I love a good euro game with a rich and compelling theme that really works with the game. Finding games that fit this criteria is often easier said than done. For those familiar with euro style board games, I won’t need to tell you that often the theme feels pasted on. For some games, this is fine as the gameplay is topnotch so the pasted on theme can be forgiven. Thankfully, every once in a while a board game that is both full of theme and great gameplay will hit the table. For me, my most recent experience with this was with Warband: Against the Darkness.
Warband: Against the Darkness is fun, engaging, and well designed. The mechanics and theme go well together and allow for challenging and satisfying gameplay. In Warband: Against the Darkness, players take on the role of popular fantasy races, such as dwarves, minotaurs, elves, and giants. Each race, there are ten in the core game, have unique abilities that provide some type of advantage. The Halflings, for example, gain an extra gold when performing the Tax action. In the fantasy realm of Kholdrum, these brave inhabitants have banded together to fight the Darkness. The Darkness is an ancient evil that spares no one, and brings death and destruction to each of the great races equally. In an effort to survive, the great races of the Five Realms of Kholdrum put aside their differences and are working to build an army large enough to beat back the forces of Darkness.
In game terms, this means that although you are working with the other players to overcome the Darkness, you want your race to gain the most prestige in battle so that your race will be rewarded when the Darkness is driven back whence it came. You want the most honor. This is achieved by advancing your soldiers up the ranks where they eventually become honor guard and war heroes. Winning battles against the Darkness will also earn your race glory. The game handles this collaboration beautifully, and each battle uses the combined warband strength of all players. The strategy lies in knowing which units to upgrade, and how many will be needed during the next attack. Usually, there will be casualties during a battle, but that’s just the nature of war. Again, the game mechanics present this loss quite well with all players feeling the heavy toll of battle.
Warband: Against the Darkness is played over a set number of rounds depending on the number of players. Each player will have their own action track, which corresponds to a set of cubes of the same color. Turns are divided into two phases, with the first phase being dedicated to upgrading your action track. In addition to listing all of the available actions that can be taken on your turn, the action track also keeps track of which actions you’ve upgraded and what benefit they provide. On each turn you can upgrade one action.
The available actions are Tax, Train, Scout, and Fight. You can upgrade each of these actions to Rank 4, which provides some nice bonuses. Upgrades include gaining more gold during your Tax action, moving multiple units within the warband platoons, reduced cost for placing scouts, and requiring fewer units to win battles. Managing which action you will upgrade is a fun and crucial part of achieving victory.
After you’ve upgraded an action, Phase 2 begins. During Phase 2, you will take three actions (listed above). Players can take any action in any order, and can take the same action more than once, provided they meet the necessary requirements to do so. Most of the actions are fairly straight forward, but the fight action might cause you to reference the rule book once or twice. This is because the fight action is comprised of ten steps. The steps aren’t lengthy and the fight action will become second nature once you’ve performed it a few times, but some of the steps will require some brain power, such as assigning casualties.
The warband roster board is largely what makes the game. It is cleverly designed and represents the shared warband strength/composition between you and the other players. Units can move up the ranks, physically represented by a colored cube, and each player determines if they will train infantry, cavalry, or archers. You need to keep a close eye on the roster as it is easy to help your opponents win battles while your units die.
Warband: Against the Darkness lasts a set number of rounds, determined by the player count. When the game is over each player will tally up their final score. This score is based on the number of enemies defeated, your war heroes and captains, your left over gold, how many areas your scouts controlled, rewards for Intel cards, and negative points for units left in the Medica.
The rulebook for Warband: Against the Darkness is well laid out and contains lots of useful images and examples. Everything is presented in nice sections and detailed steps. I wish more rulebooks were as well thought out.
Consisting of 106 wooden cubes, 38 meeples, 100 cardboard pieces including individual boards for the 10 different races, 74 cards, and a beautifully illustrated game board, Warband: Against the Darkness is jam-packed with nice bits. The quality is all top notch with the cardboard being nice and thick. Storage is more than adequate as the game comes with enough baggies to separate all of the different colored pieces.
I want to play Warband: Against the Darkness again right now. With ten different races to choose from in the core set (and ten new races in the expansion) there is a ton of replayability. Due to the nature of the action track, you are able to change your strategy each game while you try to find the winning combination of upgrades. The strategy is deep and there are certainly some thinky moments, which is welcomed; Warband: Against the Darkness certainly isn’t what you’d expect (in a good way) from a game with the word “war” in the title.
Buy this game now. That’s my unfiltered opinion. If you like highly thematic euro games where the theme and mechanics actually match, Warband: Against the Darkness is certainly worth checking out. There is a lot in the box so it is definitely worth the investment. After playing it once, you’ll see more of the big picture and where/how you could do things differently next time. And that means you’ll want to play again. Tack on the desire to try out a different race and the game is all but unboxing itself on your table. Warband: Against the Darkness is a keeper.