Gears of War: The Board Game: The Review (Part 2)
“C’mon Baird! A little bit of this is good for you! Builds your immune system.”
—Augustus “Cole Train” Cole, Gears of War
In part 1, I outlined the three things that stand out to me as the advantages of Gears of War: The Board Game, the latest from Corey Konieczka and Fantasy Flight Games. I’d recommend reading that first, because this is the segment where I talk about the game’s three disadvantages. Now, before I get into that, I’d like to say that for some folks these might be totally negligible. I enjoyed the game, and thought a few of the mechanics were especially smart. However, I wouldn’t recommend a purchase without a prospective buyer knowing a few things.
So here we go!
Gears of War: The Board Game really does feel quite a bit like Gears of War: The Video Game. Which might sound like a great thing. I played the first Gears of War (the other two didn’t make it to PC) and enjoyed it well enough to play it twice. It wasn’t a long game, but it took me over a month to finish it the first time, and my second was spread out over quite a few months. For such a good game, you might ask why it took so long. Well, the answer is that there just isn’t that much to Gears of War. It’s about taking cover behind chest-high concrete blocks, shooting monsters, and moving at tactically-opportune moments. Also about watching large men talk about serious stuff with their fingers pressed to their ears while striking masculine poses for one another. The games are great at what they do, but they’re not exactly trying to win the games-as-art debate.
The board game version is about taking cover, shooting monsters, and moving at tactically-opportune moments. Also about reading mission cards about large men talking about serious stuff. And those large men are permanently in masculine poses because they’re, well, made of pink plastic. And if that’s what you want a board game to do, then this is the perfect game for you! But for me, Disadvantage #1 is that the game channels the Gears of War world and gameplay so faithfully that it embraces the same limited mechanics that the videogame version consists of.
Which, of course, doesn’t necessarily a problem create. But it does mean that the brilliant order-cards-as-health mechanic, which would optimally present a number of tricky decisions, doesn’t engender as many options as I had hoped. In our game, we all generally had hands full of cards that had variations of “move 3 spaces and then make 1 attack” or “attack once and then move 2 spaces.” There would occasionally be more specialized cards that would give other players more order cards or let someone else make an additional move, but these were usually specific enough that they were a no-brainer when their specific conditions were met but totally useless the rest of the time.
Which brings us to Disadvantage #2. Not only is the theme of the game so strong that your possible actions are severely limited, but you’ll be performing those same actions a lot, and on a linear map. The game never really shakes things up or changes pace. You might have a bigger enemy to fight (the berserker is a welcome enemy to see, as it moves towards any sounds that your COG soldiers make), but ultimately the missions are straightforward. The mission we played a couple nights ago was a lot more fun before we realized that we would basically always be doing the same thing.
Compare this to Mansions of Madness which is also by Mr Konieczka. In Mansions of Madness your characters have plenty of options each turn. They can fight monsters with a variety of weapon types, solve puzzles, search rooms, cast spells, etc., and all this on a map that’s generally nonlinear enough to permit exploration. I mean, just compare these maps from Gears and from Mansions. Or compare Gears to Battlestar Galactica, which I stress is another Konieczka game and one of the finest board games ever created. In that game, the late game plays significantly differently from the way things were going at the beginning, and every single move is an agonizing decision in and of itself.
Disadvantage #3 is that Gears of War can simply feel tedious. This is more opinion than the previous two points, of course, but everyone in our group found themselves getting a bit bored about halfway through the map—and most of the missions are a combination of two or three maps, which I cannot fathom sitting through in one play. I don’t often get bored in the middle of a game, but there just wasn’t enough going on to hold my, or my friends’, interest.
This might stem from a few different sources. I don’t find the setting or characters of story of Gears of War that interesting, so having any investment in struggles of these masculine men is going to take a lot of effort on my part. A fan of the Gears series would probably have more fun with it. Also, while there are a few co-op games that we are fans of (Space Alert, Ghost Stories, and The Lord of the Rings Living Card Game come to mind), this one lacked whatever mysterious X-Factor makes those games so compelling.
My theory is that it really comes down to how many options the player is given—and not just options. I’m talking about good, worthwhile, considerable options. In all those games, there are always multiple routes to victory, and the components on our game table are just enablers of heated arguments about the best method of success, accusations of complacency, and firm head-shaking and glaring. I don’t think my group ever once disagreed on a course of action in Gears of War. Okay, there were suggestions and (extraordinarily) mild disagreements and the like, and Marcus Fenix probably shouldn’t have blown himself up to stop a few drones, but nobody was getting riled about it.
Conclusion: I liked it, but not all that much. If you’re a big board game fan, I’d say give this one a pass. If you’re a Gears of War fan—and I mean a fan—and if you don’t play many board games, and maybe find them a bit intimidating, then this game will offer a faithful experience, transforming you and some friends into the same wacky muscled band that stands between the locust and human extinction in the video games. And it will accomplish this with some clever rules that are fairly simple to grasp. Good luck, soldier.