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Subject: From Video Game Fan to Board Game Fan rss

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David F
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Gears of War is my favorite video game of this console generation (in fact, this is the only video game I play anymore), and it was with a mix of excitement and trepidation that I bought and tried the board game. Why would I play the board game when I can just load up the XBOX 360? Is this going to just be a cash-in on the license right before Gears of War 3 storms into stores end of this month and keeps me occupied?

I’m not one for superlatives, so keep that in mind when I say that Gears of War is the best cooperative game I’ve ever played*. I’ll also say this is Corey Konieczka’s best work since Battlestar Galactica – both games respectfully adapt licensed source material, and interweave it seamlessly with game mechanisms for a synergistic, unparalleled experience in board gaming that is pure heaven for fans of the source material (and only partial heaven if you’re not familiar with it).

*Out of Pandemic, Forbidden Island, Ghost Stories, Onirim, Arkham Horror & Space Hulk: Death Angel.

From Video Game to Board Game
Let’s first talk about the little things in this board game that convey the Gears of War video game experience.

It is cooperative. This is usually a strike
 

Ragin' with the chainsaw!!!
against a board game, but cooperative play perfectly epitomizes what made the video game so successful. More importantly, playing with 2, 3 or 4 feels perfectly fine with this game, unlike other cooperative games where it feels like you’re missing something if you don’t play with the full complement of players (then find that the game is boring enough that one player could have just played for everybody). A 2-player game with Fenix and Dom provides familiar companions from your late nights on the X360 and feels natural.

The cover system is a good abstraction. Unlike other games of this ilk which have terrain bonuses/modifiers, taking cover in Gears of War simply means getting behind a barricade, obtaining full cover and 2 extra defense dice if your opponent is on the other side of it, or 1 extra defense die if your opponent is on the same side. No need to look up different kinds of cover, terrain bonuses etc; there are only two types: full and partial cover, and the clever way to differentiate the two by common sense adds strategic layers to the game without increasing lookup time. The emphasis to always have cover between you and the locusts also makes this an epic battle of attrition as you patiently chip away at enemies and advance as a group toward the next cover spot, exactly like the video game.

One game I was in was going really successfully, until my partner got complacent and decided to make a run for the ammo box, which was out in the open. He immediately got cut down, and the game quickly ended as I was forced to go revive him or gradually be overwhelmed. Cover in this game is essential, and while it’s impossible to fully port over the groundbreaking cover system that gave the video game its identity, I think it cleverly conveys the spirit of it – measured advances from cover to cover – in a simple, elegant manner.

The Order Cards remind me of maneuvers I’ve executed in the video game. You play an Order Card each turn to take an action, resolving its text, and besides the mainstays (move + attack, attack + move etc), there are a few that bring to mind the epic firefights in the video game. Cover Fire allows you to distract the enemy and make them shoot at you while your teammate charges ahead with a Roadie Run to accomplish an objective or grab some much-needed ammo. Sit Tight reminds me of the countless times I cowered behind a wall, shell-shocked, trying to survey the situation. And you can channel your lancer chainsaw rage with Slaughter.

The weapons are all there. The board game did something really smart and different from other adventure or squad-tactics board games, and that is to focus on the weapons, not the characters. The four COGs are nearly interchangeable in abilities (and there are no annoying stats like strength, wisdom, luck etc to keep track of), but the difference in strategic use between them comes from the weapons they pick up. Just like in the video game, it’s all about the memorable weapons (the lancer is definitely in the video game hall of fame), and picking them up feels like you’re developing your character. I whooped in joy when I, as a shotgun-toting Dominic Santiago,
 

Only have to worry about Wretches, Drones & Boomers for the first scenario.
found a sniper rifle, and proceeded to be Mr. Badass.

Specific AI Cards for each Locust type help mimic actual behavior in the video game. Another smart thing with this game: you only deal with 3 types of enemies (locusts) in each scenario, which keeps the game accessible for new players. Then the AI Deck (the “bad things” deck where you draw and resolve 1 card a turn) is seeded with AI Cards specific to each locust type, so when they activate, they act in a manner true to that in the video game. Wretches charge you with strength in numbers and attack in close combat, Drones and Boomers opportunistically charge or retreat into cover, the blind Berserker moves haphazardly etc. It really helps to personify and put a face on the antagonist in the cooperative game, making it an enemy instead of a system.

