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[Review] Wallenstein

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Joined: 03/23/2011

Recently, I’ve been reviewing light games, ones that are good especially for children. However, I do like good, “meaty” games quite often, and some of them are in my “top ten” games. I like a lot of games, but the “top ten” are the games that I’ll play anytime, anywhere; and it’s very rare that a new game makes it up to this esteemed (for me, anyway) list. But, such is the case of Wallenstein (Queen Games, 2002 - Dirk Henn). I had initially heard good things about the game from those who played it. The inclusion of the cube tower that was in Im Zeichen des Kruezes - one of my favorite game components ever - made it that much more interesting to me. Once I opened the box, however, I was a little overwhelmed with the pieces, boards etc. - and the fact that everything was in a different language. So I downloaded some English paste-ups for the cards and some English rules, and proceeded to play the game.

And the end result was that Wallenstein shot up into my top ten games immediately, with every subsequent playing confirming this choice. It has some features of a light war game, with the stunningly cool dice tower, mixed with the strategic play of a euro game - and the mix works amazingly well! I’ve found that the game goes over with those who like war games, and equally so with those who like “German” mechanics, such as area control. The game is huge, and looks fantastic on the table - and the game play matches the mechanics. There are few games that I recommend higher than Wallenstein, it is in fact third on my all time gaming list.

A huge game board is set in the middle of the table, representing Germany during the Thirty-Years War. The board is split into five regions, each a different color, split into nine countries. Each player is given an individual player board in their color (representing one of the leaders during this time), all the small cubes of that color, and several blank land cards. One cube for each player is placed on a grain track on the side of the main board - at zero - representing how much grain their faction has. Depending on how many players are in the game (3-5), each player receives “chests” worth a certain amount of gold. The cube tower is then set up, and seven armies from each player, along with ten green (neutral) armies, are thrown into the cube tower. Any cubes that fall out at the bottom are returned to those players, but some cubes will stay in the tower. A stack of event cards is shuffled and placed on the board.

Each player then picks their territories. The players can decide to either follow a suggested placement included in the rules, or pick their own territories. If they pick the latter, the land cards (one for each territory) are shuffled, and two are placed face up next to the pile. At the top of each player’s boards are nine squares with numbers in them (5,4,4,3,3,2,2,2,2) - each to be filled with the appropriate number of armies (cubes). Starting with one player, each player can either take one of the face-up cards, or the top card from the pile - then place all the armies from one of their squares into that country. The game is then ready to begin. Each game consists of two “years” - each year being formed of four seasons (although the “winter” season is really only a scoring phase).

At the start of each of the two years, four event cards are drawn and laid on four spaces on the board. These cards show events that will happen after each season and how much grain will be consumed during the winter. At the beginning of the second turn, players will also set their grain counters to zero. Spring season starts with summer and autumn turns following the exact same pattern.

The first thing that is done each turn is that ten “action” cards are shuffled and placed in ten action spaces at the bottom of the main board. On the first five spaces, the action cards are placed face-up, on the last five, face-down. Each player then plans their actions. On their player boards, they have ten spaces for cards - each representing one of the ten possible actions. On each of these spaces, they place face-down one of the cards in their hand. They can place any of the country cards that they control, or one of the blank cards (in the beginning of the game, they won’t have enough country cards, so they will be forced to play at least some of the blank cards.) A card representing each player is then shuffled, and placed face up on the board - showing turn order. One of the four event cards at the top of the board is selected randomly, and the event on the card occurs during this season (restrictions on movement, etc.). Of course, there are only three event cards for summer to choose from, and two for autumn. Then starting with action one, players execute the actions in turn order. The player reveals the country card they have on that action, and executes the action in that country. The actions that can occur are:
- Gold: Each country produces a certain amount of gold. If the player chooses a country for gold, they receive chests equal to the output of that country, then place a revolt marker on that country. If a player puts a revolt marker in a country that already has one, a revolt breaks out, which is handled similar to a battle - but the player fights neutral armies according to how bad the revolt is.
- Grain: This is handled the same way as gold, except that the grain marker is moved rather than the player receiving chests.
- Movement/Battle: There are two of these cards, one marked “A”, and the other “B”. They allow players to move armies from one territory into an adjacent country, and if it is a neutral or opponent’s territory, attack it. Battles are fun, using the cube tower, and I’ll simplify them by just saying that the more cubes that fall out of the tower of your color - the better you do! (There’s more to it than that.)
- Building: Three of the cards allow the player to build a building on a city in their territory. One card allows a trading firm, the other a church, the other a palace, all costing 1, 2, or 3 chests. Each country has one to three cities, and each city can only have one building tile on it - and each country can only have one of each type.
- Supply: The remaining three actions involve supplies. Two of them allow players to reinforce the countries with armies, for a price. This allows them to reinforce a country, and then move armies from that country to a neighboring friendly country.

