Year Published: 2015
Designer: Jonathan Gilmour, Ben Harkins
Publisher: Floodgate Games
Players: 3-5 (2-player variant)
Playtime: 45-60 minutes
One Sentence Synopsis: Fantasy Storage Wars.
Tragically, many “heroes” don’t realize they’re not cut out for adventuring until it’s too late and they’ve become a dragon’s main dinner course or a permanent fixture on display in the deepest, darkest jail. Their misfortunes are indeed saddening, but we often overlook perhaps an even graver injustice as we mourn their passing: everyone forgets about their acquired trinkets and treasurers which are destined to rot away for eternity in dingy storage lockers. Well my friends, NO MORE I SAY! To those enterprising misers and merchants among you there’s now a way to find said abandoned hoards and to make them your own with just a bit of coin and a little luck. So, put on your best poker face and suit up your most trusted human pack mule named Patsy, because you never know what you’re going to encounter in…Vault Wars!
If you’ve ever watched the TV show Storage Wars and thought it would make a cool game, Vault Wars is the fantasy-themed answer to your pleas. Over roughly an hour special sets are collected, spare gear is sold, and 3-5 players each hope to come out ahead of everyone else having amassed the most points value once the final vault is gone. Not every prospective bidder is the same, however, and different aspiring heroes get bonus points for collecting different items, making the most successful collector the one who can best satisfy their own specialization while denying others the items they need. You accomplish this through shrewd manipulation of the vault auction order, and by bluffing your fellow adventurers based on the limited number of revealed loot cards that are in each vault, and on individual peeks at remaining hidden items. Play too aggressively, however, and you just may end up paying a visit to the Loan Shark who will refill your pockets, but for a soul-sucking price.
Each player starts the game with a purse of 20 coins and two aspiring hero cards which are dealt face down. You immediately look at your heroes to get an idea about which strategies to employ throughout the game, but at the end of the game you choose one of the characters to use and ignore the other. While it’s not a huge change from normal hidden objective mechanics, having the option of picking one of two, and not having to make that choice until the end, gives you a little more flexibility to adjust your strategy based on progress during the game; that really helps solve the potential frustration of coming up dry on auctions due to random chance, and it mitigates having a couple of rounds of poor bidding performance.
Vault cards are then randomized and dealt to each player depending on the player count (three each in a 5 player game, up to five each in a 3 player game), and players proceed to draft vaults until there are no more vaults left to pass. There are a number of considerations to take into account when making vault selections, including the vault’s ability, number of cards in the chest the auctioneer will get to see(closed chest icon), number of cards everyone gets to see(open chest), number of cards each player gets to randomly peek at(spyglass), and the vault priority number in the shield which determines the order vaults are bid on each turn. In some cases you’ll want to keep a vault in order to see everything that’s in it and to give yourself a good opportunity for bluffing, while in others you may want to pass the card to someone else to get additional chances to bid on the vault and potentially get it at a lower price; the auctioneer (person who plays the vault) only gets to place the opening bid, so it’s a gamble to keep a vault you may really want.
Setup is completed by shuffling the item card deck and placing it in the middle of the table, and if you’re playing with the Worker expansion by shuffling those cards and putting five of them face up to form a Worker Market. The Loan Shark is also added to the table along with his accompanying corruption tokens which penalize players at the end of the game for taking out loans.
Gameplay takes place over a series of rounds composed of four phases each. During the first phase, each player secretly selects one of their vault cards and places it face down. Those cards are revealed simultaneously, and in order of vault priority you then have the option of hiring 1 worker from the Worker Market at a cost of 1 for the worker farthest from the Worker deck, and increasing to 5 for the worker closest to the deck. While not integral to enjoying Vault Wars, the workers do add a limited take-that element to the game which enhances player interaction outside of the auction process, and contributes an additional strategic element for consideration.
Players auction their vaults in order of priority during the second phase, with each person becoming the Auction Master for the vault they played. The lowest vault priority is first, and the Auction Master draws as many items as indicated by the card, then looks at all the cards and determines which card(s) to reveal face up for everyone to see, and which to pass. Each player than has the opportunity to peek at a certain number of the remaining hidden item cards depending on the vault, potentially giving each person a different impression as to what’s in the vault. The Auction Master places their opening bid for the vault, and all other heroes then have the option of passing or of raising the bid by at least one coin. The Auction Master cannot bid again, but bidding will continue among the other players until everyone but one person has passed. The winning player receives the items in the vault and pays the Auction Master, and then the next vault in order of priority is auctioned off and play continues until all active vaults are bought.
