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Preview: Vault Wars

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[Ed. note: This is a preview of a non-final, non-production prototype demo of the game. Our opinions reflect that of the game at the time we played it; the final product will feature some variation in game play, art, and components.]

Adventurers love to adventure.  It’s a hard, but rewarding life.  You meet many interesting people – not to mention non-people – visit lots of exotic places, and steal acquire tons of loot.  However, it’s difficult to keep all that stuff safe when going back out on the road.  The solution?  A vault – sort of like a medieval safe deposit box to keep all your things while going out to slay the next dragon.  But what if that paladin never, ever returns for her obsidian sword?  In that case, it’s time for a clearance sale!

How It Plays

Vault Wars is an auction game.  Players bid for treasure bequeathed-by-default by brave adventurers whose skill and luck finally ran out.  In a series of rounds, players take turns serving as auction masters, handing out vaults of valuables to the highest bidder.  The items you win can be sold for more gold, kept for points until the end of the game, or used to meet special “hero contracts” to earn even more points.  Be careful going too high, though, because some of the loot may be useless junk.

At the beginning of the game, players receive some starting gold and two important sets of cards.  First, you’ll get a number of vaults.  Each vault card has a ranking order and stipulates how many items it contains, how many of those are revealed when auctioned, how many additional objects players may peak at, plus any special rules regarding that specific collection.  You also receive a couple of hero contracts.  These identify particular items that garner extra points if you can collect them.

Meeting a hero's needs can pay off in the end.
Meeting a hero’s needs can pay off in the end.

In a round, everyone selects one of their vault cards and reveals them simultaneously.  These are then auctioned off in ranking order.  When it comes time to auction off your vault, you draw a number of item cards according to the vault and look at them.  The vault will indicate how many of these are revealed to everyone and then a number that each bidder may peak at randomly.  Therefore, bidders usually will not have a complete idea of everything available in that vault.

After these revelations you begin the bidding as auction master by naming a starting price.  As typical of many auction games, bidders then go around the table with an opportunity to raise the starting bid or one previous to their turn.  The catch to serving as auction master is that you may only bid once – your opening bid.  If no one antes up your vault’s starting price, then you get it – or get stuck with it.  Otherwise, the collection goes to the highest bidder, who pays you the winning amount.

As you might have guessed...this is our favorite vault!
As you might have guessed…this is our favorite vault!

After a round in which all players’ vaults have been auctioned off, everyone decides what they’ll sell, equip, keep, or trash.  Valuable items are worth gold and you may sell those in order to earn a little coin for the next round of auctions.  Of course, that means you won’t get points from those items at the end of the game.  You can also equip some items which give you bonuses and special powers.  However, equipped items do not count towards victory points, either.  It can still be a good idea, though.  In addition to its ability, you do not have to pay to “store” equipped items.  Otherwise, any object you keep costs 1 gold to store at the end of the round.  Those are the items that will eventually earn points.  Finally, you will generally want to ditch any useless junk as it costs money to keep it and does nothing good – unless you need it to fulfill a hero contract.

The game ends when the final round is completed with all vaults auctioned off and the final sales and storage fees are resolved.  Players add up points from the items they kept, as well as any bonuses earned from fulfilling 1 of their 2 hero contracts and 1 point for every 10 gold they possess.  The winner is, well, you know…

Vault Wars also plans to include an advanced Workers Expansion.  When using this element, players have the option to recruit 1 worker at the start of each round.  These are available from between 1 to 6 gold and provide some nifty, one-time, rules-breaking powers.  Cards clearly specify when and how their abilities apply.

Worker from the workers expansion.
Worker from the workers expansion.

Sotheby’s Auction House or Louisiana Yard Sale?

If some of the artwork looks familiar, it may be because you’ve just seen it in Floodgate Games’ other recent title Epic Resort.  That game was about adventurers and heroes going on vacation.  This one addresses those that never return from work!  No worries, though. Vault Wars is only a spiritual successor.  One need not be familiar with the first to play or enjoy the second.

As an auction game, there are still elements endemic to the genre that can limit accessibility.  Auctions can be open-ended with some difficulty determining real value and worth.  Auction masters can easily set bids too low, while bidders can overpay for collections.  There is a learning curve.  And sessions can vary widely depending on the type of gamers you’re playing with.  So if you’re completely averse to the mechanic, it may be a hard sell.  However, there are also aspects that lift Vault Wars above its “pure auction” style and may appeal more broadly.

