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Posted on Nov 6, 2022 in Boardgames, Front Page Features

Run to the Hills…or Stand on the Plains. “Plains Indian Wars” Board Game Review

Run to the Hills…or Stand on the Plains. “Plains Indian Wars” Board Game Review

Ray Garbee

Plains Indian Wars. Publisher: GMT Games. Designer: John Poniske. Price $65.00

Passed inspection: Quick playing game that provides an overview of the conflict between the indigenous peoples of the Great Plains and the United States of America.  Solid components with oversized cards that convey historical information regarding the period.

Failed basic: Rules have a number of ambiguities that resulted in a number of clarifications.

In conventional popular memory, the settlement of the American West was a story of European immigrants and Americans trekking into the empty spaces of North America. The Great Plains, mountains and the West Coast were the goals of hardy European’s enduring hardship and risk in a search was a better life. It was America’s ‘Manifest Destiny’ to expand westward, pushing civilization to the shores of the Pacific Ocean. The American concept of the ‘frontier’ served as a demarcation between lands subject to the laws and policies of the United States and a ‘wilderness’ waiting to be defined, formalized, settled and civilized. That this wilderness was already the home to a myriad number of indigenous peoples was not seen as an insurmountable obstacle. The history of the United States prior to the 19th Century was already replete with examples of native populations being displaced from their lands. The expansion across the Great Plains was the latest chapter in that history.

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On the Great Plains, this settlement came at the cost of displacing the current inhabitants – Native American people living mostly as nomadic people that travelled the plains.  The process of this displacement was often violent and deadly and left a legacy of cultural and social damage that persists to this day.

Game designer John Poniske explores these events in his recent game Plains Indian Wars, released by GMT Games. John is no stranger to games covering the conflicts between European settlers and native Americans having designed games that include King Phillip’s War (MMP), Blood on the Ohio (Compass Games) and the upcoming Pontiac’s War (Compass Games).  John’s perspective on Plains Indians War provides a high-level overview of the historical events and is a good choice for introducing new players to tabletop games.

Opening the box, we find the following components;

  • Mounted Map board
  • Rulebook
  • Solitaire Rules booklet
  • Four (4) Faction Card Decks
  • 190 colored ¼” cubes
  • Five (5) sets of Faction dice
  • 7 Faction Draw Discs and a Draw bag

A game turn is a straight forward activity. Faction draw discs are pulled from the draw bag one at a time. When a specific faction disc is pulled, that faction then conducts their faction turn. When they are done, another disc is drawn and the next faction takes a turn. This process continues until all discs are drawn, at which point either the game ends, or another turn is played.

Most faction turns playing event cards along with an engagement or war party card, depending on if the faction is from the Unites States or Native American. I say most, as two US factions – the railroad and the wagon trains, do not have cards and act a bit more deterministically. This reflects the railroad being pushed across the plains and the plodding treks of the wagon trains westward across the plains.

 The rules for Plains Indian Wars are relatively easy to understand and the game plays quickly. When played as a four-player game, I found the gameplay reminded me of Academy games “Vikings 878 AD” with the two players on each side coordinating their activities, yet still trying to achieve their individual victory conditions. Plains Indian Wars is a quick playing game that can be knocked out in a couple of hours. The Native American sense of the landscape feels appropriate with no formal recognition of boundaries beyond a general sense of tribal lands split between the northern tribes, southern tribes and the miscellaneous tribal groups in the margins (for example the Crow in the North and other tribal groups across Mexico and the southwest).

The Native Americans come across as possessing a clear sense of agency. While they are acted upon by the encroaching Unites States, it’s not a one-sided contest. The Plains players have at their command the span of their territory not actively controlled by the US or other players. Further, their faction card deck gives them the ability to actively resist the encroaching United States factions. Mass enough cubes in a single action and even a treaty result can result in the United States ceding control of the region to the indigenous faction (albeit temporarily).

Game play generally see a lot of conflicts as each side raids and battles for control of the Plains. The battle system does a good job of reflecting the relative firepower of the Cavalry, Native tribes, Settlers and wagon trains. The Settlers are the weakest, followed by the tribal groups and then the Cavalry has most firepower available. Wagon trains don’t really fight back, but they try and survive and evade the attacking tribal forces, though they can be removed from play.

