Sunday, 28 July 2013

Puppet Wars Unstitched, Part 2: Gameplay & Verdict

In our previous entry we looked at the box contents of Wyrd Miniatures' board game for 2 or more players, Puppet Wars Unstitched.  Now we're going to look at how the game plays, and then give the run down on Games & Tea's opinion of the experience.

The first thing to decide upon starting a game of Puppet Wars Unstitched is the layout of the board.  At the back of the rulebook you'll find a series of maps for 2-4 players which show you where to lay out the Impassable Terrain tokens and the Workbenches.  More experienced players can create maps of their own, and can even create handicapped maps to give an advantage for newer players, but for those embarking on their first game the wise choice is to stick with a map from the book.
Once the map has been decided upon, each player must choose the Master to lead their puppet army.  There are three masters in the Puppet Wars Unstitched box; Seamus, Lady Justice and Pokey Viktoria.  So whilst the manual does contain maps for 4 players, until Wyrd begin to release additional puppets that fourth player will be required to own their own copy of the game so as to bring their own master.
With the Masters chosen, each player then chooses the puppets for their army.  The rulebook lists the puppet numbers for various sized games, with the smallest (or 'shoebox') size consisting of 8 plus the Master.  With the puppets having different abilities, selection can seem tricky for newcomers, but the rulebook also helpfully lists two well-balanced pre-set armies, so that new players can get off to a swift start.
Each player then selects one of the map's Workbenches as their starting Workbench, and replaces it with a token of their chosen colour.  The Masters start on the board in any space adjacent to their controllers' Workbench, and the rest of the models await in the players' 'toybox', off to the side of the board.
The players shuffle their Puppet Decks and each draw a hand of 4 cards, plus 1 for each Workbench they control.  Whilst the Puppet Wars Unstitched box does contain enough miniatures for a 3 player game, the absence of the third Puppet Deck does mean that a deck of cards must be provided to allow the game to take place.
With the Masters placed and the cards drawn, it's time to begin the war!
Each turn consists of 5 Animation Rounds, and the bottom-right corner of the board allows you to keep track of which round you're on.  This is another shortcoming of Puppet Wars Unstitched, as it doesn't contain a counter or token to move along this track.  We've discovered the handiest thing to use is a Workbench token of an unused colour.
At the start of each Animation Round the players draw one card off the top of their Puppet Deck and add it to their hand.  They then place a card face-down to determine which puppet they're going to activate, either from their toybox or from the puppets already in play.
Each puppet's 'Animation Requirement' is marked in the top-right hand corner of their card.  To activated Pokey Viktoria her controller would need to put down a card with a value of 6 or higher.  The Judge, on the other hand, has a suit in his requirement, so not only does his controller need a 5 or more, but it also needs to be a Ram.  Once each player has placed their card face-down, they are all revealed, and here's where the game starts to get interesting, because the player with the lowest value card gets to go first.  The more powerful puppets have higher Animation Requirements, so players are left to make a tactical decision:  Activate a powerful model, but lose the initiative to your opponent, or bring out one of the low-cost pawns to start gaining ground, but lost the advantage of brute force?
Each time a puppet is activated it can move up to its total movement distance (the value on the far left of the row of numbers), and take a single action.  Actions can consist of attacking, attaching upgrades from fallen comrades, acquiring unoccupied Workbenches, or a variety of character-specific actions which we won't go into here.  Whenever a puppet takes an action it received an Exhausted Counter, and any puppet which is activated whilst in possession of an Exhausted Counted suffers one rip.  Again this leaves players with a tough decision, as the puppets they'll want to activate will often already be exhausted.  The number of rips each puppet can suffer is represented by the buttons on the far right side of the card.  This is another shortfall from Wyrd, as the Puppet Wars Unstitched box contains nothing to keep track of rips suffered on each model.  As a tabletop gamer with a tinful of dice this wasn't much of an issue for me, but a board gamer might struggle to find an appropriate substitute.
Taking an action is where the Puppet Deck comes into true effect.  We'll take a look at combat as an example of an action, as it's showcases the game mechanic quite nicely.  Once again we'll use the two puppets above as an example, so we'll have Pokey Viktoria making an attack against the Judge.
The puppet's defence is the second number in the row, with the thimble in the background.  The Judge has a defence of 8, which means that when Viktoria's controller flips over the top card of their deck, they need an 8 or higher to score a hit.  Now the Judge's controller may value their puppet highly (perhaps it's late in the game with few puppets left, or this one is in a good tactical location), so they can choose to dodge before the attack is made.  To do this they select one card from their hand to replace the defence value.  In this instance we'll say they've dodged with the 11 (Jack) of Tomes.
