Navajo Wars Playtest

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Designer's Notes Blog

Playtest Artwork

posted Apr 12, 2012, 10:23 AM by Joel Toppen

When I first began work on this project, I wanted the game to be as evocative and full of historical flavor as I could possibly make it. Because art is such a powerful medium for generating historical flavor, I've made a strong effort to make the playtest artwork look as good as possible (admitting that my artistic skills are limited and I'm a complete amateur).

For the map, two things must be carefully weighed and balanced: historical flavor and playability. Yes, we want the map to look really evocative. We want the player to feel transported back in time when he looks at the playing surface. But this in no way should detract from playability. Therefore, we're working on making things as ergonomically pleasing as possible in order to enhance playability.

Check out our Sample Playtest Graphics page to see the most recent iteration of the map.

For the cards, I want the text to be as clearly-worded as possible. There is something to be said about being as concise as possible, but the danger in this approach is the introduction of ambiguity. The danger in "wordiness" in the cards is contradictions, typos, and/or outright errors. For Navajo Wars, my approach has been to try and strike a balance between concision and wordiness.

For the counters, I want the artwork to be evocative, but the text MUST be readable. For that reason, we've asked for 5/8" counters. This will allow us to use the most readable size font possible for the counters.

Put together, the map, cards, and counters should mesh together like an orchestra. Each part playing it's roll in harmony with the others. My hope is that we've accomplished this goal in the playtest art. I have every confidence that GMT's outstanding professionals will do even better!

Ceremony Cards & Enemy Morale

posted Apr 9, 2012, 1:49 PM by Joel Toppen

In the beginning of the month of March, 2012, I began to take a critical look at the game, NAVAJO WARS. There were two small issues that were bugging me. One was the length of time it was taking to play the game. The other issue was that it could sometimes feel slightly repetitive. Several testers said they didn’t mind game length and that they enjoy the richness of the historical flavor the game imparts. Nevertheless, my goal is to make the game as good as it can possibly be. If there was a way to keep the same historical richness and make the gameplay shorter and even more varied, I wanted to find and implement it.


The game is divided into three historical periods: Spanish, Mexican, and American. Each period plays from a deck consisting of 40 Operations, 4 Historical Event, and 1 Transitional Event card. The ending of the game is varied. It could end in as few as 37 cards or go as long as 45 cards (if the Transitional Event is the bottommost card. 

The problem is that the game’s balance was tuned to this particular structure. Any changes to the system such as removing Operations Cards to shorten play would cause certain game models to cease functioning properly. Play balance would need to be retuned.

If play balance would need a tune-up, why not implement something more exciting than the simple removal of cards. Enter the “CEREMONY” card concept!


Out of the 40 Operations cards, 12 of those cards had a die roll face that served two functions: (1) each was a Minor Event which would cause a necessary recycling of cubes on the Raid on the Raided Cubes and Recovery boxes on the map (critical to play-balance); and (2) each could be used in lieu of a die roll if the card had been brought into the player’s hand via the Planning Operation. What if we changed the way these cards were handled?

What I’ve done is to take the 12 Operations cards with die roll faces and re-title them as Ceremony Cards. Resolution of a Ceremony card is quick and simple. Each Ceremony card has the name of the two most important Diné religious ceremonies: “Blessing Way” and “Enemy Way.” When a Ceremony card is drawn: 

  1. First, the player first must execute the Enemy Way effect printed on any Ceremony card in his hand. These effects are universally negative. 
  2. Next, the player MAY choose to discard any and all Ceremony cards from his hand. If he does this, he must remove certain population counters from the Passage of Time Box (which serves as a waiting room for population counters before they can populate a Family.
  3. Next, the player must recycle the cubes (so this critical function is retained).
  4. Finally, the player MAY choose to bring the drawn Ceremony card into his hand. Why would he want to do this? If he does so, he gets a free Population counter in the Passage of Time box. Later on, he may also use the Ceremony card “Blessing Way” effect: in lieu of making a die roll when it is the player’s Operations Segment or during a Battle or Evasion attempt. This can be very powerful! There’s no limit to how many cards you can hold, but beware! If you draw a Ceremony Card, all card in your hand will have their Enemy Way effect triggered!

What this has done to the game is to make the game even more tense and exciting than before. It has also made gameplay much, much more varied. To an extent, however, it does appear to have made the game more difficult. To serve as a counter-balance, we’ve made some functions in the game more streamlined and easier to handle. We’ve also introduced a way to win the game early!

It has always been the case that the player could LOSE the game instantly if his Military and Culture points fell to zero. But I’ve wanted to also make it possible to win an early victory if the player is doing exceptionally well. Thus, we’ve introduced an Enemy Morale rule:


Enemy Morale begins at a level equal to the number of Families the player has on the map -- 3 during the Spanish period. If Enemy Morale drops to zero, the player wins the game during the discard phase! How do you drop enemy Morale? During each Historical Event card, if the player’s Culture + Military Points are above a certain threshold, Enemy Morale is reduced by one; conversely, if Culture + Military points are below a certain threshhold, Enemy Morale is raised by one. Enemy Morale can also be reduced if the player successfully ambushes the Enemy or raids New Mexico to such a degree that all animal counters are in-play. The Enemy can, however, increase its morale if the player fails to win an Ambush Battle.

Right now we are working on tuning the play-balance of Enemy Morale. In so doing, we’re also finding more ways to streamline and make gameplay more elegant. Overall, the modified rules are making this game a LOT more fun to play and with shorter playing time! Typically it used to take an experienced player 2 hours to play through a complete game period. Now it takes between one and one and a half hours to play!

