There’s Always a Board: Bioshock Infinite
I would have loved to begin this review with some snark about how there’s never been a good boardgame based off a videogame, but that’s not even remotely close to true. In fact, videogame licenses generally seem to fare better than their television and movie counterparts. There are all sorts of examples: Civilization, Doom, Starcraft, Warcraft, Age of Empires III: Age of Discovery, Gears of War, the Resident Evil deckbuilder — crud, there’s even an okay version of Risk with a pasted-on Halo theme. And that’s only counting direct licenses, not the hundreds of titles that draw inspiration from the digital; take Christian Marcussen, for example, whose Clash of Cultures and Merchants & Marauders elevate Sid Meier imitation to an art form.
But it’s time for all of those games to step aside, because videogame-licensed boardgames have found their One True King. His name is Bioshock Infinite: The Siege of Columbia, and if we really follow this metaphor to its uncomfortable conclusion, then Plaid Hat Games is his mom.
I’m playing as the Founders, the blue team. Over the last few rounds, I’ve taken control of the northwestern quarter of the board, locking down the imposing Monument Island by setting up a stronghold right on top of its angelic bronze head (at least, that’s where I’d build a stronghold). This earns me the “Heart in Hand” objective, and between that and the two territories I control, I now have five points, meaning I’m halfway to victory. My territories are well-defended with alarm posts and turrets, not to mention all kinds of soldiery, and things are looking good.
Unfortunately, my wife’s Vox Populi (red) are doing just as well. She’s taken the expansive and high-value northeast, and she’s accomplished a couple minor objectives, like “Enhanced” for upgrading her soldiers, which she totally stole out from under me on a previous round. She’s doing better than I am at locking down her native territories, though she hasn’t had the same problems I have, like stubborn locals and a murderous lone Pinkerton agent who’s wiped out two of my armies and just won’t quit. Because of her good fortune and better strategy, she’s also up to five victory points, and her city districts are every bit as well-patrolled as my own.
In short, in nearly any other game, we’d have a stalemate on our hands.
Not so in The Siege of Columbia.
Dudes on a (Flying) Map
There are a dozen things I want to tell you about The Siege of Columbia: how its mechanics and theme perfectly intersect, how effortlessly familiar it will be to fans of the videogame without requiring its players to know anything at all about the world of Bioshock Infinite before they’re allowed to enjoy it, how it tells the story of a very special young woman and the broken man tasked with rescuing her as you play, and how that story is both fascinating and impactful on the gameplay without ever overshadowing the action. I could go on for four or five thousand words if I really believed anyone would read all that. Instead, since I’m unconvinced anyone is particularly interested in my word-vomit, I’ll start by telling you that the way the game handles movement is really, really cool.
The problem with most “Dudes on a Map” games is that they so often tend towards stalemates. After the initial clamor to seize a few advantageous positions, so many games grind to a halt. Probe the enemy, but don’t commit! Reinforce parallel to your opponent’s strongpoints! Wait for the enemy to break against your lines! Hold Australia! But in Siege of Columbia, the exact opposite is true: you’re winning when you’re moving, and it has everything to do with how your fighters get around the map.
See, all this “city in the sky” stuff is more than just pretty window dressing. In your race to pick up ten victory points before your opponent, you can either claim objective cards, which only appear at a trickle and may or may not mesh with whatever long-term strategy you’re pursuing, or by claiming one of Columbia’s six territories — territories separated by hundreds of feet of empty sky.
Enter the sky-line, a rail system running loops around the entire city. On your turn, when you get to move four of your units (or more, depending on what cards you’re holding), you can either move them from one location within a territory to another — that’s the boring regular way to get around — or you can order your men to break out the sky-hooks and sky-line it up, and pray they get to their destination safely. Your units can move as far as they like via sky-line, though every stop requires you to roll a trio of dice. So long as you roll even one thumbs-up, your boys are safe; roll nothing but numbers and you’ll find yourself shedding cards — and eventually your traveling units themselves as they tumble into the empty blue.
