Publisher: Antler Games
Game Designer: András Drozdy, Gergely Kruppa
Artwork: Bazsó Lossonczy
Ages: 12 and up
Playing Time: 90-120 minutes
Salt of the Earth
With the success of last summer’s Mad Max reboot, it’s no shock that board gamers have grabbed onto post-apocalyptic theme games that don’t involve zombies for a change, this past year. Titles such as Posthuman, Salvation Road and Defenders of the Last Stand to name a few, have been well received and quite successful on Kickstarter.
With a new year comes a new publisher and Antler Games bravely enters the wasteland fray with their take on a bleak and ravaged world, where evaporated seas have left vast, desolate plains known as the Saltlands. Survivors trek across these great expanses using land sails, wheeled vehicles outfitted with sails and fueled by the wind, on a desperate journey to escape hordes of dangerous raiders bent solely on their destruction. You are one of these survivors and must investigate rumors of possible exits to safety, seeking out the truth and finding the correct paths to escape the Saltlands!
Come Sail Away
Saltlands is a game for 1-6 players with a unique spin; the game has no winner limits so it can be played however you choose, either as a straight up competitive, fully cooperative or semi-cooperative game. This will make it attractive to a variety of gaming groups as not everyone likes player elimination or a solely cooperative game and Saltlands can be played as either, or the two can be married to satiate both tastes at once.
Regardless of how you choose to play, this is one game in which you may want to save the more competitive aspects until the later rounds because survival early on is best served as a group effort. The never ending waves of raiders in these wastes mean business and can very well kill you on your first turn!
Once the end is in sight you can choose to help those who have helped you get to the threshold of escape or stick the proverbial blade into the backs of your friends, letting them wallow on the salty plains, forever running from the blood thirsty raiders.
The goal of the game is to scour the Saltlands for rumors which provide clues to locations of different escape routes that must be followed to win the game. This is accomplished by exploring the thirteen tiles of the game, four of which begin face up while the others are flipped as you progress through your travels.
Although the game mechanics are not difficult to learn, it does take some adjustment and effort to learn due to the heavy use of icons for everything, and I do mean everything. Nothing in the game aside from the rules is labeled with text, while this is great for making the game language independent it will require frequent referencing of the rule book until you get them all down. I know this may sound tedious to some and at the start it does feel that way, but the end result is worth the small effort required to get them all down.
Saltlands slams you right into the breech on turn one, putting you squarely in hostile territory where you’ll feel as if no move is a good move. This forces you to think ahead, analyzing every step you take while you seek out rumors, gather gear and battle raiders along the way. As I mentioned before, it’s in everyone’s best interest at least in the early game to work together at eliminating the many threats in your collective paths because while some are easily handled, there are others that will end you in a heartbeat.
Hand management is key to survival in Saltlands as everything you do is handled through card play. Items gathered, actions taken, battles fought and hits applied or avoided are done by using and discarding cards.
Each player starts with the same basic items; a player mat, landsail, spear and water card along with a special item that is character specific to one of six different roles in the game.
Player mats have four slots on them, one for your vehicle and three others for crew and cargo and what’s interesting here is how each of these slots affects your hand limit. Cards placed here alter your hand limit up or down as your load out changes. This forces you to make some hard decisions at times on which cards to discard when you’ve met your hand limit and this constantly fluctuates, mainly due to combat as you discard items or even crew to avoid character death.
Every round, players activate individually and carry out a movement action and as many other actions as they have can, but let’s stick with movement for a moment because in this game it’s pretty unique and very cool. You start with a landsail, a vehicle which looks like a stripped down open wheel race car with a sail mounted to it. While that in and of itself is pretty cool, what’s even better is how the movement mechanic uses traditional sailing techniques to cross the expanses of the Saltlands.
Just as on the open ocean, movement is dictated by wind direction and using it properly maximizes your landsail’s three movement points. Going downwind moves you one hex at a time but traveling angular to the wind doubles your movement to two grid spaces per movement point. Wind direction can be changed at the end of the round by the last player and some characters have special abilities that can change how they use the wind, giving some bonuses to movement.
Landsail’s are limited to sand and Saltland plains but cannot move through mountains; that is the domain of gas powered vehicles. You will come across an odd assortment of those during your travels, most often after defeating a raider.
