Isn’t it crazy that the last three out of four games I reviewed recently have been miniature wargame simulators? It’s like developers have are reacting to a zeitgeist: tabletop miniature wargames are cool, but the buy-in requires way too much money and time, so why not remove those pesky impediments by going digital? Warbands: Bushido does just that, but focuses on feudal Japan!
The game doesn’t have a plot as such, but it takes place around or after the Warring States period. This means that you get access to gunpowder units, too! And if you want some semblance of a story, there are scenarios that can be purchased for in-game money. In fact, the miniatures and orders cards are also purchased for in-game currency, albeit in a CCG-like random booster packs.
To fight in Warbands: Bushido, you need to build a warband. Those are split into several categories: gray (for multiplayer), green (for non-random multiplayer), blue (scenarios) and red (arena). All of them have some limitations on the level and amount of troops used. For example, the size and strength of your gray warband depends on your level. Getting better means both increasing the amount of miniatures you can take into battle, and the limit on the sum of their levels.
A warband is made up of miniatures. A miniature has a quality level (in how many levels it can reach), price, as well as battlefield stats: armor, health (which equals striking power), agility, passive and active abilities. They also have abilities that are unlocked via levelling up! Levelling up – via honor points earned fighting other players – also increases the agility stat, which not only determines the move range, but also the position in the initiative queue.
Leveling up (as a player) also increases the amount of order cards you can give to your warbands. Order cards are special abilities that you activate by spending morale points (earned in battle). Those range from increased move to increased attack to making a miniature skip it’s attacking or maybe even move back. Each miniature also has an ability card that is used like an order, in that they also cost morale points.
But how do you get said points? Well, once you are in your hex-grid battlefield, your miniatures act one after the other according to the initiative track. To determine the outcome of fighting, the game uses special D6 die that have X’s (misses), skulls (hits) and banners (hits that also earn morale) on the sides. In a regular melee attack, a soldier will roll all of his (or her, there’s at least one female warrior type) dice vs. all of the enemy dice, with hits canceling each other out. Any un-canceled hits result in damage. Meanwhile, the amount of dice rolled is strictly tied to the health stat – one health means one dice, two means two, and so on. It’s a system that we have already seen in Banner Saga, but more streamlined or refined, as luck also plays a part in it.
So, much like in Blood Bowl, you will want to throw the maximum amount of dice as well as more dice than the enemy. That is why Kensei is my favorite unit, which I think I got randomly at the start of the game – I certainly haven’t seen anyone else use it! On a glance, the Kensei is super expensive at 5 war points (as expensive as a unit gets) while only having one armor and two health, like some starting peasant. However, he’s what you could call an “organic glass cannon” for his sword mastery ability gives him +3 dice to any roll. A healthy Kensei will roll 5 dice on attack or defense, which is just obscene. Even at half health he’s roll 4, which is a respectable amount.
That said, Kensei is not impossible to overcome. Heimin, the cheap peasant that everyone gets, is basically made to kill Kensei, as its “Jump Back” ability lets it make a one-dice attack with no retaliation before jumping back a hex. Considering that Kensei only has one armor and two health, three such attacks – if they connect – would be enough to kill him. Archers and arquebusiers can use ranged fire to kill a Kensei without fear of repercussion. And there are other powerful units that can deal no-retaliation attacks, too. Just lock a Kensei up with some beefier dudes, only attack with no-retaliation guys and you can grind him down. And if you manage to both outflank (meaning you put miniature on opposites sides) and outnumber him (meaning that you have three miniatures versus a single enemy one), that’s even better, as such maneuvers decrease the amount of dice that the unlucky miniature can throw.
So building a good warband is more than just putting some beastly warrior surrounded by some chaff (though Kensei can solo people for ages) – especially when said “chaff” isn’t that throwaway W:B. And if you can match the order cards – randomly drawn to your hand during the match and only useable once – to your warband, you will go far. I’m a big fan of “Confusion” to neuter enemy powerhouses or shooters for a turn, for example. And if you somehow manage to maneuver well enough to get equipment cards (they appear in a random hex during the late part of the battle), you’ll do even better.
Fighting skirmishes (and in campaigns, too), you will earn achievements, which in turn earn you gold coins, which you then spend buying miniature and order booster packs. Campaigns are also purchaseable (the game has three of them now, and they’re cheap). Any order cards or miniatures that you don’t like can be reduced to dust, which you can then use to craft. Cards have a stable crafting price that depends on rarity, while miniature price depends on quality: no matter how expensive the miniature is in warpoints, a common quality (meaning only levelable to level 3) unit will cost less than 20 dust while a legendary quality digital plastic soldier man will inevitably cost 600 (a whole damn lot).
You also get paints when leveling up, but the customization system isn’t that deep. You can determine the headgear, armor and pants colors for you warband, but how pronounced that will be depends strongly on the model. Sometimes, you’ll only change the color of barely noticeable headbands or belts, which isn’t that impressive. On the other hand, you don’t have that many choices when choosing your user icon and color, so this isn’t that surprising.
I do adore how the game looks, though. While the visuals of the menu give off a fain whiff of a mobile game, it has a well crafted theme of a Japanese miniature gaming table going. On a match, you even can see that there’s a table outside the bounds of the map. This reminds me of seeing the war room outside the maps of Ruse or Wargame. Meanwhile, the miniatures are all neat, though it sometimes is hard to judge the quality of a soldier at a glance. The bamboo sun hats are hard to distinguish from the jingasa helmets of the ashigaru, for example. On the other hand, you can always right-click on any soldier in the field to see their full stat screen.
Warbands: Bushido only boasts simple visuals and audio, but it works out well enough. The miniatures aren’t that animated, with attacks and dodges momentarily changing frames from idle to attack, but it works well in conjunction with accompanying sounds. I only have problems with the way the miniatures die: they crumble on the spot, which looks a bit off to me, but the developers probably didn’t want to animate miniatures falling on their side or being lifted off the table.
All in all, I am surprisingly happy with Warbands: Bushido. Sometimes, the online skirmishes seem a little unfair and some warband combinations can hard-counter others; but on the other hand, my Kensei-filled adventures saw both victories and defeats, so I can’t really complain. After all, having been born into the house of a warrior, one’s intentions should be to grasp the long and short swords by the hilt, and to die for their cause.