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Subject: Review from Slingshot magazine rss

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John Graham-Leigh
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Westbury
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I wrote this review for "Slingshot" and it was published there in 2005.

Just out from UGG, a German company which has released several popular military board games (Blitzkrieg General, Pasaran?), is Assyrian Wars, a multi-player game covering the apogee and collapse of the Assyrian Empire from about 728 to 605 BC.

This is a big game – a moderate-sized map, but many hundreds of counters, 110 cards and all the trimmings. A large space will be needed to play the game because a lot of cards, counter pools etc need to be kept beside the map. For those familiar with recent board games, I can best sum it up as a blend of Mark McLaughlin’s “Napoleonic Wars” and Charles Vasey’s “Chariot Lords” but more detailed than either and with many original features added by Udo Grebe.

To start with the map: it measures 23” by 34” and covers an area from Phrygia and Egypt in the west to the far reaches of Media and Elam in the east. It consists of “areas” represented by circles, squares or oblongs and connected by communication links; the circles and squares are undeveloped areas and the oblongs are cities. The number shown in the gateway of each city is its defensive strength, and the large numbers above some cities show extra economic value. Unsurprisingly, Nineveh is the strongest and most valuable city on the map. The use of oblong “double squares” is an excellent idea; counter stacks can occupy half the space without obscuring the printed detail of the city.

The assumption at the start of the game (the accession of Sargon II) is the very reasonable one that the Assyrian is King of Kings and all the other states are either tribute-paying subjects or rebels. States not represented by players (there are many, including Phrygia, Urartu, Phoenicia, Judah etc) test each turn to see whether they obediently pay tribute; if they do not, the Assyrian must “punish” the defaulters in customary Assyrian style, or lose prestige (i.e. victory points). The player-powers (Babylon, Elam, Egypt and the Medes) can choose whether to pay tribute or challenge the Assyrians in war. There are also nomads, who have no homelands: the Arabs and Aramaeans are just insignificant mercenaries, but the Cimmerians and Scythians are dangerous and worth buying.

The basic game system is very similar indeed to that of “Napoleonic Wars”. It is card-driven: at the start of the turn each player is dealt a number of cards depending on the economic strength of his empire. Each power also has some “home cards” – three for Assyria, two for other major powers and one for minor states. Assyria may start a turn with as many as 13 cards while other powers may have 6 or 7 each. The game turn is divided into a number of “rounds”, each consisting of a series of “player impulses” in which players take it in turns to collect income and play cards. The income is in the form of “Action Points” (APs), and is based on the number and value of the cities controlled by the power.

Each card has a number in its top right corner; this represents the number of APs it is worth. At the start of a player’s impulse he collects his normal income (typically from 3 to 15 APs; at the start, for example, Assyria has 9 APs and Babylon has 6) and may play a card for its AP value. The total APs may then be spent on raising troops, hiring mercenaries, moving armies and many other things such as diplomacy, repairing damaged cities etc. Alternatively, a card may be played as an “event”, which may cost APs. Let’s look at a few sample cards.

“God Ashur Demands Holy War” is one of Assyria’s three “Home Cards”. It is marked “Battle”, so it can be played to affect a battle. It is also marked “AP 6”, so the Assyrian player must pay 6 APs to use it – but the effect can be devastating to the hapless enemy. The other “Battle Card” shown, “Turncoats”, is a cheaper one, costing only 2 AP to use, but it can be very effective as the unfortunate enemy finds that some of his mercenaries have deserted to your glorious army. “Peace and Prosperity” is the Phrygian home card, and demonstrates Phrygia’s priorities at this period. “Foreign War” is played by Egypt’s enemies, usually Assyria, and distracts significant Egyptian forces for a variable period – there are six foreign war cards affecting various powers. “Take Royal Hostage” can be very valuable in helping to keep minor states or nomad tribes on your side, or at least neutral. “Raids” can weaken enemy armies.

Combat is essentially simple: each unit has a strength of 1 to 4, a die is rolled and a score equal to or lower than that strength causes a hit on the enemy force. But there’s much more to it than that. Here’s a sample battle I’ve just played through.

A secondary, but fairly powerful, Assyrian army is attacking an Elamite army. The Assyrians have a 3-7 leader (the first number being his “action rating” and the second his “command rating”, or number of regular units he can control), with 1 chariot unit (strength 4), 1 heavy cavalry (3), 1 heavy infantry (4), 2 heavy infantry (3) and one bow unit (3). In addition to these regular units he has some mercenaries: 1 chariot (4), 1 heavy infantry (3), 1 light infantry (2) and 2 bow units (2). The Elamites have a 3-6 leader with 1 chariot unit (4), 1 bow unit (3), 3 bow units (2) and 1 light infantry (2), plus mercenaries: 2 light cavalry (3), 2 light infantry (2) and 2 bow units (2). The Assyrians are slightly outnumbered but have better troops, with a particular advantage in heavy troops.

