Chaos in the Old World
Category: Area Control
Designer: Eric M. Lang
Publisher: Fantasy Flight Games
Year Published: 2009
Playing Time: 90-120 mins.
To Play or Not To Play: Play
Games Workshop. Fantasy Flight Games. Eric Lang. Ten years ago, these three pillars of tabletop gaming came together to produce a game unlike any other on the market. Set in the Warhammer universe, Chaos in the Old World applies Fantasy Flight’s exceptional production values to Eric Lang’s specialty: highly interactive area control games. The result is as decadent as it is engrossing.
You play as one of the four Ruinous Powers of Chaos rampaging through the Old World. Khorne directs his minions to engage in glorious, destructive battle. Nurgle spreads plague and disease throughout the land. Slaanesh seeks to corrupt the minds of the rich and powerful with carnal temptations. And Tzeentch . . . Tzeentch is up to something, but who can say what?
With four Ruinous Powers to control, this game is best played with all four. Each has unique strengths and weaknesses that balance the others out. You can technically play with just three, but the experience feels off-kilter and somewhat unfair. You really want to play this with four. There's an expansion for a fifth player, but I haven't tried it, so I'm going to pretend it doesn't exist.
A four-player game lasts at most seven rounds, at which point the player with the highest score wins. There are two conditions that will end the game early: once any player reaches 50 victory points, the highest score wins. Alternatively, each player has a unique threat dial built into the board. The threat dials are different lengths. Nurgle’s is the longest, while Slaanesh’s is the shortest. If you can advance your dial to the end, you win. How do you advance your threat dial? Well, that’s different for each player. More on that later!
Let’s dig into how this game actually works, shall we? First, draw an “Old World” card and apply any immediate effects. These are like event cards in other games, and they will generally have an effect on the board, like adding new tokens to the board or making certain regions score more victory points. Next, each player draws chaos cards. Each player has their own unique deck of cards specially tailored to help achieve their win condition and stymie their opponents. Finally, they each set their power point track to its starting value (6 for everyone except Khorne, who gets 7).
Now the meat of the game begins. Each player takes it in turn to either play a card or summon a figure. Each region of the board has space for two chaos cards. Once a chaos card has been played to a region, there is no way to remove it until the end of the round. So if you need a certain card to be placed in a certain location, you have to make sure you get it down quickly before both available spaces fill up! Some chaos cards have instantaneous effects, while others will modify later parts of the round. Since every player has unique powers, you’ll have to pay close attention to what your opponents are doing during their turns. Each chaos card also has a cost, generally between 0 and 3 power points, and you’ll have to pay that cost to play the card. If you don’t have enough power points remaining, you can’t play the card.
Instead of playing a card, you can summon a figure. Each player has a number of cultists and warriors at their disposal, as well as a single powerful Greater Daemon. When summoning a figure, a player can take one from their supply off the board, or remove a figure from the board to place it somewhere else. If a player has no figures on the board, they can summon their first one anywhere, but all subsequent figures must be summoned to the same or an adjacent region as an existing figure.
Each player’s figures have their own strengths and weaknesses. For example, let’s say you’re playing as Khorne. You have very few cultists and lots of warriors. Khorne’s threat dial advances by killing enemy units, so you a big incentive to spend your power points on warriors than on cultists. Khorne’s warriors are powerful, but have low defense. Nurgle’s warriors, on the other hand, cost fewer power points to summon than Khorne’s. They aren’t as strong, but it’s much easier for Nurgle to rebuild.
So you think it might be better to go after another target, like Slaanesh. But Slaanesh’s pieces have a higher defense, and you may not successfully get a kill against them. Which leaves Tzeentch.
But Tzeentch has many ways of moving pieces around the board, sometimes in ways that are cheaper than normal summoning. If you target Tzeentch too early, you may find that the enemy figures are all gone by the time the round is over. There are no easy decisions, so sometimes the best option is to simply spread the love!
The four Ruinous Powers always take their turns in the same order: Khorne, Nurgle, Tzeentch, and Slaanesh. Khorne begins by playing a card or summoning a figure, then Nurgle goes, and so on until we get back to Khorne, who then gets to play a second card or summon a second figure. Once a player reaches 0 power points, they are out of actions and the others players continue until they reach 0 as well.
Next, the battle phase begins. In each region, the players check to see if there are any warriors or greater daemons sharing the space with figures from any other player. If there are, battle ensues, and in grand Warhammer tradition that means dice. Each die result of a 4+ counts as a hit, and 6s are critical hits that “explode,” meaning you roll an additional die and a 4+ on that is also a hit. Yes, your bonus die can explode too. Chaos is literally the name of the game! Each hit gets applied to the defense of the enemy figures, and if you roll enough hits to equal the defense of a figure, it is killed. But, if that defending figure has any offensive strength, it will still get to roll its counterattack before it is removed from the board. There’s no destruction like Mutually Assured Destruction!
Once the dust settles, any surviving pieces will contribute to the corruption phase. Remember how I said this game is an area control game? Well, this is where we figure out who controls each area. First: Domination. Each region of the game has its own resistance. Populous regions like The Empire, Bretonnia, and Estalia have high resistances, while distant lands out on the fringes of civilization have low resistance. In each region, each player calculates their Domination value by totaling the quantity of figures they control and the sum of the costs of any chaos cards they have in the region. The player with the highest result compares their result to the region’s resistance, and if it exceeds the resistance that player earns some victory points. Higher resistance lands are worth more victory points, but require a larger investment of power points to succeed.