Players need to take a long-term view of the game and keep an eye on their victory conditions. A short-term gain may look impressive, but depending on the draw order, you can see that gain wiped out as part of a larger reverse across a game turn or two.

Plains Indian Wars is an engaging game. All players need to take a long-term view of the game and keep an eye on their victory conditions.  Across each game turn, all players will need to examine their faction and recognize their strengths and weaknesses.

The Indigenous player (or players in the four-person game) will need to work to deploy their pieces to maximize their fighting potential. By maximizing the ‘warfighting’ potential of the Native American faction, they can slow and maybe stall expansion by the United States player(s). Maintaining control along the path of the railroad is critical to keeping that iron horse on a short leash. 

Cavalry player needs to leverage the ‘enemies’ cubes as a source of auxiliary troops. The native enemies are a challenge as while they can work with the cavalry, they cannot work – or safely stack – with the settlers.

Settlers and wagon trains need to leverage the cavalry as escorts. The Settlers usually lack the firepower to stand alone, though they do have numbers. Stalin’s quote about quantity having a quality of its own comes to mind here. The wave of settlers pushing west can seem like an inexorable flood.

Settler pieces are the ‘arrow fodder’ of the US player. You will take losses, but those settlers can hold ground and slow Indian advances. While not an inexhaustible supply, you can count on another wave of immigrant’s arriving each game turn.

The railroad will dominate strategy for both sides. To advance the rails, the US player needs to control the spaces adjacent to the rail heads on the Union Pacific and Southern Pacific. Conversely, the indigenous player will want to deny control of these spaces to the United States, slowing the progress of the railroad.

I found this an enjoyable game. Yes, it’s got some very random elements, but overall, it’s a good overview of the events. I like the inclusion of the George Armstrong Custer card. While it is a US cavalry card, the Custer card is a trap for the US player. In an attempt to model General Custer’s knack for getting his command surrounded, the card will immediately put a group of cavalry cubes into the worst possible situation. I’ve yet to see where drawing the Custer card has led to anything but defeat at the hands of the indigenous player.

And the big over-sized event cards do a great job of allowing the game to convey a variety of historical facts regarding the events, peoples and personalities that played a key role in the conflict.

The random cube draw is a nice way of introducing uncertainty. It’s reminiscent of the 17XX series from Academy Games, but is susceptible to the same weakness – players are at the mercy of the cube draw and that randomness can throw a wrench into both players plans, As the US, it’s a major blow to pull the railroad disc as the first draw on turn 1. I’ve seen it happen twice and it immediately puts the US at a disadvantage for the rest of the game.

And while it’s not super likely, there’s a roughly 14%

Chance that the first draw from turn 2 forward, will result in a double turn for the faction drawn last in the prior turn. While that may sound pretty good, that 14% is going to get cut down when you realize that the double turn may go to the railroad, the wagon trains or the ‘enemies’ of the Plains tribes. So, it’s a risk and if it happens for one of the ‘big four’ factions, it will swing the game markedly in their favor. But be like Eisenhower and plan for the worst, but allow those plans to be flexible enough to react to the current situation.

As can be the case, and in spite of however much you edit and playtest, once a game is released, questions come up. Plains Indian Wars was no exception and you’ll do well to avail yourself of the latest rules and errata that’s been documented for the game.

The good news for solitaire gamers is this game includes dedicated solitaire rules. The disc drawn mechanic is a great tool for solo play as you will not know what is coming next in terms of the active faction. And while you will know to some extent what cards are in each faction’s hand, the solo rules are there to help you along.

Plains Indian War is a solid game. I enjoy playing an of the factions as each brings a unique perspective to the table. A good game should make you think about the events being portrayed.  It’s an introduction to the events surrounding the displacement and subjugation of the indigenous population of North America. Plains Indians War give you much to ponder while delivering it in an engaging format. It’s an enjoyable game, but you are likely to walk away with a deeper appreciation of the events and outcomes.

Armchair General Score: 90 %

Solitaire suitability (1–5 scale, with 1 being virtually unplayable as a solitaire game and 5 being completely suitable for solitaire play):  5

Ray Garbee has been a gamer for the past four decades. Ray’s interests include the Anglo-Sikh Wars through the conflicts of the 20th Century and beyond, but his passion remains American Civil War naval gaming. His past works include Iron Thunder, Anaconda, Anaconda: Capital Navies and articles in a number of hobby magazines.

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