Boremachine: High Command
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a publisher in possession of an intellectual property must be in want of a deck-building game. At least, that was probably the thought on the minds of the bigwigs at Privateer Press when they decided to slap together a deck-building game of their very own. Then, in a sign of things to come, they named their new baby Warmachine: High Command, just in case you were expecting something fresh and exciting.
See, unless their goal was to become the proud owners of the most boring and least inspired deck-building game of the year, their investment didn’t quite pan out.
Three Things I Like, One I Don’t (SPOILER: the one thing is Warmachine: High Command)
I should love Warmachine: High Command. After all, at first glance it looks like, for all intents and purposes, a delicious smoothie. A banana-strawberry-yogurt smoothie.
In this case, our bananas are what I call “third wave deck-builders” in an attempt to sound extra smart when talking to people who don’t know that much about boardgames. These are deck-building games that are more about strategy than the actual deck-building itself, like City of Iron, Core Worlds, or Mage Knight. These are great for the way they combine deck-building with very different game concepts, from cornering markets to planetary invasions to a high fantasy god-person simulator. The deck-building in these games matters a whole lot, but it isn’t the sole cog whirring away in their mechanical hearts, and that makes them interesting at multiple levels.
The strawberries are that particular genre of horizontal area-control games where the contest is all about seizing and holding locations in the center row, like Hemloch, Omen: A Reign of War, The Valkyrie Incident, Smash Up, or The Convoy. And the yogurt are games that let me use their cards for vastly different purposes, as in Summoner Wars, where cards are useful both as soldiers and as magical currency, or Bioshock Infinite: The Siege of Columbia, where each card can be exchanged for money, political influence, or combat bonuses. In general, more options, so long as they’re balanced and useful, equals a wider and more interesting decision space.
So here we have Warmachine: High Command, which seems to blend a whole bunch of my favorite things into some sort of liquid perfection. It’s a deck-building game that isn’t merely about deck-building; rather, the cards you purchase are used to control central locations. Better yet, each card has multiple uses, providing one of two different currencies and often doubling as the same fighters you’ll need to wage war in the center row. And I haven’t even mentioned the game’s sheer variety appeal, complete with dozens of gorgeously-illustrated warrior, warjack (mechs, another perk), warcaster, and resource cards across four distinct factions.
Sounds like a pretty damn tasty smoothie, doesn’t it?
Sadly, all these ingredients have gone funky. Let’s look at them each in turn to explain why.
Bananas: Deck-Building With Brown Spots
Here’s how deck-building works in Warmachine: High Command.
At the beginning of the game you have a deck of 12 cards in what’s called an “army deck.” All of these are “basic resources,” which provide small amounts of either “Command” or “Warjack” (the game’s two units of currency), or a bit of both. You’ve also got both a “reinforcement deck” and four face-up cards from it that form your “reserves.” On your turn, you can spend your resources to either “purchase” or “rush” these face-up cards, meaning you either add them to your discard pile and eventually your draw deck and hand, or hurry them straight to one of the contested locations in the center of the table.
Conceptually, at least, it’s perfectly serviceable. However, there are a few problems with how it’s handled here.
First, since each of the game’s four factions are drawn from a unique pool of reinforcements and reserves instead of from a single common drafting pool available to all players, the issue of faction balance is much more pronounced than in other deck-building games. You’d hope for some sense of balance with each faction’s offerings, but that’s simply not the case — not only in that some factions draw from a pool of superior units or less-pricey warjacks, but also in the sense that some factions get a whole lot of extra victory point options from their deck, meaning they have more ways to score points than other teams. I haven’t played enough to determine all the nuances of the game’s balance (and I don’t plan to), but it’s apparent not everyone is created equal in the world of Warmachine, and short of expanding the game (which Privateer Press undoubtedly plans to do, though that shouldn’t be a measure of this product’s playability), there’s little in the way of a fix.
The second problem is that most of the cards aren’t particularly interesting, though some of that is initially concealed by the eye-busting microscopic text you’ll need to lean over the table to read whenever you’re contemplating moving into a location. Seriously, it’s tiny, and I’m saying this as a dude with superhuman 20/15 vision. Worse, although each faction has some unique flavor in the way their cards operate, it’s watery enough that it relies more on the unit illustrations than actual card effects to get across a factional feel. A Kovosk War Hound is a war hound because the card tells you it’s a war hound and shows a picture of a war hound, not because its ability does anything war hound-like. Rather, it’s the same sort of uninspiring “+1 Power to friendly Warriors at this location” crap that’s found on most of the cards.
