For about the span of three minutes, I thought I might be in love with Wildlands. It had everything to do with a particular sequence. And I’d love to tell you about the precise moment of my infatuation.
Since the lore of Wildlands is a bit, uh, not wild, but peculiar, let me set the scene. A magical apocalypse has done what magical apocalypses do best — namely, forcing squads of fantasy characters to hurriedly slaughter one another as they scramble to acquire crystals. If that sounds iffy, when’s the last time you were in a magical apocalypse? As written by the first history man, Where must we go, we who wander this wasteland, in search of slaughter and crystals? As everybody knows, whoever first earns five slaughters and/or crystals, wins. Thus it is written, thus it is.
The difficulty of this plan is twofold. First, crystals are a pain to acquire. You’ve got to waddle one of your fantasy characters over to the crystal itself, each space costing a card corresponding to that character. Then you’ve got to spend three cards — again, all of them matching that character — just to bend over and pick up the durn thing. When your hand maxes out at seven cards, and your per-turn allotment of new cards rests at a mere three, that’s a pricey haul.
But kills are as good as crystals, with the added effect of diminishing your opponent’s roster. Even better, right? Well, sure, if you can land enough blows. In Wildlands, an opponent holding onto cards is an opponent who can probably block your attacks. Melee attacks are parried by other melee attacks, while ranged attacks bounce off anybody willing to spend a card with a shield icon. If your target is standing in cover, their options for self-defense become even more robust. And a lot of the time, a half-kill is as good as doing the work for somebody else.
Which is precisely what happened when Somerset spent half her cards shooting a minotaur. The first few arrows struck their target. Not surprising; sometimes it’s better to absorb a hit to determine whether your attacker really has the gumption to follow through. After those first pinpricks, though, the minotaur’s master decided to negate the following attacks. All those spent cards, and Somerset was forced to end her turn without nabbing the kill.
Next up was Lee. Now, this has nothing to do with Wildlands, but nobody is happy when Lee wins. Nobody is happy when anybody other than themselves wins, if they’re being honest, but they’re especially unhappy when Lee wins.
But I digress. Here came Lee with his owl-man, flying halfway across the board without any effort. His intent was clearly to take down the injured minotaur. But I had a gnome musketeer hidden nearby. More importantly, I was holding a wild card.
Here, and here alone, is where Wildlands gets interesting. Every character begins the game on the board, but at the outset they’re concealed. At the start of each turn, you’re forced to reveal someone, stepping from the shadows to join the orgy of slaughter and crystal-nabbing. Thus it is written, et cetera. Far cooler, though, is the fact that you can interrupt somebody’s turn with a wild card. Slap that baby down and now it’s your turn, at least until you run out of things to do and control returns to whoever was going originally. The turn order is still important, but it isn’t all-important. Now you can interrupt a rival’s turn, jump out of the shadows — you can always optionally reveal one of your characters — and stab your rival in the face.
In this case, it meant my gnome musketeer could try to bring down that minotaur before owl-boy flapped over.
It went something like this. My gnome stepped into the open and took a potshot at the minotaur. But then, like two schoolchildren competing to drive their teacher to an early retirement (or grave), Lee interrupted my interruption. Now his owl-boy could attack. He tried to get stabby, but the minotaur, at last, parried the blow.
So I offered a second interruption of my own. After missing the minotaur, Lee raised with another wild card. That’s four interrupts, all in one tidy, frustrating, hilarious sequence. The only way to improve the story would be to claim that my gnome slayed the minotaur. Sadly, that would be a lie. Lee landed the fatal blow. Everyone groaned.
These two ideas — hidden characters and interrupted turns — give Wildlands a much-needed dose of uncertainty and surprise. Those moments when you wrest control from somebody else, upending the natural order of things so that you can swipe their kill out from under them, or stab them as they sashay past, or nab your final crystal to win the game, are absolutely terrific. They’re the moments that get people talking, buzzing, sputtering with irritation. They’re drama.
The problem is everything else.
For a game with “wild” in its title, Wildlands is peculiarly sedate. Characters generally trundle, attacks are plinky, and abilities are rarely varied. There are three “special” abilities that aren’t regular attacks. One of them is a rally, which moves both a character and a nearby ally. The next is an area attack, not much more impressive than your usual ranged shot. The last is flight. Right there, my jaw nearly came unhinged from the force of my yawn. The four factions are similarly bland. Here’s the team that punches a bit harder; here are the guys who fly; this squad loves to rally. Rather than offering unique approaches, their distinction lies in the quantities of actions provided by their cards. Apparently there’s already an expansion that adds a more interesting set of options. Why anybody should have to pay the tax for the bland core set before they’re allowed to consider the good stuff is beyond me.
Worse, these abilities are connected to cards rather than characters. I’m not being entirely accurate — they’re connected to characters, but only via the cards, appearing at the whim of the deck rather than because so-and-so is standing tall on the field. However, that one step between your squad and their ability to act is a wide one. Most of the time, turns revolve around matching symbols rather than positioning yourself for a cool move. If anything, the cards carry far more import than the heroes waging battle. There’s little sense of pulling off a surprise maneuver, especially when your target will likely defend themselves handily.
And when they do, when attacks are blocked, the only consequence is that two players have spent cards. As the defender, have fun when your turn rolls around. In Wildlands, getting ganged up on means you lose twice: first when your character gets battered, and again when you pass a turn because you spent all your good cards ensuring you weren’t wiped out. The only thing more numbing than passing a turn is passing a turn in order to draw a bunch of plinky attacks.
This isn’t to say there aren’t dramatic maneuvers and stirring reversals of fortune to be found in Wildlands. Swings are possible, especially when interrupting a foe’s turn. But they’re the exception rather than the rule, occasional bites of sauce mixed into a bowl of plain pasta. Most of the time, one faction is as thrilling as the next. Which is to say, as thrilling as the cards you’ve drawn. Which is to say, very rarely thrilling at all. Most of the time, the most exciting consideration is whether to waste cards defending a character.
More’s the pity, because its highs truly are soaring. In the end, though, Wildlands should have been entitled “Sometimes Wildlands.”
(If what I’m doing at Space-Biff! is valuable to you in some way, please consider dropping by my Patreon campaign. Technically everything I do is interruptible, which kind of makes me the designer of that mechanic from Wildlands. If you think about it, y’know?).
A complementary copy was provided.