While on the subject of vehicles, one of the coolest extras that will be in Saltlands are the inclusion of miniatures to the final version of the game. A look at the sample mini’s has me very excited, a couple of which I’ve included below. These will be a very welcome addition to the game and make it really pop on the table, much more so than just the plain tokens I had in my prototype. The designs of the mini’s are pretty awesome and more of them can be seen on the Saltlands website and will be prominently displayed during the Kickstarter.
After movement, all actions are done by tapping your player card and any other cards that grant extra actions such as crew and certain cards that refresh player cards. You gain these by collecting item tokens and drawing mirage cards, aptly named and following the heavy theme instilled in this game. You can also earn slicker gear from a separate Raider deck after defeating one in battle, you’ll find some pretty potent weapons in there that make defeating other Raiders a little more easy.
The final step of a player’s turn is choosing a raider group or groups to activate based on the current choices from the raider tableau. This is another area that mixes hard choices with good strategic thought because you’ll need to determine which raiders will pose a threat to you as well as other players in the current and subsequent turns. Depending on the random placement of raider tokens, this can either be none or many, so pay heed to what is on the board during every turn.
When playing competitively you can intentionally activate raiders that you know are going to be in a position to limit or harm an opponent on their turn. With no player to player combat in Saltlands, this is the only way to indirectly harm an opponent.
Raider actions are driven by damage cards which randomly dictate either extra movement or set varying attack strengths. At the end of each full round, new raiders are spawned so there is always a constant flow of troublemakers to be found.
Combat is simple and unflinchingly brutal; one successful hit to your character and it’s dead, period. Raiders attack with either standard or armor piercing weapons, forcing you to discard a crewman, armor or first aid kits to absorb damage. Armor piercing weapons bypass armor so you must discard a crew or first aid card, otherwise it’s goodnight Gracie. Oh and you have to fend off every attack at the same time, so when you have three raiders surrounding you, you’ll understand how Custer felt and will almost certainly meet the same end.
Thankfully, there is a revive option! According to the rules it is allowed only one time but this should be relaxed to more than one, especially for your first couple of games. Nothing can kill the fun for a group like a first round exit of multiple players in a game that will run for one to two hours.
Aside from gear you’ll be grabbing Rumor cards, these dictate which tiles are revealed and where rumor markers are placed. This is a pretty neat mechanic that moves the escape points across the map until all six of the rumor cards have been activated, with their final spots denoting the exit points. If you’re savvy with moving these rumor markers, you can set yourself up to be in the right spot at the right time to exit and win the game.
You must have three victory cards that match the final rumor markers when the sixth rumor card is played, those rumor markers then become the exit points. To be able to exit the tile must also be clear of raiders and then all players on tiles that match these criteria exit the map and win the game.
Smooth sailing or rocky seas?
Saltlands is a heavily thematic and tension filled strategy game that can be played either competitively or cooperatively making it a great option for any type or size of group. With a larger group, the competitive and cutthroat play fits both the theme and mechanics nicely while at lower player counts cooperation is practically a must. I’ve played and enjoyed it both ways and yes, you can even play it solitaire running up to four characters yourself and it is still quite challenging.
As a strategy game, Saltlands is a post-apocalyptic chess match, offering unique challenges in not only managing your own moves but in visualizing how raider activation’s will affect you and other players to your advantage. Use the terrain smartly to block movement of nearby raiders you activate, making them a threat to others and let them to do the dirty work for you.
The art is bleak and utilitarian as you would expect in an apocalypse setting and sucks you further into this manic world where the fear is palpable and survival on every turn is a challenge.
The use of icons is total in this game, so referencing the rule book will make the first few games a slow go and some gamers may find the heavy reliance on them a turnoff so bare that in mind. They’re done well and you can get the hang of them but they’re not everyone’s cup of tea.
The threat of character death is very real and every turn ratchets up the tension as you race to find the exit points, avoid or battle spawning raiders and try to decipher between friend and foe, making Saltlands quite an engrossing experience.
The game can be very unforgiving in player deaths, so adjust that revive option to keep everyone engaged unless everyone’s on board with player elimination and have some filler games to pass the time if you get knocked out.
If you’re a fan of post-apocalyptic settings that are reminiscent of video games like Wasteland or Fallout minus the radioactive mutants and like the ever present fear of instant character death, Saltlands is definitely a game for you.
Saltlands launches on Kickstarter next week.
Company Website: http://www.saltlands-game.com/
Company Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/saltlandsgame/
Company Twitter: https://twitter.com/AntlerGames
Note: A preview copy of this game was provided to me for this preview.