Thursday, 11 February 2016

Review - Fireteam Zero

Fireteam Zero


Fireteam Zero
Published by Emergent Games
Designed by Mark Langlois and Christian Leonhard
For 1 to 4 players, aged 14 to adult


The Fireteam Zero board game box, showing the exciting cover artwork with a group of heroes surrounded by monsters.
Deep box... Deep trouble...


A few days ago, I wrote a review of Mansions of Madness. During that review, I mentioned how I have recently started to lose interest in games that confuse clutter with depth, or which mistake having lots going on with offering meaningful decisions. I'm talking about those games where fiddling around with tokens, and exceptions to the rules, gets in the way of actually playing and having fun. Where your immersion in the world is constantly impeded by ugly rules intrusions that jab you in the ribs and say, "It's only a game, Son."

Huge games with hundreds of cards and dozens of counters, and handfuls of miniatures, and a 32 page rules book, have started to feel like a chore. They often take a long time to set up; they take an age to teach; playing the game could take all evening; and at the end of it all, you are left to wonder if all of the bookkeeping and rules referencing really added up to an enjoyable experience. Did you feel like a bloodthirsty barbarian, or did you feel like the bloodthirsty barbarian's overworked accountant?


But worst of all, those games are often a lie. They create a sense of depth, scale, and immersion that isn't really there. They disguise minor, or possibly non-existent, variations in the rules with a bit of flavour text and a pretty piece of artwork, in the hope you won't notice it's all just smoke and mirrors.

You know what I mean...

You search the dungeon and you find a magic axe of happy choppiness, which allows you to roll two dice in combat and keep the highest. You search the next dungeon and find the magic sword of jolly stabbiness, which allows you to roll one dice in combat and gives you a reroll if you miss your target.

SSDD, folks.

And that's not to say that kind of game design is bad. We all want to lose ourselves in intricate worlds that feel like there is more going on beyond the boundaries of our gaming table. We want to explore a world that lives and breathes.

It's just... It's not what I'm looking for in a game right now.

Turns out, what I'm looking for is Fireteam Zero.

Front cover of the Fireteam Zero mission briefing book, made to look like a spiral-bound notebook.
The mission briefings, also available on a CD in the box.


Fireteam Zero takes the concept of a thematic game, and it flips it on its head. It doesn't start with a core game concept, and then build up layers of exceptions and conditions to fashion a world to explore. It just takes the core game concepts... the muscular, sinewy bits that move together to create the gaming experience... and then it rips off all of that sinew, so all you've got left is the beating heart of the thing. The engine. The thrumming, dark mass of ingenuity.

And then it stabs that heart with a shot of adrenaline, and asks you and up to three of your mates to hold on for the ride.

That's Fireteam Zero. 

A bloody, pulpy, dirty, grungy, streamlined, muscular, powerful, brutal, relentless, unforgiving punch in the throat.

This is a game that wants to hit you fast, and hit you hard. It is one of the most direct and visceral gaming experiences I have ever been a part of. Even the flavour text is like a slap upside the head.

Need an example?

The first monster you meet in the game is a corrupted animal. A dead creature that has been mutated by exposure to a supernatural artefact so that it has developed new chitinous limbs and an insatiable bloodlust. It's the kind of thing H.P. Lovecraft would describe in vague terms, lest the very concept of the being's creation drive men to madness.

But Fireteam Zero has no intention of dancing around the point.

Fireteam Zero cuts to the chase, and calls the thing what it is: "A pissed off grizzly bear sewn to a 10-foot-tall crab."

Close up shot of the gruesome corrupted animal minion from Fireteam Zero.
I don't think he wants a cuddle...


As a writer myself, that kind of control of the English language fills me with pure joy. In less than a dozen words, we know what we're dealing with. We know what the monsters are like, we know the tone of the game, we know the nature of the world we are going to explore, and we know the attitudes of the bad ass heroes saving the day.

This simple elegance, combined with muscular directness, permeates every aspect of the game. In fact, this is probably the simplest miniatures game I have ever played.

But simple is not the same as shallow.

