Warbands: Bushido

Review: Warbands: Bushido

iOS Universal, PC/Mac/Linux •

Warbands: Bushido is a digital miniatures skirmish game from Russian developers Red Unit Studios aiming to bring the experience of tabletop minis gaming to digital. All the cards, dice, and miniatures without all the messy assembly and painting. The game is set in the later Warring States, or Sengoku, period of Japan’s 16th century and allows you to build warbands of varying sizes taking on all comers in PvP gameplay.

Warbands had a rather difficult Early Access release on Steam which I, thankfully, missed.  They appear to have weathered those initial difficulties, however, and have added a Mac and mobile release to the Warbands: Bushido stable. Make no mistake though, this is still an unfinished product. Playable and very fun but still not a done deal.

To be precise, Warbands: Bushido is a digital collectible miniature game. You start with a small number of Japanese soldier miniatures (including bases!) and some order cards. As you win battles and complete quests you are awarded gold that you can spend to get new miniatures, order cards and even open up single player campaigns. Cards and figures are purchased from random packs and come in varying rarities. These rarities affect how powerful a miniature is, similar to HeroClix, and how many abilities you can unlock as the figure levels up.

My Grey Warband
My Grey warband as well as the figures I could add to it.

You gain experience via PvP battles. Each win is worth 50 Honour points and you get additional points for the difference in the point value of figures lost to figures destroyed. This gets added to a rolling total of Honour for your warband eventually leading to warbands leveling up. Levels determine how large and powerful your Warband is and, after fifth level, you go to a different league with a new map and more advanced opponents. It is a good way to limit the initial complexity of the game and also limit how powerful your PvP opponents are. Mostly. Games against random opponents are, for the most part, relatively well balanced but you do get the occasional game where your motley crew of Sengoku era warriors are outmatched by someone who has managed to fit an especially powerful figure into a small warband.

Red Unit starts you off with a short tutorial to the game but it doesn’t really explain anything other than the basics of combat. There is a lot more to the game than combat though and puzzling out some of those details is left as an exercise for the gamer. There is a fairly useful Player’s Guide available on the Steam Community website which details the available units and how the rarity and levelling system interact. The core elements of the game are detailed in the Help screen which you can bring up at any point if you need some help.

Needless to say this fellow cleans the floor with my warband

Warbands allows you to create and use four different warbands for different aspects of the game. You have a Grey warband for PvP skirmishes, a Blue for the single player campaign, a Red for the Arena system (a high-level PvP system), and a Green for friendly games. Each type allows you to build warbands for the specific needs of each of the different game types.

Each miniature in Warbands: Bushido is defined by three stats: Agility, Toughness and Armor. Agility determines the movement allowance for the figure as well as influencing initiative. Toughness is the number of wounds a model can take as well as its base attack and Armor is, well, armor, taking a certain number of wounds before your figure does. As a model gains wounds (loses Toughness) they get fewer dice to attack with. Each model has a unique order as well as the ability to unlock additional orders and abilities. For example, the Tanto Geboku figure starts with an order called Reckless Rush which damages it but gives it more attack dice. It can further open an order called Shimobe’s Way as well as an ability called Dash. While the game has a very small number of differently armed figures available, the combination of orders, abilities, stats and weapons gives the game a good variety of units to add to your warbands. Every model feels as if it has a purpose and use in the game.

Sadly we left all our milkshakes in the yard and now have to protect them.

The PvP game is played on one of four isometric maps portraying a bridge crossing, a camp, a tavern and a courtyard. Each map has a sprinkling of terrain that breaks up the map and provides choke points and cover from missile fire. When the game starts your warband is placed on the map in the position you chose in the warband builder. The maps are mirrored horizontally so each player sees the map from the same perspective. All of the figures on the board are then arrayed into an initiative stack that displays on the top left of the screen. You can see which models will activate and also click them to see their stats and abilities. When it is one of your model’s turn to act, the game shows you the limit of their movement as well as any possible hexes where you can initiate combat with an opponent.

