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This review, complete with pictures, is also available on my blog at AlwaysBoardNeverBoring. Stop by, if you have the time.
Hey, everybody, I'm back! Did you miss me?
Probably not. But I'm going to pretend you did, because it makes me feel better.
Crikey, I've been busy. Arrival of child number two, combined with my wife having surgery, work commitments piling up, and my continuing efforts to get my YouTube channel off the ground have started to take a toll.
It would be great to have a TARDIS, wouldn't it? Of course, I wouldn't use it for zipping around the universe saving planets. I'd just use it to squeeze a little more out of each day. You know... catch up on the ironing, finish an extra article for work, maybe paint a miniature or two. I'd invariably have to cross my own time stream, creating terrible paradoxes and probably destroying the universe in the process; but there isn't much I wouldn't do for an extra hour in bed on a Sunday.
If I did have a TARDIS, I'd have written this review already. Weeks ago, actually. It wouldn't be old news. By the standards of the Internet, it would be ancient. Unfortunately, all I've got is a TARDIS made out of LEGO, and that's definitely not bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. I know. I checked.
But that's all besides the point, because we're all here now... or then, if you're reading this in the future... which I suppose you must be, because I'm only just writing this now... which is then for you...
Moving swiftly on...
"Rule one: The Doctor lies."
Before we begin; I know what you're thinking. Doctor Who is (some would say arguably, I would say undoubtedly) one of the most quotable shows on television. The problem with that is when it comes time to review a product relating to the Whoniverse, it becomes far too tempting to start dropping quotes. And that's always a bit cringey, isn't it? I'm not a fan of that kind of content, so I'm making a promise right here and now, I won't be using a ridiculous amount of catchy quotes and zingers within this review.
"First things first; but not necessarily in that order."
Right. Here's the deal. Way back in the mists of time, when I was a wee lad, I loved Doctor Who. Due to my age, I started watching it towards the end of its first life, when Sylvester McCoy was at the helm of the TARDIS. Even then, I knew it was something special; although it wasn't until much later that I realised why. There is something magical about a hero who resolves problems with his mind rather than his fists, who cures rather than kills. I mean, you're making one hell of a statement when you create a show where one of the hero's defining traits is having two hearts.
I subsequently made appointments to visit previous incarnations of the Doctor, and developed quite a fondness for Peter Davison; and years later, when the BBC announced the show's regeneration with Christopher Eccleston in the leading role, it's safe to say I was excited.
And then I watched the show.
I never made it through that first season with Eccleston. I hated it. I know it's a controversial stance, but Eccleston ruined the whole thing for me; and Billie Piper and belching bins didn't do anything to help matters.
I stopped watching.
I stopped watching so long I missed almost all of David Tennant's tenure.
And then, one Saturday when my wife was at work, I flicked on the television (which is something I rarely do), and there was this fantastically physical actor bouncing around the screen. It was Matt Smith. And as I watched him, I remembered... I remembered what it was that makes Doctor Who so special.
I was hooked.
Turns out I was halfway through Matt's second season when I saw the light, and I haven't missed an episode since. I even went back and watched all of Eccleston's and Tennant's episodes.
(For the record, I still don't like Eccleston's take on the character, and I think Tennant only got into full swing halfway through his second season once Piper was (mainly) out of the picture and we were gifted with episodes like "The Family of Blood.")
And, after that brief tour around my past, here we are (or there we were) in the present (or recent past). I'm still not the show's biggest fan... I don't wear a fez and watch re-runs every evening... I don't have a wardrobe painted like the TARDIS... But I'm a big enough fan to have a copy of Doctor Who: Exterminate! in semi-permanent residence on my table. And I'm writing this while eating jelly babies, you know.
Additionally, I'm a big enough fan to be frantically saving my pennies to buy a lot... and I mean a lot... of Doctor Who miniatures to expand my gaming experience.
But it was nearly a very different story...
"It's got my name written all over it."
Doctor Who: Exterminate! (or Exterminate, from here on out) is a tabletop war game based on the popular BBC television series. It involves beautiful, screen-accurate miniatures that you paint yourself, duking it out in various scenarios, often for the fate of the universe, or at the very least the fate of a bowl of fish fingers and custard. In short, it has my name written all over it. As a fan of the show, a fan of miniatures games, a fan of war games, and a fan of painting... Well, when I found out about this game, there was so much fanning going on I nearly ended up in Oz.
