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Triumph of Chaos » Forums » Reviews
Recommendation Conditional on Insanity
I think it’s critical to start this review off by saying I’m completely insane. And really, Triumph of Chaos is a damn good game. If you’re also completely insane.

I’ve been really marinating this review for a long time because I was trying to figure out how to really phrase my review of Triumph of Chaos (TOC), a card driven wargame created by POG shark David Dockter depicting the Russian Civil War. I also wanted to get enough plays in that I felt comfortable saying some things about the game. I’ve played a number of times, about 5, all by e-mail. And this is a long game so that’s all you’re going to get from me before I review. I try not to dick around with too much collector component fondling in my reviews but I’ll start with that. Finally, if you want pictures and a sense of the game, here’s a link to a two turn illustrated AAR I made. I won’t be completing it, as I’m just too lazy, but you can see how the game plays:

http://www.boardgamegeek.com/thread/313784

What is the Game and Components

It is a CDG of Russian Civil War a la Twilight Struggle or Paths of Glory. 2 players. White and Red forces. And a cornucopia of system controlled neutral nations that can fall into your paws throughout the game.

The components are this strange mix of shoddy and really nice. It has normal wargame components in general. The map is a huge paper map of Russia. With respect to the map, I really like it, though it’s a little busy. It can be slightly difficult to visualize the connections. But all in all I think it’s one of the more characterful CDG point to point maps I’ve seen. CDG maps can end up being quite bland physical maps overlaid with white boxes and lines of various types of the important points and the TOC map is about as far as you can get from that boring version of a point to point map as possible. Very stylish. Perhaps a little too stylish.

Counters. Lots of them. With respect to the counters, I think they’re one of the high points of the design. Big thick counters with some great art on them. Hard to punch too… Again, sometimes a little busy but they do an excellent job of reinforcing the bizarre rag tag of groups and nations fighting in the Russian civil war. Definite thumbs up.

The cards have some very nice artwork and photos, kudos. Unfortunately the stock is pretty suspect. They are cut pretty poorly and thin. I haven’t played the game face to face, but I will definitely be buying some card protectors for when (really if) I do. I’d be concerned about these seeing heavy use as is.

Beyond that, you have 2 really, really long paper rulebooks. I don’t know what else to say other than that I consider them extremely poorly organized. I have trouble finding anything. Information is spread throughout two books. There are a million and one rules. We will be getting to that in the gameplay section. But from a components standpoint this was not looking good as I got the thing ready to play and found an opponent online.

More than that, you need the living rules. Those rulebooks that came with the game? Not so good—they feature a game that is too heavily favored towards the Reds. So you need to download those living rules and rely on them to get a more tense, even contest. I hate doing this, it’s a big pet peeve of mine. I accept it because I’m a wargamer and I accept a lot of things, and my time isn’t so important that printing out a new copy of rules is really that big a deal. On top of that I know how impossible it would be to design a game with this many mind boggling card interactions.

Finally, a quick word about the expansion, the Comrade’s Guide. I have to say it probably isn’t worth it. It is edited abominably, has pictures blown up from tiny resolutions and has a lot of poorly written amateur historical stuff in it. Which is a shame. The game is so complex and multifaceted that I think it could have used an entire issue just discussing tactics. I would have valued that immensely, it is a missed opportunity to have a volume that instead has half a magazine of throwaway historical articles. The counters and optional rules introduced are interesting but sometimes only cover situations that would rarely happen ingame. Overall I’d have to say don’t buy this when you first get the game.

Gameplay

Where to start... I think I’ll start with the bad. I’m putting this upfront. I should probably put it in big, red, flashing letters: this game is a nightmare. A terrible, terrible nightmare of rules. Getting back to that insane part at the beginning of the review. This is everything bad about wargames you hear about that all the sassy eurogamers talk about. Lots of exceptions you’ll never remember. i.e. “God damn it, I haven’t been moving the IGSR train [the Tsar’s train full of gold captured by the Czech Legion] toward my Urals home spots every turn for free like I am supposed to be able to!” I can’t even begin to remember them all, if X, then Y but only if Z types of thing. That example is a very obvious one.