Gameplay Elements
But even if you’re not a fan of the video game, the board game holds up with some thoughtful design for a cooperative game.

This is an elegant and streamlined design. The mantra with Fantasy Flight Games and Mr. Konieczka these days appears to be more chits + more rules + more cards = more fun. I love Runewars, Mansions of Madness and Middle-Earth Quest (all by the same designer and publisher), but I cede that these are clunky, bloated monstrosities, with unexpected action interrupts happening all the time, many rules look-ups and FAQ clarifications, and lots of reading tiny cards aloud and passing them here and there. They’re not particularly complex, but do require some patience. Gears of War is as streamlined as Battlestar Galactica (again, same designer/publisher), with a very smooth procedure of play. Normal attacks attack with the printed # of dice, Overkill attacks attack with the other # of dice; defenders all defend with 1 die, add 2 for full cover and 1 for partial cover; full cover is if you have a barricade between you and your opponent; partial cover is if you don’t; your hand of order cards doubles up as your health, which removes the need for damage tokens, health track; no need to keep track of stats like strength,

These baddies all behave differently.
agility, intelligence, luck etc. Games with terrain features, line-of-sight, attack range etc tend to be bogged down by look-ups and really help the experienced player who “knows the system”, but not this game. There is just the perfect amount of open information, organized in a very intuitive way, to keep the game moving and complement the fast-and-furious gameplay.

Order Cards make it harder to boss your teammates around. Cooperative games all suffer from why-the-hell-should-I-play-when-I-know-all-the-right-choices syndrome. It’s especially a shame when a very experienced player has to decide between letting go and watching sub-optimal decisions being made by newer players, or asserting himself and creating a negative play experience for everybody else by scripting and optimizing their plays. Pandemic cards have only a color and label, making it easy to optimize what to do; Space Hulk: Death Angel has 3 unique order cards for each player, but they never change and the experienced player has a huge leg up due to familiarity with everybody’s cards; open-information cooperative games like Arkham Horror and Ghost Stories beg to be hijacked by experienced players, and really are more about the narrative and experience than playing a true cooperative game.

What Gears of War does is to give every COG 6-7 Order Cards that have a lot of variety with their text abilities, plus an icon on the top-left that makes the cards dual-purpose and even harder to keep track of, so that it’s hard for any player to take over the game completely. Yes, you could be a shark and force others to rattle off the cards in their hand (why would you do that? Don’t come close to this game please), but the fairly-complex private information and game flow (I’m thinking of introducing a timer, like in Space Hulk, to push the action even further) encourages autonomy in player decisions. There are instances when you ask, “Does anybody have Teamwork?" or “Can you move + attack?”, but none of the “You go to London and take his card, then he uses the Special Event, then you cure” or “You attack, you guard with your ability, you get to change facing before him” that plagues other cooperative games. There are very few copies of each Order Card, and players often wait for others to volunteer that they have a certain card instead of rattling through a card checklist.

Reaction abilities keep you engaged even if it’s not your “turn” to act. Orders are at a premium, and sometimes, you’ll want to Guard (attack a locust that is just about to move or attack) or Follow another COG. These are basic, inefficient actions that don’t maximize the use of a card (and cost you 1 hit point of health), but the order it saves you from performing on your turn could be a difference-maker. More importantly, it means you don’t throw down your cards and optimize plays for your teammates on their go; you need to stay engaged and look out for favorable situations to Guard or Follow.

