For those who aren’t familiar with the industry, Martin Wallace is a big name in board game design. He founded the publishing company Warfrog Games (now Treefrog Games), has been designing board games since the early 1990’s, and is particularly renown for creating European style board games combined with American themes (here’s a good article that helps define Euro style games). After decades of designing strategic economic games and war games, it was an industry-wide surprise when Martin Wallace announced his new competitive arena game, Wildlands.
Wildlands is tactical skirmish game for one to four players set in a fantasy world where evil has consumed the land and took the capital along with it. Now, factions battle for arcane crystal shards and for control over the realm. Wildlands comes with four distinctly different factions: The Venerable Guild of Mages, The Lawbringers, The Gnomads, and The Pit Fighters. Each faction comes with five characters and their respective character cards, a player deck, one reference card, five color coded bases, and five matching colored gems.
Once players choose their faction, each player is handed their respective decks, and dealt ten map cards corresponding with the numbered spaces on the board. Players then choose five of those cards to assign each of their characters a starting space. The remaining five cards are passed to players’ left. Everyone will then place their crystal shards on the board spaces dictated by the five map cards they just received. Lastly, each player draws seven cards from their deck.
The goal of Wildlands is to be the first faction to obtain five points. One point is awarded to a player whenever they knock out an opposing character, or retrieve one of their five crystal shards. However, neither one is an easy task. Characters in Wildlands typically have a pretty low health value and attacking opponents almost always puts you in range for retaliation. Being too aggressive is a surefire way to get yourself killed, but collecting shards is no easier. In order to pick up one of your shards, you have to discard three-of-a-kind that matches the character picking up the shard, but each of those cards contain valuable actions that other characters will be depending on, so holding cards for too long can be a big risk.
On each turn where a player has a character that has not been revealed and added to the board, they must do so at its start. Once there’s a character on the board, action cards can be played to dictate the character’s actions. There’s no limit to the number of actions/cards that can be played on your turn, but being over zealous can come back to haunt you. To signify the end of a player’s turn, they will draw three cards and the game moves to the next player.
Wildlands‘ production value is just fantastic. The artwork on the double-sided board alone is vibrant and incredibly detailed. I could spend all night admiring the details on the board, and then the next morning admiring the other side.
The faction miniatures are sturdier and far more detailed than I anticipated. There’s a bit of shading on the minis that give depth to the characters form for those who aren’t invested in painting. The crystal shards are highly angular and beautifully reflect and refract light, making them a simple but iconic piece of the game. While so many other miniature based games are loaded with trackers and tokens, Wildlands is very light weight, containing only the shards and translucent red cubes to track damage to characters.
Each action card has three components to it: symbols, banners, and character art. The sword tips and symbols on the left of the action card indicate which character can move a space when that card is placed. In the example above, the hammer symbol is present on the action card and therefore when it’s played, Shiv, the character on the right, can move one space. The banners to the right of the symbols indicate what actions can be taken instead of moving when the card is played. And lastly, it’s the character art on the action card indicates which character can pick up a shard when three action cards with matching artwork are played.
As simplistic as it is, I’ve found that the player decks’ layout often confuses players. Each time I’ve played Wildlands, people have struggled with the layout of the cards. Although visually appealing, cards read vertically and center around symbols that match to character cards. While simple in concept, our brains are trained to read information in a certain manner and tend follow along horizontal paths as opposed to vertical. I mention this detail but it does not inhibit the gameplay, it simply requires players ignore their instinct and retrain themselves a bit.
My sole complaint is directed at the player deck’s cardback artwork. Despite each character deck being specific to an individual faction, they all share the same artwork on the card backs. While it is a smaller detail, over the course of the game, players become so comfortable with the color coding system that the purple player decks can throw them off. I can’t help but wonder if a more neutral color, perhaps to look like parchment printed with the faction’s name or a logo, would have worked better. In the end, it’s more of a momentary distraction than it is a flaw, but one that I noticed most players encounter.
Otherwise, I’m absolutely in love with Wildlands. Everything about the game is simple, yet opens complex strategies to experiment with. For example, ranged attacks require line of sight, as most games do. However, Wildlands is crystal clear in regards to what qualifies and what does not. Line of sight must be drawn from the “core” (the numbered circle) of the player occupied space to the edge of the target space. This gives players the chance to stay out of harm’s way by using core placement to their advantage.
In the (offensively glaring) example above, players have line of sight from seventeen to fifteen, but not from thirty four to thirty due to the way the cave wall juts out. So long as a straight line can be drawn from the core to the edge of the space, it’s usually fair game. But there’s also the cover mechanic which says you can’t fire from seventeen to fifteen after all.
There are two types of cores, one type is represented by filled in white circles with black text, and the others, the cover spaces are black with white text. The latter are spaces where characters can take cover and from ranged attacks. Going back to the previous example, even though space fifteen is within line of sight of seventeen, neither space can fire at the other. Targets within a cover space can be hit by ranged attacks, but attacks can’t shoot through a cover space into another.
This is why the choosing map cards at the opening of the game is so important to do correctly. While there is an element of chance involved in the ten cards that are dealt at the start of the game, utilizing knowledge of the line of sight and cover mechanics to assign character starting locations behind cover can give you added protection as the game first starts. Likewise, the same tactics can be applied to handing off the cards that dictate where opposing factions forcing them to place their shards in vulnerable junctions.
Each of the factions is well balanced, dividing up strengths and weaknesses amongst the attributes of health, strength, and movement, allowing players to find a faction that fits their preferred play style. Personally, I prefer The Gnomads who have low health, but are quite fast and primarily attack from a distance. Their worst enemy are the Pit Fighters who are loaded with health points and heavy hitting close attacks. Meanwhile, the Mages can hardly do either and are loaded with area of effect attacks where they can do damage to every character in a space, instead of having to focus on any one target like other factions have to do.
Wildlands’ pace scales in a very interesting way. The more characters you have on the board, the more carefully you have to manage your hands,but as characters get eliminated, cards with their character art are no longer relevant/worth holding onto, because those cards can no longer be played in order to pick up shards, freeing them to be used more liberally for other character actions. Losing characters means falling behind in the score, but also means players don’t have to collect three-of-a-kind for the fallen, granting greater freedom to chose desired actions without ruining that big play you’ve been working on.
There’s plenty of variety included in the core box, but Wallace already has three expansions on the way. The first to be released is a new faction, The Unquiet Dead releases later this year. The Unquiet Dead faction will introduce a unique way of play where all six characters in the faction share character symbols allowing for more action choices. Second comes The Adventuring Party introducing four characters of classic RPG archetypes such as the thief, wizard, cleric, and barbarian. Both of these faction packs will include rules to introduce them into the game as invaders, even when they aren’t being controlled by a player. Once everyone is familiar with the new factions, we’ll be getting a new map pack that can replace the existing board with two new environments and map layouts to keep strategy fresh.
Wildlands is a fantastic quickplay skirmish game that can be played in thirty minutes to an hour max. It’s accessible and easy to learn but doesn’t deny more experienced players the opportunity to experiment with deeper strategy. However, if hand management is not appealing to you, it’s worth steering clear. Otherwise, Wildlands is an excellent introduction to board games for newcomers and a must for collectors.