All that glitters is not gold...
All that glitters is not gold…

 

You’ll go into most of the auctions having to bid somewhat blindly because some information is hidden.  That might create frustration as you never know exactly what you’re getting.  Indeed, you will routinely buy a bunch of junk.  Every now and then you might wind up with a whole pile of scrap.  That useless rubbish, however, will often be worth taking along with other valuables that you need.  Besides, the items deck is so full of junk you won’t be able to avoid it entirely, anyways.

This blind bidding creates an interesting gambling vibe and also serves three beneficial purposes.  One, it increases accessibility for new and/or casual gamers by reducing the importance of determining a collection’s relative value.  You don’t feel as pressured to scrutinize and analyze a vault ad nasuem precisely because you can’t know a vault’s exact worth to you.  It also provides opportunity for bluffing.  The auction master – the only player who actually knows a vault’s entire contents – can start with a low bid trying to convince others it’s not worth anything hoping it defaults to her.  Or she might bid high, making them think it’s particularly valuable, when in reality it’s worthless – or just to try and earn more money off of it.  Also players can try out-bidding each other or manufacture over-priced bids based on what they got a peak at.  However, that could be dangerous, because everyone peaks at different cards.  So did you see what they saw or not?  Finally, the mystery allows for some fun surprises.  Those moments when you realize you overpaid for a collection are pleasantly off-set by other times when you win a valuable item you didn’t even know was in the vault!

The set collection element adds a slight twist that will prove rewarding to many gamers and gives players a tactical goal to work towards.  It’s one thing just to bid for high value items, which can quickly grow monotonous.  Trying to assemble sets adds a fun wrinkle, supplements the whole difficult-to-determine-real-value issue, and may reduce competition.  Although it could just as well ramp up the tension if you find yourself looking for similar items as an opponent.  One other intriguing element is the set of 3 Dragon Eggs.  If you get stuck with just 1 or 2 of them, you lose 2 points for each – and there is no way to get rid of them.  However, if you manage to nab all 3, you earn 21 points!  You may need to bluff your way to collecting them all and if the rest of the table is on to your scheme, some bidder may have to “take one for the team.”

There are 3 Dragon eggs. You want either all 3, or none!
There are 3 Dragon eggs. You want either all 3, or none at all!

Vault Wars also has a pleasantly high replay value for a design of its style, type, length, and depth.  One, you won’t use every vault for a game, so each session will be different.  Not only that, the order in which players choose to auction off each vault has a big impact.  Some vaults are better to toss out in the early game, while others reap more in later rounds.  Then again, your cash flow may very well determine which vault you throw out in a given round.  You might need to be the first auction master in order to earn some gold to bid later that round.

The hero contracts and workers also give the game a healthy dose of variety and replayability.  The heroes are dealt randomly, so that will be different each game.  You can only earn points from one of them, but it’s not like you have to decide right off the bat.  Just see how the cards fall and your money fares.  This gives you a goal, some choice, and helps to combat randomness somewhat.  The workers are a small inclusion that add a big touch without injecting too much extra fiddliness.  Their nifty abilities and powers can come in handy in a tight pinch.  Granted, some players will have better access to the more powerful workers simply due to luck of the draw.  However, most are good even if you don’t get your first choice.  The design includes this mechanic as an “advanced” option, but after a few plays you’ll consider it more like “essential.”

Gotta collect 'em all! In this case, a complete set of armor earns more gold when selling.
Gotta collect ’em all! In this case, a complete set of armor earns more gold when selling.

At its heart, Vault Wars is a straight-forward auction game.  However, it does throw in some atypical twists.  It mixes elements of blind bidding with both hidden and open information which fosters bluffing and a bit of a gambler’s spirit.  The different vaults provide variety and a surprisingly higher replay value for a game of its size so that sessions are not monotonous.  The storage mechanic creates a dilemma in evaluating worth versus costs.  Plus the set collection aspect forces you to think beyond the value of single objects to consider the composition of your collection as a whole.

If you like or enjoy bidding games, Vault Wars is right in your wheelhouse.  What’s more though, it offers a few sophisticated, but not overly complex, aspects that will appeal more broadly.  It might not be filler material, but it’s neither time consuming nor mentally investing.  It provides just enough challenge and has a fun thematic application that it should find plenty of space on many a different table.

 

Vault Wars is currently seeking funds on Kickstarter.  The project will run through March 27.  If you want to throw in your bid, you’ll need to head over to the campaign page and join with a $20 pledge, which includes U.S. domestic shipping and any stretch goals the project reaches.  Hurry now before the whole project is SOLD!

 

This article is a paid promotion.

I have lots of kids. Board games help me connect with them, while still retaining my sanity...relatively speaking.

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