- Our Top 5 of 2015
- Top new to us games of 2015
- Most disappointing games of 2015
- Out of the Dust
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- and much more
Gears of War is one of my top board games of all time. It’s a cooperative shoot ’em up that utilizes cover, heaps of tension, and some of the most interesting card play in a tactical miniature game that I’ve seen. So when you come across a release that shares some similar mechanisms and that atmosphere of sadistic punishment, I hop aboard no questions asked. Oh, did I mention this story takes place in World War II? The whisper of M1-Garands and European bocage hit my ears like Hall and Oates (at least in the alternate reality of this review where we assume I actually like Hall and Oates).
There are definite similarities here to Gears of War but there are many radical departures. From the vantage point of a Flying Fortress this is much more of a light tactical design that feels perhaps half-way between Gears and Zombicide. You can move freely on your turn as well perform one action – typically an attack. The custom dice pool based combat system is fueled by action cards from your hand, which is one of the major decision points in the title.
The map is built of four large tiles that feature relatively wide spaces that can fit multiple miniatures. Everything is pretty soft in terms of mechanical structure as you can freely move through wide areas, easily produce attacks, and quickly resolve monster activation. Fireteam Zero never delves into the nitty gritty or worries about things like line of sight and equipment management.
Players cooperate to accomplish one of nine missions that are separated into three distinct narrative arcs. Each set features a different grouping of monsters and bears solid flavor. You’re typically trying to trigger narrative events from a deck of cards that occur when players perform a search action on each of the 12 spawn points on the board. This is simple and effective in that it forces the group to cover ground and hit up dangerous locations to flip a card and partake in a slice of story.
This card based encounter system punctuated by repeating waves of enemies is the mechanical playground we’re frolicking in. The monsters keep coming and cover large distances. If you kill them off they will just respawn after the enemies activate and be back on the autobahn gunning for your jugular on the next turn. In that sense the game takes on a tower defense feel where you continually brace yourselves for the onslaught, yet you need to always be moving forward towards those positions to trigger events. This “tower offense” gameplay does a great job of bringing tension and suspense.
Tension is Fireteam Zero’s greatest asset and it doesn’t hold back. You can be cut down rather quickly from nearly every monster as damage results in discarding cards from your hand – hence the comparison to Gears of War. The more actions you take on your turn the more vulnerable you are to enemy strikes when they activate. If you take a spike to the ocular cavity and have no cards to discard then you’re knocked down. There’s little penalty applied to the specific player, however if two knockdowns occur over the course of the game the player’s lose. In your early games you will lose fast and you will lose hard.
That action deck that fuels player attacks is pretty slick. Each character fits into a role of Leader, Marksman, Demolitions, or Close Combat with each category receiving their own unique deck. Cards function duo purposes as they can be used for attacking or for specific reactions that allow supporting teammates and interrupted enemies. This adds a touch of nuance to the damage system in particular as choosing your discards becomes a bit tougher.
This is also the area where the design’s shifting to lighter tactical decisions is most apparent. In Gears of War each action card functions very differently, offering a huge array of choices and variety as play evolves. In Fireteam Zero your turn to turn actions are repetitive as you almost always move and attack. The reaction abilities do vary and add heft to the card play, but they don’t feel as impactful or central to the design.
In addition to the action card system there are additional pointers to a design philosophy that focuses on variety and width instead of depth. For instance enemy monster groups are given increased power from a Twist deck which functions as a time pressure element for the players. These Twists universally make the enemy monstrosities scarier and more difficult as opposed to alter the tactical approach to play. Likewise, before activating each beast you roll a monster die which may grant extra movement, activate a special ability, or do nothing. This is a neat idea and adds a touch of uncertainty but this almost always results in additional movement. Several enemy special abilities consist of extra movement or a one ranged attack (which is functionally similar to one move) so the depth and strategic impact here is flattened out.
I also really like the idea of specialists – allies who follow you around and provide buffs for nearby players. It’s neat and consolidates a special ability or power into a piece on the board that can be handed off to another GI. The effect associated with each of the two specialists though is relatively minor in flair, although not in mechanical impact. One grants a re-roll of a single attack die and another lets you search for free instead of spending an action. This is cool stuff but it seems more like a baseline or tease for a pretty sweet mechanical vector that’s not close to reaching its height.
