Thursday 5 May 2016

Review - Gears of War: The Board Game

Designed by Corey Konieczka
Published by Fantasy Flight Games
For 1 to 4 players, aged 13 to adult

Often, on sites such as BoardGameGeek, you hear boardgamers talking about games that "fired" other games.

"Hear about Thunderstone Advance? Totally fired Dominion."

"Tried Battles of Westeros? Fired BattleLore."

"Got a copy of Kingdom Death: Monster? Fired everything..."

Generally speaking, a game fires another game when it has a central mechanism, or a particular style of play, that it does better than an older game. These are the latest iterations in the constant evolution of games design, and they usually stand on the shoulders of giants, taking great games and giving them extra swagger.

Now, there are some people who see enough difference between two games to want them both, but I understand why a lot of people feel the need to fire older games from their collection. It's not necessarily a "cult of the new" thing; it's just practical. There is only so much time and space in the world, after all.

Recently, I reviewed a game called Fireteam Zero. If you read that review, you will know I am a huge fan. You will also know I mentioned it features a similar card system to the one found in another excellent game, Gears of War. (Or rather, Gears of War: The Board Game, to differentiate it from Gear of War: The Video Game, or Gears of War: The Action Figure, or Gears of War: The Meccano Set.)

The box for Gears of War: The Board Game, featuring Fenix striding into battle against alien enemies.
So, Gears of War... Not about flower arranging.

So, here is today's question:

Does Fireteam Zero fire Gears of War?





Not in the slightest.

In fact, I'm going to nip this whole thing in the bud right now.

These two games have a similar core concept, which I'll explain in a moment; but really, they are very different, and if someone was to ask me which one they should play...


It's a bit like asking whether it's better to swim with a Whitetip or a Great White.

Either way, you're getting chewed up.

A selection of enemy miniatures from Gears of War.
The Great Whites of the Gears of War universe.

That's not to say I don't think one is better than the other. I personally prefer everything about Fireteam Zero, from the theme to the monsters, from the dice system to the art, and from the mission structure to the tactical options. But I think that, apart from one core mechanism where the number of cards in your hand represents your health, these games provide very different experiences and there is a strong argument for owning both.

So, nothing is firing anything here.

Except for those pesky Boomers firing their Boomshots, of course.

Gears of War enemy cards, depicting evil aliens such as the Lambent Wretch.
A selection of the enemies intent on grinding your gears.

And now it's time for a confession... I only have a very vague idea what that previous sentence really means. I know a Boomer is an alien; I know a Boomshot is a gun. But that's all. Maybe I'll have to turn in my Geek badge or something, but I've never played the Gears of War video games, so I have no prior knowledge of the universe.

Unfortunately, that does create a barrier to entry for the board game.

Much like another video game adaptation that the designer had a hand in, World of Warcraft: The Adventure Game, here there is an assumption that everyone knows the background. There is hardly any "fluff" in the rulebook or on the cards to give you a sense of place or purpose, and without prior experience you may find yourself wondering what is going on. I mean, fans of the game are sure to get excited about seeing the heroic Fenix (who?) finding a Hammer of Dawn (what?); but for me, it felt a little bit like my first day at university: I knew where I was and what I was supposed to be doing, but everything else was a baffling mystery.

Hero cards from Gears of War, depicting characters such as Marcus Fenix.
Look, it's Marcus Fenix (who?).

Additionally, most of the artwork is lifted from the video game. Opinions vary, but I don't really like that style. Usually, video game artwork looks great in motion, but loses something when translated into static images. Everything here looks a bit too... digital.

But, you know, at the end of the day, the setting is just an excuse for a group of hard as nails marines to kick down some doors and take some names in a battle against a massive horde of aliens. Once the bullets start flying, you aren't going to have time to worry about why you are in this situation; you are just going to worry about how you are getting out of it.

Turns out, getting out of it involves a combination of skill and luck: the classic combo of tactical card play and dice rolling.

So, you and up to three of your mates (playing co-operatively) enter a maze of rooms composed of individual board tiles, and the proverbial hits the fan almost instantly, with gribbly aliens appearing on spawn points to make your day a little bit worse.

The four hero miniatures from Gears of War, arranged on the game board.
Let's all hide behind this wall... Forever.

Play then proceeds in rounds, with each player in turn drawing up to two cards (to a hand size of six) and then playing a card to perform the actions listed on it in the order they appear. For example, playing the "Assault" card allows you to move up to three areas and then perform one attack with a weapon you are carrying.

