Captain Doomsday Laser

how dastardly

Looking back over Tim Fowers’ ludography, one encounters titles like Burgle Bros, Paperback, Hardback, and Fugitive. Small games that defy their size by yielding plenty of play. Bite-sized experiences that mingle with your saliva to swell into a wadded sock that leaves your jaw unhinged and your throat blocked. Except in a good way.

And then there’s… this. If not for the distinctive artwork from Ryan Goldsberry, the large unfolding box, plentiful miniatures, and over-the-top production of Sabotage would feel like a symptom of a minimalist recently disabused of his convictions. This is what happens when the Church of Portable collapses into schism, with Fowers playing Luther and Jeff Krause as that little Oecolampadius fellow.

How strange, then, that Sabotage might also be the best game we’ve seen from this little studio thus far.

Exactly what I expected from a Tim Fowers game.

What on Earth.

It might be. Just wanted to italicize that before the real-life burgle brothers started penning hate mail. Because here’s the deal: Sabotage is fresh. It’s clean. It’s intriguing. It does things nobody else has done, and does them with such style that it’s hard not to fall in love.

And I’m very, very hesitant about recommending it.

But we’ll get to that. Now that I’ve waxed poetic about its originality, let me turn the tables by asking a question. Remember Captain Sonar? Because Tim Fowers and Jeff Krause sure do. Sabotage’s pitch resembles a match of Captain Sonar wrung through a pastiche of last century’s spy flicks. The box unfolds into a screen that divides the table into two sides. Both have their own map, with doomsday lasers, generators, and floor layout perfectly mirrored. And it’s absolutely, unrepentantly a team game. Enter with fewer than the full count at your own peril.

At least in this case the full count is four instead of Captain Sonar’s eight. With that divergence, the similarities end and Sabotage begins to pull away from its inspiration. Where Captain Sonar is all fury all the time, Sabotage is… well, it isn’t exactly contemplating the colors of autumn, but it’s turn-based. There’s no rushing. No shouting. Plenty of listening, yes, but nobody is going to be bellowing at their friend because the engine is busted again.

Instead, Sabotage gives you plenty of new reasons to seethe. Quietly. Seething.

Get it? Plots?

A villain plots his turn in advance.

Let me give you some idea of what’s going on. One team is composed of two villains, their dastardly plans to erect a world-threatening doomsday laser nearing completion. They’re rivaled by a partnership of spies, do-gooders armed with nothing but swagger and a whole lot of high-tech equipment. It’s a game of cat and mouse, except the cat has a loaded gun pointed at the United Nations and the mice are frantically emptying its cartridges while dodging claws and teeth.

That’s the hook. The spies are infiltrators, creeping through an evil lair that boasts locations like a dungeon, missile silo, and a nursery filled with Audrey II-style killer plants, each chamber helpfully alphabetized for the sake of clarity whenever somebody needs to announce a coordinate. Their goal is to approach the doomsday lasers and hack away their charges. Meanwhile, the villains are trying to shoot the spies in the face with an escalating assortment of preposterous weaponry. Yes, there is a land shark. Yes, Sabotage runs with its camp until the finish line lies many kilometers in the rear view.

In practice, the whole thing takes the form of a programmed movement game. One player rolls their four dice and announces the numbers so that everybody is working from an identical set. Everybody chooses their moves from a set of tiles, ranging from basic moves to… well, a lot of stuff. Basic equipment includes very evil (?) stun guns and flashlights, while spies carry scanners and hacking tools. Once the programming is done, the villains execute their moves, followed by the spies.

There are two immediate thoughts I had upon first learning Sabotage. First, it sounds complicated. Second, it sounds like you could cheat with impunity.

Fortunately, both thoughts are answered. Cheating is limited by the presence of a teammate and, with experience, the results of those shared dice results. Complexity is the more immediate conundrum. I have yet to play a game where some question wasn’t raised, usually by somebody on the opposing team, which prevents them from requesting clarification without giving something away. But for a game that features a whole pile of notions, not only asymmetrical goals but also character strengths, unlockable equipment, and proper ways to announce (or not announce) which tiles you’re resolving, Sabotage is surprisingly lean. Not that it’s ever skinny; there’s still plenty of meat to shoulder. But in general turns are readily planned, questions are kept to a minimum, and it isn’t long before your attention zeroes in on the hypothetical location of your enemies.

"We see them! They see us! Because we see them!" —spies, apparently

Preparing some good old Move & Scan.

