Sunday 1 October 2017

Review - Fireteam Zero: The Europe Cycle

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

Fireteam Zero: The Europe Cycle

Regulars to my blog may have noticed things have been a bit quiet around here lately. Part of the reason was I needed a bit of time to take stock following what can only be described as a disastrous attempt to carve out a little niche on Patreon. Part of the reason was I needed a bit of time to get my new YouTube channel off the ground. However, the main reason was I simply didn't have any time at all.

Time has always been a luxury in my house, but on 18 August this year, my wife gave birth, and I became a father for the second time.

Now, it's been a little while since I did the whole nappies and late nights routine with my daughter, who turns seven years old this December, and I'm not as young as I used to be (a ridiculous phrase that I often hear people saying, as if they actually need to explain how time works); but I do remember those dim and distant days. I remember my daughter sitting in her swing chair, gurgling away while I cooked dinner; I remember her lying quietly in my arms while I played Nintendo games; I remember her sleeping for six or seven hours through the night, and me regularly giving her a little poke just to make sure my world hadn't fallen apart without me noticing.

Man, those were good days.

When people found out my wife was pregnant again, they all said, "You never get two the same." But secretly, we were pretty confident. We were going to have another little girl, and she was going to be an angel like her big sister.

Yeah... right.

First of all, we discovered we were having a boy. It was unexpected, but a nice surprise. We were gong to have a little pigeon pair. Unfortunately, that was where the "nice" ran out. My wife proceeded to have nine months of the worst kind of pain imaginable, with a range of health complications and frequent scares culminating in a condition that meant her bile levels were increasing, and she had to have an induced birth.

But we made it. We got through it all.

And now my house is very noisy.

My beautiful bouncing boy does not sit in his swing chair gurgling while I cook dinner; he doesn't sleep in my arms while I play video games; he doesn't sleep for seven hours. Seven minutes would be a blessing. He has a medical condition that he will eventually grow out of, but for the time being, for each minute he's happy there's a minute where he's uncomfortable and hurting. So, we give him medicine three times a day, and we muddle through on coffee and wishful thinking.

And time just slips away.

Now, don't get me wrong. I love my little boy. We went through a lot to bring him into the world, and I'm never for a second going to wish we hadn't gone through that.

I just wouldn't mind the occasional nap, is all.

But what has this got to do with Fireteam Zero? More specifically, what has this got to do with Fireteam Zero: The Europe Cycle?

The box for Fireteam Zero: The Europe Cycle, showing Rat covered in gore behind enemy lines.

Well... nothing, I suppose. But I've been thinking about time a bit recently (my lack of it, the speed at which it moves, the desire for just a little more) and I realised that I'm always in a hurry. I'm always trying to cram as much into every minute of the day as possible, because if I don't, I never get anything done. Living like that can be stressful, and there are times when I might feel like there's no way to get done everything I need to do; but at least I can say that I'm never bored.

And in many ways, playing a game of Fireteam Zero is similar. The game is a fast and brutal race against time, where you spend every turn trying to optimise your few actions to stay one step ahead. Each turn, your foes get stronger, and each turn presents you with countless opportunities to fail. The longer you take, the more those opportunities stack up, and it only takes one wrong move to bring your whole plan crashing down.

The game puts you under pressure from the first action of the first turn, forcing you to make tough calls and never once giving you room to breathe. You often feel hopeless; sometimes it's a struggle to press on because you feel like you're doomed to fail. But it's that struggle that keeps you coming back; it's that struggle that ensures you're never bored. It's that struggle that makes every moment of tension it's own reward, and every victory memorable.

And I wouldn't change it for the world.

Designers Mike Langlois and Christian Leonhard obviously feel the same, because The Europe Cycle is the second expansion for Fireteam Zero that seeks to bring more of everything you love to the table without breaking the winning formula. Like I said in my review of The Africa Cycle earlier this year: They are the kind of expansions I like. They are expansions that give you more variety without more clutter; more choices without more complexity. When there is a new rule, it integrates so seamlessly that within moments you'll feel like it's always been a part of the game. In fact, you could buy Europe or Africa (or both) at the same time as the base game, chuck it all together, and feel like it was always meant to be that way.

And that's not to say it feels like the expansions were content excised from the base game, and portioned out as expansions to make more money. There's far too much content in each box to ever feel shortchanged.

An excerpt of the rules leaflet from Fireteam Zero: The Europe Cycle.

