Polyversal feels like it’s been around for a while. I remember first hearing about it as I was working with Phil Smith at Osprey Games, putting the finishing touches to Horizon Wars in late 2015.
Ken Whitehurst, the author and designer of the game, was doing the rounds of the US convention circuit, showing off his ideas and garnering enthusiastic feedback from those who saw his impressive table layouts and gave the game a try. And Ken’s work on the circuit attracted the attention of Collins Epic Wargames, an independent venture that had already dropped Spearpoint 1943, a World War Two tactical wargame without miniatures. They saw in Polyversal the opportunity to bring a new boxed wargame to the market and so Ken and CEW began a collaboration to get this product published.
I admit: I was a little worried. Horizon Wars was operating in the same territory, with a 1/285-ish scale point, sci-fi combined arms wargaming. CEW was aiming for an “out of the box” product, compared to Horizon Wars’s more old-school book, and I couldn’t come close to the kind of spectacle that Ken was putting out on the tabletop. But I swallowed my jealousy, because this is a small world and two guys, either side of the Atlantic, riffing on the same ideas of mech-dominated sci-fi warfare with zooming aircraft and big explosions have enough in common that they need to support each other!
And, to be fair, I had very little to worry about. Horizon Wars was released in April 2016 at Salute, and Polyversal went to Kickstarter the following month: a campaign that was ultimately successful, but not overwhelmingly so. The fulfilment of the campaign since then has not without its hiccups: backers received the minis, dice and a PDF edition of the rules, eventually, but are still waiting to see the promise of an “out of the box” game with hexes, counters and printed rulebook. This is, of course, one of the constant issues with Kickstarter campaigns that don’t fulfill almost instantly – the excitement that builds over a campaign dissipates once it is concluded and, by the time the product reaches backers, there is something else claiming their attention.
However, I was pleased to discover that, earlier this year, Polyversal hit Wargame Vault with a new print-on-demand (POD) edition. And Ken reached out to me to ask if I’d give the game a fresh look.
This is a hefty tome. The book itself is almost twice as long as Horizon Wars and contains a lot of text, only seven pages of which are dedicated to setting: everything is rules.
The formatting is colour-heavy, with each main section having its own border design to make quick browsing easier. The art is mostly limited to the introductory pages for each section and to images illustrating different units, but there is a lot of photography to convey the impression of how the game looks on the tabletop. I have a few gripes with some of the formatting (the weird use of highlighting on left-justified text is an odd choice) but I get that the idea is to try to convey the sense of a high-tech electronic document, and the design choices, overall, capture that sci-fi sense extremely well. The only real criticism I have of the presentation is the photography. I think the miniatures are all from Ken’s collection and Ken, for all his many excellent qualities, isn’t a competition-level miniatures painter. This isn’t helped by the low-tech, undiffused lighting set-up. Investing in some professionally-painted miniatures and quality photography would have been a great investment. I’m also not a fan of the “gravel scattered across a table” look to convey rubble. But perhaps I wouldn’t be so fussed about this if the actual buildings used in the photography – mostly from the Phalanx Consortium – weren’t so beautifully presented in stark contrast to the rest of the set-up.
As far as lay-out and reading goes, though, the book is well written, logically laid out and easy to consume. It would be even easier if it had an index, page numbers for lateral rules references and fewer bits where what was evidently a hyperlink in the original PDF had been left visibly underlined. No matter how many times I stab at the page, it won’t take me to the right page!
HOW THE GAME WORKS
To go through the details of this game’s mechanics would take an article almost as long as the book. So let me say that, despite a skin-deep aesthetic similarity, Horizon Wars and Polyversal are very different games.
If you love the stripped-down, abstracted style of Horizon Wars, stay away from Polyversal. On the other hand, if you think – as many do – that Horizon Wars went too far with its abstraction and want more depth, crunch and granularity in your tactical options, then Polyversal might well be the game for you. This is not a game to be picked up and grokked in a few minutes. This is a game to be poured over, contemplated, analysed and toyed with for hours – long before you take the step of putting minis on the table: not just to maximise your odds of victory, but simply to maximise your odds of understanding what the heck is going on. And I don’t say that as a criticism. There are some deep, deep synergies at both the strategic and tactical levels in Polyversal that I can only vaguely see the outlines of. You are going to want to at least have a feel for where these lie before you begin to play.
Polyversal reminds me more of Infinity the Game in that respect – a game of which I’m a big fan. You’ll get at least as much pleasure picking over the many options and tactics that emerge from reading the rules as you will from executing those ideas on the tabletop.
