Having not grown up in Canada, I wasn’t part of any class in school where I might have learned about the First Nations, Inuit and Metis peoples of this country. I have interest in this, however – and luckily I work at a museum with fabulous content regarding this, so I’ve picked up pieces of information here and there. Not to mention a bit of historic stuff along the way when studying for my Canadian citizenship! My knowledge is far from complete, and I’m always interested in learning more – I’d been interested in Wendake since hearing of it, because it’s a game set in the Great Lakes region close to Toronto (where the DWP runs out of!) – even if specifically set during the period of the Seven Years War, I thought it could be enlightening about the Wyandot peoples. I wanted to dive in and see if I could learn anything – and with the amount of stuff in this box, it truly feels like digging in and through everything.
This sheer amount of cardboard and wood comes together as a complex strategy game – the look of it somewhat overwhelmingly complex, but the gameplay is a solid mid-weight strategy game (just with loads of options!). Once everything’s laid out, you have a player board in front of you, and a map with the Great Lakes Region in a shared area – this shows a home territory with long houses and various tokens/meeples, and areas around the board where you can farm or hunt. The gameplay offers a sort of a distilled portrayal of life among the Wyandot peoples – and during setup, players will choose a default tribe for their starting resources (the Wendat), or can choose from a selection of asymmetrical tribe cards offering a variety of starting resources or player powers (I’ve played with these a couple of times now and they do swing the game around with some variety nicely, just not sure how balanced they are). The accuracy of the time period, area and the peoples is a really nice touch, but doesn’t much go beyond this startup phase to be honest.
Once the game starts, everyone is taking some generic actions with their warriors, hunters and women. Yes, “women” – and now, I understand that there are particular roles for particular genders in these tribes. That, I have no issue with. It would have been nice to see the women given an actual named role instead of just their gender – after all, they’re responsible for all of the harvesting in the game! Beyond that, however, I do like this representation of the division of labour, and how these few roles were among some the most important in these tribes. In addition to these roles, players can take actions that allow them to benefit from trade, ritual and mask ceremonies – these last two are somewhat muted as far as understanding their integral nature to the cultural practices of the tribes of the area and I do wish they were emphasized somewhat more.
With the amount of actions that can be taken, things could get messy without a framework to base your decisions on. Every player has essentially three action selections each ‘year’ (the game is played over 7 years), plus selection of turn order – and all of your action choices are laid out in a 3×3 grid of tiles on your player board. I really love the way this works – and the constraints it puts on you really make you work to optimize your turns – the three action pieces must be placed out all in one line (horizontal, vertical or diagonal) so choosing the optimal line is key – and those selected are flipped to the ‘ritual’ action side. Not to mention that, at the end of the year, you’ll slide your tiles down to bump the bottom three off your grid – these get flipped back over, and you’re able to swap in a new slightly better action tile. This can lead to some fretful decisions, but overall all of the upgraded action tiles are pretty great and won’t harm your progress (maybe just not be as optimal as you’d like).
As you move from year to year, changing your grid of action tiles slowly, you’ll be scoring points here and there. In a Knizia-esque format of scoring, there are 4 tracks to score on – 2 on one side of the map and 2 on the other. At the end of the game, your total score on these will be the lower score on each side, combined. This is a real driver of strategy, trying to keep all the levels as balanced as possible as rounds pass – this, plus the action selection grid match together really nicely. There’s a good amount of actions and scoring that are intertwined – having placed out certain tokens or meeples in areas can help with a military or ritual score, for instance, as well as reaping the benefits of their locations; or if you’re focusing a lot of efforts on gaining resources, trading scoring and gaining progress tiles (offering up other one-time actions per round) naturally result out of this. My only disappointment is the mask ceremony is very self-contained – no other actions can really bolster scoring for you, and there’s a few progress tiles that might help with it if you’re lucky.
In approaching this game, I think the best way to think of it really is building an engine to ramp up as the game progresses – entangling resource gathering, area control and management, and worker placement. Integrating a new action tile at the end of every round is key to improving this, and I’ve learned from experience that mostly ignoring progress tiles is a foolish move. Gained during the trading phase, they have a benefit of points as well as providing an innate or once-per-turn ability – this means you can bulk up a trading action, or your participation in the mask ceremony, or simply just get to take an extra action or so every year. In a game where actions are limited and choices matter, the entanglement of these tiles together can matter a lot as far as gaining points at a reasonably equal rate across all 4 tracks.
Wendake is busy. It looks busy on the table, and it certainly plays busily. There’s a lot going on! Despite the fact I love what it’s doing, I do have a couple of gripes. One, the mask ceremony – I like its inclusion from a cultural perspective, but it feels very tacked on. The other, a couple of unnecessary steps throwing out your process – for instance, moving warriors that then can be replaced by women and hunters, and having to hunt beavers and then turning them into pelts. This last issue really sticks out, because in the game all of the resources are equal in value (even if they are used for different reasons in some actions) – and beavers are the only resource that require the extra step to procure. Even the most efficient engine can get bogged down in this! Perhaps having hunters bring pelts straight to longhouses, like women harvest and bring goods, would be the better option.
There’s a number of factors that I consider to be on the positive side when considering if I’ve enjoyed this game and could recommend it – and would be likely to keep playing! Firstly, it plays fairly well at the 2, 3 and 4 player counts (i’ve not tried solo, yet!) – direct player interaction is obviously spread out a little more in the 3/4 player games, but there’s not a lot else that will impact the game beyond this area control (other than, perhaps, the game simply taking longer with more people). Variable player powers can really change things up over multiple games – but I also find the changing nature of your action tiles and choosing different strategies will keep playing this fresh for me. The game’s production is top-notch, with no skimping on art and components – and when there’s so much of the latter, it’s a good thing to see. I’m surprised, however, that hasn’t impacted the MSRP overly; Wendake has a fairly average cost compared to a lot of Euro strategy-style games.
While I appreciate the focus on First Nations/Indigenous peoples of the Great Lakes area in a board game, with the Seven Years War and English/French groups taking a background, I feel it’s unfortunate that there’s not much of a learning opportunity in playing the game itself beyond learning on a surface level about daily life. There’s a preamble to the rules to give an idea of the setting and the peoples, and a little breakdown (“historical handbook”) in the back of the rules – however it’s only a page or so (but was written in consultation with someone who is an expert in these cultures, which is nice to see – even if they aren’t from those peoples, which I suppose is an issue of this game being created and designed in Italy). These little snippets of information will whet your appetite, and hopefully leave you with a respectful interest in the Wyandot. I’ve got a hankering now to see more of these tribes and peoples represented in board games, perhaps drilling down a little and focusing more on not just daily life.
If you’re interested in something a little different theme-wise for a change, and enjoy sinking your teeth into a strategy game with a lot to think about, Wendake is really overall a positive experience. The complexity settles down once you’re into the game and flows really nicely, and truly benefits from repeated plays. I’m intrigued to see what the upcoming expansion, “New Allies” will do to change up the game and integrate the European influence during that era. I’d love to hear from those of you who’ve had a chance to play this, or could recommend other games that traverse the representation of Indigenous cultures respectfully and in interesting ways.
Wendake is a strategy game for 1 – 4 players, taking between 1 – 2 hours. It is designed by Danilo Sabia, with art from Alan D’Amico, Paolo Vallerga. Originally Kickstarted and published by Placentia Games, it’s now being printed and distributed by Renegade Games. Thanks to the team there for this review copy!