"Navajo Wars" as History

posted Apr 9, 2012, 1:48 PM by Joel Toppen

When the Spanish arrived in New Mexico, the Navajo were a small, semi-nomadic tribe of hunters and farmers who lived in the country to the north and west of most of the more sophisticated Pueblo tribes (except the Hopi who lived to the west of the Navajo). The Navajo culture was centered around a well-developed religion which emphasizes the beauty of life.

When the Spanish arrived in New Mexico, their first efforts were directed at subjugating the Pueblo tribes of New Mexico. While the stated goal of the Spanish was to impart “civilization” and “Christianity” to the “savages” of the “New World,” their actual efforts more closely resembled slavery and exploitation. The Spanish efforts were initially less than successful and many Spanish resources were wasted in the effort. New Mexico was at the end of a very long line of communications from the capital of New Spain. New Mexico was the frontier of frontiers! Whereas the conquest of the tribes of Mexico went relatively swiftly, the conquest of New Mexico proved to be a much more difficult enterprise; one which neither Spain nor Mexico accomplished.

The Diné watch from the periphery. Longingly, they see the Spanish sheep and horses being used by the strange newcomers as well as some of the more powerful Pueblos. If only they could acquire these, they could become powerful! The Diné of the Tse'bitaah (pronounced tsay-bih-ta-ah) or “winged rock” people (today the winged rock is known as Shiprock) swoop down upon New Mexico! One band of raiders happens upon a flock of sheep. Without warning, the young Spanish shepherd is struck down by a hail of Diné arrows. The sheep are driven back into the Dinétah. They will forever change the fortunes and the way of life for the People.

Other Diné raiding parties from the Tse’bitaah slip into Spanish stockades at night to steal a few horses. Having watched the strange animals being ridden by the newcomers as well as their Pueblo “allies,” the Diné see the potential of the animals. Within a generation, the horsemanship skills of the People will become legendary and the balance of power in New Mexico completely altered.

Unfortunately, the Navajo depredations on New Mexico have had an unfortunate side effect: about a third of the Pueblo tribes, seeing the growing power of the Diné, have given in to the Spanish. In exchange for Spanish “protection” from the Navajo, these Pueblo tribes offer allegiance to the King of Spain and baptism into the Spanish religion. Spanish power is growing in New Mexico. Soon they will target the People. The Diné of the Tse'bitaah people break off their raids, having taken only what they needed.

Meanwhile, the Diné of the Chʼínílį́ (pronounced chin-lee) or people of the place where water “flows out” of the rocked canyon move their families into the Zuni Mountains. They had intended to farm the plains to the east of the Hopi Mesas but scouts reported that the Hopi intended to go to war with the Diné. Preferring peace, these Diné move eastward into the pine-forested land of the Zuni Mountains. In time, these Diné will plant great cornfields and build up a cache of food.

In the north, at the feet of the Rocky Mountains flows the turbulent stream called by the Spanish, the Rio San Juan. Here, the Diné of the Nanizhozhi (pronounced nah-nij-ho-ji) or people of the “bridge” plant great fields of corn along the banks of the stream they call Tsé Dogoi Ńlíní, or “flowing over projecting rock.”

Most of the People are at peace with their neighbors, planting crops of corn, beans, and squash; tending their beloved peach orchards in the Tséyiʼ (pronounced tsay) or Canyon (known today as Canyon de Chelly; pronounced de-shay). But the small bands of Diné who have raided New Mexico have given the whole of the People a name for being ferocious bandits, bloodthirsty savages. This will likely spark a cycle of violence that will perpetuate for generations.

In New Mexico, the effects of the first Spanish wars with the Pueblos and the Navajo raids are beginning to wear off. As time goes on, the land begins to recover from war and enjoy a measure of quiet.


What I’ve written above is a reasonably accurate portrayal of the first years of history covered by the game NAVAJO WARS.
What is more, I drafted the above narrative from the execution of ONE Operations card from the game! 

In game terms, card #27 was pulled as the first card of the game. The player chose to forgo the option to Preempt and take his Operation first, preferring not to spend the 3APs necessary and wanting to watch and see what the Spanish did before executing an Operation.pastedGraphic.pdf

The Spanish began by collecting 4 Action Points (APs) and spending 3 APs to execute the first two instructions: Subjugation of the Pueblos. In the execution of these two instructions, three cubes are drawn from the draw bag: brown, yellow, and black. Since a red cube was not drawn, the Pueblos have resisted the Spanish attempt to conquer them. The harsh landscape of New Mexico gives the natives an edge in the early days of the Spanish colonization of New Mexico! The three non-red drawn cubes are placed into the Recovery Box on the game board. That these cubes are not immediately returned to the the bag means they are not available to be drawn by the player. They are exhausted Spanish resources wasted in the unsuccessful Spanish campaign against the Pueblos. That these cubes are not in the bag means that the Diné will have a more difficult time stealing resource when raiding New Mexico.

The Player then takes Family A (Tse'bitaah), spends 2 Movement Points (MPs) and raids New Mexico twice. On the first raid, a white cube is drawn and a sheep counter is placed into the Resources Box. On the second raid a red cube is drawn and is placed into the Subjugation of the Pueblos box and another cube is immediately drawn. This time, a brown cube is pulled. A horse counter is placed into the Resources Box. The red cube will unfortunately give the Spanish a bonus AP on subsequent Operations Cards. Fortunately the white and brown cubes are placed into the Raided Cubes box and each will reduce the number of Enemy APs collected by 1 — and so the net effect is on subsequent Operations Cards, the Enemy will get +1 AP and -2 APs for a net total of -1 APs. Feeling he’s pressed his luck enough, the player spend his remaining MPs to move deeper into the Shiprock country, away from the Spanish-held area of New Mexico.

