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Tactile Brilliance - A War Chest Review

J Updated May 25, 2021
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Tactile brilliance - A War Chest review

Game Information

Game Name
2 - 4
There Will Be Games

Sometimes it's the feel of the game that really snares you.

For those of you who've played poker or have watched regular pros play, there will often be a lot of chip shuffling. A lot of players need either a focus or a distraction while they're playing and get in the habit of manipulating chips (stacking and re-stacking, riffling, etc.) while they're playing. For card games that tend to have larger numbers of cards actually in hand, you'll see a similar behavior with cards. A lot of Magic:The Gathering players are known for rapidly and repeatedly sorting through their hands. Those are tactile sensations that either keep a portion of their brain distracted or act as a focus while they try to anticipate what's happening in the game in front of them. War Chest, a game by Trevor Benjamin and David Thompson, is a similar kind of experience for a number of reasons. It's a 2- or 4-player tactical war game where all the units are heavy coins that you collect in bags from which to draw a random selection and then either play them to the board or discard them to move the units already on the board. Whereas many games can activate the sense of sight with elaborate artwork or cool minis or even the sense of smell when first opening the box, War Chest is one of the more satisfactory games I've played that stimulates the sense of touch. As opposed to the light and often delicate wooden or plastic pieces of most other releases in the modern era, these unit coins are remarkably solid and have real heft. You can play them to the board with an audible "thunk" every time and shuffling the coins in your hand, just like poker chips, is one of the more entrancing activities I've done at a game table in recent years. Combine that with the smooth and simple artwork, the easy-to-read iconography, the simple rules, the thick, embroidered bags, and even the nice box, designed to resemble a wooden chest with a magnetic clasp on the closing flap, makes this one of the best physical presentations of the past few years. Everything about this game's look and feel speaks to the care and attention that went into its physical design. Thankfully, that same care and attention was applied to its gameplay, as well.

War Chest

The coins are the (ahem) universal currency of the game. You build your bag similarly to deckbuilders, in that you begin with a certain number of each of your four different units in your bag and can add more as you go along. You can have only one of each type of unit on the board at a time, but can add more coins to that unit (bolstering; so it can take more hits) simply by drawing the right one. Maneuvering a unit on the board (move, attack, tactic (special attack), or control a location; controlling six locations wins the game) means discarding the same type of coin face up. But recruiting more coins or taking the initiative from your opponent can be done with any coin face down. You want to keep your bag relatively sparse to ensure that you draw the coins you want to maneuver on the board. But you also want to have more options so that you can keep multiple units in useful or threatening positions as often as possible. That creates a great tension for how you build your bag as you try to find the balance between efficiency and versatility in the game. It also creates tension for your opponent, as most units are limited to moving or attacking and it's rare that both will happen in a single draw. So players will often have to roll up next to an opposing unit that they want to remove, but have to wait a turn before they can, banking on the idea that the opposition doesn't have the right coin in hand that will let them kill before being killed. In that way, we hearken back to those games (like poker) where you often play the player, rather than the cards in hand. What does your opponent's previous turn tell you about what they have in hand? What are their eyes telling you about the risk of moving your Footman next to their Heavy Cavalry?

War Chest Units

As you might expect, with the limited number of units in play at any time and the simple but elegant rules, War Chest games don't go on for very long, either; usually lasting about a half hour, at most. But there's significant depth in the game as a whole. With 16 units in the base game and another four each added in both of the expansions (Nobility and Siege), the combinations available are considerable, especially considering how different units will shine against different opposition. Did your opponent go heavy on mobility with Scout and Light Cavalry? Well, having Knights and Archers should be an effective answer, since they won't be able to attack the former while unbolstered and can be picked off by the latter across half the board. But some of the real joys are discovering the ways in which particular units can interact directly with the game's bag-building and drawing systems like the Mercenary, who can maneuver every time you recruit another Mercenary, or the Warrior Priest who allows you to draw and use another coin whenever it attacks or controls. Finding those little combos, measured against that essential tension of being able to draw more of the units you really want without completely abandoning the rest of your force in play is what generates a lot of the brow-wrinkling that the game encourages.

War Chest Nobility

Both expansions provide greater texture in a different way. Nobility adds the Decree system, which are three single-use actions that both players can take advantage of during the game. Most of them are comprised of actions taken outside the normal system or enhanced versions of the usual ones, like recruiting twice or taking a unit off the board and then redeploying it somewhere else. As with similar mechanics in other games, knowing when to exercise the one time you can spy on an opponent's hand and discard one of their coins may be, as with many ancient battles, the key moment that assures victory or the famous chance that was wasted. Two units in the expansion- the Earl and the Herald -have abilities that are directly connected to the Decrees. Similarly, the Siege expansion introduces the Fortification system for a somewhat slower and more methodical game (enemy units in Fortifications can't be attacked until the Fortification is destroyed) but only one unit- the Sapper -is directly connected to the system, although the rest must be bolstered to use their tactics. Even with the slower pace, Siege doesn't overstay its welcome and experienced players should be able to adapt quite quickly to the new requirements and new possibilities.

War Chest

I've rarely found a game that simply feels so satisfying to play, whether it's pulling another hand of three heavy coins into your hand or sliding one across the board until it makes contact with another, opponent or ally, with an audible "click." Despite having a variety of unit abilities and functions, the overall design retains enough of the feel of an abstract to make one imagine playing a slightly more advanced version of chess and many of the choices that War Chest players make will be similar, as formations and positions on the simple, hexagonal board will be similarly constructed and arrived at. As with many games, play will really accelerate and reach its peak with more experienced players who are willing to draft their units to try to develop those inherent combos and synchronicities. At least in this case, the answer to the famous "What's in the box?" is "A really remarkable package."