So, that said, let’s get to the game’s key features:
I’m mentioning this first, even though it’s the last section in the book, because it’s the feature of Polyversal that is most likely to attract attention if you throw down at your local club or shop, or if you spot a demo taking place at an event.
Armies are assembled from Battlegroups. Battlegroups consist of a Command unit and up to six attached units. And each unit has its own hex-shaped unit card. These cards are placed with the Command unit at the centre and its attached units surrounding it. So once you have your collection of unit hex cards, you can mix and match them to your heart’s content, creating new Battlegroups that have different synergies, strengths and weaknesses.
It gets better, too, because individual hexes can be given different “psychological profiles” (not really psychological, so much as training levels or temperaments) – you have veterans, elites, fanatics, hive, mercenaries, robots and, of course, command from which to choose. And this psychological profile will affect how a unit behaves. So there’s a lot of available tweaking to be done.
I should add that, even before you get to this point, you can access an online tool that allows you to design your own units from scratch. The original boxed game intended by the Kickstarter was supposed to come with a wide selection of hex cards that could be used as-is, but these are yet to materialize as a physical produce. But if you’re the kind of person who enjoys a game with this level of tactical crunch, you are likely going to want to design your own anyway. Of course, this was a feature of Horizon Wars, but like the rest of the rules, Polyversal does it more, wider and deeper. Every facet of your unit can be easily tweaked in the online tool, including adding your own artwork and faction markers to the hex cards. So you can literally add photos of the specific miniatures in your collection to their hex cards.
Designing Polyversal units is a rabbit hole that you will definitely enjoy exploring, whether you’re new to the game or an experienced veteran.
That said, I do have one big reservation about the hex system, which is where you’re supposed to put them. The suggested playing surface size is a 4’x6’ table. A single, full Battlegroup of seven units takes up about a 1’x1’ square, so you’re not going to want to put them on the tabletop itself – especially if you’re playing with more than one Battlegroup. So you’re going to need a side table large enough to fit your Battlegroup hex layout on it. Ideally, this will be on casters, so you can move it around with you as you move up and down the table, because you will be interacting with the hex layouts throughout the game, issuing orders, adding stress tokens and moving the hexes as they move in and out of command radius and from one Battlegroup to another.
I’ll pick up on this at the end of this review.
PLAYING THE ACTUAL GAME
Damn, there’s a lot of crunch here to get your head around.
But, trying to boil it down to the fundamentals, the players start a turn by issuing orders. Command units issue orders to units under their command that are within their command radius. This is generally not a feature I like to see in sci-fi games, because modern communications systems (let alone sci-fi ones) don’t generally struggle to reach anywhere on an area the size of a typical tabletop. But I’m giving Polyversal a pass, because the rules include the ability to use special “booster” elements to extend the command radius, and this is a sufficiently “sci-fi” concept that I’m going to run with it.
The players then roll off to see which command unit has initiative, allowing them to activate a unit and execute its orders. The number of orders you can execute with the initiative depends on the degree by which you won the initiative.
I have to admit that, if there’s an area of weakness in the writing of these rules, it’s in this absolutely crucial section. This is very common with rules that have innovative mechanics that we’ve perhaps not seen before, because we come to games with certain expectations and, when they are defied, we have to get our heads around a new way of doing things. It has taken me a few readings to grasp how it works.
Suffice to say: staying in command radius and protecting your command units is super-important.
Units that fall out of command can still do stuff… possibly. This brings us nicely to the principle dice mechanic of the game.
Polyversal, as the name hints, uses a range of polyhedral dice from d4 to d12. These are handily colour-coded in the rules and, if you play, it will make it a lot easier if your dice are also colour coded as blue (d4), green (d6), yellow (d8), orange (d10) and red (d12). Generally, more faces is better. Statistically, though, there are some funny twists.
Bear with me, now. This gets crunchy. I won’t go into the full details of combat mechanics, but let’s take a look at just shooting as the principle mechanic.
When you roll to hit, you need three dice: one for the unit’s targeting stat, one for its Effectiveness (this is worked out as part of the army building process – remember, I said it was detailed!) and one for the weapon that’s being fired. These may be a mix of different dice.
You add up the results and compare them to the target’s Evasion stat. If they beat the target’s Evasion then – yay! – you hit. This is a pretty solid mechanic and separates the ideas of agility nicely from armour (which Horizon Wars doesn’t do and, arguably, should).
Evasion can be enhanced with stuff like Stealth and Active Camouflage.
