A sadistic film crew. Tribes of unforgiving cannibals. A battle of unparalleled brutality.
Yes, yes, and yes.
Some games just stick a knife through your eye and start twisting long before it even hits the table. Like a sadistic puppet master, Ferox grabbed a hold of my scalp and started dragging me about when I first read about it.
That pillaging of my faculties continued when the physical product arrived. Coming from an independent publisher with a humdrum name like Craft Fair Games, it's difficult to know what to expect. Consistently wretched artwork abounds interwoven with vulgar discourse and the slyly apropos "Be Kind Rewind" label. Oh, and by wretched artwork I mean appropriately stellar illustrations.
A card game based on '80s cannibal exploitation films is a hot idea. This release slots in right alongside the sordid outcasts ruling my collection - Cave Evil, Camp Grizzly, and Psycho Raiders.
The most surprising quirk of Ferox is that it's a rabid wolf lapping up several pints of Euro blood. The theme and brutality espoused certainly evoke that Ameritrash veneer, but the mechanisms at play are all about efficiency and management. Back off that ledge because it just so happens that the blend tastes pretty damn sweet.
One player takes on the role of the film crew crashed on a forsaken island while their opponent wields the four tribes hell-bent on flaying skin and guzzling gore juice. Highly asymmetrical, both players either play a card from their hand or draw one from their unique deck. You can deploy items like machetes, overwhelm with huge brutal assaults, or hide within the cruel jungle.
That element of resource management exists as players need to choose which film crew and tribal warriors to begin the round exposed. The native player is attempting to enact a war of attrition whittling down the offered sacrifices while their opponent is attempting to kill tribesmen off in quantity. Once enough meet the broken ground you move on to the next encounter, eventually arriving at the rescue helicopter and securing your exit. Well, only if the dude with a bone mask and barbed spear doesn't pick off each of your team members.
While a constant sea of tension floods the atmosphere, the game is not bloody in a sudden or surprising way. Your crew members don't fall off like those poor marines braving the Space Hulk, rather they are whittled down with a thousand cuts and slowly bled dry.
Depth certainly exists as you manage which team members are exposed, keeping most back to remain safe so they can't be targeted. The decision space gains some heft when you take note of the special actions each civilian triggers when they are exposed mid-round. So you'll want to keep the Guide back so you can bring her in during play and heal a wound on another character. However, keeping her out of the fray too long means you can't use her three attack dice (which is tops among the crew). Decisions, decisions, punctuated by blow darts and twisted cannibal surgery.
Likewise the wildling player decides how many natives to put forth from each of his tribes every round. This dictates how many dice each group can roll, but it's never quite that simple. The four tribes utilize different quantities of unique dice in their own color. The reckless green warriors tend to flee quite often, while the vicious red hit frequently but with a lower possible maximum of wounds. Great stuff that transforms apparently simple choices into slightly more complex tactical landscapes.
The final element you're managing is the single most genius mechanic in the game: Rage. This is a pool of points each player possesses which is used to satisfy the costs of playing a card. If you don't have enough Rage then you can't trigger the effect, suck it cameraman who looks like Steve Buscemi.
What's undeniably clever is the fact that Rage spent goes to your opponent. This means the control of tempo and power shifts back and forth in a battle of cadence. When you push those cubes to the other side of the table and wrap some meager bandages on Script Girl's stump of an arm, that pit deep within your abdomen fills with dread. You just gave those sadistic fiends the power to launch a massive assault.
When you shift permission to wreck your face from an internal timing mechanism (effectively a third party) to a player, it's quite powerful. The fact that you're capitulating opportunity to the person who has your arm strapped down and is wielding a hacksaw is intense with emotional weight. It's the single element that really ties the atmosphere to the structure of the game and keeps it running along at full flight.
There are many elements of Ferox that are fantastic. Yet there are a few that also undermine its potential. Chief among them is that the first round often drags. It can take quite awhile to fell enough natives and progress, especially if you play with the default starting decks. Occasionally later rounds will suffer from extended sequences as well where you've shuffled your deck several times and your enemy keeps cancelling your good cards or the dice come up blank. It weakens the pace of the game and draws a relatively tight experience out to the point where the seams become glaring.
Intensifying this weakness is the fact that you're at the whims of fate when adding to and building your deck. In between each encounter you draw two cards and choose one to add to your repertoire. This is done twice each round so you slowly build out your options as the game progresses. If you don't draw a healthy amount of attack cards you can be left with a responsive collection of actions that is focused on nullifying as opposed to progressing. You really need those attack options to kill natives and move on.
While these are legit quirks that keep the game from reaching its zenith, I can't deny that more often than not this little mother rocks. It's a quality design that hits you hard in the jugular often enough to keep you interested and leaves you wanting seconds. Dread and terror are handled masterfully. As an experience, Ferox succeeds amid a field of hacked flesh and shattered skulls.
Charlie Theel writes for Geek & Sundry, Miniature Market's The Review Corner, and Ding & Dent. Most of his reviews don't appear on BGG but can be found in this Geeklist.