Faza vs. Faction Zeta
There’s a familiar formula to cooperative board games. Call it the Pandemic Formula. Every turn, four problems are added to the board. Your character can easily remove one or two of these problems, perhaps three with great effort. Because you’re always adding more problems than you can subtract, the game has a built-in tipping point, a cascade from which recovery is impossible. Fortunately, there’s a solution somewhere. A cure. When acquired, this will nullify the cascade before it ever happens. So the game becomes a balancing act. Chase the solution while delaying the inevitable.
What Benjamin Farahmand’s Faza asks is, what if instead of adding only four problems, each turn adds ten, chases you with a murder-ship, and irreversibly terraforms a patch of the planet?
Aliens have invaded Earth. So it goes. The Faza are nasty, fecund, and apparently want to avenge the ocean’s depleted coral reefs by installing Tang-hued flora where once stood humanity’s most majestic gas stations and airstrips. To stop this dastardly process, Faction Zeta arises to, well, shoot the Faza in their brain-analogues until they stop moving. Or is it FAction ZetA? Faza vs. FAZA? A commentary on how humanity is the real alien, determined to eradicate life and replace it with inanimate concrete? A process of assimilation so anti-biological that it doesn’t even leave life in its wake, as though—
Look, there isn’t time for wankery. Faza is too fast-paced for that. In fact, that sense of speed is one of the things that stands out about it. Each round consists of a human turn and an alien turn. But so much happens in each that the whole invasion can easily wrap up in three rounds. If you reach round four, humanity stands a very good chance of having already tottered past the tipping point.
Here’s how much can happen in a single round.
For humans, turns revolve around chasing the mobile goalposts that are the Faza’s three motherships. Each begins with four hit points, represented quite smartly by dice held aloft by ship standees. Unfortunately for mankind, removing those pips isn’t as easy as sidling up to the nearest mothership. First you need to recruit Faza defectors and get them into position. Except before that, you need to wipe out a bunch of Faza drones, both to clear the path — drones prohibit movement — and to swing defectors to your side. There’s an element of risk to this process. Battles will kill the drones you need, but might wipe out any defectors in the area or even cause wounds that can only be healed by hobbling back to an outpost. Frankly, you haven’t got the time to recover from more than a scratch or two, so plans must be mapped out with utmost precision.
And then there’s the Faza. Their turn sees their motherships zipping around to poop out extra drones, shoot your heroes, and terraform some tiles. The one upside is that you can generally gauge where they’ll travel and therefore plan a little bit in advance.
Hence meticulous plans, often with each character’s individual actions carefully interleaved. The Engineer teleports onto a group of drones, telefragging one of them in the process, then uses her tesla coil to help the Soldier bazooka a nearby group. Once clear, the Farmer crop-dusts a few more drones as he moves defectors into position underneath the troop-carrier mothership, causes a couple pips of damage — which hopefully don’t scuttle his plans when the ship draws an event card in response — and withdraws before taking retaliatory damage with the help of the Senator’s band of defectors and the Engineer’s shields. Everybody concludes the turn in a position to catch the terraformer mothership on the next turn.
A few thoughts occur about Faza’s long-form turns.
Foremost, when executed properly, there’s a stirring vibe to the whole thing. If you’ve seen The Dirty Dozen, you might remember how they endlessly recite the steps of their plan only to have it fall apart almost right away, forcing them to improvise new plans on the fly. Faza encourages something similar. The steps you take to reach a mothership with both a hero and some defectors are often carefully metered out. Then, damage dealt, the mothership draws a card and scuttles those plans. Maybe your rebels are torn apart. Maybe the mothership flies away. Or maybe your assault results in a rescued loved one or the invention of the hoverboard. There are far fewer good outcomes than bad, but the possibility of a positive reward makes each strike tantalizing.
Or irritating. To a certain degree, I applaud Faza’s willingness to be so punitive. Terraformed lands can never be recovered, drones halt movement and quickly fill almost the entire map, and even destroyed motherships subtract drones from the available pool, hastening one of the game’s failure conditions. But there are only so many times I can pull off samey heists before a game’s thrills begin to wear thin. Especially with how often a success or failure will come down to a roll or a card flip, the steps of this particular hit job soon become rote. One, up to the mothership, we’ve just begun. Two, the drones are through. Three, the defectors are on a spree. Four, pray you don’t activate a terraform.
Some of my saltiness might be due to how easy it is for one player to take command of the entire process. This isn’t Faza’s fault alone. After all, why should a game need to regulate the behavior of the people sitting around the table? Then again, plenty of modern cooperative games have learned how to account for people’s tendency to take charge of a situation when presented with the type of perfect information that Faza offers. Hidden cards, random hands, communication limitations — whatever the tools, the need to keep everybody engaged rather than letting someone slip into spectator mode is one of the principal challenges of cooperative design. In that regard, Faza feels like a throwback.
Making a cooperative game isn’t easy. You want player interaction, but not enough that one person drives the whole experience. Swings of fate, but not so much that the game feels capricious. Planning, but carefully matched against upset, and vice versa. Stiff challenges, but not so stiff that the challenge is undeviating. Faza is like the gameplay it produces: very good when it hits all the right rolls and card pulls, a significant miss when it doesn’t. Sadly, this deck is stacked and the dice are weighted. And not in Faza’s favor. There are things to commend about Farahmand’s efforts, especially the speed and desperate tone of its conflict. But if we’re picking sides, I’m with Faction Zeta on this one.
A complimentary copy was provided.