• Designers: Trevor Benjamin and David Thompson
  • Artist: Brigette Indelicato
  • Release Year: 2018
  • Mechanics: Bag Building, Hand Management, Area Control
  • Players: 2 or 4

Bigfoot and I played War Chest by Trevor Benjamin and David Thompson as it had been on both of our ‘want to play’ lists for a while. I have a strong affinity for two player abstract strategy games, even if they don’t hit the table very much for me anymore. While I don’t think this is going to radically change my gaming habits any time soon, I do think War Chest is special and deserves a closer look.

The theme of War Chest is about as strong as any other abstract strategy game. “In War Chest you take on the role of medieval battlefield commanders, vying to take control of tactical battlefield positions”.

To begin a game of War Chest, each player is dealt 4 unit cards and takes the corresponding unit chips from the box and places them in their own supply. Each player than takes two chips from each unit and places them into their bag, along with their own royal chip. The bag is shaken and the game begins with each player drawing 3 chips.

Basically put, each round you and your opponent will draw chips from your bag, take actions with those chips, then redraw when you’ve both depleted your hands and repeat until one player has managed to lay out all 6 of their control tokens to win the game.

The units in War Chest are what give the game colour and texture. Some have passive abilities, like the Pikeman, who had a stipulation that when a unit attacks it from an adjacent location, they also take a damage, or the Knight who can only be attacked by a unit who has been bolstered.

Some units have restrictions, like the Archer who cannot take the generic attack action, but must use it’s tactic (which allows it to attack a unit two spaces away), and others just have a tactic that you can activate, like the lancer, who can choose move one or two spaces in a straight line, then attack, allowing you to close a wide gap quickly.

War Chest has a lot of push and pull to it. Because you need to have matching chips in your bag to activate units on the board, you’re compelled to fill your bag with as many chips as possible so you can activate your unit more often, but there’s a delay. The unit you’re recruiting chips for won’t be drawn until your bag runs out and you can refresh your bag, where you put all your discarded tokens back into your bag. If you do to have a unit on the board and 3 matching chips in your bag, great, you can start activating that unit frequently, but they’ll have a target painted on their back. Your opponent can see how many tokens you’ve recruited into your bag, and activating a unit requires you to discard a token face up, meaning your opponent knows when a unit is spent and can move in for the kill.

There’s 9 different actions you can do with each chip, which fall under 3 categories. Deploy, where you put your chip onto the board. Maneuver, where you discard a chip to take an action with a matching chip on the board (such as move, attack, bolster, control, or tactics). And finally, you can discard a chip face down to claim the initiative, recruit (move a chip from your supply into your discard pile), or pass.

Getting things done in War Chest is a slow affair. Your bag starts with 9 tokens, two from each of your 4 units, meaning it’ll take 3 rounds before your discard pile goes back into the bag. Assuming you deploy two of your units, that only leaves you with one matching chip for those two units in your bag. That’s only one Maneuver action per bag refresh. It can take 3 or 4 bag refreshes just to get a chip into position. Because it takes so long to do anything, combat feels dangerous. When you have a unit in the line of fire, you immediately start sweating and hoping against hope that you’ll be the first to attack, lest the progress you made with this token is undone with one fell swoop.

On the subject of attacks, when you’re attacked, you remove the attacked chip from the game. Your available chips will slowly dwindle over time. Again, because your opponent can count, they can figure out when they’ve effectively rendered a unit useless. The risk of being attacked can be mitigated by bolstering your units, placing another chip creating a stack. When you’re attacked, the top chip is still removed from the game, but the lower chip remains where it is. Now you don’t need to spend the extra actions returning a subsequent unit to the same position. Again, the push and pull of War Chest shows up, if you bolster, you have less chips in the bag to activate that unit on future turns. Everything is a trade-off.

The goal of the game isn’t to eradicate your opponent, but instead to control 6 points on the board. You control a point by moving a unit onto a control point, then discarding a chip matching the unit on that spot which allows you to place your control token. Once you have a control token down, you can deploy future units from this spot (assuming it’s unoccupied). Should your opponent manage to get one of their units onto your control space, it only takes one control action to remove your token, and install their own.

One of the games that we played, Bigfoot managed to win without attacking me a single time. The threat of combat was enough to keep me back and he managed to get all of his control tokens down. In another game, a single crossbowman was deployed to the board, and with 4 matching chips in the bag, he proceeded to move it into position and cripple my forces with multiple attacks. I had no units that could close the gap quick enough to get in and take out that one devastating unit.

Image Credit: Daniel Thurot @The Innocent via BGG

I imagine every unit can be devastating in specific circumstances. While I’m still a beginner at this game, I can see there’s significant depth ahead of me. Like most abstract strategy games, this is best played against a single person multiple times, with both of you learning and growing together. Previous games experiences informing the decisions as you move forward. A unit that was ineffectual in one game can be the clutch unit in another. When a meta forms and develops over multiple plays as you and your opponent sharpen your skills against each other, something special is made. I suspect that as you play War Chest more, you’ll start drafting the starting units instead of dealing them randomly. This would allow you to craft your army in response to your opponent, offering even more strategic decisions.

It would be remiss if I didn’t mention the luck factor. Because you need matching chips in your hand to activate your units on the board, a lot of the game is putting yourself into the best (and potentially dangerous) position, and hoping you draw the correct chip that will allow you to activate a unit that’s in striking distance before your opponent can, or even further, that you can control a location before the unit gets wiped off the map. To me, the luck in War Chest comes across more as risky than anything else. If you’ve found yourself in a potentially dangerous situation it may be worth burning an action to ensure you get to go first after you draw your 3 chips in the next round.

War Chest feels ripe for expansions, and at the time of this writing, two have already been released War Chest: Siege and War Chest: Nobility. Both add more units and vary the battlefield, giving players new challenges to crash against. While I don’t feel ready to add expansions into my game yet, I’m glad to know they already exist.

If you’re looking for something along the same lines as War Chest, I can personally recommend Santorini. It’s a great strategic game with interesting asymmetric gameplay. If asymmetry is not your bag, I’d recommend Hive or Tak. I find such joy when playing these games against players of equal skill. Of course, there’s always Chess and Go if you want to wade into those waters, but with a skill ceiling so high it can be hard to find players of an similar skill.