Wounded Knee. Little Bighorn. Cooks Canyon Massacre. Conflict was inevitable as white settlers moved west in the latter part of the 19th century looking for new opportunity and land to start a new life as the young United States looked to realize their dream of Manifest Destiny and to establish a country that stood “from sea to shining sea”. When I say inevitable, it is because of a lack of understanding and empathy with the original inhabitants of North America and their way of life. What happened could have been different but was not necessarily possible in the thinking of a 19th century settler. This westward wave of settlers, hastened by the construction of the transcontinental railroad, opened up the American West to more rapid development. With the completion of the track, the travel time for making the approximately 3,000-mile journey across the United States was cut from months to under a week.
Plains Indian Wars from GMT Games is a new euro style wargame from John Poniske that deals with this clash of cultures on the plains of the West. The game is based on the Birth of America Series from Academy Games and borrows many of its rules, including the combat system and use of cards to activate, move and fight with various groups. The game can be played by 1-4 players and contains all of the major players in this westward expansion including the Northern Plains Indians (NPT), Southern Plains Indians (SPT), southwest and Canadian Indian Tribes known as Enemies, Settlers, Wagon Trains and the mighty US Cavalry. Once the rules are learned, and the game has some different nuances than the BoA Series mentioned earlier, it is a relatively fast playing game able to be concluded in 90 minutes.
The Historical Simulation Value is Spot On
Inevitable is the word that I used earlier to describe the conflict that would come from westward expansion. This inevitability also applies to the eventual outcome of this struggle and conflict as the numbers of settlers and wagon trains, backed by their “steel horses” and the guns of the US Cavalry, were simply too numerous to count and overcome for the Native Peoples and spread across the West like a wildfire. Plains Indian Wars doesn’t pretend that this struggle is a fair fight. The game provides the US and Settler player all of the numbers they need to get to the West and complete this colonization. The waves of blue, white and brown cubes are simply overwhelming and the NPT and SPT forces will have to pick and choose their battles to have a chance to carve out a space for themselves on the plains. But this means that their victory will be a pyrrhic one and not a conquest as they will not be able to stand toe to toe with the US. This was the historical outcome and this game does a really good job of retelling that story. I think that being true to the history if a good thing and I didn’t want to see this be a sandbox game where I could somehow pull out a total victory over the westward expansion and waves of settlers but more of a nuanced win with certain conditions. The victory conditions, which we will discuss later in this peice, give all players an opportunity to “win” a victory but this victory will not be total or even acceptable but it is historical.
One other thing about the history that I liked was that the US player not only has their Wagon Trains, Cavalry forces and Settlers but also has the support of friendly Indian Tribes in the southwest and Canada in the North that are referred to as Enemies of the NPT/SPT. The NPT and SPT player will be surrounded from the get go and be beset on all sides. This causes a moment of reflection and strategizing for the Native player and this decision is an important one to make. You cannot take on all comers but have to choose how you are going to amass your victory points, either by picking off the Wagon Trains, defeating the Cavalry or taking over and controlling as many areas as you can as each will give you a victory point at the end of the game. One of the other most important aspects for both payers is the completion of the railroad. If the railroad is finished across the plains the Native player will lose an opportunity to gain 3 VP’s and the US player will be awarded 3 VP. If the railroad is not completed for any reason before the end game conditions are met, then the NPT/SPT player will be awarded 3 VP’s. While there is no way for the NPT/SPT player to destroy or hinder the construction of these sections of the rail, they can slow its progress by destroying the Settler cubes as they move toward the railhead to build an additional 1-3 segments depending on the number of brown cubes in that area. The Settlers are a hardier bunch than the Wagon Trains (white cubes) but their combat dice only have 1 hit and 1 treaty symbol with 5 blank spaces on them so they will not hit often and fighting with them is a crap shoot at best.
The Enemy will also come at the Native player and attack them when possible to keep the Natives from colonizing their territories and gaining VP as well. I know it sounds bleak but you will simply have to understand that from the get go and adjust your strategy to focus on what you can accomplish and how you can gain VP. This is a game first and foremost, but a game that is rooted in the history of the conflict and doesn’t pull any punches or give false hope of a significantly different than historical outcome. While not a true simulation, I was glad to see that it stuck to the history (maybe not in the choice of leaders for the cards or including all of the possible events) and told a story rooted in fact rather than fiction.