Family B (Chʼínílį́) spends 4 MPs to leave Canyon de Chelly and move into box 3 of the Zuni Mountains. Since the family lacks the MPs needed to plant corn, the Family ends its activation.

Family C (Nanizhozhi) spends 4 MPs to plant corn in box 1 of the San Juan Valley area. One corn counter is drawn and placed face-down in the box 1 of the San Juan Valley area.

With the Player’s Operations Segment concluded, the Major Event: “Hopi War” is resolved. Since no Family occupies the Hopi Land area, there is no effect.

Finally, the Minor Event: Recycle Cubes is carried out. Cubes in the Recovery Box return to the bag; cubes in the Raided Cubes Box then shift to the Recovery Box. This, unfortunately, represents a loss of momentum for the Navajo. The next Operations Card will not be impacted by cubes in the Raided Cubes Box since that box is now empty!

And so you can see how in a SINGLE card play, an immense amount of narrative can be generated! This is one of the rich trademarks of NAVAJO WARS, one which I enjoy above all else.

Abstraction & Realism

posted Apr 9, 2012, 1:47 PM by Joel Toppen

One of the things that some of the playtesters have been asking me to do is explain what some of the processes in the game represent. In NAVAJO WARS, I’ve chosen to abstract a number of elements in order to make the game fun, historically and culturally accurate, and playable. 


Time was one of the trickiest things to model. Early beta versions of the game had an elaborate model where each turn represented a season: winter, spring, summer, and autumn. The game then lasted a number of years (each of which consisted of four seasons) in such a way as to accurately give an approximation of the warfare that occurred during a given timeframe. This was an accurate model for there were sometimes upwards of 50 years of peace between the Navajo, their Pueblo neighbors, and the Europeans. The trouble was, it made the game too long to play and too monotonous — no fun in any game, much less a solitaire game!

The solution I hit upon to accurately model the highly complex intermittent and yet persistent military struggle that became known to history as the Navajo Wars was to abstract the flow of time. The Navajo wars were a series of low-intensity raids and counter-raids that were occasionally interrupted by campaigns of shocking violence or years (sometimes decades) of relative peace and quiet. To model this in a fun way, I came to model the passage of time using a three-dimensional process. Each of the three Operations available to the player are one dimension of the “time” model.

The player has three Operations available to him (as noted in the previous blog entry). The “Take Actions” Op is where the player conducts raids, engages in intensive farming, and moves about the land (moving their families from place to place and/or confronting intruders). It’s easy to see how this Operation represents actions taking place over a linear stretch of time. The second Operation is the “Planning” Op. What this chiefly represents is the influence of tribal leadership, economic growth through the accumulation of trade goods (the most reliable form of “currency” on the frontier), and inter-tribal diplomacy over the same course of time as previous and subsequent “Take Actions” Operations. The clincher is the “Passage of Time” Operation. This Op represents the conclusion of the a period of time which consists of all of the “Take Actions” and “Planning” Operations which proceeded it.

The mechanics of the game highly encourage the player to undertake each of the Operations at semi-regular intervals. For example, if the player avoids “Passage of Time,” his families will eventually be so depleted, the other Operations won’t be terribly useful. But let’s say that a player does exactly this. Let’s say he executes 9 “Take Actions” Ops in a row. By the time the 9th Operation has been fully executed, his Families will likely be in rough shape with many Population counters awaiting a “Passage of Time” Operation to be restored to their Families. What does this represent? It represents a time period of intensive activity; a period with the land experiencing very little peace and quiet. When the player finally undertakes a “Passage of Time” Operation, he will likely be unable to create any NEW Families; he’ll likely only be able to repopulate his depleted Families. In other words, the tribe has not experienced any meaningful population growth due to the persistent, continuous war. On the other hand, a player may instead execute a couple “Planning” and no “Take Actions” Operations before undertaking a “Passage of Time” Operation. What this represents is a lengthy period of relative peace — even though only a few cards were actually played! The results of this sequence is likely to be at least one new Family. The lengthy peace has led to population growth!

The beauty of this level of abstraction is that it all happens without any need for special rules or dedicated player management.

Enemy Raids

Enemy Raids are carried out when the Enemy executes a Raid Instruction during an Enemy Operation Segment. The execution of a Raid Instruction leads to the sequential placement of Enemy Raid counters on the Raid Tracks of the map. The NUMBER of Raid counters functions something like movement points do in other games. The more counters, the deeper and more severe the Enemy penetration is likely to be. When Raid counters are placed into the same box as a Family, the Family can negotiate, ambush, evade, or do nothing. If the evasion, negotiation, or ambush fails, the Family is effected by the Raid in a negative way. Sometimes several Families are impacted by one Raid Instruction. What does this represent? It represents a concerted effort on the part of the Europeans in Santa Fe to pacify the Navajo over a period of time. One Raid Instruction, when executed, represents the effect of several campaigns into Navajo Country — not necessarily a single, massive incursion.


Arguably the most devastating element the Enemy has in its arsenal is the establishment of Outposts in Navajo Country. Outposts are in some ways more dangerous than Enemy Raids. Why? Because Outposts represent a persistent foreign presence in the Navajo’s land.

There are three types of Outposts: the Spanish build Missions, the Mexicans and Americans build Ranchos, and Forts are placed by an Historical Event card. Missions and Ranchos function identically. They differ only in that Missions are easier to destroy in a Raid than Ranchos. 

