It’s the nature of children to kill their parents. I’ve come to terms with this, which is why Baby Cate has already received the best firearms, outdoor survival, and martial arts training available to two-year-olds. For a premium, anything is possible. And when the time comes, I’ll put up a noble fight.
Which is perhaps why Posthuman stands out in spite of itself.
Worst first: Posthuman is a mess. A glorious mess, some might argue, but a mess nonetheless. It’s the sort of game that opens by asking everyone to design a character, using a labyrinthine (for a board game) jigsaw of stats, skills, and equipment. Some of those stats raise other stats, while others sport utilities that aren’t immediately apparent. Individual items occupy varying quantities of space in your character’s backpack. Food and ammunition tokens pile alongside heaps of weapons, items, and skills that may or may not have anything to do with the character you’ve built. In one game, my ex-cop, who specialized in ranged combat and was a mere two weeks from retirement when the mutant apocalypse hit, was also inexplicably competent at philosophy. Rust Cohle, I named him.
Even after cobbling together your cast of characters, being propelled into Posthuman’s post-collapse world is reminiscent of being jettisoned from a torpedo tube into a hurricane. There are something like 15 decks to manage, many of which are delved into with regularity. There are two maps, one general and one more zoomed-in, both of which are occupied at any given time by your hunched-over meeples. Events can be immediate or seasonal, and in the latter case they might stick around for a while. Followers might join your party, while two different varieties of minions might gang up on you during enemy attacks.
Ultimately, all this stuff — the character stats, the equipment, the clutter — basically boils down to the flipping of encounter cards. As your survivor limps her way from the starting zone to the legendary Fortress, the last bastion of human security in the face of the mutated offspring that are desperately trying to murder their progenitors, she’ll progress through three ascending levels of difficulty. Reach a new zone, flip over an encounter or two, fight a monster or read a little story, roll some dice, and there you go.
The thing about Posthuman, however, is that it works in spite of itself. This isn’t to say it hums along like a fine-tuned engine, or even that it lumbers without the occasional ungraceful stumble. It starts a mess and stays a mess throughout. It isn’t elegant, is what I’m saying. And yet, none of that really matters, because what Posthuman would like to do is tell you a story about survival. It’s just that it’s a very complicated, detailed, and usually profoundly stupid story, in which its protagonists might be transformed into mutants with extra arms and swollen brains, and thus be driven to hunt down and wipe out their former brethren. It ain’t Proust. Hell, it’s something better: fun.
I recently panned a game called Raid & Trade for being about nothing but flipping tiles and rolling dice, so it might seem odd that I’d celebrate Posthuman for the very same thing. The difference largely lies in what each game’s encounter cards offer. In Raid & Trade, encounters came in two varieties: a dice roll that couldn’t be modified in any way and a simple narrative decision that was identical between every tile. In Posthuman, the encounters initially seem as messy as the sprawl of decks. What scant artwork adorns the card is buried beneath symbols and text, outlining various types of attacks, penalties, restrictions, special conditions, reinforcements, and eventually the rewards for beating the card.
It’s a lot to take in, but within a few rounds the wash of colors slides into focus, revealing a system where encounters not only insist they’re different through italicized flavor texts, but also behave differently in practice. Facing off against a mind-controlling Siren in a duel of mental fortitude feels very different from a shootout with a javelin-chucking mutant. Being snared by a Netboy Trapper might result in a close-quarters fight, while squaring off against a Doomsayer Priest accompanied by a Gang Scout might best be handled at a distance.
Crucially, the resolution of these encounters isn’t entirely reliant on the whims of the dice. All those stats and equipment and skills come into play, letting you manipulate the outcome of any given encounter. A character with high points in speed and shooting might run away and hope to stumble across an easier encounter, or just trade for as much ammunition as possible and riddle their enemies with bullets before the knives come out. Those who like to get up close and personal can do that by hauling around a fireman’s axe or learning skills like Sixth Sense, which negates enemy attempts at sniping or ambushing them. You can be a level-headed sort who rerolls their dice, or attract followers to help out with various tasks, or be a scavenger and dredge up equipment to barter with, or learn skills like Surgery to just fix yourself up after a fight doesn’t go your way. There are any number of ways to survive the wild.
One considerable downside to all this complexity is that the turns can drag, especially with three or four players. It’s apparent that Posthuman would very much like for you to read out every encounter with rapt attention, like pudgy Cub Scouts huddled around the campfire as some bored-stiff counselor recounts the season’s hundredth ghost story, but my group always ended up resolving encounters simultaneously, briefly updating one another on what ills had befallen our character that week. “My guy got beaten up by a Tackler, so I retreated back to the safehouse.” “I just camped and ate some food.” “I saved a Trucker Lady from a Slave Train. She helps me avoid being outnumbered in melee fights.” “I found an Assault Rifle but I still don’t have any bullets.” Got it.
The tension of the game derives from two sources. First of all, the stink-nozzles living in the Fortress are only willing to adopt the first survivor to reach their gates, turning your journey into a constant race. This pitches every step of your journey as one hard choice after another. If you’ve been shredded by a monster, should you rest for the week to recuperate, or press on? If you’ve run out of food, should you scavenge this abandoned farmhouse, or press on? With the other survivors nipping at your heels, you can never truly rest.
Secondly, I mentioned earlier that some people might succumb to mutation, and I meant it. When certain enemies hit you, they also give you special mutant hugs that gradually leech away your humanity. Some wounds might merely be false positives — so even though Geoff has picked up seven wound cards doesn’t mean his transformation is a foregone conclusion — but suffer too many saliva-soaked bites and you’ll swap sides. From then on, you’ll play a simplified game of Pester Your Pals, surrendering all your accumulated skills and equipment for special one-time actions designed solely for harassing everyone else until they join you in the next step of evolution. You might, for example, use Charge! to attack anyone located in a farmland or mountain, dealing wounds to whichever poor sap you’ve decided to pick on. It’s an interesting idea that doesn’t quite measure up to the rest of the game, but at least it gives eliminated players something to do, and often hastens the conclusion of the whole adventure as those left standing are picked off by their former brethren.
Still, it’s somewhat disappointing that this wasn’t fleshed out, especially in a game that provides so much flesh in every single other aspect.
As I said, Posthuman is a mess. Not all of its ideas work, it runs off at the mouth, and sometimes it outstays its welcome. Even so, it’s the sort of game that will appeal to those who love these persnickety narrative games, providing a solid system for building characters and facing challenges. It isn’t the sort of thing I plan to pull out of the closet all that often, but with the right group it’s destined to shine. Or to transform into a bile-hurling mutant with four arms. For some people, that’s a win too.