What strikes me about Wonderland’s War is that it’s intensely modern. I say this for several reasons. It’s visually gorgeous and wonderfully tactile. It wraps the game around conflict, but there’s no sense of cruelty or aggression. It checks the box of strong variability with rotational content. It’s also engineered from the souls of others, creating an amalgamation of successful contemporary designs as opposed to something outright innovative. And it’s a little messy, perhaps even a little bloated.
It really is a beautiful thing. Images of the board appeared confusing at a distance, but in person it’s a glorious chaos that hangs together under the auspices of the fantastic Alice in Wonderland setting. This quality didn’t really surprise me as Druid City Games – paired here with Skybound’s tabletop division – has a strong attention to detail. Across their product line they’ve normalized the use of plastic storage trays and provided the player with an opulent experience. Many companies are offering deluxe presentations and drowning us in componentry, but the specific touches in this publisher’s work and their ability to avoid common crowdfunding issues, such as mounds of errata or physical defects, really speaks to the effort.
I must take a moment here to issue a public service announcement, however. This title does come in two varieties: a retail edition with standard meeples and standees, and a Kickstarter exclusive deluxe edition with miniatures and uniquely shaped wooden pieces. This is not too heartbreaking as the miniatures are more difficult to discern in play and don’t possess the wonderful artwork found on the standees.
What’s of more concern to a prospective adopter is the exclusivity of the plastic chipset. It’s wonderful seeing no gameplay additions behind the crowdfunding wall, but many can attest to the difference in kinetic energy between a bag of plastic chips versus cardboard ones. There’s a therapeutic essence to bits clacking as you ruffle them about with your fingers, a chattering of maniacal voices screaming from the depths. That’s sorely missing from the alternative. You have to think that Etsy sellers will ultimately solve this problem as they’ve done for other titles, but currently you’re stuck purchasing hundreds of coin capsules if you want to elevate the bag-building process.
There is a positive. The retail edition is not at all expensive compared to many competitors of similar weight and breadth.
Regardless of version, the artistry of product works overtime attempting to convince that setup, storage, and cleanup, are minimally invasive. That task is perhaps too difficult.
The extra-curricular activity is wearying. You have to return asymmetric player pieces back to several different wells and trays, organize multiple decks of cards, and then utilize your best organization skills to order over 200 chips of varying types and values. Getting it all situated in the box can feel like an optimization strategy game in its own right.
Then you notice you left a card on the table. This is when Wonderland’s War turns into a PG-13 experience and claims its allotted f-bomb.
None of this is really new. We’ve seen it in larger deckbuilding games such as Mage Knight or a heartily expanded copy of Dominion. Wonderland’s War is a bag-builder, which is virtually identical in terms of the disassembly and organization requirement. But it really is a great deal of work and it’s the most obvious wart jutting off the Mad Hatter’s pointy beak.
Thankfully, this game is killer. All that work which I’m slightly exaggerating here to emphasize the point? Totally worth the trouble.
Taking the bag-building push-your-luck mechanism made popular in Quacks of Quedlinburg and pressing it into service under an area control framework is electric.
There are shades of other games too. Great games.
The escalating three-round structure and purchasable “wonderlandian” characters are totally Blood Rage. Your warrior meeples on the map not adding to battle strength but instead serving as a resource which degrades by your own hand – straight outta Lords of Hellas. There’s even betting on battles when you’re not involved, a mechanism I’ve only seen in the beloved Spartacus.
One thing this design does well is flood you with positivity. It’s constantly seeking ways to slip the needle into your vein and shake out the dopamine.
The first half of each round is an open draft where players alternate selecting cards. Each card unifies several actions you take allowing a latitude of agency. You deploy forces to the various locations, unlock new character specific abilities, add new chips to your bag, and increase your leader’s effectiveness. This hodge-podge of bennies is framed as a madcap “tea party”.
It’s delightful and one of the best compressions of action system I’ve seen. Instead of slowly allowing each player to perform a single activity they’d like from a wider menu, your selections are narrowed by the row of available cards. Then each offers several benefits at once, so you’re never sacrificing the most joyful options in exchange for smaller and more mundane tasks. Need to send some of the Red Queen’s troops to “The Meadow of Living Flowers”? Go right ahead, and you can also gain a two strength Flamingo chip for your trouble.
