Welcome to the Cleanup
Somebody made a booboo.
That’s the sad tale that opens John Clair’s Downfall. When the nukes dropped, everything was lost. History, medical knowledge, fourth-wave feminism, a reliable source of pineapple — all gone. Where once stood civilization, now scavengers roam the wastes, dredging up resources with their exosuits, airships, and fallout-mitigating environmental reconstruction technology. With perks like that, it’s almost tempting to go full prepper.
But don’t pour the concrete for that bunker quite yet, because Downfall has some… let’s call them radiation lesions.
I guarantee the first thing you’ll notice about Downfall is the clutter. It’s baked right into the setup. A sprawling map of hexes consisting of terrain ranging from “arable soil” and “blasted city” to “functioning oil well” and “soupy mess.” Some hexes are even divided into two spaces, doubly crowded with starting resources, let alone the bunkers, outposts, airships, and survivors that are your tribe’s property. That’s in addition to the radiation-spewing dead zone and deadly rad tokens you’re required to place nearby. The placement of that dead zone is one of your first major choices; others include where to settle your survivors and the composition of your airships-to-outposts ratio. Some players even begin with an optional replacement tile, just in case they find themselves squatting on too many soupy messes and not enough food.
It’s all a bit extra, as the young folks like to say of their burdensome mutual acquaintances. It’s the sort of setup that gets me hankering for default starting tiles and a static opening build. Especially when my ragtag band of scrappers discovers themselves in thigh-deep water without any reliable source of food.
But here’s the weird thing: this is one of the best parts of Downfall. It’s committed to that opening, to dropping your crew into a garbage dump. To threatening you with starvation and radiation burns, and possibly even total elimination. To making your own corner of the world feel as trashy and useless as the majority of the other hexes you’ll explore. All that clutter? That isn’t cardboard. It’s refuse. Even the garish coloration has a certain radioactive twinge to it.
And frankly, it should have doubled down.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. For now, let’s talk about how the game works.
Downfall’s list of actions comes across as almost traditional. Build builds buildings, such as outposts for cultivating resources, bunkers for unfreezing survivors, and extra airships for zipping around the wasteland. Regrow regrows growing things. Excavate excavates resources for future harvesting. Command commands units to move. Research researches new research for ongoing perks. I’ll give you one guess what Gather does.
But this breezy descriptiveness is a boon because Downfall isn’t interested in simply giving you a list of actions and letting you pick what you’ll do this turn. Instead, you have a hand of four cards, each with a regular action and a minor action, which is the same thing as a regular action but more limited. For example, where a Gather action lets every one of your survivors flip a resource from “raw” to “harvested” — ready to be spent, in other words — the minor version only lets a paltry two survivors flip resources. A minor Command moves half as many units. A minor Reinforce awards a wild resource rather than letting you thaw out more survivors. That sort of thing. Four choices, one pick per turn.
More wildly, this hand of cards is passed around the table after each action. The cards you’re holding now won’t be the cards you’re holding next turn. Those two excellent options you’re waffling over will disappear. That hand of junk will become somebody else’s problem. That unique faction card might wind up in another player’s possession. You’re given a reserve of two cards, which allows for some degree of control. But for the most part, your actions are as reliable as mass produced fallout shelters.
It almost goes without saying that this doesn’t make a lick of sense. Why can’t I order my underlings to glean the resources they’re literally standing on? Why can’t I tell somebody to hike over that hilltop to see if we’re within sniffing distance of food? Wouldn’t it be easier to just pull four random cards from my own deck, rather than bothering with all this round-robin nonsense?
But that misses the point, because this constant action-picking and action-hedging and action-passing does something that a reliable set of actions could never do. Or, crud, that a consistent personal hand of randomly-drawn cards could never do. By stripping out any long-term reliability — most of it, anyway, since you still have those two banked cards — Downfall forces you to be reactive. To play the beggar rather than play the king. To live hand to mouth. Sometimes literally. It forces you into a mindset where your current opportunities might be your only opportunities, because you have no idea when your next chance to eat will swing around.
Let me put it in real-world terms. You’ve probably heard of the Stanford marshmallow experiment. If not, it’s something middle-class moms love to inflict upon their children in order to share on social media. You sit your child at the table and put a marshmallow two inches from their nose. “Now,” you say, in a voice pitched to not spoil this very scientific procedure. “You can eat this marshmallow now. You can totally eat it. I won’t punish you. But! If you wait ten minutes, I’ll give you two marshmallows. Two fluffy lozenges of whipped sugar and gelatin. Just think about that.” The outcome of those next ten minutes is as solemn as a prophecy. If your child proves they can delay gratification and obtain that second marshmallow, they can expect a bright future of high test scores, a house in the suburbs, and type-two diabetes. Everyone else circulates in and out of the prison system.
Like another notable experiment that starts with “Stanford,” there’s a dark twist to this marshmallow business. Because it turns out that the results often say more about the kid’s external factors than their internal resilience to sugary treats. Was the child previously tricked by the tester? Do they hail from circumstances where food is scarce or guardians unreliable? Does their hand of cards circulate around the table, preventing them from knowing when they’ll get another chance to build that vital second bunker?
