Updated: Dec 23, 2019
This is an independently produced game and remains one of the very best 'Risk variants' ever published. I still have one of the earliest versions, which was then just called Warlord and came in a massive red box. I used to bring it out at Bromley Council 'away day' weekends, and it was a popular game that other councillors were keen to join in and play.
The game has had a chequered history: it was originally published more than 40 years ago by its inventor Mike Hayes. The red box edition was a copy that was played by me and other members of the play testing panel at Games & Puzzles magazine, where it got a very positive review. That and word of mouth contributed to Mike 'upgrading' the game to a 'blue box' edition and eventually to selling the rights to Games Workshop. They republished the game as Apocalypse, although that ended up being a cut-down version that lacked some of the charm and appeal of the original.
When the rights lapsed and the copyright reverted to the inventor, he took the decision to self-publish a new edition: Classic Warlord, in a distinctive and more manageably sized gold box - and that's the version picture here.
Like Risk, Classic Warlord is an area control game and, like Risk, players can stack as many armies as they like on any territory but they cannot voluntarily move all the occupying armies out (they must leave one behind). In this version, they can occupy sea spaces. Contiguous territories are considered to be empires, so players may have several empires if their territories do not all join up. Each empire earns one army build plus additional armies for cities, urban and rural areas in the empire. As empires grow, players will inevitably come into conflict with each other.
This is where Warlord departs from most other area control games: there is a die but players don't roll it. Instead, they secretly choose a number on the die, place that number face up and conceal it under a cup. The number cannot be more than the number of armies in the territory from which an attack is launched, it cannot be a 1 if attacking a city, and it cannot be a 4, 5 or 6 if attacking a mountain territory. The defender guesses the number the attacker has selected. If the defender guesses wrong, he loses one army in the territory under attack - if that's his last army, the attacker moves in the number of armies shown on the die. If the defender guesses correctly, the attacker loses the number of armies equal to the number he chose. This bluff and gamble mechanic particularly distinguishes this game and is the main reason why most of the people I've played Warlord with over the years remember it fondly and want to play it again.
There are special rules governing sea attacks but the other key distinguishing feature of Warlord is its simulation of the nuclear arms race. For every defending army removed in an attack, the attacker is awarded an Atom Bomb. This must immediately be placed within the attacker's empire, either on its own or stacked as a second stage to a previously stationed bomb. Bombs can be fired only at the start of a player's next turn. They destroy completely (make permanently impassable) the territory in which they explode, and they destroy all armies in territories adjacent to the explosion. Their range is one territorial boundary per stage.
All of this means that a nuclear arsenal can be a deterrent but it can also make the player a target from those who fear the nuclear threat. Bombs cannot be resited once placed but the territory they are placed on can be conquered by an attacker, who can then take control of the weapon.
In Classic Warlord, there are also more powerful Hydrogen Bombs. These are awarded every time an A-Bomb is fired. The H-Bombs permanently devastate the territory hit and all adjacent territories, eliminating armies in all areas adjacent to those. A-Bombs and H-Bombs also trigger each other if they are caught in the blast - so, with a big build up of nuclear arsenals on the board, a single firing could result in a chain reaction of devastation.
Classic Warlord is a game that is endlessly fascinating. It's main downside is that it can be a very long game. The board is divided into 8 sections and the rules suggest using a smaller number to reduce game length. That works, although most players who see the beautiful full board are strangely reluctant to abandon part of it, even to make the playing length more manageable.
(Review by Selwyn Ward)