Unfortunately, once I had the game in hand, my enthusiasm rapidly diminished. The designers decided to split the rules across three books: The basic rules, rules for the factions included in the box and scenarios, and rules for including the Doctor. It sounds like a good idea in theory, but in practice it makes the game a complete pig to learn. Information is liberally scattered across the books, often without rhyme or reason, making it difficult to locate specific rules. Worse still, I don't think there was any kind of proofreading, because rules are contradicted across books (and even within the same book), information is missing, rules in the books don't reflect the rules on the included character cards, keywords have no consistency either in terms of how they work or even how they're spelled, and... Okay... You get the point.
After struggling with the game for a while, I had a list of questions as long as my arm. I decided to contact Warlord Games, and I was told my questions would be passed to the design team and I would get a response eventually.
Then I waited.
I waited for over six months.
Sitting beside my Exterminate box.
I was the boy who waited.
Eventually I gave up on the game and shelved it, but it never completely left my mind; and eventually I decided to head to Board Game Geek in the hope of getting some answers. I posted a forum thread, knowing that I'd seen some of the design team kicking around there.
And then I waited.
However, I was told that the official Facebook page might be the best place to get some answers. So, off I went; and finally, I had some success. It turns out the Warlord Games Facebook crew are excellent people. They responded promptly, passed on my queries; and I finally got some answers. Although, in many cases, the answers were along the lines of, "Yeah, that's wrong. We need to change that for the next edition."
It was almost unforgivable.
"What's the point in two hearts if you can't be a bit forgiving now and then?"
But this is Doctor Who. This is a miniatures game that gives me a chance to play in that universe (or, those universes, I guess). With my newfound knowledge, I decided to tackle the game again. I worked at it, because I wanted it to work.
And finally, I mastered it. Well, close enough, anyway. I was confident enough with the rules that I even hosted a full playthrough video on my YouTube channel, and that's not something I tend to do that often because you always get some smart arse pointing out some minor mistake you made, failing to take into account quite how much work is involved in making such a series, and quite how many things you need to remember when you're going through rules on camera.
But I digress.
I think it also helped knowing that the good folk at Warlord Games were working on a FAQ (now available), possibly an updated rules book, and new updated cards for all of the available characters and factions. Simply knowing a game has some support, and will continue to evolve, goes a long way towards making me confident enough to invest my time in it.
And is the game worth that investment?
Yeah. I think so. On balance.
"A pile of good things and bad things."
The rules are taken from Warlord Games' zombie skirmish game, Project Z. Surprisingly, they're relatively simple; it was just the presentation doing its best job of making them seem convoluted.
You start by building your forces. Unlike games such as Warhammer 40,000, where every unit costs a certain number of points, and you purchase units until you reach an agreed total, in Exterminate you use a unit card system. Based on the scenario you're playing, you get a specific card allowance, and then you use those cards to build your team. For example, one card may give you a Dalek Patrol Leader to lead your army, while another card may give you three regular Daleks to bolster your ranks. I'm not entirely sure these cards are particularly balanced. I mean, one card grants you the Doctor, and another card grants you Wilfred Mott. Now, I know Mott is an absolute legend, but if you've got one card slot left, which of those two characters would you want to fill it?
I also think it's difficult to balance a character like the Doctor within the confines of a war game. In the show, he's quite capable of destroying all the Daleks; but in this game, there are only a few rules that (somewhat abstractly) reflect the Doctor's unique skills, such as giving him an abundance of Fate tokens, which are special tokens you spend for a range of benefits, such as avoiding being exterminated or rerolling dice. The difficulty in portraying a character who resolves conflict through ingenuity means he actually tends to get a bit of a slapping when faced with Daleks, so when you have one card that lets you take the Doctor, and your opponent gets one card that lets him take three Daleks, there's a good chance there's a world of hurt coming your way.
I'm also not sure the game does a good enough job of differentiating between the skills of some characters, or indeed, making those characters seem interesting enough. There is a huge selection of keywords that are linked to special abilities, and villains such as the Daleks and Cybermen seem to feel suitably thematic; yet when it comes down to it, you tend to see the same few keywords recycled again and again, and it means some characters don't feel truly unique. For example, the 12th Doctor is exactly the same as the 10th Doctor, except 10 gets +1 dice in melee, while 12 gets a bodyguard ability that allows him to take hits for characters within one inch. Meanwhile Jenny Flint and Madame Vastra are absolutely identical. Considering those two characters are regularly going to team up, it would have been nice to see them have some team-based abilities that allow them to play off each other in interesting ways. As it is, they don't feel like they're living up to how wonderful those characters are in the show.
