Before I start this review, I need to declare something for full transparency. I absolutely adore Joel Bodkin, the designer of this game. He has a gentle, generous, and kind heart that endears him to me, and as such, I am conscious this review may be somewhat biased! However, I would argue that after playing any of Joel's games, (he also made Open Ocean) then you will fall in love with the guy too! And as such, any bias I have towards his games, you will also have after you play. Anyway, with that out the way, lets look at this stunning game, and I can start gushing even more!
Winterhaven Woods is a drafting game, that incorporates set-collection, some minor take-that (if you desire) and some interesting scoring options. The minimalist art is echoed in the simple rules and set up, but certainly does not transfer to the strategy or enjoyment you will feel as you play this game. The game works best in a two to six player game, but also plays well in solo with some minor rule changes.
Collect all the required cards (clearly marked with an icon on the bottom right based on player count or top left based on type) and shuffle into a main draw deck. Deal out seven cards to each player. Give each player a 'Heart of the Woods' card, which they will place in front of them. You are now ready to play. I told you it was simple!
Each game of Winterhaven Woods lasts for three rounds, unless you play the longer two-player variant. In each round, players will carry out four phases. The game starts with a draft phase where you will pick your cards. This is then followed by a plant and populate phase where you will use your chosen cards with the tree symbol in the top left, followed by a steal phase which uses the cards with a star icon. The final part is a hunt phase which uses all cards with the paw symbol. After three rounds, players will tally their points, and the winner is declared.
Points can be scored in a numbers of ways. The numbers of hedgehops in your meadow, a point for each creature in your woods. One point for each animal successfully hunted and any predator still alive (resting) that remains in your play area. And finally, from four bonuses that reward the size of your woods, the variety of things your predators hunted, the amount of deer in your play area, and the birds present in your trees. You will loose points based on the amount of steel cards you used, and in a solo game, rate your score against that of the predators. This will all make sense within a few minutes of playing the game, or reading on!
In the draft phase, players will look at their cards and choose one to keep and place face down in front of them. They will then pass all remaining cards on to the player to their left. This continues until all cards are drafted. Each player will begin the game with a 'Heart of the Woods' card which allows you to start populating your forest from the off, but you will want to build larger and extra places to safely house your critters as this will soon fill up. A forest cannot be populated until it has at least three trees, and then you can only place one animal per tree into each forest. You can also only have one type of animal in each forest, apart from the Rabbit, which can cohabitate with any other animal, as long as it is the only Rabbit. I presume to avoid over population and keeping this a family game! (Although you wait for the hunt phase... poor Deer!)
Plant and Populate Phase.
Once all cards are drafted, players can then simultaneously begin to plant more trees, and populate their woods with the cards they have kept. All cards with the tree symbol in the top left can be used at this point. The Deer need to be in pairs in order to be placed into a wood, and of course, only then if there are at least three trees to begin with, and one spare tree per animal you want to place. The Squirrels can populate in larger numbers of up to five. But remember to never place a Grey with a Red or visa-versa. We sadly all know what happens next here if this does occur.
If you have any animals at this point that you cannot legally place into your woods, they must be placed into the area in the middle of the table known as the 'Meadow.' Each player has their own Meadow area, and this is an place where animals congregate when there is no home for them. Animals left here are vulnerable to predators, but this is a key way to score in the game. As cute as Bambi may me, them Bears gotta eat!
The only animal that can avoid being hunted in the 'Meadow' is the Hedgehog. This animal can use its defenses to stay in this area all game, no matter who comes for their lunch, and will score you one point at the end of the game.
After all players have finished planting and populating, the Steal round begins. This employs all cards with a star in the top left of the card, and gives players the chance to take critters and trees from their opponents, but at a cost. Didn't our Mom teach you that stealing was bad?
The Owl will swoop in and can take any critter from any woods. The stolen card can then be placed into the woods or meadow owned by the player who played the Owl card. The Fox can take an animal from any meadow and then rehouse into the players woods or own meadow. The Beaver is a useful card that allows players to steal a tree card from any woods and then place that card into their own woods. These cards are played in star number order, shown in the symbol on the top left. Lowest number first.
The steal power is a useful one that can swing the games fortunes in your favour. However, beware! All steal cards played, are kept until final scoring, and will deduct points from your total based on the number played. If players do not want to play a steal card, they can simply discard the card and avoid any penalty. It's always your choice! You can of course choose to play without this round entirely simply by removing all steal cards from the game, but I would not recommend this. There is also a variant in the rules that states that when a player uses a steal card, the steal card they played is then given to the player from whom they stole from, who in turn score positive points for each steal card in their possession at the end of the game.
I like this variant, and how it rewards the person who lost a card rather than punishes the player that played a card. It can feel annoying to loose a card. This variant changes that, whilst also removing the punishment for playing a steal card yourself. It's a simple switch that changes the feel of the game a lot, if that is your preference.
The final stage of each round brings the Wolves and Bears to the table. The hunting round is an interesting way for players to score a lot more points in the game, but does bring more take-that elements to the table. However, if you play with the rule variant mentioned about, this affects the hunt phase too. Instead of hunting your opponents card, with this rule change, you can only hunt from animals in your own meadow. This is a nice amendment that I use most games. Not just to remove the feel of take-that, but also to increase the strategy needed in the game.
Hunting animals in your opponents meadow relies on a little more on luck than your own. You can never be sure what will be left for you when this phase comes around. Whereas the planning to ensure you have the necessary amount of quarry required in your own meadow is somewhat more calculated. Any Deer not in a pair and safely hidden in the woods at this stage will be susceptible to attack. But perhaps you chose not to pair some for this very reason. Just remember you have to look the Deer in the eyes if you do this!
