I am a massive fan of Martin Wallace, and of Wildlands: his pacey, card-driven, skirmish board game. It is quick to teach, plays briskly and provides crunchy tactical decisions based on board state and hand management. It has beautiful minis and great production values. It plays well with the kids but has enough depth for experienced gamers. While it’s better with 3 or 4, the two-player is satisfying. It rattles along regardless of count to deliver a satisfying experience in about 45 minutes.
Up to this point, the expansions have been great. Two new factions with a bit more asymmetry than those in the base box. Each also provides an optional change to the game state. These and the two additional map packs have given satisfying extras at a very low price point. They have fallen squarely into one of my two models of ‘great expansion’.
Baddies A Go Go
With Wildlands: The Ancients we have the release of the other type of optimal expansion, in my opinion: a big box, higher cost affair that adds something fundamentally new while retaining the spirit of the base game. And my, we have all that in spades.
Yes, you get another playable, faction: the Ancients – a team of overpowered ‘god-like’ villains, and another double-sided board. The Ancients have big specials they can play. This is done by collecting and burning their opponents’ crystals. But they also have a different, ‘harder’ win condition. They can only win via five kills. Not from collecting crystals from the board. They themselves count for two crystals when killed. They're also likely to attract focused hostility in a 3 or 4 player game. In two players versions, it’s tough for their opponent. However, there is the advantage as it does force combat in a way that is welcome. The base game leaves the possibility to play a collection race game with two players. Which is a less satisfying experience that this removes.
More Players… Or Fewer
As well as being slotted into a normal game, these guys also provide a faction for the options of 5 or 6 player team play. Now I can’t review that, as the current circumstances have denied me the chance. However, I am super excited about it, as a massive fan of Cyclades: Titans and 878 Vikings. Wildlands has none of the heft of either of these, but actually, that’s part of the appeal, as the idea of banging out a 3v3 in an hour as opposed to two or three is hugely exciting.
Yet, the big change to the game is the introduction of a solo or 2 player co-op mode, which is super welcome. You take a faction from the base game or earlier expansions and pit them against one of five scenarios with the eponymous Ancient as the über-baddie at the end. They are supported by a flock of minions (tokens as opposed to minis – a good choice) and this force is run by a couple of AI decks.
These do a very creditable job of putting your tooth and nail in a challenging fight. Again, the board state and hand management give you really satisfying decisions; it’s more dungeon crawly, but still keeps the tactical card play at centre stage. And again, you are (with one scenario as the exception) faced with a choice of winning by collecting the set or killing the adversary, but both are going to involve plenty of tense combat.
Although it’s not made totally clear (a minor quibble) these scenarios seem to provide varying difficulty, which is welcome - and they go from testing, to downright diabolical. And to be clear this does not make this a Gloomhaven or Too Many Bones replacements, but it’s not trying to be. Again, the joy is that while its tough, meaningful and engaging decisions make for some really satisfying play.
It plays whip-quick and has minimal set-up or takedown compared to these other epics. At the moment I am using it as a gateway experience for getting my 8-year-old onto Gloomhaven, and she and I are loving playing it together. Now that may be damning it with faint praise in some of your minds, but it’s also a satisfying solo for a shorter session of play than, let’s say, an evening with Mage Knight.
Will it keep hitting my table in this format and have the replayability of the other fantasy big hitters? Not sure – probably not. But, by the time I have played each scenario though as a pair game and a solo and won them both, I will have had a great time and it really won’t owe me anything. And even then I have some great content to play in multiplayer…. I can’t tell you how excited I am about the team game. It may be my new, most anticipated “post-Covid roadmap” game.