Interrupt me if this is a spoiler, but it’s the factions that do it. Can a review be spoiled? If so, I just spoiled myself.
Neuroshima Hex has been a thing for a while now. Ten years, in fact. When it first appeared on the scene, Portal Games was much smaller than it is now, and Michał Oracz was just beginning to show his prodigy-levels of cleverness at creating distinct factions. In essence, Neuroshima Hex was the broadside that started the war. After all, this was before his wonderful Theseus: The Dark Orbit and the brand-new Cry Havoc, both of which are all about the way their various factions intersect, clash, and resolve their differences. Usually by shooting or eating each other. Sometimes both.
Now it’s ten years later and Neuroshima Hex is still going strong. And I’m going to tell you why it’s the raddest abstract tile-laying game on the market.
Rather than talking about the basics, let’s talk about the factions. Because really, it’s the factions that make Neuroshima Hex shine.
The basic box comes with four of them. If that sounds like a lot, it isn’t. Not in Neuroshima Hex, which plays so quickly that it’s easy to wrap up a game, spend some time kvetching about how overpowered your opponent’s pieces were, and set up an entirely new match just so you can try them out for yourself. That’s the childlike joy of this thing: seeing how different combinations stack up. There’s nothing quite like watching a five- or six-person game in the making, even though a game with that many people is going to be absolute chaos. When everyone selects who they’ll be commanding, it’s a toybox of possibilities that’s been dumped out onto the table. Can Mephisto beat Mississippi this time? It’s the “Can my favorite superhero beat your favorite superhero” of our childhoods, but condensed into a tile game.
Let’s start with Moloch. They’re the robot team. Also the red team. And they’re the ones most likely to set up a bunch of ranged shots that you can’t block.
Backing up just a tad, your goal in Neuroshima Hex is to inflict damage on your opponent’s — or opponents’ — headquarters. To do this, you’ll need boots on the ground, dudes with blades or guns who can stab or shoot at anything standing between them and that HQ. Melee attacks are pretty much what you’d expect, one tile poking at the tile next to it. Ranged shots, on the other hand, will hit the first enemy tile in a line from where they’re positioned. Shooting someone far away or point-blank, it’s all the same.
Moloch is great at ranged attacks. He’s a robot, so no surprise there. His strategy often revolves around setting up lots of ranged guys behind lots of stabby guys. Unfortunately, while Moloch is a bit easier to learn for this reason, he’s also the guy whose tiles you’re most likely to waste.
Backing up again, this is because each turn in Neuroshima Hex is as simple as drawing three tiles, pondering over which ones will work best right now, and then throwing one away and placing the other two on the board. Some tiles do special stuff, like starting a battle or blowing up an enemy tile, but for the most part it’s that easy: draw three, chuck one, place two.
Moloch’s difficulty is that he’s got a whole lot of individual tiles. Where many of his opponents have a whole bunch of a particular unit, meaning they can rely on pulling it out every so often, Moloch is likely to be the guy who gives you three totally unique tiles, all three of them awesome and useful, and the mere thought of tossing one into your discard pile is a sort of post-singularity sin, because you’ll never see that piece again.
Hand management and tough decisions. If the factions weren’t so awesome, those would be what make Neuroshima Hex great.
The thing is, I meant to talk in depth about all four of those basic factions, and I’ve already spent a whole lot of ink on just the first one. That’s how cool they are.
Next up is Borgo, the blue mutant team. These guys are more stabby, mostly because their fingers are too mutated to fit inside a gun’s trigger guard. Their advantage, on the other hand, is that they’re speedy. Their guys have a high initiative — and, backing up for what I think will be the last time, that means when a battle rolls around and everybody starts slamming or shooting everybody else, they get to attack first. So while Moloch is hiding a bunch of shooters in the corners of the map, Borgo usually slaps his HQ right smack in the middle of the action and kills off his enemies before they ever get to do anything.
The other two factions are just as dynamic. The Outpost, a.k.a. green, is all about staying mobile. For the most part this means they use tiles that let them move their guys, switching the direction their guns are facing or dodging away from an enemy attack, but it can also mean they’re doing so much shooting that they’re opening up lots of holes to move into. And then there’s the Hegemony (yellow), who are pretty much average except for all their nets. Yes, nets. Picture a Roman gladiator retiarius, chucking nets over his enemies to keep them still while he stabs them. That’s what the Hegemony does. Post-apocalyptic gladiators with fishing nets.
That’s just scratching the surface, because once you get tired of those same vanilla teams there are so many more factions to play with. There are the Steel Police, who can sometimes reflect an enemy’s damage back at them. They also like nets. There’s New York, which is all about protecting their HQ and letting their HQ protect them in return. The Dancer and Mephisto are totally different, just a few units on the board who are supercharged by all their other tiles. When Uranopolis isn’t feeling sorry for themselves for sounding like a bodily function, they’re busy boasting some of the toughest units in the game — albeit units who require a power source or they can’t do a thing. And my personal favorite is Mississippi, a pack of isolationist hillbillies who live in a swamp. They actually act the part, isolationist because they carve out a little section of the board where they can’t be touched, and swamp-dwellers because rather than deal direct damage they like to poison you over time.
Thematically speaking, this is all surprisingly successful. Not in the sense that you’ll ever go, “Oh no, another hunter-killer! My poor Gangster!” But rather, in the sense that each faction feels like it’s behaving according to the broad strokes of how its people would actually conduct the business of war. For an abstract game, the fact that Mephisto actually behaves like a skittering monster while New York plays like a bunch of dudes hell-bent on holding their few acres of urban paradise is downright impressive.
Perhaps best of all — other than the factions, anyway — is the fact that this works completely well with pretty much any player count. With two, it’s a tight little dueling game where every single tile matters. With three to six, it’s a chaotic brawl where you’ll need to carefully wrangle every possible advantage in order to win. Both are wonderful in their own right.
If you’re the sort who insists on downsides, the main thing is that this is a puzzle game that relies a whole lot on intersecting parts. Battles are the primary offender, as you must count each unit’s initiative, account for bonuses from adjacent structures, and then dole out damage in carefully-tracked order. It’s never completely overwhelming, but it pays to have somebody who knows the rules at the table. In some ways, the app version of the game is preferable simply because it performs these actions automatically, never erring.
Even so, Neuroshima Hex is one of my favorite games and a welcome regular at our table. It’s simple enough for newcomers to dive into, yet deep enough that I have yet to lose my interest in it after hundreds of plays.