Fundamentally, though, the game is a traditional POG style CDG. Units have strength, health and movement printed on them. So you have a baseline set of rules that function as the heart of the game—a familiar set of rules. The chrome on top of that is truly breathtaking, however. Describing them would be impossible but I already gave you the flavor. So stop here if you don’t like complicated rules and exceptions and rule referencing. You’ve already bailed out of this plane: don’t play this game.

Ok. For those of you still here. Fellow asylum inmates. The game features some really awesome innovations that expand the genre. The essential backdrop of the historical situation is that there are two main forces, the Siberian and Southern White forces, fighting the centrally located Reds (Lenin et al). The Whites are spread throughout the winds on all sides of the Reds who are in the middle—so the Whites have a ton of rules making coordination impossible and making life difficult. Meanwhile the Reds deal with their own problems of fronts opening all around them, on all sides. A very, very interesting CDG scenario.

There are a ton of other forces besides those two White and Red factions. Dockter goes way beyond what a traditional CDG would do with this situation—specifically make an event card for each force. "I play this card and the Finnish come in!" Dockter reckons that a lot of the sides could have come in on either side that made it worth their while. Instead, he designs an entire subsystem to the game—the political phase. Essentially, at the beginning of each turn you play a blind bid political phase to pick up political cards using your normal event/operation cards. You make the tradeoff between using your resources to woo factions and gain control of their countries, cities and armies vs. moving, replacing and fighting with your armies already on the table. The political phase is a push-pull between the two sides for all the (almost 20) different factions that start neutral in the game. So you commit cards to try to bring new forces in on your side.

It’s hard to overstate how ingenious an advance this is. The CDG, for my money, is the biggest advance in wargames in forever. Why? One reason is tension and tradeoffs, but for me, the reason is politics and economics. CDGs let the wargamer simulate politics. This is the next step here. In previous games politics was deterministic—Italy would come in for the Allies when they played that card as event in POG. Dockter envisions politics as a process: if I come into a game I can think to myself, “This game I want to try to bring all the Baltic States in, hell or high water, and make a quick strike on Red Leningrad with their forces.” If he realizes it, my opponent can try to prevent me from doing that with his own political card selections. The political phase is a little clunky and takes a long time but I think, streamlined, it is potentially a step forward for wargames.

Beyond that, the other feature of the game is the chaos. You know, the third word in the game title. This game plays havoc on your plans. For me, this is in a good way. Units can enter from all sides. The game can be totally swung with new forces coming in during a particular phase. Your own forces don’t always obey you. The enemy can bring in forces controlled by the system, rather than the player! I love this. I really enjoy chaos and chance in my games, wrenches that make me react to the situation. Especially probabilistic stuff that I have some control over. Sometimes this game has a Player 1 vs. Player 2 vs. The System vibe. I dig this. You’ll have to decide for yourself how you feel about it, but I find it thrilling in many instances—you’re on the ropes only to play the right political cards and have Ukraine’s powerful forces join on your side. Alternatively the enemy is making an advance and you happen to play the switch sides card on an army that foolishly doesn’t have any elite units with it—suddenly you have a new army and the enemy has to retreat.

How does it play, overall? I can’t speak to balance too carefully but as is, with all the changes made to the game post release, I have experienced fairly good balance. I was crushed in early games with a veteran but have also surged ahead in other games with both sides. The sides’ player powers are nicely differentiated and the trade off tensions of having a lot to do and no time to do it are there, as most CDGs have.

My one complaint in this respect is that there are almost too many units and replacements. I feel that there are *far* too many RP in the game, especially for Red. My experience is that both sides find it easy to replace many of their losses due to the many 4 and 5 value cards in the deck. Red especially, since it has few restrictions on RP, can replace entire armies extremely quickly. I hate playing games where it feels like I haven’t made any real lasting impact on the enemy even after great successes. This game sometimes felt that way.