The third number in the row is the puppet's combat (attack) value.  Pokey Viktoria has a combat of 4, which means that her controller flips over the top 4 cards of their deck to make the attack.  If any one of those cards is the 11 of Tomes or higher, the attack is successful and the Judge suffers a rip.  If none of the cards are high enough, then the controller can use a card from their hand instead.
The true genius of this system means that players will be hoping for a mixed hand at the beginning of each turn; low cards to activate their models before their opponents, but high cards to boost their attacks and dodges.
After 5 Animation Rounds, the turn is over.  Players discard any remaining cards from their hands which they don't wish to keep for the next turn, shuffle the discarded cards back into their Puppet Decks, reset the Animation Round counter to 1, and remove any Exhausted Counters from any puppets.  The game continues in this fashion until a victor is decided.  The two ways to lose Puppet Wars Unstitched are to let your Master die, or to find yourself in control of no Workbenches.
So there's a nice, in-depth look at Wyrd Miniatures' Puppet Wars Unstitched, so let's break it down.
The Good Points
  • The game is very nicely presented.  The box, board and Puppet Decks are all of excellent quality and contain some fantastic artwork.  The miniatures themselves, whilst requiring assembly, have an incredible level of detail, and are a joy to play with.
  • Whilst a complex looking game, Puppet Wars Unstitched is very quick to pick up, and even brand new players often start moving through the turns at a decent pace before the end of their first game.
  • The rulebook contains optional extra rules for experience players, whilst giving beginners guides to new players by way of suggested army lists.
  • The wide selection of maps in the rulebook, together with the option of creating your own, and the variety of puppets to choose for your armies keep the game fresh.
  • The nature of the game itself is very tongue-in cheek, and leads to an overall enjoyable gaming atmosphere whilst playing.
The Bad Points
  • Whilst Puppet Wars Unstitched is technically a board game, it's designed by a tabletop gaming company and feels like it's made for tabletop gamers.  The game simply isn't ready to play straight out of the box, requiring modelling tools to assemble the miniatures, and paints to make them look their best.  The character cards require counters of some kind to be provided to keep track of rips, and whilst advertised for "2 or more players", the box contains only enough Puppet Decks for 2 players, and only enough models for 3.  Put quite simply, it isn't a complete package, which is what most board gamers want.
  • The game mechanics might seem overly complicated to board gamers with no tabletop experience.  Puppet Wars Unstitched could be called Malifaux Light, for all of its similarity to Wyrd's flagship game.
  • The puppets are based on Malifaux characters and the games is set in the Malifaux  universe, so the game's charm may be lost on those without the background knowledge.
Recommended Number of Players: 2-3
Both 2 and 3 player games of Puppet Wars Unstitched work very well, with a balance between bull-headedness and absolute caution being the best way to play.  4 players is workable, but can make the board overly busy and cause the game to slow down to a crawl.
Average Game Time: 30-60 minutes
Once the game gets moving, Puppet Wars Unstitched moves at a relatively brisk pace, and entire turns can pass within a couple of minutes.  Larger scale games with more opponents will inevitably take longer, but casual 2-3 player games in 'shoebox' size will take under an hour.
Replay Value: High
As mentioned, Puppet Wars Unstitched gives the players variety in both the maps they battle on, and the puppets in their armies.  On top of this you have the human element, with each different player favouring their own tactics.
The Future: Bright
Seeing as Puppet Wars Unstitched is a light-hearted parallel of Malifaux, Wyrd are planning to release corresponding puppet miniatures of their other Malifaux characters.  This will mean more expense, more modelling, more painting, and perhaps even new rules to learn, which will delight tabletop gamers, but may further put off hardcore board gamers.
At £45, Puppet Wars Unstitched is certainly not the cheapest board game out there, but nor is it the priciest.  Again the point must be made that it's a sizeable expense for a board game which requires hours of work before the first game.  In many ways it should be viewed more as the purchase of a new gaming system, rather than a regular board game.
As Malifaux is one of the better-known tabletop games doing the rounds at the moment, most specialist gaming stores should stock Puppet Wars Unstitched, and even if they don't then it won't be a problem to order it from an already established supplier.
This split score might cause controversy, but it really must be emphasised that this game is marketed towards two different gamer groups, and it will be a thoroughly different experience for each of them.
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