Wonderland is the strangest of strange places. Where everyone is at least a little bit mad, or at least, they were. With the looking glass shattered, the denizens of Wonderland are now entirely sane, and that means war. Various leaders amass supporters and allies to aid in the struggle for control. However, the maddening shards of the looking glass permeate the world, corrupting those who come into contact with them.
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Wonderlands War is a bag building and area control game for 2 to 5 players. You play as one of five unique faction leaders. Alice, The Mad Hatter, The Queen of Hearts, The Chesire Cat, or The Jabberwock. During each round, you will move around the tea party collecting supporters and building up your army before diving into battle within the various regions of Wonderlands.
Your victory in Wonderlands War will be determined by your ability to prioritize your goals, planning ahead by building a synergistic bag of chips, and knowing how to manage that bag through a series of push your luck decision points.
The allure of powerful allies and boons await beyond the tainted corruption of madness shards. Balancing the scales of madness between you and your foes requires careful consideration. While no blood may be shed during the tea party, it’s every bit as cutthroat.
|Gideon’s Bias||Wonderlands War Information|
|Review Copy Used: No||Publisher: Druid City Games, Skybound Games|
|Number of plays: 10+||Designers: Tim Eisner, Ben Eisner, Ian Moss|
|Player Counts Played: 2-4||Player Counts: 2-5|
|Fan of Genre: Yes||Genre: Bag Building, Drafting, Area Control|
|Fan of Weight: Yes||Weight: Medium|
|Gaming Groups’ Thoughts: Loved it||Price: $65|
While a deluxe version of Wonderlands War exists, I reviewed the retail version. It is a prime example of how great a game can look without expensive minis or other deluxe components.
Everything from the massive colorful game board, the beautiful standees, the faction boards, chips, and cards all look fantastic. The artwork is stellar, the colors really pop, and the game has a table presence that can’t be ignored.
The quality of the components matches the aesthetics pound for pound. The cardboard chips and game board are thick and durable. The cards are holding up despite the fact that I haven’t sleeved them yet and the faction boards are equally tough.
There’s something to be said for the sheer quantity of components that come in the box. We’re talking 185 total cards, and 235 cardboard chips. 70 wooden meeples, 25 plastic castles, 40 madness shards, 19 standees, 5 cloth bags, a custom dice, a massive game board, five faction boards. And quite a few other bits and bobs.
The MSRP for Wonderlands War is $65, and that’s what I paid. From a component standpoint, it makes nearly every other game in my collection look like a ripoff by comparison. On more than one occasion I had to be corrected on what I paid for the game because I kept speaking as though I paid $95 for it. That’s what my brain latched on to due to my experience with other board games.
In a time when board game prices are on the rise, Wonderlands War is a bit of a golden goose. It made me feel like I was going a little bit mad, or hung out with Caterpillar a little too long.
Wonderlands War has two distinct phases played over three rounds. The player with the most points at the end of the game wins. During the tea party, players take turns moving around the table collecting cards. Cards immediately grant that player whatever is on the card, be it chips, Wonderlandians, or any number of other bonuses.
Passing the head of the table refills the tea party. But also forces you to roll the shard dice and collect that many madness shards. Shards are negative points at the end of the game. Plus, the player who has the most shards at the end of the tea party gains an extra madness chip, that’s bad.
Many cards also have the supporter icon, which allows you to place that many supporters in a region. You need supporters in a region in order to battle there.
Half of the war is won in the tea party phase. Each player only gets four cards per tea party, five if there are only two players. This means they have to choose carefully between the kind of chips they want in their bag. Powerful Wonderlandians, placing supporters, and gaining other boons such as unlocking abilities on their leader are up for grabs. Yet they must also balance the madness shards, what the other players may want, and quest requirements.
Quests are a two-fold objective. The top portion can be completed in battle, but the lower portion has to do with the things you collect during the tea party. The kicker is, that managing to complete both grants an extra three points.
There is profound depth in the tea party phase that will likely take a long time to fully uncover. Anyone playing now has only scratched the surface, including myself. The sheer number of combinations and factors that affect the decision space is massive.