So what do Outposts DO that make them so dangerous? Well, for one thing if a Family is in the same box as an Outpost, that Family cannot react to an Enemy Raid and one or more Population counters from that Family will automatically be removed (1 for Mission; 2 for Rancho; 3 for Fort). That said, it’s not ALL bad to be caught in the same box as an Outpost. Families in the same box as an Outpost are safe from Tribal Raids from hostile native tribes. The biggest danger of Outposts lies in that their presence makes Enemy Instructions like “Subvert the Natives” and “Outpost Expansion” inflict Culture Point hits on the player. The more Outposts on the map, the more Culture Point hits are inflicted. Furthermore, as Outposts expand, they become persistent. Outpost which are successfully raided while on the lowest numbered Raid Box of a Raid Track are removed from the map. But Outposts on higher numbered Raid Boxes of a Raid Track are only pushed back one box, allowing its presence to persist. Every time a “Subvert the Natives” Instruction is executed, for each Action Point the Enemy spends to execute that Instruction, the player loses 1 Culture Point — but never more than the number of Outposts on the map. So even though 3 APs might be spent, if only 1 Outpost of any type is on the map, the player only loses 1 Culture Point. Thus, it is imperative that the player not allow the Enemy to establish a persistent presence on Navajo Land.

What does this represent? Outposts represent, well, outposts of European settlement. Historically whenever Europeans settled in close proximity with the the indigenous people groups in America the result was universally negative for those indigenous peoples. Europeans tended to impose their culture and beliefs on the natives by force. They further tended to intentionally introduce harmful elements such as alcohol in order to demoralize the native population and engender a state of dependency on the Europeans. This was also true among the Navajo. This designer has lived among the Navajo for over 20 years and has seen the effects of this attempt to culturally subjugate the Diné.  

In conclusion let me address a valid question concerning Missions. Why are “Missions” harmful to the Navajo? The “Missions” in the game represent Spanish settlements. Early Spanish attempts to convert the Diné to Christianity were both arrogant and brutal. It is this designer’s view that those attempts were also carried out in a manner contrary to the Christian scriptures. Rather than sugar-coat the facts, I have chosen to present history as it happened. That said, I should clarify that there have been many Christian ministers and priests who showed love and kindness to the Diné. The “Missions” in the game do not represent these people.

In NAVAJO WARS, I’ve attempted to strike a balance between abstraction and realism. I’m quite pleased with the results of this endeavor. The game presents the player with an intellectually stimulating challenge and sheds light on the history that is not often told. 

In my next entry, I hope to tell a brief history of the Navajo Wars; the history that the game seeks to model.

Resource Management

posted Apr 9, 2012, 1:47 PM by Joel Toppen

When I set out to create this game, I wanted it to have a “Euro” feel and yet also be a wargame that would appeal to the conflict simulation enthusiast. One of the things the player will be confronted with very quickly in the game is the necessity for wise resource management.

The player’s resources come in three forms: Population, Animals-Firearms-Trade Goods, and Cards. Within each category, the player must balance understand the capabilities of each resource.


The player’s Population IS the Tribe’s most essential resource! Make no mistake about it, horses and sheep are important. Firearms are very useful. Trade Goods and Cards will make life easier for you, but your Population is absolutely critical!

The player’s Population is divided into four categories according to age: Children, Women, Men, and Elders. Population counters for each age group are placed on the Population Display and organized into Families; Elders are placed in an Elder Display. Each Family can consist of a maximum of one Child, one Man, and one Woman counter. A Family must have at least one Man or one Woman to exist on the map as a Family.

During an Operations Segment, the player will have the opportunity to undergo one of three Operations (Op): Take Actions, Planning, or Passage of Time. Take Actions is the Op most used by players. During this Op, the player will be able to do things with each Family on the map. The more Families you have on the map, the more you can do! It therefore behooves the player to strive to grow his population.

Each Population counter brings something to the table so to speak. Men enable the Family to fight battles against hostile tribes or their enemy in New Mexico. Men enable the Family to Raid, to Harass Enemy Raids, or to engage in Tribal Diplomacy. Families without a Man counter are seriously limited in taking offensive action. Finally, Man counters can be converted into Elders during a Passage of Time Op. Elders, as we’ll see in a moment, are very important.

Women are also very useful, but in a different way. Women enable the player to spend APs during a Planning Op to create Trade Goods. We’ll talk about Trade Goods a little more in a moment. For now, suffice it to say that they are VERY useful commodities! Women can also be converted into Elders during Passage of Time. Wait a minute! Women can be tribal Elders??? That’s right! In A Journal of the Santa Fe Expedition Under Colonel Doniphan, Private Jacob S. Robinson writing of the Navajo they encountered in October of 1846 near the site of modern-day Fort Wingate, NM said:  

“The women of this tribe seem to have equal rights with the men, managing their own business and trading as they see fit; saddling their own horses, and letting their husbands saddle theirs” (Robinson, pg. 46).

The Navajo were, and still are, a matriarchal society. In some areas, women are revered more highly than the men. Seeing that they enjoyed leadership roles in the time period covered by the game, I’ve chosen to incorporate this fascinating little piece of history in the game’s mechanics.

Children have a seemingly minor role. Some new players have failed to see the utility of Children because their role is very subtle. Essentially Children have one chief purpose: they can be converted into a Man or a Woman during Passage of Time. They have another utility though, one that is more subtle: they can be taken as losses following an Enemy or Tribal Raid (thus preserving the Man and/or Woman in that Family).

