Wednesday, January 27, 2016

When Board Games Fight Back. Co-Cop Gaming: A Geek-In-Game Review

The basic premise behind board games has been around since before we were born.  You have one or more players, a board and some game pieces, and you compete with each other to be the person to reach the finish line so that you can shout "I win!"  Sounds simple enough, and it is what all gamers have spent their lives enjoying in its various forms.  From Scrabble to Life, Tsuro to Risk, the goal is to beat the other gamers.  But what happens when the game is trying to beat you?  My family has discovered the wonderful world of board games that play just like some of our favorite shoot em' ups like Resident Evil, in which the game itself is the nemesis that you are trying to overcome instead of the other players.   They're lovingly called Co-Ops and this week I'm going to review three of my family's favorites.

Let's discover what happens when you love the game, but the game doesn't love you back

Long before shows such as Supernatural and The Walking Dead popularized them, various countries popularized the possibility of the undead.  Pop culture has made them such a big deal that one almost worries if people would be afraid of a real zombie or be stupid enough to give it a hug.  For the survivalist planning for the Zombie Apocalypse, however, this game is a necessity.  If you're taking it that seriously, however, I'm worried about you.  Welcome to the world of "Dead of Winter."

An example of the many playable characters in the game.  One has a wound token (Left) from exposure or a fight.

"Dead of Winter" is a multi-player co-op with a similar set-up to most post-Apocalyptic scenarios.  A colony of survivors of the world's zombie infestation are living together.  Your job is simple:  survive.    The main colony board has spaces for all the player characters (each player can have one Leader and can gain many followers from the character deck as the game goes on.)  The colony also has spaces for zombies to bust in through, however.  Outside of the colony are various locations for searching:  Police Station, Gas Station, Library, Hospital, Grocery Store, and School.  The game itself will have a main objective that, as a team, you must all work to complete.  Be it searching for a certain amount of food, weapons, medicine, etc.  Each player, however, has individual objectives that they must complete to win their own personal stories.  These can be as simple as building enough barricades to fortify the colony, surviving with two medicine in your hand of cards until the main objective is accomplished, etc.  The catch?  Some personal player objects are labeled "Betrayal," and one is mixed in with the personal objective cards that are passed out among the players.  You read of the people sitting at that table with you will be out to kill you all from the get-go and you will never know who.

The colony, complete with survivors, zombies, and a few barricades.
The amazing thing about this game is the realism and the constant "on your toes" atmosphere of it all.  On top of trying to search for the materials for the main objective and keeping the zombies at bay, crisis cards are dealt each round as well that cause you to contend with searching for materials to accomplish that crisis resolution; an "emergency situation" if you will.  Example:  Find as much food as there is for how many non-exiled characters you have in/out of the colony.  If you don't, 8 zombies beat down your door and flood the colony.  Raiders attack and you have to find as many cans of fuel as exist for each character that you have.  If not, they attack, stealing food and killing any survivors in the colony.  On top of it, each round the player to your right draws a card from a special deck that involves an action you must take.  If you moved a character out of the colony to search, this card might read "If player moves a character out of the Colony, read the card and choose option 1 or 2."  The card will have a mini-story your character follows and they must choose an option either 1 or 2.  Like a "Choose Your Own Adventure" story, the result will give you a positive or negative reaction, be it supplies or a new character in the colony, or your character's grisly death.  So you have not only the crisis card played each round, the card drawn for your resolution each round, killing zombies, fortifying the colony with barricades, plus searching for the main objectives goods.  If that isn't enough you have to remember that the colonist need to eat.  Yes, the food you search for in some objectives/crisis cards must also be divided between the resolution and the colony's needs.  You have to keep enough food for them to eat.  If they starve, you lose one morale.  If you get too much waste in the colony from things such as eaten food and forget to periodically take out the trash, you lose one morale.  Certain crisis cards require you to lose morale if they aren't resolves successfully.  Some character deaths result in the loss or gain of morale.  And if you get to zero over.  Add all off this to the fact that sometimes, one person at your table could be out to destroy all of you, and you have a game that will make you sweat.
Survivors searching around the Grocery Store and Hospital for supplies...while avoiding zombies.

This is by far and away the most difficult game to beat that I have ever played.  It is also the most addictive.  There are storylines to follow for each objective, stories for the characters themselves, and even stories for the betrayers to explain their actions.  The game draws you in and keeps you there and for every time the zombies or the betrayer beat you, it makes you want to bring it out next week and try again.  One day, you will survive.  One day...

Thirsty?  Want a drink?  Probably not a good idea for this next game as the thirstiest player gets to go first.  There is no betrayer in this game, thank goodness.  But this game will require you to stop and think, pause and concentrate.  It is a battle of wits as you fight against the beating sun and a swirling sand storm in an effort to find the pieces of your crashed steampunk-style ship so you and your crew can fly to safety.  This is the co-op called Forbidden Desert, and it is by far and away the best co-op I have ever played.

