Foo-d for Thought
Maxime Rambourg and Théo Rivière’s The Loop has a great sense of humor. It just isn’t my type of humor. Take the name of its time-traveling villain, Dr. Foo, and spitball the easiest jokes that come to mind. Lots of puns? Naturally. Foo Fighters? Certainly. Mr. T references? So many. Super underpants? That has nothing to do with “foo,” but sure.
Don’t take this as a slam. If anything, The Loop is so committed to its Saturday morning cartoon wackiness that it wins me over. A little bit. Not all the way. But enough to get past the candy colors and invest in the game’s quickly deteriorating timelines. Poo on you, Dr. Foo.
Shield your eyes, because The Loop is every bit as garish in real life.
Once you’ve adjusted to the brightness, take a look at the loop. The literal loop, not The Loop. Time is flat circle, as someone once pontificated, consisting of seven spaces that represent different eras of time, from prehistory and medieval all the way to the robot uprising and the conclusion of existence, at which point it loops (aha!) all the way back to the beginning. A tidy möbius strip that isn’t really a möbius strip at all. I just wanted to point out that “möbius strip” is a cool phrase.
Nice and round. So what’s the problem? Dr. Foo, that’s who. He’s bent on collapsing the timeline. How? By creating endless duplicates of himself and sputtering red cubes onto those seven spaces until they’re so overloaded that they, I dunno, desynchronize or something. In any case, your band of time travelers must slingshot into different eras, clean up Dr. Foo’s damage, slaughter his duplicates, and ultimately sabotage his time machine.
And apart from a few hiccups, Rambourg and Rivière’s portrayal of the time war is fairly solid.
First, the familiar. Like many other cooperative games, The Loop sticks closely to the Pandemic Formula. Each turn sees a number of problems spilling onto the board, both Dr. Foo duplicates and damage to the timeline. It’s always more than you can repair, even if only barely in the early stages, forcing you to juggle between playing temporal janitor and fulfilling the objectives that will sabotage Dr. Foo’s time machine.
Where this gets interesting — and a little annoying — is that one problem feeds into the other. Damage cubes are placed according to a drawn card, one per era, which allows for some degree of prediction over where forthcoming damage will appear. If you’ve already seen damage appear everywhere but the Renaissance and the Industrial Age, those are the spots you know the next barrage will likely land. But rather than placing damage precisely, those little red cubes are poured into the top of Dr. Foo’s time machine. This is like a dice tower with three spouts. Your agency’s predictions are imprecise; Dr. Foo himself appears at only one location, but the fractures caused by his arrival can ripple into neighboring sections of the timeline.
This is a very cool idea. For one thing, it prevents one of the perennial problems of cooperative games, in which players are encouraged to out-math the opposing mechanisms. There’s still some measure of planning ahead, since you’re able to predict the bad doctor’s general appearance, but you can’t ever be entirely sure where all the damage will land.
At the same time, though, this often tips over the edge into frustrating. The number of cubes spilling onto the board is contingent on how many Dr. Foo duplicates are in the selected era — only two cubes under normal circumstances, plus one for each meddling duplicate. Here’s the problem: those duplicates are randomly assigned from a draw-bag right before you deal damage. So it’s entirely possible to think you have an area locked down, however momentarily, only for some duplicates to barge into that space and result in enough damage that the region collapses outright. Sometimes this even wipes out a partially accomplished objective.
In other words, the margin between victory and defeat is fuzzy. Often it has nothing to do with the actions you’ve taken, instead coming down to where and when those Dr. Foo duplicates materialize. It’s easy to imagine a tweak. Perhaps the order of operations could have been reversed, letting you nudge duplicates back into their corresponding timelines to melt like McComb in Timecop before they can destabilize the whole era. But as the game stands, Dr. Foo’s portion of each turn can prove deflating. Losing because of one or two chances is fair game. Losing after a sequence of uninterrupted chances comes across as fickle.
This isn’t an insignificant obstacle to hurdle, but the rest of The Loop makes a stellar effort.
The real highlight is the turn-by-turn play. Much of this revolves around your hand of cards. There’s some light deck-building, with one card optionally added to your deck at the end of your turn, but it’s rare that you’ll increase your deck by more than two or three cards over the course of the entire game. Instead, every card can potentially be “looped.” This process is rather nifty. As cards are played, you lay them out on the table. Then, for the small price of some energy, you can pick up a single icon type. If you have only one card with that icon, you only get that one card. But if you have two or three cards with that icon, baby, you’ve got a stew going.
What makes this hum like a well-tuned flux capacitor is the constant trade-offs it presents. First there’s energy. There’s no reason you can’t loop your cards multiple times, but each loop costs one more energy cube than the loop before. This is the same energy you use for traveling; expend too much and you could find yourself stranded in the wrong time. Meanwhile, there are challenges all over the place. Damage to repair. Rifts to avoid. Dr. Foo’s duplicates to murder. Objectives to complete. Energy cubes to distribute. Specific cards you want to pick up. Preparations for your next turn. Allies needing assistance. If anything, looping can be something of a siren’s call, tempting you to make ever more complex moves rather than the best move. And why not? Using energy to bound between eras, looping the same cards over and over again, banishing Dr. Foos and fulfilling objectives — big turns aren’t only time-consuming, they also feel utterly brilliant, making you the temporary star of the table. Just ignore the stifled yawns as everybody else awaits their own chance to shine. They’re only yawning because it’s late, not because you’re hogging the limelight.
In the end, The Loop is a mixed bag, but at least it’s an inventive, clever, and goofy mixed bag. Its sense of playfulness is spot-on, permitting the occasional turn that honors the final moments of every story whose protagonist uses time travel shenanigans to solve all their problems. Exactly as it should be.
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A complimentary copy was provided.
Posted on October 28, 2020, in Board Game and tagged Alone Time, Board Games, Catch Up Games, The Loop. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.
I share some of these conflicted thoughts as well. One of the aspects that’s a little tough to deal with is “bad turns.” You outline, in what I think is a mixture of sincerity/sarcasm, how good those big turns can feel. Sometimes a mixture of your cards and general board/energy state make turns feel small. It’s felt like that for me when I was just controlling multiple characters (haven’t done the proposed solo rules yet), so I’d have to assume without the knowledge that other me will have a turn next would make that worse. And then there’s just the potentially brutal randomness from the cubes.
It’s definitely a quirky one that I enjoy though.
Oh, I’m totally sincere when I say that some of the game’s big turns feel great! If anything, I wish they came along more often.
I definitely phrased that incorrectly. You sincerely capture how great the big turns feel while also capturing that they could deplete the board while leaving others to wait while you work things out.
Now I want to go play this game again.
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