War of Whispers – Review
Way back in 2021 I came across a game called War of Whispers. It excited me enough to warrant a first thoughts piece at the time. Here was a game that took the psyops of war and distilled it into a svelte game with low downtime and an excellent production. Having only played it on TTS I was keen to get my own copy and have since had time to give it a more critical shakedown. Is it everything it seemed or is it just shadow and dust?
War of Whispers is published by Starling Games, designed by Jeremy Stoltzfus with art from Tomasz Jedruszek and Damm May. It’s a game that tells you everything you need to know from the title and the cover art. Yes there is a war on, but you don’t really care about the mechanisms of conflict. You are the people in the back of the room. Weaving amongst the court, whispering in the ears of chancellors and advisers. You promise, you threaten, you bribe to get what you want.
Representations of such psychological warfare could be a complicated affair. The manipulation of intentions and politics knotted together with inscrutable mechanisms and unfathomable strategies. The trick that War of Whispers pulls off is reducing this idea to a core set of mechanisms and allow the psy-ops to emerge in play.
The war is the same every time. The board set in stone for the conflict to come. Our circular board tells us everything you need to know about the positions of the factions, but also how each turn will go.
Let us start at the beginning though. As you enter the fray you are given 5 tokens, one for each of the factions fighting over the land: Horse, Bear, Lion, Eagle, and Elephant. You shuffle these and put them on a board in front of you face down. To the far left is your most favoured faction, giving you 4 times the number of cities they control in points. To the far right is the pariah, giving you -1 for each city they control. Between them factions give you 3, 2, and 0 times the number of cities they have. Only you know which faction is which. For you at least.
You seed your agents into the world, hoping they will establish themselves as the Sheriff, Steward, Marshal, or Chancellor of the various courts around the land. You place your agent on the space you want. Contemplating the actions your new position allows you to take, you smile and put your plans in motion. What’s this though? Another faction has taken the position below you and now all your plans are for nought!
This is how a war in the shadows evolves. When your agents are deployed to one of the 20 action spaces in the 5 different courts at the start of each round, we can proceed. Moving around the board you take actions based on your agent’s position in each court. Any spaces unoccupied before your agent are also yours for the taking, giving you multiple actions with one agent.
The actions themselves are extremely simple: gain banners (troops), attack, draw an empire card, or swap positions in the court. The empire cards for each faction provide an extra little bit of power for your actions. Bar the last action on each card, the first two choices are always the same. This gives a tinge of uncertainty to the proceedings in what is otherwise a very deterministic game. Combat is a simple comparison of force strength with no randomiser involved.
With this simple set of mechanisms, the order of faction play, and the fixed starting position of the factions, War of Whispers creates an incredibly engaging emergent narrative.
In the cold areas of the world the Bear has awoken. Banners amass on their border, their forts providing them with protection. They have 3 action spaces that allow them to attack, and their empire card allows them to push their armies onwards to the point of exhaustion. With only 1 city to their name, they must expand. They are aggressive, fast, and ruthless.
In the warmer west the Eagle sits on its hills and watches. The Eagle’s borders are protected, but not aggressively so. Their lands are rich with farms, the people ready to answer the call to battle, and quick to do so when asked. They eye up the lands of the Lion and the Elephant but they can move quickly with their Empire cards, landing upon you when least expected. They are cunning and agile.
The Elephant occupies the milder south. They are friends with Eagle, at least for now. The Lion threatens their border to the north. With two cities in the centre of their territory they make for a tempting target for all factions but they are not without power. With 3 forts they rival the Bear for defensive protection and their cards can give them an influx of troops when least expected. They are patient and will strike when you least expect it.
The Lion is beset on all sides by enemies. It sits in its den. Watching. Waiting. With 3 cities in the desert, it has much to offer the faction that can conquer it. Any invader will struggle to dislodge the lion from its territory. The faction can summon troops quickly, call the city guard to arms with its cards, and manipulate the courts of the world better than anyone. It does not attack often, but when it does you will feel its teeth on your neck.
The Horse is a noble beast. It is not brought to anger easily or quickly, but do not mistake that for weakness. With 4 cities to its name, it is the most powerful faction for victory. Starting with no Banners on the table, the Horse gallops quickly to battle. It manipulates the battlefields with its cards, the lightning fast strikes of horse mounted warriors disrupting the tactics of more traditional military tactics. Being last in the round the Horse responds to what is happening around it, pushing back against aggressors and setting in motion events that will reverberate through the next round. It is the leader, and the follower.
Of course your interpretation of these factions may differ to mine. It is this sort of emergent narrative that I absolutely love in games. A core set of easy to understand mechanisms, allowing for a story to emerge of what every player is doing each turn. Twists are a common feature of a lot of stories, and War of Whispers narrative is no different.
Let us return to the beginning. Our loyalty is set with the 5 tokens. The course of our actions set in stone. Of course stones can be lost, destroyed, or replaced. At the end of each round, apart from the last, you can reveal two of your faction tokens, and swap them. Once done you can never do this again with those factions, and with only 5 tokens you can only ever do this twice.
Every player will use this differently. Some will never reveal, preferring to take the course of the stoic. Others will revel in the chaos revealing factions can cause. Suddenly it allows other players to ally with you as you show what is good for them is also good for you. For others it will be a warning as you show the faction you hate the most. You look across the board and say, don’t support them or you will be my enemy.
The production of the game is great with a couple of small niggles I would have preferred they sorted. This was a Kickstarter game, and it shows a little. The deluxe version comes with banner minis, which I don’t want, but it also comes with minis for farms, cities, and forts. I had these in the TTS version and it makes the game a lot easier to parse. Anything that does that assists in accessibility I think should be included in the base game. I would also like a little player aid to remind us what each of the empire cards does. These are minor niggles of course.
Alongside Kemet, and Root I think I now have 3 troops on maps games that will be forever in my collection. I love the immediacy of Kemet, the asymmetrical strategy of Root, and the deviousness of War of Whispers. Each is a different aspect of that style of game, honed to perfection by a dedicated designer. Or maybe I’m lying. Can you tell?