Split Screen: Taking games from digital to analog
Gears of War: The Board Game is remarkably true to its source material.
Historically, when a video game has been brought into the realm of board games, it would take one of two forms: a re-branding of an existing board game, such as the upcoming WarCraft Monopoly and StarCraft Risk, or a thrown-together tie-in without any lasting appeal as a game in its own right, like the Frogger and Pac-Man games released in the 1980s.
Thanks to the European board game renaissance, game designers are now taking licensed properties a lot more seriously. Movie and TV tie-ins, for example, have started to emerge as some of the best games available, taken seriously even by notoriously hard-to-please board game connoisseurs, such as the critically lauded Battlestar Galactica.
With the waxing cultural significance of video games, it was inevitable that this new breed of licensed board games would start to be treated more seriously. