“Don’t judge a book by it’s cover”. It’s an adage I’ve always considered to be fundamentally flawed, if taken literally. And using the metaphor outside of the realm of books can also be misleading. To me it should be “Don’t judge a book solely by it’s cover”. In the case of wargames, I assume you all do some good research before dropping hard earned cash on a game (you’re reading this, right?). But with Lion of Judah doing research was actually quite difficult. Outside of the forums on CSW (seriously, who can navigate that stuff) and a blurb on the Compass Games website, there’s wasn’t all that much information about the game that was readily available. So I just pulled the trigger. And I did it because the box art is vibrant, and exciting.
Lion of Judah
Lion of Judah covers World War II in Ethiopia from 1935-1942. The important point to note is that it wasn’t a seven year long war, but was more like two extended campaigns. In 1935 the Italians, at Mussolini’s behest, rolled in in force from the north and south. This was the conflagration of months of military posturing and standoffs and ignored pleas to the League of Nations. And then in 1941 British forces, along with the exiled Haile Selassie ousted the occupying forces and liberated the Ethiopians, restoring their Emperor. The game includes two full sets of counters for each side in each campaign, and both missions feel very different.
From clipping the counters, to setting the game up and playing it, Lion of Judah is a vibrant and fun endeavor. You get a lot of traditional hex and counter concepts in this one, from unit movement through rough terrain, to combat factors and an odds based CRT. But there’s so much more to this game than a run of the mill wargame. The chrome in this game is stellar, and I say that because it isn’t really chrome. Or at least it’s so well integrated and flavourful that it doesn’t seem like chrome.
A lot of games have clunky supply points, or reinforcement points replacing and rebuilding units, and this one has them too – minus the clunk. The Italian’s are given a certain amount each turn and can be used to reconstitute or repair damaged units that are away from the front lines. Seems normal enough. But the best part about this one is that these RP counters can also be used as a currency of sorts with which to bribe the tribal leaderships in the Ethiopian faction. You see, the Ethiopian player has their forces divided up into regional tribes, each with their own leader. The player needs to roll a d6 in order to see how “well” each of the tribes activate each round, if at all. Those precious bribes from the Italians represent military and strategic resources to help keep them out of the fight by providing a negative DRM to the activation roll. Italian’s should be wary though, because the Ethiopians will turn around and use that RP counter for a column shift in combat against them, which makes this little economy an intriguing and beguiling one.
Other bits and pieces include the event chits, which of course add a touch of chaos to the game. Some of the events are really important however. There’s one, for example, where the League of Nations intervenes – to an extent – upon hearing that the Italians had been using mustard gas during the conflict. It’s possible for the Italian player to lose victory points if they have used too many gas bombardments and get caught. Other events might affect Ethiopian activation, or give some extra RP’s or other small bonuses/penalties.
Ultimately though, the aim of each campaign is to gain victory points by taking Ethiopia. As the Italians players need to take the regional capitals to quash tribal reinforcements and get to Addis Ababa in the middle of the country as quickly and painlessly as possible. The British need to do the same thing against the Italians in the second scenario. The “defending” player does not gain VP’s, but can cause VP loses due to heavy casualties inflicted on the attacker.
One of the things I really liked about this game was the scale. Most of the units are on a divisional level so you get some stacking, but nothing too crazy. But you fight a campaign for a whole country. As such it feels like a grand game. Supply is really easy to take care of so you only really end up worrying about strategy and tactics – which if we’re honest with ourselves is the main reason we all play wargames, right?
In the initial Italian invasion the Italians and Ethiopians roll on separate CRT’s. In the later campaign both armies were professional and roll on the same one. That Ethiopian CRT is fascinating however. The nuances in how it differs from the regular one speak to how much thought and research/playtesting went into the game. The Ethiopian CRT is limited in the number of odds columns available, it goes to a max of 4:1 odds, compared to 7:1 on the other table. But whilst you cannot bring as much force to bear, your forces are typically more potent. The designer tried to incorporate both aspects of guerrilla tactics and familiarity with home terrain by making their attacks less attritional. The difference between “defender loses one” vs “defender loses two but attacker loses one” became quickly obvious once my Italians starting withering due to my poor rolling, and therefore started hemorrhaging VP’s.
One of the other things you may have noticed from the pictures of the game is the Italian colonial irregulars, and Ethiopian irregulars have a question mark printed instead of any combat values. All of these units have an unknown value until they enter combat. I’ve played plenty of games where that’s the case, it’s a way for players to bluff with weak units and feint with strong ones and deceive the enemy. In Lion of Judah however neither player is allowed to inspect the numbered side. This provides some very interesting tactical choices for both sides, especially before initial clashes take place. Italians are hoping to not roll up against huge stacks and the Ethiopian player – hopefully entrenched in favourable terrain – is just hoping they don’t have a stack of zeroes and ones!
All in all that keeps the combat very engaging. At times it’s very attritional and difficult to get the defenders out of the mountains, and you have to risk gas attacks and heavy bombardments (to the displeasure of the League). And then at other times, especially in the south, there’s sweeping battles in the open plains where stacks get wiped out and there’s desperate defenses from reinforcements. I very much enjoyed how many different styles of fighting this game provided, whilst keeping a simple, manageable combat resolution system.
Is this one I should take a look at?
You should. This game is really fun. You can pick it up here from the Compass Games website if you’d like. I know, I know, the price is a little steep. I’m all for getting a good deal so check retailers and marketplaces for the right price point for you (there’s some good deals on BGG for example). I was lucky to get this one on sale at WBC so I was more than happy to pick it up. Like I’ve said, the game is a great hex and counter wargame simulation. It puts you in charge of some unique forces, in fascinating fighting situations.
It felt very traditional and easy to learn: move, attack, odds based CRT, etc. which was a good thing. The chrome in the scenarios, however, and the hidden combat values really knocked the game up a notch. I had a great time with this one, learned an absolute ton, and felt like I was put in some fascinating tactical situations – a big bonus for me in games.
If you want to learn more about the campaigns of “The Abyssinian Crisis” then check this game out. The only other game I’ve been able to find on the topic was in an issue of Command magazine. Apparently it’s a great game but I was strapped for cash at Gen Con this year when I saw it. So one day I might get my hands on it for comparison’s sake.
I have this game still unpunched waiting to be played. I bought it mainly because I am interested on those conflicts and on Ethiopia where I have been years ago. Now, after your words, I am even more excited to play it.
When you mentioned the price and said that it was a little high, I was expecting $100. Isn’t $69 kind of normal in the wargaming world?
I remember collecting World War II history cards back when I was in 1st grade and reading the card that talked about the Italian invasion. I love learning about the little-known aspects of the war.
Sounds like a cool game.