Board games haven’t always done a great job of exploring colonialism, especially when it comes to their representation of indigenous peoples. In the hit conquest game Small World, native tribes are just obstacles, putting up (literal) token resistance as players seek to expand their empires. In the massively influential Catan, they don’t even exist. Its island is abundant with resources, but miraculously free of sitting residents. And then there’s the thorny issue of how predominantly white designers treat indigenous identities in their work. The recent Manitoba, for instance, has drawn criticism for what some see as its stereotypical and inaccurate representation of the Cree people.
So it’s refreshing that Wendake, a recently released Native American-themed strategy game, goes out of its way to treat its subjects with greater respect. Its rulebook comes with a guide to the game’s historical backdrop, and its designer is at pains to explain his long-standing interest in the cultures the game explores.
It sees players take control of tribes around the Great Lakes region of North America during a war between French and British colonists. As a chief, you’ll aim to expand and protect your territory by deploying warriors to different locations. You’ll build your economy by fishing, hunting and farming to produce goods to sell to Europeans. You’ll conduct rituals and accumulate ceremonial masks as you fulfil your religious duties to your people.
For the most part, if feels a lot like any number of similarly complex, finicky European-style strategy games. But what’s really interesting is the way you’ll select the actions you take on each of your turns. You and your rivals will each have a personal player board filled with a square grid of tiles showing the moves available to you. You’ll place tokens on tiles to activate them, and you’ll only be able to choose tiles that form a straight line across your board.
It means that while you’ll have a wide array of options open to you on each round, you’ll need to think carefully about how you’re able to combine them. Although the unfolding contest on the main map may be the game’s central focus, it sits alongside this personal puzzle of introspective optimisation. You’ll also be able to upgrade your action tiles as you play, gradually swapping out the basic set you receive at the start of the game for more powerful ones that let you chain together sequences of big, dramatic moves.
It means that a huge part of Wendake is planning your progress, working out which actions to take in which order and which military, economic and spiritual elements you can most efficiently develop in each round. But this thoughtful gameplay comes at a cost. It’s unashamedly complex, and its plethora of different subsystems never quite seem to mesh together, resulting in a slightly disjointed, unfocused feeling. It’s also tough to learn, set up and teach, and it’s enough to ensure that, while it boasts some clever ideas, its appeal will be limited to those whose tastes lie on the heavier end of the gaming spectrum.
Wendake feels like a passion project that expresses its designer’s love for both Native American history and complex strategy games, and it comes wrapped around an interesting action-selection puzzle. But its various elements can feel a bit sprawling and ungainly, and you’ll need to sink a few hours into learning its complicated rules.
Designer: Danilo Sabia
Artist: Alan D’Amico, Paollo Vallerga
Time: 1-2 hours
This review originally appeared in the December 2018 issue of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.