There aren’t many games that wouldn’t be improved by the presence of clickety-clackety, oh-so-tactile, heavy-as-depleted-uranium poker chips.
Then there are games that already have poker chips and pretty much feel like they’re bribing you into liking them more.
Try to guess which type of game War Chest is.
If War Chest were played with cards rather than chips, we’d call it a hybrid. That is to say, your chips have a life cycle, and do more than just move in and out of your draw bag. From the sidelines to the bag to the battlefield to the graveyard. The twenty-minute cicada.
At every step, there’s that clacking. War Chest knows how to make a move feel perfect. Even when it’s a bad move. Even when it’s a pointless move. The heft of the chips, the way they fall against their fellows when thrust into or mixed within the bag, that minor slap as they hit the table — it’s the same reason that a game like Splendor can sucker us into accumulating gems for hours on end, and War Chest provides even more reason to handle its chips. Everything you do, from recruiting troops to deploying troops to killing troops, is a delight on the pads of your fingers.
Here’s the idea. Both sides are fielding an army of their own composition. There are some presets based on famous battles, but the real deal is found in pre-game drafting. That’s how you wind up with an army of glass cannon ranged units versus stout knights and pikemen, or synergistic ensigns and marshals versus hordes of footmen and scouts. Each of the game’s sixteen units does its own thing, and when every army features four such mismatched units struggling to hammer out a workable strategy, War Chest begins to look very interesting indeed.
From there, you toss a few units into your bag (clackity-clack), draw your first trio (feel the heft), and you’re off. Chips can be spent in a few ways. The exciting option is to put them on the board, either adding a new unit to one of the hexes under your control or atop one of your units, effectively giving it an additional hit point. The first trick is that you can only field one of each unit at a time. It isn’t enough to play your powerful units; even the lightweights must be given their due if you want anything resembling board control.
The second and third tricks aren’t quite as flashy, but they’re every bit as essential to your army’s success. Rather than plopping everything onto the board, you can also play chips to the sidelines to perform essential administrative tasks. Face-down chips will let you steal the initiative for the next round or add new chips to your bag, while face-up chips will maneuver their corresponding unit on the table.
It’s the classic tension between doing something now (deploying, attacking) or later (recruiting, stealing initiative). And for the first few turns, the effect is appropriately straining. Units march from your starting hexes, edging across the board and claiming new locations. The first few tentative strikes and unit abilities come into play, moves and countermoves, performed with… well, not chess-like precision, since units in War Chest tend to be sluggish, only moving or attacking one space at a time. But a form of precision that’s more trundling.
Better yet, it’s a form of precision that lies largely within your command, despite being driven by chips drawn at random from a bag. Want to activate a unit more often? Recruit its duplicates to effectively gain a sequence of activations. There’s nothing preventing a single unit from rampaging through enemy lines. Certain units are even built for it. The Berserker can spend bolstered chips to stack attacks into a ballet of death. The armored knight, invincible unless attacked by a bolstered unit, can threaten entire sectors and force opponents to spend additional chips. And Cavalry can move and attack in a single activation, perfect for a bag packed with duplicate pieces.
It isn’t long, however, before War Chest tips its hand. All that tactility, those sixteen unit abilities — they’re icing atop a brick of concrete.
The problem is twofold. First, most units operate in the same manner, either moving one space or attacking an adjacent space. But this doesn’t lend itself to clever maneuvers. Unless you’re holding a great draw, any adjacency to an enemy is an immediate threat. You’ll move a unit next to an enemy, at which point it all comes down to who’s holding the proper chips, or possibly who’ll draw the proper chips come next round. It’s possible to work a bit of mental arithmetic — “There are four Warrior Priest chips: one on the table, one not yet recruited, and she’s played one, so the odds of her holding the fourth chip are low.” — but the act of spending your own chip provides the same information to your opponent. Rather than thinking about your units’ moves, nearly everything in War Chest comes down to the quantities of what you’ve purchased and what you’ve spent.