Elders are hugely important in the game. Elders are primarily used during Planning Ops. Each Elder on the Elder Display at the start of a Planning Op yields the player an Action Point (AP). APs can be used to Preempt the Enemy and go first during an Operations Segment; they can also be used to create Trade Goods using Women during a Planning Op. 

Each Elder on the Elder Display during a Planning Op can also conduct a special Elder Action. To do so, the player must roll a die and compare it to the “death check” range below the box containing the Elder on the Elder Display. The older and closer to death the Elder is, the greater the chance of success — the Elder enjoys more prestige and his counsel carries more weight. Elder Actions include the lowering or raising of a Family’s Ferocity rating. If a Family is made more Ferocious, the player gains a Military Point! Similarly, if a Family is made less Ferocious, the player gains a Culture Point (see previous Blog entry for the importance of balance in the game). Elders can also convert Culture Points into Military Points and vice versa. 

The trouble is, every time you conduct a Planning Op, all of your Elders will slide one box to the right, moving them into a box closer to death. When the player conducts a Passage of Time Op, he must dice for each of his Elders to see if any of them die. Fortunately, it is during Passage of Time that the player can create new Elders! As a bonus, newly-placed Elders yield the player a single Culture Point.

During Passage of Time Ops, the player must decide whether or not to turn Children into Men or Women and whether or not to turn Men or Women into Elders. The player must decide whether to create a new Family using cards in his hand (see below), or whether to replenish depleted Families — Families which do not have all three Population counters cost the player more Military/Culture Points when raided by an Enemy column or a Tribal war party. Decisions, decisions…


Private Robinson observed the horsemanship of the Navajo in 1846, writing: “Today we were exhibited several scenes of the chase by rabbits being started from the brush; when in an instant five hundred riders at least were on the chase. No fox or steeple chase can equal it; the Arab cannot excel the Nebajo [Navajo] in horsemanship; and better horses can hardly be found. The plain was covered with these mounted warriors, with their feathers streaming in the wind, their arms raised as for conflict; some riding one way and some another; and in the midst of these exciting scenes they indulge in the wild Indian yell, or shout of triumph, as they succeed in capturing their prey. It was a sight unequalled in display of horsemanship; and can be seen nowhere but in the wild mountains and plains of the west” (Robinson, pg. 46-47).

Horses are of great utility for two chief reasons: (1) they greatly enhance the mobility of the player’s Families on the map; (2) they enhance the Family’s ability to win a Battle against hostile Tribes or their New Mexico Enemy. To get Horses, the player must either buy them with Trade Goods, or (easier) steal them from the New Mexicans.

Sheep have one great use for the player: they provide the means for feeding the player’s Population which corn simply cannot match alone. As the game progresses, the land will become drier and less able to sustain a large population. As the Enemy encroaches on your land, the land’s ability to feed your Population diminishes. Sheep can pick up the slack in this regard and become a real life-saver. In a very real sense, the sheep was to the Navajo what the bison was to the plains tribes.

If the player has at least one animal in his Resources Box during a Passage of Time Op, he an freely add one additional matching Animal to the Resources Box. Thus, it is very important that you not spend your last Sheep counter (or lose your last horse in a Battle) before you get a chance to breed it! 

Trade Goods

Trade Goods are created by Women during Planning Ops. They can be spent for a variety of reasons including the purchase of animals, re-roll the dice after an unlucky result, re-draw a cube after a bad cube pull, or bribe the Enemy in Negotiations or Tribal Diplomacy. Many players are loathe to go into Battle without enough Trade Goods to make a re-roll.

Which begs the question: “What does that represent?” Well, a stockpile of Trade Goods is a measurement of the wealth of the tribe. This wealth would allow for better Battle preparation — thus the re-roll or re-draw option.


Operations Cards can be drawn into the player’s hand during the Discard Phase after the player has undertaken a Planning Operation, or when the die roll following a Die Roll Minor Event matches that on the card. Having an Operations Card in your hand gives you the ability to grow your Population during a Passage of Time Operation. THIS is THE key way to grow your Population: collect Cards by Planning.

Finally, as stated above, Cards with a die roll symbol can be used in lieu of making a die roll. This is an expensive thing to do, however, because you lose the ability to place that Population Counter during Passage of Time. But sometimes it is absolutely critical that you make a certain die roll. Having such a card in your hand gives you a bit of insurance. Of course, you have to discard the card in LIEU of making a die roll; you cannot roll a die and overturn it with the card. So do I chance it, or do I make certain I make this die roll? These are tough questions the player must make when having one of these cards in his hand.

In Summary

As the player, I must decide what Resources do I most urgently need: If I need Population and or Trade Goods, I should do Planning. If I need Animals I should do Take Actions and Raid NM. But what if it is not a good time to Raid? I should buy Animals with Trade Goods. But to buy Trade Goods I need Women in my Families. The complexity in the game lies in the decision-making, something playtesters seem to be enjoying immensely!

Hózhǫ́: Balance

posted Apr 9, 2012, 1:46 PM by Joel Toppen

If there is one consistent concept present within the Navajo culture, it is that of balance — hózhǫ́. From the artwork to their lore the Diné strive for hózhǫ́. Their world was divided into four sacred colors, four sacred plants, four sacred gemstones. Their land was divided into four sacred directions, the borders of which were marked by four sacred mountains. Their artwork “adhered to a tight symmetry, the designs of which were divided into equal quadrants representing the four directions” (Sides).

