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I picked Wongar (Goldsieber 2000, Richard Borg and Alan Moon) up in a trade I made with Richard Borg. I had never really heard of the game before, and since it was one of Goldsieber’s big box games, I was immediately intrigued, as I had had good success with them in the past. The theme, that of Aborigine dreams (or something) was a unique one, and coupled with the massive amount of beautiful pieces, inspired me to try out the game as soon as possible.
My first impressions, however, were not good. So much confusion occurred (much of it from the theme – or lack thereof), and a lot of the game seemed random and pointless. Wild point scoring occurred, and general impressions were not good. But, I saw under this layer of insanity an excellent game – one with the opportunity to be a great game. At its core, Wongar is an area control game, and with three different types of tokens, the gameplay is unique and exciting.
A large board with ten joining areas is placed in the middle of the board. A pile of 15 cards that match each area is shuffled and placed face down in the area. Each player also receives a pile of tokens (called “tjurungas”) of one color – 18 discs, 15 cubes, and 12 cylinders. Each player places four of each type in a cloth bag which is shuffled around, and then tokens are randomly put into each of the ten areas – one for each player playing the game, and double that amount in the middle two areas. A stack of cards, called the “Rite” deck, is shuffled, and two are dealt to each player with the remainder being placed face down next to the table. Each player places a score token on the first space of a scoring track that goes around the board, and one player is randomly chosen to go first. That player receives the boomerang and an ancestor figure (brown), and the second player receives the elder figure (tan). Another matching ancestor figure is placed in one of the two center areas, with a second elder figure being placed in the other. A yellow time marker is placed at the bottom of the time track, and the first round begins.
Each round starts with the player who has the boomerang, who then passes it to the player on their right at the end of the round (along with the ancestor figure if they have it). The start player turns over the top card of every area pile that is currently not showing (which is all ten in the first round). For every scorpion revealed, the time marker is moved up one spot on the time track, and the active player is “stung”. This simply means that they lose one point for every player currently behind them on the score track. If two scorpion cards have been revealed from the same pile, they are shuffled back into that pile, along with all other discarded cards. Any scorpions are replaced with the next card in the deck. Once all scorpions are resolved, the player who currently controls the elder figure gets the top card of the Rite deck (if it’s a Scorpion, they get “stung” instead).
After this, each player, in clockwise order, picks one of the face-up cards in one of the areas and follows the action on it.
- Card cards: This card gives the player that takes it four Rite cards.
- Single Tjurunga cards: These cards show one disc, cube, or cylinder. The player MUST (if possible) place one of their tokens of that type in the area the card was drawn from. The player then has three choices: They can place two of the same type tokens anywhere on the board, place one token and draw a card, or draw two cards. Players keep single tjurunga cards for scoring purposes at the end of the game.
- Triple Tjurunga cards: These cards allow the player to place three tokens (all the same type) anywhere on the board.
- Ancestor card: The player takes the ancestor figure from the player and then moves the ancestor figure on the board into an adjacent territory (mandatory). A ceremony is immediately performed in that territory. All players who have tokens in a territory participate in a ceremony. Starting with the player who took the ancestor card, and going clockwise, each player may play a Rite card or pass. Most rite cards show a single token of a certain type, allowing the player who played the card three choices: They can take another player’s token of that type out of the area and return it to that player, or they can move one token of that type of their color into an adjacent area, or they can move one token of that type of their color into that area from an adjacent area. Some Rite cards show double tokens, and allow a player to do the above options twice. After all players pass, the ceremony is over. Each type of tokens scores, with the player who has the majority of that type receiving the points for the ancestor (as noted on the score track – the points change over the course of a game.) Ties are broken by whoever controls the ancestor token, or whoever sits closer to them.
- Elder card: This card is identical to the ancestor card, except that the elder figure is moved one or two spaces on the board, and a ceremony occurs there.
- Ancestor/Elder card: This card allows the player to take both figures from the players who have them, and move both figures on the board to the space the card was drawn from – performing a ceremony there.
Once each player has taken a turn, the round is over, and the boomerang (and possibly the ancestor figure) is passed. If, during the round, the time marker is moved to the final space, that round is the final round. After the round is played out, all players reveal their single tjurunga cards. The player who has the most cards of each type gets a bonus eight points – and then the player who has the most points is the winner!