(Attacking, by the way, involves rolling custom dice and counting up the hits, and then rolling custom dice to defend, and counting up the shields. Simple mathematics ensues. Oh, and sometimes a dice turns up a special symbol that activates a weapon's special power, resulting in some extra special specialness.)

Red and black custom dice from Gears of War, rolled on the game board.
I didn't roll enough shields...

Additionally, before or after each listed action, you have the chance to discard any card to revive a fallen comrade (putting them back into the heat of the action), scavenge weapons, or activate specific equipment in an area.

It all sounds straightforward enough, but there are a few catches.

First, each card has a symbol that works as a secondary ability for use in another player's turn, or for use in the enemy turn. For example, if you decide not to play your "Assault" card in your turn, you can play it during the enemy phase to gain an additional two defence dice when you are attacked. Other cards allow you to take a reaction shot when an enemy moves, or teleport to another player's area.

Second, like I mentioned earlier, your cards are your health. For each wound you take, you must discard one card from hand. If you do not have a card to discard, you are knocked down and bleeding out. You aren't dead, and another player has the chance to revive you, but for the time being, you just have to roll around on the floor screaming, "Medic!"

You know, like a professional footballer.

Detailed example of movement from the Gears of War rule book.
The lavishly illustrated rulebook.

So, there's the heart of the game: The rule that creates the tension. You have, at most, six cards in your hand (barring a few exceptional situations), and you need at least one to perform an action on your turn. But you also may want to save some to use as reactions when the enemies attack. Or you may be expecting to take a big hit, so you need some cards for health. But there's a weapon crate in your area you would love to open. Oh, and your best mate is bleeding out just around the corner, and... and...

And at the beginning of your next turn, no matter what you have done, you are only drawing two cards.

Sure, you can massively exert yourself this turn, going all out to clean the area of alien scum, revive a friend, bust open some new weapons, and do a little lap of honour; but you are leaving yourself exposed to a counterattack.

Not just a counterattack this turn, but for several turns to come.

And that's several turns in which you are probably going to limp around the board looking a bit sorry for yourself, regretting doing a lap of honour without stretching properly first, while your friends tut disapprovingly.

It's a system that encourages careful hand management, rewards clever play, and promotes real co-operation between the players.

This is a game where you really feel like a team. Where your fate is directly tied to the fate of your friends.

And where just a single mistake can result in a world of pain.

It's just a brilliant piece of game design.

But not flawless.

Like so many brilliant things, it flirts constantly with failure. One turn you will marvel at how exciting and cinematic the game is... The next turn, you will experience a gruelling exercise in frustration.

You see, you only get two cards back per turn. That means for every big turn, where you get to do something awesome, you get another two or three turns where you feel hamstrung. The aim, of course, is to find the beautiful balance. To constantly do just enough to be on top, without leaving yourself exposed.

But, damn it... I'm a badass marine, here to bring the pain to an invading alien army (I think). I want to go in all guns blazing from the first turn, and never let up. Spending half the game cowering behind a wall catching your breath is tense and thematic (it's what I would be doing in real life), but it doesn't give you that fist-pumping feeling of being the best of the best.

Fortunately, even a single card allows you to do plenty of things, with some that allow you to attack multiple times, and others that let you dash halfway across the board. So, even if you only have one card in your hand, you always have a fighting chance.

The bigger problem is when you don't have any cards at all.

If someone revives you, you have to survive until your next activation without a single card to your name. Considering the aliens get a chance to activate after each player's turn, you could have to survive up to three rounds of alien activity with no way to defend yourself.

Often your demise is slow and painful, as the game drags you inexorably into the jaws of defeat while you thrash and scream pathetically. You start bleeding out, so someone revives you; but then you get beaten up before you have a chance to get some cards in hand, so you start bleeding out. Then some sadistic bastard revives you again...

I call it the Weeble Wobble effect.

And sometimes you can wobble so much the whole game comes crashing down. It becomes a farce.
The game stagnates. The gears grind.

Occasionally, the gears jam up completely.

You feel like you aren't making any progress; because you aren't making any progress.

The play time stretches on endlessly, the aliens attack mercilessly, and you scrabble around in your own blood sobbing hopelessly.



If you can dig in, dig deep, and hold on... If you can claw back just enough cards to load your shotgun and stick it in the face of the alien that has been shoeing you to bits for the last three rounds... Well... There ain't no better feeling than that.

Unfortunately, the game serves up ample frustration in other areas too.

