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[Review] Wongar

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  • Tom Vasel
    I picked Wongar (Goldsieber 2000, Richard Borg and Alan Moon) up in a trade I made with Richard Borg. I had never really heard of the game before, and since
    Message 1 of 1 , May 18, 2004
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      I picked Wongar (Goldsieber 2000, Richard Borg and Alan
      Moon) up in a trade I made with Richard Borg. I had never really
      heard of the game before, and since it was one of Goldsieber's big
      box games, I was immediately intrigued, as I had had good success
      with them in the past. The theme, that of Aborigine dreams (or
      something) was a unique one, and coupled with the massive amount of
      beautiful pieces, inspired me to try out the game as soon as
      possible.

      My first impressions, however, were not good. So much
      confusion occurred (much of it from the theme – or lack thereof),
      and a lot of the game seemed random and pointless. Wild point
      scoring occurred, and general impressions were not good. But, I saw
      under this layer of insanity an excellent game – one with the
      opportunity to be a great game. At its core, Wongar is an area
      control game, and with three different types of tokens, the gameplay
      is unique and exciting.

      A large board with ten joining areas is placed in the middle
      of the board. A pile of 15 cards that match each area is shuffled
      and placed face down in the area. Each player also receives a pile
      of tokens (called "tjurungas") of one color – 18 discs, 15 cubes,
      and 12 cylinders. Each player places four of each type in a cloth
      bag which is shuffled around, and then tokens are randomly put into
      each of the ten areas – one for each player playing the game, and
      double that amount in the middle two areas. A stack of cards,
      called the "Rite" deck, is shuffled, and two are dealt to each
      player with the remainder being placed face down next to the table.
      Each player places a score token on the first space of a scoring
      track that goes around the board, and one player is randomly chosen
      to go first. That player receives the boomerang and an ancestor
      figure (brown), and the second player receives the elder figure
      (tan). Another matching ancestor figure is placed in one of the two
      center areas, with a second elder figure being placed in the other.
      A yellow time marker is placed at the bottom of the time track, and
      the first round begins.

      Each round starts with the player who has the boomerang, who
      then passes it to the player on their right at the end of the round
      (along with the ancestor figure if they have it). The start player
      turns over the top card of every area pile that is currently not
      showing (which is all ten in the first round). For every scorpion
      revealed, the time marker is moved up one spot on the time track,
      and the active player is "stung". This simply means that they lose
      one point for every player currently behind them on the score
      track. If two scorpion cards have been revealed from the same pile,
      they are shuffled back into that pile, along with all other
      discarded cards. Any scorpions are replaced with the next card in
      the deck. Once all scorpions are resolved, the player who currently
      controls the elder figure gets the top card of the Rite deck (if
      it's a Scorpion, they get "stung" instead).

      After this, each player, in clockwise order, picks one of
      the face-up cards in one of the areas and follows the action on it.
      - Card cards: This card gives the player that takes it four
      Rite cards.
      - Single Tjurunga cards: These cards show one disc, cube, or
      cylinder. The player MUST (if possible) place one of their tokens
      of that type in the area the card was drawn from. The player then
      has three choices: They can place two of the same type tokens
      anywhere on the board, place one token and draw a card, or draw two
      cards. Players keep single tjurunga cards for scoring purposes at
      the end of the game.
      - Triple Tjurunga cards: These cards allow the player to
      place three tokens (all the same type) anywhere on the board.
      - Ancestor card: The player takes the ancestor figure from
      the player and then moves the ancestor figure on the board into an
      adjacent territory (mandatory). A ceremony is immediately performed
      in that territory. All players who have tokens in a territory
      participate in a ceremony. Starting with the player who took the
      ancestor card, and going clockwise, each player may play a Rite card
      or pass. Most rite cards show a single token of a certain type,
      allowing the player who played the card three choices: They can
      take another player's token of that type out of the area and return
      it to that player, or they can move one token of that type of their
      color into an adjacent area, or they can move one token of that type
      of their color into that area from an adjacent area. Some Rite
      cards show double tokens, and allow a player to do the above options
      twice. After all players pass, the ceremony is over. Each type of
      tokens scores, with the player who has the majority of that type
      receiving the points for the ancestor (as noted on the score track –
      the points change over the course of a game.) Ties are broken by
      whoever controls the ancestor token, or whoever sits closer to them.
      - Elder card: This card is identical to the ancestor card,
      except that the elder figure is moved one or two spaces on the
      board, and a ceremony occurs there.
      - Ancestor/Elder card: This card allows the player to take
      both figures from the players who have them, and move both figures
      on the board to the space the card was drawn from – performing a
      ceremony there.

      Once each player has taken a turn, the round is over, and the
      boomerang (and possibly the ancestor figure) is passed. If, during
      the round, the time marker is moved to the final space, that round
      is the final round. After the round is played out, all players
      reveal their single tjurunga cards. The player who has the most
      cards of each type gets a bonus eight points – and then the player
      who has the most points is the winner!