Some comments on the game…
1.) Components: I enjoyed the components in Wongar – they were one of my main attractions to the game. Remarks about the artwork were varied from those who played, with some liking it quite a bit, and others taking the opposite view. I found it bizarre, but not entirely unpleasant on the eyes. The box, of course, is of the large sturdy type that all Goldsieber games are stored in. The box is nigh indestructible, but the large size makes the game more unwieldy and slightly annoying to transport. The board is large, and the pieces move about it fairly easily. Speaking of the pieces, I enjoyed them quite a bit – an attractive assortment of wooden counters – although it does look like they are all necklace beads. The boomerang, as well as the two “elders” and “ancient” pieces were beautiful, large wooden tokens (we did mix them up a lot, but it wasn’t that big of a deal.) The area cards are small and easy to handle, but have strange artwork on them that can distract from the card’s function. The ceremony cards are large, which helps distinguish them from the area cards (a nice touch). Overall, I liked all the components; they were visually stunning, but not entirely user-friendly when learning the rules.
2.) Rules: The rules looked nice, but I had to download an English translation (why, oh why did I not take German in college rather than Spanish!?) from the web. The rules as written were fairly clear – but the components, especially the cards, didn’t really help with ease of play. Therefore, even with only five pages of (translated) rules, we found ourselves constantly referencing them and frequently playing things incorrectly. The biggest offenders were the cards, but remembering which piece (elder or ancient) did what was often quite confusing.
3.) New People and Theme: My first playing of the game was with a group of experienced gamers, with hundreds of “German” games under their belt. And yet there was still rampant confusion. The game is frankly not intuitive; and this is certainly not the fault of the mechanics, but because the theme is weird and detracts from gameplay. I’m sure that the dreams of Aborigines sounds like a good, unique theme; but how is this helpful to the gameplay as is? I read that the designers’ original theme was changed, and that’s a shame – because the new theme simply does NOT work. A theme is added to many of these “abstract” games to help people better associate pieces with the rules and mechanics. I am a big fan of adding themes to games, but this is one case where they should have just left it alone.
4.) Strategy: Once gameplay is actually understood, however, some interesting strategies present themselves. Most area control games use only one type of unit (a la the caballeros in El Grande). Here there are three types of units, each with a different level of rarity. This, combined with the initial setup should determine one’s strategic drive for the remainder of the game; but if a player hoards cards, they can possibly pull off a coup in a certain area. A player can try to maximize their hand, or they can try to maximize their presence on the board. To my chagrin, I quickly found out that making a strategy out of collecting card sets might serve well as a tiebreaker, but that it wasn’t very viable as a main strategy. Knowing when to score a territory is also crucial; and if it wasn’t for the scorpions, the game’s strategy would be elegant and superb.
5.) Randomness: But those scorpions are extremely random and annoying. They often cause the game to feel close to a total luck fest and can destroy one’s carefully placed strategy. Yes, they will keep the scores closer together; but who wants to gain a pile of points, just to lose them again – solely because they are in first place. This is a game that “bashes” the leader, no help from the players necessary. Fortunately, however, the game includes “Advanced” rules. They include:
· Scorpions no longer sting. This is the biggest and most important change. Let’s keep the scorpions as a time mechanism, but that’s it!
· Players can place their initial token setup on the board. This will probably appease some – although I personally like dealing with how the initial setup turns out.
· Remove one ancestor card and one elder card from each pile giving one card of each type to the players. On a turn, a player can play one of these cards instead of the card from an area. This changes the game a lot, but for the better.
· Remove the two Scorpion cards and five double cards from the Rite deck. Each player starts the game with one double card. This really helps eliminate randomness from the deck and keeps play fair and balanced.
I really like these “advanced” rules; in fact, if you play the game with me, they are “required” rules. They make gameplay so much better, and I can’t imagine playing without them. I would go so far as to recommend that all four of them should be implemented into gamers’ first games – there’s just no point into playing the basic game.
6.) Fun Factor: When I play a game with people who’ve never played “German” games before, Wongar is not on my list. Its theme (an important factor for new players) is retroactive, its mechanics are slightly complicated, and good strategy is fairly elusive in it. Yet, for those who love El Grande, this game is slightly similar, but with a touch of other mechanics thrown in. When played with the advanced rules, Wongar can be a lot of fun; but only with experienced gamers.
And that wraps up my view on Wongar. I like the game, and will gladly play it again; but only with the advanced rules. The theme, which doesn’t have to be present, is not just laid on top of the mechanics, but overshadows them, confusing all. The game is beautiful, and plays well – so if you don’t mind the strange theme, and like area- control games, this is one of the best, rules wise. The combination of Borg and Moon has produced a fantastic game for us here. If only Goldsieber had left it alone.
Check out the improved rules translation and player aids recently uploaded. Clarity helps game play tremendously. -- PAE