Gears of War – Boardgame Review
Gears of War. Boardgame Review. Publisher: Fantasy Flight Games. Designer: Corey Koniezcka. $79.99
Passed Inspection: Gears of War fans will not be disappointed by the components when they open this box. From the color palette of the map tiles to the original artwork on display in every card, this game is packed full of COG ephemera. If you missed out on the collector’s edition of Gears of War 3 this would be a wonderful substitute as the miniatures are far and away the best I’ve seen in any game this year.
Failed Basic: Poor design of the cards themselves obfuscates vital information from the player. A manual that is so cumbersome as to be a liability slows down play and limits the speed at which you are able to learn the game.
I’ve been a member of Delta Squad since Emergence Day. I’ve played every level of every map since those grubs first came topside. For several years every Friday night found me effectively bowling with the guys during what we called Gears and Beers night. I have pistol whipped wretches, played grenade tag, and two-shotted the Gnasher dance with the best of them. His handle is Gumbie in case you were wondering, and he will put a torque bolt through your eye socket before you can even manage to ask him about his funny accent. So when Fantasy Flight Games sent a copy of Gears of War the Board Game my way I was very excited to sit down and give it a whirl.
Popping the top on the box was a delight. Inside are oodles of thickly cut cardboard map tiles, stacks of cards featuring Epic games’ original art, and a thick, oversized glossy manual. The presentation, like any Fantasy Flight game, was top notch. Even the box was built for years of wear and safe storage.
The miniatures are superb, far and away the best I’ve seen from any game this year. The level of detail that Benjamin Maillet has modeled into each of the six Locust sculpts is incredible, and stands toe to toe with some of the finest pewter work I saw on the floor at GenCon. The cracks and crenellations will demand a very thin paint application after the mold release is fully scrubbed away, but the rewards for working up such detailed minis are themselves worth the price of the game in my opinion. And costly this licensed game is, coming in at a healthy $79.99 retail (outlets like Amazon.com have it at a far more reasonable $49.99).
The game play itself shows the clever design that Corey Koniezcka is known for. Players work together to beat the map, while the enemies are themselves controlled by a deck of Locust AI Cards shuffled in advance. At the end of a player’s turn pull an AI card and a subset of the enemies described therein moves, takes cover, or fires on the players. Each time you play the level map is automatically generated at random. Players shuffle cards that accompany each tile and, drawing them one at a time, lay out the tiles to generate a random pattern. While the box contains only a handful of missions, you can be assured you’ll rarely see the same configuration of tiles twice. For a game all about cover and small squad tactics this is a very good thing.
Most of the information available to the players is managed using a small side board. Here the Locusts for the given map—referred to on the AI cards as type A, B, and C—stack up ready to spawn in at the red Emergence Hole when called upon.
What immediately becomes apparent to seasoned board game players is that this is not your usual board game. When was the last time you set up a “level” or worried about the enemy “AI” while launching into a beer and peanuts war game? The vocabulary of the manual itself and of the game terms it references is as attached to the video game paradigm as the art is attached to the game license. Where Gears of War the Board Game fails is in bringing anything new to the franchise, or to board gaming. The mechanics are a rehash of the video game, played out in a much slower and more ponderous way.
Where Gears of War the video game is fluid, dynamic, and pulls the player along toward the next goal, Gears of War the Board Game feels stunted, overwrought, and puts up barriers both figuratively and literally.
The biggest barrier to getting through a single game is the art design of the cards. When I pick up a card from the table I should be immediately able to understand its benefit to me. I should be able to pull up just a corner, like a skilled poker player, and instantly grasp the value before I even place it back onto the table. In Gears of War the Board Game cards for players and enemies are each designed in subtly different ways. Vital information, like health, defense, and attack values are in different places or, in the case of the players, on entirely different weapon reference cards. My friends and I found ourselves continually referring back to the manual for a diagram of each card to help us discern which number stood for what critical value. It was a handicap that slowed multiple game sessions with several different groups of players.
Equally inscrutable was the game manual itself. Not unlike a tax form, the manual continuously withheld information from us and referred us to later pages and passages. Rarely in the manual was a complete, coherent series of steps illustrated on a single page. Taking a turn required shifting between no less than five sections in four locations of the manual. Each of these sections sought then to teach the exceptions alongside the rules, so that by the time you made it back to where you started you forgot why you went into the book in the first place. So frustrating was the page turning that on one occasion my gaming group asked to start over with a different game for the evening and just gave up.
One mechanic that appealed to everyone who played was player health. In Gears of War the video game if you take enough hits you go down, but if you dodge behind cover long enough before taking that last wound you can quickly gain back your stamina and return to the fight. This element of the video game is modeled in the board game by making the player’s life equal to the number of order cards in that player’s hand. To take any task, from firing on an enemy to picking up a clip of discarded ammunition, players must spend a card. In so doing they spend a little of their life, and put themselves at risk of being brought down by the enemy. To engender teamwork each order card has the potential to be played during another player’s turn as an interrupt, allowing you to follow your teammates from place to place on the map always keeping together. Just like in Gears of War the video game, being isolated in the board game means getting killed.
I now own Gears of War the Board Game, but I’m not sure I would go out and spend money on it if I had to. I don’t have the patience for miniature painting anymore, and there are other games on my shelf that I’d rather spend time enjoying with my friends. At the end of the day, I’d rather spend my valuable time playing the video game. If I need a shot of adrenaline, I’ll load up Gears of War 3, rev up my lancer, and play the game that I’ve grown to love these last few years. Gears of War the Board Game is trying too hard to be like the video game to be able to stand apart from the crowd when vying for my attention.
Armchair General Score: 81%
Solitaire Suitability (1 – 5): 5 – Ideal
About the Author
By night Charlie Hall is a writer for Gamers With Jobs (www.GamersWithJobs.com). His relevant interests range from pen-and-paper role playing games, to board games and electronic games of all types. By day he is a writer for CDW Government LLC. Follow him on Twitter @TheWanderer14, or send him hate mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. He, his wife, and daughter make their home in far northern Illinois. This summer you can find him crouched over his newly built PC, or prowling the vendor floor at GenCon in Indianapolis digging up new and exciting games to play and stories to write.