I am a newbie to the world of wargaming. I have often stood with my nose pressed up against the wargame glass, looking in uncomprehendingly as chits and counters make their way across maps made up of ochre hexagons, and men – usually men, often middle-aged and bearded – beam in quiet contentment as dice are rolled and tokens flipped. Sometimes tables are flipped too. Oh, and I’m a middle-aged and bearded man…but without a fellow wargamer, even though Commands and Colors: Ancients sits on my shelf, unplayed, waiting for that moment when the stars align and my partner says “You know, dear, I really fancy reenacting the battle of Actium. Do you happen to have anything to fit the bill?” Never going to happen.
War, what is it…well, you know the rest!
But we live in hope, and DVG (Dan Verssen Games) offer that hope in the vast selection of solo wargames they publish. Pick your flavour, gird up your gaming loins and go for it, although all that cardboard and all those charts come at a price, and it is that financial investment that has put me off dipping my toes into the murky waters thus far, so the opportunity to review Warfighter: The WWII Tactical Combat Card Game (henceforth Warfighter, for obvious reasons) was way too good to miss. It plays solo, so tickety tick for that box, but is also cooperative for up to six players, although not in my house (“Darling, how about a cooperative World War Two game tonight? No? Sure?”).
Country Stroll? This should be easy!
The Warfighter box is a hefty thing, filled with cards, dice, cards, board, cards, tokens, cards, rules and more cards, and when everything is unpunched and sorted you will be left with no option but to throw out the insert unless you want to perch the lid precariously atop the balanced pile o’ stuff. The cards (did I mention that there are lots of these?) form various decks – soldiers, locations, events, weapons, enemies and the like – and will form the core of the game, and (spoiler alert) impressively so.
Country stroll? Not quite!
Before you go a-wandering across the parched remains of Europe, Warfighter requires you to select a mission card and an objective card, and they are placed on the board with an ominously empty space between them. This space needs to be traversed by your brave troupe of soldiers, uncovering locations and flushing out the enemy as they go, but there is a time limit to the game as well, so you cannot simply hunker down and pop off the occasional shot while the sun is in the enemy’s eyes. You need to select your brave soldiers and tool them up with kit, for which there is a maximum allowance, and then you draw a hand of cards up to your main soldier’s health value and off you go…
All I have to do is get to this observation post. The dice will make it easy, right?
…except that in my first game of Warfighter I drew no locations to explore and spent my first turn spending actions redrawing until I was able to place a new location, at which point the enemy sprang out of their hiding places and I was left with only a couple of opportunities to get off some hopeful shots. “Hopeful” is the right word, for unless you have a suitable card in hand shooting involves rolling dice and, you’ve guessed it, they will hate you with a vengeance in Warfighter. Soldiers, whether friend or foe, sit in cover, so that needs to be overcome with a six-sided die if you are going to be able to hit them with your ten-sided attack dice. Success on both counts equals a kill, while success on one of these counts suppresses an enemy, effectively knocking them out for the turn. If both rolls fail then you have wasted your turn and, to make things worse, if you roll low enough on any of your d10 then you are out of ammo and will need to spend another action reloading. I’ll say it again, Warfighter’s dice hate its players.
The dice hate you? Man up, soldier!
Once your soldiers have done their movement and attacking it is the turn of the enemy to do the same, there’s a little bit of upkeep, the game timer moves along, and in terms of the core mechanisms of the game that really is pretty much it. Now that I write this I wonder quite why Warfighter seemed so oppressive to play when I was in the thick of it. And then I remember…
Oops – enemy sighted in the houses.
Warfighter brings with it two of my bêtes noires as far as board gaming goes which, in combination, can pretty much destroy a game, and those two things are keywords and a counterintuitive rulebook. To be fair, the rulebook for Warfighter does its level best to make things easy for its players, but everything seems to be jumbled up into a very strange order, so that the concepts of play are described in intricate and often overwhelming detail as a player reads through the book. I can see how it might work, but I found myself flicking back and forth almost constantly, even as early as the setup phase, to answer such simple questions as which soldier cards I could use and even how many cards I should draw at the beginning of the game. Rules for the expansions are also dropped unapologetically into the main text as well. More damagingly, the many keywords need a much better explanation of what they do and how they are triggered or react to each other. Warfighter does come with a sheet that explains what the keywords mean, but needs more on how they work, and, to make things worse, the index in the main rulebook is general rather than specific, so if I want to look up XP, for example, I have no real indication other than the keyword sheet telling me that it is short for Experience Points. Confusingly, the player options as printed on Warfighter’s game board also do not match the options in the rules. Maybe one went to press before the other, but to have incomplete information on the board seems to be an oversight, especially as in almost every other case the main board is great.
