Monday, July 20, 2015

Forbidden Stars and Dead of Winter review

The two more recent games I've played were Forbidden Stars (Fantasy Flight Games) and Dead of Winter (Plaid Hat Games). I've gotten a couple of sessions on each, but both games have a lot of depth so this review is more of first impressions based on those playthroughs and pouring over the manual.

I'll start with Dead of Winter since that's the one I played first.
Image thanks to Meeplemart
What is Dead of Winter? It's a semi-cooperative board game of surviving the zombie apocalypse, scarcity, the weather and other humans. The players must work together to loot buildings, kill zombies and resolve potentially catastrophic events every turn. The players begin with three random survivors (each with different statistics, story, and a few random items) and go from there, trying to resolve crisis cards that come up every round (gather this much food, medicine, etc.), while also working towards their own personal secret goal that may or may not put the other survivors (that's the characters controlled by players) in danger. Furthermore, there are also helpless survivors (represented by tokens) that cause a drain on the supply of food of the colony and attract even more zombies. The game is absolutely gorgeous and evocative, there are tons of characters each with a special ability and her own stats and backstory represented by a stand-up cardboard figurine. The characters range from politicians, educators, police officers, criminals and soccer moms to the more bizarre like a drunken mall Santa Claus or a stunt super dog. What impressed me about the game was its strong adherence to theme, the production of the components and the art, and that cooperative/backstabbing dynamic going on. However, did I like the game as much as the hype led me to think I would? Not quite, because of how random it is. Not in the sense that everything hinges on a die roll (although the exposure/wound/death die is important) but in how random many scenarios and crossroad cards (those are events that happen on each player's turn) seem to be. Many crossroad cards might be drawn and just dumped into discard because a certain condition isn't met. Scenarios for the overall game range from those rather easy to complete (kill that many zombies) or nearly impossible (survive this many rounds while also making sure you have this much food and oh! More zombies than usual spawn!). Basically how fun the game is really depends on what random scenario, crises, characters and crossroads cards you get. To me this makes Dead of Winter's fun factor inconsistent, so I hesitate to recommend it. Also, with just two players the game ran by fairly quickly, about an hour per session, I'm not sure how much fun I would have with 4 players in the game - especially if the scenario is particularly brutal and might even be (thanks to random die rolls and card draws) unwinnable.

Forbidden Stars is another massive board game from Fantasy Flight Games, set in the Warhammer 40,000 universe.
Image thanks to Boardgamegeek
It's a 2 to 4 player game of area control and rolling a crapload of dice (as Warhammer demands) to determine who will control 3 objectives first. The game is played on a random map (assembled from 6 to 12 massive and GORGEOUS tiles - seriously, I just sat there and poured over the art on the tiles for a good ten minutes, it's that beautiful!) and it's basically a free-for-all between Space Marines, Chaos, Orks and Eldar. Each faction starts with some ground units, ships, buildings, basic deck of combat cards, and objectives that they need to acquire. The kicker is that your opponents decide which sector of space your objectives are. You want to attract the enemies to a particular sector? Place their objectives there! You want to keep them away from your homeworld? Place their objectives as far away as possible! Players issue commands using tokens placed face down (like in FFG's excellent Game of Thrones board game) but players stack the face-down tokens on top of each other and these are then resolved from top to bottom allowing players opportunities to bluff, double-bluff and triple-bluff opponents. Throughout the game players spend different resources on upgrading their forces, constructing cities, factories and bastions (to protect against orbital bombardments of course!), upgrading their order tokens and upgrading their combat deck. Now combat is quite fiddly and time-consuming and that's a major drawback. Players roll dice, call in reinforcements, then play three combat cards from their hand which might add to their attack, defense, morale or do special actions. It took us a while to figure out how combat is supposed to work, and to be honest it takes too long to play out each battle. So in a 3-4 player game, that means 1 or 2 players are sitting out and twiddling their thumbs for a while when combat starts. Another major drawback is that the rules are scattered between two different booklets and some rather crucial pieces of information are not explained up front leading to a lot of confusion. There are also a LOT of rules and some mechanics seem too fiddly (this is a FFG game after all). There's also the price of the game, it's veeeeeeeery expensive and you could probably pick up Twilight Imperium (3rd edition) for the same price and have an even more epic experience. Finally, while I found that Forbidden Stars has a lot of depth and replay value (each faction plays very differently and there are 4 factions to learn) what it does lack is an element of alliances and diplomacy that other games in the similar vein might offer. It's always a free-for-all and there's not much reason or opportunity to make alliances. Similar games such as Cosmic Encounters, aforementioned Twilight Imperium and Game of Thrones have that extra dynamic, that extra spice that Forbidden Stars lack. Still, if you want a much better game than risk and don't mind spending the cash, it's still a very satisfying and deep experience.

So TL;DR version: Dead of Winter has the potential to be fun but it depends on your luck. Forbidden Stars is very good if you're willing to read a lot of rules, put up with long combat rounds, and not looking for any kind of diplomacy.

Next I hope to review the reprinted and updated Fief: France 1429!

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