Boots on the Ground – Boardgame Review
Boots on the Ground – Boardgame review. Design and layout: Sean Cooke. Worthington Games. $45.00
Passed Inspection: Very simple rules; short playing time; bow-string tension as you flip cards to see what the enemy is up to now; no two games play exactly the same.
Failed Basic: Rules are a little too simple, leaving them open to interpretation; restrictions on player actions seem excessive; could use some minor graphics improvements to facilitate play.
You’re leading an elite squad through the streets of a city to free hostages being held by insurgents. Three civilians you’ve passed were no threat, but the fourth took a shot at you. He missed; you didn’t. Your scout and your sniper are already KIA, and your heavy weapons man has been wounded. Time is running out. You need to push your team forward, but a suspicious-looking vehicle is sitting in a narrow street; there’s no way to avoid passing by it.
Cursing the loss of time, you halt your medic and the wounded man while your demolitions specialist goes to check out the vehicle. Good thing he did. There’s an IED hidden in it, which he defuses. But everything in this miserable place comes at a price. Just as your demo expert signals all-clear, an armed insurgent pops up in the window opposite your wounded heavy weapons specialist, and two more come running down the street firing AK-47s. Time to earn your pay. Again.
A lot of gamers are excited about Boots on the Ground, Worthington Games’ new boardgame of modern combat against insurgents; it’s already in its second printing. The game is set in a generic urban landscape, overlaid with squares for determining movement and range. The two stiff-paper maps are not geomorphic; the city never changes, only the names of the dead.
Boots is a fast-moving, very intense, frustrating, challenging game in which each scenario can be played in one of four ways: solitaire, running an elite six-man team; cooperatively (two players each run a six-man team and work toward a common goal); competitively (each player has the same goal but it may involve reaching different Green Zones or completing the mission first); or with three players, one of whom makes decisions for the insurgents based on card draws. Solitaire games usually involve fewer cards in the deck—which means insurgents get fewer chances to do Bad Things, but also means the player has less time to complete the mission.
The four pages of rules can be read in 5–10 minutes. Each game takes 30–90 minutes to play, although it will seem longer as the sneaky little insurgents come at you from everywhere. They multiply like rabbits on Viagra. The turn sequence works this way:
Assume you’re playing a two-person cooperative game, in which the players are working together toward a common goal such as clearing buildings, rescuing hostages or wounded teammates, or just getting from Point A to Point B.
The Alpha Team player activates units. This might mean activating all members of the team who are adjacent to each other—in which case they will move a maximum of three spaces each (forward, backward, sideways or diagonally), all will have a zero modifier to their fire, and none can use their individual special abilities. Or, the Alpha player might choose to activate a single figure in order to let that figure do its special thing, such as shooting at multiple targets, healing a teammate, blowing a hole in a wall, etc. Individual movement rates vary from three to seven, depending on the figure’s specialty. For review purposes, "figure" refers to the 5/8"-cardboard counter that represents one individual.
Whether the Alpha Team player activates one figure or several adjacent ones, Alpha gets just one activation, after which the Bravo Team player flips a card from a deck of 40–60 depending on the scenario. (One solitaire scenario uses just 20 cards.) Whatever action the card calls for will affect only the Alpha Team. The card may let X-number of insurgents move and fire (toward Alpha only) or cause new insurgents to enter play. It might cause a door to blow up injuring those adjacent to it, or it may change an insurgent temporarily or permanently to a sniper, demo or heavy weapons expert, etc. Or maybe, just maybe, it’ll bring good news, like reinforcements for your team.
After the instructions on the card are carried out (which constitutes the insurgents’ turn), the Bravo player gets to activate in the same manner as Alpha, after which the Alpha player flips a card and applies it to Bravo.
Players continue in this manner until the victory conditions are achieved, or the teams are wiped out/reduced below the level required by the victory conditions, or after the last card is played.
Fifteen cards in the 60-card deck allow Good Things to happen to a team: insurgents take cover and do nothing; reinforcements show up; a wounded figure is medivaced to one of four Green Zones to be healed and can return to play in that team’s next activation. There is no armor, artillery or air support. (Can you say "future supplement?")
The biggest choice players have to make is whether to activate a team or an individual during their phase. ("Team" in this sense means two or more figures adjacent to each other, without a wall between them.) Team activation allows more than one figure to move and shoot. Activating just one figure lets that figure take advantage of its special abilities. For example, a Medic, if activated individually, can remove one wound from an adjacent figure, move up to four spaces and shoot. However, if other team members are activated along with the Medic, he can’t perform any healing, and all the activated figures move a maximum of three spaces.
