s investment has more range than sheer manpower. You might invest a gem to roll for some extra strength. If caught leaderless, encourage your soldiers to fight like cornered animals. If the struggle is hopeless, order a retreat. Like the violence in Kemet, there are long-term considerations distilled into three icons. Strength wins battles. Wounds weaken rival armies. Shields block wounds. Focus on the wrong approach and your plans could be sidestepped entirely.
Stitch these elements together and you arrive at something that is indeed simultaneously chaotic and carefully ordered. At times those elements make strange bedfellows. There’s a freneticism to combat, with its many inputs from cards and dice and troops, that makes its myriad +1s feel perfunctory. To some degree, the same goes for all its factional asymmetries. When you get right down to it, the ways Chaos Order’s species are alike eclipse the ways they’re different. Not in the Kumbaya, let’s-stop-fighting way. Rather, in the sense that huge columns of soldiers are always the antidote to this conflict’s ailments.
Where this thesis shows its cracks, however, is in those alternate win conditions. These remind me more than anything of the way Root’s factions operated in prototype, when the Woodland Alliance might march into the Marquise de Cat’s stronghold and overthrow the queen via bloody revolution. As in, before some robust development revealed that these options were too on-rails for the game’s freewheeling style, not to mention too preclusive of expansions.
Chaos Order doesn’t suffer from the same hangups. Or good sense, depending on the angle one views it from. Fortunately, these victory conditions fit Chaos Order like a glove. The cure-all is still combat; whether you’re inching toward victory by claiming territory or conducting research, there’s no avoiding getting your hands dirty, nor are there any of Root’s more high-minded thoughts on trade and biopower. But these differences absolutely inform the way you approach each fight, which is a perfectly competent way to handle it in a game about a big war. The AI win by inflicting lots of injuries, so bring plenty of shields. The Jrayek prefer beating leaders, including the mercenaries they gift their rivals, so be aware that any region doubled up on heroes is a glowing target for their assaults. The Circadians need swaths of territory, but they can wriggle around this by beating everybody once. So, if you haven’t squared off against the Circadians, expect them to come knocking. And so forth.
Here’s the bottom line. Circadians: Chaos Order is unlike any other game of its kind, to the point that I hesitate to assign it any one label. It’s a busy and uneven experience redeemed by an impressive factional conflict and a careful pairing of global and personal victory conditions. Where it might benefit from greater focus, this is also one of those rare games that risks shedding the very things that makes it so appealing. Sometimes, a mess is good for rolling around in.
A complimentary copy was provided.