War with a narrow scope
Type: Singleplayer, Multiplayer
Genre: Strategy, Tactics
Developer: UpRoom Games
Publisher: UpRoom Games
Release date: 28 Apr, 2021
With games it’s often better to do one thing well than five things okay. This is true for almost any genre, but with strategy games scope creep is a pretty common occurrence, particularly for smaller studios. After all, it’s easy to come up with new cool things that you want to add, but after a while things just get out of hand and the project becomes too big for a new studio to really manage. Often it’s enough for one part to not work properly for the whole game to suffer.
A Token War is a refreshingly simple yet deceptively challenging turnbased tactics game where the designers seem to have gone in with a simple idea and resisted the temptation to add features that did not support this core idea directly. You’re building a collection of units, represented by round tokens (hence the name of the game), and try to take on increasingly difficult levels. There’s hardly any story, with what’s there limited to short paragraphs of text meant to be more funny than world building, the graphics is simple, and there are not a lot of different mechanics. Yet there’s a surprising amount of depth here.
A Token War is not a game that will be remembers for its amazing graphics, though there’s a certain charm to its art style. Each level is made up of a grid of tiles laid out in different ways and sometimes stacked upon each other. On this grid you have the aforementioned tokens representing units and structures. The grid itself is pretty featureless, with the only rocks, blank spaces where you can see the background and darker tiles at the top of any stacks preventing it from feeling bland.
The tokens themselves are circles with an image drawn on. They’re not animated, and the images themselves have a simple hand-drawn look to them. There’s at least quite a few different tokens and there’s a consistent art style among them, with none of the tokens standing out as not fitting in with the rest. On the tokens you’ve got things like knights, slug monsters, walls and sharks. Finding new tokens feels pretty fun in the game due to the varied creatures they represent.
With such a simple look one might expect the game to sound rather bland, but surprisingly enough it does not. The background music is overall quite well made and would be right at home in an RPG or a larger strategy game if there were a few more songs. The games sound effects are also remarkably good. Different spells and creatures make different sounds, and there’s a surprising amount of heft to the sound effects.
Every level in A Token War has the same goal, destroy the enemy’s main building, and make sure that yours stays safe. The difference between each level comes down to its layout and what units, or tokens, the opposing side has. At the start of every level you can see what the opposition is, and then deploy your own tokens, with each level having certain tiles where you can place your units, usually in one big clump at the bottom of the level, though some levels mix things up a bit. Any unit your main building sustains in a level remains until you beat a world or repair it at a merchant.
A turn in A Token War consists of both sides performing two actions, although any one token can’t perform the same action twice, starting with the player if it’s a player vs. AI match. An action can be moving a token, attacking with a unit, using a structure or using a spell. Both sides alternates turns until one side wins. The system is really simple but because the tokens are quite varied it does not get stale very fast.
Every unit has three stats, its attack power, health and movement. Most structures lack attack power and movement, though there are exceptions. Once health reaches zero the token is destroyed and taken off the board, the attack power is how much damage it will deal when attacking, and the movement value is simply how many tiles it can move with one activation. Most units also have some kind of special ability, archers can attack from a longer range, an agile unit can jump over other tokens, some structures can summon new units and certain units will strengthen those around it. The abilities that the different tokens have are not very complex on their own, but it all adds up to a wide variety of units.
Tokens also come in different rarities, with the rare ones being more powerful. There’s a limit on how many tokens of higher rarities you can bring with you on any given level though. How many you can have depends on the level, but a silver-bordered token might take up one “slot”, a gold bordered takes up two and so on. If you have a limit of four slots on a level you can bring two gold units, four silver units or two silver and one gold. Bronze units are “free” and you can then fill all leftover spaces with those.
Apart from the regular tokens on the board there are also spells. Spells take up an action to use and gives an instant effect. These range from repairing structures to dealing damage to a specific target, to randomly damaging things on the board to causing any “on death” effects that a unit might have without actually killing that unit. Each level allows you to bring a limited number of spells, usually between one and three.
After each level you’ll be rewarded with new tokens, spells, money and/or permanent upgrades to your main building. You’ll get a choice between a few different options and this is where the “deck building” element mentioned on the games storepage comes in. Although you’re not really building a deck at all, you’re simply unlocking new options for what you can use in future levels, and you’re not dealt a random set of units to use in a level or any of the other things that are typical for deckbuilding games. The only thing this game really has in common with something like Slay the Spire in this regard is how new units/cards are chosen. That’s not to say that the system is bad though, it works well and creating a balanced set of tokens that you can bring with you is important. At certain points you’ll also find traders where you can buy and sell tokens and spell, and here you usually have a pretty wide selection to chose from. You can also spend money on repairing your main building at these locations.
There’s also hotseat multiplayer in A Token War, though at the time of writing sadly no online multiplayer beyond remote play. Multiplayer functions similarly to singleplayer but instead of having a set of token you bring with you between levels both players share a randomized pool of tokens and they take turn picking from it during deployment.
A Token War is a game that knows exactly what it is, and focuses on doing a few things really well rather than a lot of things in an okay way. And ultimately that was the right choice. It’s a fun and straight forward game that’s easy to pick up and play, but still has a good amount of depth. The design of the game actually in a way reminded me of Magic the Gathering, before it had had nearly three decades of rules tweaks and additions, when the basic rules were dead simple, and all the complexity came from the cards. Though unlike MtG there are not any things here that adds weird and hard to understand interactions (no Banding in sight!).
In terms of longevity A Token War might not be up there with games like Slay the Spire or even Deck of Ashes, after having beaten the main campaign and unlocked the hard mode I felt like I had had my fill of it and I did not feel like starting another campaign. But it’s still a good game and well worth the asking price of 11€.