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Second place isn't so bad
Push-your-luck combat in Wonderland's War
This week we take a look at a combat system that is unlike any other I’ve personally played: the push-your-luck bag building of Wonderland’s War!
Wonderland’s War (Eisner, et al., 2022) is quickly becoming one of my favorite board games:
In Wonderland's War, 2-5 players take the role as a faction leader who has been invited to the Hatter's tea party. Drink tea and eat cake as you move around the table drafting cards to gather your forces, build your towers, upgrade your leader, and recruit Wonderlandians to your cause — but one must be careful as shards of the Looking Glass are spread throughout Wonderland. Once all the plates are empty, the Tea Party is over and war begins. Use the forces you gathered to battle your enemies in familiar locations, but make sure not to draw your Madness chips or your supporters will abandon your cause and you will be out of the fight.
The game takes place over just three rounds, each with two phases:
Tea Party Phase: Players move their Leader around the tea party table, drafting cards. The cards grant bonuses and allow Supporters to be placed in future battle areas. It ends when all players have drafted four cards.
War Phase: After the tea party, a battle occurs in each region on the board where there are units (i.e. Leaders, Supporters, and Wonderlandians).
First, let’s talk about bag building mechanisms!
Interestingly, BGG combines deck, bag, and pool building:
Players play cards out of individual decks, seeking to acquire new cards and to play through their decks iteratively, improving them over time through card acquisition or card elimination.
Bag building works almost the same way, but with tokens in a bag rather than cards in a deck. You add tokens to the bag over the course of the game, and perhaps purge/trash tokens out of the bag. This allows you to control the mix of tokens, and thereby control the probability of pulling the tokens you want.
Orléans (Stockhausen, 2014) is an iconic example of bag building.
Whether it’s a deck of cards like Ascension (Florillo, et al., 2010) or the rogue’s bag in Massive Darkness 2: Hellscape (Olteanu & Portugal, 2022), pool building can be implemented in countless ways.
The key elements that stand out to me are:
Modification of the pool (i.e. bag, deck, etc.) during the game by the player by adding or removing items.
The pool has a “memory” of what has been drawn, meaning you can attempt to predict when a specific item might be drawn.
In Wonderland’s War you are building a bag of tokens during the Tea Party Phase that will be used in battles during the War Phase.
Pushing your luck during battle
To resolve a battle in Wonderland’s War, each participating player sets their strength on the Battle Track (see above).
Everyone then takes turns drawing a random chip from their bag:
Most chips add strength and advance your position on the Battle Track, while some tokens might have special effects.
When “Madness” chips are drawn, however, you lose a unit from the battle. Lose all of your units, and you are eliminated from the battle (“bust”), receiving no points. When you bust, you put all your used (“exhausted”) chips from previous battles back in your bag.
The more “good” chips you pull in a row, the higher your chance of pulling “bad” chips. It’s a classic push-your-luck mechanism combined with bag building.
As the battle continues, you can halt at any time. If you do, your units remain on the map, your Battle Track value no longer advances, and you are still eligible for some points at the end of the battle.
The winner is the highest player on the Battle Track after everyone else has busted or halted. They receive the highest points for that area and may place a castle, but the second highest receives half as many points.
Making second place matter
This creates a wonderful tension to each battle! Do you push your luck and risk busting to get 8 points and a castle? If you already have a castle in a region, you can’t place a second one. Do you halt and take an easy 4 points?
In many games battles are binary: you win or lose. Adding not only a second place prize, but one that is sometimes very attractive, dramatically changes the game:
Increased engagement: Just because you probably can’t win overall might not matter to you. Players can really want second place.
Players are more likely to join a battle: If only the winner received a benefit, there’s no reason to try if you might lose. An attractive second place incentivizes participation.
Reduces overly defensive play: In Blood Rage (Lang, 2015) it is a valid strategy to turtle in a region. In Wonderland’s War with no unit cap, someone might throw a unit or two into a region and trigger a battle, just to grab second place.
Allows for longer strategies: By halting, you don’t lose any more units and they remain in that region. This might allow players to lose a battle in Round 1, but start with a strong position in Round 2.
Certainly we’ve talked about games that encourage losing on purpose before, and many games have prizes for first, second, and third place in rounds. I think it’s the combination of push your luck with second place (and no third or subsequent) prizes that really set Wonderland’s War apart.
Some things to think about:
Pool building is highly flexible: Once you realize that deck building, bag building, and pool building all share common elements, it can open up room for creativity. Cards, dice, tokens and more can all be used.
Push-your-luck can add satisfying tension: When I was designing Exclusion Zone Botanist, I wanted to force the player to push their luck by going deeper into the EZ. Even a simple implementation can add emotional connections to the game.
Consider alternatives to winner-takes-all combat: I think TTRPG systems that use “success, but with a complication” results touch on something important. Allowing for middle ground, attractive second places, and other non-binary combat outcomes opens up fertile ground for innovation in games.
What are some of your favorite pool building games? Have you played any TTRPGs with deck, pool, or bag building as a core mechanism? What other games make second place a very attractive position?
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See you next week!
— E.P. 💀
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