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Subject: Smiting in the Bronze Age rss

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Rob Doupe
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Urartu are in Mitanni

Chariot Lords is a game of epic history using the system pioneered by Britannia. Players control a succession of powers over a long historical period, trying to maximize control of areas and achieve their own victory conditions. In this iteration of the system, the powers are ancient peoples in the Middle East, from the biblically-renowned Egyptians and Assyrians, to the obscure Urartu and Mitanni.

The game is played in 10 turns. Each turn any new powers, along with the surviving powers from previous turns, can receive replacements, expand, and score VPs. The order of activations is random, which is a fundamental difference from Britannia.

The mechanics are generally straightforward. Receive reinforcements or replacements, move units on the area map, roll a few dice to resolve combat, and then tally VPs for territory and special victory conditions. There are a few wrinkles, such as vassalage and favor of the gods, but nothing that bogs down the game or has players reaching for the rules every 10 minutes.

Nice bits, shame about the rules

However, the rules are a struggle to get through on first reading. They’re ugly, badly formatted, and they obscure rather than illuminate what is a reasonably straightforward system. I recommend downloading the designer’s bundle of simplified rules and variants. And you may want to make up your own summary sheet if you’re teaching the game.

The rest of the package is handsome. The mounted map is clear, functional, and evocative of the ancient Cradle of Civilization. The oversized counters are neat and easy to handle. A game that has at its heart a host of different martial peoples from the mist-shrouded past needs to put faces to those peoples. The full-colour counters achieve that admirably.

 


The special victory bonuses give Chariot Lord much of its thematic heft. They feature all sorts of smiting, and putting to the sword, and driving foes from their lands. You may not know who the Elamites were before you start the game, but you’ll feel satisfaction when they occupy the rich valleys of their hated enemies, the Sumerians.

How many Phyrgians does Dave have to put to the sword?

In my games, however, the players have had trouble with the number of bonus conditions each power can pursue. It’s hard enough for the controlling player to keep track of four or five conditions for each of his three or four powers on the map; it’s almost impossible for his opponents to track them all without the game bogging down in relentless references to the bonus sheets.

I’ve adopted the solution of paring down the bonus conditions to three for each of the major powers (Egyptians, Hittites, Assyrians, Chaldeans), and one for every other power. This guts the game of a lot of details, but it keeps the game manageable for a casual session that runs under 8 hours.

Make no mistake, this is a long game. A full game with new players and the original rules will run over 8 hours (or has twice for me, anyway). If you want a shorter game, again, download the big bundle and use the Mighty Warriors rules. I’ve also found it necessary to keep the kibitzing to a minimum. Too much ‘you and him should fight’ and you’ll feel as though you really are an eye-witness to the rise and fall of empires over centuries.

Never a dull moment in the Bronze Age

Even with those provisos, Chariot Lords is a tremendously fun game. With fresh powers joining your cause every turn or two, you’ll be conquering and desperately vying for territory all over the ancient world. The map is expansive enough that smaller powers can hang on to their patches of land, but not so big that the situations in the various regions develop in isolation from one another. The Hittites encroach on the lands of the Egyptians, and the whole world trembles when the Assyrians erupt to spread fire and terror.



The variable activation sequence works very well. You don’t see the dry deliberation and long-term optimization that you have in Britannia. You can never be sure who will arrive on the scene exactly when, so you must unleash the chariots of war and make the most of situation on the map at the moment. This variety makes Chariot Lords highly replayable, and also friendly to new players. However, those who enjoy the deterministic balance of Britannia may be dismayed at the swings of fate in Chariot Lords.

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my games of Chariot Lords, and the only thing that stops it from getting on the table more often is playing time. It’s not a deep game, but it evokes a sweep of history and bloody conquest without the burden of a lot of overhead. I rate it a 7 with the original rules, and an 8 with the Mighty Warriors variant and a little preparation.
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Filip Stenbeck
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Thank you for a very good review.
I recently got this as a gift from a friend (unpunched!)
I will definitely give this a try. And I will definitely use the short/mighty warriors rules.
 
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Jon Snow
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I remember going back and forth about buying this when it first came out at a game con. Despite many purges, this great game remains in the collection. An update with reedited rules and the fixes in the big package should sell.
 
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Joel Yoder
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Excellent teaser. It's not a great game, but I have always found it to be a fun game, more fun than many games that have better rules, play balance, etc.

I disagree about the victory conditions though. I love the variety of goals you can pursue with each power. You have to figure out which ones are manageable and which to write off, depending on the order powers come out, who has the most strength, etc. There is also the option to focus on territory instead of goals if that will net you more points. Yes, it is hard to keep track of other people's goals, but I have found that my enjoyment does not suffer if I just focus on my own goals and don't worry too much about what others are doing. There are some exceptions of course, when an opponent needs to conquer your capitol or something, but those are easily summarized on a cheat sheet.

Just reading this review has made me want to get my copy on the table again, so good job!
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