Available actions in the rules and on the board are different…
Getting into Warfighter is therefore slightly trickier than it should be, but it is at that Fantasy Flight level of balancing-all-the-rulebooks frustration rather than breaking the game and, like FF, the game you get is worth the price of entry. Once you get a few turns in and know what your soldiers are capable of doing, and how they can pin down the enemy with suppressing fire in order to give a soldier time to get in close enough to throw in a grenade, or how one of your platoon can hold off a sniper so that your squad leader can apply a bandage to his wounds, well, then you start to get genuinely immersed in the game.
More enemy and tough terrain. It’s not looking good…
Enemy rolling over? Try to beat the Elite!
Should you ever get to the stage where you feel that the enemy is simply rolling over and letting you get to the end of the game without putting up any kind of a fight at all, then you can crack open the Elite enemy deck and see how long you last, and the various combinations of missions and objectives will keep Warfighter fresh for a long, long time, especially with all the tinkering that can go into planning your initial gang of gung-ho guerillas, because when you lose it will never be because you played badly, oh no, it is just that you should have tweaked your group’s equipment a little more imaginatively. Yes, that’s right. You just keep telling yourself that. Not because you played badly. No. No at all. How do you like them alternative facts?
But there is no denying that the dice can have a massive effect in Warfighter. Yes, I know that war is all about dealing with the unexpected and triumphing against the fiercest of vicissitudes of fate, but one of my guys wasted an entire first-aid kit in a single game trying to heal two wounds and not once did the dice favour me. Given that he was the lead chap and that his reduced health curtailed my hand size to a measly four cards this felt particularly unfair.
Yet somehow Warfighter can be forgiven these cruelties because it does what it does so well, and because all through the game there is that feeling that you can eke out an unlikely victory if you just get everything totally right and the dice fall ever so slightly in your direction. Or maybe next time you should travel lighter to draw the attention of fewer enemies, or maybe do without that extra first aid kit and instead take some more ammo, or…or… All those options are there, and Warfighter will send you away thinking about what you could have done differently this time and what you should do better next time, and that is always a good sign.
Coming to Warfighter fresh? Expect to be schooled!
Even in my somewhat shambolic plays of Warfighter, I really felt that the theme came through and I felt for my soldiers and their predicament, even though they were only cards and tokens. Rather alarmingly, and ramming home the theme, I correspondingly viewed the enemy merely as targets to be destroyed, none of this namby pamby stuff about worrying how their sweethearts would feel at home when they found out they’d been snuffed out by a dice roll, or my guys playing football with them at Christmas. No, corporal, I need to get to that bridge and woe betide anybody who stands in the way. The snipers behave like snipers, the tanks behave like tanks – heavens, even the houses behave like houses. It all helps to draw the player into Warfighter and its world, and makes that hour or so indulged in play feel like a little escape from reality, even if it is into a hellish alternative reality most of use cannot truly imagine.
My first aid kits were useless…
If you can live with the perpetual upkeep of the tokens and chits, and the keywords and the difficult and stuttering initial plays then Warfighter really has the potential to get under your skin, but it is for a very specific selection of gamers indeed. If you know and hate Lord Of The Rings: The Card Game for the constant headsmacking it will give you and the migranes you will incur trying to keep track of those keywords, and if you recognise the feeling that an easy win means that you have got a critical rule wrong, then you will feel right at home here, and the promise of many expansions to fine tune your experience will be joy indeed. As a close to first time war gamer myself I think I would rate this as a level up from where I would have liked to dive in, but I am sorely tempted to go along for the ride, play it some more times and see what happens.
A Major disaster? Or a triumphant parade?
So if you are a total newbie to this type of thing you should consider yourself akin to that trembling novice that you just know is going to take a bullet for the team about five minutes into the film as he pops out for a crafty cigarette just after talking about how much he misses his sweetheart back home and how he’s going to marry her as soon as he gets back. It will be short, brutal and not particularly pretty. So be aware, private, you’ll need to man up. It is a deeply impressive game, though, and one that will reward those who have the time and patience to become entwined in its twists and turns, but the barrier to entry is high, and it will likely take several goes before you are playing it exactly as the designer intended. Move up the ranks, though, and this game will award you your stripes, and for a wargaming veteran Warfighter is probably worth a 9 out of 10, but be aware that this game is best left to those who know what they are doing, like war itself.
Love tokens? Love keywords? Warfighter is for you!
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I have been playing Hobby games for as long as I can remember, including Waddington's Formula-1 in my teens and family card games before that. I mainly play with two, sometimes more, and I'm happy to give any game a try. I lean towards medium-weight games with simple rules and deep gameplay. Homo ludens and proud of it.