The theme in this game is so over the top it is almost overwhelming sometimes. All the cards have great theme and the game really feels like both sides are guiding a ship with half a rudder left, meanwhile drunkenly clubbing at each other. Having read up on the Russian civil war now (thanks TOC), that is exactly what the participants were experiencing. On top of that the units themselves, even boiled down to stats, are differentiated substantially. As Red, for example, you might be loathe to use certain disloyal units who disband at the drop of the hat. Other units (the Konarmii) are your rock—loyal elite units with virtually no ill effects that you must use as the communist hammer.

Overall Tilt

This is a tough review to score.

Really, you have to be insane to want to play a game like this, much less master it. The rules are a nightmare. The game is at times very hard to play. Almost impossible to play correctly unless one player is a real rules lawyer. I would have a hard time recommending to almost anyone on BGG. The rules are not just poorly organized, they are also complex, with lots of conditionals. A lot of things feel out of the players hands at times—-the game sometimes happens to you.

Luckily, I am completely insane. The game’s theme is drilled into the game. The game plays well even when you screw up most of the rules. The flavor of the 20 different factions and the political phase are great. There is no feeling like getting your ass handed to you on a front and then managing to just barely wrangle in a new country or republic to help you: what other game can you bring in the anarchists to fight on your side? The game still retains what is good from CDGs, if you can get past the absurd rules. It can be tense, close fought and historically enjoyable.

It is a game I can recommend to almost no one, but tell you that I always like to have a least one game of going by e-mail at all times for the unexpected pleasures it provides. I give it about an 8, conditional on being insane. I am also interested in Dockter's next CDG, the Spanish Civil War.
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Darrell Hanning
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Wow, you would make a great used-car salesman. You really have a way with reluctant endorsement that just makes me want this game even more.
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Tom Grant
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Very useful review for someone like me who's evaluating the game. Your review made me think of how Alan Emrich explained his role as a developer of games (see the latest Point2Point podcast): "I'm the rules guy!" Yep, probably every innovative designer needs a rules guy.
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Steve
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DarrellKH wrote:
Wow, you would make a great used-car salesman. You really have a way with reluctant endorsement that just makes me want this game even more.


heh. Thanks. I think...?

It's a hard game to review. I enjoy it and always have a game going since I bought it. But I think it's important to make it clear that you have to be the right type of person for it and that it can be hard to play.
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Roger's Reviews: check out my reviews page, right here on BGG!
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I think I can honestly say that this is exactly what I want out of a review - I loved the personal opinions and concise explanations of why you like the game and what works for you, and why it won't work for a lot of other people. Brilliantly done.

Now to check if my room is ready at the asylum... that's the only place I'll find an opponent locally.
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Karl Deckard
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Great review. Thanks for taking the time to relay your feelings in a thoughtful and honest manner. This was on my "to play" list, but this bumped it up several spots, therefore I must also admit my insanity.
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David Dockter
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Interesting review - and a good one, Steve. Anyone can tell you invested time and energy in it - and knowing and playing the game. And, do I ever HATE writing rules :-) Next time, I'll have some hardcore editors (a number of strong CDW gamers have volunteered).

Regarding the art:

1) The map - I like it alot. When I first did the art (and, I am NOT an artist by any stretch), it was ok. Terry Leeds from CoA took the project on and came up with the published map. When one of my hardcore wargamer playtester friends saw it, he said "What the #*$$)? It looks like a eurogame." I said, "Yep". He said, "Don't change a thing".

2) Counters - I designed those. My first attempt at counter design. Had to self teach myself Illistrator (the horror). I had a lot of fun finding pic's and having my best friend (an artist - but not graphics artist) help out.

3) The cards - I designed the fronts (Terry Leeds the backs). I also envisioned that the stock would be thicker and wider (like the traditional ones). Live and learn (CoA's and my first attempt ever at CDWs). I do believe the cards hold up well (haven't had any turned back into CoA yet) - and almost all CDWers toss cards in card protectors anyway.

