A Little Finger Told Me
The empires are at war! A great tumultuous time is upon the land. The five great houses…I mean Empires are waging a great campaign that will shift the balance of power in the land for decades to come. The citizens are fearful, the soldiers are anxious and you are elated! You have been sowing seeds of discord for years and now, the fruits of your labor have finally started to bud. Peace is not conducive to your goals and finally, you and your organization are about to become the true rulers of this kingdom.
As the Empires wax and wane through conflict, your influence will spread and weave itself in the very fabric of the kingdoms. It doesn’t matter who wins or loses. As a wise man once said, “Chaos is a ladder.” Beware though, other cults and secret societies are on the move as well, working behind the scenes to form and contort conflict outcomes to suit their needs. You will need to use wit, deception, and sometimes brute force to make sure the final scene plays out in a way that benefits you. While the armies fight their pointless conflicts, the real war will be waged in the shadows. Prepare yourself.
Check out our video review of A War of Whispers: Dark Alliances expansion.
Welcome To High (Secret) Society
A War of Whispers, by Starling Games, sets 2-4 masterminds vying to gain the most influence in the kingdom. Each mastermind manipulates the victory or downfall of the five various Empires into the most advantageous setting for themselves. Over the course of 4 rounds, players will take turns placing agents on the councils of various Empires and then activating them in a predetermined order. Whoever controls the council seat will determine the specific action that Empire will take. This is key to helping an Empire conquer more land, or perhaps, setting it up to fall prey to another Empire you actually favor more.
A War of Whispers gives you control of a group of agents who are spread across all corners of the kingdom, plotting and conspiring to move the world to your advantage. At the start of the game, each player will “bet” on which Empire they believe will control the most cities at the end of the game. Players will secretly place loyalty tokens, one representing each of the five Empires, face down on their loyalty track. The Empire they are most loyal to will score them 4 points per city they control. This point value decreases each step down the loyalty track, all the way down to negative 1 point for the Empire they are least loyal to. These loyalties are kept secret from other players but may become public through the course of the game. Players then will fall into the 4 rounds of play. After the 4th round, the game ends and the points are tallied.
Empire Manipulation 101
Gameplay rounds follow three phases: Placement, Empires and Cleanup. In the Placement phase, starting with the first player, players will place one agent at a time on one of the 20 available spaces on the exterior of the board. Each Empire has four spaces that dictate how they will spawn troops, attack their neighbors, or give out power cards that allow players to have powerful actions to help shape the board. In practice, this is basically action drafting (or worker placement): everyone chooses actions that they’ll carry out in the next phase. Players will go around the table until everyone has placed two agents. Once all the agents have been placed, we move on to the Empires phase.
The Empires act in a pre-scripted pattern starting with the Starks, Bear Empire in the north, following along the outside ring of the map and ending with the Horse Empire. Each Empire will go through four similar but asymmetric action spaces where they will spawn banners to fight, attack uncontrolled regions, and give the acting player their clan’s power cards to use. The player with their agent on or closest to the space being activated is considered to be controlling that space. This creates some fun options as placing on the far right space of an Empire will give you control of all four spaces, at least until another player decides to place left of you and wrest some control away. Actions will continue around the board like this until the Horse Empire has resolved.
The last step is the Cleanup phase where players make sure they do not have more than 5 cards in their hand. Each player then removes 1 agent they control from any one council space.
Cleanup offers one last interesting decision to make: players can choose to reveal two of their loyalty markers from their player board in order to switch their positions! This is a dangerous, fun bargain for the game to offer. Your allegiances may not be set in stone, but changing them after the game has started means everyone knows exactly who you’re rooting for. It is important to note you cannot change loyalty in the 4th round of the game so it’s best to hedge your bets while you can!
This covers the main overview of A War of Whispers, but the real fun is in the actions you can take and how they affect the Empires and the map, so let’s take a moment to discuss these in more detail.
It’s All About The Actions
In A War of Whispers each Empire is a bit different but functions under 3 general types of actions. The first will spawn banners. Banners are the armies of these Empires. While any regions matching the color of the Empire are automatically under their control, this can change if another Empire raises their banner in this region.
Banners will help you attack other armies, hold cities, and defend your borders. You can place your new banners anywhere you presently control. Some spaces will spawn a flat two banners while others will grant you a number of banners based on the farms or towers you presently control. There are 13 areas containing either a farm or a tower on the map, and these locations are key for quickly redeploying troops so they become highly contested. Farms often spawn a lot of banners or even cards, which we will talk about in a moment, while towers count as an additional banner in the land they defend, making them key strategic points. It is also good to note that at the end of an Empire’s four actions, they cannot have more than four banners in any one region; any excess are removed back to the reserve.
Now that you have all of these banners, you need to attack with them! The attack action allows you to select one region containing your banners and attack any adjacent region that is not under that Empire’s control with any number of banners you choose. It is important to note that you cannot just shuffle banners from place to place in your territory with the attack action, this type of movement requires cards (which I’ll touch on shortly). Combat is a simple 1:1 ratio with units effectively “canceling” each other out. If you have removed all of the enemy banners or there are none to begin with, the Empire with the remaining banners moves in and gains control of the region. If you attack with banners outside of an Empire’s home area, you must leave at least 1 banner on each region conquered. This naturally limits how far each Empire can spread.
Finally there are actions that allow you to draw cards. Each Empire has unique cards that you can play before or after any action that your agent controls. These cards have a variety of rule breaking effects that allow for some dynamic plays, repositioning, extra actions, or even just straight removal of enemy banners from the map. These cards have an inventive play system that adds to the tactical subterfuge of A War of Whispers.
