An Amazingly Compelling Game – Comancheria The Rise and Fall of the Comanche Empire Game Review
Comancheria The Rise and Fall of the Comanche Empire 1700 to 1875 Board Game Review. Publisher: GMT Game Designer: Joel Toppen Price $60.00
Passed Inspection: Beautiful components, mounted map, perfect for solo play, unique subject matter, on-line support, elegant game system, excellent value for the price, good tutorials included, duplicate counters included in case you lose some
Failed Basic: Some rules are a little confusing
In 2013, GMT released Joel Toppen’s stunning Navajo Wars board game. It was an Armchair General top game of the year!
Now Toppen releases an eagerly awaited sequel which looks at the “Lords of the Plains” – the Comanche people. Comancheria takes Navajo Wars to whole new level and improves the design making it easier to learn and play while keeping the dynamic story telling experience of the original. To write this review, I played a linked campaign covering from 1700 to 1799.
Per Wikipedia, the Comanche “emerged as a distinct group shortly before 1700, when they broke off from the Shoshone people living along the upper Platte River in Wyoming. In 1680, the Comanche acquired horses from the Pueblo Indians after the Pueblo Revolt. They separated from the Shoshone after this, as the horses allowed them greater mobility in their search for better hunting grounds. Comancheria, the former territory of the Comanche including large portions of Texas, Colorado, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Kansas.
The horse was a key element in the emergence of a distinctive Comanche culture. It was of such strategic importance that some scholars suggested that the Comanche broke away from the Shoshone and moved southward to search for additional sources of horses among the settlers of New Spain to the south (rather than search for new herds of buffalo.) The Comanche may have been the first group of Plains natives to fully incorporate the horse into their culture and to have introduced the animal to the other Plains peoples. From Natchitoches in Spanish Louisiana, Athanase de Mézières reported in 1770 that the Comanches were “so skilful in horsemanship that they have no equal, so daring that they never ask for or grant truces, and in possession of such a territory that… they only just fall short of possessing all of the conveniences of the earth, and have no need to covet the trade pursued by the rest of the Indians.
The Comanche never formed a single cohesive tribal unit, but were divided into almost a dozen autonomous groups, called bands. These groups shared the same language and culture, and rarely fought each other.”
Comancheria is a solitaire point-to-point style game. The player controls the Comanche during one of four time periods (1700-1749, 1750-1799, 1800-1849, and 1850-1875) or in a campaign which stretches from 1700 to 1875. Each time period has its own unique feel as the goals of the Comanche and their enemies change and evolve.
The beautifully designed, fully mounted map covers the American West including modern day Arkansas, Colorado, New Mexico and Texas. The area covered is much greater than Navajo Wars and the map for Navajo Wars would fit many times within the Comancheria map. Each of the six territories is divided in to six areas plus the Palo Duro Canyon which provides a shelter for war bands being hunted by their enemies. The threats to the Comanche depend on the time periods but include other tribes, the Spanish, the Mexicans and the Americans as well as diseases and natural disasters.
If played from the 1700s, the Comanche have one Rancheria which is a sort of encampment made up of tents or teepees. The Comanche were a wandering people so their encampments could be packed up and moved if they needed to extend their territory or move closer to the herds of buffalo which made up a large portion of their diet. The Rancheria starts with a limited number of war bands which are rated for their combat skill and their movement speed. The greater the combat skill of the band, the larger the band but the slower it moves as a unit. It is important to steal or breed horses to add speed to the war band’s movement. Each Rancheria also has a “Mahimiana” and a “Pariabo” and each has a chart which shows how powerful their “Medicine Ratings” are. The “Mahimiana” is the man who leads the hunts and coordinates or leads the war bands in their fights against their enemies (either Native American or Western) while the “Pariabo” leads the civil affairs of the Rancheria. Game turns are an abstract amount of time which can be from 1 to 20 years. As the turns progress, there is a chance that a leaders of the Rancherias will age and die. Their powers may go up or down.
Each Rancheria is also tracked for the skills of its people, horses, buffalo collected, other foods, trade goods, captives taken and guns either stolen or traded from other factions.
The overall ratings of the Comanche people are tracked by their ratings in culture and military prowess. If the culture or military ratings drop to zero, the people are defeated and the player loses the game.
The mission of the player is to find ways to increase the culture and military ratings of the Comanche while expanding the number of Rancherias and fighting off or allying with the other tribes and Westerners.
