Full disclosure: A review copy of War Chest was provided by Alderac Entertainment Group.
Coming back with more Gen Con games! This week I’ll be allocating some time for upcoming Essen releases, as well, but I still have a bunch of Gen Con games that I’m working through, review-wise. To that end, let’s check out War Chest, a new Gen Con release from Alderac!
In War Chest, you play as competing factions vying for control of the land. Deploy and bolster your units before they meet on the field of battle for an all-out war. However, to make the strategy more interesting, you never can be sure what recruits will actually show up in time. Will you be able to lay waste to your opponents’ forces?
Setup isn’t too bad. Give each player a bag:
Those bags are one of two teams: wolves or ravens. Each player should get a coin of that team type as well. Have them add that to the bag:
There’s also a Initiative Marker, which has one side of each team. I usually flip it and give that team the coin, so they’ll go first.
For a two-player game, give each player four cards (for a four-player game, give each player 3):
You can draft them once you’re feeling up to it; there’s a recommended ordering in the rulebook for your first game:
- First Player: Swordsman, Pikeman, Crossbowman, Light Cavalry
- Second Player: Archer, Cavalry, Lancer, Scout
Give each player the Unit Coins, having them put 2 of the coins matching each of their Units into their bag:
Set the other ones on the card or nearby so that you can see them.
Set out the board:
If you’re playing a two-player game, you won’t use the rightmost and leftmost five hexes; in a four-player game, you will. Add two Control Markers to the bottommost (and topmost, depending on your orientation) hexes with the green outlines for each player:
In a two-player game, set four aside for use during the game. In a four-player game, use all Control Markers. Once you’ve done that, you’re ready to roll!
So a game of War Chest is an abstract strategy game of trying to build up a bag of units to move across the field and gain control at key points. If you can use up all of your team’s Control Markers (by placing them on the board), you win.
How do you do that? Well, at the start of each round players will draw three coins from their bag. If you do not have enough coins in your bag, draw what you can and place your discarded coins (not the ones removed from the game) into the bag and finish up your draw. If, for some reason, you don’t have enough coins to do that, you just … play fewer coins this round. Don’t do that.
When it’s your turn, you may play one coin. Playing a coin lets you do the following, depending on how you use it:
- Placement Actions: These actions are specifically around placing the coin on the board.
- Deploy: You may place a coin on the board on any space that you currently control. If you have no control points that are free, you cannot deploy any units, and you cannot perform any actions with a unit that isn’t on the board. Generally speaking, you may only have one unit of a type on the board at a time.
- Bolster: You may stack the coin on a unit of the same type; this makes it harder to kill (and may have other benefits, depending on which unit you’re stacking).
- Face-down Actions: You can discard any coin face-down to do these actions, and you don’t have to reveal the coin used to your opponent.
- Claim Initiative: You may take the Initiative Marker from your opponent, meaning you’ll go first the next round. They can do it to you, as well, so you can kind of stalemate if that’s how you want to live your life. In a four-player game, you cannot Claim Initiative if your teammate has the Initiative Marker. Teamwork!
- Recruit: You may add any coin of a unit in your supply to your discard pile. In future rounds, it will be shuffled into your bag. It’s like a deckbuilder … but with a bag.
- Pass: You can just discard the coin without doing anything. It’s … mysterious, I guess.
- Face-up Actions: You must discard the coin face-up to do this, and generally only the unit matching the coin will be able to perform this action.
- Move: You may move the matching unit one space in any direction. You may not move your unit into a space occupied by another unit unless explicitly stated (and I don’t think any ability allows you to do so, so, I’d assume this should never happen).
- Control: You may place one of your Control Markers under the matching unit, if it’s on a Control Point. If it’s not, well, don’t do this. If an opponent already controls this space, their Control Marker is returned to their supply.
- Attack: You may have your matching unit attack a unit in an adjacent space. When you do, remove the defending unit’s coin from the game. Rough, but fair. Some units can only attack via Tactics, so be careful about where you position people.
- Tactic: Many units have special abilities (called Tactics). Discarding a coin face-up lets you use the matching Tactic for a unit. Most of these are pretty handy.
Each player takes a turn until they’re out of coins in hand, and then a new round begins again. Play continues until any player has used all of their Control Markers; that team wins!
Player Count Differences
The major difference is that a four-player game is played as two teams of two (Team A and B), alternating ABAB. Having already tried this sort of wacky lifestyle with Santorini, I wasn’t particularly enthused about this four-player version, so I opted to mostly focus on the two-player version. I don’t have a strong opinion on which one I prefer; I just wasn’t interested in trying it at four.
- Focus on Tactics. You have a variety of units that do a variety of things; figure out what they do well and lean into that. Some will push you into ranged attacks, others will benefit from stacking units, and other still are just good at running up and punching other units in the mouth. Start trying to plan ahead strategically, but understand that it’s the tactical shifts that are going to really push you into the victory.
- Also prepare for combos. You need certain combos to be successful. For instance, a Berserker with three coins Bolstered onto it can move with a coin, sacrifice one to move again, and sacrifice another one to Control for the win. That’s extremely useful, if you get the right setup for it. The Warrior Priest can chain into other units, if it attacks or controls. The best outcome is if it attacks, draws its own coin, and then controls immediately. That’s a LOT of extra moves for one turn. Keep in mind which of your units can pull off combos like that and try to make sure they’re set up to do so. You can even start that combo with a Marshall, using their ability to get the Warrior Priest to attack.
