Some Things Are Better Left Unknown
Unknown is perhaps the most appropriately-titled board game of the past few years. Not only is it about uncovering the darkness of an underground bunker complex after a world-ending disaster, but it’s also relatively, well, unknown. And I aim to put an end to that. The last part, I mean.
Almost immediately, one of the most attractive aspects of Unknown is that it hits on two oft-contrasting points. One, that it’s darn easy to play, and two, that a whole lot of different things can go wrong. This is disguised somewhat by the scattershot rulebook, which winds here and there, not even bothering to give you the real setup instructions until its tenth page — as though you could play the “quick start” version without a good deal of extra reading — but it does eventually congeal into a delightfully simple set of options that nevertheless provides a whole lot to do.
So what exactly is it that you’ll be doing? Good question, Geoff. At first the answer is a pithy “It depends.” There are plenty of scenarios tucked away in Unknown’s box, ranging from rescuing subterranean refugees to clearing out monster lairs. But in practice, no matter what your specific task, your new life underground is dominated by uncovering tiles and scrounging resources. Food is necessary to keep your base operating for a few more turns, your stockpile usually going from plentiful to distressingly hollow-sounding very quickly. Ammunition is used for shooting monsters, scrap for cobbling together armor, barricades, and traps, medicine for keeping everyone on their feet.
At the moment of a particular resource’s greatest need, chances are you won’t have enough of it. Scarcity is one of the oldest tricks in the How To Make a Board Game book, but it’s pulled off well here. Even seemingly straightforward decisions become difficult when shooting that charging feral dog means using up the last of your bullets. Perhaps it would be better to suffer a few bites and fall back on your healthy supply of medicine? Meanwhile, there’s a radiated chamber standing in the way of your expansion; would the medicine be put to better use there? These are the sorts of questions that give Unknown its legs.
If meager resources are the legs of Unknown, then the tiles themselves are the head, arms, and heart. There’s something about delving into the unknown from the safety of our living rooms that Unknown captures, in part because the tiles themselves are so unpredictable. Everything you need is waiting out there in the dark, and in a game where each of your characters only has a small handful of actions each turn, it’s always tempting to push yourself a little farther than is sensible. Crucially, you can collect resources from every tile next to you, saving actions if everything harvested is of the same class. This is a small rule, but a clever one. Even if you’re desperate for another few bullets, uncovering an ammo cache might prompt you to explore just a little farther, pressing your luck in the hopes that you’ll be able to spend just one action to pick up two or even three cubes at a time. The risk is pronounced, however, as the very next tile might send you fleeing from a monster or watch in horror as your precious resources are swept away by a flood or engulfed in flames.
After only a handful of turns, the entire board is a maze of twisting corridors, complete with cave-ins, roving monsters, blocked passageways, and resources you have yet to collect. Your characters will be pushed in multiple directions — a few cubes to collect over here, a monster lair that keeps pooping out enemies over there, and someone in need of aid off in yet another direction. At its best, Unknown is about handing you tough choices and watching you with glittering black eyes while you decide what to do.
Unfortunately, Unknown is also a bit of an amateur production, and not only thanks to the way its rulebook twists and turns in a too-accurate mimicry of one of its bunkers. While Unknown is a rattlesnake when it’s working, after the first half-dozen turns or so it starts to lose some of its… well, everything. Some mystery, some danger, some cleverness. All find themselves on the chopping block as the labyrinth reveals itself, the sprawl of its corridors meaning that more and more of your turns are about backtracking rather than pushing further into the shadows.
There’s nothing quite as boring as having nothing to do on your turn — or worse, over a run of two or three turns — than ferrying a few food cubes back to base just to keep everyone chugging along a little longer. How are you even eating all this food when it takes two turns just to get back home? The answer is a pun too obvious even for me. The point is, while somebody is still pushing at the frontier, setting traps for encroaching monsters or uncovering resources or getting separated from the group by an untimely rockfall, someone is probably going to be playing mule. In a faith where our first commandment is Thou Shalt Not Waste The Player’s Time, that’s unforgivable.
However, there’s an unlikely balm for Unknown’s late-game tedium. After a few plays with my usual group of friends, I was on the verge of giving Unknown a failing grade. The early excitement of each new system of tunnels gave way to the mind-numbing existential terror of traversing long empty hallways. Even the early thrills of discovery couldn’t match the long yawn of each attempt’s second half.
Flying solo, however, erases the problem entirely. By handling the fates of an entire group of survivors at once, there’s no sting to sending one or two on resupply runs while the remainder continue chipping away at their tasks on the fringes. Playing this way, Unknown becomes a number of things: a taut tale of survival, a tower defense game that sees you beating the monsters away from your doorstep, a series of resource management decisions, and most importantly, a roguelike-style adventure where every bunker randomizes the elements it will throw at you, then leaves you to sink or swim.
It isn’t often that I find a game that’s vastly improved by playing without other people, but that’s undeniably the case with Unknown. With my friends, this is a plodding snoozefest, a restless night, forty minutes in time-out. On my own, it’s a tremendous adventure, packed with many of the tough choices, random happenstance, setbacks, and eventual triumphs of a roguelike. Played that way, Unknown is a considerable way to perk up a slow hour.