What would you expect if you opened up a game and found dozens of beautiful dice? You’d probably assume that you’re going to be rolling those dice a lot during the game, right? Well let me introduce you to a game that comes with more dice then you could possibly hold in one hand (64 to be exact) yet you’re only going to roll three of these dice during setup and that’s it. Unita is a game that loves to defy your expectations. These dice are used to represent troops that you’ll be marching around a map not rolling, silly! So put those dice towers away!
How It Plays
The Setting – Helvetia: A Country Divided
Welcome to the large and diverse country of Helvetia. It’s a beautiful fantasy kingdom with a rich history (roughly inspired by Switzerland). However, there is unrest in the land and Unita takes place in a turbulent time when many regions within Helvetia have begun to fight for their independence. You’ll take up arms and join one of the countries seeking their freedom (Primitiva and Friburga) or the neighboring countries that are fighting against them (German Land and Hexagone).
Unita follows several other releases that also take place in Helvetia (Shafausa and Helvetia Cup). There are many glimpses into Helvetia’s history scattered throughout the rulebook but you’ll have better luck exploring this world on Helvetia Games’ website (and I’d strongly encourage you to do so if you’re at all interested in Unita).
The Gameplay – A Journey of Maneuvering Along an Abstract Path
Unita is, at its core, an abstract game of maneuvering that has been set within the struggle for independence in Helvetia. Each player commands a battalion from one of the four major regions involved in the conflict. However, this isn’t an all out war. Each region is out to prove their battalion’s superiority not to simply crush their enemies. No one is seeking to take casualties but skirmishes are unavoidable as each side maneuvers their forces along the borders. Let’s start by looking at the field of battle to truly understand this conflict.
The board depicts four different paths (or three on the reverse side) for the players to follow towards a gate in the center. Each path is associated with a specific region. There are Volcanoes and Ruins for the Nuns of Friburga, Water for the Royal Frogs of Hexagone, Jungles for the Men of Primitiva, and Deserts for the Engineers of German Land. The battalions that players control are composed of dice ranging in strength from 1 to 5 which are arranged into 2×2 blocks called Companies. The game begins with players taking turns deploying their dice between four companies, each occupying a space along their edge of the board. Each side also has three terrain tiles that they will be able to place along their path to give their troops an advantage during conflict.
Once all the dice and terrain have been placed on the board then the careful maneuvering for the gate will begin. In turn, players have three movement points that they must use to advance their companies along their path towards the center of the board. Each point will allow a company to move forward one space (or two points to move onto a terrain). Movement can be split between the companies or one company can advance several times in a row but they must always move forward. The paths are narrow so a company cannot move onto or pass over a space already containing another company. When they finally arrive at the gate, the troops are magically transported to safety and placed in front of the owning player. As the players race towards the middle they will notice their opponents moving on both sides of their path. Whenever a company is moved alongside one of a neighboring region they engage in a fierce battle. The companies line up side-by-side and the dice that are directly adjacent from each other (the front-line) duke it out. The lower valued die in each face off loses and decreases in value by one. In the case of a tie, the dice directly behind those involved in the battle (the back-line) are compared to determine a winner. If a troop is lowered to a value of zero then it is turned to its Coat-of-arms side and cannot be decreased further or “killed”. The last thing that happens after the battle has been resolved is a change in front-lines, the dice that were involved in the battle switch places with those behind them forming a new front-line for the next conflict.
There are two special spaces that companies will encounter on their way to the portal, terrain and re-organization spots. Terrain provides an advantage during combat, either while attacking or defending, but also comes with a drawback. Forests provide a bonus to an attacking company but they will suffer a penalty during defense if they remain there. Mountains do the opposite, giving a bonus to defense but a penalty while attacking. There is also one unique terrain for each region which provide a special ability. Friburga, for example, has the Red Cross which allows them to heal one troop from each company while they pass through it. The other special space, the re-organization spots, are located in the corners of every path. Any company on a re-organization spot may choose to use one movement point (once per game) to rearrange the position of the dice within the company as long as there aren’t any adjacent enemy companies.