Back to our game. Much to my shame, it’s Somerset who first grasps the advantages of bold sky-line movement. With both sides comfortably entrenched, she starts taking risks. I’ve put together what I consider the perfect defense: alarm posts in front, staffed with loads of common units, a combination that will let me roll overwhelming quantities of weak white dice; and long-range turrets stashed to the rear to lend a slightly beefier blue die to all adjacent locations. These turrets are totally unprotected — after all, why bother wasting precious troops to protect the artillery?
Turns out there’s a few rather compelling reasons when there are sky-lines strung overhead. Somerset takes her chances on the rails and wins big, moving some of her more powerful handymen and leader units right over my defenses. A few card-reveals and dice-rolls later, I’m down two victory points because I don’t control all of the northwestern territory’s three locations anymore.
Her second attack is like an arrow directed straight at the heart of my home base, flying over the unoccupied middle area and landing smack dab on my main stronghold. Since I only have a couple measly common units there, she cleans up and happily claims the “Destruction” objective card for destroying an enemy stronghold. Now the score stands at Somerset six and Dan three.
The best thing about this system is that it can be exactly as chaotic as it sounds, but it’s only overpowered when you’re static. Stationary. Motionless. The best defense is a healthy dose of sky-line raids, after all. Thanks to Somerset’s impressive seizure of initiative, I spend the next few rounds fighting to retake my territory, slowly pushing her out of each little location and gradually re-hiring the units she’s killed and rebuilding the structures she’s destroyed. For all my (slow) success, I’m still losing the economic long-game — see, losing a battle only loses you one unit. The rest retreat to one of your strongholds, so there isn’t too much sting in losing one or two fights. However, when you lose a defensive action, any structure in that district is also burnt to the ground, and between a dead unit and a smoldering structure, there’s now twice as much reason to attack as there is to wait for the enemy to come ’round the sky-lines. It’s a subtle mechanic at first, barely registering as worthwhile to risk your units moving long distances — until it’s not subtle at all. In fact, at that point, it’s blaring.
Want to win? Get moving.
There’s Always Some Cards
The second thing I want to tell you about are the cards, because this wouldn’t be a Plaid Hat game without some kind of agonizing hand management.
Each turn you get to draw five of these beauties. Both sides have their own deck, and while they share some similarities — roughly half of the units and all the “vigors” (magical powers fueled by Quantum Science or something) — they also have a lot of unique flavor too. Now, the really interesting thing about the cards is that they each have different uses. The most obvious is their combat value, and most of the card abilities (which we’ll talk about momentarily) make them even better in battle. It’s tempting to use your whole hand for launching assaults or holding onto them as insurance for when the enemy starts dropping handymen off a sky-line.
Tempting, but far too simple. If you want to succeed in taking Columbia, you’re going to have to decide how to use each card, each turn.
At the start of each round, a vote is held. It might be the “Purify Columbia” order, which lets the Founder player draw an extra card and place a free common unit on the board, or “Rewards of Conquest” that sees the Vox Populi looting a couple dollars after each combat win. You’re going to want to win that vote — not only because the reward printed on each voting card is considerable, but also because whoever pays the most influence (the golden symbol on each card) gets to be the first player that round. Since you can only claim victory point cards on your turn, and since these victory point cards are often simple enough that both sides can fulfill their requirements with a mere one or two turns of effort, it’s often in your best interests to drop a whole lot of cards in order to go first and gobble up an objective before your opponent can. I mentioned above that Somerset had stolen the “Enhanced” victory card out from under me, an objective we were both on the brink of claiming, and this is how she did it.
Alternatively, you could invest a couple weaker cards to bluff your opponent into wasting some tasty combat boosts. Y’know, if you’re awesome like that.
