War Chest is a new chess-influenced abstract game by Trevor Benjamin and David Thompson, distributed by AEG. I happened to find it on a ding and dent table in my local store and picked it up. I'm very glad I did. It has added in a modern deck-building mechanic to classic gameplay, among other things. It sports high component production values and easy to understand rules with strategic depth. I'm always interested in modern variants of classic abstract games for my after school gaming club. It has some similarities with two earlier chess-like abstract games which are favorites of my children and I, The Duke and Onitama. So how does it compare with its closest modern cousins? Which one do I and my children like the best? Read on to find out!
In War Chest, two to four players will be using unique medieval units on a grid board in an effort to gain control over six or eight special locations. There are twelve different unit types in the game. In a two-player game, each player will get four units, while in a four-player team game each player will get three units. The units can be distributed either randomly or through drafting (players taking turns selecting a unit and then passing the deck to their opponent to select one). The units can usually move one space as an action. However, mounted units can move two spaces. Most units can attack an opponent’s unit that is adjacent to them, but there are archers and crossbowmen that can attack two spaces away. Thus, units do not attack by landing on opponents, as in chess. Some units have special tactics they can use instead of their normal movement or attack. Other units have passive abilities or hindrances to them. The end result is that every one of the twelve units is unique in how it works on the board.
Each unit is made of either four or five poker chip style pieces, called coins, which stand for individual soldiers in a unit. Only one instance of a unit can be deployed to the gameboard at a time, but a unit can have several soldiers stacked up in it. There is one special unit, the footmen, which can have two units on the board at a time. When a unit is attacked, one of its soldiers is eliminated from the game. So, if a unit has two soldier coins in it, and it gets attacked, it will stay on the board with only one soldier coin remaining. Stacking soldier coins on top of each other is called bolstering. The job of the units is to attack the opponent’s units and also to take control of special locations. When a unit uses an action to take control of one of the special locations, the player puts a control marker on that space. Locations captured by one player can be captured by the other player in subsequent turns, so it is necessary to figure out how to defend the locations you have already captured while you try to capture new locations at the same time. Thus, the goal of capturing the opponent’s king is replaced by the goal of capturing and holding these locations.
So far, the game is not terribly different from the base rules of Chess, The Duke, or Onitama. The location control aspect is different from them as is the idea of bolstering units, but those are incremental evolutions I think. What really makes this game unique is the way the units are given commands or deployed. This game uses a bag building system similar to deck building card games. At the beginning of the game, you place two of each of your units’ soldier coins into a bag, along with a Royal Coin. You then draw three soldier coins out of the bag. With each coin, you have some choices of actions you can take. You can deploy that unit to the board by spawning it on one of your control points (if you don’t already have a unit of that type deployed). If you already have a unit deployed, you can then do the bolster action with the soldier if you wish. More interestingly, you could also use that coin to move a matching unit on the board or cause that unit to attack one of the opponent’s units that is within range. Or you could discard that coin into your discard pile and then take a coin from your supply, which did not make it into your bag yet, and add it to the discard pile. This is called recruiting. You want these supply coins to go into your discard pile, because when you reach into your bag on a subsequent turn and do not have enough coins to draw three, you get to empty your discard pile coins into your bag to draw from. In this way you can bring more soldiers into the game, exactly like cards in a deck building game. Or you could discard that soldier in order to gain the initiative on the next round and go first next time. The fact that you must discard soldier coins in order to activate your units on the board, bring in new units, or seize the initiative, really creates a cool quandary to stew about each turn. If you happen to draw your Royal Coin, you must use it to recruit, seize initiative, or pass. However, the Royal Guard unit does have the unique ability to be activated by the Royal Coin.
In the Duke you are also drawing units from a bag, but you can only do one thing with them. You can only deploy them to the board. With the base rules of The Duke in which you only draw one tile this results in the Duke having less chance mitigation than War Chest. However, if you play with the variant of The Duke in which you are allowed to draw three units and select one, that evens things up a bit more between the games. Onitama has zero randomness once the game starts, on the other hand, which puts it more in line with its chess ancestor.
War Chest is also similar to the Duke in the fact that the units move and attack in much more thematic ways than chess units do. Onitama units move in non-thematic ways, based on the cards in the game, rather than how you might expect different units to move in the real world. So once again, Onitama is more chess-like in this aspect of the game.
Games take around 30 minutes to play, so it is one of the faster chess adaptations.
If four players are going to play the game, then it must be done with teams of two. Although the game does not have specific rule for three players, it does work with that if one of the three players plays as two people on a team. In this manner I was able to play a game as me versus a team of my two children. The four-player version works just as well as the two-player version I think.
The components in this game are beautiful and well made. The soldier coins are weighty poker style chips that feel nice in your hand. The draw bags are embroidered with each side’s logo and are also of high quality. The game board is of standard quality. The game box is meant to look like a wooden chest and fits everything neatly. The only drawback to the storage of the game is that you cannot tip the box on its side or all the chips will come spilling out of their tray. This is rather annoying and has happened to me several times so far. The rules are easy to read and understand.
I believe this is my new favorite modern take on chess. It has dethroned The Duke for me. My daughter also prefers this to the Duke. My son likes The Duke the best, however. Onitama is in third place for all of us. All three of the games are much preferable to Chess itself for us.
Parent/ Teacher Recommendations
This is a great game for children third grade and up. Children with tabletop gaming experience could handle it at a lower age. Everything is nice and sturdy, so it can stand up to use by children.
I think this is an excellent game for an after-school gaming club or classroom library for indoor recess or free-time play. There is a solid amount of strategy in the game. However, there is just enough luck involved to keep the winner from being a sure thing if players of somewhat unequal skill are playing. If the players are of widely different skill levels, though, then the winner will be a foregone conclusion.