But now we come to damage. And this, too, is pretty clever. Remember the dice we rolled to hit? Don’t move them! Because we’re going to use them again to work out the damage the hit does.
Your choice of weapon will come with a “damage rating” of Low, Medium-Low, Medium-High or High. This rating dictates which dice from your hit roll you use to work out damage. If you’ve got a Low damage rating, you pick the lowest. If you’ve got a High damage rating, you pick the highest. But wait, there’s more…
If you have matching dice results and you’ve a Low damage rating, you add the two lowest matching results together. If you’ve got a High rating, you add the two highest results together. Now, if you have a Medium damage rating, your damage is the middle result or – if it’s Medium Low – the two lowest matching dice, or – if it’s Medium High – the two highest matching dice.
This is one of those mechanics that is long-winded to explain but, in practice, it’s intuitive, quick and effective.
Oh, and if all three dice match you get to add all three, regardless of your damage rating. So if you are rolling dice with a lower number of sides, obviously the odds of a match are much better than if you’re rolling dice with more sides. So you can see how a certain degree of statistical flattening occurs in the disparity between high dice and low dice.
So now you know how much damage you did – and you then compare the damage value of the hit with a little damage chart on the unit’s hex card, which will tell you what effect your shot had.
And there are lots of possible effects from the familiar “destroyed” or “immobilized” results through to taking systems offline or creating a fuel leak.
It’s going to be a while before I can put this game on the tabletop, simply because I will have to create hex cards for my miniatures collection, which means printing out the unit hexes and sticking them to card etc. But it also means looking at each mini and at the many options in the unit builder and figuring out what role each mini plays and how I want it to behave on the tabletop. This is a fun and rewarding activity in its own right, but it does place a high level of friction between reading the rulebook and playing the game that isn’t necessarily going to make Polyversal everyone’s cup of tea – in this case, Horizon Wars has an edge, because you can plonk any mini you like down and either know what it does or be able to create a statline for it in a few seconds. But there’s a definite cost in granularity.
Clearly, though, Polyversal is based around the intelligent use and deployment of Command units. Not only do Command units influence who gets to do what and when, but also the victory conditions. A little like Warmachine and its warcasters, an army in Polyversal is defeated when it runs out of Command units (there’s slightly more to it than that, but not much), regardless of other victory conditions. Coupled with the vital role Command units play in issuing orders and activating units, players will put a high priority on targeting Command units, followed by EWS (booster) units and Elite units (who don’t need a Command unit to receive orders).
As a result, air assets have a big role to play. A smart player will keep Command units well protected from ground attacks. And ground-based units are essential to completing objectives in most scenarios. But air assets have the speed and hitting power to attack Command units directly.
This feels both realistic and appropriate to the setting and I love it. But you may also use things like electronic warfare (jamming) to cut off Command units’ access to their Battlegroup, or EMP weapons to shut down all kinds of electronic systems.
Because units can comprise more than a single element (unlike Horizon Wars), Polyversal is very well geared towards much larger tabletop battles at brigade+ level… if only you didn’t then have to manage multiple clusters of hex counters.
Polyversal has a lot to recommend it. If you just love reading wargaming books and letting them spark your imagination as to what you might do with the rules, or if you want to run a big, set-piece sci-fi battle of combined arms, this is definitely a game you should check out. But does it have the potential to be a go-to game? The kind of thing you throw down in a pick-up battle at your local store or club every week?
Well… yes. But not yet.
As I said at the start and several times throughout, this game is Crunchy (with a capital “C”). It’s dense and deep and granular. This is a thinky game. I could see it being played with a chess clock alongside the initiative system, somehow. But, as a result, it’s also unwieldy.
The hex clusters of Battlegroups are just the most obvious manifestation of this problem. The plethora of counters and status markers and different dice just adds to it.
Polyversal is a game in search of a technological solution that… isn’t quite here, yet. We’ve seen the first signs of tabletop augmented reality systems in recent months. It’s an emerging technology and I think it’ll be a few years yet before we see it become widespread. If I could put an app on my phone with which I could organize my battlegroups, zooming in and out and seeing their statuses as I need them, it would make the game considerably more playable. And with some sort of AR headset with which to see where units in a Battlegroup actually are and when they are in or out of command range, it would be an amazing game.
But none of that means that Polyversal, as-is, is some kind of unplayable mess. It definitely isn’t. But it does mean that the game is setting up a high accessibility bar for new players to have to clamber over. If you aren’t absolutely determined that this is the game for you… you might not bother.