That’s really the rub with this design. Everything is smooth and works very well. The rulebook is pretty solid, the components are excellent. A slew of neat ideas but many of them feel more foundational than fully fleshed out. It’s like moving into your first home and filling it with your old IKEA dorm furniture.
Much of this beef is counter-attacked by how quickly the game delivers its jolts. In terms of boundaries to getting this off the shelf – the beach is clear and sunny, devoid of the rain of MG42 or 88mm fire. For this type of miniatures game it sets up exceedingly fast and has you off to the races in no time. It also manages to never feel clunky or overwrought, which is an achievement in and of itself for a contemporary thematic endeavor.
Fireteam Zero is an enjoyable, quick playing game that you can easily buy into. It’s got beauty and charm but can feel somewhat repetitive over extended sessions. The design space seems to have a solid foundation and its promise may yet be fulfilled with upcoming expansion content. This FNG may not be Gears of War, but it also ain’t Gomer Pyle.
“Three Kingdoms Redux is a board game that seeks to recreate the tripartite between the states of Wei, Wu and Shu. You assume the role of one of the three lords – Cao Cao leading Cao Wei, Sun Jian leading Eastern Wu or Liu Bei leading Shu Han. Players start the game from asymmetrical positions, reflecting the manpower advantages Wei enjoyed in the early part of the period. The weaker states of Wu and Shu protect themselves by forming an alliance.
As a feudal lord, you manage the different aspects of running a state whilst guarding your borders against both rebellious border tribes and external enemies. Managing each aspect well earns victory points for your state.
But beware, for the balance of power shifts constantly during the game. Understand and take advantage of the power shifts, and you will fulfill your grand ambition of re-unifying China!”
Quick Game Overview
How To Play
Sample Game Play
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One Minor Correction – For the tutorial Popular Support Tokens can be played on battle spaces, the video will be annotated!
In my Champions of Midgard review I proclaimed 2015 as the year of the Viking. Grey Fox Games gave us that excellent worker placement game, CoolMiniOrNot hit us with the absolutely stunning Blood Rage, and now IDW has won me over with yet another Norse-fueled rampage across European waters – Fire And Axe: A Viking Saga.
This is a re-release of the classic Ragnar brothers’ Viking Fury which was later picked up by Asmodee and given the title we see here. IDW has resurrected this out of print modern classic with solid new miniatures, great evocative artwork, and one of the best game boards I’ve ever seen. You can tell this release was handled with care and attention to detail was of the utmost concern.
My only previous exposure to a Steve and Phil Kendall design was their recent offering DRCongo. There’s a definite similarity in approach as both games are concerned with a streamlined and accessible take on simulation. This isn’t a GMT heavy game with an extreme amount of detail, but the overarching actions and behavior of play mimics a realistic take on Viking exploration and its fallout.
Fire and Axe is primarily a Euro game about maximizing actions and effectively delivering trade or violence. Players begin the game wintering in Scandinavia where they will prepare for their epic journey by loading warriors and goods into their longboats. On your turn each player is given seven days – the equivalent of action points – which they can spend loading or at sea. Loading one token of goods as well as one warrior miniature takes a day. Sailing to adjacent spaces and into or out of ports also requires the expenditure of a day. It’s all pretty simple stuff, load up a mix of ferocious Norsemen and horns/fur/fish, then sail out across the far reaches of Europe to deliver and pillage.
Ports laid out across the map may be traded with and settled. Trading simply requires you deposit a good at the town and receive victory points in return. The catch is that ports are divided into regions of like colors, and you can never trade more than one of the same good to any region. Additionally, each individual port may only hold one good total for the entire game.
The ports themselves contain a value which corresponds to their reward. So trading with far flung Rome is worth more than a peasant town off the coast of France. This combination of limited trading connecting with ranging values provides for some definite player interaction in the form of a race to certain points of the map. This intersects nicely with the buildup in the winter zone as you may sometimes wish to sail out at half-capacity to beat another player to the punch.
The design sheds some of its Euro trappings when going the route of Settling or Raiding. Much like Trading, Settling can only occur once per port space. To “domesticate” the region you need roll up to three dice – one per Viking hell-raiser you want to commit to the taming of the heathen land; each die greater than the port value is a success, and each failure results in the bearded fella being sent to Valhalla. If you get at least one success your warrior now occupies the port space and you will score points at end game.
