Full disclosure: A preview copy of Windward was provided by El Dorado Games. Some art, gameplay, or other aspects of the game may change between this preview and the fulfillment of the Kickstarter, should it fund, as this is a preview of a currently unreleased game. Also, while I don’t charge for Kickstarter previews, the publisher was charged a rush fee due to the tight timeline they needed the review completed in.
This is roughly what me slowing down on Kickstarters looks like. I think I have a two-week break from Kickstarters in September. Maybe. Anyways, our next game up is Windward, from El Dorado Games. They published The Legend of El Dorado a while back (not to be confused with The Quest for El Dorado, one of my favorite racing deckbuilders). With a penchant for art, interesting minis, and familiarish themes, I was intrigued, so, figured I’d check it out.
In Windward, you are a ship captain on the planet Celus. It’s a gaseous planet, so, no ground, but what you lack in ground you make up for in pretty much endless open sky. There’s just the Crester problem. Gray Cresters? No problem whatsoever. They’re beautiful, peaceful creatures that you kill in droves for fuel and teeth and you’ve mostly closed off your feelings on that particular subject, which is a thing you’re totally capable of doing. Red Cresters, though; they’re mean. I mean, wonder why, given how many Gray Cresters you’ve killed. But who can say? You mean to strike a name for yourself on this world, and you’re going to do that by getting a ship, getting a crew, and doing some Space Whaling. Will you be able to become the most notorious sky ship captain Celus has ever seen?
Setup is interesting, albeit a bit convoluted. Assemble the world by shuffling the six Territory Boards:
Place the Trading Post in the middle, floating high above the ground:
Put two of the Gas Tokens on every Gas Pocket space:
Set the other tokens (+2, Cannon) aside for now:
Give each player a ship board, ships, boats, and mates:
The mates are just … meeples in every player color. BGG gets mad enough at me for photographing generic items. Place a color token on the Morale 1 (you start a 1 Crew Morale). Your ship starts at Port, so place it on the Port space on your board. Now, choose a player to go first, and they roll the D6:
The other dice, you can set aside. Put the wind indicator flag into the trading post and turn it such that the wind is blowing towards the Territory indicated by the number on the D6. Now, shuffle the Supply Cards:
Deal each player one more than the previous player:
- Start player: 2 cards
- Second player: 3 cards
- Third player: 4 cards
- Fourth player: 5 cards
Split the remaining cards into three equal piles and place them face-up on the Port Board:
Now, roll the D6 again and place a Gray Crester on one of the Feeding Grounds spaces:
Do this until there’s 1 fewer Gray Crester than the number of players. Every Red Crester space gets a Red Crester, though. Place the teeth nearby, too:
If you’re playing with Achievements, place two, face-up, so all players can see:
You’re all ready to start!
Over the course of a game of Windward, you seek to make a name for yourself as a great ship captain of Celus. You do so by accruing notoriety through doing impressive deeds and also mildly unscrupulous things via the practice of Space Whaling, or hunting Cresters. You can also fight other people, if that’s what you wanna do.
One thing worth noting is that there are two heights — Ships and Red Cresters are above Boats and Gray Cresters, so they will move freely through each other’s spaces since they’re not on the same level.
On your turn, generally, you may use two of your Mate tokens (they’re meeples in this preview; delightful) to take two basic actions. If you’re in the Sky, you may also move your boat up to your Boat Speed. More on that in a bit. The actions depend on whether or not you’re At Port or in the Sky, though.
Basic Port Actions
- Take 3 Supplies: You may draw the top card of any of the three supply piles into your hand, three times. You may choose from the same stack more than once, but you cannot ever have more than 5 Supply Cards in your hand; if you do, immediately discard down to 5 without using any of those cards’ abilities.
- +1 Crew Morale: Move the Morale Tracker on your player board up by one.
- Fill a Cannon: Take a Cannon Token and add it to your player board.
- Hire Crew Member: Take one of the crew member blocks and add it to your player board. These generally give you extra storage and they give you some kind of benefit. That said, you may only hire one of the two crew members of each type for each slot, and once you hire one they may not be removed. That said, the benefits alone are usually worth it; they’re a great way to get extra hits against Cresters (or other ships!).
