Review: WARTILE07 Mar 2018 2
Released 08 Feb 2018
I recently discovered the corner of YouTube given over to obsessive model-builders, that obsessively caring bunch of people who take pride in their painstaking efforts to recreate famous battle scenes or locomotives or bomb craters on the surface of a planet millions of light years away. There’s something soothing about watching them work and explain their craft, sawing away at balsa struts or getting the mud spatter patterns on tank tracks just right. The Playwood Project’s Wartile appeals to that same sensibility, offering the look of detailed little dioramas and painted miniatures come to life like the Indian in the Cupboard, only this time around it’s Vikings, and sadly, without much in the way of personality.
The gameboards certainly look the part. They’re slices of hex-based terrain that look as though they’ve been carved from cherrywood and covered in green flocking or cottony snow. They’re varied and sometimes quite large, with a surprising verticality to many of the mountainous maps. But it’s the lighting that really sells the fantasy of living miniatures - somehow Playwood have wrangled a lovely tilt-shift effect out of the Unreal Engine, and the boards really look like they’re sitting on the table under tastefully-arranged track lighting.
Unfortunately, the game itself is much less interesting. You control a small band of Vikings, each with his or her own set of unlockable special abilities. You can find or buy them new equipment, and buff their stats with tokens you find in battles. Their looks are updated as you give them new gear, which is another nice visual touch.
Each scenario involves finding a relic of some kind, defeating enemies, or holding control points. While the hexes and miniatures may give off the signs of turns and dice, these are nowhere to be found in Wartile. It’s a real-time game, with movement and actions tied to cooldowns instead of turns.
This is a disappointing decision, to say the least. The cooldowns are fairly fast, but their presence is enough to make movement, particularly during exploration, feel clunky and cumbersome. You can shift-click while moving one character to have the rest of the party follow along, but they’ll only make one move and often it’ll be in an unexpected direction. During battles, the quick cooldowns undercut any feeling of considered tactics you might get from a miniatures game, because you’ll be moving piece after piece too quickly to put much thought into it.
Defeating enemies or completing objectives earns you battle points, which allow you to cast spells from a card deck you’ve put together beforehand. You’ll also have cards for objects, such as oil bombs and mead, as well as for characters’ special abilities. Here again, the real-time system robs this of any sense of strategy since you’ll simply be spamming heals or ranged attacks as situations develop on the ground.
You have minimal control over your characters’ melee attacks - they’ll stab or shoot whatever’s in range on their own. Enemy AI isn’t great, but it does know that adjacency matters and will back up out of the way once you’ve placed an axe warrior next to one of their troops. Archers will kite your melee fighters around battle zones and plodding after them feels frankly ridiculous.
The effect is that Wartile feels frustratingly like coming across a box full of neglected miniatures and playing a made-up game that has few actual rules. You’ll mostly just be marching your pieces forward, almost as if you were haphazardly shoving goodies and baddies together into a childish mess. That in itself might be passingly entertaining, but Wartile likes creating one-hex choke points around its maps, and since pieces can’t move through each other, even this feels a bit hamstrung.
In fairness, this could very well be a case of a game just being a different thing than I thought I wanted. You could argue, justly, that Wartile has every right to be a real-time game rather than a turn-based one, and that it ought to be judged based on what it wants to do rather than what I wanted it to do. That’s perfectly reasonable, but I’m prepared to say that Wartile doesn’t really work on its own terms either. A real-time game ought to have a sense of dynamism and fluidity; both of these are lacking here thanks to the cooldown movement system. The need to constantly be clicking and dragging miniatures to and fro means mistakes are common, even though there’s very little variety in what you’re actually doing on a moment-to-moment basis.
As beautiful as the gameboards are, it’s awfully difficult to read Wartile. Status effects like stuns and frenzy aren’t clearly communicated visually, and even though your miniatures are frequently animated, they’re completely silent for some reason, meaning you don’t hear grunts of pain or cheers of victory - their triumphant fist-pumping when they down an enemy are mimed.
Taken together, Wartile (which I can’t help but read as “Wartle,” sort of like “turtle”) is a disappointingly hollow experience once the charm of the bespoke dioramas has worn off, which as you might expect happens pretty quickly. There’s little time for tactical considerations, but even if there were, the units aren’t varied or interesting enough for that to have been much to write home about anyway. The gear you find doesn’t change anything meaningful in how units work; a spearman will get better spears, and the magic user will get better staffs, but you can’t tweak their roles to change the way they function. The boards look nice but are riddled choke-points that make movement a chore. And you’ll have to return to missions you’ve completed (each board has three difficulty tiers) in order to level up newly-unlocked characters. Re-purposing content in to pad out the brisk campaign.
It’s a shame, because Wartile looks so much like it should be something special. But for seasoned strategy fans, its beauty is only skin-deep. Wartile feels like it’s the physical artefact of a Norse Jumanji board for which the rulebook has long since been lost.