Using special abilities is mighty enticing, but remember, a card gets flipped whether you’ve activated one figure or several. Not only does this mean Something Bad is likely to happen, you’re also now one card closer to the end of the scenario. There are few things more frustrating in this game than being on the very edge of victory when the last card is turned.
Figures can move and shoot, shoot and move, or move-shoot-move, whether activated individually or as part of a team. An arrow on each Allied or Insurgent counter is used only to determine facing for combat; it has no effect on movement. At the end of a team move, a player should arrange counters so that arrows point in as many directions as possible, even toward areas that currently have no threats in them. Trust me on this.
In combat, range is five spaces for everyone except snipers; if activated individually a sniper with line of sight can shoot up to 10 spaces. To resolve combat, the phasing Allied player rolls a six-sided die for a team member’s shot, and the non-phasing player also rolls a d6 (for the insurgent). They compare the results and consult a two-row, four-column combat results table.
If the Allied player initiated the combat, use the top row, where a difference of +2 in favor of the player results in an insurgent killed; tie or +1 wounds an insurgent; -1 to -3 is a miss; -4 or more means the player’s figure is wounded. If the combat was initiated during the insurgents’ phase, use the bottom row: +4 kills the player’s figure; +1 to +3 wounds; ties to -2 miss; and -3 or more wounds the insurgent.
Each Allied figure can take three wounds before being KIA; insurgents run away if they take a single wound—but if they’re not killed, they’ll be baaa-aa-ack.
These simple mechanics make for a fast-playing, nail-biting game that can easily be set up and played repeatedly. One player described the action as, "You think you’re going on a cake walk, and then things happen. The randomness makes it interesting, and the fact you’re burning cards makes you move instead of sitting back hoping the bad guys will run out of food or something."
Another gamer I played Boots with volunteers to play innocent civilian/nasty insurgent in the U.S. Army’s live-action counterinsurgency training exercises. He remarked after one of our games, "This is like a scenario in the training exercises."
But there are flies in the ointment.
Boots plays like a video game, which will appeal to some players and turn off others. Kill one alien or zombie—I mean, insurgent—and three or four more may pop up to take his place. A box found in a house may provide your team a medical kit, a grenade or a bomb-defusing kit—or it may explode in your team member’s hand. That’s not to say these video-game-like conventions are bad—they’re what make players hold their breath when opening a box, flipping a card, or engaging in other acts with random outcomes—but players will sometimes feel they’ve stepped into a game of Duke Nukem.
Additionally, some of the game’s elements bear little relationship to the real world: your elite forces can only use their special skills if they act alone instead of in concert; only the Demo expert will have grenades unless you find one or two in the Unknown Kits scattered about town; your elite Scout can zip down the street like the Roadrunner when acting on his own but acting individually means he gets a negative 2 modifier when he shoots. Likewise, all the G.I. reinforcements shoot at -2, which means they and the elite Scout are worse shots than any of the insurgents.
Three insurgent counters represent a sniper, demo or heavy weapons expert, but nothing distinguishes them from other insurgents except a single word in small, black type against a gray background. A color band or other unique identifier would make it easier to keep track of them on the board. Similarly, the buildings are all identified by Roman numerals in small, yellow type against a gray background in a very gray landscape; larger, Arabic numerals would make setup easier—even given that an illustration on each scenario card shows where every insurgent, Unknown Kit, vehicle and civilian is to be placed.
A number of points aren’t addressed adequately in the rules. For instance, IEDs in vehicles can be A-type or B-type, with B doing more damage and being impossible to defuse. However, the cards in which "The nearest door explodes from an IED" don’t specify which type it is. If a card calls for X-number of insurgents to move and fire, but fewer than that number are capable of moving into the five-space firing range, do the others still move? Boots will almost certainly inspire a lot of house rules.
(Armchair General asked Worthington Games for some clarifications. ACG’s questions and Worthington’s answers, which constitute a sort of errata for Boots on the Ground, can be found by clicking here.) LINK
Bottom line, if you’re looking for a hardcore simulation of modern urban combat, this ain’t it. This is a quick-playing, what-the-hell-is-going-to-happen-next game. It provides a number of scenarios and variations that permit extensive replay, plus a thick fog of war that makes players more nervous than an espresso-addicted Chihuahua. If that sounds like it’s up your booby-trapped alley, shell out your 45 bucks, break out the beer and pretzels, roll your dice and enjoy yourself.
Armchair General Rating: 87%
Solitaire Rating: 5 out of 5
About the author:
Gerald D. Swick is senior online editor for ArmchairGeneral.com and HistoryNet.com. In a previous life, he worked for such magazines as Fire & Movement, Game News, and The Games Annual, and was marketing director for Steve Jackson Games. Right now, he’s out on a beer and pretzels run.