There are interesting risk-taking decisions.. Spending a lot of Order Cards can be powerful, until you deplete your health and get downed on the next blast in your area. There is often a delicate balance between pushing the action and staying put and healing up. And when you attack, you decide whether to use a weapon for a normal attack, which doesn’t spend any ammo, or a more powerful overkill attack that expends ammo. The kicker is the weapon can’t be used for any kind of attacks when it’s out of ammo, so you’ll need to carefully gauge when to unload a barrage into that Boomer. Be too trigger-happy, and you might be out before you can find another weapon or more ammo; be too conservative, and you die when he blasts a grenade in your face. Each weapon, with a limited 1-2 ammo tokens, has its own story to tell for you.

Teamwork pays off, though you probably didn’t need me to tell you that when there’s a Teamwork Order Card in the game. Reaction abilities from other players can save your bacon. Stay together, and look out for opportunities to flank, or to move out as a group. Just like in the video game, lone wolves are punished with a swift death. And the board game severely punishes

The introductory Emergence scenario
such behavior by making COG revivals extremely painful; while the fool bleeds out, you are down 1 COG order a turn, while the AI cards continue to be drawn and resolved at the same pace.

Missions are interesting. They’re ripped straight from actual missions in the video game and adapted beautifully. One has you luring the powerful but blind Berserker out into the open, where you can use the Hammer of Dawn against it, one has two teams fighting locusts separately, before they regroup for a thrilling set-piece. There are only 7 missions, but the map setup for each mission is different, helping ensure each repeat play of a mission has its nuanced differences in terms of how to approach it (even the introductory Emergence scenario has 4x3x2x1 = 24 possible maps!). The missions are also set up in a series of stages: complete each intermediate objective to unlock the next stage and more enemies. This linear railroading with low-hanging fruit is a welcome respite from cooperative games that either give you a faraway long-term objective, or bombard you with a deluge of irrelevant side-quests.

Minor Quibbles

The game box shares the title of “Murderer of Air and Space” with Runewars and Middle-Earth Quest. No, the absolute volume of air wasted in the box is not as much, but Gears provides vertical wastage where the others provide rectangular wastage, creating a whole new dimension of wasted space and sloppy-looking game boxes on your shelf. This game could easily have fit into a standard “Ticket to Ride Square” box, with much room to spare. The big box had better be there in preparation for storing Brumaks, Corpsers and Seeders in future expansions!

As with Corey Koniecka’s other masterwork Battlestar Galactica, there appears be ways to “game” the AI. In Battlestar Galactica: Exodus, once you’ve wrapped your head around how the Cylon Fleet works, you find that the best strategy, which doesn’t make much intuitive sense, is to always leave 1 basestar on the board and not kill it, else the ensuing buildup would waste more actions and cards to contain. Similarly with Gears of War, the optimal strategy is often to leave 1 figure of each type of Locust running around instead of killing it, else it intensifies the actions of the other locusts and results in heavier spawns. I don’t have a problem with this (at least not yet). Knowing when to run away from the last locust of each type instead of standing and fighting is part of the game, in my opinion. And you leave a Boomer alive and within line-of-sight at your own peril.

Degenerate plays might crop up occasionally. One game I played featured terrible luck in sealing emergence holes, and we persisted at it for far too long, after all the fun had evaporated from the game, before we finally conceded in anger, and the other 3 vowed never to play the game again ("Sorry David, we like you but your game sucks."). Later, I found out we played a crucial rule wrong (emergence holes aren't supposed to open in that scenario; so we were sealing e-holes only at the rate they opened, and never got to seal them all), causing us to be in a perpetual “no-win” state where we went nowhere with the game objective while the Locusts slowly chipped away at us. Nonetheless, variability of the board setup and AI cards can result in wildly varying game length. A map where the grenade drop is right by the e-hole is far easier and shorter than one where the grenade drop is at the start and the e-hole is at the end, for example. It is also longer (usually) with more players. My strong advice with this game is if it becomes too repetitive and boring, and the players start going through the motions in a sort of “no-win scenario”, end the game right there and write it off. It’s very likely you’re playing a rule wrong. Even if you’re not, it’s not worth burning out the players at the table. The game can lay an egg occasionally, as with any Ameritrash game that uses random events to drive the action, but this one’s easy to cut your losses with, since it’s a cooperative game; nobody should have any qualms about collectively, mutually aborting a game against an AI instead of a human opponent.