As part of your force selection, you are allowed to choose a number of adventure cards. These are (usually) one-off abilities that do something cool, inspired by events from the series, and many are faction-specific, which helps to add some much needed flavour. As Warlord Games produces more miniatures, they're also releasing more of these adventure cards, which can only be a good thing; but I also hope that new miniatures will herald the arrival of new special powers, and we'll see a lot more interesting combinations going forwards. After all, the basic framework of the rules is so simple, it lends itself perfectly to layering on more options.
Incidentally, as I'm playing this game mainly narratively and don't give two figs about balance, I'm going to be introducing plenty of scenario-specific special actions and events to help recreate more of that Who flavour. More on that in a bit.
"You just killed someone I like..."
Anyway. You pick your forces, choose a scenario from the book (or invent one), set up the battlefield, and you're good to go.
Turns more swiftly. You start with a dice roll for initiative to determine the active player, and then there's a movement phase, a shooting phase, a melee phase, and a cleanup phase. Interestingly, Extermine eschews more traditional turn sequences, such as alternating turns or alternating unit activations, and instead has alternating phases. So, first the active player moves all of his or her units, and then the other player moves.
Next, the active player shoots, if possible. You check for range and line of sight, and then you roll attack dice equal to your weapon's attack value, modified by distance, the presence of obstructions, and any bonuses on unit cards. Rolls are made with custom dice which have hit symbols, surge symbols, and armour symbols. Only hits count, unless you're using an energy weapon, in which case you count surges too. The target rolls defence dice, modified by any armour or cover bonuses, and cancels one hit for each armour rolled. For each hit that gets through, you roll for damage using the same dice. Armour represents a glancing blow (no effect), a hit symbols means the target is shocked and is inactive for the remainder of the turn, and a surge symbol kills the target (or removes one wound for the special characters with multiple hit points).
Units that don't die gain an Under Fire token if they took at least one hit (even if they saved the damage). One Under Fire token stops you shooting; two Under Fire tokens stop you shooting or moving.
It's a very intuitive combat system, which is easy to work out, and it's made more interesting because both players have a hand of battle cards, which are refreshed each turn. These cards offer benefits such as additional hits, chances to reroll, additional Fate tokens, or the ability to cancel all damage from a single attack. Knowing when to play these cards can make all the difference between success and failure.
If you have units that don't want to shoot (or can't shoot), you can run with them instead. This just means they give up the chance to fire to make a second move action. This is a much more predictable way to gain extra movement than the advance actions seen in other games, because you don't need to roll to see how far you travel. Furthermore, you make your decision to run in the shooting phase and not in the movement phase, so you get a chance to see exactly how the battle is unfolding before you have to decide whether or not to give up your chance to attack. I really like that, because it enables you to adapt your plans on the fly, making split-second decisions when it matters based on the current state of the battlefield. It feels very Whovian.
But then, it's a rule about running. Of course it feels very Whovian.
After shooting there's a melee round. All units within engagement range (usually two inches) move into base contact with targets and then there's a bit of fisticuffs. In these skirmishes, both sides roll simultaneously and count up hits. Most hits wins, and the difference is the number of times you roll for damage on the target.
Melee is much more deadly than ranged combat because you don't cancel hits with armour rolls, and if you're shocked, your opponent has the option to pay a Fate token to kill you instantly.
Finally, there's a cleanup phase where shocked units recover, you replenish your hand of combat cards, you have the option to gain adventure cards, and you roll to see if you can remove Under Fire tokens from pinned units.
This cycle then repeats until you've played the allotted number of rounds based on your scenario, or one player fulfills the win condition.
I have to say, on paper it doesn't sound like much... I don't think it really is much... but there's something to be said for a rather basic rules set that plays smoothly, and is straightforward enough that you can add special abilities without breaking anything. I particularly like the turn sequence, because it allows for interesting decision points. For example, if you're the active player, you get to shoot first, but you also move first; that means your opponent moves after you move, but before you fire, so he or she has a chance to react to what you do, ducking out of line of sight or moving out of range. Moving second also means your opponent may have the chance to move out of engagement range, avoiding a deadly melee attack. Being able to choose to move instead of shooting creates more of these situations, as even if your opponent gets the drop on you and moves into engagement range, you have the ability to drop your weapon and head for the hills if you need to.