The balance across all the various cards is well executed. None come across as feeble, although there is of course a subset that will be more advantageous to your current position than others. Some do offer outright stronger options but come at the cost of acquiring shards. These are nasty little black crystals that twist your soul and ultimately cost you points or put little traps in your bag. There’s a constant evaluation and trade-off as you can never quite get the perfect prescription for what’s ailing your board state. And it boasts just the right amount of subdued tension that leads into the second-half drama.
The nucleus of Wonderland’s War is the push-your-luck phase. Area by area, battles occur where each participant simultaneously reaches in and plucks a chip from their personal bottomless sack. Mostly you will receive boons, such as propping up your tallied strength in the fight as well as executing various special abilities found on the chips.
The effects are clever, and for the bulk of the chips they change game-to-game depending on the reference card you select for the session. For instance, in one play the Roses at the end of battle may grant you victory points, and in another they return to your bag. There are also unique chips that only a single player can acquire through the action draft, standouts include a lock of unicorn hair or the White Rabbit’s timepiece. These break the rules in all kinds of interesting ways.
It feels extraordinarily rewarding as the generous bag-building decisions give way to the combination of powers and effects in conflict resolution. You will pull off clever moves and your minimal effort will bear tasty fruit.
Yet there is a considerable sense of tension in this feel-good system. You’re playing a game of chicken with the other combatants. If you don’t keep pulling, chip by chip, you will likely not have enough strength to win and control the area – a primary source of victory points. If you hang in too long you could bust, losing all of your units there and eliminating yourself from the battle.
The threat here is a magnificent balancing act. It’s that same sense of drama Quacks elicits, but your upper threshold of how far you’re willing to push is dynamic and manipulated by your opponent. There are mind games and brinksmanship. It’s lively and interactive, while also refraining from being punishing or vindictive. Your minions in the area are never lost due to your competitor’s activity, rather they’re sacrificed because you refused to stop drawing from the bag, waving your hand through the bonfire and goading calamity.
Melding this tension-filled area control with the impressive bag-building aspect produces a very textured system that the experience entirely hinges upon. Across repeated plays you will refine strategies and pursue others. Often you will even concede the outcome of the battle itself, opting to halt your drawing early in order to accomplish one of the hidden objective cards you possess. Other times you will refrain from pushing your luck because you’re currently positioned at a forge space on the strength track, which allows you to remove one of your played chips and place it on your player board to unlock new abilities and rewards. There are several considerations, and they often collide forcing impactful strategic inflections.
The concession is that the degree of randomness in this resolution system can occasionally result in large swings. There are a few ways to mitigate, but I’ve still seen runs of players repeatedly defying the odds and running face-first into a brick wall. Of course, this is what anchors the drama of the situation so it’s difficult to have it both ways.
There’s a lot going on here. All of the various systems and interactions will slow your first few plays down. You may need to look up what an “artifact” chip is, or how ties are handled. You will have players confused by the distinction between busting and recycling their bag. Each individual piece of the game is relatively clean and consistent, but it’s a chaotic cluster of ideas slammed together in bedlam. It’s not lost on me that this fits the game’s setting.
The lack of elegance surprisingly doesn’t hurt the flow too much. Many of the sub-systems dovetail with others and it would be a struggle to quibble over what specific flourishes to cut. This mass of ideas does contribute to a somewhat lengthy playtime, which is roughly two hours but stretches to three with a full group of five. That is only slightly problematic, however, as the game is engaging and very active in requiring your attention, only dragging when you’re sitting out a lengthy conflict in the third round. All of this means you really need to be up for this kind of modern, anarchic design.
I am absolutely up for it. I expected to enjoy this game, but I didn’t expect it to fight so hard for my affection.
And that affection lies in its architecture. For better and for worse, this is perhaps the most perfect medley of modern design trends, displaying in one congested box all of the charm and cost of current methodologies.
A review copy was provided by the publisher.