Regions are further distinguished through a set of unique Power Cards. These powers range from providing a bonus during combat (or avoiding it entirely) to allowing for extra movement to increasing the value of troops when they go through the gate. Players may only use one of their power during the game so they’ll have to choose carefully.
The game ends when all the companies have moved through the gate to safety. The strength of each region is compared by adding up the total value of all the troops as they currently stand. The strongest battalion is declared the winner and all the people of Helvetia marvel at their display of force. In the case of a tie, the player with fewer troops showing their coat-of-arms side wins.
The Fascinating Oddities of Unita
Unita is a fascinating game. It’s quite a bit different from anything else that I’ve played and despite its simplicity I find it hard to accurately categorize and communicate the overall ascetics (but I’ll try my best anyway). Part of the reason is that Unita feels like one thing but throws some twists in to make it play out differently than you might expect. There’s a beautifully illustrated board mapping out each players’ territory, dice for your armies, and variable player powers making it seem like an in-your-face Ameritrash game but it is in fact an abstract game of calculated maneuvering. With the simplicity of the movement and combat you may be gearing up to charge into battle but by the end of your first game you’ll find that a more patient approach is often rewarded. And even though it plays and feels like an open information game there is a significant impact from hidden and unknown information through terrain and player powers. These things work very well but may catch you off guard based on what the game appears to be at first glance. So, if things are not quite what they seem what should you expect from Unita? Let’s tackle the various aspects of the game to find out.
Thematic Integration – I think we’re supposed to go to that portal over there… for Helvetia!
First up is the theme. It’s pretty clear that Unita is an abstract game at its core, the theme gives your actions some context but ultimately takes a back seat to the gameplay. I greatly enjoy games that are light on theme and emphasize deep strategy so Unita is right up my alley in that respect. However I feel like the setting is worth exploring because this game thrives in part because of the theme not in spite of it. One of the first things that you’ll notice in Unita is the beautiful board with stunning landscapes and interesting characters that represent the game’s countries. Each of these nationalities comes with their own unique powers and terrain, I found myself excited to pick a side and know more about them. Here’s where there’s a little bit of a disconnect. The rulebook presents some of the story through quotes strewn throughout its pages but if you really want to know more about the world of Helvetia and the countries that are fighting for (or against) their independence then you’ll be left a little out in the dark. Fortunately when I made my way to Helvetia Games’ website I found a much richer context with which to understand what was going on in Unita, it’s a shame that the rulebook didn’t take advantage of the depth that has been poured into this world (or at least point you to the website). The only reason that I even mention this in the first place is because the artwork is so evocative that the context simply can’t be ignored.
The actual story taking place in Unita is also a little bit tough to discern because the thematic integration is somewhat odd. You have two sides that are fighting for independence from Helvetia and two that are fighting in opposition. It could have easily been a team game and there is actually a variant that lets you play that way but by default it is every man for himself. That’s easy enough to explain, the odd part is the actual goal of the game. You might be expecting a bloody clash with the last man standing winning. Instead you are moving your troops along a defined path towards a portal where they are transported to safety and judged against each other to determine the winner. Winning itself is another somewhat vague concept but let’s get back to how Unita represents the conflict. I’ve got no problem with the gameplay but I do think there’s a pretty big disconnect between the story and what you’re actually doing in the game. Sure you’re fighting against your neighbors as you race towards the portal so I could see some conceptual similarities but it’s not really clear as to exactly what’s going on. The reason this matters at all is if you share the back story of the game before getting into the actual gameplay then it may be hard to give any reasoning behind why the players are marching their troops towards that mysterious portal (hence the disconnect).
I would have appreciated more insight from the rulebook but I don’t mind calling on my own creativity to fill in the blanks. Once you get past your first game it can be fun to come up with your own interpretation of what’s going on, make of the story what you want. I found the game actually evoked the feeling of tower defense with all the troops slowly marching along their separate paths. You take on the roll of both the attacker (sending your troops towards the portal) and the defender (trying to weaken your opponents’ troops in their approach). It’s a rather novel take on simultaneous tower defense whether it was intended or not.
