Making a claim that it is “the one hour wargame”, Ars Victor doesn’t make a very convincing case for itself with its tagline. It’s almost like advertising a title as “the wargame with chits” at this point in the genre’s evolution. There are tons of one hour tactical wargames ranging from any of the Commands and Colours titles to Jeff Horger’s Manoeuvre to Conflict of Heroes to the Pocket Battles series and on through to lesser lights like the Mythic Battles line. This class of game has been very popular over the past ten years and, for many game players, it’s also a class that has become redundant. So Ars Victor, designed by the very enthusiastic Stephen DeBaun, has its work cut out for itself. It needs to prove that it can stand next to some of the one-hour titans, it has to evidence differentiators that set it apart from the pack and if it’s going to be eligible to be considered THE one hour wargame- it’s got to be awesome.
The good news is that Mr. DeBaun mostly pulls it off because Ars Victor is a very, very good one hour wargame and I think it does have some appreciable differences beginning with setup. Out of the box, Ars Victor is not scenario-based like most of its peers and constructing an army is part of the game- but this process isn’t nearly as tedious as figuring out where to put all of those little men with a two turn life expectancy down and putting a banner on them like in a Battlelore game, for example. Units are depicted on a single chit, and these are put on a larger banner chit that shows which “suit” they are. More on that after the next paragraph. The big, modular terrain tiles provide a different battlefield for each outing. The hex-based terrain is fixed, so there are no terrain tiles to change things up. But they are reversable, so there is plenty of variety.
Depending on the size of the game, players have up to 80 “Glory” points to spend on units. But you don’t necessarily want to spend all of them, because the remainder goes with you into the game. There are three control points between the players, and if a player has a unit on one it “bleeds” Glory from the other player each turn that it is occupied. Lose a unit, and you also lose however much glory they are worth. If you have your HQ unit on the board but the opponent does not, they bleed glory until they can field their HQ. Run out of glory, and you lose. If your HQ unit gets killed, you can lose that way too.
Now, the suits. There are four suits in two colors. These suits key to the card-driven command system. Each turn you play a card for between two to seven command points to spend on ordering units around. If you order a unit of the same suit, it costs one CP to just move (which may include a bonus for moving without attacking) or two CPs to activate a unit to move and attack. Units of the same color but in the other suit can also be activated with +1CP added to their cost. It’s very rare that you’ll feel screwed by the cards and unable to act effectively. What’s more, not every unit starts the game on the board- you only put four “vanguard” units out- and the rest come on later. You get to decide which suit they’re going to be.
Combat is based on three colors of dice- red, white and blue. The blues are the most dangerous. A unit like an artillery piece may have a tremendous ranged roll, but no melee roll- thus leaving it vulnerable for the lizard-riding cavalry. There are two varieties of hits, a hollow skull and a full skull, and some units shrug off the former. There are also push results, which force a unit to vacate a hex and allows the attacking unit to gain ground if they are adjacent. If the pushed unit can’t make a full retreat, they take a hit and a little number counter is put on the unit to show damage. There seems to be a lot of pushing overall, and scoring hits on units feels much less common than incurring retreats. This means that the game is very much about tussling over those three command spots, pushing forces back until they rush back in to push you off. I kind of like that it’s a big deal to finally off a unit in contrast to other games where your fragile armies are off the map in a quarter of the time it takes to set them up.
As for the combatants themselves, well, let’s just say that they are awfully close to unit types in a very popular science fiction miniatures game. One set included in the box are, um, “Imperial” humans and the other are “elder” space elves. There’s a surprising range of units available with diverse melee, ranged and movement abilities that offer a tremendous range of squad composition potential. For those who might be worried about building an army before each game, bear in mind that you may only be bringing seven or eight units into a game. It all depends on how much Glory you want to play with.
A point of contention with some players may be these units- either some will decry Mr. DeBaun for not really doing a whole lot to mask their inspiration, or they will dislike the cartoonish artwork. I’ll go on record as stating that I actually really like the comic look of the units, it separates the game from hordes of “grim future” games and focuses the look toward a more GW-by-way-of-Adventure Time aesthetic. The visual design is simple overall, easy to parse and intuitive. It’s a very clean looking game.
Overall, Ars Victor is very approachable and familiar but it still manages to feel different than other one hour wargames. I think there’s actually more meat here than you might expect with the wide range of squad builds possible and the smart command system that never railroads you into making crummy decisions. There’s more of a free-form feeling in comparison to the more regimented play of something like Memoir ’44. I would like to see more units- including armor and air units- as well as more terrain types. But out of the box, I think there’s a lot of game here and it’s definitely a contender in its class.
Fast playing and fun, Ars Victor is mostly a victory. Sadly, I think the game is going to have an uphill battle against some well-entrenched and well-supported games that have been around for much longer, and convincing players to give this one a chance may be quite a challenge. But I think those that do give it a shot are going to find that this one could be a new favorite.