Gears of War: The Board Game: The Review (Part 1)
“Yeah! Wooo! Bring it on, sucka! This is my kinda shit!”
— Augustus “Cole Train” Cole, Gears of War
Corey Konieczka is one of only four board game designers whose names I’m capable of recognizing immediately. He’s designed some of my favorite games, such as Battlestar Galactica, Runewars, and Mansions of Madness—the last of which I’ve talked about at length here on Space-Biff! before. He’s also designed some other well-received games like Descent: Journeys in the Dark, Space Hulk: Death Angel, and Starcraft. As such, when one of my friends proposed Mr Konieczka’s recent Gears of War: The Board Game for our next game night, I didn’t require much convincing.
The verdict? Find the first half after the jump.
I have strange feelings about this one. It has a few brilliant mechanics, but it feels like they’re packed in with a game that didn’t ship with the actual fun. It reminds me of a blind date that I went on ages ago. Everyone was telling me how great the girl was and how we would be a perfect match. When we met, things were going quite well. She was clever, pretty, and—most importantly—interested in me for some reason. The only downside was that she had a huge gnarled mole right on her forehead. That’s okay, I told myself—true beauty isn’t on the surface, after all. Except that after two hours I had discovered that this particular mole ran deep. Right into her soul.
Okay, maybe that didn’t make sense. I’ll put it a different way: there are three things I really love about Gears of War, and there are also three things I really don’t like. The result? Pure ambivalence. For the first part of our review, I’m going to cover the three things that worked for me. So this is the cheery half of the review.
The first thing anyone notices with a board game is the board game, and Gears of War does deliver. You pick a mission, read the set-up cards and lay out the proper tiles randomly, adjust enemy population based on the number of players, and voilà, you have a unique-ish game ready to go! So Advantage #1 is that the game’s components are up to snuff, as befits a game from Fantasy Flight. The map tiles, figurines, cards, rule book… everything is nice and hefty. My group did have a few caveats with the parts, mostly that the map tiles eventually feel a bit crowded and that while the locust (the enemy figurines if you don’t know Gears of War lore) are distinct we had trouble differentiating between the protagonists, but those were minor quibbles about parts that were otherwise perfectly serviceable.
So we’ve got the mission picked, the map set up, and the enemy figurines placed. Everyone knows who they are and what our mission is: in this instance, to reach the last room and close the “emergence hole” that the locust are pouring out of, and then to polish them off. So far so simple, but now for the moment I’ve been dreading: having the rules explained. See, every game designed by Mr Konieczka that I’ve played has been extremely fiddly. Lots of rules and moving parts, and we’ve generally never entirely understood them on our first play. I’m thinking of our first bumbled attempts to conquer Terrinoth in Runewars, when our heroes were so useful in bringing home the bacon (“bacon” being in this instance the dragon runes, which win the game when enough are accumulated) that we weren’t entirely sure what to do with our armies at all; or the terror of one of my friends when he realized that he was the Cylon spy in Battlestar Galactica and had no idea how the rules differed for him, but wasn’t able to ask for clarifications because then everyone would realize that he was the Cylon spy. Now, these are not problems with Mr Konieczka’s design—they’re problems with us, the players, not being able to remember the billion rules that make the game run smoothly. But my point is that every one of Mr Konieczka’s games I’ve played has been on the complex end of the spectrum, and so the first play tends to be more classroom than recess.
Not so with Gears of War! Advantage #2 is that this game still allows plenty of depth within its setting, but its rules are simple and easy to pick up. It took us about fifteen minutes to be told all the rules, and after that point the manual was only opened for a few nitpicky clarifications.
Each COG soldier’s turn is just three quick steps. I’m going to talk about the first two separately from the third, as they highlight the most brilliant mechanic of the game.
First, you “heal,” which means that you draw up to two order cards. You can never hold more than six of these in your hand (unless you’re playing as Marcus Fenix, then you can hold seven). Each card has a text effect that you will follow if you play it, and a symbol in the top-left corner.
Second, you play a card to resolve its written effect, or, if none of your cards have a written effect that will help you out, you discard a card to instead perform a basic move or attack. You can then also discard cards to perform specific extra actions, such as helping up a downed comrade or picking up a dropped gun. Also, you may discard cards at any time to perform one of three reaction abilities, one of which is printed in the corner of each card: follow your friends when they move, shoot at a locust before it moves or attacks, or dodge to roll more defense dice when attacked.
Now, you must have at least one of these order cards leaving your hand per turn. No big deal, since you pick up two of them at the beginning of every turn, right? Wrong. See, these cards are also your health. Which means that every time one leaves your hand, your character is getting winded from the exertion, so while one card per turn isn’t much, soon you’ll be spending an extra card to pick up a dropped Boomshot gun (which does exactly what it sounds like), or trying to get free attacks on the locust during your friends’ turns. Before you know it, your hero has run himself ragged, and he’s got two hits before he goes down. This is Advantage #3: the health/card mechanic, and it works brilliantly, organically limiting your options by tying them to your character’s stamina. This is by far the game’s best idea, as it links your actions and health better than any other board game I can think of.
(This system may sound silly at first, but after a while it begins to make sense, though this is my theory rather than something the game spells out: As your soldiers get more injured, they focus their attention more and more on their wounds and less and less on strategizing and fighting, hence the fewer combat options once you’re wounded. Your men are dumb grunts, after all).
The third phase of a turn sees a Locust AI card being flipped over and resolved. This might make enemies move, or attack, or heal, or burrow out of the ground, or some unholy combination of those options. It’s a system that works well most of the time, though sometimes it doesn’t quite explain why that drone Dominic has been grappling with for multiple rounds doesn’t bother attacking this time.
There are a few other rules of note. You (and many of your enemies) can move into cover, thus gaining one or two defense dice depending on the enemy’s (or your) line of attack. Ammunition is spent to role extra dice when attacking (the basic attack for most weapons doesn’t cost any ammo), but once you run out of ammo tokens you can’t use the weapon anymore, so the timing of that last bonus shot should be thoroughly considered.
All in all, it creates an experience that’s smooth and faithful to the original game. Our game saw a number of fantastic heroic moments and interesting plays, and it definitely is the smoothest first playthrough of a Corey Konieczka game that I’ve had. If it sounds like your thing, especially if you’re a Gears fan, then it may well be. Still, I’d recommend reading the second half of my review to decide if it’s worth a purchase.