Combat is modeled using special dice. Each mini gets one dice per point of remaining Toughness as well as additional dice provided by abilities or orders. Minis counterattack with a number of dice equal to their Toughness. Counterattacks can be reduced by outnumbering a model (having three models in contact with it) or flanking it (having two models directly across from each other). The die rolling mechanism is a simple model that works for the most part, but can result in some frustrating swings such as attacking with more dice but still taking damage (sometimes a lot) from your opponent. This means that orders that attack without the possibility of a counterattack are quite powerful. One of my relatively low-powered Heimin figures has, on multiple occasions, won a match for me because of its Jump Back order that attacks without a counterattack as well as removing it from combat. Models also get hampered by Opportunity Attacks if they move out of combat with an enemy. Opportunity attacks don’t generate counterattacks, so moving out of combat is risky and, consequently, abilities or Orders that allow you to avoid Opportunity Attacks are very useful.

I eventually get the upper hand here

Combat can be swingy and random. The opposed nature of the combat roll exacerbates the randomness of the dice. Each game is quite quick though so you can take a loss and then get right back into a new game. Success on the virtual japanese battlefields of Warbands often depends on using positioning to block your opponents and then place your figures to reduce the amount of counterattack dice an enemy model can bring to bear. This helps reduce the impact of the RNG and also makes the game significantly more tactical. Experience playing the game also helps to reduce the detrimental effects of the dreaded RNG and while it can be an annoyance it also can add some drama to your games. I like surprises in my games so it doesn’t impact me as much as it might some gamers.

The Order cards also add an interesting tactical element to the game. Each battle starts with you being assigned 10 Morale points. Each Order card has a Morale cost that you need to pay to activate it. As you fight you gain Morale points from defeating enemy units as well as by rolling Flag results on the combat dice. You have a limited supply of Morale and its difficult to rebuild it so you need to make the best use of the points you have in the game. Orders can speed models up, add combat dice, allow you to avoid Opportunity Attacks or, like the Uesuto Yari Ashigaru, allow you to attack enemies from a distance with no chance of counterattack.

Taken together, Warbands: Bushido is quite a fun game once you get over the initial learning curve. Even after many hours of gameplay the skirmish matches still seem fresh and while there is an element of grinding to the game, gold seems to be easy to access which means that you have a steady supply of new figures and Order cards. Warbands also includes a crafting system similar to Hearthstone that rewards you with dust (seriously?) when you advance in levels and also allows you to disassemble cards and miniatures for more. In this economic aspect the game is quite stingy and I have not yet been able to get enough dust to build an Order card. Cards are worth 100 or more dust and figures start at 600. Compare this to the 5-15 you get when you disassemble a figure and you can see that crafting is not a fast way to build up a collection. Despite all of the freemium economic aspects, the game is wonderfully free of them. I am not sure if Red Unit Studios will continue on this path but I would certainly hope so.

Victory for Zim!
Three cheers and a tiger for me! I have won!

There are some caveats though. Playing on the phone is a bit of a chore though as the desktop UI and layout has been ported to iOS without change. If there has been any accommodation for mobile players I am unable to see it. This makes for a cramped visual environment on a tablet and is positively claustrophobic on a phone. It also makes some of the text unreadable. This desktop porting issue also means that iOS gamers will miss out on tooltips on the UI elements and also have a slightly tougher time getting some information while playing. There is also no way to sync Steam and iOS devices. In fact I am not sure if your iOS devices even share an account or if they are distinct. The game requires an internet connection and you can’t even rework your warband offline. There is a single player campaign but it is brutally tough and it seems as if it is meant as something for more advanced gamers. The game also has some small UI glitches that crop up from time to time which hide tooltips or other screen elements.

Warbands: Bushido isn’t a perfect game but it is quite a bit of fun and actually seems to reward careful strategy despite my gripes about the RNG. There are always new challenges and new options opening up in the game so your tactical options aren’t stagnant. There always seems to be a goal to try to attain that drives you for ‘just one more game’. I am not the usual target audience for anything related to samurai but this title has really caught my attention not only because of the visuals (it is really quite pretty) but because, quirks aside, the game provides a fun experience and has, so far, rewarded repeat play. If you only game on your phone then this might be a title to miss but it works very well, albeit slightly cramped, on a tablet.

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