The ordered world of the Diné was further defined by gender. “Objects, landmarks, even acts of nature could be either ‘male’ or ‘female.’” The Navajo dwelling, known as a hogan could be either a male or a female hogan (most hogans found on the Navajo Nation today are of the female variety; the male hogan being more spartan and only used for some ceremonies).

Balance was and is very important to the Diné. In designing the game, NAVAJO WARS, I sought to introduce this concept into the game’s mechanics in a widespread fashion. In the game, the player will find that balance is the key to success. If you go too far to one extreme, you will be punished for it. To best explain this, we need to look at some of the game’s mechanics pertaining to the tribe’s population.

In the game, the tribe as a whole is divided into “Families.” The term “Family” could just as well be “band” or “outfit” (the latter term preferred by Hampton Sides). These were groups of Diné who lived near to one another and travelled together. The Diné had no centralized political authority that would be recognized as such by any European — something that would greatly complicate European-Navajo relations. The Diné had no great “chief.” Instead, each Navajo “Family” was pretty much autonomous, governed by committee of elders which could be male or female within that Family. In fact, to this day, the Diné are very much a matriarchal society with the older women reverence nearly more than the older men.

Each Family in the game is represented by a game piece and can exist in one of four states of “Ferocity” from 0 (low Ferocity) to 3 (high Ferocity). Ferocity in the game is a measure of that Family’s prowess in armed conflict as well as its willingness to stand and fight as opposed to evade and elude. Each Family also has an Evasion die roll modifier that is used to elude hostile Tribes like the Ute or enemy columns raiding Navajo land. A Family with very low Ferocity has a favorable modifier for Evasion. But a Family with high Ferocity has an unfavorable modifier for Evasion.

Whenever the Enemy (Spanish, Mexicans, and Americans) raid the Navajo, they will employ a number of Raid counters to penetrate Navajo land. The more counters used, the deeper the penetration and greater the likelihood of success. The player can fend off these raids by fighting a Battle but only Families with high Ferocity really stand much of a chance of success. The trouble is, the Enemy gains BONUS raid counters corresponding to the Ferocity of the player’s most Ferocious Family! Often, one aggressive Diné family would cause trouble for other Diné families which many times were not even guilty of raiding the New Mexicans. And so having even a single high Ferocity Family can make trouble for your low Ferocity Families.

The new player will quickly discover this and so he will say, “Ok, let’s keep our Ferocity low.” The trouble here is that enemy Tribes like the Ute and Comanche will be more likely to raid if your most ferocious Family has low Ferocity! Hózhǫ́. Balance is needed.

Further complicating the player’s goal of balance is the fact that the player NEEDS to raid New Mexico and enemy Outposts in Navajo land. But every time a Family successfully raids, that Family’s Ferocity is increased. How do you get your Ferocity down again? The answer lies with a very important game piece: your elders.

One of the Operations the player can undertake is the “Planning” operation. As part of this Operation, elders can conduct elder operations. Elders are kept on an track known as the elder display. Beneath each box on this display is a range of numbers corresponding to the die roll needed on a six-sided die to cause that elder to die of old age. This “elder death rating” is also the die roll range needed to succeed in an elder action — the older your elders get, the more capable they become. Each time you undertake Planning, your elders age one box and can then take an elder action. One elder action is to decrease or increase the Ferocity of a Family. 

And so just as the Diné warriors undertook the Anaʼí Ndááʼ or Enemy Way ceremony after returning from a raid or battle to restore Hózhǫ́, players must undertake a Planning Operation and use their elders to restore balance to the tribe or suffer the consequences later.

The player must also maintain balance in his use of Operations. Each Operations Segment, the player must undertake one of three different types of Operations: Take Actions, Planning, or Passage of Time. Focus too much on one single Operation and you’ll surely pay for it! Hózhǫ́!

During Take Actions you can raid and move about your land with your Families. But as you do so, you will begin to lose population counters and your Families will weaken. Each Family can consist of up to one man, one woman, and one child counter. The player is punished for having Families with missing population counters. Population counters can be removed from play due to losses in battle or due to enemy slave raids. Population counters can be temporarily lost due to normal enemy raids or to some battle results. 

To replenish your population, and indeed, to grow your population you need to undertake a Planning Operation. Planning not only allows elder actions, but it allows you to take the Operations Card being executed into your hand. Each card has a population counter symbol on it that can be used later on to place a new population counter into a Family. With enough of these, you can build a whole new Family!

The Passage of Time Operation is when you can recover population counters that were temporarily lost and/or play cards you’ve collected during Planning in order to replenish and grow your tribe. During Passage of Time you can convert men or women counters into young elders. You can convert child counters into men or women. And you can play cards from your hand to place a matching population counter into a depleted Family or create a new Family! Sadly, it is during Passage of Time that you must dice to see if your elders die of old age. The player must be sure he has some new up and coming elders before he executes this Operation or he could lose his critical elders!

Overall, the name of the game is balance — Hózhǫ́. Lean too much to one side of things and you’ll be punished. Surviving the NAVAJO WARS is very much like a tightrope walker walking a line. Only thing is, you don’t have a safety net!

The Navajo System of Warfare

posted Apr 9, 2012, 1:41 PM by Joel Toppen

The term “Navajo” came to strike fear, even terror in the heart of the Spanish settlers of New Mexico. Hardly a family in the colony did not know of a child or woman who had been carried off, or a shepherd boy who had been killed by Navajo raiders. “At a very young age, New Mexicans learned to hate the word, “Navajo” (“Blood and Thunder,” Hampton Sides).

This was ironic because the Navajo did not collectively possess a reputation for being particularly fierce — especially when compared with their cousin tribe, the Apache, or their enemies, the Ute and the Comanche. “They seldom fought in large numbers, and they lacked the highly developed warrior societies typical among many Plains tribes” (Sides).