Overall, I had a lot of fun with the art side of the work.

As a wargamer, I also dislike downloading living rules, but hate the alternative (the game doesn't evolve - great complex games do evolve).

I really like the process that has evolved with CDWs (since they get played so damm much):

1) Playtest the beast (touch a VERY small portion of the possible jillion crazy outcomes), get it to some point that the thing is fun and playable out of the box. It must meet that hurdle. Tough call on which CDWs meet that test - some have been MUCH better than others.

2)Hope the card sharks circle, take the bait, and beat the hell out of the game - and break the game. Haven't seen one yet that they haven't broken.

3) Hopefully get constructive input from players (which I was lucky enough to get from the great ToC player crowd - and their 5,000 messages on consim - not one saying, "hey this game is broken", always "what about this?")

4) Adjust quickly (with the bare minimum of changes), and repeat till the game really rocks regarding balance. The final errata in 2007 (4 pages, v1.5, has not changed since issued and I do not ever anticipate changing it again). After the numerous ToC tourneys, the game being the top downloaded Cyberboard module, the amount of Vassal play it receives...well, I think you can stick a fork in it. It is finished until (IF!) I do a version 2.0.

5) Answer Q&As, expand the audience (Vassal, Cyberboard), provide enhancements (expansions, players' guides, etc) if players demonstrate so demand for it.

I tried to follow Ted's path with PoG and Mark's path with FtP providing incredible customer support and and game adjustment (evolution). Of course, if playtesters made a living wage and there were a bunch of good ones (good playtesters are what really help makes the design), and the game was simple and the number of outcomes was limited, we could playtest CDWs the 10,000 plays required prior to publishing. But, that is not going to occur with complex beasts.

Regarding the politics with ToC...I intend, with future designs, to continue to bake in a TON of politics. A pet peeve of mine with strateigc level wargames is that they either ignore the political dimension or have very deterministic political game components ("roll a die and country/faction x enters"). Might as well be playing chess if there isn't a massive political component in wargames. If I was an actual good wargame designer (vs being a player), this political dimension would be MUCH more elegant than it is, but, I had to start somewhere.

Issue 1, Vol IV, Bittereinder, ATO contains one of my articles regarding this topic (the political dimension in wargames). Additionally, a 16,000 word article will appear next month in the 2008 ATO Annual further expanding on the political dimension (national strategic will - something I avoided tackling with ToC) in conflict.

Regarding the Comrades Guide - that's the mix I wanted (a dose of historical articles - all writen by ToCers with a connection to the conflict) Those articles take up 27 pages of the 80 page guide. The rest of the guide is devoted to the game: strategy articles, more beloved chrome, etc.

Regarding needing to be insane to play ToC....why, Yes...it is a requirement. Most veteran PoG players that have played ToC have told me it wasn't much of a leap - especially if they were former Empire in Arms or Days of Dis players (once you have the bug for chromed up beasts, you can't go back). If you want a simple game, STAY AWAY. You want chaos, a jillion strategic choices, a ton of politics, historical flavor and enjoy beefy/complex strategic wargames, ToC is your game.

Again, thank you for making the effort to reveiw ToC, Steve. You join the group of ToC players that gives me reason take another stab at another game. Triumph of Fascism (SCW) is up next. Still working on that beast:

Triumph of Fascism
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Steve
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Thanks for the post Herr Dr, I hope you don't take my criticisms as total game breakers--they aren't. On the topic of rules, I would rather have living rule errata than a game with broken balance and rules. I respect designer involvement quite a bit and complicated games cannot be playtested enough prerelease to catch everything (I find Ed Beach's Here I Stand to be the only really complicated CDG that has had almost no errata).