After all actions have been completed, the next season is started, which is carried out in the exact same way, except for the winter season. In the winter, the last event card is looked at, but instead of the event on it, the number shows (0 -7) - which corresponds to the grain loss that winter. Each player must subtract that amount from their grain scale, as well as one grain for each country they control. If the player runs out of grain, revolts occur in certain territories, according to a chart printed on the table. Players then score victory points - one for each country and building they control. Each of the five large regions is also scored - the player with the most palaces in each scores three points, most churches score two points, and most trading firms score one point. All revolt markers are removed from the board, and the next year begins - if it is the first year, otherwise the game ends. At game end, the player with the most points is the winner!

Some comments on the game...

1.) Components: The components for the game are excellent, and even in a huge box, they barely fit in. Of course, a lot of this has to do with the huge cube tower - but it is a central piece of the game, and I can’t imagine Wallenstein without it. The cubes are small, but they are bright and rattle through the tower well. I really enjoyed using the wooden chests for money - the orange for five gold, and the tan for one gold. They were not confused with the cubes, being a much different size - and were easier to handle than coins. The cards were nice, but the massive amount of German text, especially on the event cards, caused me to print out some card paste-ups from the ‘net, which worked exceedingly well. The tiles for the buildings are of a nice thickness, and are - gasp - doubled sided! The board is HUGE, but absolutely beautiful, and the colors and territory divisions are clearly marked - we never had an argument over what went where. Everything fits well in plastic inserts in the box - although because I have a fetish about bagging everything - so the bags didn’t fit in the game quite as well.

2.) Tower: Wow - it’s a fantastic addition to the game. I’ve always liked dice towers, and this one is so much more fun. I enjoyed throwing the armies into the tower to see which ones fall out and which stay in. The same odds could probably be calculated with dice and charts, but the tower is so much more fun. One thing that we did, however, was to designate a “Tower Table”. Leaving the tower at the main table could cause cubes to fall from it when it was jostled - leaving players irritated at the jostler. So we put the tower at another table, and since battles aren’t that common (a player can only initiate twelve a game - and probably won’t), it makes the battles more unique and exciting. And, no one knocks it over. The tower, made of cardboard and plastic parts, is a very cool centerpiece to the whole game.

3.) Rules: The rules, like the cards, are printed in German, but I was fortunate to find an exact English translation on the internet that included color illustrations and examples. This was helpful and quite nice, but I really didn’t like how the rules were laid out. Game setup was in the middle, and the rest of the rules seemed to be listed in a slightly haphazard order, rather than in a more flowing fashion. Also, for the amount of pages of rules - only seven - coupled with the large illustrations on each page - made it so the rules were stated only once, and not everything was emphasized. I read the rules several times, but still wasn’t quite confident with them - but once the game was taught to me, I understood it easily. I found that the game isn’t too difficult to teach, although many people don’t “get it” until the first year’s scoring, which is often too late. Many of my “new” games last three years - a practice year, and then the real game.

4.) Theme: I’m not an expert on the Thirty-Years War, but I did appreciate the amount of detail the game represented. There was even a small book talking about the characters in the game (faithfully translated on the web.) The game was slightly fascinating from that aspect, and the real chaos from these years made the game that much more thematic.

5.) Randomness and Strategy: The game really throws in a bit of randomness with the cube tower. This is not like it first appears, however. First of all, battles are rare, and only are usually fought when the attacker has overwhelming odds. Secondly, the strategy in the game almost ensures that the best player will win. The player who best allocates the actions amongst their countries will win, and the game has a very fun tactical feel, as players adjust to the different order of players and actions each turn. Getting a lot of buildings is important, although I’ve seen many players miss this on their first game (thus the reason we usually play a practice year.) The game is not so deep that teenagers can’t understand it; on the contrary, they seem to adapt well. But the strategies involved are very intriguing to people, who like deeper games; and I enjoyed this part of the game a lot. The entire action card allocation is one of the best mechanics I have ever seen in a game.

6.) Time and Players: The game seems to scale well from three to five players, but I most enjoy it with five, as I like to see the alliances shift in a group of that number. The game can take up to about two hours, but once players get the hang of the game, it can be shorter than that.

7.) Fun Factor: I really enjoyed this game. It took a lot of the “Huzzah” factor from other light war games of this type, and mixed them with some serious “German” mechanics. It reminded me of El Grande a bit - and while not as elegant as that wonderful game (another in my top ten), I found it a little more fun. Much of this, of course, has to do with the cube tower, but just as much has to do with figuring out where to put my country cards on the action board. Every time I’ve played this game I’ve enjoyed it immensely, and I don’t see it getting old anytime soon.

Well, it’s obvious from above that I adore this game - it packs much of what I like into one (big) box. The theme is good, the components are great, there is luck involved, a cool game part- the cube tower, and excellent mechanics. Everyone I’ve introduced the game to has enjoyed it - and even war gamers aren’t too put out by the game. It’s a hybrid, bringing war gamers and Euro gamers to one table - and usually all enjoying the game (rather than merely tolerating it). If I had to get rid of my game collection, this would be one of the last games I get rid of. I’m not sure of its appeal to casual gamers, but to anyone looking for a game that has (mostly) it all - this is a solid bet!

Tom Vasel

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