An initially unusual seeming game, War Chest features near limitless battles through clever systems and components.
- War Chest is an abstract strategy and bag-building game designed by Trevor Benjamin and David Thompson and published by Alderac Entertainment Group (AEG.). War Chest looks like a straightforward game of chess meets draughts, but looks can be deceiving — this unusual game may be simple to learn and play, but it’s tough to master and offers near limitless variation based on an optional drafting phase before the main game begins.
War Chest has no story to speak of, but the blurb associated with it pitches it as an ancient game used to teach young nobles the finer arts of battlefield strategy. Whilst that might be a far-fetched concept, seeing as it is a brand new game, there’s no doubt that War Chest is abstract strategy in the most literal form. The battle is fought between two teams of players, with rules included to support either one-versus-one or two-versus-two play. You can, of course, vary the player count to accommodate numbers like three or five players, but in doing so, someone will always be sharing components or acting as an advisor.
The two warring factions are unnamed, with one represented as a Wolf and the other a Gryphon. The board is laid out as a large diamond that focuses on a narrow, central area in two player mode and uses all four corners in the four player variant. The setup instructions allow for several variants on win condition including capturing points on the board, defeating all enemy units, and so on, but they also allow for different unit configurations as well.
One of the most interesting things about War Chest is that of the twenty or so unit types in the box, each one is represented by a finite number of chips and a card that details specific abilities. A specific kind of unit can only appear on one side of the battle, so during setup players may choose a variant that allows them to take turns in drafting unit cards, or alternatively they can use a basic setup or even a historical one (such as the Battle of Crecy.) The fact that only about five units will be represented on each side means that you’ll never have all the units out on the battlefield in one game and it’s rare to see the same two sides face off more than once.
Although I’ll explain it more under turn structure, the number of chips in a unit is also important, since once a unit chip is on the board, it can only be moved or strengthened by drawing another chip of the same unit from your bag. This approach is inherent in the design and it means that some units are more powerful, but have fewer chips, whilst others are weak but more ability to maneuver on the battlefield. When drafting, variation in win condition and the specific strengths of each unit are weighed up, you begin to see how War Chest does in fact live up to its strategic ambitions.
Whilst I’ve found myself saying this a lot in 2018 thanks to the overall quality in board games reaching ridiculous new standards, War Chest is an amazing product to simply open up and admire. It comes in a unique box that is, as promised, a lot like a chest — with a magnetised fold up lid that is a joy to behold. Inside, you’ll find a well organised and surprisingly heavy tray of unit pieces that comes in the form of an organiser with its own snugly fitting plastic lid. You’ll also find four bags that are thick, well made and beautifully embossed with the wolf and gryphon logos.
The unit chips are thick, circular disks that feel a lot like poker chips, but each one has its own clearly printed logo. The chips are very heavy indeed with no production lines, which makes them exquisite to handle and push around the board. Other components like the unit cards and the manual are all well bold, well printed and free of erroneous or confusing language. The artwork itself isn’t the most exotic, but what it lacks in imagination, it makes up for in simple, visual clarity.
The actual instruction manual is more like a booklet, really, and it is clearly laid out and simple to handle, with thick pages that look likely to stand the test of time — not that you’ll need to refer back to it often. Overall, I think from a pure production standards perspective, War Chest has to be among the best made games of 2018, even if isn’t the most lavish. It’s a masterpiece in simplicity — every component is needed and each one feels as though it’s been built to last.
Regardless of how you set up the game, a turn in War Chest will always play out in the same way. Firstly, it’s worth noting that the majority of unit disks will begin the game hidden inside that player’s bag. At the beginning of a new turn, the first thing that each player will do is draw three coins from their bag and secretly examine them. In the event that the bag contains less than three coins, then that players discard pile will be re-added to the bag and then the remaining number of coins needed will be drawn. Players then take turns to use one coin at a time until all three have been used.
There are three ways to use coins, which are loosely broken down into Placement Actions, Face Down Discard Actions and Face Up Discard Actions, each of which has its own set of sub-actions. None of this is as complicated in practice as it sounds on paper however, so bear with me! Placement actions simply include either placing a new unit on the board in a legal space or adding a second disk of the same kind to an existing unit (which is called bolstering). Unless a unit card specifically says otherwise, it’s only possible for one unit of each kind to be on the battlefield at once, so if you already have a Light Cavalry unit out, for example, then it would only be possible to Bolster it if using a Light Cavalry disk for a Placement Action.