During the war phase, players put those bags of chips to use as they fight throughout different regions. Winning a region grants victory points depending on the round, but also a castle which grants additional points at the end of the game and strength in future battles inside that region.
Anyone who has units in the region takes part in the battle. In each round of combat, players draw one chip from their bag each turn and increase their strength according to the number on the chip, as well as activate any ability that chip may have. Drawing madness chips removes one of your supporters. You can block it by flipping your shield, but that shield can’t be used again until you bust. Although, some abilities can also flip it.
You bust if you are forced to remove your last unit from the battle. In this case, your strength goes to 0, and you get no benefit at all. This is a bad outcome because the player in second place would earn half of the points noted on the score marker. Ending on a forge icon lets you improve your faction, and you may have end of battle chip abilities. Busting prevents you from using any of them.
After the battle, any chips drawn are exhausted and don’t go into the bag until you refresh. Filling all four spaces of your madness track refreshes and you place all your exhausted chips and madness chips back in the bag.
I’ve seen a lot of initial impressions from people that believe the battles are purely luck-driven affairs since you draw chips one by one. That it’s akin to blackjack where you can choose to stop early or push your luck, and that’s it. However, that’s only true if you isolate that one aspect of battle from the rest of the game. Much like the tea party, there’s nuance in the war phase that isn’t obvious right away.
What I Like
The Subtle Depth of War
As I mentioned before, painting the battle phase in Wonderlands War as purely luck dependent is exceptionally short-sighted. Pushing your luck is indeed a large part of it, but it’s constructed in such a way that pushing your luck is more than simply trying not to bust.
For one. You have to take part in multiple battles consecutively, and your chips do not reenter your bag unless you refresh. The bag only refreshes by filling up your madness track. You have to use the knowledge of your bag’s chip distribution to try to plan out how to handle multiple battles as you draw each chip.
For example. If you’re low on chips, it probably seems obvious to stop pulling because you’re going likely going to draw madness. But imagine this, what if I have two of my madness slots filled and four units left in the current battle. And I notice that in the next region, I only have two units.
If I were to stop pulling, I would enter the next battle with my bag still low on chips, I’d likely bust altogether because I only need to draw madness twice to run out of units. So, instead. I could intentionally keep pulling to sacrifice two units in my current battle and refresh my bag for the next one.
Now that is a very simple example that doesn’t factor in quests, forge symbols, or chip abilities. There’s also the fact that you need to keep tabs on other players. If all players stop pulling while you’re in the lead, you don’t get to pull any more chips. So another player could sabotage my plan. Intentionally if they have kept tabs on my chips, or accidentally for any number of reasons.
Your decision-making can be impacted by any number of factors. How many units every one has in what regions. Which battles do you want to prioritize for castles or quests? How important forging is to you, and whether or not you’re willing to take second place in a battle. It’s far more involved than just playing Black Jack with chips.
The five different faction leaders are asymmetric with very different powers and playstyles, and I’m a very big fan of asymmetry in games. The Wonderlandians add an ever-changing variety of powerful standees or chips since only three are available at any given time.
Then there’s the fact that each round has a set of 30 tea party cards, and it’s rare for them all to hit the table to be drafted in any given game. But there is also a way that Wonderland’s War can change the way existing chips behave between games that really wins me over, and that’s the ally chips.
Red Rooks, Flamingos, Roses, Card Soldiers, and Creatures feature in every game, but what they do can changes. The game comes with reference cards detailing four different sets of powers for the chips. Whenever you set up a game of Wonderlands War you choose one to use, and the powers drastically alter how these chips behave.
For example. If in one game Roses granted 2 VP when forged, and in another game, they go back in your bag instead of exhausting, that very much changes how they might fit into your strategy.
What’s more, each ally also comes with four sets of cards detailing their powers beyond the reference cards. This means that when you are familiar with the game, you can mix and match them.
You could set up a game that uses Flamingo and Creatures A, Rooks B, Flowers C, and Card Soldiers D, for example. This makes for an insane amount of variability, especially when you factor in the other aspects of the game. I would love to see more games adopt the practice of giving existing components multiple functions that you can swap between.
