Not Wastelands, Not Badlands — Radlands
I’m picky when it comes to dueling games. To be clear, not every two-player game is what I’d call a “dueling game.” To qualify, it needs to be snappy, brutal, and not overly enamored with Magic: The Gathering. For years, my preferred favorite has been John Clowdus’s Omen: A Reign of War. Now a stranger has wandered into town: Daniel Piechnick’s Radlands. And while it’s far too early to call this particular duel for one side or the other — ask me again in a couple of years — for the time being, this relationship has reached the puppy love phase.
Nuclear radiation, pinks and purples, something about deluxe plastic cards. Rather than opening with the boring stuff, I want to start off with a story. The story of the bodyguard, the wounded soldier, and the doomsayer.
She was cornered. My wife, that is. Summer. Love of my life, light of my eye, queen bitch of my post-apocalyptic wasteland. Two of her camps were smoldering craters. The third was doing its best to live up to their example. All thanks to my sniper, one of those cards that seems overpowered until it doesn’t. Radlands has a lot of those. The inverse, too. But we’ll circle back to that. Here I thought she was done for. For two water — out of a usual per-turn supply of three — my sniper could hit any card on the table. Even cards safely hidden behind any other cards in their lane. Hence the usual goal. Put some people out in those lanes to keep your camps safe, because the instant the last one falls, you’re a goner. Nobody survives without a place to collect water. That’s what makes the sniper such a brat. She can hit anything.
But that thing I was saying about inverses? There are plenty of those in Radlands, too. In Summer’s case, hers was a lowly bodyguard. A wanderer, dusty and fatigued. He entered play along with a punk, one of those flipped-down cards that acts as cannon fodder and not much else. But this turn — this turn of all turns — the bodyguard’s ability suddenly mattered. Because a bodyguard makes a ruckus. Calls attention to himself. Even standing off to the side, in front of a burnt-down camp, you have no choice but to target him. Very well. Two water duly paid, my sniper zipped him up.
Another turn. One of Summer’s best, because after a quick interrogation — we’ll talk about events in a sec — she had the right hand for a rebound. Out came a wounded soldier. He showed up injured, tapped on his side like a spent goblin, but also distributed another card to his boss. Call it wisdom to go with that limp. Summer tossed out one of her new cards to fix up her damaged camp. It’s important to remember that cards can be trashed for some bonus. Next, the doomsayer appeared. Normally this wouldn’t be a problem. Who frets over some guy’s yapping about the world’s end after the Big One? Buddy, we know. Except this time his nattering scared off my raiders. Like most other events, raiders are a timed thing. When triggered, they begin off to the left of your play area and step forward each turn. One more turn and they would have assaulted her base. Then that doomsayer shoved them back a step.
Now I was the one backpedaling. I still had my sniper, but two water per attack is one canteen too many when you’re facing a whole army. Better to break out the budget rifles. Too bad I’d used up my good cards for their bonuses. Sometimes a decision comes back to bite you. Three cards — four, really — and Summer had swung around on me like a kid turning to face her bully on the playground.
Radlands is one of those rare games where traveling in almost any direction yields something praiseworthy, not least of which are the multi-use cards. This has long been a staple in dueling games. And it’s true that Radlands doesn’t exactly reinvent the wheel. Every card is valuable either for its unit — warrior or event — or discarded to produce an immediate effect, whether a single ping of damage, an extra water token, to repair a damaged card, or to launch your raiders.
But as well-trod as that framework may be, here it ties so effortlessly into the larger scheme of things. First of all, are you purchasing that unit for its ability or because it can gum up a lane for a turn? Life comes at you fast in Radlands, and death faster. Most turns aren’t only about enacting a strategy, but also about fending off the jabs your foe has flung in your direction. Events on countdown, a new soldier who must be removed stat, even hordes of trash punks making it impossible to shell those enemy camps. Further, is that the right card for the job? There’s nothing duller than an obvious move. Or worse, three obvious moves when I have exactly three actions. Put me in a coma and wake me when the game’s over.
