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Windward - Review

Designers: Daniel Aronson, Hayden Lapiska, and Nick Tompkins
Artist: Justin Spice
Publisher: El Dorado Games
Player Count: 1 to 5 Players
Play Time: 30 to 90 Minutes

The airship is gassed up, the canons are loaded, and it is time to set sail. In this review of Windward I highlight some of the magnificent game elements that create an imaginative play experience and lament the significant shortcomings of the solo variant.

Windward board game box cover on game board with airship components and trading post piece board game review
Windward game board and box cover

Gameplay: Fight and Flight for Notoriety

Taking on the role of airship pilots, players in Windward sail the treacherous skies of the planet of Celus in search of resources and prestige. To become the most Notorious sky captain, players will hunt dangerous monsters known as cresters, harvest Gas, battle one another, and exchange resources at the central Trading Post. Only the pilot who can keep good Morale while successfully navigating the arduous azure will earn enough Notoriety to win.

On their turns, players can take a number of actions—moving their Ship and Longboats, initiating battles with cresters and one another, picking up cargo, processing defeated cresters for Gas and their teeth, and exchanging resources for boons, Supply cards, Crew, and Canons at the Trading Post. Assigning Mates to perform tasks on board the Ship and playing Supply cards from hand also grant bonus actions. This is all to say that players have ample options for what they can do on their turn. And all of these actions can be taken in any order. So making the most of each turn requires tactical understanding of the action economy.

Players will split their time between navigating the board At Sky and resting and recuperating At Port (the Trading Post). And while At Sky, a great deal of focus will be on battling cresters and harvesting them for their parts—grim, but necessary to power their airships. Cresters come in multiple flavors: Grey Cresters fly at lower elevations and do not move off their feeding grounds. They can only be targeted by deploying and attacking with Longboats, after which their defeated carcass can be hauled back to the flagship—again, grim. Red Cresters are far more dangerous and will target any Ships that fly into their sector of the game board, roaming around at the same elevation as the players’ Ships. Once defeated and added to cargo, cresters can be processed, providing the player with Gas equal to their current morale and a tooth of the matching crester color which is deposited at the Trading Post in exchange for Notoriety.

windward board game player board gas tokens cannon tokens longboats at sky at port player board and supply cards
Player board and Supply cards

Movement around the circular map of Celus is largely at the whims of the winds. At the beginning of each round, the first player will roll the Wind Die to randomly determine the direction that the wind is blowing across the planet, adjusting the Flag at the Trading Post accordingly. Winds may only shift again during the round if a player plays an Aerogenerator Supply card. Ships cannot sail directly into the wind, but may freely move an unlimited number of spaces directly with it. Ships may move up to four spaces per turn in other directions. The map also contains portals called Zephyrs that transport ships to any other Zephyr space on the map. Around the Map spaces allow players to jump across to the opposite side of the board, simulating a complete circumnavigation of the planet. These movement benefits are essential since rocky, impassable terrain spaces known as Drift makes direct, linear movement across Celus challenging.

But a good pilot does more than just sail; they need to fight for their bounty and defend it against would-be pillagers. Whenever an airship or a crester moves into the same space as an enemy piece, a battle is initiated. Every airship and crester has a strength value that can be increased by spending loaded Canons from the player board. Players roll a number of Battle Dice equal to their strength and compare the total number of hits. The winner lives to fight another day, while the loser likely ends up with a Ship Lost, dropping cargo, losing Morale, and faltering back to port wounded and sour.

But with a resource-full cargo hold, a player will head back to the Trading Post to offload their Gas in exchange for perks and prominence. At Port a player may load up Canons to help them in battle, draw more Supply cards which can bolster their action economy, recruit crew to fasten permanent boons to their Ship, and rest to revitalize Morale. Most importantly, they will trade harvested crester teeth for notoriety. Notoriety may also be purchased outright with Gas, and is earned each turn a player survives out At Sky. The first player to reach 15 notoriety wins.

windward board game supply cards crew notoriety track tokens airship board game review trading post board
Trading Post board with Supply cards, Crew, and Notoriety track

Solo: A Change of Pace

The Windward solo adventure introduces a radically divergent gameplay experience. Rather than an interactive contest of resource acquisition, the solo variant plays more like a survival match where the objective is not to accumulate Notoriety, but to successfully defeat all six Red Cresters plus the White Crester—a mighty tough monster that acts as the final boss in the solo and cooperative game variants. Only a few practical changes to gameplay result in a fundamental revision of the game’s structure and progression.