The Bears hunt on their own and can take any animal in the the meadow they like, apart from the Hedgehog of course, way to prickly! At the end of the game, the Bears will score a point for each animal successfully eaten, plus a point for being alive themselves. There is also an additional three bonus points available if they ate at least three different types of critter. This can include Wolves too, if they also ate one of those cards.
The Wolves hunt in packs. You can only hunt of they are in a group of at three cards, no more, no less. When in a pack, they become safe from the Bears attacks. You can form more than one pack if you wish and have the necessary cards. The Wolves hunt before the Bears thanks to their increased speed and based on the turn order shown on the top left of the card. As they get to go first,forming a new pack and hunting an opponents potential prey for their Bear can be a lot of fun! Leaving a Bear to go hungry may be dangerous in the wild, but actively encouraged in this game.
Once the animals have successfully hunted, you must turn the card to the side to show they have been active this round and are now 'resting.' At the end of the round, before the drafting for the next round begins, you then must decide if that animal remains rested, or is hungry for more. If you decide to push-your-luck and keep hunting, you may be able to score a lot more points. But if no prey is available in later rounds, the risk is that this card is then lost, and all previously hunted critters become worthless. Hunting cards must have at least one successful hunt and be resting in order to score at the end of the game.
Winterhaven Woods has a few variants in the rule book. One suited to a more passive game as already discussed. There is also a longer version that has five rounds instead of three, possible only for a two-player game due to the amount of cards needed. I often use this variant as I find the game ends prematurely and I want to score more points. I like to have more chances to do this that the longer game brings. You can also randomise the end game bonus if you have the expansion pack, in a simple variant. At set-up, deal (or chose if you prefer,) three of the bonus cards from the expansion deck, and place them face up in the middle of the table. These then replace the usual bonus scoring options.
This forms one of three changes offered in the expansion. I will cover the other two shortly. All the art on the expansion looks just as gorgeous, and the deck of cards it comes in fits nicely into the main box.
The game also comes with some excellent player aids that help with set-up and simple rule clarifications. These echo the games simplistic art, functional design, and beautiful look. I use them most games despite not really needing them anymore, just because I like the way they look.
The solo player aid works equally well and helps clarify the flow of the game. The solo game brings in one new card, the Cardinal. This card when drafted and populated, adds protection to other critters in this woods from the AI's Owls. The game works very similarly to the multi-player game, other than you have eight cards in the draft, and are looking to beat the AI's score. This score is based on the number of cards that are hunted or complete a successful hunt by the end of the game. It's essentially the hunters against you, the critters.
I always like a score pad to be included with a game. Not only does it simplify the process. It adds some drama to the occasion. Going through each line, step by step, player by player. This brings some serious tension and laughter to the conclusion of the game.
When I previewed the prototype for this game, I said that it felt like a peaceful walk in the woods. I stand by that statement dozens of plays later. Everything about this game, from the production and art to the rules and game play, feels intoxicating and relaxingSummer. Just check out the inside of the box. Completely unnecessary, probably added to the overall cost, but it adds some calm and joy where otherwise there would just be empty space.
The expansion brings in three elements. As well as the end game bonuses, there are Mother Nature and Winterhaven Legends cards that can be added very simply to the base game.
The Legends cards, seen below, are dealt into the main deck at the start of the game. Only three can be added per game, I presume to stop the game becoming to complicated and random. But I think a variant with them all should have been included! When a Legends card is seen in a players hand during the draft phase, they must place it down in the middle of the table and immediately replace it with another card from the top of the deck. The Legend card is now active and applicable to all players. Each offers a small rule tweak that can affect the scoring and other animals abilities for the rest of the game. I particularly like the Jackalope, largely at Joel made a version called the Jimalope, which was ginger like me, and adorable!
The Mother Nature cards are also very easy to incorporate into the game. At set-up, remove the Rabbits from the game and replace with two sets (five each) of Mother Nature cards. Or, for a more random experience, you could deal any 10. When these cards are drafted, they can be played into a players Meadow. They can then be utilised in later rounds to help you protect cards, score more points, attack another player, or manipulate your hand to your advantage. They look stunning and work well with the overall feel of the game. I see no reason why I will not integrate both of these parts of the expansion in every game.
I adore this game. I love everything about the way it looks and plays. I enjoy the scoring options, and how each game feels fresh, no matter how much I play it. I enjoy the stages of the game and how it evolves your woods over time. The order of the steal and hunt round is very clever, as is the order of each card that is played that phase. It makes the draft round more exciting, knowing that not all Wolf and Bear card is created equally.
This game works perfectly in a two. Like all take-that games, it takes away the sense of being picked on. You obviously cannot do this if there is only one choice. But the more gentle variant works well in a three and four if players do not enjoy take-that. The solo works well too, and I like the switch to the battle against the predators. But the sweet spot, like many drafting games, is with more players. Not only so more cards are seen and used, but the dynamic of more players, more woods, more critters, and more hunting works really well.
Overall, the thing I like most about the game is the mood it puts me in. People often ask about which games relax me the most, and my mind is often taken to games like Azul or Everdell. But Winterhaven Woods is the one at the top of that list. In Winter, it makes me enjoy the crispy, cold mornings more. In summer, it makes me long for the snow to fall again. This game immerses you into its world with nothing more than a few cards. Made with a lot of love, talent, and care, Winterhaven Woods is one of my favorite set-collection card games in my possession, and one I will cherish forever.