Maneuvering – How to win the battle without picking a fight
Once you’ve tackled the theme (or simply ignored it) you can move on to actually playing the game and, similar to the theme, things may not quite reflect your initial expectations. Since Unita is about a conflict you might expect combat to be the main emphasis but instead this is a game of maneuvering. Let me explain what I mean by that. The battles in Unita are predetermined (with an exception for revealing terrain or special powers). When a company moves along side of an opposing one you know beforehand exactly what the outcome of their clash will be. I say combat isn’t the focal point of the game because it’s simply the logical conclusion of how troops have been positioned. You’ll generally want to engage in combat where you will win (or at least tie) on both fronts. This means that you set yourself up to do this on a previous turn or your opponent provided the opportunity. However, engaging in this battle may expose a weaker back line or shift your front line to face an even stronger company from your other neighbor so you may not even want to pick the fights that you can win. On the hand you may be forced to move into a losing battle when your neighbor lines your border with stronger troops, again the result of clever maneuvering. I’m not saying the game itself is predetermined after deployment, far from it! I’m saying that the game is about movement and battles are the outcome of how well you positioned yourself. Remember that your objective is to end the game with the fewest casualties so if you can go the whole game without engaging in a single battle and simply let your opponents whittle each other down (which shouldn’t happen) then you will win. This can be a bit counter intuitive but it leads to very interesting tactics and interaction.
The predetermined nature of combat can make it feel underwhelming if you were hoping for more control over picking your fights or even discouraging when you are forced into a losing battle too often. However, hopefully I’ve made the case that ultimately Unita is not focused on the combat so wishing that it was front and center simply means that you are wanting to play a different game. If you sold someone on a premise and then gave them something different then it’s not surprising that they’d be dissapointed. Discouragement can be avoided by letting players know what kind of game Unita is before letting them loose, proper expectations go a long way towards enjoying a game. And there’s a lot to be enjoyed here. If you like movement games that emphasize timing and placement then Unita presents a really clever system with a lot to consider. It may seem simplistic at first since you are only given the choice between moving four companies forward along a fixed path but the interaction between players on the crowded board really drives the depth of choice. Players are rewarded for thinking ahead and positioning their troops well but can’t plan out too far as they’ll need to adjust to how their neighbors move and re-organize their own companies.
There’s still hope for players that enjoy combat and the advantages that come with it’s uncertainty. The one thing that prevents the combat in Unita from being completely predetermined and adds some excitement to the battles is the closed information introduced through terrain and power cards. It may seem like an odd choice to take a game that is entirely open and add in a closed element that will be revealed at most three times per game (one power card and two of the three terrain for each player). But this little bit of hidden information has a big impact on the game in a very positive way. There’s a bluffing element introduced when positioning companies in or around terrain. Two of the three terrain tiles for each side has a bonus and a drawback depending on whether it is used for attacking or defending. The element of surprise is the key to utilizing them well. Until they are revealed your opponents won’t know whether a specific terrain will give you an advantage during combat. You can leave a company in a terrain that subtracts from their defense but so long as your neighbor doesn’t know they may be afraid to engage. Likewise you may scare of a stronger company by moving towards a terrain that would give you the upper hand if it was the correct type. Power cards are similar in that until you reveal one you will have an advantage at your disposal that prevents your opponents from ensuring the outcome of battle with you. These closed elements introduce a tactical element to the predetermined battle system and introduce some much needed tension to Unita.