Players start with the maximum five Supply cards to start, providing them a good starting point against the stacked odds; otherwise setup is the same. The most profound change to gameplay is that the solo player cannot end their turn At Port. This means they cannot rest to recoup Morale and cannot use the Trading Post as a means to escape the ever-encroaching cresters on their heels. The solo pilot is condemned to fare each turn in the treacherous skies, visiting the Trading Post only to exchange Gas for Canons and other bonuses and head right back out. But during their time At Port, instead of trading crester teeth for Notoriety, they exchange them for Gas to spend on Crew, Canons, Supplies, etc. This helps the solo player more quickly and fully restock their ship for battling.

Each turn, the Red Cresters advance towards the player’s Ship and, unlike in a standard game, may move off of their origin territory to stalk the player all around the map. Two cresters may even be in the same space at the same time. Furthermore, the more cresters the player kills, the faster the remaining ones become, adding one movement speed to their base of three for each defeated Red Crester. The final battle is triggered and the powerful White Crester placed on the map once if all Red Cresters have been defeated. The player wins if they can best the final boss, and fails if at any time their Ship is defeated.

windward board game review battle dice airship miniature
Battle Dice and Purple Ship

Thoughts: Ship Lost

I have had a lot of fun playing Windward. The game features very intelligent and cohesive mechanics that establish a genuinely interesting physical environment—I would even go as far to say universe—of Celus. For instance, a game about airships should absolutely be regulated by a strong wind direction mechanic that is central to movement across the map. It presents a clever disruption to strategies that take several turns to develop and entices players to constantly analyze the changing board state. A felicitous change in the wind can quickly shift momentum for players. It also just makes sense!

Component movement is overall expertly well-developed in Windward. The Drift spaces on the map make travel somewhat circuitous, with some narrow channels and long impassable stretches. But there are ample opportunities for convenient repositioning. Zephyrs and Around the Map spaces both offer instantaneous relocation to a different part of the board, providing avenues for quick evasion of cresters, or other players. These hindrances and advantages to movement are functionally well-balanced.

I also appreciate the 3-dimensionality of the board. Placing Grey Cresters and the Longboats that are required to hunt them on a separate horizontal plane as the other components adds richness to the lore and another system to manage in the action economy. This lower level of the skies lends more consequence to Mates—which must be activated to drop and move Longboats—while At Sky. These elements combine to establish an imaginary of Celus where the dominant winds are blowing and airships are zipping and blipping in and out of dense fields of floating rubbish. Interesting game mechanics informed by, and consequently enriching, the narrative is exactly what I look for in a thematic strategy game.

windward board game review airship longboat gray cresters red cresters trading post at sky at port
Blue Ship and Longboat with cresters and Trading Post

But for a game where airships feature so prominently in the artwork, the gameplay, and the lore I am somewhat disappointed in the airship miniatures. These components are the keynotes of the game, the primary tokens each player is in control of. If there was one set of pieces in the box to really nail, it would be these. Instead, they are made of a brittle plastic with variable production quality. Some of the Ship miniatures did not fit properly into their bases, some being too loose and others too tight and two of the Longboat miniatures were chipped out of the box. In just the second game I played, the Ship I was piloting began to fall apart in my hand and I had to refit and snap the bits back together. Other components—the mates, the player board, the game board pieces—are commendable. The artwork on the Trading Post and player boards is immersive and the cresters are painted and fairly detailed models. But the airships, the ones that really needed to be constructed exquisitely, were not.

The rulebook was also a major point of confusion and I am glad to see that the designers have published updated rulebooks with some clarifications and corrections. However, a major rules question specific to the solo variant was left unchanged in the 2.0 rules publication. Namely, when a player returns to the Trading Post, the rulebooks state that a player “may choose to trade in (crester) Teeth for Gas.” The word “may” here implies that the player can choose either to trade in the teeth in exchange for Gas or keep them in cargo. A player may not want to trade in teeth on that trip if all of the Gas slots on their player board are already full, causing them to discard excess Gas. In the core game it is stated unequivocally that the player has no choice to trade in teeth for Notoriety.

