Review: Unita

unitaboxUnita is the third game by Helvetia games, all set in their fictional fantasy world centered around Switzerland (Helvetia). Designed by Steve Brück and distributed in the U.S. by Asmodee, Unita is, ostensibly, a game of warfare, but the units are represented by big ol’ custom dice. How does that work, exactly? Here’s a reminder of my scoring categories:

Components – Does the game look nice? Are the bits worth the money? Do they add to the game?
Accessibility – How easy is the game to teach, or to feel like you know what you are doing?
Depth – Does the gameplay allow for deeper strategies, or does the game play itself?
Theme – Does the game give a sense of immersion? Can you imagine  the setting described in the game?
Fun – Is the game actually enjoyable? Do you find yourself smiling, laughing, or having some sense of satisfaction when it’s over?

 

unitaboardComponents: I love when components are minimalist, but still have finesse, and that’s exactly what you get here. The box has the rulebook, a start player marker, the game board, three terrain tiles and three cards for each faction, and then 64 rather large custom dice (the box advertises 20mm). I don’t really like the painting style on the cover, which is also used to represent the factions on the edge of the game board, but the central play area on the game board is just beautiful. It can be a bit busy once all the dice are on the board, but it’s still very pretty. The cards and tiles again use the painting style of the cover, but have very clear iconography which is also explained in the rulebook. The dice are indeed huge, but otherwise, seem pretty normal – they have some blank sides, one side with the faction symbol, and the rest with pips that represent health points. One odd choice is that for three of the factions, red pips represent the starting health of the unit, but one faction has red dice, so the pips are white instead – not sure why they used red dice in this case. For a $50 MSRP game, you get your dollar’s worth in components – even though it doesn’t look like a lot of different components, that’s a lot of freakin’ dice!

 

Accessibility: This is a very simple game to understand, but it is unfortunately marred by a subpar rulebook. I was able to piece it together, but it’s clearly a rulebook that was directly translated from another language (French?), and then wasn’t read through by a native English speaker who hadn’t played the game before. It seems so simple to fix this just by putting the component pictures and rules up on BGG before the game is out and “crowdsourcing” the issues.

Anyway, the rules are so simple that it wasn’t too much of an issue. Basically, you take your sixteen dice and split them into four “companies” of four dice each and places them on the starting spaces. (either everyone does this at once in the Family version, or you have a Deployment phase in the Gamer version where do you it one die at a time). What’s unique is that your units follow a certain twisting path to the center of the board (a gate where companies exist), and your opponents never cross your path, going along their own. Battles happen when you brush up against another player’s company on an adjacent path – the goal of the game is to have the most life points left on your units when the game is over (which is when everyone has left the gate). Additionally, each team has three cards they can play only one of during the game, and three terrain tiles, placed face-down, that they can use when they land on the appropriate spaces.

It took us a turn or two of just moving around to figure out what was going on, but after the first battle, you get the idea pretty quick. It’s fairly intuitive that when you brush up against another opponent, the two units that face off are simply competing by comparing the pips (life points) on their dice, but what really throws a kink in things is that after a battle, on both teams, the dice that fought go to the rear and the other two dice go to that side where the fighting was. This can lead to some clever plays, but it’s difficult to wrap your head around at first.

One last weird thing to note: you don’t even roll the dice, except for setup! That took some getting used to as well.

 

Depth: At its core, this is an abstract strategy game with very little hidden information and no luck. The only thing you don’t know is the which of your opponent’s terrain tiles is which, although you know what three they have. That means there is a ton of front-loaded strategy in this game, and you can in theory plan out your entire game plan from the beginning. For me, that’s just too much. I like when a game balances strategy and tactics, where some sort of random element keeps you from having to plan too far ahead. For example, you can plan what you generally intend to buy in Dominion, but you don’t have to think too far ahead because you really can’t until you see your next hand.

Chess is at the point where computers are playing at levels way higher than those attainable by humans. This game probably isn’t as deep as Chess, but that same level of luck (or lack thereof) means that you’re probably not going to play the game at the level you want, and it’s always frustrating for me to play a game knowing that there’s something I probably just can’t see due to the sheer number of long-term variables. On the other hand, some people love games like that, and are going to eat this up.

 

Theme: Ostensibly, this game is about warring factions, and the humor in the rulebook is kind of funny, how the four factions are based on Switzerland and its neighbors. Apparently some people think the fact that the French people are frogmen is racist, but I wouldn’t really know. Even if it is, the game is clearly very tongue-in-cheek with its setting. The artwork is also very beautiful on the board, and though I don’t like the style of the character art, it’s well-done.

However, when you’re actually playing the game, the units are just big fat dice. You’re literally just moving dice around the board and directly comparing numbers, and trying to get out with the most numbers. The theme is Knizia-level thin, if not thinner. By and large this is an abstract strategy game. That will appeal to a lot of people, but don’t go in expecting Cyclades or something like that.

 

Fun: I think this largely depends on what you are looking for in a game. People really dig long-term strategy found in abstracts and a want a bit more theme painted on are going to love this. People looking for a game like the one shown on the box-cover, of thematic warfare, are going to be disappointed. For me, personally, the strategy is just too front-loaded and devoid of tactics for me to find the appeal, especially with a large lack of theme.

 

I think some people are really going to love Unita, but the super-long-term strategy and abstracted theme were enough for it to not really click with me.

 

Rating:

3star

3 out of 5

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