But that’s not all. Remember those cultists? They do more than help dominate a region! Most cultists do not have any attack strength, and that’s because they’re busy spreading corruption throughout the land. After calculating Dominatoin, each Cultist in a region drops one corruption token. Once a region has 12 corruption tokens, it is Ruined, which triggers all kinds of fun things! First, the players who contributed to the region’s ruination that turn by placing corruption markers gain several victory points. Then the players with the most and second-most corruption markers in the region get a whole bunch of victory points, depending on how high the ruined region’s resistance is. And then for the rest of the game that region is effectively barren. No chaos cards can be played there, no corruption tokens can be dropped, and while figures can move through and battle each other, they won’t score any victory points for domination. Only five regions can be ruined each game, and generally that’s enough to ensure someone has won the game.
Before the end of the round, there are a couple more pieces of bookkeeping to take care of. Any chaos cards on the board get removed and some old world cards from the very beginning of the round might trigger. But the most exciting part concerns the threat dials. I mentioned earlier that players have a unique condition to fulfill to advance their threat dials. Let’s explore that now. We’ll start with Khorne. Once per region, per round, if Khorne kills an enemy figure in battle, Khorne earns one dial advancement counter. So if Khorne has warriors in three regions and each one kills an enemy cultist, then that’s three counters. That doesn’t mean Khorne’s threat dial will advance three times. It just means he has three counters.
Nurgle earns a dial advancement counter by placing at least 2 corruption tokens in a populous region. So if Nurgle has two cultists in Estalia and two in The Empire, and they survive the battle phase, then that will be two dial advancement counters for Nurgle. Slaanesh is similar, he needs to place two corruption tokens in a region with a Noble token or a Hero token. At the beginning of the game, two Noble tokens are randomly placed on the board, and many Old World cards will add more nobles or heroes to expand Slaanesh’s options. And Tzeentch is weird. Tzeentch needs to place two corruption tokens in regions with two or more Warpstone tokens and/or magic symbols. What’s a magic symbol? It’s an icon that shows up on roughly 50% of all the chaos cards in the game. That’s right, you can piggyback on another Power’s chaos card to earn a dial advancement counter. Nice!
So, during the battle phase Khorne will accumulate some number of dial advancementment counters. Then after domination is calculated, the other three players will (hopefully) get their advancement counters. Next, the players compare how many counters each of them got. Players who earned at least one counter get to advance their dial one tick. The player with most counters gets to advance two ticks. Ties are generally bad in this game. If both players tie for the most, neither one gets the benefit.
And that’s it, back to the beginning for the next round with a new Old World card. What’s fascinating about this game is that it’s an area control game where you need to place figures to earn victory points, and you need to place corruption to earn victory points, but once enough corruption is on the region, it stops producing victory points at all. Between that mechanic and Khorne’s violent tendencies, players have to keep moving figures around the board. It’s fascinating to balance the two types of area control to maximize your points.
Eric Lang’s Designer Notes (included in the rulebook!) explain that among his goals for this game was to “create a simple but rich territory control game.” That appears after 26 pages of rules, so I can’t say he succeeded on the “simple” front, but it certainly is rich. The unique chaos cards, threat dial advancement conditions, and figures for each Ruinous Power really make you feel like you are that power. You’re not just the red player, you ARE Khorne, the Blood God. If you’re not chanting “Blood for the Blood God! Skulls for the Skull Throne!” you’re probably not playing it right.
And, at the end of the day, that’s this game’s true appeal. While using the same mechanics, each player feels like they’re playing a very different game with different tools to overcome the other players. This is the kind of game you’ll really want to play four times, once as each Power, to truly understand how they work and what they’re capable of. Don’t get me wrong, the first couple games where players bust out ridiculous chaos cards and upgrade powers that completely catch you off guard are super exciting. But once you learn what every power if capable of, you can start to prepare for your opponents.
So, let’s be real. The box claims that this is a 90-120 minute game. If you somehow manage to play this game with three other people who know the game well, that’s probably accurate. I’ve never seen that happen. There is always at least one, if not three, new players sitting at the table who are borderline overwhelmed for the first hour or so of the game. And in that situation, the game will easily last 3, or even 4, hours.
Despite all of that, Chaos in the Old World is delectable! If you are able to find a group of players who are also interested in the game, and if the four of you can play multiple times over several months to the point where the mechanics become pretty ingrained and you can start thinking about strategy and counter-strategy, you will find that this is one of the most well-balanced asymmetrical games every designed. This is the kind of game where the entire group will level up in skill with every game. But you have to get the game started somehow, and fortunately the rulebook comes with strategy tips for each player on how to win as their Power, and how to oppose the other three. These tips are ESSENTIAL to getting through your first couple games, and they make a huge difference when teaching the game.
So, should you play this game? That’s a tough question. Other games I’ve reviewed on this website have been pretty cut and dry. Sagrada, Ex Libris, and Call to Adventure all provide exciting and compelling experiences without too much complexity. Chaos in the Old World requires an investment. You need to put time and energy into learning this game to get the most out of it. But if you want a deep, rich, strategic experience that will let you and three friends test your wits in an elegant, brutal dance? If you want the sort of game where you will look at a card that you thought was useless in your first play, and have a sudden revelation that it’s actually extremely powerful? If you want the sort of game you and your friends can pull out over and over, and see marked improvement in each others’ skills? If all of that sounds like something you want in a board game, then you should play Chaos in the Old World.
And now I really want to play this game. Anyone interested?
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