23 November 2019

Board Game Review: War Chest

The components of War Chest. A game board, with several cards arrayed to one side, the velvet bags on the other side, a tray of tokens behind it, and the game box lying open nearby.

When I went to Geekway to the West back in May, I won a copy of the game War Chest by Trevor Benjamin and David Thompson, published by Alderac Entertainment Group, in the play-to-win drawing. I think the time has come to review that game for you!

The premise behind the game is that a grizzled warrior gives a gift to a young prince to help him prepare to be a great leader in times of war. The gift was a War Chest, a crate of tokens used to play a game designed to help the future king learn to adapt to the constantly shifting conditions in a battle.

War Chest is that game.

Let's start as we always do: with some numbers.

Strategy and Randomness are rated from 0 to 6. A 0 means the rated aspect plays no part in determining the game's outcome; and a 6 means that it is the only factor that determines the game's outcome. Complexity is also rated from 0 to 6; a 0 means that it's so simple a six-year-old can play it, a 3 means any adult should have no trouble playing, and a 6 means that you'll need to refer to the rulebook frequently. Humour can be rated as 'None,' meaning the game is not meant to be funny, or it may have one or more of the following: Derivative (meaning the humour is based on an outside source, such as a game based on a comedy film), Implicit (meaning that the game's components are funny, such as humourous card text), or Inherent (meaning that the actions the players take are funny). Attractiveness has nine possible ratings. Ideal: the game is beautiful and makes game play easier. Pretty: The design is beautiful and neither eases nor impedes game play. Nice: The design is beautiful but makes game play harder than necessary. Useful: The design is neither beautiful nor ugly, but eases gameplay. Average: The design is neither beautiful nor ugly, and neither eases nor impedes gameplay. Useless: The design is neither beautiful nor ugly, but makes gameplay harder than it needs to be. Utilitarian: The design is ugly, but eases gameplay. Ugly: The design is ugly, and neither eases nor impedes gameplay. Worthless: The design is ugly, and makes gameplay harder than it needs to be. Average Length of Game Play describes how long an average game will probably last, give or take. Gamer Profile Ratings measures how strongly a game will appeal to players based on their interest in one of four areas. These areas are measured as High, Medium, or Low. Strategy describes how much a game involves cognitive challenges, thinking and planning, and making sound decisions. Conflict describes how much direct hostile action there is between players, from destroying units to stealing resources. Social Manipulation describes how much bluffing, deceiving, and persuading there is between players. Fantasy describes how much a game immerses players in another world, another time.
Strategy: 5
Randomness: 1
Complexity: 1
Humour: None
Attractiveness: Ideal
Average Length of Game Play: 45 minutes
Gamer Profile Ratings:
  Strategy: High
  Conflict: High
  Social Manipulation: Low
  Fantasy: Medium

An Overview of War Chest

The game comes in a sturdy box, with a lid that swings into place and is secured by a magnet. This helps to evoke the feel of an old-timey wooden chest despite being a standard cube-like shape. It's at least twice as tall as most other game boxes, but smaller in width, so it shouldn't have any problem fitting on your shelf.

Inside the box, you will find the game board, four lovely soft velvet bags, some cards describing the characteristics of each type of unit in the game, and tokens representing those units.

A tray containing the different tokens: black tokens with a Celtic knot raven, yellow tokens with a Celtic knot wolf head, deep yellow tokens with pikeman holding a shield, magenta tokens with a castle tower and spear, dark green tokens with two crossed battle axes, crimson tokens with a Greek warrior, olive tokens with a banner, bright blue tokens with a knight carrying sword and shield, deep purple tokens with a Celtic cross, teal tokens with warriors carrying spear and shield, deep blue tokens with a hawk, amber tokens with a saddled horse, bright green tokens with a bow and arrow, bright red tokens with a soldier mounted on horseback carrying a lance, burgundy tokens with a dagger piercing a bag of coins, lime green tokens with a rearing horse, reddish violet tokens with a crossbow, and dark blue tokens with two crossed swords.

And what tokens they are! These are the highlight of this game. Visually, this isn't the prettiest game I've ever seen—it is pretty, but not nearly as pretty as, say, The Grimm Forest or Abyss—but it is quite probably the most pleasantly tactile game I've ever had the pleasure of putting in my hands. The tokens are basically high-quality poker chips with a simple Celtic knot design on one side and the icon representing its unit type on the other. They are solid, hefty, and just generally feel nice in your hand.

Anyway. The idea of War Chest is that each player (the game works best as a two-player game; it can work as a four-player game by having two teams of two, but it's definitely better as a two-player) chooses which units they want on their side. The rules list suggested units to use in your first game, and the appendix has other suggestions based on real historical battles such as the battle of Gaugamela in 331 BCE or the battle of Bannockburn in 1314 CE. Players are free to choose whatever units they like for any game.