Anyway, it's about the highest compliment I can pay your game that I always have games going of it PBEM--I'm still playing, keep designing. I hope I didn't come off too harsh. I am very fond of the game.
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David Dockter
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Harsh? Nah. I grew up in a household where volume and harshness was sign of someone givin a shit. You paid to play; you bought the beast. Designers need THICK SKINs - just like GMs, Convention Directors, playtesters, reviewers, etc - about anyone that makes an effort in our beloved wargame co-op.

The biggest reward in designing wargames is sparking interest in the topic and seeing gamers play your game alot and investing their time to improve the game (the guys that design the Vassal and Cyberboard modules, the playtesters, the guys that translate the game into other languages - Japanese - including ALL the cards!, etc).

A few other items somewhat related:

1) Recommend giving Empire of the Sun a try (if you haven't). I steered clear initially. I'm a good friend of Mark Herman and think his For the People is a masterpiece, but, EotS looked even too complex for my tastes. I played it a few weeks ago at WBC - and decided my impression was completely wrong. Game is well worth the effort. A VERY cool design. A significant step forward in CDWs - probably something the hex and potato gamers will dig. Great design mechanisms of handling the politics, China, etc.

2) I'm anxiously anticipating Pursuit of Glory (Paths of Glory in the Near East WW1 - GMT). Should be out any day now.

3) ToF (Triumph of Fascism) has proven to be a handful. Ported the action phase (from ToC via PoG). Trying to add an air and naval component - with a MINIMUM of rules, but, still enough dials and levers to reflect the key dynamics. The political portion of the game concentrates more on the divisions within the RED (Republicans, etc) and BLACK (Nationalist, Fascists, etc) camps than ToC did. A little less emphasis on the Foreign Powers (Italy, Germany, Portugal, Brits, French, Russians) - although still a healthy portion. And quite a few interesting personalities (Mr.Kennedy), entities (Standard Oil), etc make an appearance

THE design challenge has been the "pre-game" - where each side starts with zero units on the board and goes thru a short "pre-game" to enlist "camps" to your side, determine deployments, political junk and other stuff. Been VERY difficult to keep the range of outcomes so that 90%+ of the pregame outcomes will result in a relatively balanced game - from which players will then play the campaign game - and that it has alot of play value - and that it doesn't feel constrained or scripted (or why bother). Very tough. Might need a real designer to tackle that. I can understand why the vast majority of designers steer clear and just go with a standard OOB.

Anyways, I'm on a kick to have players somewhat determine the conditions under which a conflict begins and make political tradeoffs between narrow and deep strategic will and broad and thin SW (the subject of the 16,000 word upcoming ATO article). Why should we play games that take off from the historical OOB? LOTS of strategy went into setting the table by competing sides in any historical conflict - and then deciding under which conditions to "cross the Rubicon". Players should be able to define the terms on which a historical conflict was waged - since, in many cases, that determined which side won. Sort of the Days of Dis/World in Flames thought.

I really have zero interest in designing a simulation of what happened with any particular conflict (watch a movie - they are much better at historical recreation than boardgames). My interest is in giving players a game, that survives the historical plausibility giggle test, that allows them to explore what could have happened and make them wrestle with the key political, military and economic dynamics of the conflict - such that it grabs their interest. And, most importantly, I want a beefy game, that creates a great story line, that I can play with my drinking buddies for years.

There will be a default OOB in ToF (I had a revolt of my playtesters!), but, I wanted to try to tackle the challenge of a variable set up determined by the players. And, man, has it been a HUGE time sink. Hopefully, it will be worth it if I don't scrap the whole thing in the end.

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Steve
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You certainly have the right of it with designers who participate in communities for their games needing thick skin. I don't think I could do it--especially since many of the complaints (to my eyes) are so incredibly banal and overdemanding...

Herr Dr wrote:

The biggest reward in designing wargames is sparking interest in the topic and seeing gamers play your game alot and invest time making it better (the guys that design the Vassal and Cyberboard modules, the playtesters, the guys that translate the game into other languages - Japanese - including ALL the cards!, etc).

