Board Game Gumbo: Bradly B - Review of War Chest
Anyone in my gaming group will tell you that I am not the biggest fan of 2-player, abstract games. I can enjoy them, but I very rarely will rate them highly. Mostly this is because I like the interaction that comes with a higher player count, but abstract games in general also don’t appeal to me. Maybe it’s the years I’ve spent in the past playing chess, but I just don’t get enthusiastic about them. So while you try to puzzle out why they would give the 2-player game hater the 2-player game to review (I blame BJ), let’s take a look at what War Chest has to offer.
(Disclaimer: Board Game Gumbo was provided a courtesy copy of War Chest from AEG for the purposes of this review.)
War Chest is an abstract strategy game for either 2 or 4 players (1v1 or 2v2). The game is simple to play, which is what you expect from a game of its genre. The components consist of a board, some cards, poker chips representing the units on those cards, a few cardboard chips (there is a reason they’re cardboard), and some bags. Each player is dealt a number of cards to represent their units, grabs the stack of poker chips denoting their units and puts two of each of those chips into their bags along with a single poker chip representing their faction. Each round the players will draw three poker chips from their bags and then use those poker chips to take actions in a back and forth manner. Passing is allowed but costs you a chip regardless.
Most of the strategy of the game comes from the interaction of the units, both yours and your opponents. Almost all units can move and attack adjacent to their location (there are rare exceptions where units cannot attack adjacently), but they also have a special ability. The crossbowmen, for example, can attack two spaces away from where they are, but only in a straight line and there can be no units between them and their target. The light calvary can move two spaces instead of one as a special action (called a Tactic in the game).
The game board itself is completely symmetric, whether playing with 2 or 4, and has spots denoting where you can place control markers. Each player starts with two control markers on the board (that’s the cardboard chips) and this is where you can deploy your troops. You can gain, and lose, control markers during the course of the game (take all of your opponents’ control markers and they can no longer deploy on the board). The object of the game is simple, have all of your control markers on the board; in a 2 player game that means having a total of six control markers on the board.
As I’ve said before, a turn for each player is three actions. What you can do is partly determined by the chips you draw from your bag, but let’s look at the actions available to you during a game. Each action requires you to play the chip you are using either face up or down into your discard pile, or to place the chip on the board. This is important because it gives, or denies, your opponent information about the chips you have left. If you are already familiar with the game, feel free to skip to the next section; I will not cover anything beyond what’s in the rulebook.
Deploy- Place a chip onto the board in a location you control. You can only have one unit of each type on the board at once, unless a special ability of that unit says otherwise.
Bolster- Place a chip on top of another chip already on the board of the same type. In this way you can give your units additional hit points. A successful attack removes a single chip, so a unit with two chips that is hit still remains on the board.
Facedown Actions- These actions merely require you to place the chip you are using facedown in the discard area.
Claim initiative- Initiative will be determined randomly at the start of the game, but for the cost of a facedown chip you can claim it for the next round. Initiative can only change hands once during a round, so it cannot be claimed back by the original holder (even in a team game).
Recruit- You begin the game with only 2 of the chips per unit in your bag, but there will be more. For the cost of a facedown chip of any type you can add any unit’s chip under your control to your bag.
Pass- As with almost all strategy games, there are times when passing is the optimal play.
Face up Actions – These actions require you to play a chip face up in the discard pile, and then you may only activate the unit represented on that chip.
Move- Each unit can move one space only (even when they can move more than that, it’s a Tactic actions they are performing).
Attack- Unless otherwise specified, a unit can attack anything adjacent to them. Attacking another unit is a guaranteed hit and removes one chip from that units’ stack; if they had only one chip, the unit is removed from the board completely. Removed chips are returned to the game box, not the players’ discard pile.
Control- If the unit you activated is on a controllable space, you can place one of your control markers on that space. If the unit is on a space with an opponent’s control marker, you can remove that marker and replace it with one of your own. You cannot have more than one control marker on a location.
Tactic- Perform the tactic of the unit you are activating. Each unit has a tactic on their unit card.
So is this the part where I tell you the game is good, but I don’t like 2-player abstract games? … Well yes, but not only that. Stick with me for a bit.
First let’s talk about components and value. The production of this game is absolutely fantastic, from the heavy plastic poker chips to the embroidered bags, all the way through the magnetic closing lid of the box, which itself is very aesthetically pleasing. The board is a bit bland, but by necessity and it’s clear they tried to add as much flair as they could (it also sits a bit cockeyed at times). The cardboard control markers would have been better as something else; they are a stark contrast to the poker chips themselves. But again, the control markers needed to both be the same shape and size as the poker chips, and be able to be differentiated from them, so AEG did what they could with what they had. The MSRP is $59.99; that’s… a lot. When you consider what else you can get for that price, it’s clear that you’re paying a premium for that production value. Onitama, for instance, is only $29.99 and does very similar things to War Chest.
So we’ve already established that I’m inclined not to like this game, and I don’t. I don’t hate it, but it’s the type of game that, if someone were to bring it out at a game night and ask me to play, I would look around first and ask others if they wanted to play before I sat down. I will play it, but I won’t love playing it. However, that’s personal preference; ‘Different strokes for different folks,’ as Ali would say.
What’s worse is that I don’t think this game stands up to its contemporaries. If you want a great 2-player abstract game, I think Onitama is better (and cheaper by far). For perhaps one of the best thematic 2-player games in existence right now, there’s Star Wars: Rebellion. It’s more expensive and takes considerably more time to play than War Chest, but it is a better game, hands down. Even Fugitive, by Tim Fowers, is a better 2-player game, in my eyes. It’s a bluffing/hidden movement game, so not exactly in the same genre, but it’s a game that is vying for the same market as War Chest.
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Editor’s note: I gave it to Bradly for review, because he is a tough nut to crack on two player games and I was curious if War Chest would be the one to break the shell. Since we received the copy, I have probably played it or demoed it almost a half dozen times more after our first four player game (which was pretty easy to do while I was demoing this for AEG at BGG Con.) In my demos and plays, the strategy inherent in being restricted to only one piece of each type on the board at any one time absolutely fascinated me and most of the demo players. Hey, I understand Bradly’s point and I get that Rebellion is more thematic, but games like Rebellion and War for the Ring are big, thematic, three hour cinematic games. That’s not what War Chest is all about. I also have to disagree with him about Fugitive — as much as I like Fugitive, War Chest is a much deeper experience with much higher replayability. Finally, I thought the four player game (which admittedly, I have only played once) was a lot more fun that your usual “stretch a two player into four player” game.
Bottom line: I like War Chest, and I’m ready to dive deeper with more plays. As Bradly said, “different strokes”…