Lords of Creation

Warfrog, £12.45
Designed by Martin Wallace
2-4 Players, 2 hours
Reviewed by Mike Siggins

Lords of Creation is the first game from the newly founded Warfrog, a two man unit operating on the fringes of the Manchester Gaming Mafia. Hopefully, it is the first in a range of gamekit productions that will vary in subject from space exploration to historical paragraph games. If the design ideas in LoC are anything to go by, we will have a number of innovative and workable systems to look forward to, which certainly warms my cockles.

The game theme is definitely interesting. To give the general idea, I would describe it as a boardgame version of Bullfrog's Populous you play the part of a god, terraforming and populating a new planet, hoping that your worshippers will become the dominant force by the end of the game. At that point, the similarities with the computer game end and we are thrown into a succession of new and well thought out boardgame systems. The general idea is to populate the world with barbarians, who can attack other religions, and at the right time upgrade these yobs to peace loving, altar building, Telegraph reading, civilized types. The game end victory points are 1 per barbarian hex held, 2 per civilized hex and 3 for an altar, which gives the lie to what you need to do. The main section of the game is spent claiming land, fighting and procreating in pursuit of this aim, and simultaneously crushing opposition efforts.

The first phase is world creation this involves filling up a hexagonal board with terrain counters. The board is about ten hexes across so there are around 100 regions all told. For the creation itself, you need to provide a Scrabble bag or similar opaque container which is filled with all the terrain counters. These comprise habitable areas: grassland, hills, forest and islands and uninhabitable areas: seas, mountains and deserts. The latter differentiation is largely irrelevant as no people counters can ever 'live' in these environments, though islanders can navigate seas and it all adds flavour. Players are dealt all the 96 cards which each show a type of terrain and a number. These dictate the number of people counters you can play and, basically, where you are going to be living once committed to a terrain, that's where your people stay. You might have a group of tree dwellers in the East, some islanders in the South and a few hillmen scattered elsewhere. The idea of this is that you can influence, partially, the composition and layout of the planet to benefit your future land grabs.

For instance, in a four player game, you might be dealt 10 forests, 7 hills, 6 grassland and just 1 island card. Even if the numbers on the forest cards were low, indicating weak population expansion, you clearly don't want a planet awash with water as this will hinder expansion and your chances of winning. The bulk of your activity will be in the forests and you need to ensure that you have scope to move around, spread out, secure 'pockets' of terrain, defend, attack and also raid the subtle distinctions will be explained later. Players take it in turns to draw a terrain chit from the bag and place it on the map. This gives them the option of building up, say, sections of grassland, perhaps surrounded by mountains or desert, and other configurations generally advantageous to the cause. Everyone else of course is doing exactly the same which tends to prevent foundation of your ideal world, but the luck of the draw will always be a factor. The nice twist is that, instead of taking your turn, you can withhold up to three counters thus hopefully shifting the terrain balance further; in the example above, you would do well to hold onto sea and island counters. The strange thing, given the different agendas, is the planet seems to turn out fairly realistically perhaps there is an in-built resistance to silly layouts.

Once built, the world stands empty and ready to receive its first inhabitants. All players choose one of their terrain cards and reveal, the lowest number goes first and places the specified number of people counters into a single hex. Movement is into adjacent areas of the same terrain type but a counter must always be left behind this gives the usual ripple effect and early plays tend to spread out over similar terrain, perhaps building up a power base, a defensive border or going for blanket coverage. This proceeds for a number of turns until such time as the ever-growing populations bump into each other either intentionally or through lack of space. Combat inevitably follows. If the two factions are in the same type of terrain they fight and can move into the opposing area; if of a different persuasion, they simply 'raid' and kill off the adjacent enemy without advancing in.

Combat is suitably different, but still of the Risk/HotW school. Counters attack one by one and must roll a 6 on two d6 to kill a defender, or an 8 if attacking into a different terrain type. The defender gets to roll one die and if he beats both the attacking dice he kills an invader. It is therefore possible for both sides to die which can leave the attacker unable to move in unless he has a spare man. The movement and combat phases are flexible, which means you can move around and attack as often as you like in any order. This keeps the game fluid and even the best defensive positions are subject to 'standoff' big stack assaults that can range across the board. Fortunately the latter tactic doesn't seem to overpower the game, in the same way that the Mobile Army can in Risk, firstly because the big stacks are harder to acquire and also because of the following rule. This is simply that the only event stopping an ongoing, rolling turn is running out of people or rolling doubles in combat. This can come at the most inopportune moments and the steamroller attacks you have planned for ages can come to a grinding halt after just one round.