I’m not being as flippant as you might think. By cornering you with a changing limited selection of actions, Downfall demands regular sacrifice. Research makes future actions more reliable, letting you harvest from adjacent spaces or invent free food. Command lets you strike out into uncertain territory and perhaps discover new sources of sustenance. But it’s hard to take these actions when you have a shot to gather or grow right now, and no idea when you’ll get the chance again. You might even be forced to resort to a card’s wimpier sub-action every so often. After all, winter is coming. And coming and coming and coming.
Yeah, we should talk about winter.
Mixed in among your personal deck of cards are four winters. When drawn, you get a replacement card and a cylinder is pushed along the turn track with all the fanfare of a funeral dirge. The problem isn’t the cylinder itself; it’s the devastation wrought by its passage. Conflicts between players (more on those in a moment), random events like cannibalism or new scoring opportunities, and — worst of all — fallout and starvation.
Starvation is the big one. When this happens, every survivor needs to be fed or they die. Pesky mouths and stomachs. Making this even tougher, any gathered resources that haven’t been stored in outposts, bunkers, and airships will “spoil.” But this happens before the actual feeding, so any gathered food will need to be safely stashed before you can use it. Anything left out in the open is kaput. And while early starvation events provide some free food, these handouts diminish until you’re entirely reliant on what you’ve scavenged or grown.
Fallout, meanwhile, spills out of dead zones. Radiation eventually puddles into new dead zones, and will kill survivors instantly unless they’re shielded. There are a lot of ways to shield your people, but they often pack a trade-off. It’s expensive to build bunkers and outposts, shielded airships require a precious upgrade, and exosuits are nice and all, but for some reason they turn their wearer into a lazy sack who refuses to gather resources anymore. Far better to gather some oil and clean up the radiation before it becomes a problem.
Yes. I said “clean up” the radiation. Trust me, we’ll circle back to that.
Before we do, it needs to be said that the harshness of these events is absolutely what I respect most about Downfall. Entire groups of survivors will die. Player elimination isn’t uncommon. Rather than sanding everything down to smooth curves, John Clair has left a few sharp edges to snag your elbows or get caught underfoot. Any neglected detail can lead to tragedy, from a missed food token to not nabbing a Build card at the right moment. Departed survivors make you feel their absence, both subtracting points and robbing you of any work they might provide in the future. It’s a heavy burden, the sense that your tribe is slowly dwindling, bellies too hollow of food or too full of tumors. But it’s also a remarkably bold design decision, evoking a desperation that doesn’t come easily to mainstream titles. This post-apocalyptic setting is so much more than a splash of paint.
Unfortunately, that’s only when the game is actually functioning as intended.
The problem is that Downfall is too easy when it should be hard and too hard when it should be… well, not easy. But easier.
Consider the way you pick your actions. Having to choose from a hand curated by everyone else at the table is tough. It’s a classic board game decision given real bite, forcing a choice between what’s best for now and what’s best for later, between necessary actions like Gather and Regrow or those that will prove essential over time, like Research and Command. And then Downfall goes and rubs aloe into this rad-burn by letting you bank cards. Bite gone. Or at least jaw loosened to the point that you’re nearly always able to accomplish what you need to before the next Fallout blows through.
The struggle to acquire resources, meanwhile, is so tightly tied to the map that there’s hardly any room for further consideration. Stone and iron are nice, but they’re only essential in small quantities. Same goes for oil, which is useful for beating back radiation and not much else. It’s food you want, in copious amounts. This means that a particular balance can be struck without as much difficulty as you might think. With three food spaces for feeding all your survivors and some oil to mitigate radiation, everything else fills in the gaps.
Of course, not every faction is going to stumble into such an Eden of the wastes. In theory it’s possible to fight over resources, suiting up your survivors and wading into enemy territory to seize their outposts and scrap. Unfortunately, Command actions are so limited (only moving two units), equipping your survivors so expensive (just one iron, but now that survivor can’t gather), and resource demands so tight (there’s no time to waste before that next starvation event) that it’s nearly always more effective to simply gamble on the possibility of exploring a bounteous tile rather than engage in a protracted and costly back-and-forth wrestling match with a neighbor. It’s a peculiar apocalypse that engenders aphorisms like, “He who respects clearly-delineated boundaries will prosper.”
As a result, it’s often better to tend to your corner of the map rather than resorting to warfare, exoduses, or even light raiding. By carefully cultivating a handful of spaces, exploring nearby tiles, and sweeping away encroaching radiation, survival is largely assured. Cleaning up radiation even gives you points, and as long as spaces aren’t collapsing into dead zones there’s no risk of them running dry of resources. So much for scarcity.
It’s easy to imagine a version of Downfall that was given that final turn of the wrench: easier possibility for conflict, grittier action selection, more reason to pick up stakes and lead your people out of the desert and into the promised land. As it stands, Downfall is a risky design that engenders my appreciation more than my affection. I’m glad Clair was willing to take that chance, to craft a game that pushes back against received wisdom by letting hard occurrences befall its players, even to the point of knocking someone out of the running entirely. When it bites, it provides an uncommonly punishing play experience.
The irony is that if Downfall had embraced that leather-and-nails toughness more fully, it could have been something truly special.
A complimentary copy was provided.