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A few themes get me genuinely excited, and that of escaping from a prison is particularly fascinating. Section X (The Game Master, 2006 - Chislaine van den Bulk) immediately attracted me, as it involved prisoners escaping from a maximum-security prison on an island in the Atlantic. Prisoners are digging tunnels to escape, but at the same time can mess with others, as they try to escape. With only a few games dedicated to this (and some of them a bit abstract – such as Cartagena), I was very eager to play Section X and got it to our table as quickly as possible.
Sadly, Section X goes on my list of most disappointing games, because not only was the theme not as exciting as I thought but also the mechanics actually seemed contrary to the theme! Tunnels can rotate; areas can be blocked off – things happen which simply don’t make sense! Add that to the fact that the game itself really isn’t much fun at all, and winning seems to depend on both luck in drawing tiles and whoever is left alone by the other players. Not only did I find the game to have a lack of fun, but also it was tedious and almost onerous to me as I longed for it to end.
The game board features “Section X” prison in the center, surrounded by a grid of hexes that depict the water around the prison. Each player takes eight prisoner pawns and places them in one of the four quarters of the prison island as well as two door pieces in the same color. Piles of tunnel tiles are shuffled and placed near the board, as well as four “master key” cards. One player is chosen to go first, and the game begins.
On a player’s turn, they take three actions. First, they choose a tile from one of the three piles and add it to their “stock” but cannot draw if they already have three tiles. Secondly, they may manipulate a tile by
- adding one from their stock to the board – making sure that all it connects with a tunnel currently on the board or the central island.
- exchange two tiles that are already on the board – but the tiles may not rotate at all, and may not be part of a tunnel of another player, or where a prisoner is standing.
- move a single tile (not part of another player’s tunnel) to a different spot, rotating it if they want.
- rotate a tile on the board (not part of another player’s tunnel)
The player then may move their prisoners or place a door. If they move prisoners, they may move their prisoners up to five steps (maximum two per prisoner) through the tunnels they have built. Some tunnel pieces have “hiding places” which prisoners can move into; these are the only hexes on which more than one prisoner may be. If the player places a door, they may block access to a tunnel for prisoners of other players and take control of that tunnel. Players may also move one of their doors if they want to. (There are some other rules regarding placement of doors and tunnels, but they’re too boring to go into here.)
There are some green safe spaces on the outskirts of the grid of ocean spaces. When one player has gotten three prisoners to theses safe places, the escape is detected, and all tunnels are destroyed – with the exception of the “hiding spaces.” Any prisoners in a normal tunnel are killed and removed from the game, while doors are returned to thee players. Another round begins and continues until one player gets five prisoners to freedom. At this point, everyone breathes a sigh, congratulates the winner, and hurriedly puts the game away.
Some comments on the game…
1.) Components: There are a small amount of pieces in a large square box, but it does look exciting, as does the board. The tunnel hexes (thin cardboard stock) are fairly well done, although the hiding spaces aren’t as clearly defined, as I’d like. The prisoner pieces are tall wooden cylinders that roll around the board, and the doors look like small wooden doors. The game’s components aren’t the highest quality, but they are satisfactory.
2.) Rules: The rulebook is nice, but a translation is needed for English speakers. This translation, seven pages long, is a bit confusing at times; and I had to read the rules a few times to figure out just what the exact rules were for placing (too annoying, honestly). Three of the pages are a listing of terms – but why make all these unnecessary terms? Oh right, the non-existent theme.
3.) Theme: Okay, I’m certainly not always upset if a game has a tacked on theme, like Goa, Maharaja, and a host of others. But really, if a game is about escaping prisoners, I want to feel the pressures of the escape, man! At first glance, I honestly thought the game might handle that well, but things took an annoying turn for the worst. Does it seem realistic to you that tunnels are randomly being dug from a prison, and players are suddenly claiming them, which means no other prisoners can crawl through them? These prisoners are also incredibly stupid, because they are building tunnels that twist and turn, cross other tunnels, and even come to dead ends! Then, the tunnels are magical, as parts of them fly across the bay to other tunnels, or mysteriously rotate. I’m sorry, but the theme came across as so idiotic that it ruined a good bit of the game for me. The worst part is that the guards destroy the tunnels, but the prisoners in these secret hiding places somehow survive and wait patiently until other stupid prisoners manage to find them.
4.) Take that!: Bad theming is not enough to doom a game, however, because perhaps the mechanics are fascinating and interesting. Sorry, that must be another game, because Section X is really mostly a take-that game. By that I mean that players are mostly attempting to annoy other players by messing up their tunnels. Now, I have played games in which this sort of interaction is interesting, but it doesn’t make sense in the theming and really bogs the game down to a slow crawl (no pun intended). The game got so slow that I actually started rooting for the other players to escape.
5.) Master keys: Hey, if you stink, you get a master key, which opens all doors. I just thought I would throw that in to show you a cool feature of the game. Er….
6.) Fun Factor: Section X is one of the few games that I simply wanted to end in the middle. I didn’t, and we staggered to the end, but it was extremely unenjoyable and a big personal disappointment to me, since it in no way embodied a prison escape. There was too much luck in the tiles that one drew – if you got nice, straight tiles, your prisoners were quickly on their way out; but some people struggled as they went through twists and turns only to be crushed by the guards at the end.
I really, really wanted to like Section X and kept looking at the rules while playing, hoping to see something that I missed. But the only missing was the fun, and I sadly put this one away, never to come out again. One might think that I’m yammering on too hard on the lack of theme, but really – if you take it away, there’s NOTHING left. Tile placement games do not mix easily with the “take that” genre, and it’s a game killer in Section X. Escape from the game, not the prison!
“Real men play board games”