Final War TCG: Onslaught Starter Set
Publisher: Games Lab
Release Date (US): November, 2016
Price: $69.99
Game Designer: Benjamin Ellis
Format: Card Game
Number of Players: 2 to 3 (expandable to 4)
Playing Time: 10 to 120 minutes
Age Rating: 14 and up
Product #: FWO16
ICv2 Rating: 2.5 Stars out of 5

Three is, without a doubt, the hardest number when it comes to games.  Finding a good, interesting, and, most importantly, balanced game for three is akin to hunting for unicorns or holy grails.  So when I heard about Final War, which appears purpose-built for three-player games, I was very interested.  But the question is, can it stand on its own in the extremely competitive CCG market?

Summary:  In Final War, each player is the "warlord" of a fantasy army.  The first base game, Onslaught, offers three choices:  a "good" elf fighter/mage, a "chaotic" werewolf warrior, or a "neutral" assassin guildmaster.  Your alignment affects what cards you can use when customizing your deck, while your warlord’s abilities will strongly influence your strategy in the game.  Ultimately, though, you must protect your warlord as, should they be killed, you are out of the game.  Each warlord has their own deck of cards, filled with "heroes" and "units" to fight on their behalf, as well as the kinds of spells, magic items, fortifications, and "powers"--single use beneficial effects--you would expect in a fantasy setting.  The action of the game is managed through the use of a shared "Fate Deck," which includes wandering baddies for players to fight and events that guide the play of the game.  Combat between cards is resolved with dice.

OriginalityFinal War has a number of unusual concepts, aside from its three-player nature.  For one, none of the cards have a "cost" to play:  you can play any card from the start of the game, even your most powerful cards.  This does have the advantage of making play a lot faster, and you can leap into the action right from the first turn.  But it also leads to a potential breakdown in game balance, especially once players start building their custom decks.

The other oddity is the way the Fate Deck controls the action, and this is the one feature of Final War that really appeals to me.  Unlike traditional CCGs, you cannot simply attack an opponent every turn, or even when you want to.  Instead, combat occurs only when an event card instructs the players to fight.  There are lots of other challenges in the Fate Deck as well, such as wandering monsters that attack your forces (and which are quite powerful), some beneficial goodies, and some potentially devastating disasters.

Presentation:  The visual presentation of Final War is clearly important to Games Lab.  The game is lavishly illustrated, as one would expect from a CCG, with unique artwork on every card.  And the quality of the artwork is very good.  The box also has excellent artwork, dynamic and dramatic. It all weighs in at well over five pounds, making it the heaviest CCG starter set I’ve ever seen.  Much of that weight comes from the three enormous, fully-mounted player boards.  Fortunately, I have a large gaming table…

Quality:  Component quality is what we have come to expect from a top CCG:  high quality cards printed in Belgium, the aforementioned mounted player boards, oversized warlord cards, sturdy punch-out counters and nice thick translucent plastic "winks."  The dice are standard opaque dice.  As an added touch that I appreciate, each of the game’s four decks comes in its own little tuck box, so no sorting needed during your first play.  The two rulebooks are well-produced, full-color and glossy throughout with lots of pictures and examples.  They could have been a bit more user-friendly with the organization of the rules, but the game system isn’t particularly complex, so after a game or two it’s unlikely that you’ll need to reference them anyway.

Marketability:  This is where I think Final War really faces an uphill battle.  Collectible card games that are not tied to a specific license have always had a tough time in this market, and I’m just not convinced that Final War has enough going for it to make it stand out against the established mainstays.  Games Lab is only planning a few new sets over the next year, and, in my experience, a CCG needs a regular influx of new material to keep players interested.  Also, while I for one appreciate high quality and extra effort, I think that Onslaught is overproduced for what you get.  It’s great having a five-pound box, but it drives the price up quite a bit higher than what we’ve come to expect to pay for a CCG starter set, even factoring in the fact that it includes everything three players need to start.

Overall:  There are some features of Final War that I love.  It does a pretty good job of addressing the three-player conundrum, while still being very playable with two as well.  I like that the game is easy to get into and learn, and the three starting decks in the box seem pretty well balanced.  I really like the way the Fate Deck controls play of the game, and I love the fact that, unlike a lot of CCGs, Final War does not devolve into a boring repetition of "play cards, attack opponent, play cards, attack opponent…"  It’s fun to face random monsters and baddies or deal with the whims of fate when they pop out of the deck.  All that being said, I’m very concerned about play balance once you start adding the random booster packs into the mix, as there is no apparent balancing mechanism for the more powerful cards.  This will be helped a lot when Games Lab releases fixed-card expansions late this year, but that’s a ways off yet.  Also, the game has a very high degree of randomness, between the Fate Deck, the luck of the draw inherent to any CCG, and the use of dice to resolve combat.

I’m putting Final War into the category of "great potential," but I think it’s hampered by a high luck factor, balance issues as a CCG, and the particularly tough market segment that it’s trying to break into.  That’s why I, sadly, can only give this game 2.5 out of 5.

-- William Niebling