Ignacy Trzewiczek is best known for two things: one, he’s the only boardgame designer alive today whose name is harder to pronounce than Vlaada Chvátil’s (I think. It’s not like I can pronounce either of them); and two, his clockwork brain is responsible for a few recent hits like Prêt-à-Porter, 51st State, and the upcoming Robinson Crusoe: Adventure on the Cursed Island. When I heard that The Convoy was set in the same hard-bitten world as Neuroshima Hex, and that it used one of my favorite cardgame mechanics (horizontal area control!), I could neither eat nor drink until I had a copy in my hands. Was my excitement justified? Find out below.
Life in the post-collapse world of Neuroshima is anything but easy. Provided you can scrabble together an existence at all, chances are you’ll eventually hear the rumble of the approaching horde of genocidal machines collectively titled “Moloch” — probably more because it’s a scary-as-hell name than for the child-sacrificing Canaanite deity of antiquity, though for all you know there could be a connection. Who knows. Who cares.
What matters is that the forces of Moloch have mustered a terrible convoy and pointed themselves like an arrow straight at the heart of human civilization, with the express goal of slagging everything between the town of Ziggy One and New York. The only thing in their way is the mobile Outpost army, whose desperate objective is to ensure there’s a handful of humans left standing at the end of the slaughter.
It’s cheery stuff, and The Convoy is determined to make you feel each surge of the convoy, each desperate rearguard action, each breathtaking narrow victory. It never gives you a stale turn to catch your breath. Instead, each and every round centers around a battle for a city district. One turn you’ll be sacrificing far too many soldiers to keep the Iron Gate standing, the next to keep Moloch from rolling right over you in Cleveland, and a few later to fortify Jersey so it’ll last a single extra round — one round that represents a sliver of hope that could mean the difference between victory or the extermination of your species.
Or maybe you’ll be the Moloch player, sacrificing legions of chrome warriors to push past the Outpost’s EMP cannons that would otherwise bog you down outside of New York.
Moloch has all sorts of terrible advantages. For one thing, they get to choose the district where each turn’s battle takes place. The choices are limited to the current city until it’s burnt to a crisp, but since each district provides different benefits, it’s possible to gauge the odds of victory and single out the district that will provide the best benefit — like killing a particularly obnoxious enemy commander who’s been hacking your machines to decrease their strength, or the opportunity to draw a much-needed extra card, or a clear path to New York to seed the final battlefield. In addition, since the Moloch robots are always on the offensive, they get to deploy first, digging in across multiple cities and setting the pace of the coming battle.
Since battles themselves are determined by whoever has the higher combined strength value, it’s also helpful that hydraulic servos are naturally tougher than flimsy organic tissue. And if a robot’s inherent strength isn’t sufficient, there are modules for extra firepower or special abilities — like the Contamination Module that sprays radioactive waste across a city like champagne at a New Year’s party, making the land toxic for humans and decreasing how many Outpost defenders can take up residence at that location. At least that’s what Somerset did to me in our most recent game, polluting New York with both the Contamination Module and an Annihilator robot, which meant she had five strong robots to my three measly defenders.
Needless to say, she wiped out humanity that game.
Things probably sound pretty bad for the Outpost right about now, but they’ve got some significant advantages of their own.
Although not deploying first means they won’t often get the strength bonus for digging in, going second has its benefits as well. The Outpost can often react to Moloch’s strength, taking out the most dangerous robots or adding just enough troops to turn the tide at the last minute. Also, since they’re constantly on the defensive, they can erect hugely beneficial stationary structures like Bunkers that give all your infantrymen a minor strength boost, Electromagnetic Fields to lock down enemy movement, or EMP Launchers to cancel the robots’ abilities altogether.
However, the best thing about the Outpost are its highly mobile troops. Since many of their infantry have abilities that activate upon entering an undestroyed city, the ability to march between currently-contested hotspots, future battlefields, and previously-incinerated zones is a huge perk. In one recent game, Somerset was using her strongest robots to smash through the first couple cities, and she seemed unstoppable. In response, I deployed McPherson, an officer who sabotages enemy robots by giving them a -2 strength marker every time he rolls into town. As I’d been holding onto a few Move cards, I shuttled him back and forth between Jersey Crust and the battle at Cleveland Harbor, handing out another -2 strength token with each move. Somerset eventually deployed a Hunter to put an end to his shenanigans, but McPherson had already turned the tide of a pair of battles and bought me enough time to turn aside her momentum for the time being.
Momentum. If there’s a perfect word for describing The Convoy, it’s “momentum.” The game simply never gets bogged down.
For one, it isn’t possible to permanently halt Moloch’s advance. At best, the Outpost can slow the robots by winning battles, but even in victory it’s just one city district that gets irradiated instead of two. Even the best defenses will eventually be bypassed, and it’s often prudent to sacrifice a city instead of using all your good cards.
For another, even the gameplay is fast and harrowing. You’re always stuck with a dozen choices that don’t have any easy answers. Do you play a whole bunch of cards from your waning hand and deck to win the current battle, or hold onto them in anticipation of a more important fight? As the Moloch player, do you use a Net Module to tie up (literally!) some of the Outpost defenders, or do you hold it back in fear of the single officer who has the ability to reverse-engineer your tech? Or when playing as the Outpost, should you build an EMP Cannon to slow Moloch’s advance even though you could use it to defend New York from the final onslaught? There’s no end to these blissfully stressful questions about hand management, troop movements, and ability activations.
The other word that best describes The Convoy is “balance.” Any asymmetrical game understandably raises questions about whether one team is superior over the others, but in this case the two sides feel like they’re fencing on a razor’s edge even though everything, from the turn order to their cards and the perks of winning battles, are different depending on which side you’re using. It’s the kind of balance that has you grunting, “This damn game is so damn unbalanced,” at your friend’s cards, no matter who you’re playing as. In my book, that’s the best kind of balance.
There’s so much to recommend. Other than the dozens of little symbols that litter the cards, it’s simple. It plays fast. It’s inexpensive. It’s compact. It looks good on the table. Its manual has a reference for every single card in the game. If I had one reservation, it’s that The Convoy is a pretty slender game and I want more — more factions, more scenarios, more unit types, more mechanics — and I doubt I’ll get any. At least anytime soon.
For the time being though, The Convoy is here. If you’re interested in a two-player horizontal-area-control game that will set your world on fire for forty minutes, I definitely recommend it.