The rulebook for Earthenwar is dressed up as a confidential document from the British government's War Cabinet in 1917, and it ends with a poem by First World War poet Wilfred Owen. The premise then is that in a move to break the stalemate of trench warfare, both sides turn to the occult to summon golems to the battlefield...

You don't need, however, to get bogged down in the trenches or have any knowledge of WWI to play this essentially abstract two-player strategy game. Players each control their own golem - either a giant wooden meeple or, if you go deluxe, a substantial pottery figure. The golems move within a 6 x 6 square grid, representing the battlefield but much of the focus of the game is on the players' individual boards which they'll be using to program and control their golem and to mark any damage.

The golem is a figure from Medieval Eastern Europe Jewish mythology and Pol Amaya's artwork echoes Kabbalist symbology. Players' individual boards show a design across a 3 x 3 square grid where each of the outer squares incorporates a phase of the moon. The game comes with 10 black and 10 white custom six-sided dice, all of which function as d3 dice (they just have numbers 1, 2 and 3). You roll dice and use them to program your golem: white dice indicate a move and black dice represent an attack. The strategy is in working out where on your grid to place your dice because their individual effect is only in the direction indicated (ie: if you place a white die with face 2 on the forward facing [north] position on your grid, your golem will move forward two spaces; placing a black 3 die in the left-facing [west] position means your golem will hit the enemy golem if it exactly three spaces away on the main board). You can improve your control grid either by adding another die to an unoccupied location on your grid or by changing any single die by 1 (ie: changing, say, a 1 to a 2 or a 2 to a 1). You can also swap the position of any two dice already in your grid. You take the improve and swap actions before activating your dice and you get to choose the order in which you activate - so you can move before attacking or attack then move.

As you might guess, this system involves the opposing golems in what can seem like a dance of death as they jockey for position in trying to dish out damage while avoiding being hit. If that was all there was to Earthenwar, it would be an interesting combat game but designers Peter Kissick and John Stephen Richards Power wouldn't be offering much to elevate it beyond the many existing games in the genre. The subtlety here tho' is the second use of the players' grids to record damage. When your golem takes a hit, you record it by placing a damage token on your player grid in the position that corresponds to the die that caused the damage. So if, for example, your opponent's successful hit came from his backward right [southeast] position then that's the square on your control grid which you must cover with a damage token. Golems are not impeded by the damage but the position is important because you win by getting three damage tokens in a horizontal or vertical line (as per tic-tac-toe/noughts & crosses). If you score a second hit on a position which already has a damage token, you roll two dice to determine the grid position where the damage is applied - and rolling 2, 2 is the only way you can get a damage token on the middle square...

This all makes for a rather clever strategy game, and it's versatile too. The short rulebook offers an array of 'scenarios', each with a small tweak of set up or rules. At Board's Eye View we've especially enjoyed the Fog of War variants, where your control grid starts off hidden from your opponent. The game also comes with a couple of regular meeples matching the colours of the golems. These are used as 'soldiers' in some of the scenarios to offer an alternative victory condition (you win if you get your soldier to the other side of the board).

Judging from the preview prototype we've been playing at Board's Eye View, Lazy Poet Games have done a fine job in the production of Earthenwar, and it's good to see that the upcoming Kickstarter will be offering the option of pottery golems. The black and white of the golems don't relate in any way to the black and white of the dice so we'd have preferred it if the golems were a different colour to the dice - perhaps brown and grey rather than black and white. However, this really is a very small gripe over what is a jolly good abstract strategy game. We'll add a link to the KS campaign when it goes live on 1 September.

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