- Don’t run out of Unit Coins. If you don’t have any Unit Coins for a unit in your bag, they’re dead in the water. They can’t move, can’t attack; all they can do is just hang around and wait to be picked off. This means when you deploy or stack you should also make sure to recruit a unit to replace them. You want that flexibility.
- Count coins. You should count what coins your opponent has played face-up and use that to inform what your move should be. If you see all four or five of a unit, you’re fine to move into that unit’s threatened area; they can’t attack you (usually; be careful with the Marshall).
- Don’t underestimate Initiative. I’ve seen a game where the game was going to be won on the next turn by either player. This means that if the other player had taken Initiative on their last round, they would have won, but since they didn’t, they lost. That’s an extreme example, but the point I really want to make is that you’ll never have more options than on the first turn of a round, and this also lets you get the drop on opposing units, since you can be the first attack out of the gate. Sure, you have to waste a turn to get the Initiative in the first place, but having it is very worth it.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- The graphic design is top-notch. It’s an abstract game, yes, but it’s an absolutely beautiful one. They perfectly capture the feeling of it being intended as an educational wargame, and the pieces just look stellar. The coloring is good, the symbology is good, and the cards look great, too. Just all around an excellent job on the presentation.
- The coins are the right weight as well. They’re about the same weight as the Splendor chips, which is always the right call. I was briefly confused as to why the Control Markers weren’t the same weight, but I assume that’s to prevent confusion between a Bolstered Unit and a controlled location.
- Highly variable. Certain units combo very well against others (Berserker is really useful against Knight, for instance), and so different matchups are going to have wildly different outcomes, making for a pretty unique game each time you play. The draft will likely help, as well.
- The included historical setups are really cool. Was this a necessary addition in any way? Absolutely not, but it’s kind of awesome that they tell you the units and provide the historical context for the battles. I feel like this might appeal to someone who wants to get into war games but isn’t quite ready to pull the trigger on the heavy stuff.
- Seems pretty easy to expand (and likely deserves one). I figure there are plenty of other units / board layouts that could be pretty interesting. Board layouts / effects especially seem like a cool addition, though I’m not going to begrudge them additional units.
- Not too hard to teach. The actions themselves are decently straightforward; it’s the tactics that take some time to learn and strategize. I’d recommend a teaching game to understand how to play, but learning the actual mechanics doesn’t take too long, in my opinion.
- Make sure you don’t draw your tokens such that your opponent can see them. The thing about bag builders is that you need to be a bit more stealthy with your draws, otherwise you’ll give away what you’ve picked to your opponents, which isn’t good. A player screen might have helped with this one, a bit, but that’s just me.
- Box is weirdly shaped. It’s not quite long enough for certain shelf placements and it’s a bit too wide, so it just kind of sits weirdly on my shelf. I think I would have preferred a narrower box, though I get that they did the chest sort of motif since it’s a chest. I do like the magnetic seal, though!
- I really don’t like the box insert / lack thereof. It’s large, which I get, but once you’ve punched out the pieces it’s mostly empty. That’s not really an issue for me until you get to the token holder, which isn’t particularly good. It should snap shut / magnetically seal, at least, or otherwise the chips spill out into the mostly-empty box, drastically increasing setup time. This has happened literally every time I’ve tried to play it, and there are a number of times I’ve wanted to play it, looked at the mess in the box, and ultimately decided to just play something else because the mess in the box stressed me out. What might have been good would have been a set of wells for the tokens and an actual insert, or a multiple-tier set of wells that stack (sort of like the Spirit Island box). As it stands, every time I put the game away, I have to completely reorganize it when I take it back out, and that’s extremely frustrating for me, as a player.
- It’s a bit too slow for me. I think the major game I’d compare this to is Santorini (one of my favorite games). While the art style is very different (they’re both great, being real), they both have kind of a “move, do a thing, try to control a spot” sort-of-thing going for them. Santorini’s major advantage, in my books, is that you move and build on a turn, rather than War Chest where you move or act in a turn. The part of that that frustrates me is that you’re already not guaranteed to move that unit in a turn, so you might have to wait quite a while to get your units into a location that’s useful. This makes the overall pace of the game feel slower, and I generally would just pick up Santorini, at that point. That said, I appreciate the microvariability of War Chest compared to the macrovariability of “you have one ability” in Santorini. This is a personal preference, though, so your mileage may vary. You might even enjoy the more methodical pace of War Chest over Santorini! Many people I’ve talked to have.
Overall: 6.75 / 10
Overall, War Chest is pretty good, though I think I prefer the faster pace of Santorini. Many games, I feel, invite comparison to other games that have similar themes or mechanics (or even publishers, if they occupy a similar space): Love Letter and Lost Legacy, Santorini and War Chest, even Manhattan and Expancity, in some ways. The nice thing is that I think a lot of these games can coexist without much trouble, as different people have different preferences. I like Santorini because it’s light, fast, and basically instantly replayable; I think War Chest is a bit slower and more methodical, and to replay with different units requires a bit more effort than dealing two cards off of a deck. This will appeal to players who want that kind of game, but you know me — I’m a bit simple, at heart. To that end I’ve enjoyed all my plays of War Chest, but I’m probably looking for something a bit faster to maintain a permanent spot in the “Abstracts” area of my game collection. If you’re looking for a game of tactics, combos, and all-out war, however, War Chest might be right up your alley!