Review – A War of Whispers 2nd Edition
Diet King's Dilemma and Risk in Fast-Forward
|Artist||Tomasz Jedruszek, Dann May|
|Category||Area-Control, Hidden Agenda|
In the area-control, hidden agenda game A War of Whispers, players control 1 of 4 different secret organizations vying for control. Players will manipulate the 5 warring empires in order to ensure the empire they are most loyal to is in control of the most cities at the end of the game.
Players begin the game by choosing their secret organization. All 4 organizations have cool names (Pale Raven, Supplicant Spider, Cult of the Rat, Endless Serpent), but no special abilities. Each player has 5 tokens that represent each of the 5 empires. Players will place these randomly face-down on the 5 spots of their scoring track, determining how many points they’ll get for each city an empire controls at the end of the game. For example, the empire your organization is most loyal to will score you 4 points per city, while the empire you’re opposed to will score your -1 point per city. Only you know what you score for each faction, so best to try and guess other players’ loyalties and keep yours hidden!
There are 4 rounds in War of Whispers, and each round has 4 phases. In phase 1, players will place their agents on the empire’s council positions. In phase 2, players will execute their council position actions for each faction. In phase 3, players will move the turn marker and discard down to 5 cards. In phase 4, players can opt to switch loyalties between 2 of their face-down tokens, switching them and placing them face-up for all to see.
Jostling for council positions is as important as manipulating the empires to your advantage. An empire’s council positions let you perform specific actions for them, which include gaining banners (armies), drawing cards, or attacking other empires. Another interesting mechanic Jeremy Stoltsfuz worked into the council positions is that if there are empty council positions, the player who owns the position to the right of the empty positions also gets to use all the empty council position’s actions. Often you have to consider if you want to place your agent on the council position whose action you really want to take, or on a spot that will grant you 2 or 3 extra actions that you may not care about, but could try and use to your advantage.
Executing council positions is how the empires move. As players take their agents’ council actions, empires will grow in power, invade other empires, and generally move around the board like a Risk game in fast-forward. It can be a lot of fun trying to deduce what empires your opponents are loyal to based on their actions. Some choose the blunt approach by filling their favored empire’s council positions and conquering cities left and right, while others prefer the more discrete approach, seemingly supporting an empire while working slowly to increase another’s territory.
There are 5 different cards from the 5 empires in the game, and they generally do 1 of 5 things (defeat enemy banners, increase banners, attack, switch council positions, etc.). Deciding when to play cards is hugely important in A War of Whispers because cards can be played at pretty much any time and they can be quite powerful. In fact, some are so powerful that they can erase a couple rounds of conquering, which may or may not seem fair to the organizations the card hurts, though it feels awesome if you’re the one playing the card.
If you think you’ve deduced 1 of your opponent’s favored empires, you could use other empires to attack them to hinder their progress. However, sometimes you’ll find that you and an opponent have similar loyalties, and you can work together to increase both your point totals. This scenario is quite likely because each player has 3 favorable empires, 1 neutral, and 1 opposed. This mechanic is a double-edged sword because while it’s fun to work together sometimes (and maybe even trust that your opponents will do some work for you), A War of Whispers is ultimately a competitive game, and having too many players favoring the same empires can make the game feel less exciting.
As the rounds progress, players will add more agents to the council positions, which is a nice progressive mechanic that makes things feel tighter as decisions start to matter more. Because council positions can get overcrowded, with players increasingly unlikely to benefit from 2 or more actions from each agent, the option to switch allegiances is an excellent self-balancer. Maybe you were supposed to help the eagle empire spread its territorial wings, but other players took those council positions so you ended up controlling most of the bear empire’s council. You can switch those 2 on your board so you have more of a fighting chance. Sure, other players will know where your loyalties lie, but it’s better than guaranteeing yourself a loss.
The end game is usually pretty crazy. Players play cards left and right, trying to remake the board how they see fit, and what makes the end game even more fun is that, most of the time, players have no idea who’s actually winning! Everyone’s just trying to maximize their city scoring, minimize their opponents’ scoring, and hope for the best. It captures the chaos of hidden agendas and secret organizations very well.
The components are solid, and the circular board works perfectly for this game. The empires are asymmetric in set-up, which I’m glad for as it makes them feel at least a little different. The tokens and cubes representing the organizations and empires are fine, but they don’t really enhance the epicness this game is trying to capture, though they certainly don’t hinder it (a collector’s edition with miniatures is available if that’s your thing). The artwork is good, but they reuse a lot of the same illustrations for the cards, which is a missed opportunity for additional world-building. As for ideal player count, A War of Whispers is playable at 2, but best with 3 or 4.
I wish A War of Whispers would have included some sort of empire behavior deck for the 5 empires. It feels like the 4 organizations are in complete control of the 5 empires for the entire game, which is fine gameplay-wise, and makes for more of a mathy min-max feeling, but this game has so many fun storytelling opportunities that it completely wastes. Yes, players make their own stories, as in RIsk, but with a name like A War of Whispers, I was expecting more. The 2 things that could’ve helped with this most would be to give each secret organization some sort of asymmetric special power and to give a behavior dice or deck to each empire. The fact that the empires always did what the players wanted them to was slightly annoying to me because surely, some king somewhere is going to say, “I don’t care what you say, I’m going to attack those blasted bears!”
Both of the above complaints are more personal preferences, but the following are critiques: the game feels too long at 4 rounds. It doesn’t offer enough depth to go beyond an hour, yet it often does. The rulebook also could have been written better. The wording is confusing in some places, and fails to highlight some important gameplay aspects. This is especially noticeable because, at its core, A War of Whispers is quite simple. This is also the 2nd edition, so those confusing errors in the rulebook should have been fixed.
A War of Whispers feels like a classic mass-market game along the same lines as Risk, Catan, or Monopoly. That’s not a knock at all: those games are accessible and provide great opportunities for some fun with friends where you can choose not to think too much if you don’t want to. I enjoy playing those games, but rarely do I suggest them, which is how I feel about A War of Whispers. If you want a straightforward game about manipulating empires for your secret organizations’ benefit, hidden agendas, and some light world-building sprinkled in, A War of Whispers fills that gap well. It’s certainly interesting, but not exactly a favorite because the world the players interact with just doesn’t feel alive.
Side note: If competing with other players to manipulate kingdoms for your secret organizations’ benefit sounds fun to you, check out my review of The King’s Dilemma.
Starling Games (Asmodee North American) kindly provided a review copy.
The Bottom Line
If you want a sneakier version of Risk, this is your ticket. Some interesting gameplay mechanics, but many games run too long for the depth this game offers.