Navajo Wars Playtest

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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.