Battle of Wits - A Review of Warbonds
I have been a fan of an assortment of war games for a very long time. I didn't even realize many of the older titles from Avalon Hill and other older publishers were being reprinted until I was out of college. War gaming has never really gone away even though we have heard about its death many times.
Despite war gaming being a dead enterprise, inevitably a new take on it comes around. This time, I encountered a game which did feel somewhat new, at least in its approach to war gaming. This title was Warbonds: Battle for Vitoria. Well, to be exact, Warbonds: Battle for Vitoria, Apprentice Rules.
I like heavy or complex games. I like war games. I like fantasy games. That’s why when I was offered the chance to review WarBonds - Battle for Vitoria by Juste Jonny from Punk this Studios, I thought this game might be a good fit. Typically, I try to review games that I think I’m going to like overall. Now, I might be showing my hand here, but this game just didn’t quite make it for me in terms of liking it- I think. That’s one of the weird things about this review. There are a few other weird things.
First, I usually try to get in several sessions before I review something. This didn’t make the cut for a few reasons. The game is a lot to learn.
Second, as I started to write my review for this game I realized my review didn’t just feel like a review of the game. It felt like a review of the process used to create the game. That feels weird to me. I’m going to try to keep this review short, but the game itself didn’t feel appeal to people when I showed them. But I’m not sure it was the game but rather how the game presented itself. More on that soon, but for now I would like to highlight the fact that I’ve said and written elsewhere that a game shouldn’t feel like work. That doesn’t mean it isn’t work or process or difficult; there should be a certain amount of joy and discovery in the process. It’s a vague line, but the presentation of this game continually felt like more work than game.
This seems like a very procedural summary of my biggest criticism of the game.
But that's just the thing. The game, as presented is overly procedural. Once you figure out the systems of the game, you realize that the entire meaning of out thinking your opponent in the game is having more familiarity with the subject matter. There is no real creative outlet here for the player. Other games may in fact suffer from the same manner of winning or unlocking the "code" to victory. In fact, that is often the critique in general of modern Euro style games, that they may seem like they have many paths to victory but some paths are just objectively better than others. By laying bare the bones of all these tricks and focusing on it in the presentation, Juste Jonny has left little to the imagination and left all to the work of memory and die-hard dedication. And maybe that's his point.
Maybe he is able to see through the thin veneer of theme and manner of teaching to the core of rules on other people's games. Maybe he thought those things should be shed as the unnecessary components of the game and more of the good stuff should be added to the game in terms of complexity and technical girth. I would hazard to guess that most players will miss the veneer though. The furniture feels a little bare in the room without the pretension.
Let’s talk about how to play the game real quick.
There are some example setups that you can use for your player count until you get used to the game. One of the key things if you do your own setup is that camps have to be at least 7 spaces from each other.
There are also Game Management Roles - like Banker, Unit ID Piece Handler, and Unit Reference Card Handler.
As an aside- it’s this type of micro-management feeling minutiae that end up leading into tedium in the game. I mean this quite literally - every single unit piece is tiny and somewhat inscrutable due to too much text and icons that are hard to decipher.
Back to the gameplay though.
The game plays 2 to 5 players. There is a common map.
Each player selects a warlord and sets up in the order they selected.
Each player will end up selecting units which have to go with their respective warlord’s alignment - such as Law Good for Vagabond Golyar Ale’Breath here or Chaos Evil for Tangus the Unchained over here. There is also a loyalty system based on alignment and duels and such. It doesn't get less tedious. You can either watch a bunch of long soliloquies related to the gameplay or your can try to make it through the rulebook.
When I was younger I played in a couple of bands with very DIY aesthetics. This game takes that on full force. You can tell Juste Jonny has touched everything in the game. Sometimes, that creates a stunning work like Gloomhaven which has dominated heavy gaming and even gone on to touch popular culture. This game could have a much broader appeal, but the focus on DIY has created a barrier between creative effort and final output.
The rulebook, player guides, and pieces all need an outside voice that really says what works and what doesn’t work. The tendency of a creator is going to be - "I put so much work into this, what does this reviewer know?" And they are right - but here’s the thing: If I’m asked to play this I will only say yes if someone else knows how to play. With that other game (Gloomhaven), I will play with people who don’t know what they are doing. The difference is the joy of discovery rather than the feeling of having to do work. That game teaches through a gradual build up how to play. I hope Juste Jonny hears that criticism and applies it - there is a game here and I think it could be good. It’s just not there yet.
Ostensibly, WarBonds has no randomness. Now, I have my own issues with a game about battles not having randomness. Like, what’s the point? We already have chess. However, that could just be a preference thing although real battles definitely have randomness. So, this isn’t like fantasy simulation. It’s more like a complex abstraction of wits. And maybe that’s your thing.
However, the real problem with it is that the game only rewards those who knows its ins and outs. You have to have people who already enjoy the game and know how to play it in order to have a decent game. Which leads to a chicken and the egg situation as the rulebook and the piling on of constant work and cross reference keeps people from wanting to dive in more. The joy which comes from realization of abstract concepts just isn’t rewarded fast enough. It’s that calculus of time spent plus effort equals how much fun am I having?
For the players who can immediately grasp a bunch of differing tables without having to reference anything, you will enjoy pitting yourself against equally matched players. This game rewards long hours of study and note taking. For certain people, this sounds perfect I’m sure; the rise and fall of your army depends entirely on your leadership.
It just falls somewhat flat for me.
Thanks to Juste Jonny and Punk this Studios for the review copy. I hope this isn’t the last we see of this realm as there is a lot here. Let me know what you think of the review and the game if you get to play it. Happy gaming and we’ll catch you later.
Time 60 Minutes (per prepared player)