The game is a co-operative experience, involving a small group of heroes (you and your friends) dropping behind enemy lines to investigate potential supernatural activity, and to eliminate alien threats (controlled by a simple artificial intelligence). Over the course of three operations, each comprising three missions, the heroes discover foul monsters, learn dark secrets, and get chewed on... A lot.

Really... a lot.

All four of the Fireteam Zero hero characters, with Rat taking point.
That's Rat at the front. Rat likes knives. Rat isn't quite right in the head.


The core rules are simple and intuitive, revolving around a health and resource management system lifted directly from the superb, and sadly out of production, Gears of War board game. Each player has a hand of five cards that they usually get to replenish at the beginning of each game round; and those cards are everything: they represent what actions you have available, what weapons you can bring to bear, what tactics you can employ, what dirty tricks you can play, and how much damage you can take before going down.

Basically, on your turn you can play one card (or a combination of cards with the same attack type) to make an attack on a creature. However, at the bottom of each card is a special reaction ability that you can use when a specific trigger occurs at any time. These reactions may boost an ally's attack, protect you from an enemy, or allow you to move out of danger.

Attractive display of Fireteam Zero basic action cards, showing details of one of the powerful Tactics commands.
Tactics are a cool way to be a bad ass.


This immediately creates interesting choices, as you need to balance what you need to do now, with what you might need to do later.

But always, you have to remember that the cards represent your health as well, and for each wound you sustain, you have to discard a card from your hand. Sure, you can pull off an amazing attack, and rush around whacking bad guys like you're Chuck Norris; but afterwards, you aren't going to have any cards left to soak up damage from enemy attacks, and if at any point you are forced to discard a card you don't have, it's lights out.

Down you go.

Your hero isn't dead, and with the exception of choosing to "play possum" in order to avoid drawing the attention of nearby monsters, your hero is able to get straight back into the action from the start of your next turn. However, the first time a hero hits the dirt, you flip a "lucky coin" so it is face down.

If a second hero gets wiped out before you get a chance to turn the coin face up again, then it's game over.

Close up of the reproduction Liberty "Lucky" coin from the Fireteam Zero board game.
In this game, you make your own luck.


Finding the balance between taking actions and conserving your strength becomes even more tense and agonising when you consider your special tactics cards. Every character gets two, and they are game changers. The basic action effect on these cards is powerful, making them tempting for use as an attack on your turn; but each card also has a special ability that allows you to perform ridiculously overpowered attacks.

Want to kill multiple elite monsters instantly? Done.

Want to prowl around the board killing every monster you meet? Done.

Want all your allies to have seven cards each for the round instead of five? Done.

Want to allow all your allies to immediately disengage from combat and retreat two spaces? Done.

Any one of those abilities changes the face of the board instantly, and leads to incredible fist-pumping, jump out of your seat, "America, f**k yeah!" moments.

But there's a cost.

Only one player gets to play a tactic each round. And that player doesn't get to draw up to five cards.

And remember, your cards are your health.

The character uses all of his strength, stamina, and cunning to pull-off this heroic feat; but it leaves him weak and defenceless, struggling for breath, and relying on his allies to close ranks.

It's beautiful.

Elegant, streamlined, and thematic.

It just makes sense...

When you take damage, you lose cards, and that reduces your tactical options for the remainder of the round. The more damage you take, the more disorientated and injured you are, and the less you are able to do to help your friends or help yourself. Similarly, you can go all-out on a big, heroic turn, but at the end of that turn you are exhausted, overexposed, and likely to face the wrath of a seriously pissed off grizzly bear sewn to a 10-foot-tall crab.

And it's so clean and straightforward. You don't need tokens to track your health. You don't need tokens to track your actions. You don't need any cards to describe the weapons you have. You don't need a slider to check your ammo levels. All that information is baked into your hand of five cards.

The only exception are Focus cards, which are special "always on" abilities that you get to select at the start of each mission, and which you keep in front of you throughout the game rather than pulling them from your action deck.

Attractive arrangement of advances action cards from the Fireteam Zero board game.
The advanced action cards increase your bad assness. Yeah; that's a word.


