Navajo Wars Playtest

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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.