Everything about Ruination, the post-apocalyptic game of feuding post-apocalyptic maniacs by Travis R. Chance, screams in neon color squiggles that it would be the perfect eccoprotic for a trashy mood. Vibrant colors, thick miniatures, dice. Dice for days. Dice for miles of dusty motorbike trails. This is what the warboys play when Max Rockatansky isn’t helping Imperator Furiosa steal their rigs and breeders.
So why has Ruination left me colder than the wasteland after dark? Witness me as I try to explain.
There’s a good chance you already know how Ruination works. As a genre, our friend here has pulled plenty of tricks over the years. Identity crises, reinventions… heck, it changed its name to dudes-on-a-map and headlined the breakaway cult called Ameritrash. But the farther it traveled, the more it came to realize that its journey circumnavigated a spinning wheel. When at last it reached a ripe old age, the cult years juvenile in retrospect, its new name more laughable than rebellious, it woke up one morning, looked in the mirror, and saw dad staring back.
It saw Risk.
And really, not all that much has changed. Ruination is still about assembling armies, herding them around a map, and rolling handfuls of dice to dish out casualties and victors. Oh, there have been improvements. Nips and tucks. Australia, trimmed out. Tedious combat, cinched tight. That flabby endgame, given new life with the modern advances of victory points and carefully considered end-game triggers. Still. When you look past the Botox and the artificial hip, this warhorse offers the same thrills in a slightly less cadaverous package.
Honestly? That’s fine. Fantastic, even. I’m grateful to still have a grandma kicking around. Judy’s a funny lady. That she’s four-fifths science and spackling paste makes her no less enjoyable to spend time with. May she live to witness her three-hundredth summer.
The same goes for Ruination. On one level — the level a scratch beneath the superficial setting — this is an entirely serviceable rehash of a journey we’ve taken plenty of times before. Armies, dice, territory. The ingredients may have been measured out in different proportions, but bread is bread. If you like bread, this slightly saltier bread isn’t that far from the bread you’ve had before.
Except in one regard. Ruination’s biggest contribution to the genre is the idea that each of the game’s three actions change as you play. The actions themselves are familiar: scavenge hoovers up resources, move pushes your armies into battle, and recruit spills new soldiers onto the field. Here, though, these are templates, not the final product. Take scavenging, for example. As you might expect, scavenging earns resources based on where your troops are positioned, earning bullets, water, tin cans, and steer skulls that can be spent on upgrades or warlords. That’s not all. Every action is pulled from a face-up deck that modifies that basic template. Rather than merely scavenging, you might have the opportunity to plunder an opponent for a resource, barter to acquire one of those warlords, or conduct a limited move or recruit action at an unexpected moment.
As ideas go, this is a cool one. Because every action comes paired with a semi-random bonus, every action is a bit of a wildcard. Suddenly, what seemed like a benign round of turtling is transformed into a raid, or a squad of soldiers recruited behind enemy lines, or a few casualties before a proper invasion, or… well, those are the main ones. Ruination never learns more than a handful of verbs. The effect, however, is still pronounced, to such a degree that you might find yourself planning to take a particular action only to reconsider when your turn comes around because a particularly interesting option has appeared from those three action decks.
Or because a particularly bad option has. Much like how the thrill of dice-driven combat wilts when a roll doesn’t go your way, there’s an undeniable bummer to taking a turn when nothing enticing is on offer. This isn’t an inherently bad thing, but it does present a tradeoff. Ruination opts for more chaos than many of its peers. The result is exactly as advertised. Some turns offer big swings and exciting steals. Others land with all the impact of a tatter of bandage fluttering to the bottom of the canyon.
Maybe the system would work better if action cards were drafted rather than simply selected turn by turn. Although, come to think of it, isn’t that an apt description of Christian Martinez’s Inis?
This pattern holds true for nearly everything Ruination does well, and not in its favor. If the cards call to mind Inis’s various takes on movement, recruiting, and battle, minus the careful drafting that paradoxically imbues the proceedings with both more control and more unpredictability, then so do the battles, with their multi-turn increases of stakes and impactful options, albeit without the diplomatic implications. The slotted power-up cards and wave-making exiles call to mind Blood Rage, but with none of that game’s immediacy or generosity, and certainly none of its elegance. The finagling of army limits and the symmetrical map are reminiscent of Kemet — although Ruination’s map is samey, stripped of the landmarks that give players of Kemet ample reason to quibble over one space over another.
In each case, Ruination knows its genre well enough to riff on the exemplars. Unfortunately, it doesn’t improve on any of them. Nor does it accumulate their pieces into a whole that’s more than the sum of its parts.
The resource system is a prime example. There are four resources to collect, but your starting territories only provide three, a natural spur for pushing players beyond their borders. But there’s little reason to invade a neighbor rather than the caldera at the map’s center. The resources there are wild, which means they can be extracted in exact proportion with whatever upgrade or exile you’re hoping to purchase. Much of the time, we didn’t bother to specify which resources we were acquiring. While scavenging, we would say, “That upgrade looks good, five of my six wild resources pay for that,” then take the card in question, with an extra steer skull or two to pay for crossing the wasteland.
Put another way, the resource system is annoying and restrictive until it’s trivial, without ever finding that sweet spot in the middle. Either you can collect the right resources for the (randomly available) card you want, or else you’re better off trying for a quick guzzle from the center of the board.
By extension, that spells combat. Combat is a major source of points, but it’s often perfunctory, accomplished by stomping armies slightly smaller than yours or inflicting as many casualties as possible on the army that’s stomping you in return. Upsets are rare, as are the uses for the game’s reroll tokens, which are often worth more points at the end of the game than they’re likely to earn in one of Ruination’s many not-so-close battles. This might be more tolerable if combat were faster, but it generally requires multiple rounds of assigning dice and doling out bonuses. Contrast this with any of the aforementioned titles, where combat is faster, more welcoming of clever plays, and loaded with greater long-term consequence, and I’m left wondering why I’m not playing one of those instead.
Ultimately, that’s the biggest problem with Ruination: despite a fashionable coat of post-apocalyptic rust, it doesn’t offer any compelling reason to play it over its peers. And no matter how wildly I may howl Valhalla!, it’s hard to forget that one of those peers also contains the actual Norse afterlife.
A complimentary copy was provided.