So, on your turn, you normally get to move up to two spaces (or one space through difficult terrain), and perform one action. An action is attacking, or searching one of the spawn points where the monsters emerge. Each time you search, you draw a recon card. Eventually, you discover special events or items relating to your objective, and then you follow the instructions on those cards in an attempt to complete your objective and make it home alive.

It's that simple.

In fact, it's so simple, there is a risk that merely describing the mechanisms of the game makes it sound dull.

But it's not dull.

It's not dull, because this is a game that throws you behind enemy lines. It puts you in the pressure cooker and then spins the dial all the way up.

Monsters appear every turn.

Every turn.

Close up of one of the Fireteam Zero infested bait bag minions miniatures.
Was it something he ate?


If you kill a monster, it is guaranteed to come back through one of the spawn points at the end of the turn.

You can't stop it.

You can control spawn points in an attempt to force the creatures to appear at certain locations, but that involves standing on a spawn point, and staying still in this game is going to get you killed.

This is a game where you have to move.

Always.

You don't kill monsters to earn experience points, or to pick up loot, or to clear the area permanently. You kill monsters because you have to clear a path to your next objective, and you know full well that the path is going to close like a noose almost immediately.

Huge, disgusting Mother of Worms boss monster miniature from Fireteam Zero.
I think you've got worms.


You are genuinely, constantly in a state of peril; permanently one bad move away from a hideous death.

And you have to be quick, because the longer you take, the more chances you have of making a mistake.

And the monsters are evolving... mutating... learning...

Close up of the threat track, showing two revealed Twist cards that cause monsters to mutate.
The monsters have become cunning, and developed a neurotoxin. That sounds nice.


Every third turn, you draw a new mutation from the Twist deck, and the monsters morph. Their tactics change, and that means your tactics change too. I will never forget the time when we were all running for the exit, and suddenly we pulled the Twist card that made it so we were not allowed to escape from melee combat with the enemy. What we had taken to be an easy win turned into a drawn-out bloody battle as we body-slammed and pistol-whipped are way through a forest of clawing limbs.

Details of some of the beautiful Fireteam Zero game tiles.
If you go down to the woods today...


But your bad day doesn't end there, because throughout the whole bloody experience, you have to pay close attention to a retinue of non-combat specialists. In the base game, these specialists are Henry, an expert in supernatural lore, and Patty "Cake," a psychic.

These men do not fight, but they are essential to your success.

Whenever a hero moves from a space containing one or more of the specialists, that hero has the option to take the specialists along with him to access their special skill set. Henry allows you to search as a free action, so you can squeeze more into each turn, and Patty lets you reroll an attack dice.

So, you want to keep these guys close for the benefits they provide, but even then, Fireteam Zero shows its claws. At no point during the game are you allowed to leave your specialists alone. They are non-combat allies, after all. If you are the last hero in a space with the specialists, and you go down in the fight, the monsters go into a frenzy, advancing the Twist track to increase the rate at which they mutate.

And it's not like you can keep these poor guys out of the line of fire. In the very first mission, one of your objectives is to collect samples of the alien monstrosities for Henry to examine, meaning you have to purposefully drag him into locations containing monsters, just so you can kill them and give him the chance to set up a little field experiment.

That's just mean.

Brilliant.

But mean.

Details of the Children of Typhon monster family from Fireteam Zero.
Meet the family...


At this point, I think you can tell that I am enamoured with this game. But I think I have every right to be.

This could be one of the most accessible and deeply thematic gaming experiences I have been a part of. The game drops you straight into the middle of the carnage, and you are facing a deadly onslaught of monstrosities from the very first turn.

You are lost, surrounded, and not always clear on how to achieve your objective.

You really do feel like a soldier parachuting into enemy territory.

And everything about it is so slick and clever, it's hard to know where to start.

I could probably talk all day about the stupidly, ridiculously, obviously simple ways in which the designers have forged this little wonder.

Take the artificial intelligence that runs the monsters, for example...

When the monsters activate, they always do the same thing.

They run.

Usually quite fast.

They head directly for the closest hero, ignoring terrain.

