If Waste Knights is any indication for the future, then Polish-trash is a term you need to familiarize yourself with. If you’re anything like me, then your knowledge of Poland’s board game scene extends just to the edge of Portal Games and no farther. The rest is a vast dark unknown that occupies my thoughts about as often as Caylus or Hansa Teutonica. That’s going to change this instant as Polish publisher Badger’s Nest is here to stay.
Waste Knights is a brutal yet colorful post-apocalyptic vision that’s two parts Max Rockatansky one part Fallout by Bethesda software. The two are shaken together and splashed across a tabletop jammed packed with hexes, tokens, and cards. The production is visually sincere and pleasant as hell on the eyes. Everything from the small sized item cards to the hex illustrations and the character’s portraits align with this razor edge vision of the world gone sideways, yet it manages to stay relatively bright and energetic. It’s much more George Miller than Cormac McCarthy.
Snagging imports from small publishers is sometimes akin to playing Russian Roulette – you never know quite how the overall quality will meld and if it will stand up to the big players in the industry. Waste Knights comes across as something which could have been produced by the mighty Fantasy Flight Games. The cardboard is thick and well loved, the attention to detail is exceptional, and everything just functions superbly. The only blemishes on this peach come in the form of the occasional translation issue. You will notice spread throughout the flavor text an uncommon flub or awkward sentence structure but it’s nothing terrible and easy to overlook. It certainly doesn’t come across as amateur and only highlights the fact this was not written by a native speaker.
Despite the small translation oddities the rulebook flows extremely well. It’s a large and comprehensive guide that belies the relatively simple nature of the gameplay. The weight is somewhere in the Arkham/Eldritch Horror realm in both component saturation and rules complication. It’s a game that experienced players will easily be able to dive in to and be off and running within a couple of turns.
The structure of play is really quite straightforward in that you travel across the wasteland, experience encounters, and take advantage of location benefits. You’re generally trying to fulfill tasks (small missions) for the short term while keeping the overarching scenario objective in your peripheral vision. What makes Waste Knights infectious like a bout of the rad plague, is the small inflections of subsystems comprising each of the major elements. In this way it reminds me a bit of Christophe Boelinger and I see a couple of nods in the same direction as Earth Reborn – one of the most brilliant Post-Apocalyptic designs in existence.
The first subsystem to take note of is readily apparent when you first get your player-mat, randomly selected from a huge number of options. You’ll immediately take notice of the brilliant color-coded equipment system. You have inventory slots as weapons take up hands, chest, or pocket positions and have a power relative to a tiered item structure. Characters are differentiated by several stats used in checks throughout the game, a special ability, and starting equipment printed directly onto the sheet. You can cover this starting equipment up as you tear a Flamethrower from a dead mutant’s body or fuse a cybernetic implant into your skin. There’s a constant sense of opening a new toy via gear earned as rewards and gear acquired through a shopping spree.
The equipment fuels the top-notch combat system that most closely resembles FFG’s recent Forbidden Stars. Here players each receive an identical deck full of action cards including options such as Attack, Defend, Advance/Retreat, and Prepare. You can execute a simple attack to inflict pain with your weaponry or turtle up to keep your fragile life in the balance. All tests in this game are dice pools against set target numbers, in combat that target number is determined by range.
The range between combatants is abstracted and factors into the attack target number as well as the initiative based on weaponry. At close range you can only use short distance and melee weaponry as you’d expect. There’s an additional layer of strategy in that you can eliminate your opponent from the fight or you can hang on to the end and win via momentum – much like Forbidden Star’s morale system. It just works as your decisions are crucial and often difficult.
There’s a very satisfying sense of realism and narrative paired with just the right amount of abstraction due to the combination of range, damage, and momentum. As you play an Advance card to charge at your opponent so you can use your sawed-off, you get a real sense of colorful drama while he’s throwing slugs your way with his assault rifle. The momentum reinforces the percussive weight of your decisions relative to skirmish tactics in the sense that advancing, inflicting damage, and suppression are all rolled into this elegant and tasty battle in a compact manner.
Likewise, hauling across monster infested country is handled with flair. You travel by spending fuel to move with one of several vehicle options and plot the path you intend to take across the map. One of the opposing players takes the role of the Wastelander (which rotates with each player) and draws hazard cards that are comprised of mostly wicked events and perilous foes. They will choose one such card to play during your movement, interrupting the action to force a check or an encounter.
The farther you move on your turn the more cards they draw and options they have. Additionally certain hexes may allow the Wastelander to draw more cards, suggesting you take care in plotting your trip. This palpable sense of danger infuses the push your luck element of stretching your vehicle to the limit and risking a jaunt through broken ground.
You can run through rubble and damage your car, come across vast clouds of locusts, and be assaulted by human/centipede centaurs out to gut you. This player enforced advocacy for the harsh reality of the environment works superbly as opposed to a simple AI system. The decisions are more nuanced and more importantly, vindictive. Instead of having your car trash a tire and force a mechanical check, Steve will hit your steady Gearhead with an Electrical Storm testing his unfortunately low Survival stat. It keeps you on your toes and braced to be smacked around like a baby seal.
Throughout this wonderful color and satisfying gear manipulation, you’re strategically running from point to point across the board to accomplish diverse tasks such as muling equipment or bagging mutant lizard pelts to decorate a surly fella’s bar. This is relatively standard adventure game stuff, enhanced by strong flavor and that fantastic encounter system.
The greater context is provided via the Mission Book, a full color document offering several interesting scenarios. You can compete to simply have the highest fame, gained throughout the game by overcoming foes and accomplishing tasks, or seek to find the malicious Bloody Mary and bring her back to the big boss to be reckoned with. The options on hand are strongly diverse and the promise for more in the future is enticing. The culminating scenario, Cult of the Manifold, has you hopping to infested cities and clearing the bile for the greater good; imaginative and always interesting.
Like the upper echelon of Ameritrash adventure games, Waste Knights is not defined entirely by its mechanisms or lengthy playtime. Long after the game ends you’ll be sharing a beer and reminiscing on Russel Crown (you read that correctly) running drugs for the overseer and being rewarded with a flamethrower that he affixed with a bayonet to take down that massive AI tank roaming the dead lands. If that doesn’t perk up your interest, then you don’t have a pulse.