A few other items somewhat related:

1) Recommond giving Empire of the Sun a try. I steered clear initially. I'm a good friend of Mark Herman and think his For the People is a masterpiece, but, EotS looked even too complex for me. I played it a few weeks ago at WBC - and decided my impression was wrong. Game is well worth the effort. A VERY cool design. Great design mechanisms of handling the politics, China, etc.


I haven't contributed much besides criticism, unfortunately... though I do try to do detailed AARs of games I like that aren't high exposure here on BGG, I always hope that helps designers in some way.

You know, honestly I haven't played For the People either! I did just order Clash of Monarchs which I am really looking forward to, and it has great art, counters to boot.

Herr Dr wrote:

THE design challenge has been the "pre-game" - where each side starts with zero units on the board and goes thru a short "pre-game" to enlist "camps" to your side, determine deployments, political junk and other stuff. Been VERY difficult to keep the range of outcomes so that 90%+ of the pregame outcomes will result in a relatively balanced game - from which players will then play the campaign game. Very tough.


I mentioned this on the TOC board, but I *love* the idea of this mechanic, please keep working. Especially when properly tested and especially in a game where having a variable start makes sense (relatively random start points historically). I think your enthusiasm for this has a lot to do with how probabilistically you view history. I basically view history as a completely probabilistic enterprise and I always like a game that takes that seriously instead of taking beginning historical conditions as given, *especially* if the historical situation was implausible.

edit: Also, sorry for screwing up your name
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Charles F.
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I own the game and read most of the rules (except some relating to the individual faction). While reading the rules, I couldn't help thinking that X could be streamlined for the same gameplay effect and table Y really was rather redundant.

That said, it's not really the rules which scared me away. I've done WIF after all.

Rather, it's the balance concerns, regarding to the two sides, the political vs. military arena and RPs vs. military action, which really made me more reluctant to really invest the time and energy to learn this beast.
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Murray Fish
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Great review! Also great to see the designer comment on the review - BGG at its best! thumbsup

I have always had an interest in this conflict - to the point of trying the RCW variant of If the Lord Spares Us (a set of miniatures rules for WWI Palestine).

I have been hesitating between ToC and Red Russia. Have you tried that?

Very keen to try this game out at some stage.

Insane?

Maybe....
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Steve
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I have not tried Red Russia, this is my first Russian Civil War game. Maybe someone else can comment on that?
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Steven
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Consider me a forum lurker but I completely agree with your review. My brother and I (both in college) played this game face to face around seven or eight times this summer. Each time slowly teaching ourselves the rules and faction rules/exceptions. Not to say we totally got it right. My brother and I constantly would forget the exclusive activations of the Czech Legion (once the Kolchak Coup is played) or the special Makhno die rolls.

And the part about drunken slug-fest? Absolutely correct. I think every game, consistently every plan I had went astray. Same for my brother of course.
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Reminds me, I just played a really great solo game using the designer's solo political rules that featured a total rout of the Whites until they managed to bring in the Central powers and keep them in until the last possible turn they could stay.

It was great fun. One nice thing is that even though it is riddled with chrome, it's pretty robust to screwing up any of the individual rules and still work pretty well, so you don't have to sit around in fear over the table about forgetting something.
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Jason Johns
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I'm a psycho. I love the game. All of the flaws are there as listed, but the game is great. I've played 4 games or so, but then have moved and am changing jobs, so I'll be on hiatus for a bit.

I like the game and the political phase's similarity to Days of Decision (connected with World in Flames). My only quibble with the review is that I think the Comrade's Guide is a very useful addition. I like the additional armies (there are NEVER enough) and the newer rules for them (take certain spaces and you get more stuff.)

I gave this a 9.5 as I love these monster games. Red Barricades for Advanced Squad Leader is my tops.

Anyway, see the reasonings above but if you love CHAOS, then this is the game for you.

Jason
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David G. Cox Esq.
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Just because you are insane doesn't actually mean that you are crazy.

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