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Hey everyone, seeing as how this is my first review, let me begin with almost every first timer's preface. Feedback and constructive criticism is most welcome.
Before getting into the review itself, I think it would be a good idea tell you what kind of gamer I am. Hopefully this will let you put my comments in proper perspective.
I discovered that there was more to board-gaming than Monopoly and Clue about four years ago. I've been an avid board gamer for about two years now. I have a wife and young son who are the best things that ever happened to me. I have a small group of friends at about the same stage in their lives and we are able to get together around once a week to play. Each of us owns several games we all like. So even the games we love rarely make it to the table more than once a month. Since getting Gears, I've played about 10 games with varying numbers of players.
Enough of the small talk, let's dig into Gears of War.
A team of 1 to 4 players (that's right, it plays solo as well) each control a COG soldier as they battle, as a team, through waves of enemy locusts on one of seven missions outlined in the game components. Missions can be short and simple or sprawling, multiple-objective affairs. In these missions, the COGs will roadie-run into cover, throw bolo grenades into emergence holes, chainsaw drones and get turned into COG-paste by the berserker.
The physical components of this game are very good. The map tiles are sturdy and well drawn. They also make determining line of sight and cover easy. The figurines, I think, are a step above Fantasy Flight's already high standards. They are a very detailed yet feel very sturdy. The artwork on the cards, manual and box is great which, given the source material, is to be expected. Overall, the quality of the components do a great job of making you feel immersed in the game.
I'm going to give you a quick overview of the game play and then dig a little further into what features are special/unique about Gears of War.
A game starts with one of the COGs taking their turn. His player will play one of the action cards in that player's hand. These action cards allow players to move, attack, move locusts, heal the team and more in various combinations. The maximum hand size for most COGs is six cards (Marcus Fenix can have seven). Between the hand size limit and the wide variety of action cards, you may not always have a card that allows you to do exactly what you want. Or you may choose to not play the most effective card for your situation because you think it will be even more valuable later.
At the end of each COG's turn is the locust activation phase. The current player will draw the next card from the locust AI deck and resolve it. This is when the locusts have a chance to move, shoot back and spawn. Move on to the next COG and repeat. This is the basic flow of game play.
Right now, it sounds like Gears is just another dungeon crawl, only with Gnasher Shotguns and Gorgon Burst Pistols instead of Swords of Dwarf Slaying +2 and lightning bolts. However, Gears of War has several clever mechanics that not only differentiate it from a standard dungeon crawl, but also help dispose with some of the clutter and other issues that can make running a dungeon crawl more of a chore than players might like.
Let's talk about damaging and killing our enemies. In many dungeon crawls each enemy has a certain number of hit points and if you damage them you place little damage tokens on or near the figure. This puts clutter on the board and can get confused easily. If you are fighting a boss and several minions you can easily have ten or fifteen tokens floating around that you need to keep track of. In Gears, each locust has two states, healthy and wounded. It takes a certain amount of damage to kill a healthy locust and it takes a lesser amount of damage to kill a wounded locust. So if I do damage to a healthy locust but not enough to destroy it, it becomes wounded. If I damage an already wounded locust but don't do enough to kill it then the locust remains wounded and stays in play. This can be both helpful and frustrating to a gamer who is used to tracking enemy hit points. It can be frustrating to do one point of damage to an enemy that takes two points to kill while wounded. It feels like the attack is wasted. But it's helpful fighting a strong enemy when you manage to just do one point of damage to a healthy enemy and the difference in the healthy and wounded damage thresholds is greater than one. I'm not saying this way is better or worse conceptually than hit points, it's just different. Where the benefit is in de-cluttering the board. Instead of tracking multiple damage markers per enemy, when an enemy is wounded you put a wound marker under its figure. How is this better? You only have to keep track of one marker per wounded enemy instead of several and it's very difficult to lose track of which marker goes with each figurine, because the figurine stands on top of the wound marker. The wound marker also tells you the wounded damage threshold for the locust on top of it.
One of the things I like best about the Gears board game is that, wherever possible, it uses a single game component to fulfill multiple game roles. Take a further look at the aforementioned wound markers. Not only do wound markers track enemy health and de-clutter the board, they also generate weapon drops. Anyone who has played a first or third person shooter video game in the last twenty five years knows that picking up your fallen enemies' weapons and turning them on their comrades is part & parcel to the game play experience. So in the board game, when an enemy dies his wound marker, or a random one from the pile if he went straight from healthy to worm food, is flipped over. If there is a weapon icon on the back, then that weapon is on the ground waiting for one of our intrepid COGs to pick it up. As a general rule, locust weapons are more powerful than the COGs' standard kit.
