My relationship with Martin Wallace is shaky. His designs tend to be sophisticated works of deft subtlety, consistently marred by a single flaw or maladroit quality which undermines the whole. Take A Few Acres of Snow; this was a wonderful meld of deck-building and war-game set in one of the most interesting conflicts of North American history. But a degenerative strategy that Martin was unable to patch razed the establishment.
Mythotopia was a do-over. This design had its own issues, ones that extended beyond its abominable title. Its misdeed concerned a bungled end sequence that stretched beyond the horizon. There are clever and wonderful concepts held together by mortar that is cracked and gnarled. You could bring up Brass or that Discworld Egyptian pork game and we’d have words. As I said, our relationship status is complicated, even if Martin has no idea who I am.
Wildlands is a different beast. It has no sense of graceless swagger or off-beat hoof. It’s so streamlined and stripped down that it lacks identity. It’s subtle but that’s nearly all it is, like the faintest hint of Camembert in a pound of dry bread.
From a certain vantage, that has quite the appeal. This is a hand management skirmish game where you play cards to move and attack and not much else. Symbols are shared between factions and there’s not a single word of text printed on this game’s skin. It’s refreshing and comes across as Martin placing his boot on the collective neck of a thousand pounds of plastic stretched across a thousand Kickstarter projects.
Bloated, unrefined, and underdeveloped – these are adjectives you’d never ascribe to Wildlands.
If searching for the reason behind this game’s existence is a worthy endeavor, I think you need not look further. He’s had a rough go of it with Kickstarter and the production side of things. You can take a look at the lengthy story behind Moongha Invaders and picture the man sweating and unnerved. His publishing house Treefrog Games encountered numerous difficulties and eventually folded so he could focus on design.
Wildlands, for all its elegance, is the output of a man who’s had enough.
You can almost feel a level of contempt simmering behind the curtain. It took the industry cannibalizing itself for Wallace to break away from his typical trappings. I never thought I’d see him design a tabletop miniatures affair, but here we are.
This game has a calm sense of poise. You put some men, women, and a robed owl out on the map to slowly hack away at each other. Maybe you save up a few cards and scoot on over to pick up one of your gems, inching closer to the needed five victory points. There’s thought in how you expend cards and which you burn through in defense. Do you want to eat that big attack from the ghostly knight carrying a coffin, or do you want to block it, even if this comes at the expense of offense when it gets back around to your turn?
These are tough choices. Unfortunately, they’re not terribly exciting.
This is not a dramatic game. Those moments of elevated tension occur just a couple times during the hour of play. They’re facilitated mostly through an astute interrupt system where you take the ball from another player and run with it. These interrupts can be layered so as to cancel the agency of another, which results in one of the few flashes where a wide grin or hearty laugh escapes your mouth.
Those are fantastic moments. And they’re frankly almost enough.
The majority of play consists of you throwing down a couple of cards on your turn for some direct movement or damage. Each card maps to your faction’s characters allowing you to move or strike with these figures. The action set is dead simple – move, attack for one damage, attack for two damage, or block. Some groups possess ranged attacks and the spell-casters can hit every single model in an adjacent space.
That’s it. No special abilities or untelegraphed explosions of power.
A big turn would be letting loose with two or three attacks if you’re lucky. Then the opponent either blocks each or collects a few damage tokens. Maybe you kill their poor sod and jaunt towards victory.
The utilization of hand management focuses play around these tactical decisions. It’s surprisingly meaty for a game bereft of complication.
That tactical depth is even more surprising given the short time commitment. The experience is reigned in, yet it still produces a tight framework for layered strategy. It’s a satisfying game that almost overcomes an absence of drama.
But then Warhammer Underworlds: Shadespire hits the table and my veins open.
The contrast in asymmetry between the two is astounding. Every single war-band in Shadespire feels drastically different. This is fueled by action cards, objectives, attack profiles, and conditions to become inspired.
Wildlands asymmetry skulks in the background. The mix of action cards is unique for each faction which results in characters and strategies that diverge from their competition. The problem is that it’s entirely in the numbers. What makes the ferocious Minotaur special is that he has more double attack cards than other characters. This is subtle as you’re not analyzing or assessing that spread of icons in a single hand. The asymmetry is teased out slowly over the curvature of the session. It can often be missed by those who aren’t focused or attentive. This doesn’t feel particularly moving or exciting. Asymmetry then is more about balance and eliciting a desirable spread of computational results.
The outcome is a skirmish-style design for those nonplussed with the genre. It’s a refined event that’s sanded off the wild swings and buried Lady Luck like Montresor beguiling Fortunato.
Wildlands’ greatest strength is in that accessibility. You can gather round a collection of newcomers and they can be skulking around the ruins and walloping on each other in no time. The depth emerges organically as you parse your hand and make informed decisions based on the board state. It has the potential to furrow your brow and tease the mind as you agonize over several simple options.
There is definitely an audience for this release. It’s received acclaim from many of my peers and has performed quite well in its youthful days. Osprey Games is riding a building wave of success with each new release and this will definitely receive support.
The first expansion is already heading to market. The Unquiet Dead is a sortie of skeletons that play uniquely. They feature six figures – one more than the existing factions – and have their special card abilities spread across their deck more irregularly. Most significant is that you can use these miniatures as neutral enemies that replace fallen warriors on the board.
This is particularly exciting. You can use cards of felled characters to move the dead about the board and inflict damage upon your competition. It cleverly empowers those who have lost a member or two of their team. This breeds a sense of caution and opens play up to moments of maniacal laughter and tickled anguish.
At this juncture, The Unquiet Dead are the most interesting appendage of the design. This is not enough to turn the game on its heel, but it’s an interesting footnote on a somewhat muted release.It’s quite possible this system will find redemption. The Adventuring Party is the next slated expansion. This set will continue the trend of neutral participants which should help alleviate some of the insipidity. As the scope expands the degree of dynamism should as well. At least, that’s the hope.
Let’s bring it all back home.
A few years ago, my cousin’s six year old son described me by saying “he is what he is.” The table erupted in laughter and I chuckled along. When the mirth subsided and the group drifted from the corner, I sat there alone. In silence I contemplated my place in the universe and the unintended deeper meaning of the hoodlum’s idiom. Well, it’s Wildlands’ turn to sit in the corner and ruminate on its existence, because “it is what it is.”