Basic Sky Actions
- Drop a Boat: Take one of the boats on your player board
- Increase Boat Speed: Move the Boat Speed Tracker on your player board up by 3. Your boats may now (in total) move up to three spaces.
- Increase Ship Speed: Your ship may move one additional space this turn.
- Process Cresters: You may remove the Crester from your hold and get a tooth of the corresponding type. When you return to port, a gray tooth is worth 3 Notoriety and a red tooth is worth 4. Additionally, gain gas equal to your Crew’s current morale.
Spending Gas (Port)
When at Port, you may spend gas tokens to hire crew, increase your Notoriety, gain supplies, or other actions. Their costs are indicated on the Port Board.
While in the Sky, moving can be done a number of spaces up to your ship speed. If you’re moving in the direction the wind is blowing (since it always points towards the edge of a hex) movement is free. If you want to move against the wind, you cannot. Wait until the winds change.
If you move off the edge of the planet on one of the indicated spaces, you appear on the other side of the planet on the corresponding space. The planet’s a sphere, after all.
There are also vortexes! If you go into one, you can emerge out of one of the others. Like the classic Burgle Bros. Secret Duct, our first game had two of the vortexes almost adjacent to each other. Very exciting.
Using Supply Cards
You may discard any Supply Card any number of times during your turn to execute its effect.
If you want, you can fight just about anything that moves. Use your starting strength, and take some of the battle dice and roll that many. Before you roll, you may spend cannon tokens to take an extra die. After the attacker rolls, the defender may do the same (remove cannon tokens, if applicable, and then roll that many dice).
The attacking player may now play cards and markers to increase their total attack value. Note that +2 Markers give you +2 to total attack value; they don’t grant you two additional dice. Then the defender, again, does the same thing.
Whoever has the higher result wins! If there’s a tie, the attacker returns to their space and takes a +2 Marker without further consequences, but they cannot make the same attack again this turn. Red Cresters in a tie will not move at the end of the turn.
- If a Red Crester loses: Add the Crester to the winning ship’s cargo hold, and the winner must immediately place a new Red Crester within the current territory. If there is already a Crester of any color in the cargo hold, the Red Crester doesn’t leave the board (as ships may only hold one Crester at a time).
- If a Gray Crester loses: Tip it over; boats on that tile now have the Gray Crester in tow, and may tow it back to the Ship on a later turn. If there are now fewer Gray Cresters than the number of players – 1, immediately roll the six-sided die and add a Gray Crester to the Feeding Spot in that numbered territory.
- If a ship loses: Lower the loser’s morale by the difference between the attack and defense results. If the morale hits or drops below 0, you must drop all your +2 Tokens and Crester Teeth (if defeated by a Crester) or give half your +2 Tokens and Crester Teeth (rounded up) to the player who defeated you. Set your morale to 1, return to port, and your turn ends. Either way, you get a +2 Marker in your cargo hold. If a ship defeats you, it may move to any space adjacent to the battle.
- If a boat loses: The boat is returned to its player’s board, and the player gains a +2 Marker into their cargo hold. If a boat defeated another boat on a Gray Crester space, the winning boat is now towing the Crester.
End of Turn
The end of your turn changes depending on whether or not you’re in the Sky or at Port.
- At Port: Gain 1 Morale.
- In the Sky: Either discard a Supply card or Lose 1 Morale. The Red Crester in your territory moves three spaces towards your ship (and fights you if it moves into your space). Gain 1 Notoriety if this means you’re not defeated.
End of Game
Once a player has hit or passed the final space on the Notoriety Track, the game will enter its final phase. Every player after that player gets one additional turn, and the player with the most Notoriety wins! If there’s a tie, play another round.
As a fun variant, you can also add in Achievements. They are things you can race to achieve around Celus. If there’s only one number, every player to meet that condition gains that Notoriety. If there are two numbers, the first player to meet that condition gains that Notoriety, and all subsequent players gain the lower amount. Each player may only complete a specific Achievement once per game.