Raiding works similarly but has you rolling against small and large plastic villages that are pre-seeded throughout the map. Attacking in this regard requires you roll one die, if you fail you lose a warrior and may continue if you have more bodies to commit to the pyre. There’s a definite push your luck element in both mechanisms but they do feel just different enough to keep the mechanical variety. Villages raided are also worth straight up immediate VP based on a hidden value on the underside of the miniature.
The Raiding and Settling reliance on luck has caused much consternation among Fire and Axe’s detractors. It stands in stark contrast to the Euro pickup and deliver style trading mechanic and can certainly be jarring. Yet I absolutely adore it.
Much like DRCongo I think this injection of chaos adds dramatic tension to what would otherwise be a rote experience. Those moments of chucking dice late in the game can result in everyone standing and shouts of laughter as more Viking spearmen are ground up on the shores of England. It’s visceral and exciting – just as raiding and pillaging should damn well be.
There’s no denying you can suffer major setbacks from those six-siders. You are afforded opportunities to mitigate the luck by packing extra warriors aboard or by utilizing the interesting and powerful Rune cards. This is a deck of one shot special powers which players may draw when back at their home port. They can certainly be swingy but support a take that style of interaction that adds a nice degree of closure to the Ameritrash aspects of the design. You can throw other player’s settlements into revolt or hit them with bad weather. At times you will get cards that allow you to manipulate the odds of raiding in your favor and can use this to stymie Loki’s wrath.
All of these elements combine to highlight the shining glory of Fire and Axe. This hybrid design utilizes its sense of Ameritrash drama with a well-studied historical background to provide a strong narrative context to the action of play. Unlike its peers, this design props itself up by telling a story. You won’t get minute details of blow by blow action, but my clan will sail down the rivers of Eastern Europe and colonize Germanic territory under intense pressure. Jeremy’s will run into horrid weather in the English Channel and have his trade route slowed as Josh picks up steam and beats him to the punch, delivering mounds of fur to foreign peoples.
The Ragnar brothers do a fantastic job incentivizing realistic behavior in an organic way which furthers the narrative. The difficulty of conquering or settling a port is lowered by one if trade has already occurred there – this means players can get a leg up by delivering mounds of fish and establishing trust with the locals before catching them unawares and removing their heads from their fat necks. The thematic approach here is never spelled out but rather players are gently encouraged to perform actions in a way which makes narrative sense while maintaining historicity. In many ways, it’s the design team’s brilliant trademark that punctuates their work.
I also can’t help but highlight the philosophical undertone in the subtext of play. As you’re lining up your little intoxicated Norse dudes on the cardboard long-ship and looking beyond their shoulders at the blistering horizon, that vast sense of opportunity catches your peripheral vision. You almost don’t realize that buried notion of manifest destiny creeping in, but the act of spreading out across the ocean and colonizing foreign lands – under the guise of trade supplanted by violence – is powerful. It provides an emotional tie to the mechanisms which will lightly dig into your conscious and you may never even realize was there. This is all happening in the background of play and is easy to overlook, but it’s there in a kind of sinister yet inviting atmosphere that evokes thought and contemplation. The fact that this age old tale of laying waste and conquering in the guise of exploration can be made so palatable and fun in the medium of a board game is certainly worth ruminating on post play.
Fire and Axe was regarded as a classic for a reason. This is a strong and enjoyable game that stands up to modern critique. It’s not a flash in the pan or a nice game to simply experience once and then move on from. The strategy at play is deep enough to provide a longevity and joy equivalent to that horrific journey down the coast of Spain and into the Mediterranean. Fire and Axe isn’t Blood Rage or Champions of Midgard, but it doesn’t want to be. It’s all about reverence and history, wielding both as sharp blades to jam into your soft and squishy parts.
In a distant future, scientists are able to build small alternate Earths. Exactly 504 such Earths have thus far been built. The scientists programmed each of these Worlds with an individual set of laws and rules which the residents strictly follow and consider most important for their lives. These may be exploration, consumption, economics, military, etc., and each is unique. You can visit all of these 504 alternate Earths to experience how the people are living, and decide which of these worlds harbors the best civilization. On which World do you want to live? Explore them all and decide!
504 is a game that creates 504 different games out of one box. The game consists of nine modules:
Module 1: Pick-Up & Deliver
Module 2: Race
Module 3: Privileges
Module 4: Military
Module 5: Exploration
Module 6: Roads
Module 7: Majorities
Module 8: Production
Module 9: Shares”
The Quick Overview
How To Play
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