There’s a well-known quandary in wargames where designers grapple with the accuracy of their own simulations. How closely should a game hew to its historical outcome? Should both sides be equally able to win a conflict, or should the same historical inevitability that ruled yesteryear also rule the game sitting before you on the table? Which better captures the spirit of an event, its true outcome or the uncertainty that rattled within the heads of its actors?
Unless your name is Jake Peralta, Die Hard isn’t history. Still, its cardboard adaptation, Die Hard: The Nakatomi Heist: Board Game, raises similar questions.
If you haven’t seen Die Hard, that most sublime of all action movies starring Bruce Willis when he still retained a perfect head of hair, then let me stop you right now, because I’m going to spoil the crap out of it. Or rather, there’s no way to talk about the board game version without spoiling the film version. Remember when Bruce Willis’s John McClane arrives at Nakatomi Tower to meet his wife Holly, except terrorists intercept the party, take hostages, and begin hunting for the loose cop? McClane hides on a different floor, steals a radio and machinegun, and begins thinning out the baddies. After getting a pep talk from Winslow from Family Matters, he eventually realizes the terrorists plan to blow up the hostages and fake their own deaths, so he drops a bomb down an elevator shaft, herds the hostages away from the helipad, and pushes Severus Snape out the ten thousandth floor in slow motion.
Remember all that? So does the board game. In fact, the board game hits the exact same story beats in the same order, right down to the prevalence of shuffling around the building’s air vents. Practically the only thing missing is when Winslow shoots that Nordic terrorist who looks like he ate Jean-Claude Van Damme earlier that evening. And Argyle. But there’s a little Argyle in everybody’s heart, so he’s not missing, precisely.
Not that this is an entirely terrible thing. In fact, there are even a few interesting details, like how the board unfolds — literally, it unfolds — from one act to the next. Or how John McClane is playing a run-and-gun shooter weighed against his own stamina. Or how the thieves are running and gunning too, but also playing a minigame as they crack into the Nakatomi Corporation’s vault. So before we get into the game’s troubles with its adaptation, let’s dig into those details.
First of all, it’s impressive how both sides of the heist approach their goals in ways that are different without being so totally divergent that they wind up feeling burdensome. John McClane, for example, is a man of endurance. His deck slowly depletes itself. Early on, he draws a bunch of cards, picks one to use, and resolves its listed actions to run around, shoot or punch baddies, maybe eventually dial up the Family Matters channel for a motivational chat, and search his current floor for objective tokens.
The rub is that all that running and punching and yanking shards of glass from the soles of his bare feet gradually take a toll, and McClane is forced to discard some of his cards. Over time, including the long game as the board is unfolded from one scene to the next, the cards he uses are shuffled into the next act’s deck while his discards and leftovers are dumped forever. This doesn’t completely capture the film’s sense of a man being abused until he resembles hamburger fed through a taffy machine; the deck is far too generous for that. But it’s approximate, forcing McClane to meter out his stamina and sometimes take a breather rather than blasting extra terrorists.
Those terrorists, meanwhile, are playing collaboratively, especially if they have two or three players at the helm. Their cards list similar actions, letting them punch and shoot and so forth, but they play three cards at once. This might sound like it would let them swarm poor McClane. Instead, each card has a numerical value, and only the middle card actually provides actions. The others are punched into a minigame where you’re trying to match adjacent numbers in order to break through the Nakatomi vault and steal $640 million in bearer bonds. It isn’t especially complicated, but provides some context to why you don’t simply send out everybody to gun down that pesky cop — unlike the worst Bond villains, you aren’t here to arch McClane. You’re here because you have a plan. He’s a fly in your ointment, not your objective.
Speaking of objectives, each act is soon straitjacketed by a list of goals. Not coincidentally, this is also where the cracks begin to show.
It goes like this. In the first act, McClane is a man on the run. Scattered around the floor are face-down tokens, which conceal a machinegun and radio, both of which are essential for McClane to progress to the next act. He’s also required to take out at least one terrorist for his shoes — which are, of course, too small, because in the movie they were too small. Then the board is unfolded to reveal a larger floor, this one with panes of glass that the terrorists can shoot to cause wounds when McClane moves over them. McClane hunts for more face-down tokens, this time for C4 and a detonator to drop down the elevator shaft, and again takes down a terrorist, this time to chuck out the window and draw the attention of the police. When the third act rolls around, McClane needs to shoot his machinegun on the roof to herd the hostages away from the helipad, then descend to a lower floor (via fire hose) to nudge Snape out the window. It’s all rather familiar.
Again, this isn’t terrible — for one play. But by tracing the exact procession of events that John McClane took when he heroically rescued all those hostages back in 1988, the game not only sheds any sense of replay value, but also lacks the very things that made Die Hard such a tremendous work of fiction. Namely, its sense of uncertainty, shock, and improvisation. When Snape ordered his men to shoot the glass, it represented a thinking mind effectively checkmating his opponent. When McClane ran across the glass and then kept going, it was a showcase of willpower and endurance. These two men were both out-thinking and out-enduring one another. In the board game, neither concept plays much of a role.
Like I mentioned earlier, there’s a sense of adapting a thing’s “spirit” rather than merely adhering to the events as they occurred. The recent board game adaptation of Jaws is a prime example. Much like Die Hard: The Nakatomi Heist, Jaws is divided into acts that occur in an indelible order, one after the other. But within those acts, there’s far more wiggle room. Call it player agency. Rather than tracing a straight line from one goal to the next, both the hunters and the shark are provided an overriding objective — catch the shark vs. eat a bunch of people — but broad latitude in how those objectives are accomplished. More importantly, Jaws successfully evokes the spirit of its source material: paranoia, an omnipresent sense of threat and helplessness, the thrill of the chase. By contrast, Die Hard faithfully reproduces the film’s sequence but little of its feeling.
It certainly doesn’t help that portraying the battle as a quasi tactical shooter was a weird choice. If anything, it would have functioned perfectly as a hidden movement game, with McClane eluding his captors and picking them off while they work toward their own ends. But there’s no real point in critiquing a theoretical game rather than the one we got. Especially not when it came within a hair’s breadth of succeeding.
What I mean is that the thieves aren’t nearly as bound by their objectives as McClane. While they’re still given three goals each act, at no point are they essential. Rather, these objectives provide optional perks to their ongoing vault-cracking — effectively buying time before the police expose their robbery. This gives the thieves more latitude, letting them divide their attention between hunting McClane, accomplishing objectives, and plain old safe-busting. As a result, their experience is the truer of the two. They have a goal — to sit on a beach earning twenty percent — and everything is either in service of that goal or a necessary distraction. Exactly as it should be.
A couple years back, my wife gave me a book recounting the story of Die Hard to the cadence of Clement Clarke Moore’s “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” complete with lines like, “Karl swept the ground floor, shooting every guard dead / while visions of bearer bonds danced in his head.” It’s a silly thing, good for some laughs and not much else. The same goes for Die Hard: The Nakatomi Heist. Except maybe minus the laughs. There are a few details to appreciate with this adaptation, in particular with its villains. But when you get right down to it, this one isn’t likely to elicit hollers of yippee-ki-yay.
A complimentary copy was provided.