In fact, the Navajos avoided killing whenever possible. Navajo culture has a deep-seated fear and revulsion of death and all things connected with death — a cultural peculiarity that persists to this day. A people so unnerved by death as the Navajo were, could never be great warriors (Sides). Nevertheless, and ironically, the Navajo terrorized New Mexico for centuries! Their primary instrument for doing so was the raid.

The Navajo did not engage in pitched battles after the order of European armies. Indeed, few North American tribes did! Seldom did the Navajo mass warriors for a general engagement like the Comanche or Sioux. “Battles” to the Navajo were really skirmishes, small but sharp engagements after which the Diné warriors had to undergo an elaborate ceremony, “Enemy Way.”

The Diné preferred the hit-and-run raid to a stand-up fight. Sides writes:

“The Navajos were perhaps the unparalleled masters of the raid. Small-scale warfare suited them. They were an evanescent people, proud thieves on horseback, adroit in the techniques of the swift attack and the quick disappearance.”

From a design point of view, just how to model this behavior in a way that is both entertaining to the player and faithful to history, proved a great challenge. From the start I reasoned that if I could not model the Navajo way of war in a fun and interesting way, there would be no point to undertaking the design project. And so the first priority for the design was the warfare mechanic. 

The game, NAVAJO WARS, models two different modes of warfare: the Raid and the Battle — read, armed skirmish. Since the Diné were the masters of the raid, I chose to develop its game mechanic first.

The Raid mechanic is quite simple. What would happen is the Diné would raid New Mexico to steal livestock and capture slaves. The enemies of the Diné — including native enemies — would seek to return the favor, raiding Navajo family groups in an effort to capture livestock and slaves. Raiding New Mexico, however, was invoked the law of diminishing returns if not used with moderation. If the Diné stole too much too often, the yield of the raid would be proportionally low because there was less to steal and the threat to the raiders would be proportionally high because the enemy was more vigilant. To model this, I designed the Raid Pool. 

The Raid Pool consists of the a number of color-coded cubes which are drawn from a bag. The cubes, in turn, are an abstract representation of the resources of New Mexico: 

  • Brown cubes represent horses.
  • White cubes represent sheep.
  • Black cubes represent horses or sheep (player’s choice).
  • Yellow cubes represent slaves (personnel that will be integrated into the tribe, and thus constitute a population boost).
  • Green cubes represent Spanish and later, Mexican soldiers.
  • Blue cubes represent American troopers.
  • Red cubes represent Pueblo warriors until the Pueblos are subjugated. After this, they perform a subtle but important role I’ll discuss later on.

When a player raids New Mexico, the player draws a cube from the Raid Pool after paying the movement point (MP) cost of reaching New Mexico. The color of the cube dictates what happens. Either sheep, horses, or slaves will be added to the player’s resources, or enemy soldiers will be encountered and the player will suffer Military Point loss or be forced into an unwanted Battle.

At first, raiding will seem easy. There’s only a few “bad” cubes in the bag! But for each “good” cube you pull, you increase the odds of a “bad” cube pull on the next Raid — the enemy is more on the alert due to your past depredations.

Successful Raids do more for you than to simply give you resources. Successful raids (brown, black, yellow and white cube draws) interfere with Enemy operations against your tribe! When a brown, black, yellow, or white cube is drawn from the Raid Pool, it is placed in the Raided Cubes box on the map board. During each Operations Card’s execution, the Enemy will collect Action Points (APs) as directed by the Operations Card (anywhere from 2 to 5). The Enemy will also receive bonus APs equal to the number of red cubes in the Subjugated Pueblos box. (As the Pueblos are subjugated, the Enemy will have more APs to come after the Navajo.) The Enemy will, however, be penalized by one AP for each cube in the Raided Cubes box. And so the more YOU Raid, the less the Enemy will have to come after you. 

But just like the Diné of old, the player cannot sustain this for too long. Eventually, the cubes in the Raided Cubes box will recycle back to the Raid Pool. Concurrent with this will usually be a spike in enemy activity. This produces an ebb and flow that neatly models what happened historically! 

A major challenge for the player will be in adjusting his play to cope with this “ebb and flow” and to recover the strategic initiative once it is inevitably lost. 

The Spanish Arrival

posted Apr 9, 2012, 1:40 PM by Joel Toppen

In one respect, the Diné had one thing in common with the Spanish: They were relative newcomers to the region. Compared with the Pueblo tribes of the American Southwest, the Navajo were newcomers, arriving sometime in the 1300s A.D. When Juan de Oñate marched a column of Spanish Colonists north of the Rio Grande in 1598 for the purpose of adding new lands to the domain of King Phillip of Spain, the Navajo were not even the most powerful tribe in the region. Theirs, when compared with the Pueblo tribes, was a more primitive existence. They were semi-nomadic farmers and hunter-gatherers. Their pottery and weaving skills had been learned from the more sophisticated Pueblo tribes.

The arrival of the Spanish changed everything. Not only for the Diné! The Spanish arrival set into motion a string of events that would lead to a meteoric rise in power for some tribes, and the ultimate subjugation of all the tribes on the continent.

One thing above all propelled the Spanish northward from their colony of New Spain (Mexico): gold. Fantastic rumors of cities of gold had reached Spanish ears. This, and a desire to spread the Catholic faith to the “savages” combined to form a lethal combination of religious zeal, imperialism, and greed. 