First the players decide whether to play any battle cards. The Assyrian has his “God Ashur Demands Holy War” card available but decides to reserve it for King Sennacherib who is campaigning in Syria with the main army. Instead he plays “Leader Wounded” and rolls one dice. The score of 3 means that the Elamite leader is wounded and immediately removed from the battle. In return the Elamite player plays a “Turncoats” card: this particular version affects only one unit but the Elamite can choose which one. The Assyrian mercenary chariot unit deserts and joins the Elamite army.

Next comes the missile phase, which is simultaneous. The Elamites opt to use both their chariots in this round, so they have 2 units at strength 4, 1 at strength 3 and 5 at strength 2. They score 4 hits (about average), but the Assyrians have at least 5 heavy units which enables them to cancel 2 of these. The Assyrians flip over 2 bow units (1 regular and 1 mercenary). The Assyrians have less archery and score 2 hits, 1 of which is cancelled because the Elamites have 2 heavy units (the chariots). In the close combat round, the Assyrians have a huge advantage; they throw a total of 12 dice (including 3 for their leader and 1 extra just for being Assyrian) and score 7 hits including 2 “kills” (a special attribute of heavy units) while the Elamites’ 4 dice in reply get only 1 hit. The Assyrians flip over another mercenary unit and the Elamites must remove 2 units and flip over 5 others. The Elamites have lost the battle and a further 5 units “rout” – removed to join their wounded leader in the Regroup box. The Assyrian army is almost at full strength and can quickly be restored by AP expenditure for further operations, whereas the Elamite army is in ruins and is incapable of putting up further resistance. If the Assyrians can play another of their home cards, “Assyrian Blood Bath”, another round of combat takes place immediately and the Elamite army will probably be completely destroyed.

While this is definitely a wargame and battles are extremely important, there’s a lot more in it. Economics are vital: ships and caravans can gain income through trade, and troops can be sent to raid enemy traders. The third Assyrian home card, “Deportation”, is significant here; it allows the Assyrians to transfer economic resources from a conquered city to an Assyrian home city. Diplomacy with the numerous minor states and tribes is also important, and alliances can switch quite bewilderingly. Don’t trust the Scythians!

The game lasts for a maximum of five turns, each representing the reign of an Assyrian king, but a lot is packed into each turn. It’s perfectly possible for Ashurbanipal to sack Babylon, defeat the Elamites, march victoriously through Syria and invade Egypt, all in the one game-turn representing his reign.

There are four scenarios. “The Two Rivers” is an introductory scenario involving only Assyria, Babylon, Elam and Urartu, without many of the rules such as trade and tribute, and ends immediately when a power (probably Babylon) is conquered. Note that in a full game “conquest” lasts for only one game-turn, after which the defeated power is free to rise again. “Rise and Fall” is another introductory scenario which adds in the Medes, Cimmerians and some minor states. The Campaign Game is the full deal, starting with Sargon’s armies besieging Samaria and ending with the fall of Nineveh (or possibly not!). “Ashurbanipal’s Campaigns” is a full-scale game covering only the last two turns.

Overall the game has a lot of depth and much flavour of the period. Be warned that there’s a lot of detail to get hold of. Fortunately the rules are sensibly set out, and there’s a very detailed Tutorial booklet with an exhaustively worked sample turn – extremely helpful for learning the game. For fans or haters of Assyria, this game should be a must buy.

Assyrian Wars is available from Udo Grebe Gamedesign, price 55 euros. See the website at www.ugg.de for details. Be sure to order the English language edition (unless you speak German) – I did, but the first copy I received had the rules and cards in German. I’m pleased to say that UGG replaced it with the English version within a few days, and I was able to return the German version simply by handing it to the delivery driver.
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Jason Johns
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Good reveiw. Anyone, wanna give this a try PBEM via Cyberboard?
 
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Mike Gallagher
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Actually I would. It is an era I enjoy investigating.
I am likely to buy it and would want to read the rules etc. before starting.
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Paul Norell
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Is there a Cyberboard version? The game could certainly use one given the multitude of cards and counters. I would be a starter for sure
 
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Mike Gallagher
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Yes there is a CB Gamebox, actually on the game company's site. Along with a bunch of game aids you can download and a set of "living" rules.
 
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Mike Gallagher
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The downloads can be found at: http://www.ugg.de/
then select the Assyrian Wars
 
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Craig Ambler
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Great review. I have had this game since it first came out, and unfortunately have only got throw a couple of false starts.

I have now the 1.3 rules so will have to give it another try. Excellent looking game and the period has much to offer.

Must try harder springs to mind.

Craig
 
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