The layout at the start of the game.  The blank space in the middle is the "sandstorm."
The premise is as simple:.  You crash, the ship breaks, and you and your crew travel the desert to find the parts to put it back together and fly off before the desert gets to you.  There is more detail to the "how" of it all, however.  The desert is made up of individual tiles, each of which is two sided; one side with a sandy desert and the other side with a picture depicting anything from a well, the mirage of a well, a steampunk city, the landing pad for your ship, or the various parts that you need to put the ship together again.  X-shaped sand tiles are strewn out across these desert pieces to “cover them in sand” as the “sandstorm” blows across the desert.  Players are assigned different character types (Navigator, Water Carrier, Archeologist, etc.,) who each have various abilities that help the crew in different ways.  For example, the Climber can move across a tile that has more than one sand tile on it, something you normally can’t do.  The wells can only be used once, but the Water Carrier can use them at any time to pull/give water to other players.  These roles are crucial to your strategy as a team, because you each have four actions to take per turn.  You can move to a new tile, remove sand from a covered tile, excavate (flip) a tile to find what is underneath, etc.  Once you have used up all of your allotted slots, you have to draw cards from a deck called the “Storm Deck.”  This is where it gets tricky.
See how the "storm" shifted the desert?  Meeples have moved, and a part has been found.

In this deck are directional arrows that show you what direction the “Sandstorm” is moving.  Just when you think you might have revealed the location of a part, you are proven wrong as the storm shifts the desert and pushes everything around; nothing is in the right place anymore.  There are also two other dreaded cards in the deck.  The “Storm Picks Up” card moves your ticker up a meter that players keep to the board side, indicating how many “Storm Deck” cards you draw at the end of every turn.  If you reach over six cards on the meter to the dreaded skull and crossbones…game over.  There are also four “Sun Beats Down” cards, indicating that the desert is getting hotter.  Your character card has a water meter on it.  Unless you have a gear card (which you can draw from excavating cities) that keeps you protected from the sun or you have excavated a tunnel to hide in, you must “drink water” to survive.  Your water meter is on your character card.  If your water goes down to zero…game over.  Plus, if the storm picks up too much and you haven’t been clearing sand, you can eventually lose all of your sand tiles.  If you have no more sand tiles to place on the board because you used then all…game over.
An example of a player's character card.  See the water meter?

This game is thick with the need for teamwork.  You have to put aside the need to lead the group and instead work as a hive mind, tossing out ideas and strategies amongst each other.  You have to coordinate to get to that tunnel or get to that well in time, plan when the next “Sun Beats Down” card should be coming around, figure out who goes after the part you just excavated and who removes more sand…if you don’t have a clear plan and work together, the desert will chew you up and spit you out.  The more players involved the harder the game is to beat.  It is by far and away our family’s top choice for a co-op and we play it at least twice a week if not more.

Anyone that knows my family knows that one of our biggest fandoms is Firefly.  Heck, my teen had her 13th birthday in a Browncoats theme, complete with the living room done up as Inara’s shuttle, the kitchen in backwater planet (complete with a “Not Responsible for ball failure” rustic-type sign,  reading as a happy birthday sign to her in English/Chinese,) the Independence Flag hanging on the wall…we even replicated Simon’s crappy birthday cake complete with taper candles.  The cake part had her cracking up laughing.  Proud of that touch, thank you.  So when the Firely:  Fistful of Credits game came out, it was only natural that we grab it.  Heck, we’ve grabbed every Firefly game so far.  Why stop now?  It’s hard pressed to make a decision between being a micro-game family or a co-op family, and this game doesn’t help us make the decision.  It’s that darn good.  Heck…it’s that "shiny."
And example of the differences in the "Hero" and "Sidekick" pairings.

This game is the perfect co-op; you have to work together or everyone gets “got.”  You have three variations, all based on episodes of the show:  Arial, The Train Job, and Bushwacked.  Each “Episode” has its own individual game board; yes, this box comes with varying boards, not just pieces.  Varying BOARDS.  Awesomsauced yet?  Wait, it gets better.  You have character cards for all of our favorite Serenity crew, but each has a flip side.  Depending on whether or not you have one of the crew you are choosing from as the leader of your group or a crew member, you can flip the side of the card to show them as the “Sidekick” or the “Hero.”  Each side has its advantages in a fight, so choose wisely as to which would be better.  For example, when the “Hero,” Kaylee starts with 4 Gear cards (extras you can use to beef up your play) and can carry up to 4 with her tool belt.  She also battles with a D6.  When a sidekick, however, her ability states that if any player finds a crate during play they can look at the top 3 cards and take any 1; they then return the rest to the deck.
The ruler is used to make sure a partner is in line of sight of a shot against a Reaver/Alliance crew.

Much like in the desert or in the zombie apocalypse, if you don’t coordinate, you die.  Example:  Jayne is helping to clear out the Reavers, but River sees that he is about to die.  She volunteers to take his place so he can return to loading zone to heal; as River can see around corners more easily (one of her abilities) she has a longer reach than Jayne.  He is running low on life, but high on ammo (his ability) so he can make it back to heal.  They trade places, with Simon backing Jayne up until he gets to base as he has the ability to use his medical training to offer a quick boost to heal one point of health.  Simon then goes back up to help River, who has already dispatched two Reavers.  See how this works?  Your abilities play off of each other, the layout of the location you are in, and the amount of bad guys you’re dealing with.  If you can’t piece these things together and work as a team, it’s lights out.  The Alliance wins, the Reavers eat your head off, and Serenity is nothing more than a floating paperweight.

Now you know what happens when good games fight back.  Not every game is Candy Land and Twister.  They don’t sit idly by and wait for you to win.  No…sometimes they win.  Sometimes they come after you.  Sometimes they make you have to fight to survive.  Are you man enough to take on the board game and win?  Can you show the game who has the bigger balls here?  Or will you let paper, cardboard, and plastic be the victor?  Try them out.  Test your might, and tell me how well you fared in the comments.  Good luck.  You’ll need it.

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