The only exception is if they are already in the space with a hero, in which case they proceed directly to chewing on said hero.

After moving, you roll a special monster dice. Three faces on the dice allow the monster to move an additional space, two faces activate a special ability unique to that monster, and one face is mercifully blank.

After that, the monster attacks, if possible, using any special abilities available to it.

And then you're done.

It barely qualifies as an artificial intelligence system. But it works. It beautifully captures that sense of feral urgency that you would associate with these corrupted animals, mutated humans, and mindless supernatural fiends. And it builds that sense of being in a pressure cooker, constantly being under attack from all sides.

The monsters never let up, but they only have low animal cunning, and you can use that to your advantage.

Monsters always move towards the closest target, so you have the ability to shepherd them into certain areas of the board with careful placement of your heroes. Furthermore, if a monster enters a space with more than one hero, the heroes get to decide who takes the attack. This creates wonderful moments of heroism as someone jumps in front of a wounded comrade to shield him from a fatal blow.

But nothing in this game is guaranteed, and that single dice roll on every monster activation has the ability to throw your plans into disarray. It is just a small element of chance, but it creates the possibility that one of the monsters will suddenly do something unexpected. And if you don't prepare for those unexpected moments, than you are preparing to fail.

Shot of inside pages from the Fireteam Zero rules book, showing neatly arranged rules for monster activation.
Precis of the rules: "Monsters will eat you."


Combat is another area where simple rules marry with theme to create something that I find truly compelling. Each attack generates a specific type of damage, represented by a fist, a bullet, and a grenade.

The fist icon appears on five of the six sides on the dice, meaning it is the most reliable form of attack, but each dice rolled usually only generates a single hit.

The bullet icon appears on fewer sides of the dice, but often appears in pairs. This represents an increased chance to miss when firing off a shot, but with a greater chance of causing some serious injury when an attack connects.

Finally, the grenade icon appears on only three sides of the dice, but there is one side of the dice with three grenade symbols on it, and each symbol inflicts damage on every model in the target space. This means grenade damage is the most unreliable, but also has the greatest potential for mass destruction.

And that's just clever.

However, the game is not without its faults. No game is. For a start, there are some pretty major holes in the rules book. Line of sight isn't fully explained (hint: there is no line of sight, you just have to be in range), and range isn't properly explained (hint: you have to trace range around walls), and walls are not explained at all (hint: walls are always solid white lines you cannot walk through, but not all solid white lines are walls).

Omitting any explanation of what the white lines on the board tiles are is pretty huge, and something I would have expected a blind test group to pick up on instantly.

Furthermore, there are some minor misprints on the board, some of the wording on the cards could have been clearer, and there are a few more spelling mistakes than I would have liked. But there's nothing here that is going to ruin your enjoyment.

There is nothing here that is going to ruin your stories...

Want to hear some stories?

Man, I've got stories.

Here's just one. It shows how thematic this game is. How easily it generates tension, and memorable moments. And how punishing it can be.

In one of our early games, Sarge (the leader of this motley crew) was protecting Cake and Henry. While searching for samples, they were swarmed by three corrupted animals. Donny, the demolitions expert, suggested Sarge fall back to the safety of a nearby cabin, along with the specialists. Sarge wasn't happy about it, but they had to focus on the mission.

Close up view of some of the board sections from the Fireteam Zero board game.
Cabin in the woods.


As Sarge dragged the specialists into the cabin, Donny gave the approaching monsters something to chew on: An explosive device that wiped out three corrupted animals in a single attack.

Close up view of the dramatic artwork and details from the Satchel Charge action card in Fireteam Zero.
"Eat this!"


Unfortunately, there was an attack from the north, and another creature scuttled through the window of the cabin. A round of bloody close combat ensued, with Sarge finally smashing the creature into red pulp with the butt of his shotgun.

Realising they couldn't stay in the cabin, Sarge tried to make a break for it with the specialists. Here's what he could see:

He would finish his turn out in the open, but the only two corrupted animals in range were three spaces away.

Corrupted animals usually move two spaces. However, when rolling the special monster activation dice, there is a 50% chance of rolling an additional movement space.