Another standard in video game shooters is ammunition consumption. Everyone who has played anything from the original Doom up through Modern Warfare 3 knows the feeling of joyously laying waste to everything around us with a powerful weapon then being quickly destroyed because they had to fight with a pea shooter once their BFG ran dry. The Gears board game has a great mechanic that successfully evokes that dilemma between conserving ammo and dealing lots of damage. At the beginning of each game the COGs are all given a certain number of Ammo tokens for each of their weapons. Each ammo token represents one clip of ammunition. Every weapon that a COG can pick up has 2 different damage ratings. The damage rating of a weapon is the number of attack dice rolled when attacking with that weapon. The first number is the damage dice rolled when firing a single burst or shot from the weapon. The second (higher) damage rating is the damage dice rolled when making an overkill attack. An overkill is basically a COG unloading an entire clip at an enemy in hopes of wiping them out. To make an overkill attack you are required to discard an ammo token from the weapon you are firing. A standard attack costs nothing, but does require the weapon to still have a clip. So if I have two tokens on my gun and I make two overkill attacks, that gun is out of ammo and can't be used to make any more attacks, standard or overkill, until I find more ammo for it. This makes for some meaningful choices in the middle of battle.
One thing the original Gears of War video game did better than any other shooter that came before it was implement a meaningful cover system. Any player who tried to ignore the cover mechanics found themselves quickly bleeding out. In the board game, anyone not using cover is in for a world of hurt. Cover is just as important and the availability of it is much more limited in the board game. An enemy's attack that wouldn't have you worried if you were in cover could do massive damage to a COG who wasn't in cover. Even relatively weak locusts can easily reduce your COG to a grease spot on the floor if you aren't in cover. That's something that you should keep in mind as you play. ANY locust, no matter how weak you think it should be, is capable of putting some serious hurt on an unprepared COG.
Another thing that Gears handles neatly is how the locust decide what to do. Rather than forcing one player into playing as the bad guys, the game has a locust AI deck. Each type of locust has six AI cards that govern how it behaves. There are also several general AI cards that can apply to more than just one type of locust. A specific mission's AI deck is formed from the AI cards of each locust type present during the mission (usually three types of locust) as well as any general AI cards called for by the mission. These are all shuffled together. The last part of every COG's turn is to a draw card from the AI deck and have the locusts affected by the card carry out the card's instructions. This actually helps the players in a way, because if an activated locust can comply with a cards instructions in multiple, valid ways, then the player who drew the AI card can pick which way the locust goes. So if a locust is supposed to "attack a COG within line-of-sight" and there are multiple COGs in line-of-sight the player can have the locust shoot at the healthy COG in full cover rather than the nearly dead COG standing in the open like a moron. These AI cards are designed to constantly apply pressure on the players. If an AI card is drawn that calls for an attack by a locust type that's currently not present on the board, the card will normally tell you to draw another AI card. The player will always draw a card until a locust, or multiple locusts, either move closer to the COGs, attack the COGs or spawn more locusts at the nearest emergence hole. Consequently, chances for your team to catch their breath, and possibly heal up, are very rare.
Speaking of how you heal, we need to talk about the one thing that does nearly every other thing that it's possible to do in this game... The player's hand of action cards (was that fanfare?). Anything you want your COG to do will involve playing or discarding action cards. On your turn you can play one action card and that allows you to perform the actions listed on the card, like say "Move up to 3 areas. Make 1 attack." What if you want to do something in addition to those two things? Well you'll need to discard an action card. Discard, not play. Want to stand up a teammate who's bleeding out? Discard a card while in the same area. Want to pull a grenade out of a stockpile? Discard a card while in the same area. A multitude of things can be done by discarding action cards from your hand. You can access ammo and weapons stockpiles, attempt to dodge incoming attacks, run along with a teammate moving through your area, pick up a fallen enemy's weapon or interrupt a locust's action by shooting it, To do any of those things, all you have to do is discard an action card. Simple, right? No. . . not really, because we haven't talked about the last thing your action cards do. . . they track your health (WHAT?.. uh oh...) That's right, the number of action cards in your hand is how many "hit points" you have. When you take damage, you discard one action card for each point of damage done to you. If you can't discard as many action cards as you've taken damage then tip your COG over 'cause he's bleeding out. At the beginning of each turn, the active COG only draws two more cards. So sure, your COG can play an action card, pick up a dropped boomshot, stand a bleeding out teammate back up, then take a potshot during the locust activation step and then try to dodge the follow up attack. Even if the attack on the COG does no damage, he's still nearly dead from discarding all of those cards to do that nifty stuff. Then when his turn finally comes around, he only draws two cards. There are action cards that can make COGs draw more action cards, but they're not nearly plentiful enough where you'll ever feel safe getting too frisky with discarding cards from your hand. Because the cost of these extra actions is so high and the opportunities to take those actions so plentiful, even the fairly simple combat is filled with lots of significant decisions.