Player Count Differences
I think my major concern about Windward at higher player counts is the heighted level of inter-player conflict. I generally don’t like games with a lot of that between players, as it can get dogpiley in bad scenarios but will also generally slow the game down if you have to fight through a horde of angry opponents to deliver anything. At two, I don’t think there’s as much of an incentive to do that; you can, if you think they’re about to win, but generally it makes more sense to just chase down Red and Gray Cresters as quickly as you can to build up your point-scoring engine. I think at four, the game trends too long for me, but I’ve enjoyed two and three players. It really depends on how much you enjoy the inter-player battling portion of it. It reminds me a bit too much of Betrayal at House on the Hill, but with pretty severe penalties if you lose (if you are Defeated, you drop your inventory, which is well within the variance of 3+ dice). Your mileage may vary, though.
- I wouldn’t recommend Processing Cresters unless you’ve got defense. If you do, that will generally attract less scrupulous players who will try and steal your stuff. We had one player just circling the Trading Post waiting for players to process, then he’d rob them and turn it in for Notoriety. Jerk move, but, also, a pretty effective strategy?
- Ride the wind. This is pretty key, in my mind. I used this to great effect one game, as I could pretty quickly get from a Red Cresters to the Trading Post in about one turn of movement (with a little help from my crew) as long as the wind was blowing in one of three directions. That’s pretty good odds! In a game like this, that movement flexibility is key, since it also helps you stay away from unscrupulous players and Red Cresters.
- Don’t ever be too valuable or too defenseless. If you’re either, players may chase after you to put some holes in your boat for their own profit. If you’re too valuable, then players have no choice but to try and take you down, lest they lose the game to you. If you’re going to go for a play where you end up with a lot of potential Notoriety, at least make it hard for them to take it from you. Or make it easy for whoever beats you to lose it to someone else.
- If you see someone about to win the game, go after them. Again, you don’t have much of a choice; if they win the game, you inherently lose. That’s just kind of how single-winner games work. You’ll eventually have to get in there and take care of it yourself.
- Stay away from the Red Cresters unless you’re looking for a fight. Those are big space whales and they are not friendly. They’re also over twice as strong as your ship at base strength. It’s not the worst to get attacked by one; you get to see its roll before you decide if you want to use up all your cannons, yes, but it’s going to get a minimum of a 5, so, unless you’re a brilliant roll, you’ll need to probably use a die or two. If you do defeat it when it attacks you, though, you can pretty quickly process it and return to port, which is awesome. Just make sure you process it first; you can’t bring an aggressive space whale like that back to port. It causes customs issues.
- Get Crew early. They can really add a lot to your ship (and buff you up against Cresters and other players). Just, it’s sort of the same problem as Near and Far; make sure that you’re not spending all your time in town when your points are scored outside.
- Stocking up on gas is a great way to make a bunch of quick buys at port. You can really buff yourself after you get the first Red Crester; I bought another crew member, more cards, and some Notoriety. It was great. Every point counts, in this game.
- The Notoriety gain from ending your turn in the Sky isn’t usually worth the Morale / Supply loss, unless you have trash to get rid of. Sometimes it’s useful if you’re baiting a Red Crester or you just want the extra Notoriety, but be careful, lest you’re forced to get rid of a card. Plus, lower Morale reduces your gas reward from processing a Crester.
- I generally recommend against fighting other players. It won’t often win you the game, but it might protect you from losing, I guess? At higher player counts it’s almost strictly non-optimal, since it just hurts one player (and the other one or two are unaffected).
- That loop around the world is a very quick way to ride the wind. Use it to your advantage!
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- The minis are really cool! People who are into mini games are probably going to like this a lot; there are so many space whale minis! It’s super cool. The Trading Post is also particularly nice. The boats and ships are pretty fun, too, but I think the Cresters are the best.
- For some reason, the theme being Space Whaling makes me feel a lot less bad than if it were Actual IRL Whaling. I would definitely not be interested in this game if it were about Actual Whaling; that kinda stuff just makes me too sad. Space Whaling is disconnected enough that my brain can totally ignore it without much issue. So that’s fun.