The Decision Space
All things considered. Wonderlands War is a relatively simple game. Yet, while it’s simple to understand it provides a really complex web of decision-making every time you play. From card drafting to combat, there’s a multitude of strategies you can pursue.
One thing I haven’t touched on yet is forging and leader powers, both of which ripple throughout the rest of the game because both of them require deliberate effort to pursue.
Each leader has a unique set of powers. To unlock them you either have to choose tea party cards that unlock them or cover their space on the forge track. Keep in mind, that half a dozen other factors matter with the tea party cards, and you only get to choose four of them each round.
Unlocking all four abilities takes quite an investment, but it’s not required to win. You likely pick and choose ones to fit your strategy in each game. Forging is another important aspect. To forge you either have to end a battle on a forge space, or have an active forge token. And again, that usually requires that you pursued those tokens during the tea party.
When forging, you get to place active chips onto the various tracks. These tracks grant anything from strength to more supporters, or they can even increase the victory point value of your castles. Filling up a track adds an artifact to your bag, which triggers two of your leader’s powers when drawn.
Upgrading your leader is one of many factors to consider. But you can’t sleep on Wonderlandians either, each Wonderlandian chip and standee has a unique power that could help your strategy, and the other players will be gunning for them too.
The greatest thing about Wonderland’s War is none of these decisions are isolated. The tea party and war phase intertwine intimately, and it’s ultimately your combined decisions within both that will decide who wins and loses. You have to employ several different skill sets in Wonderlands War, long-term planning, number-crunching, odds calculation, combo synergy, and more.
Those weren’t exciting words to string together describing a game, but it’s how they are implemented that matters. How many supporters do I need in this region? Which regions do I want castles in? What quests should I try to complete? How should I build my bag? How should I upgrade my leader? What are the other players planning?
It’s all cohesive, and it makes each decision an important one.
The Wager System
At higher player counts, it’s impossible to cover every region, so there will be battles you don’t take part in. Wonderlands War has a very small mechanism to make you invested in these battles, and it can impact your strength quite a bit.
You simply wager on any battle you aren’t in by picking who you think will win. If you choose correctly, you win a weak chip of your choice, if you chose incorrectly, you get a shard. Those extra chips and shards can add up over three rounds, especially when it comes to fulfilling end-of-game quest objectives.
I like it because it’s a small unobtrusive mechanism that keeps players invested in who wins a battle, and helps keep players from checking out and getting on their phones while those battles are resolved. The reward and penalty for a wager aren’t earth-shattering but matter enough that you want to choose correctly. It’s simply elegant, and I like it a lot.
What I Don’t Like
Wonderlands War does have some balance problems, and while they aren’t significant enough to cause major issues, they also can’t really be debated either. This comes down to leader powers that are always useful, versus ones that are situational.
A leader with powers that are always useful is simply better, full stop. The offenders here are The Mad Hatter and Jabberwock. The Hatter is very strong, while the Jabberwock isn’t truly weak, but has far more situational use.
The Mad Hatters, “It’s My Party” allows him to refill the tea party with cards once per tea party and then take one without moving. This can allow the Hatter to potentially pull a card he needs without the need to move around the table and roll the shard dice. It’s always useful.
The Jabberwocks “Fearsome Maw” allows him to place a poison token on a card at the start of its turn as long as one isn’t on the table. If a player takes that card, they add the poison to their bag. There are up to 13 cards on the table, the likelihood of one being so direly important that a player is willing to take the poison is slim.
Jabberwock could use it to reserve a card for himself, but since it activates at the start of his turn, it’s less useful if he isn’t the first player. This is situational.
Hatters, “Piping Hot” allows him to add his artifact chip to his madness track when he draws it for +2 strength. This also brings him closer to refreshing his bag, so the power is always useful.
Jabberwocks “Manxome foe” grants +2 strength when he draws the artifact IF, he isn’t in the lead on the battle track, that’s far more situational. You get the idea.
