Circadians: Chaos Order Review

If you haven’t seen Avatar (the movie) (yes, the blue aliens one, not the blue forehead arrow one) please go and watch it quickly now so I can do a lazier job of writing this intro. Ok? Great. So … It’s Avatar the movie. Humans have turned up at the planet and against all statistical reasoning, found not one, but 5 sentient alien races. They are all highly capable in warfare and all distinctively coloured, and have evolved together to co-exist on the one planet. Something weird is happening! It seems like some sort of once in an era legendary event is taking place and all the aliens are fighting to the death to gain control of 6 towering Relics! (Has this happened before? .. And there’s definitely still 5 distinct sentient races all from this one planet?) … Anyway. We, the humans, are all like *shrugs* I guess we better join in, these relics must be pretty cool if these aliens are willing to fight to the death over them. Let’s see who fulfils their faction prophesy first and gets rewarded with victory (and presumably occupancy of the planet!)

2-5 Players | 3-4 Hours | Designed by Sam MacDonald and Zachary Smith

Circadians: Chaos Order is the second game in Garphill’s Circadians series, with the first game ‘First Light‘ being published a few years ago via Kickstarter. Chaos Order brings the second instalment in the series, and the Kickstarter was accompanied by a second edition version of First Light, moving to a larger box size and with some revised gameplay and artwork changes. Sam Phillips returns to illustrate Chaos Order, after having illustrated First Light and now a few other titles such as: Raiders of Scythia, Hadrian’s Wall and the upcoming Legacy of Yu. A surprise to me in Chaos Order is its departure from the ‘euro’ style of games I’ve grown to expect from Garphill Games. Chaos Order is a very heavy and aggressive game, much closer to the likes of TWILIGHT IMPERIUM than the Profession of the Compass Direction series.

The board with the game phases all clearly marked!

How does it work?

Circadians: Chaos Order is an area control game with an interesting action system governing how players will perform their turns. Players take control of highly asymmetrical factions, each with varied powers and distinct goals that when reached will make them victorious. The game will take place over 6 rounds, over which players will work towards their personal goal, or otherwise target the common win condition of controlling all of the relics on the board (the number of which reduces by one each round).

To begin the game, each player starts with a small force located around their home base on the board. In each round, players will first ‘set prices’ for the game’s actions, and then work through the actions: discover/research, build, harvest, recruit and move. Setting prices is a draft, and claiming one of the actions in this phase lends you two benefits – you get to do that action for free, and other players need to pay you to do that action!

Once the actions are priced, players go through performing them. Each player gets the opportunity to do every action once, given they can pay. Research lets you upgrade the strength of your actions. Build lets you add structures to the board which give you benefits and bonuses. Harvest will extract resources from your controlled regions on the board. Recruit lets you deploy more units to your home base, and move will allow you to advance your units on the board.

Moving units is critical to the next phases of the game – combat, income and gaining relics. Players will move their units to try and gain territory, gain control of relics and fulfil their objectives. If players move into a space with another player, they are indicating they would like to fight a combat in the next phase of the game.

After all players have moved, combats are resolved in all regions that have multiple players present. Players will tally up their strength (and may play cards, roll dice etc.) to determine who wins. After the winner is decided, hits are dealt and the loser needs to return home. After all combats are resolved, players will gain income and check to see if someone controls all the relics, which could win them the game!

During the Combat round, many of the factions may be able to trigger their win conditions (3 races have combat related win conditions). If you reach your win condition for any reason, you typically immediately win the game, so it’s important for players to keep track of what everyone is up to during the game. With all the factions being quite different, there is a lot to keep track of and quite a few more rules than what I’ve described here, but hopefully the basic flow can help you to understand my following commentary of the game.

Things starting to get a bit contentious on the map

What do I think?

I’ve played Circadians: Chaos Order 3 times now, at 3, 4 and 5 players. While I feel comfortable writing this review after 3 plays, I will disclaim here that it’s clear that this is a deep game. There are so many things to explore and many emergent phenomena that you just won’t see in only three games. My comments will also probably trend towards first impressions and thoughts for newcomers. I generally tend to discuss how new players will benefit/be hindered by design decisions, and I will do that here but I just want to say before I get into that, it’s pretty clear this game was designed to provide the best experience for repeat players, and not really first time ones.