Finally, this game covers the American Indian Wars on the plains with broad strokes. Plains Indian Wars is a very basic approach to a long and complicated conflict. It does not delve into the basic culture of the Plains Nations and doesn’t have a lot of detail about each tribe, their advantages or tactics (other than for general Indian ambushes as their knowledge of the land and conception of warfare lent an emphasis on ambush). The designer informed me several years ago when we first spoke abut the design that it also doesn’t emphasize buffalo, horses and intertribal rivalry which were key historical hallmarks of the Plains Indians and their history. The buffalo, which sustained Native-Americans on the Plains are not mentioned or included in the game. Likewise, the horses they relied on to follow and hunt buffalo and raid are not directly addressed. As for intertribal rivalry, the designer took a bit of liberty here and approached the NPT and SPT by allowing the Plains nations to unite and work together so they stood a fighting chance to deter, if not halt, the tide of European settlers that flowed over them. I think that the design will encourage players to dig deeper into Plains Indian culture as their history is a rich story filled with courage and sadness.
A Beautiful Presentation
In my humble opinion, I would rather play a game that looks good than one that doesn’t. Now don’t get me wrong. Gameplay is very important to me, as well as theme, but if a game looks good it is much easier to play. Plains Indian Wars is a BEAUTIFUL game! I know that some have complained about the vibrant and bright colors used, but I loved the colors of this game. I am also glad to see that they didn’t choose red as one of the cube colors to go along with three green cubes which would have caused issues with those that are color blind. There are lots of different colored cubes arrayed on the spaces of the plains and it is really a grand site to see. I particularly enjoy when one single space contains cubes from multiple factions. It is really an eye popping site!
The cards are also very well done. The best part of these cards is that they are tarot sized cards so they are a bit larger than normal making them easier to read and handle. The art used is also very well done and the map changes from the prototype we saw and played a few years ago is much better as there are clearer, less abstracted lines and spaces, better and more easily readable fonts and the best change is the addition of relief in the form of hills, mountains, rivers and trails. Just a really great looking package and kudos to the art team and RBM Studio for their work.
Board Layout is Key to the Game
The Plains Indian Wars board centers on the Great American Plains between the Mississippi River in the east (St. Louis) and the Rocky Mountains in the west (Sacramento), the Canadian border in the north and Mexican border in the south. The Northern and Southern Enemies are each defending 5 purple regions with the NPT and SPT defending 12 regions each. Separating the NPT and SPT is the planned route for the Transcontinental Railroad shown in the middle of the board. There are 27 total linked railroad spaces stretching from St. Louis to Sacramento with 5 of these being marked with an M denoting that they are mountain spaces that are a bit more difficult to build and must roll a hit on a 2 Settler dice to be placed. The rail line is centrally located as it was one of the largest contributors to the rapid colonization and westward expansion so I really like that it is front and center.
North and south of the rail line are historic wagon train routes. The US player earns points for each wagon cube that completes its journey along these routes as the white Wagon Train cubes will move along the trails each time a white disc is drawn from the draw bag. The Indian player earns points for intercepting and destroying these Wagon Trains. All factions may retreat into or enter from Mexico, Canada, the Rocky Mountains or the Mississippi, although those cubes retreating into the Rockies go directly to Sacramento and must exit from there and those retreating into the Mississippi go directly to St. Louis and must also exit from there. Also, US movement west out of the Rocky Mountains is dependent on successfully building a rail line through the Rockies which is not a simple task!
On opposite sides of the Map board are found the administrative and game play aids in the form of the Faction Cube Reserve Boxes, a Casualty Box where destroyed units are held until moved from there back to a player’s reserve, a Victory Point Description for each faction and a Victory Point Track. Both sides earn VP’s during the game. The US player earns them for getting Wagon Train cubes into the Rockies. The Indian player earns them for capturing Wagon Train cubes. Most VP’s are earned at the end of the game from control where one point per side for each region controlled and a bonus for either completing or preventing the completion of the railroad.
I have always been somewhat of a sucker for custom dice. Part of that is that I enjoy dice chuckers and Ameritrash games and they always seem to have custom dice with thematic symbols denoting hits, or defense, etc. In Plains Indian Wars, each faction has several of these custom dice that are used in combat and also used by the Setters in building the railroad through the Rocky Mountains.
