The Cardboard Noom
First of all, the thing about id Software’s New Doom — which shall henceforth and forever be portmanteau’d as Noom, because it makes me giggle — is that it was actually, against all odds, an incredible shooter. It was frantic and controlled in equal measures. It boasted a tempo that shrieked between exploration and violence. It was good. Which was a tremendous surprise, considering how uninterested id seemed to be in making good games anymore.
Perhaps even more improbably, Fantasy Flight’s new board game rendering of Noom is also good, and largely for the same reasons.
Before we get into anything else, let me give you my favorite example of how cardboard Noom successfully captures digital Noom.
In the digital version, your character doesn’t take stock in cover. Sure, you can duck behind the occasional corner, but crouch out of sight behind an improbably-positioned block of concrete? Nah, that isn’t you. Instead, the game’s tempo is all about positioning. Enemies shoot fireballs or flames or rockets at you, and you dodge around them. You’re nimble. You climb and scoot. And after taking some hits, rather than waiting for your health to regenerate — because that’s wimpy and not even in the game at all — you’ll shoot a monster, run up, and punch him to death. Maybe with one of his own limbs.
These are called “glory kills,” and they heal you for no reason other than because they’re awesome. They’re gory and silly and conform perfectly to the over-the-top killing spree that is Noom. They also set the tone of the entire game. Rather than hide behind cover, your continued well-being revolves around taking risks. The closer you get to enemies, the harder they are to dodge; yet only by getting close can you perform a glory kill. The entire game, therefore, is about dodging around enemy fire while you charge into it.
Cardboard Noom does the same thing. When playing as the space-marines, you’re nearly always outnumbered. Your guys wouldn’t mind sticking to cover, since it gives you the option of drawing an extra defense card if the first one flubs. But health packs are few and far between and can’t be split between warriors. What’s a squad to do?
Well, the answer is pretty much the same as in digital Noom. You shoot some enemies until they’re injured enough, then charge forward and punch their lights out. For your trouble you’ll get healed a couple points and pick up a card that will give you an additional ability whenever you want to cash it in. As with digi-Noom, this transforms the entire process from the usual corridor crawl into a series of escalating risks. Not only will you heal a bit, but you might also get to wipe out an enemy earlier than you would by shooting at it — though of course you’re exposing yourself to later counterattack in the process. Just this one little decision presents a whole lot to consider.
The other half of this equation is that your actions are limited by your weapons. Rather than giving you access to the full range of options all at once, your marine will start off with a basic set of cards — armor, a pistol, that sort of stuff — and a couple weapons of your choice. Each weapon provides its own set of cards, shuffled into your action deck, each tweaking your range of choices in their own way. A shotgun, for instance, might shred enemies up close and provide the freedom to move around, while an assault rifle presents a more measured and longer-ranged set of cards.
Even better, you can pick up new weapons as you crawl through each scenario, further beefing up your options. The chainsaw lets you perform glory kills with hardly any effort, for example, while the rocket launcher lets you deal splash damage to neighboring monsters.
The results of these systems are profound. Where far too many corridor crawlers wind up feeling repetitive, with each round consisting mostly of praying to the dice gods as goodies and baddies fire back and forth, Noom feels tactical. When to run up, when to fall behind cover, when to dart out and pick up a weapon, when to play a particular card — there are loads of decisions to make, all of them important.
The other side of the coin is the demon team, and Noom represents Fantasy Flight at their level best. Pitting a bunch of heroes against a single player in command of the monsters (and, to a lesser extent, the map itself) is nothing new. In particular, this system isn’t too far removed from what they showed us in Star Wars: Imperial Assault and the second edition of Descent: Journeys in the Dark. Unlike the baddies in those games, however, the monster team has never felt quite so fluid, acting less like a hastily-assembled and vindictive Dungeon Master and more like a team you might actually volunteer to play.
Part of this comes down to the initiative system. Each marine and every squad of monsters has a card shuffled into a single deck, and by drawing them out one at a time the order of play is determined. One perk of this system is that you can never bank on the turn order going your way. Sometimes the marines will go one after the other, shredding the monsters until there’s almost nothing left over when their turn finally shows up. Sometimes it goes the other way, in which case you might have to bring a marine back onto the map through a teleporter, the poor guy. Either way, each flipped card will have everyone at the table holding their breath.
Another major factor is that the monsters feel like more than beef being fed into a grinder — which is ironic, considering that these demons represent some of gaming’s original and most memorable cannon fodder. Instead, each monster feels valuable in their own right, and summoning a mix of creatures can pay off big. Imps hurl fireballs before scuttling out of range, Possessed Soldiers can take overwatch shots on marine turns, Pinkies chase down stragglers, Revenants fire powerful rockets that are best avoided, and the big guys — the Barons of Hell, Mancubi, and especially the Cyberdemon — feel truly imposing, the action of the entire battlefield shifting around their appearance. These capture the digital Noom’s menagerie of horrors with admirable care, then take things a step further by letting you empower them through spent cards and stockpiled energy tokens. A shrewd demon player will be a force to be reckoned with.
When you get right down to it, this is Fantasy Flight’s most refined and most immediate take on their corridor-crawling formula. There’s a campaign — of course there is, otherwise an actual portal to hell might open up directly beneath FFG HQ’s foundations — though rather than focus on long-term consequences or accumulated artifacts or whatever, it’s all about plunging you into the action as quickly as possible. With almost no overhead, and certainly no shops or anything fluffy like that, there’s very little preventing you from sitting down and pounding out a match or two.
And it’s glorious. If I’m being candid, I don’t normally enjoy dungeon crawls. Too often they feel deeply repetitive or geared towards dedicated campaign play. But by focusing on tight hand management, actual tactical considerations, and mixed arms on both sides, Noom triumphantly positions itself as one of the raddest corridor crawlers I’ve ever had the pleasure of shooting through.