Salvation: Worth It?
Comparisons can be a tough thing for a board game to weather. Is it fair to compare any particular game to another, especially since people might not have played whatever’s being used as the point of reference? Or would it be unfair to not draw comparisons, failing to trust your audience to understand what you’re talking about and letting them make up their own dang minds?
Take Salvation Road, for instance. It’s easy to compare it to Dead of Winter. They’re both games about scavenging in a post-apocalyptic landscape. They’re both about survival. They both feature a diverse and randomized cast of characters, some better suited to their task than others. Most importantly, despite a pretty lengthy list of differences, they both feel extremely similar.
But let’s begin by talking about Salvation Road on its own merits.
The situation should be relatively familiar for anyone who’s watched one of the Mad Max movies. Long story short, some manner of ill-defined collapse has made the planet dry and dusty, people have gone nutso, and everyone’s now got a leather fetish. Fuel, medical supplies, food, and ammunition are all in short supply, so your crew of misfits has mostly survived by scavenging what they need from the nearby town. Making matters worse, the local biker gang has started amassing near your borders, flexing their oily muscles, talking trash, and flicking cigarettes at your feet whenever you pass. You know, ruffian stuff.
Sounds pretty dire, right? Well, fortunately, you’ve heard tell of a town called Salvation, which is both too on-the-nose and fortuitous. Unfortunately, it’s a long drive away, you’re short on supplies, and apparently the jerks at Salvation charge an entry toll.
Right away, Salvation Road sets itself apart with its unique visual aesthetic. Like Dark Moon, which worked hard to sell the idea that players were low-wage workers on an ass-end-of-the-system space station, here everything revolves around the idea that you’re a bunch of unwashed survivors trying to figure out how the hell they’re going to reach Salvation. To that end, your “map” is really just a bunch of pen scribbles on butcher paper, while locations are represented by instant-film Polaroids. Even the cards charting the path to Salvation are highway signs. It might not be much, but it goes a long way to setting the tone of what follows.
What follows is mostly a juggling act, sending your scavengers out to search locations and then hauling your findings back home to load onto the truck. The longer you spend at a location, the more you’ll have to rummage around, attracting attention and potentially getting roughed up. Every so often a crisis will arise, causing more trouble unless you swap some of your precious resources. There are plenty of tough decisions to make, especially when it comes to driving off the bikers before enough of them have accumulated to mount an attack, or when some crisis can be mitigated by spending a resource that you’re desperately short on. Nicely, it’s even possible to scout the route to Salvation ahead of time, gauging what you’ll need to survive on the road.
If you survive the biker gangs and injuries long enough to set off, the game comes down to one of the coolest finishing scenes in recent memory, where you roll down the highway encountering all the perils you’ve previously scouted (or not, which is inadvisable). Eventually you might wind up in front of Salvation, at which point they’ll demand their toll. And since you can’t know in advance what they’ll ask for, all the previous decisions have an edge of doubt to them. Should you pack extra food in case the punks at Salvation want it, or should you just chow down to avoid taking damage from the recent famine?
If this sounds largely familiar, that might be because it’s nearly identical to the turn-by-turn feel of Dead of Winter. You’ll send guys out to locations, pick up some resources, and occasionally trek home. You’ll get hurt, then maybe use some medicine or talk to the character who can heal people. Events will show up, and you’ll debate whether to use your resources to ameliorate them, or keep them stockpiled to pursue victory.
This isn’t to say the two games are identical, and not only because Salvation Road feels at times like a pared-down version of its colder cousin, the same scavenging simulator sans crossroads stories, hidden goals and the possibility of a traitor, and the constant threat of being consumed by a zombie. Instead, there are some interesting ideas in Salvation Road that let it stand on its own. For one thing, each player is given two characters. The first is a hero, a tough character with some sort of perk, while the second is a wimp whose main job is to drag you down. Much of the game revolves around using your characters in such a way that prevents them from getting killed — if anyone loses both of their characters, it’s game over — while also maximizing their efforts. It winds up feeling quite a bit like a risk-management puzzle, all about planning out the best way to stockpile those resources, keep the bikers at bay, and keep everyone relatively healthy.
Sadly, my main issue with Salvation Road comes down to that sticky old comparison. Dead of Winter has its faults, but the repetitive nature of searching locations day in and day out was perhaps the worst offender. By stripping out nearly everything else, especially the lingering uncertainty that somebody might be working counter to the colony’s goals, Salvation Road ends up feeling anemic, too reliant on its single puzzle. By the end of each session, I was left wanting more. More danger from the bikers, who sit around comparing tattoos until they overwhelm you and it’s game over. More options for combat or healing or luck mitigation. More player-driven memorable moments. More everything. There are hundreds of possible combinations of characters and locations, which means the puzzle it presents will never manifest in quite the same way twice — and also means that Salvation Road makes for a rather good solo experience — but when it comes to its status as a regular multiplayer game, none of that matters if the long dusty road to Salvation starts looking all too familiar after the first couple miles.