When I heard somebody mention that Andrea Mezzotero and Jerry Hawthorne’s BattleLands would be reminiscent of Condottiere, I was both thrilled (because Condottiere is a classic) and a bit apprehensive (because Condottiere is a classic). After all, the first rule of looking good is to stand alongside someone more vertically challenged than you. Which is why I tell everyone that the closest parallel to my forthcoming dice game is basically Bunco.
The good news is that there was no need to be worried. BattleLands may not be an instant classic, but it’s hardly a slouch.
Here’s one you probably haven’t heard before: it’s the apocalypse. No, hold on: and only animals have survived. Now gangs of sentient animals both domesticated and wild are forced to weather the post-Anthropocene, scavenging the remnants of our plus-sized civilization before it’s reclaimed by nature. Welcome… to the Trashcanocene.
As a tie-in to Jerry Hawthorne’s Aftermath, it’s fairly thin. Don’t worry, that’s a compliment. Rather than belaboring the identities of its five factions by explaining the beef between the Nocturne and the Blighted, where Meziah picked up such an on-the-nose nickname, and how everybody is building all these biomechanical insect drones from the stuff I flushed down the toilet, BattleLands is swift in getting down to the business of battle. Everybody gets a unique hand of seven warriors, a few battlefields are laid across the board, and voilà. Time to test our respective species for fitness.
If you’ve played Condottiere, the flow will be immediately familiar. BattleLands is divided into multiple “wars” of three battles apiece. The trouble is that your hand needs to last the entire war. Bid too many cards now and you won’t have anything left over when the next fight rolls around. Worse, while cards are primarily worth their printed value, some can completely upend your approach, whether by flipping your best cards or fishing a lost unit out of the discard pile for a sudden comeback. Not every card is so endowed; there are enough to leave everybody uncertain and allow for the occasional surprise, but few enough that it isn’t impossible to track whether the Junkers have yet to play their Hornet Drone.
Not too exciting, right? If that were all BattleLands had to offer, it would be handsome but unremarkable. But this is where Mezzotero and Hawthorne have an extra trick up their sleeve. Although your primary goal is the actual territory you’re skirmishing over, worth a hefty pile of points, each battle also features a small handful of additional prizes waiting to be claimed. One fewer than the number of players, to be precise. And these prizes quickly become the single best thing about BattleLands, full stop.
It works like this. Let’s say there are three of you — one territory plus two prizes. Everybody wagers a single card at a time, sometimes using an ability to undermine an opponent’s array of diminutive titans. Now it’s your turn. You could probably win the battle if you pressed the matter, but that would leave you ill-equipped for the next one. To make up your mind, you look down at the prizes. You have the option of passing, which means you’re done adding fighters to the battle, but you get to claim one of the extra cards. Specifically, the card with the lowest point value. In this case, that might be the Keeper of the Pact, a dog with a strength of eight (that’s as high as you can get) that’s immune to being flipped (primo!) but a point value of negative one (ehh).
What should you do? If you pass now, you’ll immediately gain the Keeper. Your chances in the next fight just got rosier! But you’re losing out on a point, plus any points you might have gained from the territory or the other card. What’s on the other card, you’re asking? It’s a Bottlecap Vest, an item you can add to another unit to increase its strength by three, make it stick around for multiple battles, and — here’s where the decision gets interesting — earn two points. That’s an extra unit and extra points. With the right offer, claiming the current territory might not even be worth it.
Before you ask, yes, it’s possible to claim an item and win the battle. Don’t count on that happening very often. More often, the decision of whether and when to pass is too loaded for such a straightforward feat, a choice between strengthening your future position, preserving your current hand, gaining points right away, claiming territory for a bigger cash-out of points, or psyching out your friends. Sometimes a combination of all five. As if that weren’t enough, every so often a territory card will force everyone to send a unit on a secret mission, permanently tucking them out of sight but promising extra points for the faction that devoted the most resources by the end of the game. One more thing to keep in the back of your mind, especially since holding all your best cards for the final round of a war might mean losing something for the remaining duration of the game.
It also helps that your initial force of seven cards always benefits from some rounding out. Units are played into one of two rows — melee or ranged — and certain cards can flip them down, dropping their strength to a measly uno. With a keen eye and some smart acquisitions, it’s possible to build a force that’s immune to those early zings. Packing a lot of low-value cards? Grab a Bullet Tinkerer to effectively give everything a plus-one. Seeing the back of your troops too often? Skate Raiders to the rescue! Want to keep your best soldier bouncing back into your hand? Tie a nail to his tail with Nail Tail. How does it work? No idea. But it does, somehow.
BattleLands also works as a game, prompting both vicious stake-raises and tactical tail-tucks. If anything, it’s at its best when both are happening simultaneously, everyone assembling their own hand of nasty tools and unleashing them at unexpected moments.
That said, it suffers ever so slightly in comparison to Condottiere. Unlike its forebear, bad cards are bad and good cards are good, and your options for bluffing or leveraging a weak hand into a surprise victory are present but only in limited fashion. There are no decoys or bishops or season cards that cause sudden painful reevaluations to the entire table, the tricks that made Condottiere so infuriatingly lovely. Gone, too, is that game’s focus on geography, where its map of Italy dictated which battles mattered and which might be waved off. In other words, its emphasis is slightly more brittle, limited to chasing a particular strategy with all your tiny heart. Playing the hand rather than playing the table.
Or perhaps we could be generous and call it more focused. BattleLands is very much about making smart long-term decisions with your hand, both going out and coming in. Between that and its efficient combat system — which, honestly, is much the same thing — there are plenty of novel ideas to chew over. In fact, the strength of its hand development is why I prefer to play across three wars rather than the two taught by the rulebook. This gives your hand more room to breathe, eventually hardening into quite the spiked gauntlet. The only downside there is that with a full five players there are two too few cards in the deck for the right amount of prizes. Hard to ding the game when it only wants you to fight those first two wars, but it’s still a slight disappointment when two cards are all that stand between its current format and its best self.
Still, I’m impressed. Although BattleLands doesn’t entirely capture what made Condottiere such a classic, it’s a smart take on the genre, drawing laser-like attention to how you assemble, wager, and spend your hand of warriors over the course of multiple battles. Once again, exactly like the tiny heroes whose names I haven’t learned because BattleLands knows better than to ring my ears with exposition, one of the year’s smallest releases proves one of its pound-for-pound best.
A complimentary copy was provided.