Even worse is the problem of what to do with your chips once your army begins sustaining losses. Since it takes duplicate chips to activate a unit, casualties on one side tend to scratch the game state into warbling auto-tune. With fewer chips clanking around her bag, the weakened player earns more reliable moves, and can leverage her newfound certainty into enforced battlefield equilibrium. In one match, my healthy army was dismantled by two units whose owner repeatedly drew their duplicates every turn. Within a few rounds my position of board dominance had been dragged back to an awkward circular shuffle. And this wasn’t thanks to clever moves, but because those particular chips were all that remained in my opponent’s possession.
Meanwhile, heaven forbid you discover a fielded unit without owning a spare chip to order them around, but the alternative isn’t much better — a worthless chip floating uselessly between your bag and hand. The logical result is that you’ll eventually field a soldier who will never move, battle, or scratch his buttocks. A warrior with both the placidity and bloodlust of a tree.
Can you win before that? I’ve never seen it happen. Ostensibly the goal of War Chest is to command seven of the board’s special marked hexes [edit: six in the two-player game, eight in the team game]. In practice, both sides grind at each other until only one player has a surviving unit or two and the extra chips to command them. Far better to gracefully accept surrender than to continue drawing chips (clackity-clack) until actual victory is cemented.
Sadly, the delightful tactility of War Chest and the promise of sixteen unique units combining into ramshackle armies can’t ameliorate its grinding attrition. In place of the staples of abstract dueling games, such as incisive maneuvers, bold sacrifices, and unexpected reversals, its fights are settled by the law of tit for tat and the luck of the draw. Not even the clackity-clack of plastic can save it.
(If what I’m doing at Space-Biff! is valuable to you in some way, please consider dropping by my Patreon campaign. If you ask nicely and pay the shipping, I’ll even send you my copy of War Chest. What a deal.)
A complimentary copy was provided.
Posted on August 27, 2018, in Board Game and tagged Alderac Entertainment Group, Board Games, War Chest. Bookmark the permalink. 19 Comments.
Thanks for the evaluation. I can now safely take this off my radar. Besides, i still have expansions for the Duke I’ve yet to play with and explore.
The Duke is so good.
Hmm. Does the unique unit movement rules on the cards not ameliorate the simplicity of the threat of adjacency? I’ve never played, mind you, but I saw Tom’s review earlier which was fairly positive and didn’t mention this issue, so I’m curious.
The abilities are the high point of the game, but even then, not really. Some abilities are useful in that regard (Cavalry can move and attack, Lancer can charge in a straight line and attack, Swordsman is allowed to move after it attacks) but the general state of affairs is one of piddly tit for tat warfare rather than clever maneuvers. Not that the occasional clever maneuver isn’t possible. The Berserker is really neat, and a thoroughly duplicated Archer or Crossbowman can hold a point against non-adjacent enemies for quite a while, luck notwithstanding. But contrast that against something like The Duke, where every single unit can be incredibly valuable in particular situations. Crud, even chess gets this right, and it’s a bazillion years old.
But don’t take my word for it! If this sounds like it might appeal to you, give it a try! My primary goal is always to reflect my experience with a game, not all possible experiences.
Thanks for your thoughts, I always enjoy your perspective. The Duke has definitely been on my radar for a while now, I need to get my hands on a copy asap.
I definitely recommend The Duke. It’s one of my favorite abstracts.
Is there a reason why this isn’t posted on BGG? I ordered this before finding your review and thought it would’ve helped a lot. Most reviews currently posted there praise the game and yours is the only one that goes into the flaws of the system.
Thanks for the great reviews. Found you through Root, and you’ve quickly become one of my favorite (and most devastating for my wallet) reviewers.
Good to hear from you, Brad. Somebody asked nearly that same question on my BGG geeklist, actually. I’ll repost what I wrote there with an addendum or two.
I try to let my reviews have a few weeks of exclusivity on my site before cross-posting to BGG. Posting reviews over there has always been a bit of a ripoff for content creators. It generates tremendous one-stop-shop value for BGG without providing much benefit to me. For instance, nearly all of my links come from ratings tabs or my geeklist, whereas comparatively few people link from cross-posted reviews. Probably because they’ve just finished reading the very content that I’d like to show them!
