Updated: Oct 24, 2020
Published by Talon Strikes Studios, Winterborne is a medium weight euro game where 1-4 players are developing their kingdoms to rack up end-game points. The premise may sound generic but there's much that's novel in this game.
Players each control three characters: a Warrior, a Shaman and an Explorer. Governed by the cards you play from your hand of four, these move not on the central six-hex game board but on each player's own individual board where positions correspond to the hexes of the 'main' board. Each character can take only its own specific actions, albeit that some of these may seem thematically adrift from what you might expect of the character type. The Shaman's main action is trade and tho' the Warrior's action is described as 'conquest', he spends much of the game as a builder of settlements and churches. The Explorer doesn't find or reveal any new territory but instead takes the 'exploration' card from the hex to which he moves. This is Winterborne's deck builder element. Cards earned in this way mostly improve on your six starter cards. Some cards go into a reserve, expanding the cards available to you on a future turn, but most go straight into your hand. That means players can make immediate use of the card; making for much more dynamic cascade-action play than in the average deck builder (where traditionally new cards go to the player's discard pile).
There's a lot going on, so plenty of options and routes to follow as you try to amass the best end-game points score, with all your actions driven by your hand of cards. You'll always need to play a card to activate one of your characters and another card for its movement (counted as clockwise rondel-like travel around the six hexes). You'll need to collect resources (gold, meat, military) so you can spend combinations of these to pay the cost of your actions: the Shaman can tax (collect one gold and one military) and the Explorer can raid (collect two meat), and there's a need to plan ahead so that you have collected the resources you'll need to take the actions you want to take.
As in Game of Thrones, in Winterborne you'll be ever conscious that Winter is Coming. The game is played across four seasons, and the exploration cards act as a game timer. When these cards are taken up as a result of an Explorer action, they are replenished from the current season's limited supply. When that supply is exhausted, the game moves to the next season. For Spring, Summer and Autumn, the difference is simply in the resources required to take an exploration card, but when you reach Winter you hit the last three rounds of the game. You'll feel like you've built to a climax not just because the game is entering its final rounds but also because your special Winterborne powers kick in. These can prove particularly helpful in racking up those all-important end-game points...
Winterborne is a game where you'll, in effect, be building a points-scoring engine and you'll discover that there are lots of routes to success. The Warrior's actions initially seem the most powerful and the Shaman's relatively weak, but as the game develops you find that the Shaman's movement takes best advantage of the Warrior's building works by generating gold. The trade action initially feels like an inefficient way of collecting resources until you see the end-score benefits of the 'ally' cards you collect whenever you trade. The cards collected by the Explorer can also deliver potentially substantial set collection points bonuses, and canny players can use their Explorer to summon the end of the game - aiming to do so before an opponent's points-scoring engine fully hits its stride.
In Winterborne, Brian Suhre has succeeded in designing a tight satisfying game that takes around an hour to play. The game scales well for different player counts and you can usually plan your moves ahead of your turn so that even with 4 players there's very little down time. We liked the art by Jason Washburn and the game is well produced, tho' the boards are rather thin. The cards are good quality but, as in any deck builder, you're going to be shuffling them a lot so we'd always recommend sleeving.
If you like games where you can primarily focus on your own plans without always having to look over your shoulder worrying about being sabotaged by other players, then Winterborne is very much the game for you. It's no surprise that the game incorporates a solitaire option because gameplay in Winterborne often feels like players are all playing their own separate games simultaneously: synchronised solitaire. Other than the impact of the movement through the seasons and the possibility of another player picking up ahead of you the exploration card or a token you'd have liked to take, there's very little player interaction in Winterborne. You each move and build on your own individual boards, 'conquest' involves no combat or conflict with other players and 'trade' is only with the general supply. For some this will be seen as a turn off but for many it will be a big plus: there's little or no 'take that' in Winterborne. You want to score more points than the other players but you aren't ever doing so by beggaring your neighbour.
(Review by Selwyn Ward)