Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Review - Fireteam Zero: The Africa Cycle

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


Fireteam Zero: The Africa Cycle


They say that "a change is as good as a rest." I guess "they" don't work for Fireteam Zero, because as far as those hardened war vets are concerned, it's more a case of "no rest for the wicked." The Fireteam Zero base game threw them into the heart of enemy territory, into villages swarming with alien entities, and even into the bowels of the corrupted earth. Each mission was a gruelling battle of attrition against an unstoppable, immeasurable foe; and always the fate of humankind was in the balance. After all that, a chance to soak up the rays on a relaxing tour of Africa probably sounded like a great idea.

But this is no vacation. There are no margaritas on the beach for Sarge and his motley crew, and you can scratch any idea of a rest.

Sarge would probably put it best: "Same shit, different day."

And indeed, the new Africa Cycle expansion for one of my all-time favourite games is very much more of the same. But shit?

Not even close.

I have frequently said that I'm not a big fan of expansions (seriously, I still play Arkham Horror vanilla). Expansions have a tendency to add layers of complexity, smothering all the things you loved about the original game. I'm just not the kind of guy who likes sprinkles on his ice cream (but I am, apparently, the kind of guy who would use an analogy about ice cream rather than football).

While there are some expansions I enjoy that add new game mechanisms, such as the Lords of Waterdeep expansion, I usually prefer the ones that add breadth, rather than depth. I mean, they provide greater variety, or shake up the theme, while leaving the underlying game unchanged. I'm talking about race expansions for Small World, mission packs for Death Angel, new enemies for Super Dungeon Explore, extra heroes for Warhammer Quest: Silver Tower, and (finally getting to the point of this preamble) Fireteam Zero: The Africa Cycle.


The atmospheric artwork for Fireteam Zero: The Africa Cycle, showing Rat and his comrades getting read to kick some ass.


But the exact reason why I like this expansion could well be the reason you don't.

Simply put, The Africa Cycle does almost nothing that you haven't seen in the base game. Nothing. Zip. Nada. Nowt. Bugger all.

The box is packed with new content, but at the end of the day, the experience it provides is very much the experience you already know.

I guess, what I'm trying to say is, if you didn't really enjoy Fireteam Zero, this expansion isn't going to change your mind.

But...

If, like me, you love Fireteam Zero, you're going to want to see what this new expansion brings to the table.

Which is what, exactly?

An overview of the components for Fireteam Zero: The Africa Cycle.


Most obviously, it brings the same fantastic theme of hardened war heroes battling impossible odds in a secret war against supernatural monsters. There is glorious artwork from Loic Muzy, including one the most atmospheric pieces of box art I've ever seen, a brand new three-part narrative adventure to get stuck into, and three new standalone missions that bring together new and old monsters to amp up the challenge.

The three-part mission in Africa is the real meat of the new content. It starts with an investigation to find a missing team of researchers, and in typical Fireteam Zero style, gets progressively worse from there. During the adventure you explore new locations (four new double-sided map tiles) and face a new family of monsters, including a hulking tree-beast capable of withstanding a ridiculous amount of punishment before going down.

The hulking, intimidating presence of the Thornspawn boss from Fireteam Zero: The Africa Cycle.


Beneath the window dressing, the missions are quite similar to what you get in the base game: Four tiles arranged in a square, with 12 spawn points that you have to search in order to reach particular objectives. However, even though it may feel quite similar, the combination of new monsters, new maps, and new objectives mixes things up enough to ensure you are going to have to re-evaluate old strategies and overcome new challenges.

The best mission of the lot introduces two new wrinkles to the tried and tested format: Several monsters spawn together in a predefined location, and there is a moving truck that you have to protect from attack. Introducing an escort mission (with all the stress that entails) adds a new layer of tension, and shows that it's possible to stretch the basic mission format to do something refreshing. I'm hoping to see a lot more of this in the future.

The new map tiles are also interesting. In a game like this, simply mixing up the terrain gives you plenty to think about, even if your overall objective is very similar. In this case, you get a new inside location, which is a winding maze of corridors with shortcuts through rooms where the monsters are spawning, and an African city that makes fantastic use of the location by forcing players to take longer routes around difficult terrain (which, of course, the monsters can plough through unhindered).

An arrange of map tiles from Fireteam Zero: The Africa Cycle, highlighting the excellent artwork.


