Saturday, September 3, 2011

First Impressions - Gears of War: the Boardgame

I'm a bit of a Gears fan.  I'm a lot of a miniatures game fan.  Cooperative GoW boardgame with 28mm figs and slick looking terrain tiles? I'm sold just on principal.  I was not, however, expecting much from the gameplay.  I began to seriously question that assumption when I first cracked open my fresh new copy Thursday evening.

First off, the simple things.  The art is gorgeous, the minis are probably the best looking Fantasy Flight set to date, the map tiles are varied, detailed and good-looking.  Lots of tokens, cards, etc as you'd expect from a FF big box game.  So far so good.

The dice are what initially scared me about the game.  I was afraid that Gears was going to fall prey to unintuitive, over-specialized dice that end up being nothing more than a gimmick and a nuisance.  Not so!

The GoW dice are not only not ugly, but pretty, although in a very manly, chainsaw-wielding, dirt-covered, chest-bumping sort of way to fit with the rest of the game of course.  And they don't try for any strange gimmicks; defense dice have zero, one or two defense on them.  Attack dice have from zero to two hits, and an omen symbol to serve as a critical hit effect.  DONE.  I generallhey prefer a normal d6 (or d8, d10, d16 etc) in my gameplay, but the dice in here do fit for keeping the game streamlined.  You don't need "X to hit and Y to save," it's just roll and go.  It's worked since Battlemasters and Siege of the Citadel, and in this context, I think it works just fine too.

The game is scenario-driven, as is the pleasant trend in games today. Now, I have heard some people say that since it only has about half a dozen scenarios published until they (fingers crossed) come out with an expansion set, it has limited replayability.  Really?  Because while there may be many strategies to some of the top rated games on the interwebs, they still only have one scenario: get VPs.  Gears has no farmers, or even sheep to trade wood for, but every single scenario is replayable.  The tiles for each are randomly placed every game, the enemies move and spawn differently on different playthroughs and vary further based off of the number of players, and the characters themselves offer slight variations on your strategy and synergy.  There is one requirement that precedes playing the game again and again though.  Playing it once, and enjoying it.  So is Gears fun?  No.

It's awesomefun.

First playthrough today, Charlie control of Dom with me running Fenix, highly reminiscent of how we do this type of thing on the console, come to think of it (seriously, it took years to get this far).  We played through mission one, forgot a few rules for a bit like reactions and that you could carry more then one grenade, and got up near the end of the mission having a grand ole time.  Shut down the baddie spawn point, had four new dudes show up to protest our conduct (bringing the total near us to five), and we were golden as soon as we took them down.  Then something slightly unexpected happened.

I was positioned juuuust right with the card I drew for the AI to have every single bad guy on the board attack me on the same turn.  Following this, there was some running back and forth, and a lot of "Stop lying down on the job!" as we proceeded to try to keep each other alive while fending off the last few Locust baddies.  We died.  Afterwords, I was commenting that the game seemed to be cool and have a lot of potential, and that we should pack up so we could start our roleplaying "NO"

"We're playing this mission until we beat it."

Okay then.  I guess we're saving humanity, round two!

Play was much smoother the second time round, knowing the rules, cards and such.  Up near the end, we had another unexpected event where we accidentally spawned four extra wretches (little melee monsters) on one turn.  Which made me realize something I like about the AI card system and the critical hits.  You know, roughly, what the bad guys are going to do.  You can influence this by moving, shooting and using the right cards.  But you never know exactly what's coming.  Just like the GoW video game, or for that matter, real life.

We managed to eke out a win on game two, but only just.  Again, we were both only just scraping by for the last few rounds, and had to be very careful about how we managed.  Which was something else we both love in a game.

If we do everything just right in a game, loose anywyay, but you can point to a dozen die rolls and card draws and honestly say "We would have won if that one had been X," then the game is done right. Any game that you can win purely based off of knowing the right moves holds very little joy for me.  I used to play competitive chess, and very well, but who won really boiled down to who knew best.  Games like that can be fun, but if you're good enough at them, they aren't really a game anymore.  They're just a mental exercise, done by rote.  Gears doesn't let you win; it makes you work for it.  Gears doesn't make you loose; it gives you a chance to haul yourself up regardless of what it throws your way.  It possesses one of the key qualities in Space Hulk, that makes it a fun game to play even after doing "Suicide Mission" for two decades.

Every good game will be a close one, right up until you win....or get chainsawed.

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