In Radlands, the opposite is true. Much of the time you’re option-rich but resource-poor. Most turns yield three water. Four if you’ve saved one from a previous turn in your water silo, or if you’ve lucked into one of the rare cards that can dowse for a few buckets more — and you’ve kept them alive long enough to profit. Either way, Radlands knows how to keep it tight, both with its meager economy and the few slots you can put units in. You have three camps, each making a lane that fits only two warriors. Units die after two hits. Same goes for camps. Punks die after only one. The highest-value cards cost four water. Expensive, but achievable as early as the second turn.
It’s a rare thing for a seasoned designer to understand that compelling decisions usually arise from restriction, not from blanket permission to do anything. Radlands may be Daniel Piechnick’s first release, but this is apparently a truism he understands well. Every individual play matters, and not only because every card feels powerful under the right circumstances, altering the lay of the wasteland in ways that can shape a battle even many rounds in, but also because every play represents a cost dearer than water and the card itself — the opportunity cost of what you didn’t play. Far more often than is the norm, I’ve kicked myself for using a card for some short-term gain. One or two turns later, it would have been the one screwdriver to fit the bolt my rival just fired at my head. Now I’m trying to patch a bolt-shaped hole in my forehead and throw together a functioning defense and put the right cards in spots that won’t get them killed before they can return the favor.
It’s too easy to reduce Radlands to buzzphrases, in part because many of them are true. “Killer tempo.” “Tough decisions.” “Oh shit I need to kill Molgur Stang before he picks off my camps one by one.” Like I said, too easy.
Instead, the more impressive details are those that might first escape notice. For instance, how a battle self-corrects to favor its losing side, even if only a little bit, and does so without any feeling of artificiality. The reason is simple: when you lose a camp, you no longer have to defend it, but you still have access to its two unit slots. Setbacks become advantages in their own right. And that’s before we consider some of the game’s nastier events, which can vaporize the field entirely. Thank goodness the best events only enter play after a timer. Otherwise such plays would feel like bullshit rather than inevitabilities you see coming enough in advance to prepare for.
Another example would be how setup is as important as anything else, similar to a draft but so quick it feels like the first of many strategic decisions rather than extended prep work. Both players draw six camps and pick three. That’s it. The nuance arises from the camps themselves. Some are wacky. There’s a parachute base that lets you play a warrior and use their ability for free, but damages them when they land. Or the octagon, where two men enter and none leave. Others have more straightforward utility, like a greenhouse for healing injuries or a two-story guitar amp that rattles damaged foes to pieces. These have their own sense of balance thanks to the starting card value printed discreetly on each camp. The railgun, with its obviously useful direct damage ability, doesn’t bestow any cards, while the obelisk, which starts off halfway destroyed, will see you starting with three cards in hand. That’s a smart tradeoff. And every single match opens by putting you in that headspace.
Even the shared deck feels like a boon. For one thing, this isn’t some lifestyle game that requires a monthly buy-in. For another, the deck is deep enough that you can’t be entirely sure what you’re getting, but shallow enough that it isn’t long before you get a feel for what can appear. Sometimes this shared pool can make a match draw out longer than it should, but that seems to be the exception, and I’ve yet to witness a draw. Most of our plays have been furious rather than plodding, even once both sides managed to cobble together their defenses.
Perhaps the highest compliment I can pay Radlands is that I have yet to play it once. It shares that in common with Omen: A Reign of War. As with Clowdus’s dueling masterpiece, Piechnick’s take on the genre is so breakneck, so fluid, and so rewarding that it feels like a shame to only play for twenty or thirty minutes. Each clash leaves behind enough what-ifs to match its trail of corpses. What if I’d picked a different camp at the start? What if I’d trashed that mutant to heal my gunner instead of using him on defense? What if I’d focused more on events once my opponent defended her lanes? Replayability isn’t the end-all trait of a good game, but Radlands gets me excited for the next fight before the current one’s even finished.
It also has plastic cards or something. Not that it matters. I’d play this one on cheap cardstock.
A complimentary copy was provided.