Some things should be simple. For a long-time Grognard like myself I think I know a wargame when I see one. This past Christmas, the RockyMountainNavy Boys found a copy of War Chest by Trevor Benjamin and David Thompson (AEG, 2018) and purchased it for me. I went to add it to my BGG GeekList of 2021 Acquisitions and quickly discovered that War Chest, despite having the word “war” in the title of this “game,” is not categorized by BGG as a “wargame.” No, BGG say War Chest is an “abstract.” You know, like Go or Chess.
Fact is, War Chest is a “wargame” and one that Grognards should seriously consider including in their collection.
War Chest certainly fits most classic wargame definitions. The game is a psuedo-historical conflict simulation that involves combat, the board uses hexes, and units are represented by counters (though in this case the “counters” are nice heavy poker chips.). What’s missing is dice. Is that not enough to make War Chest not-a wargame?
Now, I can see how some people—especially non-wargamers (i.e. most of BGG)—might want to declare War Chest an abstract game like Chess given the flavor text introduction:
In this simple chest is everything a leader needs to become a strategist and general. It will be seen as a game by the child but, in truth, is preparation for ruling the land and surviving the tests of battle that will surely come, when it is time to inherit your kingdom.
You hold in your hand a replica of this gift, a game of coins played by Kings, Queens, and Warriors.War Chest, Inside Box Cover
[I have to wonder, though, if people never heard of Kriegspiel before. Must remember to keep my expectations of BGG in check…]
When it comes to the game mechanisms of War Chest I can see how some people might look at the bag-builder mechanisms as abstracted from real warfare. After all, we all just know that military commanders never have a “bag of tricks,” eh? I prefer to think of the bag as the Commander and their J-Staff. Sometimes you need to pull the J1 Admin to Recruit, or the J3 Ops to Move or Attack, or the J4 Supply to Bolster, or the J5 Plans to Claim Initiative or Deploy. Other times the Commander will take Control or dictate the use of a Tactic or even decide to do nothing and Pass. You even need to be a bit of your own J2 Intelligence and pay attention to what your opponent does to see their strategy, as well as use some deception (coins played face up/down) to execute your own plans.
Of course, a good commander plans ahead and makes sure the “staff work is done”—coins placed in the bag—so that the battle plan can be executed (coins played). That, of course, is the rub. For the more time you spend “planning” (building your bag) in War Chest the more locations your opponent seizes. So you have to plan just enough to keep ahead of your opponent. Sometime you must assume risk and forgo building your forces (bag?) and execute a plan (play coins). Most importantly, you have to understand the asymmetric strengths—and weaknesses—of your units (cards) and use them in a manner to maximize those strengths while minimizing their weaknesses (like…strategy!). Combat, which is simply the removal of a unit (coin) from the board, is abstracted with no need for a die roll compared to a Combat Results Table.
When it comes right down to it, War Chest is not very abstract. Everything you need do, yeah verily, everything you MUST do is right there in front of you and presented in a very direct manner. To win at War Chest is to command as though this game was a real war.
Nothing abstract about that!