The artificial intelligence (AI) of the enemy is dictated by a clever sequence of war card draws with varying movement and tactics plus a series of chits displayed on the Enemy Instructions Display Tracks. Each column on the track covers the enemy coming from each cardinal point direction – North, South, East and West. If there is no enemy for that direction during the scenario played, the chits for that direction are not used. The chits are moved around the track and based upon a die roll may flip over which could take an enemy order which could help the player in to a result which could hurt the player. In my over 7 hours of playing the first two scenarios, the AI never felt arbitrary or illogical. In fact, during the second scenario with Spanish forces approaches my primary Rancheria from the West, it got downright nail biting! Not having the war bands available to fight the large Spanish army, I ended up trading captives I’d taken a few turns earlier for the withdraw of the Spanish forces. Then, as the army began to lose strength on its march away from the Rancheria location owing to a general decline in its supplies, I ambushed it with war bands from both its rear and its front! After several rounds of battle, the Spanish were decimated and I reclaimed my previously traded captives.
The turn sequence of the game is very complex with many alternative steps depending on the actions taken by the player and the AI. Luckily, the designer thoughtfully includes handy player’s aid cards which then reference to the instructions for more detail.
Each turn is made up of four phases – the War Column Phase, Operation Selection Phase, Operation Execution Phase and the Operation Cleanup Phase. In addition, a Passage of Time Phase may be initiated by certain conditions.
The War Column Phase is the phase where War Cards are drawn which gives the enemy special instructions. If enemy forces are in the same area as Comanche war band or Rancherias, battles may occur.
The Operations Selection Phase procedure allows the player to either take an action, raise his or her culture points, plan for other actions such as improving the medicine ratings of the leaders or moving a Rancheria, or take a Passage of Time Action.
The Operations Execution Phase allows the player to act on what he or she has picked in the previous phase. When a player takes an Action, he or she can move war bands, hunt, trade for goods or raid an enemy tribe or Western power.
Success checks are handled in a very unique manner. Success chits are put in a cup or bag. Chits are pulled out and revealed. The chits include “Success” or results which give the enemy Action Points. The enemy Action Points are accumulated on a space on the board. During the Operations Clean Up Phase, these chits give the enemy forces extra actions to perform based upon the point cost of the chits on the Enemy Instructions Tracks. When the player has a success, these chits are not immediately put back in the cup but can be used to increase the medicine rating of the Rancheria’s leaders. When the enemy takes an action, the enemy’s chits are put back in. This process results in the enemy getting more action and become more wary of attacks by the player based upon the number of raids and battles the player conducts! This is a brilliant and elegant process for having the enemy react to the increased aggression of the player! Positively brilliant! Also a duplicate set of Success Chits are included in case you lose some! Nice thinking on Toppen’s part!
The player can use Action Points to purchase Culture Cards which boost certain aspects of the Comanche. These cards can increase the general horsemanship of the tribe or give them easier access to guns or even give them a greater degree of spirituality or negotiating skills with other tribes.
Development Cards add random events such as plagues, multi-tribe alliances, greater hostility with neighboring tribes, etc.
Some Development Cards can be paid for with Action Points in order to take the card in to the player’s hand for use later.
The Passage of Time Phase moves the game ahead by years. During this phase, tribal leaders age and may die; populations increase or decrease; new Rancherias are created; Bison herds move across the plains; Victory Conditions may be checked.
Some of the steps can be confusing but the Player’s Aid Cards help as does the Tutorial Book and the various on-line resources such as Toppen’s YouTube® tutorials.
To call this a game is a bit of a misnomer, Comancheria is really a full blown simulation which includes tribal management, warfare, religion, etc. It is also very educational and illuminates the lifestyle of the Comanche people over two centuries. A complete scenario can be played in as little as four hours.
I found this game to be very addictive and fascinating. Playing it almost put me in a zen-like trance as almost all outside distractions fell away while I tried to save my tribe’s culture and expand its territory.
Comancheria is easier to learn than Navajo Wars but, while sharing a similar system, felt much more dynamic. I love both games because they weave different narratives of the struggles of Native American people in the face of both internal and external threats.
Comancheria is one of my top games of the year and maybe of all time. Playing it is a wonderful experience!
Armchair General Rating: 98 %
Solitaire Rating: 5 (1 to 5 with 1 being Poor and 5 being Perfect for Solo)
About the Author
A college film instructor and small business owner, Richard Martin has also worked in the legal and real estate professions, is involved in video production, film criticism, sports shooting and is an avid World War I and II gamer who can remember war games which came in plastic bags and cost $2.99 (he’s really that old)!