The Good Stuff

  • The rulebook is mostly pretty good. It is clear, well laid out and easy to look up rules in.
  • Setting prices is a pretty interesting mechanic and is really the cornerstone of strategy in the game. I initially didn’t see it as a big component of the game, but after a couple of plays it becomes really obvious that this mechanic lets you control how other players will be able to play the game.
  • The clear game-play and action flowchart on the board is great. It’s very easy to move through the phases without forgetting anything, no player aid needed!
  • The asymmetric faction win conditions are all interesting. I find it really useful to have all the separate trackers on the board so players can see at a glance how close each faction is to winning, without necessarily having to fully understand how they gain their points or constantly question the other players on their progress. Sometimes you will find yourself struggling to fulfil your faction goal due to the game state, so it’s nice to also have the common win condition as a backup goal you can pursue.
  • If you aren’t playing super seriously, you can speed the game up a bit by doing some actions simultaneously. Research, build, harvest and recruit can be mostly done at the same time for the majority of cases, and my friends and I were happy to do this. When cases presented themselves in which it could be important (e.g. knowing how many units another player was going to deploy) we easily reverted to turn order.
  • As is usually the case with games of this nature, Chaos Order lends itself to generating some pretty fun table talk. We found ourselves engaging in lots of tactics and strategy discussion, especially nearing the end game where we needed to plan around stopping players from winning to give ourselves a chance. I also enjoy the theme of the factions leaking through to table talk as well, as there’s a lot of interesting touches that can make for some light hearted moments while playing.
  • As someone that likes playing lots of different games because I enjoy new experiences and discovering new mechanisms, I find it interesting to watch people discover their faction and how to make the most of their advantages. The way the factions interact in Chaos Order is also very interesting and depending on the combinations of factions present, the strategy of each faction will vary. Discovering how to best milk your opponents for a victory is the key to this game (and I’m not very good at that!)
  • I found that the game-play flowed in a pretty different direction each play-through, which I thought was great as the experience felt very different and I had to think about how I was going to deal with the novel scenario that was presented to me each game.
  • When things are going well, Chaos Order really provides you with that ‘Oh yeah, it’s all coming together’ feeling. At least for a bit until it’s all not coming together after the combat round has been resolved and all your units are dead.

The Good and Bad Stuff

I don’t normally have this section but there is a lot of ‘on one hand, on the other hand, on the gripping hand‘ stuff going on with this game.

  • The flow of this game is pretty straight forward, which makes teaching it fairly easy. Unfortunately, there is a LOT of stuff that you need to know to play and it pretty much all needs to be preloaded, which leads to a 30-40 minute teach. I don’t mind this personally, but I can see it being a barrier to some people. Additionally, there is the asymmetry to consider, with each faction having a few different things to know before getting started.
  • To continue from the above, while the asymmetry isn’t super onerous, it is a lot to have to remember if you want to keep on top of everyone’s abilities and not run into surprises when you go into combat.
  • Chaos Order could represent a big time investment on the behalf of players. Learning it took me a few hours (before I was ready to teach it). It definitely feels like the kind of game that really only gets ‘super fun’ once you are pretty familiar with it, so after multiple plays.
  • The combat system is unique and interesting, but because it’s unconventional it can be hard to grasp the implications of your chosen strategy and it feels a bit opaque going in. To be well informed before deciding to start a battle, you need to know the combat values of the opposing army, and it can get tedious constantly asking for information (you can’t easily deduce it yourself because there are SO many places people get combat points from).