The core of Sabotage is information leakage from one side to the other, and the method of this transmission is either brilliant or harebrained. When playing as a spy, most of your opportunities to scurry about are provided by Move & Scan tiles. When played, these let you move a single space. Movement alone would be fine, but that’s not the half of it. Upon entering your new room, you’re required to scan. This means you announce either your row, column, or sector — a colored cluster of four spaces — to the entire table. There’s an upside: if any villains are lingering in your scanned rooms, they’re revealed and you earn a swagger cube to spend on upgrades. As you’ve likely already gleaned, the downside is also considerable. After all, you’ve just announced your approximate location to the people who would love to propel a sliver of lead through the back of your cranium. That or light you up with an orbital laser cannon.

Meanwhile, the villains are also dropping hints. Flashlights illuminate entire rows of rooms at once. Stun guns — or flamethrowers, rocket launchers, and tentacles — nearly pinpoint where you’re standing. Even subtler utility tools like honey pots and trip lasers leave breadcrumbs in your wake.

But the brilliance of this system is that both sides want to announce where they’re hiding, because otherwise they aren’t doing the cool stuff that spies and villains get off on. Villains make a racket with their weapons, but that’s how they bag spies. Spies raise the alarm whenever they hack, but otherwise the world is one second closer to implosion.

Crucially, there are exceptions muddying the water. Sometimes a villain isn’t interested in chasing a detected spy because she’s busy charging up a generator so that her team can assign an extra die every round. Sometimes a spy’s scan is actually the result of the Thermo tile — a false flag — or silent movement via earpiece, or a virus hacking a laser remotely. The game provides so many delicious ways to mislead that it’s easy to forget that you can just go ahead and say things that aren’t true. “Are you really going up—” Now cut your breath short. Up where? Up there? your opponent is thinking, eyeing the generator tucked into the topmost corner. Information has still been leaked, but deliberately this time, the cardboard equivalent of Operation Mincemeat’s fake captain washing up on the beaches of fascist Spain.

On the opposite sides of this wall, we aren't so different after all.

Lingering on the periphery between worlds.

How does this all feel? Utterly infuriating. For better and for worse.

There are steps to mitigate the frustration of setback. When you take a hit — whether a bullet or a doomsday charge — you earn pity prizes that may keep you alive in the future. Both sides get yellow cubes for nudging dice results up or down, while the spies earn green cubes that let them “slide” silently (and freely) from one space to another. Both are essential, in particular when you need to activate a specific tile right this instant or get away from a hacked laser right now.

Honestly, it’s glorious. When played well, by people who’ve internalized the rules, learned their role, and know what their rivals are capable of, there are few hidden movement games quite as focused or rewarding. Every step matters. Every word matters. And while your abilities spool outward into ever-cooler options, your goals remain nicely compressed. Kill the spies. Hack the lasers. The entire thing is so crisp, it could pass muster at spy camp.

And I still have absolutely no idea who it’s for.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m pretty much this game’s target audience. Idiosyncrasy pleases me greatly, and Sabotage has that in spades. Its list of requirements also happens to be as long as my arm. To spark its best moments, Sabotage requires a group of exactly four players, all of whom are willing to swallow some counterintuitive rules (“The spies are revealed by their own scans?”), investing multiple plays, and plumbing the game’s cast of characters to their fullest. That’s a tall order.

Big energy.

Sassy pose.

It’s also an order I happen to be capable of filling. Hooray for hanging out with like-minded nerds.

This is where the comparisons to Captain Sonar bear out. You need the right people to play Sabotage. But with those people, it’s so assured, so zany, and so improbably functional that it’s worth the growing pains. Stalking a spy, certain you’re one step away from zapping them to ashes, only to realize you’ve been misled and you’re chasing a sensor ghost is maddening, but it’s a familiar frustration that fans of hidden movement will find energizing.

And those moments when you succeed? When you hack a laser and slip back into the shadows — or better yet, into the shadow of the villain sent to find you? That’s when Sabotage proves that its larger box doesn’t mean lesser volume of play. This is Tim Fowers and Jeff Krause at their finest. And their preposterous, campy, ridiculously smart creation deserves to find the people who will appreciate it most fully.


(If what I’m doing at Space-Biff! is valuable to you in some way, please consider dropping by my Patreon campaign or Ko-fi.)

A complimentary copy was provided.

Posted on October 2, 2019, in Board Game and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. Really cool review. I’m a big fan of your board game analysis style. Also cool to see people doing this kind of thing in text, when it feels like videos are the whole world.

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