The tree-like monsters are a suitably intimidating bunch, with a strong emphasis on movement. They are an implacable foe, constantly advancing no matter what you throw at them. With these guys on the board, it's like being hunted by an army of T1000s. Perhaps the most interesting enemies are the elite wooden men. If you attack one but fail to kill it, it immediately moves one space closer to you. This is at once terrifying and incredibly useful, and kiting them around the board with weak attacks is a great way to control their movement (or to get your face bashed in by a tree, if things don't go your way).

The stat cards for the Thornspawn family from Fireteam Zero: The Africa Cycle.


Besides the missions and monsters, the expansion includes four new focus cards (one for each hero class). They are all useful, but the best of the bunch is undoubtedly the demo expert's "Trauma Kit" which allows any allies in his space to draw a card if they have one or less cards in hand at the end of the turn.

New focus cards from Fireteam Zero: The Africa Cycle. Never leave home without the trauma kit.


You also get 32 new upgraded action cards (two sets of four for each hero class). It's great to have so many options for customizing your hero, but the most interesting thing about these cards is the new reroll mechanism. Several cards offer up to two rerolls, which is something that was sorely lacking from the base game, and which I am very happy to see here. Considering you can never roll more than eight dice at once, having rerolls is incredibly useful, and it does change the game on a psychological level. It makes the game slightly more forgiving, and you don't always feel like your next roll of the dice is an all-or-nothing last-gasp chance.

An attractive arrangement of new action cards from Fireteam Zero: The Africa Cycle.


Unfortunately, one of the things that I think many people were most excited for - the gear cards - is also the expansion's biggest failing. There was, perhaps, an assumption that the introduction of gear was going to provide some new options for kitting out your team. Maybe a points system, or some kind of levelling up system. That's not the case. The gear cards are actually just recon cards with a persistent effect; and that really is a shame.

You get 30 gear cards in total, and you simply shuffle them in with your recon cards. When you create the 12-card recon deck for a mission, you will have your fixed objective cards, and then the remainder of the deck comprises a random combination of recon cards and gear cards. When you search a spawn point, you draw a card like normal, and... well... that's it really. If it's a recon card, you resolve it; if it's a gear card, you resolve it, but the effects stay in play.

A sample of the new gear cards from Fireteam Zero: The Africa Cycle.


Now, I know what you're thinking: "What if the whole deck is full of gear cards? That'll make the game too easy!"

Well, no, actually. I'm not lying when I say the gear cards are just recon cards with persistent effects. Don't start thinking they're all useful. They're not. There is almost as much bad in the deck as there is good, and some of it is cripplingly bad.

Oh, and don't go thinking the gear is going to be military-issue weaponry and supplies either. It's all magical wishbones, glowing rocks, and spooky medallions.

Never, never, never pick up glowing rocks.

A terrifying Wooden Man stalks his prey in Fireteam Zero: The Africa Cycle.


To be honest, if the designer had simply create a new recon deck, with new events, I would have been much happier. A wider selection of recon cards helps to keep every game fresh and exciting. But this concept of gear is (and it pains me to say it) badly implemented.

For a start, the backs of the cards say "Gear" on them, which means you will know if you are drawing a gear card or a recon card when you make a search action. But that's easy enough to resolve by drawing from the bottom of the deck, or whatever, and it's not what really grates my gears. What really hurts is that while I can see such amazing potential for the concept, the way it plays out in the game just isn't fun.

The fact is, Fireteam Zero is a hard-as-nails game that challenges you every step of the way. It punishes mistakes, and you can easily have a defeat snatched from the jaws of victory if you aren't always giving 100 percent. But for all that, it's always felt fair (except maybe for ambushes, which are pure evil). A bad recon card when you search is always a blood-curdling moment, but you usually have the options available to recover; and if you can weather the storm and make it to the next round alive, you can almost always bounce back.

But the new gear cards don't give you that chance to bounce back. They don't happen once and then go away. They hurt you, and then they hurt you again, and slowly, inexorably, they start to drain the fun out of your experience. You don't just feel hopeless... you always feel hopeless in this game... you start to feel helpless too.

As an example of one gear card, consider the "Misfired Cartridge." If you find this item, for the rest of the game, every time you attack a minion or elite and fail to kill it, you have to advance the threat track one space. Yup. Every time. For the rest of the game. The only way you can get rid of the item is to attack and kill a monster using only a single card. Of course, the chances of killing a monster with one card are low, and every time you fail the threat track goes up. So, basically, the card smacks you upside the head and then kicks you in the balls while you're distracted.