- I really like the way the world is built at the start of the game. I love games with modular boards! They’re always so fun. It’s helpful if you put the vortexes a bit farther away from each other, but, you know, do whatever you want when you set it up.
- I mean, the preview copy came with some actual in-box organization, which was super helpful. Not all of the minis survived the voyage, which is to be expected, but more did than I normally would have expected, and I assume that was due to the care of the packaging, which I really appreciated. Not really “how’s the game?” relevant, but worth mentioning nonetheless as part of the end-to-end experience.
- The fact that some of the space whales chase you is kind of thrilling. It adds a very cool hazard to the board, which I appreciate. Plus who doesn’t want to get chased down by angry space whales.
- The multi-elevation system is interesting. It’s just different, or at least I haven’t played with anything like it, so I’m definitely intrigued by it. Plus it also makes the board more striking.
- Seems like it could have exciting stretch goals. If they choose to go that route. New types of Cresters? New Crew? More Supplies? More Board Tiles? It could pretty much end up any way, and that’s pretty exciting to me. I’ll be interested to see how the final product turns out.
- The windsock is cool, but it definitely confused some of our players during their first game. Some players see it as an arrow, pointing in the direction that the wind is flowing. Others think that it’s supposed to face into the wind, for some reason, even though that’s not how windsocks work. Just make sure your players understand.
- If the wind doesn’t change for a few rounds, the game can feel a bit stale. It might have been nice to use wind cards instead of a die for this one, so you could guarantee some changes over the course of the game, though it kinda takes you out of the game’s narrative a bit.
- Some people aren’t going to appreciate the dice luck. It’s totally possible to have a bad enough roll that you just get killed on the spot against some of the Cresters and lose everything immediately. To be fair, that’s what you get for stealing space whale teeth. Similarly, spawns and the wind being controlled by a die might make players feel the game is fickle, especially when it can take upwards of 80 minutes at higher player counts.
- Not really much of a way to catch up. If you lose battles you get that +2 token, yes, but if you’re being outpaced by another player there’s no real way to get ahead other than either attacking them or “doing better”. Most people would say that, well, that’s sort of the point of these kinds of games, but given that it’s not particularly heavy (but can play for a bit longer), it would be nice to see some sort of resource given to other players to help them if they start to lag behind, a bit. But who knows.
- Slightly longer than I want to play at 4 players. There’s not too much downtime since other players can attack you, I suppose, but 80 minutes is a bit long for this kind game. I think I would have liked if it had scaled a bit more with player count beyond “you can attack other players and take their stuff”, since that can progress in a loop for a while. I do appreciate that there’s a limit on how much you can take, though; the diminishing returns of that cycle don’t just make everyone descend into Violence Hot Potato once a player gets close to winning, I guess.
Overall: 6.75 / 10
Windward is certainly an interesting game, and I’ve enjoyed my plays of it! I think, if I’m being honest, I think it’s a solid game, but it’s definitely not the genre I typically enjoy playing. The emphasis on interpersonal combat is usually pretty exhausting, and with too many players the game can devolve into a slapfight while players try to rush a full cargo hold back to a Trading Post to score. That can feel a little irritating, especially if you’ve got a player circling the Trading Post like an obnoxious vulture. That said, there are things I definitely like about Windward, too! I think the elevation system is pretty inspired, and it looks great on the table during play. Thematically, I think moving it off-planet to stay away from real-world issues about whaling is enough for my brain, but I wonder if people more sensitive to the topic than I am (which, admittedly, I’m not very sensitive to it beyond “I like whales”) will find there’s enough distance between the themes to not bother them. The wind movement system and being able to loop the entire planet is pretty cool, not to mention that a modular board always wins some points from me for variability (plus, it looks cool). Anyways, I’ve enjoyed my plays of Windward, and if you’re looking for an interesting game that combines pick-up-and-deliver, combat, minis, and planetary resource management, you might enjoy Windward as well! I’d at least check it out for the minis.