There’s a lot of epic miniature games that tend toward intrigue among factions and families and that truly drives the combat and negotiation in a lot of them. Players in these games take control to come face to face on the board – or band together against a common enemy. It’s a little odd to step back from that and become a background mover, a puppeteer of sorts. That’s what the entire experience of Dawn of Peacemakers is about, however. While the setting that you’re in is anything but co-operative, you as players are working together to influence warriors on the battlefield, outcomes of fights and attacks, and guide the story in a number of ways (some of which you may not have control over!).
I was already familiar with the world of Daimyria, the world in which previous designs of Sami Laakso’s is set (sweet little deckbuilder card games Dale of Merchants 1 & 2), and was intrigued by the promise of a larger story in that setting. Dawn takes place prior to those games (yet in a distant future compared to us!), at a time when political conflict is bubbling and war between neighbouring groups breaks out. Unlike your regular sort of miniatures or war game, where you might pick one of those neighbouring sides, in Dawn, you are contacted by an elder in this world, Meron – a friend of the family. Each player picks a character, who in turn gets a letter from Meron imploring them to come and help with the situation, using their unique talents. The characters each have a sweet little profile – and adorable miniature to go with! – that gives them a little personality, but as you play, all players are using the same action deck to take actions so you’re not exactly “playing” a character as such, more guiding and using the group’s skills and savvy through the deck.
After orienting yourself with the start of this adventure, you’ll dive into scenario 1 of the 12 scenario campaign game – a starting battle between the Scarlet Macaws and the Ocelots. This introductory scenario lets you get the hang of setting up the modular map, the progression of turns and the sorts of things you can do to step in and manipulate the ways the battle goes and the outcome of certain actions. With over 400 cards in the game, this is certainly the main driving force of how information is set up and how actions are taken. Players take their turn by, one at a time, playing any number of “resource cards” from their hand – multiple use cards that let you step in when it’s like time is frozen, setting up fortifications, moving around the map, or getting some intel on what each side is going to be doing on their turn (i.e. sneaking a look at their action decks) and hopefully setting things up so things don’t go too badly for anyone. Just.. badly enough – more on that later. Lastly, each card has a “scheme” which is basically a special power that lets you do something specific outside the basic ways you can use a resource card normally. For instance – you might be able to discard the top card of an army’s deck by having their orders go astray, or slip something nasty into a field unit’s food to give them food poisoning, and the like.
After the players, each army will then take their turn – and I really admire the way this sort of “AI” for the sides is handled, seeing as (despite some of their meddling) players aren’t making choices for either side. For each scenario, an army’s deck consists of 2 decks – one half is the ploy deck, the same for each side and that determines the speed of their turn and an effect in addition. The other is the task deck, made up of unit cards dependent on the campaign’s progression and development of the war – one side may have more units, the other is more fortified for instance; and there’s a mix of types (leader, warrior, ranged etc) that have a click-on base on their miniature which indicates if the card played puts them into motion on that turn. Both armies reveal their double sided deck at the same time, and it will play out automatically based on the speed of their ploys and types of tasks; this keeps things neat and streamlined and once effects are implemented and the movement or attacks occur, it’s onto the next phase: checking the status of the game to see if the end condition is met. This can change from scenario to scenario, but generally the ideal situation is you will have each side lowering their motivation until they withdraw.
Not only do we have armies composed differently in each scenario, there is, as I mentioned before, the modular map that these battles play out on. Double-sided, it offers a more lush and green side and a dry dusty desert side – each scenario then has you setting up the terrain using hexes; perhaps a fortification tower, a hide, or a hill for advantage (and more obstacles as the game progresses). Not only that, but the players will always have a different starting spot on the board, as well as each side’s setup differing not just in their ranks but in their starting places. This gives the campaign the feel of moving on throughout space, not just time, and keeps the game a little fresher. This physical progression is held up nicely by the strong narrative in each scenario. This isn’t just flavour text, it’s a story that is well thought-out and has a lot of potential branches – not only this, but all of the cards really work well into that narrative whether they’re a scheme on a player’s resource card, or the leader of a troop.
I only wish that, somehow, the story featured more throughout the scenario more than just the introductions and wrap-ups, but that is a difficult task. (And a slight spoiler – as the game progresses there will be events that pop up during the gameplay, which was a nice surprise and did have a little of the story attached). As your weary band of peacekeeper moves on, Meron checks in from his mysterious HQ with details on the politics of the battle and valuable information for you all as you head onto the next challenge. New leaders will appear, alliances forged and enemies made – you’ll be introduced to all sorts as you play through the campaign, making peace.
Now, I did briefly make an off-hand comment earlier – of things going not too badly, just badly enough each game. Camus said “Peace is the only battle worth waging” and it certainly feels like you’re doing more harm than good in Dawn. It doesn’t feel like an all-out war game, a thrash ‘em up miniatures game – nor does it feel like a tiptoe through the tulips. You are peacemakers; manipulators, more accurately – and blood has to be on someone’s hands to get out of the situation that the Macaws and Ocelots are in. That in-between space might feel a little odd, and it did for me at times. Perhaps there wasn’t enough intrigue for me, but I think that might be throwing too much at this game for it to stick. It plays smoothly and the story is solid – if you’re looking for a co-operative game that changes up nicely (and can be replayed, albeit with you knowing what might happen) that looks great, I’d give this a try if I were you.
And yes, it looks great. There’s nothing about the art, the component quality, or overall package that is lacking. Sami’s anthropomorphized art is quaint and beautiful but can be quite serious – and it brings to mind the allegorical animated stories I enjoyed as a kid such as Watership Down or The Secret of Nimh. There seems to be a genre of games (and literature, movies and the like) that distances itself from being a human story by characterizing animals as stand-ins for us. Sometimes this can be a little odd and you might find it offputting no matter what (as some folks do with Mouse Guard, Mice and Mystics, Stuffed Fables and the like). No matter how cute these critters are, there’s a massive story and civilization portrayed in this, and there’s no humour about it. Dig in, enjoy the gameplay and feast your eyes on the beauty of the minis and art and have fun, despite the seriousness!
Dawn of Peacemakers is a co-operative action selection and action/movement programming game for 1 – 4 players, taking approximately 60-90 minutes depending on the scenario. Designed and illustrated by Sami Laakso, it is published by Snowdale Design. Thank you to Snowdale Design for sending us a review copy of the game, which – after an enormously successful Kickstarter campaign – can be purchased directly from them, or select online retailers.