So, Sarge gambled on both corrupted animals finishing in his space, so he would have to face two attacks. He had four cards in hand, two of which were body slams that would allow him to discard a card to prevent an attack from a creature in his space.

He would survive the round, and then draw up to his full hand of five cards at the beginning of the next turn, ready to return fire.

The first corrupted animal pounced into action, and scuttled two spaces.

I rolled the special activation dice...

It was the symbol to activate the corrupted animal's special ability: a ranged attack.

Rather than moving an additional space, the creature opened its maw, and a series of poisonous barbs lashed at Sarge. With no cards to defend against a ranged attack, I rolled two damage dice, resulting in four hits. Sarge had to discard all four of his cards.

He had survived the attack, but only just...

In an explosion of movement and scurrying chitinous limbs, the second corrupted animal surged forwards... three spaces.

Sarge, covered in blood and with hardly enough strength to stand, turned to Henry and Cake, with a look of resignation in his eyes.

"I'm sorry," he said.

I rolled the attack dice for the second corrupted animal...

It began to feed.

Fireteam Zero "pissed off grizzly bear stitched to a giant crab."
Yup, that's a pissed off grizzly bear sewn to a giant crab. Better run...


And what was I doing while Sarge was being unceremoniously pieced out among the corrupted animals?

I was shuffling my deck of action cards, ready to try again...

6 comments:

  1. Kevin - just discovered your blog via this review, and I have to say you have excellent taste in games. I've paticularly been enjoying the reviews of some of the older games I also happen to have in my collection.

    Hope you've discovered my site The Esoteric Order of Gamers (www.orderofgamers.com) because I've done rules sumaries for quite a few of the games you own.

    Thanks for the review of Fireteam Zero, I believe my copy is winging its way to me as we speak!

    Cheers, Universal Head (Peter)

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    1. Thanks for stopping by Peter. I have indeed discovered your site, which is significantly more helpful than this one!

      Your rules summaries are superb, especially for getting a game back to the table quickly when you haven't played it for a long time. I think the first one I ever nabbed was for Marvel Heroes. That was a frighteningly long time ago.

      I hope you enjoy Fireteam Zero as much as I do.

      Delete
  2. That was one of the best reviews I have ever read. It demands that I get a copy of the game from some one at an INSANE price.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks so much. This game should be available at retail soon (if it isn't already), so hopefully you won't have to pay a crazy price.

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  3. Great review mate, just getting into board games and I love this one. Much like you described, really enjoy the action and adventure of each play, can't help but imagine each scene. As a new gamer, any similar games you could recommend? Also I can see from emergent games website that they've worked on some expansions, but can't seem to find them for retail anywhere, don't suppose you could shed any light on this?
    Sorry for the long comment, mostly just want to say great review and use of language! you really know how to turn a phrase

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    Replies
    1. Thank you reading, and for the kind words; I really appreciate it.

      The expansions for Fireteam Zero were all funded through the Kickstarter, along with the game, but there was a staggered release. Kickstarter backers are receiving them this month (expect reviews here), and I believe they will be hitting retail pretty much at the same time.

      To be honest, there isn't much like Fireteam Zero. The closest (and it isn't really that close) is Gears of War, which is now out of print, and involves a bit more fiddle and lot more cards (I reviewed it last week).

      Are you looking specifically for co-op games?

      I haven't tried them, but the Dungeons and Dragons adventure games (Castle Ravenloft, Wrath of Ashardalon, Legend of Drizzt, and one more the name of which eludes me) are supposed to be quite straightforward to play, and they are fully co-operative, with up to four heroes exploring a dungeon full of AI-controlled enemies.

      Galaxy Defenders is another co-op game that is well-liked (but which I haven't played), and that one has a futuristic setting.

      Games Workshop's Assassinorum is a lovely co-op with incredibly streamlined rules that work wonderfully, but the miniatures require assembly, it is expensive, and it only has a single mission, so I would be reluctant to recommend it.

      Pandemic is a really good co-op, with really simple rules; but no monsters or miniatures.

      Feel free to respond with more details on what you might be interested in, and I'll make some more suggestions.

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