Developer: Playwood Project
Publisher: Deck13, WhisperGames
Played on: PC
Release Date: February 8, 2018
Played with: Mouse & Keyboard
Paid: $0 (Key provided for review)
“Now I am become Viking, the destroyer of board games.”
I made this remark while discussing Wartile in a bored, semi-inebriated stupor with a friend of mine. In hindsight, I find it to be utterly nonsensical – I certainly meant it to be at the time. Yet I still find it to be less bewildering than some of the design decisions that went into Wartile.
As you may have guessed from my earlier ramblings, Wartile is a video game in which you play a board game about Vikings. Taking control of these fearsome warriors, you assemble them into warbands and guide them to victory in missions involving sacrifices to their gods, defence of their territories, and so forth. However, all this information is fed to you via frequently typo-ridden text dumps before, during, and after each level, making it difficult to get truly invested in the narrative. To make matters worse, you’ll find yourself constantly replaying the same missions and receiving identical story beats simply to grind warband levels.
See, Wartile’s campaign is non-linear, in that you frequently can tackle one of several missions at a given time. Unfortunately, many of these are simply the same missions you’ve faced before, only with tougher enemies and better completion rewards. Rather than cordoning these off in separate modes, they’re instead shoehorned into a single campaign. Thus, you’ll not only find yourself frequently underleveled to tackle new story missions, but the only way to remedy this is to do the same things you’ve already done.
To make matters worse, Wartile’s metric for measuring your ability to tackle a given mission is a “reputation” gauge. However, this is effectively an arbitrary number; the nearest I could tell, it simply increases by one every time you completed a mission. It therefore becomes completely useless when you realize that you don’t get to take your entire warband into each mission, resulting in uneven leveling across the squad. Wartile may tell you that you’re ready to tackle a reputation 11 mission, but if you take that level one archer you just bought in, it’s safe to say that she’ll be dead before she can nock an arrow. In general, this means that your best approach is simply to pick a diverse crew (e.g. an attacker, tank, and archer), and focus all your efforts on levelling them up, buying them the best gear, and so on.
I’d have an easier time forgiving these homogenizing design choices if the core gameplay of Wartile was interesting. Note the “if” in that sentence. I’m not lying when I say that the only way I was able to really enjoy this game was by listening to a podcast while playing; even then, that was just because the McElroy brothers are hilarious. The problem lies in the fact that Wartile can’t decide what it wants to be, and ends up half-assing everything it does as a result.
With the game being styled aesthetically after a board game, I assumed it would be a turn-based affair; its structured, hex-based movement system further supported this notion. However, Wartile instead opts for real-time play. You click and drag each member of your warband around the table, encounter enemies and interact with objects, and reposition as needed. It seems that the goal was to create a faster-paced experience, and you do have unlimited access to the ability to slow down time if you really need to plan out moves.
The thing is, there’s not enough going on to make Wartile interesting as an RTS, but there’s too much to make it a relaxing, slower-paced experience. Leaving time slowed down effectively makes the game turn-based, giving you ample time to select targets for your ability cards and such. It also means that everything else takes a bloody eternity. Your characters have movement cooldowns, meaning that they must wait a second after moving before they can be moved again. With time slowed down, this second of waiting becomes closer to ten seconds. You can walk away, make some coffee, and come back to the game in the time it takes one warrior to swing their axe; okay, that’s an exaggeration, but you get the idea.
However, if you leave the game running in real-time, you’ll find yourself constantly ill-equipped to effectively take on your opponents. There are no selection groups, meaning you either move one person, or everyone. Did you want your archer to hang back and pick off enemies from afar? Too bad, they’re jumping into the middle of the fray.
Speaking of which, there’s no way to issue commands to your Vikings, meaning there’s no way to direct them to continually move towards a specific point, attack enemies who come into range, etc. Again, this becomes especially egregious with archers; unless their target is right next to them, they won’t auto-fire. Thus, you have to select every one of their targets. If the enemy they’re fighting dies, you must select a new target for them. It’s all too easy to end up wondering why your archer is standing around uselessly, only to realize that they killed their target and don’t know what to do next. This isn’t helped by many of the enemies looking identical, meaning you’ll frequently lose track of who you’ve targeted, if they’re already dead, or if they’re even in attack range. In short, you’re constantly babysitting your crew of bloodthirsty Vikings; except you can’t even do that, because half the time you’re waiting around to be able to move them another two or three hexes.
Then there are the problems that crop up regardless of whether you play Wartile slowed down, in real-time, or in some hybrid of the two. There’s no way to select enemies and get information about them, such as their stats, movement and attack ranges, etc. Of course, you can slow down time, zoom in, and check out their equipment to get an idea of whether they’re wielding a cheap axe or a massive Zweihander, but I’d be surprised if anyone has the patience to do that with any regularity.
Even still, that doesn’t solve the movement/attack range problems, meaning you’ll frequently lay down traps, only to have foes jump right over them; or think that your weaker units are safe, right before some dude with a massive club lands right next to them. Plus, some foes have abilities that stun your units, push/pull them around, and so forth; again, the only way I could find to actually keep track of who did what was through rote memorization.
My last big gripe is that there are several abilities that simply don’t end up working the way one would want them to. You can bring ability cards into battle that allow you to do things like laying the aforementioned traps, healing your units, and even turning enemies into frogs. However, my deck loadout was usually constructed not to include what was most useful, but to exclude what had too many negative side effects. A berserker rage spell temporarily enrages an opposing unit, causing them to attack anyone nearby – including their allies. That’d be fine, except they were conveniently able to snap out of their blind rage for long enough to hop over to one of my guys and start whaling on them instead. An upgrade for one of my characters gave them a chance to poison a random nearby square when hit – even if that meant poisoning one of their friends to death. One unit’s ability (each lets you choose one from a selection of three) summons a swarm of flies that taunts adjacent units into attacking it – even if those units are yours. I understand that all these “friendly fire” quirks were thrown in to add an extra layer of strategy to combat, but the underlying mechanics of Wartile are so clunky and cumbersome that they become little more than a nuisance.
If there’s one thing Wartile mostly has going for it, it’s the game’s presentation. The “living board game” aesthetic is beautifully brought to life, and I instantly fell in love with it. Environments are wonderfully detailed – perhaps a bit too detailed, as foliage and the like on some of the denser levels frequently obscures your view. Additionally, there are only a handful of “original” levels – for instance, the “Álfeblót Ceremony” level is little more than a spooky reskin of the “The Dark Forest” level.
The biggest problem with Wartile is that it’s cool. It’s a cool concept for a game, has a gorgeous art style, and obviously had a lot of passion put into its production. Unfortunately, its repetitive design, boring gameplay, and unwillingness to commit to a particular playstyle make all this coolness simply feel like wasted potential. Wartile may be a hell of a lot cheaper than your average miniatures game, but I think that there’s a very good reason for that.