Designer: Kevin Wilson
Artists: W. T. Arnold, Michal E. Cross, Peter Wocken, and Waclaw Wysocki
Publisher: Crafty Games
Play Time: ~2 hours
Target Age Range: 13+
Mistborn: House War is a game based on Brandon Sanderson’s popular Mistborn series of novels. The novels feature a ragtag group of specialists who are working together to rob the royal treasury which evolves into a plot to topple the empire of an immortal God-King known as the Lord Ruler. Sanderson describes it as “Ocean’s 11, but in a fantasy setting.”
House War takes an interesting angle for a licensed board game, because instead of playing as the protagonists from the book, the players take on the roles of the heads of the various noble houses in the Final Empire, each jockeying for the Lord Ruler’s favor. As problems arise, players must work together to solve them, making deals to divvy up the rewards and Favor (or Disgrace) among themselves. When the game ends, the player with the most Favor with the Lord Ruler wins. As the game progresses and unrest among the peasantry grows, however, the odds become higher that the Lord Ruler will be overthrown, meaning the player with the least favor with the Lord Ruler will win instead.
House War is designed by Kevin Wilson, whose notable credits include Game of Thrones (developer), Descent: Journeys in the Dark, Cosmic Encounter, and Arkham Horror. It is published by Crafty Games, a small publisher whose major credit is the Mistborn Adventure Game, a tabletop RPG based on the same series as House War. They have a couple of other, non-Mistborn-related titles as well, including Little Wizards and Nosh. Mistborn: House War was Kickstarted in the summer of 2016 and published in September 2017.
The game came to my attention because I’ve been a big fan of Brandon Sanderson’s novels for more than a decade. When I heard about House War, I was immediately interested, so I grabbed a copy as soon as I could. I’m glad I did, because my friends and I had a great time. The frenzy of making deals and trying to one-up each other reminded us a lot of Shark Tank, but in the Mistborn universe, but I guess “House War” rolls off the tongue a bit easier than “Koloss Tank.”
The game itself is quite enjoyable, and even though each player’s turn includes several steps, the deal-making aspect keeps other players engaged, as does the opportunity to play Personality cards to potentially disrupt deals. Also, the Favor and Disgrace tokens are kept face-down, meaning unless you pay close attention and keep careful track in your head, no one knows exactly what anyone else’s score is. Resources are just scarce enough that almost every problem requires some sort of alliance with another player, but those alliances can be broken just as easily as they’re made.
Players can use the Personality cards to bring a seemingly unsolvable problem within reach or completely disrupt a deal between rival players and turn the game around. The cards are simple to understand, but they can still be used skillfully to turn the situation to a player’s favor. There were a few times when someone hit me unexpectedly with a card that completely messed up my plans, but I wasn’t even mad—just impressed!
This game takes place during the first of the Mistborn novels, The Final Empire. It felt strange playing as the noble houses, having spent the entirety of that novel rooting for the downfall of those houses, but the mechanics of the game really made it feel like I was the head of one of those noble houses and had to play political games with the other players for the best outcome. I feel like, because we had all read the first Mistborn book, we enjoyed it significantly more than someone who was less familiar with the series and characters might, but the game is fun enough on its own that the experience would still be very enjoyable, even for someone who’s never read the books.
Visual/Physical Appeal (8.5/10)
The artwork for the game is gorgeous, with beautiful depictions of characters from the books that players will recognize and enjoy. I had a roommate who wasn’t playing the game stop by to watch because he enjoyed the books and appreciated the character art on the Personality and Problem cards.
The board is simple but clearly lays out spaces for each of the important pieces and card decks without feeling cluttered. One of the Kickstarter stretch goals replaced two of the game tokens—one that indicates how much Unrest there is in the empire, and one that is passed from player to player to indicate whose turn it is—with plastic figurines of two characters from the novels (Kelsier and a Steel Inquisitor, respectively). I’m not entirely sure how necessary the change was, but I do think it adds a little something.
All the tokens themselves are made of good, thick cardboard and feel very durable. They’re brightly colored, and they’re easy to tell apart from each other, perhaps with the exception of the Atium and Skaa tokens, which are two different shades of gray. Still, it’s easy to distinguish the two upon a closer look, and it’s not a game-breaking issue by any means.
Setup Time (5-10 minutes)/Play Time (~2 hours)
House War has a pretty quick setup, though there are a few steps to it. It took us about 10-15 minutes, but the game wasn’t punched yet, and we were still figuring out the rules. It could easily be cut down to 5-10.
There are two decks of cards to shuffle, not counting the cards that assign you the House you will be playing. The number of resources in play are also based on the number of players, so it’s not just a matter of dumping all the resources into the middle—you have to count them out. That would have taken me less time if I’d realized earlier that there were 12 of each resource, and so I could have counted out 2 of each and removed them rather than counting out 10 to match our four players.
The setup instructions have options for a short game (60–90 minutes), medium game (90–120 minutes), and long game (120–180 minutes). We followed the rules for a short game, but it still ended up taking us about 2 hours to play, so make of that what you will. We weren’t necessarily rushed in our play styles, but it didn’t feel like anyone was taking particularly long turns, either.
I do have one complaint about the packaging that indirectly impacts the setup time. The box has several small bays for cards, though it only really needs two, since they’re deep enough to hold all the cards. (That may be to accommodate future expansions, but I’m not sure.) Meanwhile, there is only a huge bay in the middle to hold all the Favor/Disgrace, Ruin, and Resource tokens, and separating them out can take some time. We ended up just bagging the tokens in separate zipper bags to avoid the issue in the future.
Complexity (Rank 7)/Teach Time (15-20 minutes)
Each turn has several steps, but it’s easy to keep track of those steps, because on the back of each House card, there is a list of all of the steps. Because there are 12 Houses and the game allows a maximum of 5 players, there are more than enough copies for each player to have their own.
Before we started playing, two of the four of us had read the instructions beforehand and worked together to teach it to the others. It took us about 25–30 minutes to teach the others, but that could probably be refined down to about 15–20 minutes.
When I finished playing, I already started looking forward to the next time I can play. There are a number of strategies players can use to win, and the variety of House, Problem, and Personality cards means that players will need to adapt their styles each time they play. The feeling of each game will also be strongly influenced by the players themselves, so playing with different people could also offer a new experience.
Altogether, I really enjoyed this game. It was complex without being too complicated. It took some time to explain the rules, but once we went over them, there were never really any major points of confusion. Having the “Taking Your Turn” reference cards readily available meant no one needed reminders of what to do on their turn. The Personality cards are clearly marked regarding when you can play each, and each House felt distinct from the others. Some houses had lots of resources but few Personality cards available. Some got an extra Personality card, which turned out to be powerful, but only a few resources of a single type.
The theme was one of the most fun aspects for us, as we all really enjoy the Mistborn series, but if the game hadn’t been as fun to play as it was, independently of the theme, then our enjoyment of the series could easily have led to disappointment in a bad game. Instead, Mistborn: House War capitalizes well on the property it is based on and used the theme to enhance an already-good gaming experience.
— The Innkeeper