There is nothing typical about Martin Wallace’s Wildlands. It is not a typical Martin Wallace game, for a start. The veteran British designer is best known for his complex, historical, economically driven titles, from Age of Steam to Brass. But Wildlands is a miniatures skirmish game, located in a high fantasy milieu.
Of course, Wallace has been there before, with Runebound, but Wildlands is not a typical fantasy game, either. If you’re expecting to play teams of orcs versus dwarves versus elves, then you’ll be surprised to find it doesn’t do Tolkienesque race wars.
Each of the four base-set factions comprises a variety of characters united by a theme. The melee-specialist Pit Fighters, for example, are a gang of ex-gladiators consisting of two orcs, one elf, a gnoll and the masked ‘Unknown’. Meanwhile, the balanced Lawbringers unite a sheriff, her crossbow-wielding deputy, a satyr, a minotaur and a street kid.
It’s a strong thematic twist that really hooks you into the game, giving each character a unique presence on the lavishly-illustrated map board as they battle to retrieve precious arcane crystal shards. (It helps too that the finely-sculpted, ink-washed minis are a pleasure to behold, with the promise of added factions down the line – in fact, The Unquiet Dead expansion is already introducing a gang of festering undead.)
Wildlands isn’t a typical miniatures game, either. There are no rulers, no dice and the rulebook is a trim 16 pages. You can set it up in a couple of minutes and explain the rules in only a couple more. No session, even a four-player battle royale, will take longer than an hour. Wallace’s objective was to alchemically distil the platoon-based tactics game down to its purest, quintessential form, and in doing so he’s conjured gold.
The object is to earn five points, either straightforwardly through enemy kills (one point each), or by nipping around the map and collecting crystal shards of your team’s colour (one point per shard), whose locations are determined at the game’s start by the player to your left.
Characters are gradually revealed from hidden locations – weaving fog of war and allowing for ambushes – and their actions are determined by playing cards from each faction’s unique deck. To use a character, you simply have to play a card which shows their symbol next to one of a neatly limited menu of icons (melee, heavy melee, ranged, cover and so on), and can chain as many actions as you like from a hand of seven. If you’re attacked, you can play defence cards out of your turn. And if you want to fox someone’s tactics mid-turn – maybe they’re about to grab a game-winning crystal, or perhaps they’re raining fire down on your sorry ass – you can throw down a special action card to interrupt them, pausing their turn to pull off your nasty surprise. Unless, that is, another player interrupts your interrupt. Be careful, though: only the active player is allowed to draw cards at the turn’s end, so interrupters can find themselves short of options for their next proper turn.
It is a fantastic little mechanism, symptomatic of an ingeniously designed game, where hand management feeds the miniatures-combat action. Wildlands is swift, light-footed and, above all, hugely entertaining. Diehard mini gamers will be impressed by the elegant simplicity, while skirmish game sceptics will find it surprisingly accessible. All that, and sky-high production values, too. Pure joy in a box.
A superb, card-based skirmish game whose apparent simplicity belies its capacity for tactical depth. It’s huge fun, and represents a storming triumph for Martin Wallace.
Designer: Martin Wallace
Artist: Alyn Spiller, Yann Tisseron
Time: 30-60 minutes
This review originally appeared in the November 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.