Yesteryear: Apocalypse Chaos
Yesteryear is a feature that reaches into the past and plucks the choicest fruits from the cardboard vine. Some are classics, known and loved but cast aside. Others may have come and gone without notice. Either way, they’re the games we keep hanging onto. This time it’s Brock Poulsen’s turn to harvest from his shelves.
2015 was a wild year for board games. The same could probably be said for several of the last ten or twelve years, but none of those years gave us the likes of Pandemic Legacy, Blood Rage, TIME Stories, and Kingdom Death: Monster. It’s no surprise, then, that a little box like Apocalypse Chaos slipped through the cracks.
Apocalypse Chaos is an odd little bundle of cardboard. The title is just about as generic as it could be, bringing to mind nothing in particular. It aims for a sort of tower defense with a sci-fi theme, and for the life of me I can’t tell if it needed more detail or less. The enemy cards have basic names like Sprinter or Scrapper, while the player characters have no names at all. Whatever the story, however great the design, it resulted in a final product that, shall we say, lacks personality.
Which is an utter shame, because I imagine a fair number of gamers have walked right past its high-action, tilted cover without giving it more than a glance. And they have missed out on a tense, smart game with just the right amount of puzzling and randomness.
But let’s talk about what happens when you actually play this thing. Like any good adventure, Apocalypse Chaos starts with the sudden appearance of threatening figures. The players have been given the assignment of defending six to ten squares of cardboard from alien baddies. Doing this is as simple as rolling a handful of dice — five for each character, in pleasant matching colors — and assigning them to the icons on their player boards.
Dice enable melee or ranged attacks, movement around the board, as well as activating special abilities and useful parts on the map. Play continues in a loose “initiative” order, starting with the characters or enemies that have one lightning symbol, then two, and finally those with three.
The first thing I’ll say about Apocalypse Chaos is that it’s efficient. It accomplishes feats that larger games aspire to using just a small stack of cards, some tokens and standees, and its colorful custom dice. Enemies are represented by cards, with simple iconography to communicate their behavior and special abilities. On the reverse side of each enemy card is the reward you earn for defeating them. That’s almost everything you need to know about the game.
While the dice obviously inject a healthy dose of randomness, the rest of the game is comfortingly, crushingly predictable. Bad guys have their agendas written literally all over their paper faces. You can count on that guy to punch the tile in front of him, then shoot the next tile over, and then sidle to the right. The guy over there is more of a shoot, run, then punch kind of guy. You get the idea. Not only do you know what each enemy is planning, you know when it will happen.
Knowing all of that in advance — being able to effectively see into the future — grants a feeling of control and power. You’re outgunned and outmanned, facing a hopeless situation, but this foresight makes every round a desperate scramble for safety, coupled with the need to fight back. With just five precious dice for each character, it requires a cruel economy of actions. Which brings us to the dreaded quarterback problem.
The player count advertises hosting 1 to 4, but I’d hesitate to recommend Apocalypse Chaos when there are too many other sentient beings around your table. It requires meticulous planning every round, and if you’re at all like me you snarl like a wolverine when someone tries to encroach on your clever punching and shooting.
Compounding the territorial conflict is the presence of dice-sharing; after they’re rolled, each player can give away up to two of their dice, with no expectation of reciprocation. So sometimes a player may end up with seven dice, while their partner has only three. This means asymmetry, but usually not the fun kind. It’s a clever way to add balance and versatility, and a complete non-issue when you’re the only one at the table, but with more players there may be the feeling (and the math) that some are having less fun than others.
I can confidently recommend Apocalypse Chaos for one player, and I even feel pretty good about putting my stamp on it as a two-player game. It’s quick and clever, with an unrivaled efficiency that will have you set up and fighting for your life within minutes. It has a predictability to balance its uncertainty, making for a perfect mix of dread and hope. But with more than two players, I’m afraid it would just be too many gun-wielding robotic cooks in the violence kitchen.
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