Editor reviews

1 reviews

War Chest
Gameplay depth in an easy to learn and beautifully constructed package.
Marc Reichardt  (He/Him)
Associate Writer

Marc started gaming at the age of 5 by beating everyone at Monopoly, but soon decided that Marxism, science fiction, and wargames were more interesting than money, so he opted for writing (and more games) while building political parties, running a comic studio, and following Liverpool. You can find him on Twitter @Jackwraith and lurking in other corners of the Interwebs.


Articles by Marc

Marc Reichardt
Staff Board Game Reviewer

Articles by Marc

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Sagrilarus's Avatar
Sagrilarus replied the topic: #323412 24 May 2021 20:54
This is quite a review, and thank you for including the photos. I almost wonder if a sound file might have been appropriate as well.

Is combat a foregone conclusion or is there an element of luck or surprise in the game? You mention things like destroying a fortification but don’t describe how that’s done.
Jackwraith's Avatar
Jackwraith replied the topic: #323414 24 May 2021 22:22
Yeah, a soundfile would've been cool, although I have a hard enough time with pictures.

Combat is almost inevitable. It is a wargame, after all. The luck/surprise is a derivation of what you draw from your bag. Each player draws three coins every round and plays them out, one by one, in alternating turns. That's what I meant when I talked about the element of risk in moving one of your units next to an opponent's while not knowing what they may have drawn and if they're able to activate that unit that you're now adjacent to. Most unit attacks need adjacency, except for those (like Archers and Crossbowmen) who can use their tactic to attack at range.

Fortifications are coins that start on the board and can be inhabited by other units. If you attack a unit inside a fortification, the fort must be destroyed first before removing any coins from the enemy unit. (Each attack removes one enemy coin.) So, Siege allows you to pivot around strongpoints on the map, in addition to trying to control specific points in order to win.
n815e's Avatar
n815e replied the topic: #323422 25 May 2021 11:33
This was a good review.

jason10mm's Avatar
jason10mm replied the topic: #323423 25 May 2021 13:10
Awesome review, I'll have to keep an eye out for this at my FLGS. I feel that blind chit drawing/bag stuffing is a very underutilized mechanic. Yggdrassil, one if my favorite 1 hour or less co-ops, uses then extensively, and I forget which one it is but there is a nice 80's era tank combat game that uses chit draw for unit activation. At first I thought this was gonna be a reimplentation of that Pog(?) system from a ways back.

Minis have taken all the spotlight but I think there is a lot more to component design than just sexy molded plastic dudes. Who can forget the metallic display of Terraforming mars that first time, or playing Splendor with those poker chips, or the uber meaty cardboard hexagons in Survive? Even a nice linen finished card just feels better in the hand.
Jackwraith's Avatar
Jackwraith replied the topic: #323428 25 May 2021 17:09
Thanks. Yeah, Splendor was a game that came to mind when I first played War Chest, precisely for those nice chips. One more recent game that occurred is Cosmic Frog. Jim did a really good job with the feel of that one, too, as the terrain tokens are all quite solid to the touch and the game mat was a good choice, since the texture of it prevents sliding by said terrain.
Michael Barnes's Avatar
Michael Barnes replied the topic: #323430 25 May 2021 17:21
If you look up Too Many Bones buying recommendations, just about all of them rate the upgraded health chips highly. The unit chips are all heavy, high grade with foil labels. The standard health markers are lower quality and much lighter. I haven’t bought them but I’ll probably put them in another order just because yeah, that heavy tactile quality is nice.

War Chest is one I’ve been almost about to pick up many times, it looks really good and Undaunted is definitely a reason to have a look at the designers’ other work. Not sure why I always back down off of interest in it though.
ChristopherMD's Avatar
ChristopherMD replied the topic: #323432 25 May 2021 17:51

Michael Barnes wrote: The unit chips are all heavy, high grade with foil labels. The standard health markers are lower quality and much lighter. I haven’t bought them but I’ll probably put them in another order just because yeah, that heavy tactile quality is nice.

I'm starting to wonder if Michael Barnes' account has been hacked.
Michael Barnes's Avatar
Michael Barnes replied the topic: #323433 25 May 2021 18:20
Hey I bought the metal coins for Rococo so I am starting to wonder the same thing.

But hey, it does up the resale value...
Andi Lennon's Avatar
Andi Lennon replied the topic: #324159 22 Jun 2021 21:32
Great review. I've had my eye on this one but the short play time is actually a bit of a turn off. 30 min games often feel like they end just as things were starting to get interesting. Do any of the expansions offer a more...expansive mode? Something that bulks it out to an hour or so?
Jackwraith's Avatar
Jackwraith replied the topic: #324164 23 Jun 2021 00:06
Thanks. Siege does that to some degree, since it involves another set of markers on the board that require extra hits to destroy. And, of course, depending on the AP of you and your opponent(s), games can certainly run longer than half an hour. I guess it depends on how evenly matched you happen to be.
Andi Lennon's Avatar
Andi Lennon replied the topic: #324165 23 Jun 2021 00:13
Cheers. I do have a regular opponent who's AP is verging on the clinical but I usually just resort to staring at him seductively until he's unnerved enough to take his turn. I'm not sure that would enhance the experience here.