The setup process is arduous. First you have to create and shuffle a deck of location cards based on the scenario you are playing. Then you draw a card from the deck, find the map tile that matches the card, spawn the monsters on it, draw another card, find the map tile, and so on. Takes forever. Isn't fun.

However, the biggest frustration is a rule set that includes a number of rules that are not intuitive. They aren't bad rules. Far from it. But learning the game, and then teaching the game to other people, isn't as straightforward as it should be, simply because there are some rules that make everyone at the table go, "Huh?"

Take ammunition, for example. 

All guns have ammunition, represented by little ammo tokens. However, in most cases, you can fire your gun without using an ammo token. Using an ammo token actually activates an "overkill" mode, granting you additional combat dice and sometimes some cool special rules. So, you have a gun you can fire all the time without expending ammo, or you can use an ammo token to make the gun better for one burst of fire.

An arrangement of weapon cards from Gears of War, depicting iconic weapons such as the torque bow.
Guns don't kill people... Actually, they do.

But, if at any point you don't have any ammo tokens on a weapon, you cannot fire it.

At all.

So, if you have an ammo token, but don't spend it, you can do a normal attack. If you have an ammo token and spend it, you can do an overkill attack. If you don't have an ammo token, you can't attack.

But, some weapons require you to use an ammo token, as they don't have a normal attack.

And some weapons can still make a normal attack, even if they don't have an ammo token.


It just feels kludgy. And it's difficult to explain to new players.

Wounding monsters is similarly bizarre. Every enemy has a health value. If you inflict wounds equal to or greater than the health value, you kill the enemy instantly. However, if you inflict less than that number of wounds, the enemy becomes wounded. You put a wound token under the model, and this wound token has a new health value printed on it. However, this health value has bugger all to do with the number of wounds previously inflicted. It is an arbitrary value indicating the new number you need to beat or exceed to kill the enemy on subsequent attacks. Oh... and if you fail to inflict that many wounds in a subsequent attack, the enemy shrugs off all the damage completely.

I made my head hurt just typing that, so here's an example:

A Drone has three health. I attack it, inflicting one wound. This is not enough to kill it outright, so the Drone is wounded. I put a wound token under the model. Even though I only inflicted one wound, and you would expect the Drone to have two wounds remaining, the wound token has a health value of one printed on it, meaning the Drone is only able to take one more hit before dying.

Again, I stress, they are not bad rules. They just aren't easy to get to grips with quickly. They work; they just don't feel like the work the way they should.

But then, I think that when this game first came out it was pushing the envelope a bit. It was trying new ideas, and most of those ideas are pretty damned special: The cards as health mechanism, ditching the classic grid-based movement for a more fluid movement based on areas, a simple cover mechanism that really makes you feel like you are diving behind walls to avoid a hail of bullets, and a cool artificial intelligence for the enemies that involves creating a specific deck of cards based on the aliens you are going to face, and then drawing one each turn to see which aliens activate and what they do.

A selection of the AI cards that control the locusts in Gears of War: The Board Game.
Smart little critters.

Ultimately, while this game has the potential to frustrate, I feel the excellence of the design shines through. You truly get the sense that you are one man (or a small group of one mans) facing a relentless horde of monsters. It is tense and exciting, and while there are times when the best thing you can do is ask Lady Luck to be kind, good tactical play and judicious use of your resources is just as important. 

This is a game that offers a true co-operative experience. You work together to survive, you cling together amidst the chaos of the battlefield, and you fight together against overwhelming odds. 

If you don't, you fall apart.

And of course, this is all backed up with component quality that is up to the usual standards you would expect from Fantasy Flight Games. All the cards are good quality, the board tiles are thick, and the miniatures are superb.

The huge berserker from the Gears of War board game, ready to destroy Fenix and his team of COGs.
The berserker offers an imaginary bunch of flowers to his true love.

This game is a little treasure... But I think I'm going to get rid of it.

Fireteam Zero didn't fire Gears of War... I don't look at Fireteam Zero and think, "That's just like Gears of War only better,"... But Fireteam Zero and a small group of equally excellent games are monopolising all of my time at the moment, and Gear of War just doesn't get a look in anymore. I love the game, but the long setup time, and the demands of games I simply love more, have relegated this one to the shelf.

And Gears of War is now out of print. 

I doubt it will be in print ever again. Certainly not without a reskinned theme.

With that being the case, it seems a bit unfair for me to keep it locked up on my shelf when someone else could be enjoying it.

It's like that saying; "If you love something, set it free. If it comes back to you... you probably mislabelled the package."

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