      Some comments on the game…

      1.) Components: I enjoyed the components in Wongar – they were
      one of my main attractions to the game. Remarks about the artwork
      were varied from those who played, with some liking it quite a bit,
      and others taking the opposite view. I found it bizarre, but not
      entirely unpleasant on the eyes. The box, of course, is of the
      large sturdy type that all Goldsieber games are stored in. The box
      is nigh indestructible, but the large size makes the game more
      unwieldy and slightly annoying to transport. The board is large,
      and the pieces move about it fairly easily. Speaking of the pieces,
      I enjoyed them quite a bit – an attractive assortment of wooden
      counters – although it does look like they are all necklace beads.
      The boomerang, as well as the two "elders" and "ancient" pieces were
      beautiful, large wooden tokens (we did mix them up a lot, but it
      wasn't that big of a deal.) The area cards are small and easy to
      handle, but have strange artwork on them that can distract from the
      card's function. The ceremony cards are large, which helps
      distinguish them from the area cards (a nice touch). Overall, I
      liked all the components; they were visually stunning, but not
      entirely user-friendly when learning the rules.

      2.) Rules: The rules looked nice, but I had to download an
      English translation (why, oh why did I not take German in college
      rather than Spanish!?) from the web. The rules as written were
      fairly clear – but the components, especially the cards, didn't
      really help with ease of play. Therefore, even with only five pages
      of (translated) rules, we found ourselves constantly referencing
      them and frequently playing things incorrectly. The biggest
      offenders were the cards, but remembering which piece (elder or
      ancient) did what was often quite confusing.

      3.) New People and Theme: My first playing of the game was with
      a group of experienced gamers, with hundreds of "German" games under
      their belt. And yet there was still rampant confusion. The game is
      frankly not intuitive; and this is certainly not the fault of the
      mechanics, but because the theme is weird and detracts from
      gameplay. I'm sure that the dreams of Aborigines sounds like a
      good, unique theme; but how is this helpful to the gameplay as is?
      I read that the designers' original theme was changed, and that's a
      shame – because the new theme simply does NOT work. A theme is
      added to many of these "abstract" games to help people better
      associate pieces with the rules and mechanics. I am a big fan of
      adding themes to games, but this is one case where they should have
      just left it alone.

      4.) Strategy: Once gameplay is actually understood, however,
      some interesting strategies present themselves. Most area control
      games use only one type of unit (a la the caballeros in El Grande).
      Here there are three types of units, each with a different level of
      rarity. This, combined with the initial setup should determine
      one's strategic drive for the remainder of the game; but if a player
      hoards cards, they can possibly pull off a coup in a certain area.
      A player can try to maximize their hand, or they can try to maximize
      their presence on the board. To my chagrin, I quickly found out
      that making a strategy out of collecting card sets might serve well
      as a tiebreaker, but that it wasn't very viable as a main strategy.
      Knowing when to score a territory is also crucial; and if it wasn't
      for the scorpions, the game's strategy would be elegant and superb.

      5.) Randomness: But those scorpions are extremely random and
      annoying. They often cause the game to feel close to a total luck
      fest and can destroy one's carefully placed strategy. Yes, they
      will keep the scores closer together; but who wants to gain a pile
      of points, just to lose them again – solely because they are in
      first place. This is a game that "bashes" the leader, no help from
      the players necessary. Fortunately, however, the game
      includes "Advanced" rules. They include:
      · Scorpions no longer sting. This is the biggest and most
      important change. Let's keep the scorpions as a time mechanism, but
      that's it!
      · Players can place their initial token setup on the board.
      This will probably appease some – although I personally like dealing
      with how the initial setup turns out.
      · Remove one ancestor card and one elder card from each pile
      giving one card of each type to the players. On a turn, a player
      can play one of these cards instead of the card from an area. This
      changes the game a lot, but for the better.
      · Remove the two Scorpion cards and five double cards from the
      Rite deck. Each player starts the game with one double card. This
      really helps eliminate randomness from the deck and keeps play fair
      and balanced.
      I really like these "advanced" rules; in fact, if you play the game
      with me, they are "required" rules. They make gameplay so much
      better, and I can't imagine playing without them. I would go so far
      as to recommend that all four of them should be implemented into
      gamers' first games – there's just no point into playing the basic
      game.

      6.) Fun Factor: When I play a game with people who've never
      played "German" games before, Wongar is not on my list. Its theme
      (an important factor for new players) is retroactive, its mechanics
      are slightly complicated, and good strategy is fairly elusive in
      it. Yet, for those who love El Grande, this game is slightly
      similar, but with a touch of other mechanics thrown in. When played
      with the advanced rules, Wongar can be a lot of fun; but only with
      experienced gamers.

      And that wraps up my view on Wongar. I like the game, and will
      gladly play it again; but only with the advanced rules. The theme,
      which doesn't have to be present, is not just laid on top of the
      mechanics, but overshadows them, confusing all. The game is
      beautiful, and plays well – so if you don't mind the strange theme,
      and like area- control games, this is one of the best, rules wise.
      The combination of Borg and Moon has produced a fantastic game for
      us here. If only Goldsieber had left it alone.

      Tom Vasel
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