In play, LoC has more than enough to keep you interested. The action is constant and fast moving, the need to defend and attack must be balanced and the unpredictable combat system always adds that extra spice to every operation. The timing of when to play cards is also absorbing you might choose to show your hand early and pour all your resources into one terrain type in the hope that it survives for the rest of the game. Alternatively, you might spread your deployment steadily over the four areas in an effort to maintain some flexibility. From our experience, it is always good to deploy islanders early on if your cards allow it as they are unique in being able to move and attack across seas and also provide solid bases for civilization and altars. In feel, the game is remarkably liquid and exciting. Also good is the ploy of sealing off an entire area of, say, woodland, and then trying to defend along a frontier with civilized counters in the rear areas.

Even given the rules constraining units to their own terrain, the connections on the map (different each time of course) and raiding make every counter useful in some way and, perhaps inevitably given the combat system, you also get last man stands that lend hero status to the odd counter. If I have a gripe it relates to this the counters and gods are anonymous and thus don't make the most of identification with your men some form of name or allegiance might have helped the flavour, perhaps using some of the ancient gods such as Marduk or tribal names, but this is a minor issue and a matter of taste.

Game length is regulated, thank goodness, by play of the people cards. When they've gone, that's it, and you add up the points. The reason this predictable end is desirable (and necessary) is that the game lends itself to the endless swings of fortune found in Risk the chance to count your cards to know how much time there is left allows for much better planning of the end game. This is doubly important as the decision to start civilizing must be made in good time to switch from a warlike footing to altar production with its associated lead time. You can only civilize one hex per turn, though not necessarily your own people this can lead to interesting 'defensive conversions' as civilized people can't attack. Civilize too early and you lose your vital offensive capability, too late and you will lose victory points. The two games we have played have taken 2∏ hours (4 players, first game with usual learning curve) and under 2 hours (3 players). This is, to my mind, a bit long and it would be interesting to see what would happen if you took out multiples of four cards, or other permutations, leading to a shorter game. I quite like the idea of a 48 card short game with random split of terrain and strength has anyone tried this? Perhaps the designer will let us know if there is an official rule for this, bearing in mind maintenance of play balance?

Production is perfectly adequate, coming as it does from a Mac, and the whole game looks quite presentable when laid out. Counters are pre-mounted on good quality card and will last well. Choice of colours is good and the graphics perfectly understandable and easily differentiated. Probably the only improvement you could make would be to hard mount the four board sections on mounting board and perhaps laminate the playing cards. Otherwise, a commendable effort. The price, too, is reasonable though perhaps pushing towards the expensive it would have been nice to get under the £10 barrier.

There are some slight problems with the rules, namely typos and a lack of emphasis (or repetition) on some of the more unusual rules, but they are complete and workable. In fairness, Martin specified that my copy was a late beta test version, so we'll give him another chance. A new full edition is on its way and this should feature some clarifications and stresses on the key rules. Even as it stands, a solo playthrough and a re-read will have you on exactly the right lines ready for the game session. Nevertheless, the game is badly in need of a 'How to Play' sheet which would tell you, for instance, whether building the planet has any long term effect (it does) and whether the planet should be built up randomly or realistically (it doesn't matter). An overview of play, given the unusual systems, would be invaluable; we managed to miss one tiny rule that gave us a completely different interpretation of combat, for instance, until it was picked up. I would also have liked some design notes, to get the full interpretation and a feel for the creativity, but that's me.

Overall, Lords of Creation is an impressive first release. It plays well, the system is varied and interesting, and I can foresee playing this a number of times. It feels different, probably due to its well cushioned abstract concepts, and the theme holds it together. It has that exciting combat flavour of Risk and HotW combined with the ability to feed in limited resources as you see fit. There are enough open-ended tactics for me not to have discovered them all after two in-depth games and the flavour is pretty good given the anonymity, the lack of personalities and the requirement for an 'unrealistic' setting. I enjoyed creating the world and there is a surprisingly strong involvment in seeing large parts of the world go over to your cause, such that the next move is always awaited to try and bolster those hard pressed islands or to make another raid on the bothersome enemy plains. At its roots, this is a simple abstract wargame with cardplay grafted on, but the system carries it through the couple of hours or so well enough as I said, I would personally have gone for a 90 minute duration, but that is the designer's choice. Lords of Creation is a solid and promising effort and I hope to see many more of this standard.

On to the Interview with Reiner Knizia or back to the Design File.

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