The first Tribes to be encountered by the Spanish were the city-dwelling Pueblo tribes. By languages they are the Keres, Tewa, Tiwa, and Towa in the east (along the Rio Grande) and the Zuni and Hopi off to the west (western New Mexico and north-central Arizona). The Spanish set about almost immediately to subjugate these town-dwelling natives, forcibly converting them to Christianity and economically enslaving them. The benefit that the Pueblos brought to the Spanish were significant: they taught the Spanish how to survive in the harsh, arid land. They taught them what plants could be sown and harvested and what plants and herbs could be used medicinally. The benefit the Spanish imparted to the Pueblos was negligible.

In stark contrast, the benefit the Spanish brought to the Diné transformed the Diné from a second-rate, and more primitive tribe (when compared with the Pueblos) into a militarily powerful and economically wealthy tribe. One of the great characteristics of the Navajo is their ability to adapt to circumstances. They learned weaving from the Pueblos. They would learn even more from the Spanish, for the Spanish brought with them two things that would transform their way of life: the horse and the sheep. 

Now the Spanish did not give the Navajo horses and sheep! The Diné acquired them through one other great skill they possessed. The Diné were one reason why the Pueblos at first welcomed Spanish “protection.” For the Diné were incorrigible raiders. They had a remarkable ability to slip in unnoticed, take what they wanted, and then melt away into the wilderness as quickly and as quietly as they came! When a reprisal raid was organized, the Diné were as elusive as the cougars that roamed the rimrock — perhaps this is why Diné warriors often wore helmets made from the heads of mountain lions.

In 1680, a remarkable thing happened. Something akin to what happened in New England in 1675: Native tribes united in a concerted effort to eject the Spanish colonists from their lands. The Pueblo Revolt, unlike King Phillip’s War, was a complete (if temporary) success. Spanish colonists were massacred in Taos and other pueblos along the Rio Grande. Taken by surprise, and facing overwhelming numbers as the revolt grew in size and ferocity, the Spanish colonists abandoned Santa Fe and retreated all the way to El Paso del Norte (modern-day Juarez, Mexico). It is for this fact that Santa Fe is not regarded as the oldest continually-inhabited city in North America.

In their haste to leave, the Spanish were unable to take all of their livestock with them. Horses left behind were either taken by the Pueblos, or left to run wild. Many would find their way into the hands of people living a difficult existence on the vast North American prairie. The horse would transform these tribes into a dominant military presence; one which would present a definite obstacle to any westward expansion by the European colonists in the east. The Comanche, for example, would become one of the most powerful light cavalry forces in human history. They would come to dominant the souther plains, ranging from east Texas to Arizona. 

The horse also transformed the Diné. The Navajo became outstanding horsemen. Their power quickly eclipsed that of their town-dwelling neighbors along the Rio Grande. 

The horse provided the Diné with great mobility.  The sheep provided them with sustenance. The sheep became to the Diné what the buffalo were to the plains tribes. They used every part of the animal. With the weaving skills they learned from Pueblo tribes, using wool from their sheep, the Diné developed weaving into an art unequaled by any other tribe. Navajo blankets would come to be extraordinarily valuable — as they are to this day: On the Santa Fe Trail, a single “Navajo blanket was worth ten buffalo robes” (Blood and Thunder; pg. 35).

The Pueblo Revolt’s success owed much to the unity the tribes showed in their hour of crisis. Once the Spanish left, however, disunity once again set in and rifts fractured the coalition. Within 12 years the Spanish would return and systematically subjugate the Pueblo tribes once and for all.

In the game, NAVAJO WARS, the player must acquire sheep and horses as soon as possible by raiding New Mexico. But how soon should the player attempt this? Early in the game, the Spanish are “protecting” the Pueblos which means that the player is likely to encounter Pueblo warriors in a raid. But if the player waits until the Pueblos are fully subjugated by Spain, the Navajo will have Spain’s undivided attention.

In the game, NAVAJO WARS, the player raids New Mexico by pulling a cube from a bag. The color of the cube dictates what has been stolen or encountered. A red cube signifies the presence of Pueblo warriors and a battle may ensue. Similarly, a green cube is Spanish (later Mexican) soldiers and a blue cube is American troopers. Brown cubes are horses, white cubes are sheep, and black cubes are the player’s choice Benton horses and sheep. Yellow cubes represent people that will eventually be integrated into your tribe — slaves (more on this later). Whenever you pull a red, green or blue cube, the player will either fight a battle or lose a Military point and the cue will go back into the bag. But when any other cube is pulled, the cube will go into a box on the game board. Each cube on the game board subtracts from the number of Action Points (APs) the Enemy has to conduct operations against your tribe. So you can see how it behooves the player to raid as often as practical. But here’s the rub: the more often you raid, the more likely it is you will draw a “bad” cube from the bag. This represents the Enemy being more on the alert.

Historically, the Diné would never take all of the horses or sheep from a flock or herd. They would leave some behind so that when they returned the next year, there would be more animals to make off with! In the game, the player must know when to back off of raiding and allow the sands of time to do their work. The player can undertake an operation known as “Planning” which causes the cubes to return to they draw bag. There are also numerous events on cards which cause the cubes to reset and return to the draw bag. When this happens, raids become safer to carry out, but at the same time, the Enemy will likely become very aggressive — representing reprisal raids, etc.

Another consideration the player must make is how much to assist the Pueblos when they revolt. The player can offer this assistance in two ways: not raiding New Mexico (i.e. not raiding the Pueblos) and by conducting actions which cause raid cubes to be placed back into the draw bag — making it harder for the Spanish to draw a red cube and subjugate the Pueblos.

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