As with Africa, Europe's big selling point is the new three-part campaign in an all-new setting. This time we're off to Kharkiv in the Ukraine, investigating a strange fungal growth that infects humans and drives them to acts of violence. What could it all mean?

It means your day is about to get really shitty. Obviously.

[Warning: I'm going to talk about the scenarios a bit here. I don't think there's anything here you won't get from reading the mission setups, but if you would rather experience everything first hand, skip the next THREE paragraphs.]

The first mission is quite similar to the first mission from the base game, even going so far as to use the original forest tiles; but a clever objective forces players to split up, securing multiple spawning locations at the same time as they attempt to track the source of the horrific fungal outbreak. The second mission really shakes things up, transferring the action to the bombed corpse of a city and presenting a mission that goes beyond the usual aim of searching spawn points. Here, there are four fungal spires (represented by cardboard tokens) that attack the heroes at range. The group's sniper gets the dubious honour of blinding each spire, while the demolition expert attempts to assemble the necessary ingredients to burn a corpse mound. At the same time, the rest of the team hunt for intel. It's an exciting mission that plays to the various strengths of the allies, and gives something new to do besides flipping those spawn tokens and sifting through the Recon deck for things you need. I would love to see more missions like this, where each hero has a defined role that's a bit like a personal objective.

The snowy, abandoned village, scene of carnage in Fireteam Zero: The Europe Cycle.

For the final mission, you are inside a manor house, once more racing against time as you hunt down a monstrous beast. This mission is a true gauntlet, throwing a series of mini-bosses at you before the Big Bad shows up. It's hard as nails, and a lot of fun; but it's that second mission that really stands out as bringing something new and inventive to the standard mission structure.

Blacktooth, the big bad that's causing all kinds of trouble in Fireteam Zero: The Europe Cycle.

There are also three bonus missions, drawing on components from the base game. The first sees you searching a spooky asylum, and has an objective that involves working with your specialist to study some arcane macguffin. The second involves hunting down some renegade officers but quickly turns into a battle royale with multiple bosses; and it has the added interest of having two different ways to win. Finally, there's a mission that involves searching a vault before time runs out. This is a race against time in the truest sense of the phrase: You lose if the Threat Track runs out.

[Did you skip? Okay... Carry on from here.]

All told, none of the new missions offer anything groundbreaking. There's nothing here that reinvents the core structure from the base game. But if you love that core; if you want more missions with more monsters in new settings. Well... this expansion has exactly what you want.

An excerpt from the Fireteam Zero: The Europe Cycle mission log.

Part of what makes Fireteam Zero such a joy is that the core gameplay is so simple and streamlined, it's incredibly easy to bolt on new elements, or add a new type of monster, or give the heroes a new type of skill; and in that sense, Europe offers an exciting amount of variety to layer in with your base game.

First off, you get the new Bloodless monster family. It's intended for use in the three-part scenario, but it's completely "plug and play," so you can use it in any of the base game missions if you want to. The Minions are nasty little critters called Spore Children that get stronger in large quantities. The Elites are Saprophyte Soldiers that infest the heroes with debilitating spore tokens that sap them of the will to fight back. Finally, there's the boss: A gigantic mushroom thing with flailing tentacles and teeth where they've no right to be. He has a special ability that dishes out spore tokens to heroes, and then inflicts damage on infected heroes every time he takes damage, which is a clever mechanism for representing how infected heroes start to become part of the expanding organism.

A selection of gruesome monsters from Fireteam Zero: The Europe Cycle.

Besides that, you get four new Focus cards (one for each hero), including a very useful range boost for the Leader to improve his versatility; and you get 32 new Advanced Action cards (two sets of four cards for each hero), which incorporate the re-rolls that also appears in Africa. This re-roll mechanism is on certain action cards, allowing you to roll one or two dice again if you need to, and it represents the only way to effectively circumvent the baked-in limit of eight dice on any single attack.

One of the new advanced actions from Fireteam Zero: The Europe Cycle, featuring the new re-roll ability.

The final element of the expansion is what really makes Europe stand head and shoulders above Africa: Specialist abilities.

As you know, before each game, you get to pick two specialists. One is a psychic, and one is a lore specialist. Each specialist usually has an "always on" ability that any nearby heroes benefit from.

I've always thought this concept was one of Fireteam Zero's highlights. The idea of portable special powers that you can hand around among the group is fresh and inventive; and I love how you need to move the specialists into dangerous areas to benefit from them, creating an exciting risk versus reward decision on every turn.