Each of the factions have their own special dice, which are color coded to match their faction cubes. The dice are also asymmetric for each faction with the number of hits that each has. All of the dice have at least one Treaty symbol (a broken arrow) and one Weapon symbol (crossed sabers for the US Cavalry, a pickaxe and revolver for the Settlers, a knife for the Enemy, and crossed tomahawks for the NPT and SPT) but they differ with the number of hits as the Settlers have no other hits and 4 Blank sides, which relate to an optional retreat, the Enemy, NPT and SPT have just 2 Weapon symbols and 3 Blank sides while the US Cavalry have 3 Weapon symbols and just two Blank sides. Quite a difference in the dice and it shows when there is an Engagement (combat). The NPT and SPT have to really pick their battles as they are very outclassed by the Cavalry and should spend most of their time attacking Settler cubes and Wagon Train cubes.
Treaty symbols only affect an Engagement if at least one US and one Indian Treaty symbol have been rolled during any one combat round. Combat ends when this occurs and a treaty is struck. When a treaty occurs, any hits scored during that engagement are ignored during that combat round. The side with the stronger force will then relocate the weaker force with fewer cubes to an adjacent region. If a force is surrounded by enemy-controlled regions, the weaker force is moved to the nearest friendly-controlled region.
Faction Disc Draw Determines Turn Order
I love random turn order in games as it truly creates some angst and tension as players wait for the determination. In Plains Indian Wars, the faction turn order determination is done by a random draw of various colored discs from a draw bag. This process is very similar to the concept of chit-draw in other wargames and is a very good way to simulate a bit of chaos and uncertainty. Faction discs are drawn, one at a time from the draw bag and placed on the map in the order they are drawn. Once a faction disc is drawn, they can then take their actions of playing cards, moving cubes and doing combat. This is key, as players never know when workers will be completing a section of track or when wagons will escape (or enter into) a trap, but they will know what factions they no longer have to worry about that turn. Some cards also play off of what discs have been drawn to that point and this is clearly stated on those cards. An example would be an Event Card that states this card cannot be played if the Settlers disc has already been drawn. That player, who controls the NPT, will not be able to play that Event if the Settlers disc has been drawn. This doesn’t seem like a big deal but this uncertainty is really well done and creates a sense of anticipation as you are hoping that your disc gets drawn first so you can play your powerful Event Card.
This random order drawing also becomes important in situations where one player is prepared to do something that will build a section of the railroad as they have enough Settler cubes at the railhead or move a Wagon Train cube off of the board scoring a VP. If another player can act before they do, they can then destroy those cubes before they can build the railroad or get off of the map. This is simply a great implementation of the random turn order as it really marries well with the factions and their goals and objectives.
Interesting Card Mechanics with Events and War Party/Engagement/Migration Cards
Each of the 4 major factions in the game, including Settlers, US Cavalry, Northern Plains Indians and Southern Plains Indians, has a hand of three cards available during their turns. There are 60 total cards included in the game with 15 for each of the factions. These cards are pretty interesting as they not only drive the game’s action but also act as the timer and once a player has played all of their cards the game will come to an end. These cards represent the various leaders and events from this time period and come with additional flavor text at the bottom of the card to provide the players with additional information about the persons and events involved in this struggle for control of the plains.
There are two different types of cards: War Party/Engagement/Migration Cards which instruct the players on how many cubes may be drawn from their Reserve Box and placed in their controlled areas and how far these cubes can move as a part of their activation. Event Cards allow for special circumstances and may act as reaction or interrupt cards. Some examples of the cards included are Cochise, Quanah Parker, Red Cloud, Wovoka, Crook, Sherman, Fort Laramie, Fort Lincoln, James Beckworth and Black Hills Gold.
There is only one play immediately card reflecting George Armstrong Custer’s hubris and its play could be positive for the Cavalry player but more often than not ends in disaster.