Speaking of heading for the hills, the game really does focus strongly on movement, which feels perfect for a game with this theme. With rolls to hit, rolls to block damage, rolls to wound, Fate tokens that cancel damage, adventure cards that cancel damage, and battle cards that cancel damage, it's surprisingly difficult to exterminate targets, so instead you play positionally. You shoot targets to pin them with Under Fire tokens rather than kill them, and you frequently sacrifice your shooting action to jockey for a better position on the table.
"Don't be lasagna."
Taken at face value, the Exterminate "out of the box" experience is surprisingly generous, and easily breaks down the common barriers to entry with miniatures games. It includes 12 Daleks and 12 Cybermen with their Cybermat friends, a double-sided paper mat, flat cardboard terrain for creating an instant battlefield, cards for all of the miniatures in the box, plus cards for a bunch of other miniatures that are available at retail, enough dice for two players, and a good selection of scenarios. As an added bonus, the included miniatures are push-fit, and they're in coloured plastic, so you don't have to worry about glue or paint.
In other words, the contents of the Exterminate box is all you need.
This is the ready meal of miniatures games: Pop the lid, and you're ready to play in just a few minutes.
But of course, we all know that ready meals aren't a satisfying dish. They're quick, they're convenient, they're inexpensive, and they get the job done; but they don't taste great, and when you're finished, you're probably going to feel like you wish you'd eaten something a bit more filling (or something containing a more easily identifiable protein). Fortunately, this game has no intentions of being just a quick, flavourless fix.
"No, Sir... All thirteen."
Miniatures games often thrive or fail based on the amount of additional content available, and here Exterminate excels. The box set is a good introduction to miniatures games, and has enough content to keep you entertained for a while; but Warlord Games has already produced a wealth of extras to help you expand your universe, recreate your favourite Who episodes, or create "what if?" scenarios on your tabletop. Many of the Doctor's incarnations are available in boxed sets with with four companions, and many of the iconic races are presented in wonderfully detailed metal miniatures, including Dominators, Quarks, Tetraps, Clockwork Droids, various iterations of the Daleks and Cybermen, Ice Warriors, and Sea Devils. In addition to being compatible with the game, these miniatures are superb collectors' pieces in their own right, as they're screen accurate from specific periods of the show's history. For example, the excellent Tomb of the Cybermen set features the memorable 1960s style cybermen, while the Nightmares in Silver box contains 10 different styles of Cybermen covering the period 1966 to 2013.
And did I mention these miniatures are lovely? I should have mentioned that, because they are. They're predominantly single-piece metal miniatures, so there isn't a lot of clean-up or assembly to worry about, and the detail is superb. There's even a resin TARDIS out now. I really want that resin TARDIS.
But anyway, the point I'm trying to make, if there's any point at all, is that you're not going to be short of options or inspiration. You may just be short of cash, because with this much great stuff on offer, there's a risk you'll want it all, which is something that isn't normally a concern for games where you only collect one army or faction.
I mean, you're going to want all the Doctors at least. Right? Then you're going to want a good range of villains to encounter.
And then you're going to need a battlefield.
"So, where do you want to go?"
Basing a miniatures tabletop game on the Doctor Who franchise is incredibly liberating. It allows unfettered creativity, and rewards imagination. It opens up opportunities for new craft projects, and gives you the chance to use all the scenery and accessories you wish you had more time to use. When you've got a TARDIS, any planet in any time is fair game. You can set up your Space Hulk tiles for a deep-space battle on a stricken craft, use your Necromunda: Underhive tiles to create a sewer system in a dystopian future, create an historical battlefield with your Napoleonics scenery, or recreate famous battles with your Bolt Action terrain. Your Warhammer 40,000 scenery is perfect for bombed futurescapes or industrial complexes, and your modern buildings are ideal for present day skirmishes to control a township. Pick a neoprene mat from any company, and I'll show you a world to conquer or save.
And that really is only the beginning. Want to have a prehistoric adventure? Crack open the kids' collection of toy dinosaurs. Want to see how the Doctor fairs in the trenches? That tub of green army men would be perfect. The options are there, and they're endless... infinite. You can go anywhere. Do anything.
See something awesome.
"Good men don't need rules."
