The Gears of War series needs no introduction. Though it saw its initial entry during the current generation, its popularity is undeniable, and its influence can be seen in nearly every third person shooter released since 2006.
Just this past week, the fourth game in the series was released to the masses, garnering near-universal praise as the pinnacle of the genre. What’s that, you ask? What do I mean, fourth game? Didn’t you know? Late in August, Gears of War: the Board Game was released for public consumption. How does it fare in translation from videogame to board game? It’s actually kind of awesome.
Gears of War: the Board Game (tabletop)
Developer: Fantasy Flight Games
Publisher: Fantasy Flight Games
Released: August 29, 2011
While it may initially appear to be a quick cash-in attempt, capitalizing on the fervor surrounding Gears of War 3, a few hours spent with the board game disproves that theory. It’s clear that publisher Fantasy Flight has a profound respect for the property, and that designer Corey Konieczka is a fan of the series.
This isn’t the first videogame board game adaptation that publisher Fantasy Flight has handled, with StarCraft and Civilization being among their better known adaptations. However, as strategy videogames, the transition from digital to cardboard isn’t difficult to fathom. How does an action-oriented third-person shooter translate to the tabletop?
Mechanically, the board game has more in common with Ghost Recon: Shadow Wars than the typical Gears game. Gameplay is fully cooperative and combat is turn based with a heavy emphasis on ideas like ranged weaponry, line of sight, and taking cover. Where it begins to diverge from a typical turn-based strategy is in the Order Cards. Players won’t always have the same options available on their turns, adding more variety to the gameplay.
Perhaps the most brilliant concept in the design of the Order Cards is in their many uses. In addition to being used on a player’s turn to perform actions, each card has a reaction ability, which can be used to preempt a Locust activation, dodge an incoming attack, or follow a teammate out of turn. On top of that, the hand of Order cards represents a player’s health, so there is always a question of whether one should spend a card to do something useful, knowing that it will make him weaker if he were attacked. Another outcome of the cards-as-health mechanic is that a player low on health has fewer combat options, and may have to huddle behind cover a bit until he heals.
That is one of the best examples of the mechanics blending well thematically with the Gears of War universe, but this game is chock full of universe fluff. Just about every weapon from the first two games is present, including the Lancer with its iconic chainsaw bayonet, the Bolo Grenade to seal Emergence Holes, and the Hammer of Dawn to really put the hurt on the Locusts. Speaking of which, most of the “small” Locusts are present, such as Wretches, Tickers, Drones, Theron Guards, Kantus Monks, Boomers, and a single Berzerker.
Fans of the series will instantly recognize the scenarios present, from Marcus’s escape from prison at the beginning of Gears 1 to the battle with Skorge near the finale of Gears 2. There are several scenarios available, each with variable board setups, so that no two games play out in exactly the same way. At certain points throughout the scenarios, events will occur, and the players are treated to memorable quotes from the videogames.
Players will likely replay scenarios, as this game is pretty difficult. The Locust can be brutal at times, and the special rules associated with different scenarios are rarely there to help the COGs. It took me three separate tries to successfully complete the easiest game, and I was annihilated on one of the later scenarios. Of course, for a cooperative board game, difficulty is a good thing.
Like other cooperative board games, Gears of War allows for solo play, as well as team play for up to four players. A bit of the experience is lost with only one player, as teamwork is one of the more important gameplay elements, but overall going solo works surprisingly well. It still demands interesting tactical decisions to be made, and has its tense moments.
The last thing really worth gushing about are the components. The plastic figures are extremely detailed, and while they are all a flat color out of the box, they really come to life with a bit of paint. Even without paint, the Locusts are all easily identifiable to anybody who has experience with the series. Unfortunately, the COG figures aren’t quite as discernible at a glance. Details like Marcus’s bandana and Baird’s goggles differentiate them upon close inspection, but it’s easy to lose track of which COG figure is which in the heat of battle.
Another potential downside for fans of the videogames is the pacing and total time investment to play a game. To its credit, the board game is relatively fast paced for a turn-based tactical strategy game, but it still won’t satisfy Gearheads who play only for the thrill of the kill. On the other hand, those who appreciate the methodical tactics behind the shooting can find a lot to love. The shortest scenario can easily take new players two to three hours to complete, but with more experience, that time could be halved.
Lastly, it seems a slight misstep to only include fully cooperative play. While it emulates the feel of the campaign well, many enjoy Gears for its competitive multiplayer first and foremost. However, the rules in place seem like they would translate to an adversarial game pretty easily, and indeed, a few fan-made competitive multiplayer variants have already cropped up. I would be very surprised if an official versus mode weren’t in the works right now, to be used as the main selling point of the inevitable expansion.
Perhaps that’s a testament to how well designed Gears of War: the Board Game is. It is fantastic as a self contained entity, but it is open ended enough that it can be easily augmented.
For those uninitiated in the world of strategy board games, Gears of War might be a bit too rules-heavy. Fans of the Gears lore will at the very least appreciate the love that went into the game’s design, and those who enjoy the series for more than just the beautiful blood splatters may find themselves engrossed in this tabletop adaptation. Additionally, turn-based strategy fans who are ambivalent to the Gears universe would likely savor the expertly designed gameplay. Essentially, strict shooter fans might be mistaken in letting the Gears of War license turn them on, but strategy fans would be gravely mistaken to allow the license to turn them off.