Striking a balance between combat and influence would be difficult enough, but those aren’t the only ways to use your cards. At the start of each turn, you have yet another option to consider. Your war machine isn’t going to fuel itself, and you’ll need lots of silver eagles (the dollar of this sky-city) to buy all the units and structures necessary for seizing and holding territories, which means you might also want to ditch a bunch of cards to pick up some cash. When it’s finally time to do some actual moving and attacking, it’s entirely possible to discover you don’t have many cards left — let alone having enough to save for your opponent’s inevitable attacks.
In short, it’s a juggling act. Though in this case, one dropped ball can be the difference between having enough left over to protect your territory or letting your opponent walk all over you. Or between having enough cash to get your airship flying again or only having enough for a regular infantry dude. Or between winning the vote and going first or losing and watching your opponent gain some horrifically nasty advantage over you. Basically, between being really sexy or being unimpressive and smelly.
Feel Limited? Enhance Your Performance!
There’s already a lot you can do with your cards, and they might seem somewhat paltry compared to the magnitude of your needs. Thank Ben Franklin you can upgrade them! (That was a Bioshock Infinite joke. If you don’t get it, just ignore me).
Anytime you win something — the first player vote, a victory card, a battle — or when you decide you can afford to spend a little extra cash, you get to pick an upgrade. These can improve the values on any card, making them better in combat, more influential, or worth more silver eagles. Have you found you really don’t like using Shotgunners in battle because you’ve had bad luck in the past? Boost their values and spend them for heaps of influence or cash instead!
Cards also come with an ability, but most of them are locked at the outset of the game. As you upgrade your cards, you can also choose to unlock those abilities, granting your units fabulous powers. Now your Sharpshooter is more than just a middling combat and influence card, you can also discard him to snipe an enemy common unit in an adjacent location! Handymen turn into massive combat boosts when deployed solo, Flak Men fare best in battles with loads of enemy units, Shotgunners add a heap of attack points but run the risk of friendly fire. The Vox Populi side has a couple abilities to you help traverse the sky-lines a bit more safely, while the Founders transform into masters of defense.
Between all these possible upgrades, there’s lots of room to tailor a unique force. Like winning votes? You can do that! Need to boost your combat numbers? Strapped for cash? You can fix those problems too. The one itch you can never quite scratch is the constant want of a few more upgrades.
Elizabeth & Booker
The last thing I want to talk about is the background story, the tale of the captive girl Elizabeth and the man tasked with saving her, Booker DeWitt. If you’ve never played the videogame, have no fear: you don’t need to know a single thing about Bioshock to enjoy The Siege of Columbia. I’m not saying the license is tacked-on, not by any means, but it really isn’t particularly important. When a game is this good, it spins its own stories faster than a liar at a job fair.
Here’s all you need to know: as the protagonist of a videogame, Booker DeWitt is a murderous scumbag who will happily wipe out your forces with very little effort (though he isn’t unbeatable), so it’s best to give him a wide berth. He bounces back and forth through the city, killing and burning and ruining your plans. I mean, not always. But a lot. Often enough you’ll come to dread the world event phase. The little punk will sometimes even mess with your votes, just because he woke up in an asshole mood that morning.
On the flipside is Elizabeth, a rather gifted young woman with tons of power at her fingertips (in more ways than one, though that’s another Bioshock Infinite in-joke). Booker will often pursue her location relentlessly, but as the game progresses, and her story along with it, there are often benefits to controlling her location. Whether those benefits outweigh the fact that controlling Elizabeth usually means Booker will come gunning for you is a decision you’ll have to weigh on your own time. Either way, this duo makes for a fabulous sideshow, bringing all sorts of possible benefits and dangers, and all without ever really providing too much distraction from the ongoing civil war.
This has already gone on way too long, though I could easily double the word count talking about the cleverness behind this game. I’ll spare you, because you seem like a cool lady/dude. Suffice it to say, I’ve already given you my final score: this game is now the undisputed One True King of videogame licensed boardgames. Better yet, it’s one of the three best games I’ve played this year, period.