While you don’t need to give me this much backstory to get me to play a game with tons of colorful poker chips, I love the game-within-a-game backstory that War Chest comes with. The premise goes like this: War Chest is a replica of a game given to future monarchs. To prepare the child to become a great leader, they will play this “game of coins”. The child will think they are simply playing a game, but in reality, they will really be learning how to rule the land and fight battles. Unsurprisingly, learning how to play this game is a lot simpler than it is to master it.
How To Play
Each round, players will grab three coins from their bag and alternate playing them. The goal is to place all six of your Control Markers. Easy enough, right?
One action you can do with your coins is place it on the board. This creates a unit of the pictured type. There are 16 units in the game, but each player will only have four in a given game. Because you can only have one type of each unit on the board, a second unit can alternatively be played on top of a previously placed piece. This is called bolstering and makes it more difficult for your unit to be removed by an attack.
A second option for your coin is to discard it face-up. This allows you to move a corresponding unit on the board, place a control market under a unit on a neutral location, attack an adjacent enemy unit, or use a unit’s tactic on its card. Though this may seem like a lot of options to remember at first, just think of it like you’re showing proof that you can actually activate the corresponding unit.
Your third option for your coin is to discard it face-down. This allows you can claim initiative for the next round, recruit a new coin from your supply, or pass your turn if strategically you need to hold out a bit longer.
As soon as someone places their sixth Control Market on the board, the game is over.
Imagine a king who fights his own battles. Wouldn’t that be a sight?
The first thing you will likely notice about War Chest are the coins. The hefty poker chips are colorful with a metallic sheen that that instantly grabs your attention. Shuffling your hand around in the velvety bag and grabbing at your chips is an undeniably satisfying tactile sensation. Though most of the game is spent in quiet contemplation, if you listen closely, you’ll hear the clanking of coins in players’ hands like weird plastic chimes in the wind.
As for the game itself, War Chest is a kind of enhanced abstract. There is some text to read on the unit cards, but it’s not a major hindrance to the game’s pacing. It’s not difficult to get a quick visual read of the board and plan your next move accordingly. You can reference your own and other’s supply and cards fairly easily, which is good since keeping track of the unit stacks is integral to playing well.
Strategically, the game centers around the bag-building, playing the probabilities and stacking your deck (so to speak) accordingly. You start the game with two of each unit in your bag, plus a Royal Coin (that you mostly use for discarding face-down). Recruiting additional units is a delicate balance between having enough pieces to activate units on the board while also not overfilling your bag to the point that you cannot rely on what’s likely to come up next. Ultimately, this means War Chest is very dynamic and misplaying the bag-building will be difficult to recover from. For example, ending up with just one coin of a unit on the battlefield means you will never be able to move it or do anything else with it. This means that sometimes War Chest feels more like a war of attrition than a battle for location control.
Though at first the game seems to have a slow start as players build up their units, the battlefield will quickly become bloody. Because of the restriction that there can only be one stack of each unit, the battlefield stays relatively open throughout the game. It’s clear that your job is to push your units forward while not leaving too big of an opportunity for your opponent, but that’s a lot easier said than done. Pieces come onto and off the board, meaning you can’t get too attached to your units. This fluidity will be incredibly frustrating to some players while being an enjoyable challenge to others.
All this is to say that War Chest’s very nature is polarizing. Not only do you have asymmetrical play between players, each game will consist of four unique units that you will need to figure out how to optimize. There is no denying that this provides a lot of tactical decision space. However, this very structure means you will know as soon as you start playing whether it’s a For Me or Not For Me game. While repeated plays did lend me to understanding the game’s nuances better, monitoring my own and my opponent’s units more, and improve my overall strategy, it never became a satisfying experience.
War Chest is a game that demands to be practiced. This is not the kind of abstract you can casually break out. Dedicated opponents and hours of play will likely be very rewarding. There is nothing I can knock War Chest for in terms of mechanics and design; it’s a creative approach to an abstract and works as intended. My main complaint centers around the game not doling out enough fun in what it does. I guess I will never become a great monarch.
Lots of combinations.
More thinky than fun.
Some units may be better than others.
“My main complaint centers around the game not doling out enough fun in what it does.” Fun is a relative term. I found the game very fun, I could play it for hours with my son or friends and we have a lot of fun. It’s one of the best games of the last few years, a keeper, a game with amazing replayability. I think it deserves a score of more than 6.5. I think you just gave this score because it was not fun enough for you but it may be fun for others. Cheers.