Thematic Solitaires for the Spare Time Challenged

A blog about solitaire games and how to design them. I'm your host, Morten, co-designer of solo modes for games such as Scythe, Gaia Project and Viticulture.
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More fun than it has any right to be – early impressions from the intro level of Friedemann Friese’s Fire! [Updated with levels 2 to 7]

Morten Monrad Pedersen
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Today is the day before SPIEL in Essen and after an uneventful trip I once more wandered the huge halls of Messe Essen. Amidst the chaos of people building their booths and breaking the record of most Team Automa people together in RL (3 people, Lieve Teugels, Nick Shaw and myself) I picked up Friedemann Friese’s latest game, Fire! – and for those who listen to the Board Game Insider podcast I can add that I bought it from the guy with too many vowels himself .

Fire! was in my top 2 of the games to buy at Essen (not counting my 3 preorders) and the only one I picked up today. After my hall wanderings ended and I crashed in my hotel bed I dug out the rulebook.

After resting for a while, I uncrashed and setup the game and with that let’s stop my ramblings and get to the actual game.

The actual game

When you look at Fire! you’ll see that it’s a throwback to the Space Invaders days of arcade games, which might bring back fond memories if you’re about my age.

From gallery of mortenmdk

Like in many games back then you play through a series of levels. Unsurprisingly, you start on level 1 which presents you with an extremely simple game. The simplicity of the game and an easy to understand rulebook meant that I was up and running in literally 5 minutes.

I started out with the sense that the game would be too simple to be fun, but that was OK, since I saw it as a sort of tutorial level, because as you go through the levels you unlock more cards and read new pages in the rulebook.

The rules

Level 1 is basically a simple math game. You have a deck with 1 strength 5 card, 2 strength 4 cards, etc. down to 5 strength 1 cards.

Each turn you draw 1 card and assign it to one of your 3 spaceships. Once the sum of then cards assigned to one ship gets to 10 or higher it fires. The strength of the shot is (sum – 10) x (number of cards). So, if the sum of the cards is 10, the shot strength is 0 and if the sum is 14 from 6 cards the strength is (14-10) x 6 for a total of 24.

You then choose an enemy spaceship and apply the damage to it. Those each have 4 hit point numbers in sequence, e.g. 12 -> 9 -> 6 -> 3. You start applying the shot strength from the beginning of that sequence subtracting the numbers from your shot strength until you reach a number that’s higher than the next hit point number.

For your strength 24 shot you’d blast past 12 and 9 which has a sum of 21 leaving a strength of 3 and that is not enough to overcome the 6 hit points of the spaceship’s next hit point step and so the spaceship would be left at 6 meaning that a future shot with a strength of 6 to 8 would reduce the ship to the 3 hit point step and 9+ would kill it.

After firing a shot, you remove from the game one of the cards that made up the shot and discard the rest. Once you have no cards in your deck you reshuffle the discard pile and continue. If at any time your deck and discard pile is empty, you lose. If you kill all 5 enemy spaceships you win and go on to the next level.

I hope that the explanation made some kind of sense . I’ve had a long day, I’m tired, and my brain is fried, so the quality of writing is likely of a high level .

Too simple?

As said, my first impression was that level 1 would be too simple to be fun, but it turns out that I was wrong.

Among the simple adding up of small numbers there was a neat little 5 to 10 minute game where my decisions mattered more than I would have thought. I shot down 2 of the 5 spaceships in my first play, then 3, and finally all 5.

While it’s just simple math with the theme seemingly pasted on, there is some of the space invaders feel in there and when I built up a shot with only 1s and 2s and rounded it off with a 5 once the sum was 9 to blast 1 of the five ships out of the vacuum in one shot it felt like powering up a shot in many arcade shooters.

Now, I’m not trying to claim that it’s a deep game and level 1 will in no way hold up to repeated play, but the game was more fun to me than it had any right to be given its simplicity and I’m really looking forward to see level 2.

If I have the time, I’ll post impressions from level 2 tomorrow.

Updated: 24th of October

I have now played levels 2 and 3, so it’s time for a brief update. The really short version is that I’m still enjoying myself, but not quite as much as with level 1.

A slightly longer version is in the spoiler box below. If you don’t want anything spoiled at all about what’s added by levels 2 and 3 then don’t look in the box but read on if you don’t mind a couple of very high level comments with no actual mechanisms being discussed.

Spoiler (click to reveal)
Levels 2 and 3 do not make any major changes, instead they add a bit more of the same and a few slight tweaks. This combines to increase the amout of strategy in the game, which is good and will help keep it interesting.

On the other hand, I had hoped for a bit more, but we’ll se when I move on to higher levels. So far it’s still a thumbs up from me, but you need to know going in that it’s a very simple numbers game with an exploratory campaign element, not a highly thematic spaceships-on-a-map game.

Updated: 27th of October

I've now played levels 4-6. The strategic space has increased a lot as has the playing time and I don't think the game is well served by the length it's gotten to, because it consists of a short game loop that's repeated again and again. That said the deck that gets more and more constricted over the course of one playthrough of a level which changes the feel and adds tension to the end. The tension ramp has worked well for me with most of my wins being close calls.

Below is a slight spoiler of the way the game has changed. There's no mention of specific mechanisms and personally I'd want to read it before making a decision on whether to buy the game.

Spoiler (click to reveal)
So far all levels has increased the size of your deck and added more aliens. Mechanically there's mainly one new rule per level that adds a new strategic option, but they're all tweaks instead of shake-ups.

I had hoped for larger changes and the game is becoming a bit too repetitive for my taste.

Conclusion: I'm still having fun and for the low cost of entry (€12/$13.3) I'm happy about my purchase, but the amount of fun is decreasing because of the game's repetitive nature.

Updated: 28th of October

I've gotten in 3 more plays with 1 of them being on level 7 and at this point I must say that in my opinion it has become much too long. I haven't timed it, but I'd say that a play now takes me close to 25 minutes including setup and I would have preferred it to be at most 15.

This would have felt like less of an issue if not for the fact that the campaign nature of the game encourages playing many times in a row which exacerbates the repetitive feel. If it wasn't for that campaign I would like have put the game aside before my last play (which was my 12th).
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