Aroo!

that's one powerful tapetum lucidum to reflect a whole image like that

Ashwin Kamath and Clarence Simpson’s The Wolves comes with a soundtrack. Not on CD or MP3, and certainly nothing officially composed. It’s the compulsive “aroo!” that players belt whenever their pack of noble wolves takes the howl action. I have yet to play a game without somebody launching into that enthusiastic howl.

What about the game? Yeah, that’s pretty good too.

That deer had it coming. Bastard.

The grass wolves surround unsuspecting prey.

Here’s what I like best about The Wolves. In an era of constant innovation and remixing, Kamath and Simpson keep it simple. That isn’t to say they haven’t put some new ideas on the table. It’s just that they’re aware that they don’t need to reinvent the wheel whenever they want to introduce a better hubcap.

The Wolves is an area control game. It’s much like the hundreds of area control games that came before it. Your pack of wolves is in competition with a handful of rival packs, both for prey and… moon points? Okay, let’s not get too hung up on that. The protein of this meal is that you’re vying for dominance of particular tracts of terrain. When scoring rolls around, having more wolves and dens in the area, with alphas functioning as the tiebreaker, means you score the most points. Like I said, you’ve probably done this dozens of times before.

But unlike most area control games, The Wolves is about motion. You never possess enough pieces to keep areas under lock. Early on, you begin with two small groups, both with a pack wolf and an alpha. (Fun fact: Did you know the concept of “alpha wolves” arose only because the wolves under study were raised in captivity? Wolf packs in the wild are organized into family units, and any hierarchy exists because they’re divided between parents and puppies. Calling a wolf an “alpha” is sort of like calling your mom and dad “alphas” and you and your siblings “betas” and “omegas.” That’s why I call myself a turbo kid. Turbo kids, go go go!) From that humble beginning, your pack’s size fluctuates. There are lone wolves you can coax into your ranks; eventually, you’ll probably start howling at rival packs to recruit isolated pack wolves. This never really swells your ranks to the size of an army. Even at your most populated you remain, well, a pack.

There’s never a point where you aren’t vulnerable. Before too long, it becomes apparent that it’s safer to keep your wolves clustered together so they can’t be intimidated into joining a rival pack. At the same time, the game encourages you to spread out. Prey, for example, are only captured when you surround them on three sides. Regions, too, are divided into multiple terrain types, often requiring you to divide and conquer. Yet the scoring regions are always moving around, and the bonuses for a diverse diet encourages you to chase opposing corners of the map. The result is surprisingly organic. Rather than settling down in one spot, you’re incentivized to stay on the move.

Gotta make some swaps. Your pack wolf is transformed into my alpha wolf. He landed a better contract.

Managing the rocky wolves.

The underlying impetus for these actions is gamey but effective. Each pack has its own set of tiles that act as currency for the map’s various terrains. When you spend a tile, it flips to the terrain on the opposite side. This enforces certain limitations — you can’t, say, keep howling indefinitely, since howling requires two or three matching terrain tiles depending on what you’re howling at — without ever actually “expending” anything. Like the board itself, your actions are all about motion: flipping tiles, keeping ahead of lost momentum, checking not only this moment’s footing but next turn’s possibilities. It feels great.

It’s also rather chesslike, in the sense that moves can be surprisingly efficacious or big wet duds. A good turn is like a good throw in judo. An entire region might flip control because your pack darted in and converted a lone rival. This is one of the reasons dens are so important. These serve as upgrades, increasing how many wolves move with each activation, how far their legs will carry them, or how distantly your alphas’ howls reverberate. They’re effectually force multipliers, letting your pack accomplish more than a rival who hasn’t invested in their long-term capabilities. Between that and the fragmented terrain of the map, turns can be uncommonly thinky, asking players to sit and contemplate the board rather than making rapid moves.

On the whole, The Wolves is uncommonly clever. I’m not going to say it feels like you’re leading a real pack of wolves, not least because I have little idea how real packs of wolves operate. But it does lend itself a sense of space, of naturalistic competition, of the constant movement necessary to survival in the wild. It’s an area control game about migration rather than long-term dominance, and although the dens and lairs complicate that image somewhat with permanent edifices that would feel right at home in a game about using towers to secure borders, it still manages to feel wide-open rather than hemmed in.

Your wolves never actually reproduce, so it cannot be used as a fertility calendar. Just in case you were wondering.

The changing moons dictate when regions will score.

The whole thing is set against a timer of the players’ devising. Whenever a wolf or den gets upgraded or converted, its former version, whether a lone wolf token or the figure that belonged to its former pack, is placed on the moonlight board. This dictates the gradual shift of the moon’s phases and by extension when regions will score. Your goal, naturally, is to have the most wolves in a phase’s corresponding region when that phase of the moon comes around.

This is where I begin to have reservations. To put it bluntly, The Wolves suffers from some janky turn order issues, especially at higher counts. In many cases, it’s not difficult to lock somebody out of scoring altogether by triggering a moon’s phase ahead of them. In many of the sessions we played, the last player (or even the last two players) had almost no opportunity to get ahead, being crowded out of access to early prey and having scoring opportunities triggered before they had much chance to act. Worse, captured prey awards a token that can be redeemed for an extra action — quite the boon when you’re normally only allowed two. This allows lead players to pounce on nearby prey, then use its benefits to chase down another animal, and another, until they’re sitting on a pile of extra points.

The two-player game, and to a lesser degree the three-player game, mitigates this on two levels. First, structurally; because players take more turns, with fewer chances for the players ahead of them to snatch precious resources and points out from under them, the game self-corrects more readily. Second, the two-player game cools it on the extra action tokens, even removing them as a reward for capturing prey altogether. This keeps turns on a tighter leash and prevents the aforementioned problem with cascading actions.

Even then, it’s frustrating that The Wolves provides so much to consider and such a wonderful approach to area control only to let its scoring triggers, bonus actions, and turn order run amok. As breathtaking as its map becomes at those higher counts, it simply isn’t worth the toothache of having the last couple of players stand almost no chance of putting up a fight.

Also an "I can't see my wolves because they're too well camouflaged" problem. Good for the wolves. Less good for me, the player, trying to lead them.

At higher counts, The Wolves seems to have a turn order problem.

These missteps result in an uneven experience. A few of our players, who’d been previously smitten with The Wolves until they noticed the turn order problem, went so far as to declare it broken. I don’t think that’s an entirely fair conclusion. It’s a fascinating and compelling game that doesn’t operate well at higher counts. Even at its worst, we couldn’t help but release the occasional “Aroo!” in response to an efficacious howl.

Aroo! Aroo! That’s really all I have left to say about it.

 

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A complimentary copy was provided.

Posted on November 10, 2022, in Board Game and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Safe to say you would heartily recommend if playing exclusively at 2-3 players?

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