It’s All About Who You Know
It’s always good to have a trick or two up your sleeve when attempting to manipulate a kingdom. The cards you can earn from each Empire will give you the edge you need to beat the competition.
Each card has a simple layout. Cards have three abilities that can be activated when played:
- The top ability is always the same for that Empire and only costs the card you are playing.
- The second action costs two of that Empire’s cards to activate and is often quite powerful.
- The third action is a hybrid between that Empire and one of the other four Empires in the kingdom and requires one card from that corresponding Empire. These actions are unique and very powerful; they will allow you to change the face of the board in a major way.
Since these actions are the same, you can start to get a feel for what your opponents are planning based on the cards in their hand… but just as often in A War of Whispers, things are not what they seem. The flexibility of multiple actions on a single card will give you a lot of choice on when and where to use them best.
A Day In The Life Of A Spy
As I played A War of Whispers, I was amused by how much this game scratched my Game of Thrones itch. I could feel that vibe of playing as “Littlefinger” or “The Spider,” working my backroom dealings to best position myself for victory. It was a fun thing, to control different Empires without having a specific one that belonged to me. The fact that I had control over all the Empires of the board was a fun puzzle to consider while also having to realize that so did everyone else. Normally, in area control, if you are the blue player you will be controlling the blue army. Here, that is not the case. You have a vested interest in 3/5ths of the Empires winning and want to make decisions for all of the Empires to make that happen. The tug of wars that would result as one player wanted an Empire to thrive while another wanted it to fall were really fun to observe and be a part of.
As the game moved from round to round, you could begin picking out players’ strategies but even this was enjoyable because just as soon as you thought you had blocked a player and demolished their preferred Empire, they switch their loyalty and back an Empire you had been building up the whole game. Since every player selects their loyalty secretly, it was amusing to see bonds of kinship form between players when they realized they shared a beloved Empire or absolute frustration at an opponent who was unrelenting in their drive to make an Empire fall.
A War of Whispers has done a great job balancing the Empires. Since Bear always goes first and has the smallest number of regions on the board, they are prone to constant aggression and pushing up against the other Empires. Horse, on the other hand, starts with no banners on the board but has the most land to spread across. This asymmetry in the Empires and their playstyles was really engaging and a lot of fun to watch unfold from the sidelines. A War of Whispers feels big and grandiose even though the footprint of the game is moderate and the rules are simple to learn. My experiences were always positive and different players found new and unique ways to surprise me. This came in large part to some combos from the Empire cards that allow you to “break the game” in some really exciting ways.
The choices you are faced with are engaging as well. You may think you should always put agents on the Empires you want to do well, but there is a lot of value in putting agents on the Empires you want to lose. Having control of where units are placed and who they attack is all key to helping them do poorly in the war. That balancing act of helping your key Empire win while sabotaging others is a really fun journey to take. Once you have 3 or 4 players all working on this in tandem, things get crazy quickly. Again, adding in cards for some really unexpected plays means that A War of Whispers creates some very cinematic moments with some big comebacks and turnarounds in the last round.
I will note there are a few smudges on this otherwise pristine title. Since this is a secret objective game, there is something to be said for being sneaky. A War of Whispers has the potential to fall flat if each player only “worked” on their favored Empire and did not really influence the others. Now, since you get positive points from a total of 3 of the 5 Empires, this is unlikely to happen, but it could become apparent which Empires you care for very quickly if you do not divide your interests around the board. This issue is compounded at the 2 player mark. Since the biggest conflict in the game is over various players having different agendas for Empires, these interactions dwindle with only 2. In one such example, both myself and my opponent had a very similar selection of Empires so we went about spending the game optimizing our two top choice Empires and then worked to get ahead to win off our third choice. This was still a neat experience but paled in comparison to the chaos that ensues at a higher player count where more varied objectives come into view.
The only other comment I have in the downsides category is that while A War of Whispers is a beautiful game, there are some components that would be very helpful to have. I was fortunate to be given a deluxe copy of the game to review, which has very nice plastic banners and agents for the map. This is great, except there is nothing to depict the very important farms and towers on the map. Given the way the map is a grainy, dark color scheme, and that the farm and tower art is relatively small to begin with, it was hard to distinguish them once the board started filling with the Empires’ banners. This was a tad frustrating as these buildings are necessary for each Empire’s spawns so we spent a lot of time double checking we did not miss any.
Now, this problem can be easily sourced and fixed. I found a solution for 12 dollars on Etsy which makes the game great but I will note that without some form of marker, the table presence and actual functionality of the game is slightly diminished. I would have loved for those items to be included. Truth be told though, that is it for my critiques. That speaks volumes about how much I enjoyed this title if a big concern is just about some aesthetics.
I feel that A War of Whispers has a really tight niche that taps into my desire to be a conspirator and control the world from the shadows. The unique way that players interact with the board is a really fun “third party” connection to victory or failure and that is fresh, new, and enjoyable. There is enough asymmetry in the Empires for them to feel different and alive without needing to grab a rulebook to reference things throughout the game. A War of Whispers is easy to teach, easy to play, and satisfying to master. If you are looking for a unique (I know I have said that adjective a lot) take on area control and hidden objectives, A War of Whispers is sure to be a hit with your gaming group.
A War of Whispers
Genre: Area Control/ Hidden Objective
Pros: Unique interaction with the board, great theme, third party asymmetry.
Cons: Requires player skill to be most engaging, could benefit from better graphic design
Rating: 7/10 I really love the niche of this title and hope for expansions!
Want more content for A War of Whispers? Watch our video review of its expansion, Dark Alliance.