The Bad Stuff

  • I found the partial component list in the main rulebook very confusing. There is a little note that tries to explain this was done to keep the rulebook short but then the rulebook goes on to be ~25 pages long? I don’t think one extra page would have hurt. I also found learning the game a bit more difficult because the faction components are only listed and there are no corresponding pictures. I actually struggled a bit to connect the cryptic names of some components to their actual pieces.
  • Just another minor usability thing – the attribute cards, some foundations and other pieces (when I eventually figured out what these were) seem to only be identified by colours, no faction symbols like other components.
  • As the game plays out, it can get to the point around round 3 and onwards where the pace starts to feel glacial. Especially during the move phase, players might need to spend a lot of time considering things and checking things to make good decisions. If your strategy for that part of the game is something like ‘sit tight and don’t fight’ then you can feel like you spent around 1 min of a half hour+ round actually doing stuff.
  • It’s very easy to feel like you are being bullied or targeted. Unfortunately, that’s the nature of this game, but it’s one thing in games I am not a fan of. Even when you can clearly see it’s not done out of any malice but it’s simply the best option for the other player, I just can’t enjoy the feeling of being smashed to bits and pushed out of contention for victory.
  • Chaos Order is certainly a game that is not forgiving of mistakes. If you miss an opportunity or accidentally get in someone’s way you will just be obliterated or blocked and that’s that. There isn’t any sort of catch up mechanics to help you claw back more quickly.
  • Unlike most modern games, it can become clear well before the game actually ends who has won. The feeling of helplessness of having to sit through a round knowing who will 99% win at the end of the round can be a big let down after an otherwise exciting game. As I said above, I’ve only played 3 games, but this happened in two of them. I do like a game with a memorable ending, and when this happens all the excitement from earlier in the game can be overshadowed.
  • For some reason I found it really easy to forget about the tactics cards non-tactics abilities (that you can play while doing other actions). I’ve never once used them for that purpose, and other players rarely did either. I feel like because they are ‘tactics’ cards, I just put them out of mind til the combat phase. Maybe just calling the cards something else could have helped with this.
  • I found the map readability to be quite poor. It’s a dark map, and all the terrains are kind of a muddy colour. We had a lot of confusion over what ‘plains’ and ‘cliffs’ were because the plains have spiky cliff things on them and the cliffs are a more straw/yellow colour. This actually caused a few problems in the beginning of games as there are a few factions with affinity/powers related to terrain types. A small legend on the board could help with this.
  • Being a big game with 6 asymmetric factions, there are lots of rules catches and gotchas. Nearly any time people fought, one player would be surprised at another player’s abilities, and very often edge cases would come up where there were special rules associated with what was happening. Combat in particular has lots of things like this – e.g. if you retreat then you don’t get your shields from the wheel, you can’t kill more than 4 people, units return to base but leaders die, etc.
  • I found it hard to keep track of leaders on the board with so much stuff everywhere. It didn’t help that the leaders were identically shaped standees that you can only clearly see from a limited number of angles. I really think that coloured bases for leaders would make a substantial improvement in board readability, and I would have sacrificed art to have their stats also clearly visible on the standee itself.
A close game!

I think that Circadians: Chaos Order was given a difficult task in trying to win me over. If you know me, then you know it’s not my typical sort of game – I prefer less conflict, less sandcastle kicking. Despite this, when it comes to larger, longer games, some of my favourites include Eclipse and TWILIGHT IMPERIUM, both of which Chaos Order bears a strong resemblance to.

Overall, I enjoyed my plays of the game so far. I look forward to playing it some more and I have a bunch of people who I think would be keen for at least a few more games to explore the rest of what it has to offer. That said, for me it’s a careful recommendation. I think you need to know what you are getting into with this. If you auto-buy it because you love Garphill games, it could be a nasty surprise! It’s a 4 hour game that is best if people prepare for their first game. To get the most out of it, you will need to play it more than once (i.e. write off the first play as a learning game), certainly several times to have the best experience. Depending on your gaming priorities, that may sound great to you or it might not. To me, it feels like it will move into the ‘Eclipse‘ category of games that come out once or twice a year for a organised play with a keen group. If you are a interested to learn more about the game or even pick up a copy, check it out on the Garphill Games Store!

The copy of Circadians: Chaos Order used for this review was provided to The Boardgame Detective by Garphill Games

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