Each player has a similar deck makeup with a total of 15 cards as mentioned earlier, 10 of which are War Party/Engagement/Migration Cards and then 5 Event Cards. Players can play up to 3 cards per turn but only 1 War Party/Engagement/Migration Card. This requirement really limits how many cards can be played per turn though and normally it is 1-2 cards at most, with the occasional rare 3 card play. The cards are vastly different though and Event strength is definitely something that I had a bit of concern with after our plays. The US player has amazing events which do things like remove 4 cubes from the NPT and SPT, bring on a gaggle of US Cavalry cubes to the board or allow for no attacks on their Wagon Train cubes that turn. The majority of the Native events are focused on recruiting 1-4 cubes with very difficult to meet requirements to play such as controlling five areas (good in the early game but useless in the late game) or doing something great but then stating that you cannot attack any enemy cubes that turn. Well the benefit was nice but I only have a few turns to do what I need to and I just can’t afford to sit around doing nothing.
Overall I really like the cards but need more plays to better understand how they are balanced. I have my suspicions but this might just be because I got my butt kicked in the game. In fact, at one point, I literally had zero NPT cubes on the board! I had been wiped out, partly because of my aggressive nature but also because those damn US Cavalry are just so good.
Combat is Very Challenging for All Sides…Except for the US Cavalry
Combat is harsh and frequent. When opposing factions occupy the same region, players start rolling their faction’s personalized custom dice. The number of dice to roll are determined by your number of cubes. If you have just one cube, you will roll just one die. But if you have more 2+ you will roll two dice. You don’t roll a dice for each cube, but having 3-4 cubes means you can take a lost or two and still roll two dice and have better chances of hitting. We also discussed this a bit earlier, but each weapon symbol rolled is a hit which removes an enemy cube. The loss priority is very interesting as it is always the faction that has the largest number of cubes in the space. I need to make sure that I emphasize this aspect which is so very important for the players to understand, especially for the NPT and SPT who simply cannot stay in protracted fights with their limited cubes and outgunned weaponry against the US Cavalry. I feel that it is very important to target areas where you can eliminate cubes that give you points. This means targeting large concentrations of Wagon Train cubes (white) or looking for areas where there are at least 2 US Cavalry cubes because you have to eliminate 2 such cubes in a single battle to get a VP. But remember that you are trying desperately to control areas and also trying to stop the progress on the railroad which means killing Settler cubes, which don’t give you VP. Engagements are a very interesting part of this game and while the process is very simple, its importance cannot be overstated.
One other really cool part of the combat system is that each blank result is a miss which allows a single cube of that faction the opportunity to retreat from battle. This means that you can literally avoid being wiped out by simply running away and this should be done often as you can while still making sure you are accomplishing your objectives. This is one of the aspects from the BoA Series combat system that has been retained, although in BoA you have no choice but to retreat when you roll a retreat symbol, and I really enjoy it.
One other point about the combat system. You have to remember the pecking order of power. All of the dice have at least one Treaty symbol (a broken arrow) and one Weapon symbol but remember that they differ with the number of hits as the Settlers have no other hits and 4 Blank sides, the Enemy, NPT and SPT have just 2 Weapon symbols and 3 Blank sides while the US Cavalry have 3 Weapon symbols and just two Blank sides. Quite a difference in the dice and it shows when there is an Engagement. US Cavalry is the ultimate predator and you will not be able to stand up against a sizeable force for long. Settlers have little firepower while the NPT and SPT enjoy better firepower increased further when they join forces as they will be rolling their dice together and doing double the hits. This is another key aspect for the Indian player. You have to work together. Coordinate your attacks. Never go it alone.
The combat is lite and fun, as dice chuckers are usually fun. Just remember it is hard to do well when you are only rolling one die or don’t have the right troops to do what you want to do.
Focus on the Railroad Construction
The railroad is built on the map from two different directions as at the time the major railroads were in somewhat of a race to be the first to get through their territory and connect up with the other. The Union Pacific begins from St. Louis in the East which is located on the far right side of the board. Cubes for the Union Pacific are built and placed on the board in consecutive spaces starting with the space adjacent to the St Louis Box. The Central Pacific begins from Sacramento and the Rockies in the West at the far left end of the board. Cubes for the Central Pacific are built and placed on consecutive spaces starting with the spaces marked with an M that are adjacent to the Sacramento Box. These M spaces represent the peaks of the Rocky Mountains and have a totally different set of rules that govern their placement. The last completed rail space at each end of the railroad is considered a railhead. Black cubes may be placed to extend the railhead of each railroad when certain conditions are met. A maximum of six black cubes may be placed each turn when the black faction disc is drawn, three per each of the railheads. This placing of black cubes extending the railroad is not inevitable as there are conditions that must be met for successful construction. These conditions differ on each end of the railroad and represent the relative difficulty of each of the projects.
