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Posted on Dec 10, 2013 in Boardgames

Navajo Wars – Boardgame Review

By Rick Martin

navajo-wars-game-coverNavajo Wars: The History of the American Southwest. Boardgame Review. Publisher: GMT Games. Designer: Joel Toppen. Price $69.00

Passed Inspection: Beautiful, high-quality components. Stunning map. Flexible and dynamic game play. Totally captivating game play. Unique concept.

Failed Basic: Steep learning curve. Manual could be much more user friendly and needs an index. Some typos in the tutorial.

Navajo Wars is a new release from GMT with an unusual focus. As the game’s designer, Joel Toppen, states in the extensive designer’s notes included in the game, he lived amongst the Navajo for most of his life and his interest in their culture propelled him to design a game based upon the Navajo experience.


“I started to make a conscious effort to look at things through the eyes of the Navajo . . . I began to see just what a valiant and epic struggle took place in the land I walk across every day! As a gamer, I also saw potential for a conflict simulation,” Toppen writes. Navajo Wars meets and exceeds that potential.

Navajo Wars is a complex solitaire or two-player simulation of the struggles of the Dine (Navajo; it is pronounced “dih-nay”) people from the Spanish incursion in 1598, through the Mexican invasion and continuing until the Dine’s ultimate subjugation by the American Army in 1864. It encompasses not only military actions but also cultural, religious, farming and trade goods and all other aspects of a macro view of Dine life during these time periods. As such, it becomes a complete simulation of a way of life but, as to be expected in a game of such scope, it is difficult to learn and master.

Navajo Wars features a stunningly attractive design; the 22 x 33-inch mounted map is a work of art. While many wargames try to make their maps realistic, Toppen has gone for a representation of Navajo Territory including parts of New Mexico, Utah and Arizona as the Dine would have drawn it hundreds of years ago. The land is broken into seven distinct territories and within each territory are areas that are rated by foot and horse movement rates. The deeper that the territory goes, the more difficult the region is for outsiders to navigate, and the easier it is for the Dine to either ambush or lose any forces following them. Unfortunately, the deeper and more remote the area is, the harder it is to farm. Paths connect all the areas and territories.

Each of the areas is represented on the map by a different color stone for ease of differentiating between them. Other parts of the map are used to track events, culture and military points, place resources, track families and their possessions, track Dine elders, and track enemy forces as well. The game mechanics that control the actions of enemy tribes as well as the foreign invaders (the Spanish, Mexicans or Americans depending on the time period) is based upon a unique S-shaped matrix on which order chits move, flip over or trade places depending upon different events. When the enemy of the Dine has enough action points to activate one of the chits, the current action is initiated. These actions include a raid to take slaves, major attacks into Dine territory, enemy Indians who have been subverted to help the foreigners, calling a general outbreak of “peace”—these are but a few examples of possible actions. The entire design motive is based around spirals and circles, much befitting traditional Navajo design motifs.

The game comes with different color cubes and a bag to put them in. These cubes are drawn from the bag during combat actions and the results cross-referenced on one of several tables depending on the type of combat. Types of combats can include Dine raids on outposts or forts, raids into Santa Fe and combats against either foreigners or other Indian tribes.

Also included are three colorful dice, operations cards, cultural development cards, ceremony cards, historical event cards and transitional event cards. Counters are also included and the production value is equally beautiful on these as well.

Each scenario tells the player what cards, counters and number of cubes to use.

Each player is given a specific number of families, which make up the tribe. Each family is made up of 1 man counter, 1 woman counter and 1 child counter. During specific situations, a family may lose one of the counters, and it is then imperative for the player to try and complete the family again. Men add ferocity and combat ability to the family unit, women can use specific skills to generate trade goods, and children ensure the future of the family. Each family is also rated for its skill at evasion and its ferocity. Additionally, if the family has possession of horses, its ability to move is increased. If a family has horses, it can raid deeper into enemy territory.

Additionally, the tribes have elders that give them specific abilities including increasing or decreasing the ferocity of a family, giving the player more action points, etc. But be aware that as the years go by elders get more powerful and wiser, but the increase in years brings the elder close to death.

Each turn is made up of the following: draw a card from the deck (this could be an operations card, historical event or a ceremony), resolve the card instructions (there several things to do on each card) and follow through with events, check to see if either side can call a victory and then discard cards. When resolving the card instructions, a player can try and prevent an enemy from performing an action, move families through the areas and territories, plant corn, attempt ceremonies, try and reverse the effects of drought, have elders help with planning, raid the enemy forces, attempt diplomacy with other tribes, attack other tribes, follow up on reports of traders and hunters trespassing on your land, etc. There are so many things a player can do that it makes learning the game somewhat daunting.

It is this open-ended nature that requires a huge ramping up to learn the rules and play. The Rule Book states not to attempt to memorize the rules but to play through the tutorial in the Play Book. Even so, it takes a goodly number of hours before the player can understand the complex system of Navajo Wars. While learning the game, I combined a read-through of the Rule and Play Books with several hours of on-line YouTube courses taught by Toppen, himself ( After about three hours, I felt comfortable enough with the rules to try a new game without training wheels, but I still made mistakes.

A third book should have been included that would give an outline of setting up the game, followed by a detailed look at what can be done for each turn. This would have cut down the ramp-up time dramatically.

Additionally, the Rule Book needs an index for ease of use. Plus, there were several errors in the Play Book tutorial, which could have added to the confusion of learning the game, had I not watched the YouTube training videos.

With all the components in Navajo Wars, I wish the box had been designed to be at least ½” deeper. As it is, the box lid doesn’t sit deep enough to make me feel comfortable that it won’t come open.

There are many things to be aware of while trying to guide your people to victory: The more population that you have the better, but, you have to make sure you have enough food (corn and sheep) in order to avoid starvation. Don’t group your population too close to each other as they will be adversely affected by starvation, disease or enemy attacks in force. It is important to keep you culture points high but also to balance these with military points. If your culture and military points drop to zero, your people have been conquered.

Peace is wonderful but as it goes on, your enemies will try and expand their reach into your territory. At some point, if you want a strong culture, you have to push the foreigners back into their land. At times, it is beneficial to make alliances with other tribes in order to try and form a unified front against the foreigners, but be aware that the other tribes may turn on you and help end the Dine culture.

Navajo Wars is a fascinating and innovative game and provides a unique gaming experience. It is highly recommended but be aware, it takes time to learn and even more time to master.

Armchair General Rating: 90 %

Solitaire Rating (1 is low, 5 is high): 5

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)!