A War Of Whispers Review
Area control board games are nothing new. Families have been falling out over Risk for decades, while modern interpretations like Root rule the roost now. Most games of this ilk are pretty up-front about what’s going on. You can see who is trying to control what, and try to make sure your tiny empire reigns supreme at the end of the game. A War Of Whispers turns this on its head, with a game full of subterfuge, misdirection, and cunning.
In the game, five empires are vying for control of the map. You might think you take control of these empires, but no, it’s far more conspiratorial. Instead, the players take the roles of leaders of a secret society, pulling the strings and betting on the outcome of the war. When the game ends, and the dust settles on the battlefield, if the horse (or empire, in this case) you backed is big-daddy-boss-bollocks, you’re in with a chance of winning. What makes it all the more juicy is the fact that each player’s affiliations are secret, and revealed at the very end.
One of the most distinctive things about A War Of Whispers is the circular board. There aren’t too many games that do this these days, so it really stands out from a design perspective. One of the things I really like about the game is the way the shape of the board is integrated into the design. Each of the warring empires has an area around the side of the board with four slots, representing its council. Each council slot is essentially an action space, like in a worker-placement game. Thematically, this is great, because on your turn you’re placing agents into each council, influencing the direction in which that empire is going to build and grow.
It makes me feel like Grima Wormtongue from The Lord of The Rings.
The order of play moves around the board from the start space, through each council seat in each empire in turn, which makes it really obvious what’s going to happen, and in which order. At first it doesn’t seem like it matters too much, but by the end of your first game you’ll realise how important the order that the empires are activated, is really significant. Banners are added to the board, farms & forts get built, and battles fought.
Thankfully, combat is very simple. You just compare the strength of the attacking and defending forces, take into account any cards played, and remove banners to reflect the outcome. The empire with the most banners in a region controls any city that might be there, and it’s control of the cities which matters when the dust settles, and the final scores tallied.
The secrecy of each player’s affiliations is what makes A War of Whispers shine so brightly. There are five slots on each player’s personal board, each with a different value of multiplier. They range from zero to four, and another which actually gives a negative multiplier for that empire’s control. At the start of the game, each person’s affiliations are random, and placed face-down. There’s a lot of checking them for the first ten minutes while you try to remember which colour you have in which place.
As soon as the game starts, you can almost hear the collective cogs turning in brains around the table, as they form their diabolical machinations. You’ll find your first instinct is to play it cool. Don’t make it obvious you really want yellow to win, for example. The trouble is, the rest of the table is doing the same thing. So then you might think “Okay, let’s get clever. I’m going to go all-in on my preferred colour, and let them think I secretly want another.” And as sure as day follows night, that double bluff turns into a triple bluff, and then a quadruple. In one game I played, I’d convinced myself I wanted to red to win, and ended up bluffing myself out until it was too late to do anything about it. High IQ play, I’m sure you’ll agree.
If you’ve got this far in the review, it probably sounds like cloak-and-dagger and secrecy is the only way to go. A War Of Whispers has one more really fun trick up its tunic’s sleeves. At the end of any of the first three rounds (the game finishes after the fourth) you can choose to swap any two of your loyalty tokens’ places. If you do, they stay face-up – and therefore public knowledge – until the end of the game. With the cat out of the bag, and the dirty laundry aired, things can get very interesting.
I really, really like A War Of Whispers, and it’s going to stay in my collection for a long time. The way it manages to wrap-up the intrigue of something like A Game of Thrones, and throw it into a game that only takes an hour (once you’ve learned the game) is fantastic. It’s an easy teach which relies on the interactions of the players to create some fantastic tension and raised eyebrows. It’s at its best with three of four players, two-player can just get a bit swingy.
There’s so much subtle stuff going on in the game which rewards repeated play. The way the various empires seem the same, but knowing that differences in the map mean you have to approach the game slightly differently, is subtle, but clever. The card-play doesn’t feel that important at first, but rewards experimentation.
Some people don’t like games where you’ve no idea who’s winning until the end of the game, so I can see this being a turn-off for them. To go into A War Of Whispers like that is to miss the point of the game. It’s an hour of ludological foreplay, leading up to a knee-trembling climax, which hopefully doesn’t result in disappointment for you.
(Note to self – choose better analogies in the future.)
A War Of Whispers is a streamlined, fabulous piece of design. It’s brilliant, and up there with El Grandé and Brian Boru as my favourite area control games.
Review copy kindly provided by Starling Games. Thoughts and opinions are my own.
A War Of Whispers (2019)
Designer: Jeremy Stoltzfus
Publisher: Starling Games
Art: Tomasz Jedruszek, Dann May
Playing time: 45-60 mins