The Union Pacific
The Union Pacific is built by the black faction which represents the Transcontinental Railroad. This faction works together with the Settlers as they provide the muscle to build the track and must focus on moving their cubes west from St. Louis to the farther point where the line stops called the railhead. When the black disc is drawn, the Settlers player extends the rail line one black cube for every brown cube present in a region adjacent to the railhead—up to a maximum of 3 cubes per railhead. This becomes a numbers game. The Settlers will try to have at least 3 brown cubes in the next available region where the railhead is each turn and the NPT and SPT player has to be aware of this fact and attack those cubes to make sure they cannot progress the railroad 3 full spaces. If the Settlers player is left alone to do what they want to and are not harassed, they can accomplish the railroad in 9 turns with some luck (3 cubes per turn). This becomes a very important timer and all players should be aware of its progress.
The Central Pacific
The western-most railroad spaces are marked with an M as mentioned before. Building through the mountains was tedious and dangerous and the progress was measured in mere dozens of feet per day. When the black RR disc is drawn, as long as there are still mountain RR spaces in which to build, the Settlers player may roll two brown dice and place one black RR cube in each Mountain RR space for every symbol rolled with Blanks being ignored. No Blanks do not offer days off for the workers. Once the Central Pacific enters non-mountain regions, up to 3 black cubes may be placed per turn the same as in the east. If two successful rolls are made when rolling for the final M space, a black cube is placed in the M rail space and one in the adjacent Plains rail space.
I really like this aspect of the game as it is very different from the rest. The black railroad cubes once played cannot be attacked or removed. They are done. If the NPT and SPT stop the rail road from being completed they will gain 3VP and if the US player can complete it they get the 3VP. This is a very important part of the game but isn’t the main focus. I think that players will get caught up in worrying about it too much but need to keep an eye out. The real game is area control and destroying white cubes. But the railroad is a fun and historical part of the game that is a nice touch!
Victory Conditions Make this a Competitive Game….Despite the Historical Outcome
In a game where one side is outmatched historically, and the outcome is somewhat decided (such as in a lot of East Front games), having good and achievable victory conditions is important to give an opportunity for some form of a victory. The game will come to an end when one of two things happen. When the final black cube is placed for the Transcontinental Railroad and then the final faction disk is dawn for that turn or when a player has played the last remaining card in their hand and deck and the final faction disk is dawn for that turn. Either of these two things will trigger completion. At that point, players will total up their VP earned from completion/stopping the railroad, eliminating Wagon Train cubes or getting them across the country and off the map in California, the NPT/SPT player eliminating at least 2 Cavalry cubes in a single battle and the most important part control of areas. I think in this one it is very easy to forget that it is mainly about area control and the other elements are important but focus on a different aspect. The Indians can win in the game. While their historical outcome was inevitable there is a way to carve out a form of victory for the Indians. And I really like that. In fact, during our recent 3-player game, where two players were controlling the Indians, the Southern Plains Tribe player won by 2 VP because they focused on controlling areas and also eliminated several Cavalry cubes.
Lite and Interesting Game that Plays in 90 Minutes
Overall I enjoy Plains Indian Wars. It is a lite dice chucker with fairly simple rules contained in about 10 pages that adopts aspects of the Birth of America Series from Academy Games to create an interesting and challenging game about managing your resources and using your cards wisely to get the best results from your limited opportunities. I have heard a lot of talk about how the game is insensitive and doesn’t portray the Native Americans in a good light but I feel totally different. Yes it doesn’t provide a lot of detail on the various cultural aspects of the Plains people but what it does do is gives them a place at the table to fight for the preservation of their way. This game will stay in my collection as a lite strategy game with some interesting elements. It is also a beautiful production and well worth the time to learn and play.
If you are interested in Plains Indian Wars, you can order a copy from the GMT Games website for $65.00 from the following link: https://www.gmtgames.com/p-654-plains-indian-wars.aspx