Well so far, this sounds like a glowing review, doesn't it? Well, now we get to the not so rosy part. I've got one warning and one serious criticism. I don't think either one is a deal-breaker, but they both need to be said.
First, the warning.
This game is DIFFICULT! And when you add more players, it gets tougher not easier. With more COGs it's tougher to find cover, the starting enemies are more powerful (and more of them) and stockpiles can only be accessed once by a single COG. Also with a team of four COGs, after your COG acts, the locusts will be activated FOUR times before your COG's turn comes around again and you can heal by drawing a whole two cards.
I can't say the difficulty is something that is wrong with the game. It is what it is. Some people love it, some don't. All I'm saying is that if your gaming group likes to end their sessions on a victory, I wouldn't pick Gears as the last game to be played.
Now on to my criticism.
The entire game, mechanics-wise, is designed to inspire a sense of desperation in the players. You spend the entire game with the feeling that you're trying to cover 6 feet of problems with 3 feet of solution. You start off with only a few ammo tokens, and opportunities to get more are few and far between. Enemies who have weapons to drop only drop them 25% or 33% of the time, and dropped weapons only come with two ammo tokens. Even though you have a plethora of things you can do, be it on your turn, the locust activation or another COG's turn, you have to damage yourself to do any of them (i.e. discard a card). That mechanic of damaging yourself is something you dread because all of your enemies are more than well-equipped to do a lot of damage. Even a weak locust, if it catches you in the open, can put your COG on the ground. You can spend the entire game being short on ammo and action cards, running away and just cowering in cover hoping you can heal enough that you'll be able to kill an enemy before you have to run and hide again. The game is designed to do this and it does it very well. My issue with this "designed desperation" is that it doesn't "feel" like a shooter. When it comes to shooters, and there's no stealth mechanic involved, not shooting an enemy should never be a better option than shooting him. But when action cards run low, you'll often not take the shot because the action card you're playing represents too much of your remaining health. You're trying to survive rather than trying to attack. That feeling, and these mechanics, would be perfect for a survival-horror game. However, for me, it doesn't quite fit into how a shooter should feel.
Taking everything into account, Gears of War is still quite a lot of fun. It's actually kind of ridiculous how good it feels when you manage to win a mission that your team spent most of it's time in teetering on the brink of disaster. It's even fun when your team gets steam-rolled. I don't think this game will be your gaming group's go-to game every time you get together. However, my group has played this one or two times a month since I bought it and we still enjoy it (despite the fact we know it probably won't end well).
Bryce K. Nielsen
This review is anything *but* "casual"
Still, nice review. I'm looking forward to an expansion to see if it mixes things up a bit.
wish more reviews were written this well
You're trying to survive rather than trying to attack.
Well put, I feel like I'm trying to survive.
This is my solo game when I don't have anyone else to play a game. My last three attempts at "China Shop" took longer to setup then I actually got to play. You made a good point. I need to improve my use of "coverage" or I'll continue to paint the board red.
Yes!! Great review. The content is fantastic. The use of paragraphs prevents this from being a "wall of text" (a common problem with newer reviewers). I might only suggest using bolded headings to separate sections in your review. But still, a very well written review.
I also love this game and enjoy playing solo or with more players... though, as you said, winning with 4 COGs is really difficult.
I understand your comment about the "desperation" not fitting a shooter-style game, but that has never been a problem for me; probably because I have almost no experience with 1st person shooter video games where attacking seems to be the name of the game.
Looking for a game session in Switzerland? Send me a pm!
Thank you for the nicely written review.
Well thought comments and clear explanations!
Just a detail : each Locust type has 4 AI cards, not 6.