Monday, 28 May 2018

First thoughts: Fallout - The Board Game

I find board games difficult to review until I've had a chance to really get into them and play them a few times over with a few different people, so as I did with Star Wars: Rebellion, this is more of an early impression of the game after two games, with a full review to follow at a later date.

Fallout is a one of the most popular video game franchises in existence, starting as a trio of cult roleplaying and tactical combat games in the 1990s and then, under the care of Bethesda Studios, transforming into a massive sales juggernaut. The most recent game in the series, 2015's Fallout 4, sold 15 million copies on its first day of release (as a comparison, that's about the lifetime sales of BioWare's entire Mass Effect trilogy) and almost the same amount again since then, making it one of the biggest-selling video games of all time. As with many such video games, the urge to turn it into a board game was clearly strong and it follows in the footsteps of StarCraft and Doom in heading to the tabletop.

The Fallout Board Game is certainly impressively-designed. The game comes with a number of map tiles which can be arranged to represent one of four distinct locations: Washington, DC (as depicted in Fallout 3), Pittsburgh (from The Pitt), Boston (Fallout 4) and Bar Harbour, Maine (from Far Harbour). Each map is made up of settlements, raider camps and points of interest (usually ruins you can explore for loot). The game can be played for up to 4 players and there are 5 different characters you can choose from to play: a Supermutant, a Ghoul, a Vault Dweller, a Wastelander and a member of the Brotherhood of Steel. Just this little fact - that even the last-arriving player has at least a choice of two characters to pick from - shows some thought has gone into making the game welcoming.

The primary role of the game is to gain influence points. The first player to hit the target number of influence points wins. This varies by number of players; 11 points are required to win the 1-player game and 8 in the 4-player game. However, if the game ends before the target is reached, no-one wins. Influence is gained by doing missions for a faction. Each different map location has two factions which are fighting one another: for example, the Institute and the Railroad are the two primary factions in the Boston/Fallout 4 campaign. The balance of power between the two factions, which is also tracked, shifts due to player actions. Should a faction achieve dominance, it wins and thus ends the game; if this increases a player's influence points beyond the target, they also win; if not, the game ends with no winner.

This mechanic immediately makes it clear that players must be careful in how they proceed: blindly supporting one faction, perhaps because they agree with their philosophy, may help that faction but work against the player's interests. Players may instead choose to play both parties against one another and profit from the resulting chaos, which is great if you're that kind of player but if not, it can be a bit odd. The game feels like it forces you to be a Machiavellian, selfish mastermind regardless if that's how you want to play or not.

Missions and objectives are undertaken via a ridiculously massive deck of cards. These cards act like quests in the video games: you usually blunder into a situation, get an objective and then follow it through which leads to successive quests. In the game's oddest quirk, individual players pick up quests, but all players can follow the quest and resolve it. To put it mildly, this doesn't many sense and it can get extremely frustrating for a player to pick up a good storyline, try to follow it through only for another player to not only complete the line, but do it for the rival faction and screw over the narrative. In some quests - where it might make sense for another player to blunder into a situation and upset the apple cart - this makes sense, but in most it doesn't. The game also never reveals how other players even know what quest another player has picked up on the other side of the map.

This goes to the biggest flaw of Fallout: The Board Game: it never really resolves if it's a cooperative game, a competitive one or an outright antagonistic one. Players can't attack or kill one another directly in combat, but they're also not friends, as only one player can win. Players can swap or barter equipment with one another when they're in the same spot but their interactions are otherwise indirect: one player might be supporting the Institute and pushing things along and another player comes along and interferes with the quest and helps the other side out. If the game was more overt about the player relationship with one another this might work, but since it isn't, it doesn't. The game feels like it's four players each playing their own game where the only way they can interact is screw one another over, often illogically.

The game does work quite well when it focuses on the survival/scavenging element. Exploring ruins, getting into combat and "levelling up" your character are all very satisfying. However, the exploration element and the quest element feel a little bit in conflict: spend too much time scavenging and levelling up and other players focusing on the story quests will pull ahead; spend too much time focusing on the story and you may find yourself lagging behind in strength and capability. Given that the game can end very abruptly - the number of influence points you win for completing objectives can vary rather unexpectedly - it's possible for players to get into the game, not achieve very much and then the game ends. The length of the game is also an issue: for the first time playing a Fantasy Flight game, I felt that it was a little short. There's not enough time to get into a really meaty, absorbing game mixing story and combat and scavenging. FF clearly wanted a two-hour game to attract more casual players familiar with the video game universe. Games can go longer than two hours, but it requires people to deliberately work towards that by avoiding completing objectives, which feels artificial.

Fallout: The Board Game ultimately feels like a game where the theme has been allowed to overwhelm gameplay. Too many systems in the game are there to make the board game feel like the video game, which begs the question as to why the player shouldn't just go off and play the video game, especially as the biggest difference - the multiple players - feels like it's been tossed in with no forethought. This is a shame because the game does atmosphere quite well, the exploration and combat mechanics are fun and the actual choose-your-own-adventure story part of the game is solid. It's just that, right now (and Fantasy Flight will likely be throwing us an expansion or three sooner or later), the game's systems don't feel like they've integrated together very well into a cohesive whole.

I'll play a few more games and see if greater familiarity with the game and playing different scenarios improves my impression of the title.

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