Once you have chosen those units, place two of each of the tokens for those units in your bag, along with one royal coin. The remaining tokens are placed near the board to form your supply. Make sure the cards for the chosen units are nearby, so you know how each unit works. Place control markers on the starting locations (spaces on the board marked with a special icon to indicate that they are strategically valuable points of control) so that each player starts with two locations under their control (three to a team in a four-player game).

The game consists of a series of rounds. Each round involves drawing three tokens from your bag and then taking turns to use those tokens to take one of several actions. If you need to draw coins and there are none left in the bag, shuffle the tokens back into your bag and continue drawing. Once both players have taken three actions, a new round begins with drawing three more tokens.

Actions

Actions are sorted into three types: placement, facedown actions, and face-up actions.

Placement

You may place your chosen token onto the battlefield. There are two ways to do this:
  • Deploy: If you do not already have a unit of the type you have drawn, you may place that unit onto an unoccupied controlled location. If you draw a knight, for example, but you already have a knight on the board, you may not deploy a second knight.
  • Bolster: If the unit you have drawn is already on the board, you may bolster that unit by placing a second (or third, or fourth, or even fifth) token on top of the unit currently on the board. A bolstered unit is more resistant to damage, and will not be immediately destroyed when attacked.

Facedown actions

Any token (including the royal coin) may be discarded face down to take one of these actions:
  • Claim Initiative: take the initiative marker from your opponent, indicating that you will go first in the next round. You may not do this if you had the initiative marker earlier in the current round.
  • Recruit: take any token from your supply, show it to your opponent, and add it to your discard pile, so that it will be shuffled into your bag in the next round.
  • Pass: On occasion, you may find you have no other legal move on your turn. In this case, you must discard your token face down to pass. You can also choose to pass voluntarily, if you feel it is useful to do so.

Face-up actions

Any token other than the royal coin may be discarded face-up in order to take one of the following actions. When taking a face-up token, you must take the chosen action with a unit that matches the type you discarded. For example, if you are discarding an archer token face up, then the chosen action must be taken with an archer unit on the board. If you do not have any units of the chosen type on the board, then you may not use any of the face-up actions.
  • Move: you may move a matching unit into an empty adjacent space.
  • Control: a matching unit that is currently on a location that you do not control (either because it is controlled by your opponent or because it is not controlled by either player) takes control of that location. Place one of your control markers on the location to indicate that you have controlled it.
  • Attack: you can cause a matching unit to attack an adjacent enemy token. An enemy unit so attacked loses one token from its stack (which is why bolstering is so useful; if an unbolstered unit is attacked, it is removed from the board entirely, as it consists of only a single token. Once bolstered, that unit simply loses one token from its stack instead of being completely destroyed). Tokens lost to attack are not placed in the discard pile or shuffled back into your bag, but are removed from the game entirely.
  • Tactic: Several units have a 'tactic' listed on their card. For example, the crossbowman's tactic allows it to attack a unit two spaces away in a straight line, so long as there is no unit in the intervening space. By discarding a matching token face-up, you may use the tactic listed for that unit. Note that some units are not allowed to take the normal Attack move; they can only attack by using their Tactic. For example, the lancer unit (who's tactic is to move one or two spaces and then attack, all in a straight line) is forbidden from using the normal Attack move, but instead must attack using its Tactic.

Winning War Chest

A game of War Chest in progress. The board has several tokens around it, with the draw bags nearby, several piles of tokens around it, and four cards on each side.

The first player to control six locations (eight in a four-player game) is the winner.

Permutations in War Chest

Remembering what the different actions are is honestly the part of this game that is most difficult. Once you've done it a few times, it gets easier, although the back of the rules book lists a summary of the available moves.

Once you've mastered these, the greatest challenge is learning how to use your units to best effect, and how to overcome your opponent's units. For example, the pikeman is a great defensive unit, as it removes a coin from any unit that attacks it, so long as that unit is adjacent. If your opponent has pikemen on the field, you'd better hope you have either archers or crossbowman, as those are the only units that can attack from non-adjacent spaces.

Final Thoughts on War Chest

The thing I like about War Chest (apart from its delightfully tactile components, obviously) is that it's almost an abstract strategy game, but not quite. Opponents do not have identical pieces, as abstract strategy games do. This variability, both in terms of what each player is able to do, and in terms of what you can do from one game to another, gives it a remarkable freshness. Additionally, the fact that you have to draw the right token from your bag in order to take a specific action means that you cannot rely on always being able to do what you want. Just like in a real battle, you must be prepared for the possibility that you can't always execute your plans perfectly. That level of battlefield emulation is an interesting and unique touch.

But let's look at the six characteristics of a good game:

  • It allows for upsets.
  • It's fun to lose.
  • It's relatively simple.
  • It ends decisively.
  • It has no player elimination.
  • It relies on player agency.
Again, we have a game with all six characteristics! Nicely done, mate!

So I hope that you will give War Chest a try, if you haven't already. And whatever you decide, and whatever you think of this game, I trust that you will always

Game on!

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