It may seems like Unita would suffer from the weak getting weaker since losing a battle decreases the strength of your troops and makes you more likely to lose further encounters. However, there’s a very clever design in place to prevent players from falling down a slippery slope of defeats. The combat system itself introduces rotating front-lines so that troops that engage multiple times in a row will have different outcomes. You could lose one combat and then turn around and win when your back lines (now in the front) engage further down the path. Your companies will also change directions as they turn corners (along with the ability to re-organize) which will change what troops are facing your neighbors. Another factor to keep in mind is that each player neighbors two different players. Losing a battle with your neighbor may put you in a weakened positioned to engage them in the future but their neighbor is unaffected and can pick a fight with them just the same. Another aspect of the combat system is that you have four companies at your disposal. Losing a battle may weaken one but you still have three more that are just as strong as before. The last great equalizer is the terrain and power cards which can strengthen weakened troops or trip up undefeated ones. Simply put, you won’t lose the game because of one or two lost combats. It’s true that casualties will make a company more susceptible to further defeats but not without giving you a chance to even the odds first.
Deployment and Planning – Look before you leap
Deployment presents a challenging aspect of Unita. How you deploy your troops will set the stage for how well you can maneuver during the crucial opening moves of the game. Deploying well will decrease your casualties early in the game, setting you up for success. It will also allow you to create choke points for your enemies, making them decide between stalling their progress or taking a hit to pass by. The challenge with deployment is that it requires experience to do well but it is the very first thing that you do in the game. You’ll be going into the deployment blind in your very first game, not knowing how to assess your decisions without having seen the impact of how you place your troops. This hurdle is overcome once you complete your first game but deploying poorly can be incredibly discouraging and taint your initial experience. There’s a family variant that has all players decide on their deployment in secret and then place all at once and I’ve found that to work reasonably well when teaching but it doesn’t relieve the fact that new players won’t know what they’re doing during deployment. I would have liked to see some helpful hints for players that are new to the game or even an optional first game setup to give a relatively balanced experience. A good teacher will be able to help new players along but with a table full of first time players you’ll have unbalanced positions right from the start that could sour some players. I’ve found some people were able to enjoy the game despite having a poor showing but most people won’t be happy about a clear disadvantage from no fault of your own.
Once you get past the learning curve deployment is an extremely strategic and rewarding aspect of Unita. There are a variety of strategies that you can pursue based on how you arrange your companies. It might seem like loading up a couple of companies with all your strongest troops might be the best idea but that leaves your other troops extremely vulnerable. You not only ensure that they will end up getting to the portal with very little of no life left but also provide your opponents with safe passage by them. You’ll have to decide between balanced placement or trying to leverage your strongest company, both are viable paths to victory. Since you’ll only be deploying two of your troops at a time there’s also a reactive element to deployment that adds interaction before the maneuvering even begins. You can establish choke points or set up your front lines to take advantage of your neighbors’ weaknesses. But like the rest of the game you’ll have to consider both neighbors and will be unlikely to best both of them at all times so you can’t focus all your energy on just one.
Scaling and Variants – Making Unita work for your group
Even if you don’t have the ideal 4 players to represent all the factions there’s still a good option for 3 players (the reverse side of the board) and a somewhat overwhelming option for 2 players (each controlling two armies). I found the game to work nicely with both 3 and 4 players with slightly different dynamics in the 3 player game as all players are neighboring each other. I would only recommend the 2-player game to very experienced players as switching back and forth between two separate armies can be quite a challenge. I would far prefer to play with two teams of 2 than control both armies by myself. Which leads nicely into several variants which are included in the game. It’s a nice touch to add some customization to the game if you’d rather make it cooperative or remove the terrain and power cards to make it a completely open information game. I like the standard 4-player game the best but appreciate variants for those that wish to experiment.
Summary – The bottom line on Unita
I described Unita earlier as a sort of simultaneous tower defense game and I feel like that’s an apt description for what you’re getting in for. This isn’t a war game, it’s one of maneuvering where your goal is to position yourself to take less damage than your opponents. It feels like an open information game but still has the excitement of battle and revealing your secret terrain and powers at just the right time. It’s an abstract game with beautiful components where the theme really draws you in. Unita has a lot to offer with its clever simple gameplay and incredible depth.
iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Asmodee for providing a review copy of Unita.