Face Down Discard Actions allow players to place a disk in their discard pile without revealing what is on its face. The first of these is a subtle one that allows the player to take the initiative (first player) marker from their opponent for the next round of play. The second Face Down Action is to recruit, which allows players to add one of their out of play unit tokens into their discard pile, so that it is added to the bag when it is next refreshed. The final Face Down Action is one you won’t want to use often, which is to pass — simply discard a coin and do nothing.
Face Up Discard Actions are more interestingly and usually, more valuable. In general, the game refers to these as maneuvers more often than not, since each of them relates to making one of the existing units take an action. All the player does is discard a chip that matches one of their onboard units, which in turn allows the unit already in play to move, take control of a space, attack or use a tactic — which is a unit specific action printed on the unit card. These tactics generally allow minor rules (such as movement, or moving then attacking) to be broken.
By using these various different methods of deploying, moving and removing chips, the players strive to advance their position, claim control points and drive enemy pieces off the board. Aspects of short term, tactical skill and longer term planning entwine with the luck of the draw. Plan properly and build out your bag of chips, however, and with each new draw, your odds of drawing the chips you need increase turn by turn.
Whilst I can’t speak on behalf of those who are not Chess or Draughts fans, I am reasonably confident that War Chest will almost always appeal to fans of those classic abstract strategy games. At a glance, War Chest has a look that is as classic as the concept, with deep green and cream colours, and gold embossed lettering. Even though it draws players in with this apparent simplicity, it soon reveals the more complex concepts that really make it interesting.
I’ve played most of the setup variations, I think, but without a doubt my preferred version of the game is the draft variant, which introduces a whole phase of the game that isn’t otherwise present. Players can draft unit cards in any way they like, really, but the most straightforward and probably relevant is to draw a card and then pass the card to your opponent. I like to do so until the entire deck is depleted and only then having the players choose their actual army from among those cards drafted. This makes hate drafting a viable option and allows players who know each other well to counter the common strategies of their opponent.
With battle joined, War Chest only becomes more interesting. Each player in a two player game will receive only four units, whilst in the four player variant, there will be three each. The number of chips is entirely dependant on the units in play, but each unit has either four or five chips, two of which will begin in the players bag, with the others sitting on the unit cards. From this starting position (which is already highly variable) I love the agency with which War Chest allows players to conduct their war. Whether you choose to focus on building one or two powerful units, or to spread yourself thin and let chance play its part, there are many ways to play.
Every unit has a very specific focus, with cavalry units generally fast and able to move in from a distance, archers and crossbowmen able to fire from a distance and footmen able to be deployed in multiple locations (breaking the single unit rule.) What this results in is making War Chest feel extremely focused on the importance of individual units, regardless of how grandiose their title — each and every one has a role to play. There are neither so many units in a game that any become expendable, nor so few that the game lacks variety or the potential to spring surprise moments when particular chips (whether expected or not) are drawn from the bag.
There’s no doubt that War Chest excels once you’ve played more of it and perhaps even, when played between two or four people who play each other often. It most certainly reminds me of the classic strategy games that it so obviously draws inspiration from, but the bag building and unit variation elements add gamey unpredictable elements that those classics lack. If these are the kinds of things you’re looking for, then you most certainly can’t go wrong. If, however, the name War Chest makes you think more of a dice rolling miniatures game (as it did for me) then you might need to rethink.
My experience with War Chest has been almost always good, albeit with the caveat that I recognise it has a limited audience that I think I’ve managed carefully among my gaming groups. I think that War Chest is a fantastic looking game that packs a lot in and allows for deeply strategic gameplay simply in the base game, but I am equally excited about what might be added to it in the future. Although I have tired of games like Chess and especially Draughts over years and years of play, I love that War Chest delivers a similar experience but with a few modern twists.
Ultimately I think that War Chest is a good addition to any collection that focuses on two or four players and where the same pair or group is able to reconvene on a regular basis. In any collection, it’s a unique game that is unlikely to be replicated in any form by another designer or publisher in the near future, so if you like curio games that make deep and interesting gameplay the centre of their proposition, then War Chest might still be of interest. For me, it’s going on the long term keep shelf.
A copy of War Chest was provided for review purposes. You can find out more about it on the website of publisher Alderac Entertainment Group.