And "Misfired Cartridge" isn't even the worst card. There is stuff like the "Sigil Worm" that causes one unblockable damage every time you kill a monster, or the "Bad Penny" that causes monsters to immediately respawn when you kill them.

That's just not fun.

But then you get the good gear, and you start to see that potential I was talking about. My two favourite cards do exactly what I would expect from a good expansion, giving you new options, and difficult choices.

First is the "Silver Sextant," which allows you to move through difficult terrain as though it's normal terrain for a cost of one unblockable damage. That's great design right there. You get a very valuable new skill, but it comes with a price.

And then there's the "Strange Wishbone." This is a one use item that lets you flip your Lucky Coin face down to kill all minions and elites within a range of one space. That's immensely powerful, and employed at the right time it can save your game; but it's a single use, and flipping your Lucky Coin face down is a huge price to pay. Again, it's brilliant design.

A Thornspawn minion from Fireteam Zero: The Africa Cycle. These little critters are fast, and hit hard.


I enjoyed the good gear so much I found a new way to implement it in the game. You chuck out all the bad gear. It has no place in a game that is already so tough. Once you've done that, you have a much smaller deck of useful cards. You keep these cards to one side during play, and if you win the right to flip your Lucky Coin face up you can instead take one gear card, giving it to any hero. You can choose to take a gear card even if the Lucky Coin is already face up.

It's a very simple mod to the game, but it lets you integrate some of the cool new cards, adds some new tactical options, and even resolves the issue of not getting any kind of reward for completing an objective when your Lucky Coin is already face up.

But enough about my house rules, you're here because you want to know if The Africa Cycle is worth adding to your games collection.

To be honest, like anything in life, it comes down to your perspective.

Is your glass half full or half empty?

Are you going to define the expansion by what it adds, or what you feel it should contain?

I admit, I am disappointed that an expansion of this size didn't add any new specialists, or new hero classes, but considering how much effort it would take to create, test, and refine even a single hero deck, it isn't surprising. After all, this isn't like in Warhammer Quest: Silver Tower, where each new hero is just a cool model and single card with a couple of skills on it. In this game, every single hero is a finely crafted combination of focus cards, basic actions, and advanced actions.

And if you focus on what the expansion lacks, you really are overlooking how much gaming goodness it actually provides.

If you love the base game, I would have to say you'll love at least a good chunk of what this expansion adds. The new monsters are interesting, the new missions are tense and provide a welcome change of scenery, the new advanced action cards and focus cards give you cool new tactical options and ways to customise your heroes, and if you have seen everything the recon deck has to offer, the gear cards at least give you something new to discover.

Best of all, like any good expansion, all of the content is compatible with the base set. You can use any monsters, action cards, recon cards, and even gear cards, with any of the original missions, giving you plenty of opportunities to sandbox your own mission ideas, or to adjust the difficulty level to suit your group.

For me, it's definitely an expansion worth owning; and the reason it's worth owning is because it is undoubtedly, uncompromisingly, a Fireteam Zero expansion. It's a big box of fist pumping, heart pounding, monster murdering excitement.

It's a box of stories you are going to remember.

However, there is a second Fireteam Zero expansion - The Europe Cycle - and at the risk of spoiling a forthcoming review, I will say it's better than this one. Regardless of how you feel about Brexit, if you only have the budget for one expansion, booking a flight for Europe is probably your best bet. But who am I kidding? If you can't get enough supernatural monstrosities, endless carnage, and perpetual dread, you're going to end up with both expansions.

Box art for Fireteam Zero: The Europe Cycle.


So, in the balance, this review is a recommendation.

Maybe it's not a glowing recommendation, but considering what normally happens when things start glowing in the world of Fireteam Zero that's probably not such a bad thing.



A huge thank you to Emergent Games, and especially Mike Langlois, who provided my copy of The Africa Cycle. The guys have worked really hard to make Fireteam Zero a reality. Make sure you visit http://emergent-games.com/ for all the latest news, and show them some love on Facebook and Twitter. 

You can pick up your own copy of the Fireteam Zero base game at all good board game stores.

2 comments:

  1. I love your house rule on the gear cards. I think that will be the way we play it from the get-go. Thanks for that idea :)

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    1. You're welcome. I was very disappointed with the gear cards originally, but I'm quite happy with them using this variant. If you do use it, please do come back and let me know how you got on. Would love to hear how it went!

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