Miniature battle games have been around as long as the tabletop hobby itself. From industry giants like Warhammer 40,000 to competitors like Frostgrave, The Walking Dead, or the Star Wars X-Wing Miniatures Game, there’s a huge range of options if you like to lead plastic legions to flaming, spiky, or splattery deaths.
But while mini-wargames are a thriving subsection of gaming geekdom, they’ve always existed in their own fortified compound, separated from the wider gaming audience by the complexity of their rules, the cost of their models, and the time and skill required to build and paint their armies.
Wildlands, a new release from veteran game designer Martin Wallace, aims to bridge that gap—and in the process, it turns many of the assumptions about these kinds of games on their head. A squad-based game of fantasy skirmishes, Wildlands hands players command of teams of wizards and warriors, throwing them into intense five-on-five clashes. Along the way, it combines elements of miniature battle games with clever card play, and the result is a tense, tactical experience that combines board-game-style accessibility with the competitive intensity of a full-blown wargame.
Before you play, you’ll choose one of four factions to command, each with its own set of characters and tactics. There are hardened pit fighters who aim to rush their enemies in hand-to-hand combat, evasive rogues who use speed and agility to stay out of harm’s way, magic users who employ powerful arcane attacks, and ranged combat specialists who attempt to perforate their foes while remaining a safe distance from the fray.
Once you’ve chosen a side, you do battle on one of two environments on the game’s double-sided board. The first, an underground dungeon, is full of twisting passages to traverse as you attempt to outmaneuver your opponents. The second, a ruined city, comes with areas of high and low ground—offering enticing opportunities for well-placed snipers.
Whichever battlefield you choose, though, your goals remain the same. You’ll claim a victory point every time you defeat an enemy character in combat or pick up one of the magical crystals scattered around the board. The first player to reach five points wins, and the result is a frantic scramble to claim points through violence, resource-grabbing, or a carefully calibrated combination of both.
So far, Wildlands might sound like any number of similar skirmish games. But what sets it apart from the pack is its radical simplicity. Where other battle games rely on complicated systems of stats, charts, and dice-rolling combat, Wildlands boldly hacks away at any unnecessary complexity. What remains is a bare-bones mechanical core that still manages to generate a succession of dramatic moments and thorny tactical dilemmas.
You’ll command your troops using a deck of cards—a different deck for each of the game’s factions. Every card comes with a collection of symbols letting you issue orders to the characters under your control: moving, shooting, and attacking in melee combat. But you’ll only be able to choose a single order to activate each card you play, and picking one means forgoing the chance to use the others.
Thus, on every turn you have to carefully read the state of the board and weigh up a host of different priorities. Do you want to attack a vulnerable enemy? Pull weak or wounded troops out of danger? Consolidate control of an important area? And how can you most efficiently use the cards in your hand to pull off your evolving plan?
You can play as many cards as you like on each of your turns, but your hand refills at a steady rate, which means that Wildlands also has a critically important timing element. If you splurge on cards in an all-out assault or a sweeping advance, you may leave yourself at a disadvantage on subsequent turns, forced to make the best use you can of a diminished set of available orders. This neatly represents both the chaos of battle, where you might find yourself unable to give the commands you want at the times you need, and the effects of fatigue upon your troops. Occasionally, there are times when you might even need to skip your turn, resting and rebuilding your hand in preparation for your next big play. (Although rounds pass so quickly that this enforced inactivity never feels grating.)
This design makes for some tough command decisions, but what’s truly impressive is how Wildlands builds so much action and drama on top of such a minimalist mechanical foundation. There are no complex character abilities, no text effects to pore over, no spreadsheet-like tables of stats to consult. But its warring factions and individual characters all have their own distinct flavors, and, as you play, you’ll create some truly cinematic moments.
In our first game, for instance, my gang of combat monsters surrounded an unfortunate enemy. We closed in for a four-on-one mauling, but his controller had a handful of powerful defensive cards, and he managed to prolong the scrap over multiple turns. Meanwhile, his comrades peppered my troops with arrows and crossbow bolts. He had lured me into a perfectly prepared kill zone, and, to add insult to injury, when his hit points sank toward zero, he blew himself up, taking out several of my fighters in the process.
A couple of shortcomings
For me, Wildlands is compelling to the point of addictiveness. But there are a couple of respects in which the game falls flat. The biggest is that its action and excitement don’t hold up at higher player counts. With four squads on the board, anyone with a diminished hand of cards is left unable to defend themselves and thus becomes a target for everyone else’s aggression. Rather than a chaotic whirlwind of combat, four-player games actually feel more staid and conservative.
Then there’s the artwork. The cards in player decks recycle the same pictures over and over again, and they’re pretty uninspiring: portraits of characters standing around doing nothing. Some dramatic action shots would have added to the game’s thematic flavor.
Finally, you aren’t able to tweak or customize your forces. Each group comes as a pre-defined squad, and Wildlands doesn’t have the mixing and matching of characters and abilities found in games like Warhammer Underworlds: Shadespire. But while some players might perceive this as a lack of depth, it also makes Wildlands incredibly quick to pick up and play. With no pre-game process of squad building, you’ll be able to gather your opponents, open the box, and commence with the bloodshed.
Wildlands may be the most accessible skirmish game ever devised, but it sacrifices almost nothing in the way of engaging tactical possibilities. Its publishers have already released a separate undead faction, which brings new abilities to the fight. More squads are set to follow, along with new game boards with different maps for players to fight on. And the designer has hinted at plans for new battle modes, allowing for solo play and dungeon-crawling adventure scenarios.
Whether you’re looking for a quick hit of combat or a battle game you can get into for the long haul, Wildlands is an impressive achievement.