The Auction phase is really where Vault Wars’s bluffing substance comes into play, with all players trying to mislead one another based on the limited information (or in the case of the Auctioneer, full information) about what is contained in the vault. There are a good number of items in the game, but most generally fall into one of four categories: gems which gain points the more you have, artifacts which you can equip or sell and are worth victory points if kept in your stash, weapons which are worth points or can be sold, and armor which are worth points and sell for more the more set pieces you unload at once. However, the vast majority of cards in the item deck are junk which cannot be sold and are worthless insofar as victory points are concerned unless you’re playing as the Hoarder character, so going in big on a vault that ends up being next to worthless can be a pretty crushing blow. Running out of money early in a round also effectively takes you out of commission for the rest of that round’s bids, so you really need to pay attention to what may be coming up later in the round and strategize exactly how much coin you’re willing to risk on earlier vaults without knowing for sure whether anything else will turn out as worthwhile. Just as in real storage bidding, you’re always taking a gamble pursuing that diamond in the rough.
Once all vaults are sold you have the option of trashing any junk you may have acquired, equipping any item cards you’d like to gain their effect at the expense of counting their victory points at the end of the game, and of then selling up to four items for their depicted coin value. If you have less than 12 gold you then have the option of visiting the Loan Shark who will provide 12 gold from the bank in exchange for also taking a corruption token which is worth progressively more negative points apiece at the end of the game for each one you have in front of you. While I’ve found groups hesitant to use the Loan Shark because he’s viewed as bad, it’s actually a very useful mechanism when used sparingly that can give you a lot of extra wiggle-room to hire workers, or to acquire more vaults which will likely more than make up for any negative points accrued. Heavy financial conservatism on the part of players can really reduce the enjoyment of Vault Wars, so making sure everyone is aware of the Loan Shark’s usefulness is something I’d highly recommend covering. He’s also an elegantly simple way of helping to mitigate runaway leaders in a “rich get richer” type of scenario which is a common problem in other bidding games.
Finally, every player must pay upkeep for any cards they’re keeping “stashed”: that is, any cards they’re wanting to count for victory points once the game is over. Upkeep is one gold for each item card, and one gold per three junk. If you can’t pay full upkeep you’ll have to make the difficult decision of discarding one item per gold you couldn’t afford to pay. In other words, make sure to balance how many items you’re keeping vs. how much upkeep you can afford to pay while still having enough left over to actually stay in bidding contention the following round. If there are no more vaults to auction then players each add up their total item card victory points, bonus victory points from their chosen character, and one victory point per 10 gold, and the aspiring hero with the most wins the game.
Vault Wars consistently hits its 45-60 minute play mark and is light enough that teaching only takes about five minutes. The basic concepts of the game are simple enough that most players will have caught onto bidding and bluffing strategies after the first round of play, and I’ve found the game is pretty smooth sailing from there. That makes it really great for new gamers and families, or even as an opener for more regular gaming groups, but I found it plays a little long to use as a filler game for me personally. The inclusion of the Loan Shark and two options for bonuses at the end of the game are good ways to reduce the chances of a runaway leader, and give players a lot more flexibility during the game to adjust their strategies or to be a little less frugal with their spending which, quite frankly, just makes for a much more fun game experience. Vault Wars also includes a 2-player variant, but as enjoyment from these kinds of games generally stems from player interaction I’d hesitate to say you’ll find it nearly as entertaining as a Mano A Mano experience.
Component-wise I’m happy to report that Vault Wars is another example of a very high production quality Kickstarted title. Vault Wars’s box has a magnetic lid and is constructed from thick cardboard, the insert works well and fits everything easily, and the cards are all of good thickness and finish. The artwork is colorful and whimsical, giving the game a nice light theme to go along with its generally jovial atmosphere, and I think will really add to the game’s appeal for families in particular. This is one of the few campaigns I opted not to go all-in on metal coins, and while I do miss the clinkety-clink of coin stacks around the table the cardboard tokens included with the game are well built and get the job done.
COG Takeaway: Vault Wars succeeds as a light, social bidding/bluffing game that should fit well for families or groups with new players or who generally enjoy lighter games. The game has solid enough underlying mechanisms that this isn’t one of those social games that “you have to have the right group” for it to work, though like with most social games it’s certainly more fun when everyone really gets involved and banters. Vault Wars also includes a number of simple but clever mechanisms that help avoid pitfalls seen in other bidding/bluffing games, but which don’t overburden the flow of the game to the point where they deepen the strategy outside of the game’s intended complexity, nor extend the playtime beyond what the game can really support. Combine all that with its very low price of entry and I’d say it’s one of the more solid choices on the market for a lighter auction-style bidding/bluffing game.
What are some of your favorite bidding/bluffing games?
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