I had a lot of difficulty playing the solo variant of Windward and in doing research for this review, I was relieved to learn that I was not the only one. Other players noted similar apparent unbalances and challenge-level problems. The rulebook states up front that the solo variant is an “extremely challenging mode of play,” a rigorous survival puzzle that is tough to overcome. I enjoy difficult games. I can appreciate failing countless times as a learning process towards getting better at the game, identifying strategies, and working-out paths to victory. But the difficulty of Windward’s solo variant is largely independent of player skill. Instead failure or success is entirely at the hands of luck factors in the game’s mechanics—rolling dice for hits and wind direction. Regardless of how the player plans and executes their turn, certain game states will emerge that test the player’s ability to favorably roll dice that will determine whether the player wins or loses.

windward board game airships cresters game component strategy game review
Box cover, airships and cresters

In Windward’s solo variant, the player is tasked with hunting all six Red Cresters, or rather, surviving being hunted by all of them. All Red Cresters advance towards the player each turn and become faster the more of them the player defeats. So by the time the player has eliminated two of them, the cresters are, on average, faster than the player. A player needs to take perfect advantage of Zephyrs and Around the Map spaces to keep ahead. And because of the circular shape of the board, the players’ movement at the edges is going to result in a pack of Red Cresters circling around the Trading Post in the middle of the board, rendering it mostly inaccessible to the player.

And remember, the player cannot end their turn At Port. This means that to enter the Trading Post the player needs to find an accessible route to return to the center tile, take movement to enter and exit the Trading Post, and get back to one or another edge of the map where they cannot be attacked by the entire pack of cresters swirling at the center of the map. The player needs both favorable winds and several bonus movement actions from Mates and Supply cards on turns they need to return to port. Otherwise, if they end up close to the center of the map, the player is likely to be swarmed by several Red Cresters that can all quickly converge on the Trading Post and adjacent tiles from their respective sectors.

Getting swarmed essentially means a Ship Lost and a game loss. Winning a battle against a Red Crester is completely dependent on having a few loaded Cannons to use for additional damage dice. The Strength value (which determines how many hit dice to roll) difference between a Ship (2) and a Red Crester (5) is enough that in a head-to-head battle without Strength bonuses from Canons, the player is going to lose almost every time, needing both a perfect roll on their own dice and a full slate of ones from the crester—with about a .087% chance of that happening. So it is safe to say a player is going to lose their ship, and thus the game if they need to go up against a Red Crester without any assistance from Supply cards and Cannons, making regular access to the port, where they can re-up on both, critical. If movement to and from the Port would put the player into a situation where they can be targeted by more cresters than they can spend Cannons to handle, the game is decidedly over. And this little conundrum—how can I get to port and back this turn with 4 cresters right there—is pretty much how every solo game of Windward ends up.

Even if the player has Cannons and automatic hits from Supply cards to make it a fair fight, the outcome of the battle is still dependent on a sizable pool of Battle Dice acting averagely. And dice never do. So if the player does everything right, the game can still end abruptly due to a poor dice roll. In a strategy game with such a robust action economy and smart, tactical board movement options, shifting the entire winning condition from resource acquisition to survival based on chance circumstances and dice rolling outcomes feels very misplaced.

I have yet to win a solo playthrough; in fact, I have not really even gotten close. Every game ended in some iteration of the same scenario: I manage to take out one, two, or even three cresters and need to return to the Trading Post to reload. There is no avenue into the port without triggering a battle so my options are a .0087% chance of fighting my way in, or moving around the edge of the board, hoping the perfect board conditions manifest in a future turn before I run out of Morale or Supply cards.

windward board game review overview
Game, player, and Trading Post boards overview

Windward is such an intuitive competitive multiplayer contest. The game is socially interactive, introduces a robust, multi-tiered action economy, and includes spatial rules that create a coherent and appropriate physical environment. But all of these elements that make the game fascinating are removed or pacified in the solo module. I normally deplore unnecessary fiddleyness in solo games, but this may be an instance in which I would have preferred the introduction of automated bots, using some sort of action preference system akin to Root’s clockwork factions, to the solo variant presented in the rules text. Although lengthening game time and increasing the number of components the solo player needs to track and handle, it would have preserved more of the gameplay elements that make Windward very enjoyable. That the ultimate objective of gaining Notoriety is removed for the solo adventure module perhaps should have been a red flag that the variant rules were varying too far. Changing the core objective of the game and trimming down the focus to battling cresters creates a strategically unfair and deterministic play experience.

I am going to keep Windward in my collection. The multiplayer game is fantastically enjoyable, especially at the higher end of the player count. In that format, I find the game’s strategy and the board state are both far more balanced. But I would have much rather seen this listed as a two to five player game without an attempt to broaden its appeal to solo gamers, because it just did not deliver. The final revised rules text (version 2.5) left out the solo rules completely, and it is not clear why. Perhaps it was deemed not to need any edits and inclusion in previous versions of the text would suffice. Perhaps it was scrapped from the game altogether. I hope neither is the case and that a workable solo rulebook, or even a fanmade alternative, will emerge and present a more sound solo variant that I believe this game is capable of.

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