Battle Boardgame Berserkers in Wartile!
“It’s not what it looks like!” is an excuse countless people have made in their lifetimes before hastily minimising an obscene browser window, but in the case of Wartile, it’s actually true. Wartile looks like a plodding board game simulator where you’d take turns and roll virtual dice, but it’s actually far more action-packed than its cards and counters would suggest. Wartile impressed me with its original execution when I previewed an early release copy a month ago, but with all the pieces on the board now polished and varnished into version 1.0, it’s time to see if these Nordic tabletop terrors live by the sword, or die by it.
Wartile has you handling a collection of Viking figurines as you move them across the hexagonal boards of a magical fantasy world. Every aspect of the game promotes the signature board game aesthetic with the characters all being attached to a rounded base, making a little “plonk” sound as you click and drag them onto a new hex. Characters automatically attack the nearest adversary with special abilities being activated by dragging cards out of your “deck” and onto the board. Though characters are animated when they slash with their swords, spears and axes or cheer for victory, their feet are always firmly planted to their wooden base, reminding you that they’re figurines! What’s even more adorable is how when you’re selecting which characters you want to take on each mission, you take them out of the box and place them onto a little model longboat.
What was quite surprising to me though, was how everything takes place in real time, with ability and movement cooldowns replacing the traditional turn taking you’d expect from a board game. This can create some situations which are tactical, yet frantic. I’d be setting up an ambush for some shambling zombies, creating a one hex wide choke point to funnel them into killzone with a well placed bear trap, letting my spearman and axeman hack away while their undead legs were trapped in metal jaws. However, then they’d start spawning from multiple angles, sweeping around the back, with any figurine flanked from the rear much more vulnerable to attack. This would leave me rapidly scanning my deck, quite literally, for a trump card to play. Luckily, each character has unique abilities which can synergize quite beautifully with eachother. The spearman can jab adversaries in the leg from afar, leaving them immobilized, allowing him to attack melee enemies with impunity from two hexes away with his axe. This also provides a perfect opportunity for the archer in the party to use her “volley” ability, raining down arrows on hapless targets.
Put on Your Horned Thinking Cap
Wartile is a worthy test of your strategic thinking abilities. In addition to your unit’s ability cards, which are limited by cooldowns, you also have “Godly cards” which you can use by expending battle points (gained during battles by defeating enemies and achieving objectives). These cards are real game-changers, allowing you to heal your ailing toy soldiers, create area-of-effect poison clouds or spawn in crazed zombies to obscure and attack your foes. What makes these cards such a key part of the frantic strategic combat is how you’ll have to determine quickly whether it’s worth spending or saving your points on them during key moments. There’s also ample opportunity for synergizing ability cards and Godly cards, such as how the spearman’s spear wall can knock back charging foes while you use a godly card to start a raging fire, forcing adversaries into the blaze as they do an almost comical dance of pain and confusion.
The campaign screen is beautifully presented; the bar where you add new heroes to your roster has a little cardboard stand background providing a cute diorama for recruitable figurines. Recruiting new party members is expensive though, and you’ll have to prioritize whether you’d rather go down to the merchant to buy better armour and weaponry for your toy troopers. The interface as always reflects the holistic tabletop style here as you click and drag each sword, shield or spear onto your figurines. It’s as instantly satisfying as that snap of a tiny gun fitting into a Lego-man’s crescent hand as you add each new piece of gear.
A Stormy Voyage
Despite the campaign being so well presented, the substance is rather lacking by the standards of a strategy game. You can breeze through all maps in the campaign in a snappy 6-8 hours. What’s even more damning is how half of the nine levels on offer are simply inversions of the same map. For example, the starting level features two of your vikings fighting their way to a mountaintop to make an animal sacrifice. The next level features you fighting your way back down the same mountain, except fighting zombies instead of bandits.
What gives Wartile more longevity is how each stage in the campaign has three different, progressively more difficult, iterations. When you’ve completed a level along with the secondary objectives, you’ll be allowed to play the level again at the next “tier” of difficulty, though usually all this means is facing slightly tougher opponents. Doing this can unlock new Godly cards and magical items. Some of these items are particularly awesome, like a goat’s skull-like helm which gives a chance of spawning a friendly zombie every time the helmet wearer is hit.
Sadly, these repeating levels on higher difficulty tiers underlines the lack of content in Wartile: progress is often only possible by first grinding the same levels for money, gear and experience. Your party has a “reputation level”, which acts as a rough guide to your overall strength and viability at challenging each stage. To reach reputation parity with new levels, you’ll have to replay previous levels multiple times. Though I did enjoy replaying some of these levels at tougher difficulties to really master them, it was a little frustrating that I was effectively forced to do it to continue through the story.
The lack of variety of enemies is also exposed quite brutally in the mid-to late game. The level after you defeat (and ultimately recruit) the witch woman Ylva in a mystical forest, you’ll then be fighting four clones of her on the same map. Though you do face some grisly ice giants towards the final few levels, overwhelmingly your opponents will be swordsmen, spearmen and archers, and zombie versions thereof. The limited assets available to the developers have been leveraged to the absoloute hilt, but that can only go so far to mitigate the fact there’s just not a lot there.
Fun Can be Fiddly
Back when I first previewed the early access version of Wartile, I found it fiddly and time consuming to move your counters across long stretches of the board when there’s no action happening. This has been partially addressed by the ability to shift click one character across the board and have their companions follow automatically. Despite little improvements like this, the pathfinding for the following characters leaves them stuck. Also, the long cooldowns between each movement means you’ll still be spending whole minutes getting your njordlanders from fjord A to fjord B. There are other little niggles I had such as how you have to manually aim targets with the archer rather than her auto-attacking like her counterparts.
There are crucial skills your characters use which seem to work inconsistently, or are poorly explained. For example, the spearman’s “spear wall” skill creates a zone of tiles that enemies are damaged and knocked back from upon entering. This sometimes created a hilariously fun situation where I could trap an opposing counter in a small area and bounce him around the damaging zones, killing them almost instantly. Sometimes though, the skill didn’t seem to work at all, and there’s nothing in the user interface to tell me why not.
Likewise, the witch woman Ylva has a raven which perennially flies around her, swooping down to attack opponents in range. However, unlike her other stats, the raven’s range and attack power aren’t detailed anywhere (at least nowhere I could find), nor could I see the raven’s range highlighted on the board (like other skills helpfully are). This made it difficult to use the character optimally, which is a crucial flaw for any strategy game. In the short time since the game’s release however, Playwood Project have been very quick to produce patches and hotfixes so I wouldn’t be surprised if the interface niggles were soon given a Viking funeral.
A Bold Expedition
Wartile has a wonderfully unique boardgame aesthetic, but that doesn’t erase its fiddly and often repetitive gameplay – nor does it counter (no pun intended) the sometimes clumsy and unintuitive UI. Strategy fans might also find the content on offer rather light for their standards. Still, Wartile is a beautifully well realised real-time strategy that translates the enjoyably tactile feel of playing a physical boardgame as well as any title I’ve played. Wartile absolutely deserves to be played by Vikings, Anglos and Amercalings alike!
Final Verdict: 3.5/5
Available on: PC (reviewed) ; Publisher: Deck13, WhisperGames ; Developer: Playwood Project ; Players: 1 ; Released: February 8th, 2018 ;
Full disclosure: This review is based on a PC review copy provided to Hey Poor Player by the publisher.