Lastly, and we’ll get into this more later, there just isn’t much room to customize your deck as you play. Purchased units will disappear as soon as they seize a location and are shunted off to “occupy” it, whereas basic resource cards will stick to your deck like pimples to a teenager. Sure, you can get rid of one every time you shuffle your deck, and there are a few card effects to help burn excess flab, but even late-game hand draws will be littered with boring starting resource cards, making the game feel like it’s constantly just getting started rather than ever letting you play with a truly personalized late-game deck.
Strawberries: Horizontal Control Gone Mushy
Okay, so the deck-building is uninspired and packed with samey cards (I don’t think I could ever tell any of the blue team’s warjack cards apart, even after two back-to-back games), but surely the area control stuff works well enough?
Sadly, no. Though there is some small element of strategy to whether you should purchase multiple cards to your discard or rush a single unit straight to a location, this portion of the game stutters when it comes to its horrific combat. Battles trigger at the end of each player’s turn, meaning there’s next to no build-up to larger clashes or space to use interesting abilities, instead coming down to slapfights between a couple units, entrenched powerful units sending weaker units off to the discard pile again, and tedious +1 Health and +1 Power bonuses. You count up your units’ power, kill off as many enemy units as their health values allow, and go back to wondering when your turn will finally end so you can get back to staring into space.
Of course, as soon as you capture a location (which boringly occurs when you have two more units there than anyone else at the start of your turn), all your units there are sent to your “occupying forces” pile, where they’ll still give you any VPs their cards provide, but won’t be available in the future. In theory, it’s a great balancing mechanic that keeps you from placing too many units in a location for fear of losing them, and punishes the victor with lost units, but in practice it undoes all your carefully-wrought deck design, leaving you back at square one with dull dull dull starting resource cards and yet more unit purchasing to do, and not a whiff of late-game momentum. It also makes the game interminably swingy as soon as players start alternating turns buying new units and sending their best guys to occupy Bumville or wherever.
Even the “Winds of War” cards (named for Herman Wouk’s awesome WW2 novel, I think) are fairly pedestrian, delivering mundane effects like “all units cost -2 WAR this round” or “draw an extra card” instead of something more engrossing. That “whee” you hear? That’s air leaking out of a bike tire.
Yogurt: Multiple Uses, Moldy
Here’s the worst bit. All that talk about cards having multiple uses? For the most part, it’s a ruse.
While it’s a great idea to imbue each card with monetary value, splitting that value into two separate currency types doesn’t really constitute an extra layer of decision-making — it’s just the same thing split in two. It doesn’t elevate the question from “Do I use this card as a fighter or to purchase stuff?” to some higher plane of decision-making; in fact, it makes that question even simpler to answer because your cards tell you exactly what to do at any given moment.
Both Command and Warjack are merely money, neither more valuable than the other. Instead of giving you broad options about what to purchase, rush, or deploy, it guides your decision-making process along narrow parallel paths, with the extent of the “strategy” being to draft roughly equal quantities, because the currency you happen to draw dictates, loudly and with clearly enunciated syllables, nearly the entirety of what you can do. Since your hand is generally populated with lots of resources and only a couple units, the obvious best decision is to deploy those units so that they can conquer locations. If you aren’t holding good units, or any units, the optimal move is to either purchase or rush a unit from your reserves, but that decision is telegraphed too — if you can afford to rush a unit with a good chance of staying alive at a location, you should do it; if not, you shouldn’t. Navigating this decision-tree is as easy as counting up how much of each currency you have right now and what few options they can afford, simple as that, and it’s incredibly rare to be presented with two or more roughly-equal decisions that might alter the course of your long-term strategy. If you had one. As such, the decision space is suffocatingly narrow, and nearly always drawn in painfully obvious strokes. It’s like playing Blackjack, always hitting or holding on certain numbers, and it hardly makes for an interesting evening.
For the Obtuse: I Don’t Recommend Warmachine: High Command
I really don’t. We’re living in a golden age of boardgaming, and there are loads of excellent deck-building games out there with a “third wave” strategy spin.
Here’s Somerset’s review: “This is how I feel,” she said halfway through our last game, as she jammed her pointer finger into her ocular cavity.
That sums it up pretty well, I think. I suppose I could catch a glimpse of this game’s appeal, especially if it could magically travel back through time and depose Dominion as the world’s first deck-building game. Or if you just like looking at the stylish Warmachine art. Or if an endless winter settles across the land and you don’t have anything else to burn.
Otherwise? Save the money.