There are other downsides as well. People are more inclined to pile onto a negative review over there than here, which I feel is detrimental to good discourse. This is why I don’t cross-post everything, especially reviews that are negative. Worse, outside sites like Reddit often link to my BGG cross-post rather than the original. It really stinks to have all those hits and subscribers going to BGG rather than the site that’s paying to host the content.
When you get right down to it, as much as I appreciate BGG’s place in the hobby, I don’t love providing free content to a site that then leverages it — and the content of others — to earn a significant heap of cash through advertising, store and trade revenue, and annual donations. I’m happy to see BGG prosper, but I’m also interested in writing criticism free of anybody’s oversight. And that includes avoiding the possibility of losing my work because I angered a moderator or getting downvoted into oblivion because I disagreed with the flavor of the week.
Hopefully that makes sense. I’m happy to answer any questions anybody has on the matter. And thank you for your kind words — hopefully I’ll be able to provide you with some good recommendations while steering you clear of clunkers!
No that totally makes sense. I don’t create content but I can understand how your work and effort being posted on BGG helps them prosper but doesn’t do much for you. Now that I know this, I’ll be sure to check here first, I’ve also been linking my friends to some of your reviews. You review a lot of games we have interests in, like Pax stuff, COINs, etc.
You’ve already provided me my next big obsession, Leaving Earth. I’m currently studying physics and this is theme and math gameplay is right up my alley. You’ve also sold me on Bios:Megafauna much earlier, before I started recognizing your name around in all the Phil Eklund and Pax games.
Anyway thanks for the reply, keep up the good work. I was reading reviews for Gloomhaven and couldn’t find one with the same sort of balance as yours often have.
We played Bios: Megafauna just last night! What a great game.
>whereas comparatively few people link from cross-posted reviews.
For what it’s worth, I always click over. Because it’s much more comfortable to read with the blog’s layout than the super-wide BGG layout.
Thanks for doing that, Guy! At the very least, it helps keep my work up there on the old search returns. Far more importantly, it lets me see (via my WordPress stats) which articles are worthwhile to people.
Excellent review! As a former Marine I enjoyed the Chesty Puller title. I would love to play War Chest and would gladly pay shipping if you have not already sent it off. Thanks!
Unfortunately, I’ve already given away my copy of War Chest. But thank you for your kind words!
Finally got to play this, a game I’d been really looking forward to until I read your review (after trading for it). Came back to reread your assessment and see if I agreed with your points.
I have to say that my one play had me pretty excited. I really liked all of the odds calculating, the limited components allowing me to suitably plan knowing what moves might be coming. In our game I quickly grabbed some easy points, whenever he focused on one side of the board to retake something, I’d snipe one or two more locations on the opposite side. When my army was mostly burned to the ground, I rebounded by focusing on the 5 chips of the soldier and sliced down his army with repeated move/attacks. It all felt good.
I didn’t feel the same issue with having “dead units” on the board, if anything I did on purpose to help with my action-economy. Seemed much more efficient to focus on 2 units at a time so you were constantly making plays. Once one gets burned down, best to finish it off and pivot to different units. Leave that one to guard a location and inevitably be picked off.
I really enjoy the Duke also, but the constant shuffling of unit types in that one can slow things down in a different way, constantly having to check reverse moves on units. It’s a trickier puzzle to parse. I rather liked the limitation of only 4 units, of which usually at least 1 won’t be on the board at a time.
This is not to say that I didn’t have some concerns, mainly the time and rather tedious back and forth nature. At 45 minutes I realized (This isn’t actually going to be a quick game). It ended up taking 90 minutes which is too long for this type of game. I might try limiting the victory condition to 6 locations rather than 7 as that final location seemed to take 20+ minutes on it’s own.
Don’t know where I’m going with this yet, you certainly played the game more than I did so I might end up closer to your assessment int he end, we’ll see. So far I’m happy that, for once, I don’t completely agree with you. 😉
I’m glad it’s working for you! Variety of opinion is the spice of a well-rounded hobby.
In your review you write that you need to control seven control spaces, while it is only six (or eight with four players). This is not a minor difference.
When I wrote the review, I’d forgotten the number and typed in the wrong one.
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