Most importantly of all, Exterminate has a rules set that's incredibly simple and streamlined. Some people are going to think simple rules are a bad thing, but here it's the best choice possible, because that simplicity makes it so much easier to create your own scenarios and play with the format. You can pour as much theme-flavoured custard over your fish fingers as you want; and you can easily adapt the elements you don't like.
Because let's be honest, how many people buy a Doctor Who game to control huge armies of aliens in pitched battles? Who wants to play a game where the Doctor runs around like John Rambo taking down Cybermen with his pump action screwdriver?
I actually think the concept of a tabletop skirmish game is strangely at odds with the intellectual property, and I would go as far to say that trying to translate Doctor Who into a war game is a bad idea. I think the experience you get out of the box - Daleks fighting Cybermen - isn't really the experience the game should provide.
And yet... Warlord Games have put this game together in such a clever way, it's impossible not to be in awe of their audacity. They didn't create a new rules set, they just lifted the rules wholesale from their previous zombie skirmish game; yet rather than appearing lazy, this is something of a stroke of genius. By using generic, simple rules, it's possible to add flavour through special unit powers, and event cards. And because the rules are so very generic, it's the easiest thing in the world for players to create narrative scenarios that embrace what Doctor Who is all about.
"This is my spoon."
As a simple example, consider the sonic screwdriver. In this particular game, they decided to make the sonic screwdriver a weapon. You use it to hit enemies, but there's a special rule that ensures any such attacks are non-lethal. In effect, the sonic screwdriver is a big, foam mallet. Now, everybody knows the sonic screwdriver is a serious bit of kit, with capabilities far beyond that of zapping naughty aliens, so at first glance, the rules in Exterminate fall well short of the mark. However, the simplicity of those rules serve as a strong foundation for scenario-specific events. For example, you could create a scenario where you have to use the sonic screwdriver's "attack" on several computer terminals scattered through a maze in order to open a sequence of doors for your companions. You don't need to change any actual rules at all, you just have to imagine a new outcome for the success of the attack.
And you can extend this concept in any direction you choose. You can go mad and create narrative-driven scenarios that drop the Doctor in all kinds of bother and make unique situations to resolve conflicts. And you should definitely do that. I'm going to be doing that. This is a game crying out for homebrewed scenarios. This is a game that needs a spark of creativity to ignite gaming sessions that echo through time. Because that's what a Doctor Who game should be like. It shouldn't be about armies killing each other. It should be about a mad man with a box finding ways to make sure they don't.
"I Hate Endings"
Beating one of my reviews into some kind of coherent shape is never easy. I write like the Doctor saves the universe. I dip in and out, I go back to the beginning, I skip to the third act. I'll stop halfway through a sent
But the endings are the worst. I find it difficult to summarise coherently, or to give someone a meaningful conclusion they could actually use to make some kind of decision. And sometimes I just have several sign-offs that I believe are oh so clever (because I'm such a clever boy), but I can't decide which one to use. Well, today we're dealing with time travel. Today we're going always, so take it all, baby...
... By appearances, the TARDIS is a broken machine. The chameleon circuit is on the fritz, it never goes where it's supposed to, it's constantly crashing or exploding or running away, and it makes that noise from being driven with the brakes on. And yet... somehow... it works. It goes where it needs to go, and its iconic sound and image are forever etched in the memory of humankind as if it was always supposed to be that way. Most importantly, the TARDIS is fun. For me, Exterminate is much like the TARDIS. On the surface it doesn't work, it doesn't fit, it doesn't even sound right. But open the box, and a world of adventure awaits.
... Doctor Who is about a mad man with a box, and that's how I feel right now. I have a game in a box that represents the potential for countless adventures. I have a box that looks so unassuming, and contains such a simple rules set, and yet which is undoubtedly a portal to other worlds. But that box can't do it alone; it needs someone at the helm with at least half an imagination. Much like the Doctor and the TARDIS are in a relationship that runs much deeper than the partnership between a pilot and his ship, Exterminate requires someone who wants to go for the ride, and is prepared to give as much as he or she gets. You need to be prepared to put in some legwork, to run with it (because you should always run), and work with the tools provided to make something special. Because otherwise it's just a box. A small box for a seemingly small game. You need to explore a little more to realise it's a box that's bigger on the inside.
... Doctor Who is a show about stories. Stories that shape the world, and change the future. Exterminate is no different. It's a storybook; a sandbox; a toolkit; a sonic screwdriver; maybe even a machine that goes ding. It's everything you need to make your stories, and we're all stories in the end. Just make it a good one.