That being the case, I was obviously delighted to see a new rule in this expansion that beefs up what the specialists can do.

Simply put, at the start of the game, you draw an ability card for each specialist. Some of these cards have a limited number of uses (represented by cardboard tokens) while others are free to use. For example, the psychic ability Timeslip is limited to three uses, but allows you re-roll all of your attack dice following a failed attack. Meanwhile, the Lore ability Ritual of Borrowed Luck is an "always on" ability that increases everybody's hand size by one while the Lucky Coin is face up, but decreases everybody's hand size by one with the coin is face down.

Specialists gain exciting new abilities to fight the monsters in Fireteam Zero: The Europe Cycle.

The interesting thing is, every ability comes with a price. What that price is, depends on the nature of the card:

1. Some very weak abilities are "always on," but while you always benefit from them, the limit of only one specialist ability per specialist means you miss out on the chance to have a more powerful ability to call on.
2. Some powerful abilities are "always on," but require you to instantly advance the Threat Track at the start of the game, and may have a negative effect under certain conditions.
3. Most of the abilities have a limited number of uses determined by how powerful they are, ranging from one to three. Furthermore, each time you use those abilities, you have to increase the Threat Track by one.

The risk versus reward structure of the specialist abilities is a fascinating representation of how meddling with arcane powers gives you an instant benefit but may come back to bite you in the ass over time. It's also just bloody brilliant game design.

Regardless of what type of game I'm playing, I crave crunchy decisions. I don't want options where there's always one best course of action. I want every benefit to have a potential backlash. That's what The Europe Cycle does.

And that, above anything else, is why I recommend it wholeheartedly.

An arrangement of monster cards from Fireteam Zero: The Europe Cycle.

But that's not to say it's a perfect expansion. If anything, I would say it has only a single flaw, but it's a flaw that permeates the whole product: It doesn't really go far enough.

I've already said I don't like expansions that add too many new rules, but here it feels like the designers were reluctant to push the envelope. I found myself wishing there was just a bit... more. It seems strange to say it because the simple elegance of the design is part of the engaging play I love so much; but...



(You can't see it, but I'm gesticulating here. I'll probably go blind.)

If you hold Africa and Europe against each other, with the exception of the new setting, there is very little to tell them apart. They both contain one new monster family; they both contain one new three-part mission; they both give each hero two new types of Advanced Actions and one new Focus card; they both incorporate the re-roll mechanism; and they both introduce one new twist to the core rules (in Africa, that rule was incorporating gear into the Recon deck, which is something I felt didn't really work to improve the game experience). The missions all have very similar structures, and even the monster families have the same structure, with eight Minions, four Elites, and a Boss. In fact, I would go one step further than that: The monster families actually look similar. The Spore Children are little scurrying things like corrupted animals or scavengers; and the saprophyte soldiers are humanoid warriors similar to... well... most of the other Elites in the game.

A scurrying minion from the Bloodless family from Fireteam Zero: The Europe Cycle.

Sure, there are little twists, like the new status effects and some more varied objectives, but this is still very much the Fireteam Zero experience you know from the base game. Whether that's a good or bad thing is entirely down to your point of view.

For me, on balance, it's a good thing. Because I love those stressful, heart-pounding moments of adrenaline-fuelled terror you get with each new turn. I love trying to squeeze every last bit of utility out of my meager actions as I desperately fight the clock. I love this game. So yes; of course I'm going to love an expansion that gives me more missions, more cool monsters that I can slot into any game, and more Advanced Actions and Focus cards for customising my hero.

New focus abilities give the heroes a fighting chance in Fireteam Zero: The Europe Cycle.

Most of all, I love the new specialist abilities that give me more options and more agonising decisions.

But there's still a part of me... A small part, but perhaps a growing part... A tiny spore that's taken root...

Just something that makes me wish that next time I buy a big box of Fireteam Zero goodness it's going to shake up the formula, and give me a whole new experience: a new reason to stay up late and live on coffee.

Because for all the good things The Europe Cycle does, for all the tension and terror and stress and dead heroes that fill each gaming session, I can't help thinking the design feels like something that's completely at odds with the Fireteam Zero setting.

It's a design that feels safe.

A special thank you goes out to Mike Langlois and all the guys at Emergent Games, who provided me with my copy of The Europe Cycle. The first print run of the game and both expansions is sold out at stores, but you can get copies for yourself during the Kickstarter campaign, which is live right now. If you decide to pledge, be sure to tell Mike I said, "Hi."

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