============================

Pandemic was a groundbreaking game that breathed life back into the fully-cooperative game with its high decision-to-rules complexity ratio, clean sequential order of play, and gripping theme. In my opinion, the many cooperative games that have spawned since do not provide a compelling alternative. Gears of War: The Board Game is a step forward that provides a lot of incremental improvements. Interesting random-map stage-based missions, modular AI, clean design, respect for the source material and tweaks to increase cooperative activity and curb bossy behavior all make this a very enjoyable and fun cooperative game, while we wait for the next big thing in cooperative games. Or for the video game. I'm definitely still playing this long after the video-game release, however, and hope to sucker some video-game fans into board gaming with it. Gears of War: The Board Game is a great ambassador to video-game fans for the new heights board games have reached (cooperative, meaningful decisions, interesting setups, streamlined play).

For my reviews, I usually put in some less-thumbed images from the game. So be sure to click through them and introduce dspezzano to your thumb.
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Alex Martinez
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Nice review. Gears of War is a fantastic board game. I've never played the video game, but I feel like it has captured the perfect balance between abstraction and concrete action. It's fast and furious, with plenty of strategy and a lot of cool moments. One of my new favorites.
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Dave Horn
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My fiendly video game store (like many others) is having a big launch party Monday night for GOW3. I'll be there, my first midnight launch (too old for this stuff) but my son has been saving his money since GoW3 epic edition was announced to buy it. So I'll be down there for him so he can see his new stuff in the morning. I''ve thought it would be fun to bring my GoW board game down there that night and while some folks are having horde mode contests, I could introduce some fellow Gearheads to the board game world.... but my OCD won't let me allow greasy stranger fingers all over my game. So it will stay home under constant protection. I thought about seeing if the video game guys want to hook up with the FLGS guys (they are in the same mall) and sort of cross promote themselves. I don't think they talk too much between each other, but I know them all, maybe I can bridge them together.

It sounds like FFG isn't having any problem selling this game, which is obviously great. But I hope some places out there will be showing some of these folks the board game while they are waiting for their midnight release. The cross promotion opportunities would be good for board game world I think.

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Daryl Wilks
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Peshastin
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Great review, thanks! There are several tribes of gamers I play with and this looks like an awesome fit for one of them.

Peace,
Daryl
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Neil Sorenson
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Nicely said! I'm in agreement with you on all points.

Perhaps I missed it in your review but did you mention how nicely the game scales from solo to full-house?
 
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Andrew Martin
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Great review. Very well done.
 
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Bryce K. Nielsen
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selwyth wrote:
The game box shares the title of “Murderer of Air and Space” with Runewars and Middle-Earth Quest. No, the absolute volume of air wasted in the box is not as much, but Gears provides vertical wastage where the others provide rectangular wastage, creating a whole new dimension of wasted space and sloppy-looking game boxes on your shelf. This game could easily have fit into a standard “Ticket to Ride Square” box, with much room to spare. The big box had better be there in preparation for storing Brumaks, Corpsers and Seeders in future expansions!


I love larger than necessary boxes, especially for a game that seems expandable, so that when the inevitable expansion comes out, you don't have to have two or three boxes to carry the one game.

-shnar

P.S. Nice review
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Alejandro Rascon
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Ok, now this game seems awesome to me.

How good is the solo mode?
 
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Alex Martinez
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Solo works just great. Most of my games have been solo, and they have been challenging and engaging. I was initially worried about not having any backup, but it isn't a problem. Also, it's very easy to play with multiple marines as well, even by yourself.

All in all, this is one of the most engaging solo / co op games I have ever played.
 
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David F
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Luck in games, in measured doses, is the catalyst which enables shocking game-changers that you'll remember and talk about forever.
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shnar wrote:
I love larger than necessary boxes, especially for a game that seems expandable, so that when the inevitable expansion comes out, you don't have to have two or three boxes to carry the one game.


I love buying oversized jeans, so I can wear them when I get fat.

In that case, I'd rather they put the expansion in an over-sized box.

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