On top of that, however, Hatter has “It’s Always Tea Time” which is honestly the strongest power in the game. The Mad Hatter has to forgo placing himself in a region and take a shard but gets to choose an ADDITIONAL tea party card. I can’t emphasize enough how strong that is.
That can translate to extra quests, chips, powers, and units in regions. If the Hatter manages to unlock that power in the first round, that amounts to three extra cards over the other players, and that is huge.
Now I want to be clear that even though the scales aren’t balanced, it’s not to the point that the Mad Hatter will win every game, or that the Jabberwock will lose every game. But, the power differences will be noticed each time they are played.
What I’m Mixed On
My relationship with the theme is interesting because I initially disregarded the game because I have no interest in Wonderlands as a setting or backdrop. However, the gameplay won me over because its theme doesn’t permeate it all the way through. At the same time, I am also someone that places a great deal of weight on how well a game’s theme connects to its mechanisms. So I’m in a peculiar position, to say the least.
In some ways, Wonderland’s War connects its theme in some tangible form. Moving around the tea party in a clockwise position, for example, or the fact that Alice moves counterclockwise around it instead.
Some of the powers make thematic sense as well. The Mad Hatter being able to break the rules of the tea party with “It’s my party” for example. Alice’s ability to befriend the populace, or the Queen of Hearts beheading her followers to inspire fear and gain strength.
On the other hand, much of it makes no thematic sense. I love the variable powers of the ally chips, but I have no explanation as to why a Flamingo would increase the strength of my next chip, or why a Card Soldier would allow me to draw multiple chips to choose from.
Wonderlandians can be hit or miss. I can see the Gryphon transporting units between regions, for example. But I can’t figure out why the Dormouse increases the strength of an allied type I choose.
Some of this may be due to my ignorance of the Wonderlands IP. But the point is, I dislike that the game isn’t more connected to the theme, but I enjoy the game more because it’s not that connected to the theme when I don’t enjoy the said theme in the first place. Now I feel like I’m the one that’s going mad. Your mileage may vary on how much you place importance on those factors.
I played between player counts 2 and 4, and for the most part Wonderlands War plays pretty well at them all. However, the game is noticeably more fun with more players. This is largely due to having multiple players in one battle, and the wagering system.
The game still plays well at two, but there are a couple of changes. You get five cards instead of four, you remove a random region, and a couple of the Wonderlandian cards have to be removed. The wagering system is obviously not used either.
I’m never a fan of cutting content, and while the game is still tons of fun at 2, it feels noticeably different, and that can affect your play style and strategy.
There’s also no solo option, which is unfortunate because it feels like a game that would work well with an Automa… So I made a simple one myself. You can find my unofficial Automa here.
Wonderlands War is an incredibly well-designed and cohesive game that encapsulates several aspects together in synergistic unison. From the card drafting to the bag building or the push your luck aspect. Everything flows together smoothly.
The variability is off the charts between the ally powers, factions, tea party cards, and Wonderlandians, and the decision space is equally robust. I’m also constantly impressed by the amount of great-looking components stuffed inside the box, even if it can be a table hog!
Wonderlands War is a fantastic game that I nearly passed up, simply because the Wonderlandian theme didn’t appeal to me. That would have been a mistake. Deck Building is one of my favorite genres, and the bag building in Wonderlands War scratches that same itch, plus you get a gambler’s high by pulling your chips out one by one. It’s simply exciting.
My only real complaint is that the leader’s balance is a little off, and that’s an important criticism. But it hasn’t come anywhere close to putting me off from the game, and it’s one I always look forward to playing. Maybe I’m a little mad, but I’m giving it my Golden Shield Award.
More Reviews of Medium Weight Board Games
- Great looking high-quality components
- Low price for the game’s contents
- The cohesive design makes the gameplay fit together nicely
- A simple but effective wagering system
- Tons of variability between cards, Wonderlandians, leaders, and ally chips
- The ability to change what ally chips do from game to game is brilliant
- Excellent bag building and push your luck combat have a ton of depth
- The theme and mechanisms don’t always align
- No solo mode
- The Mad Hatter is too strong, and the Jabberwock is too weak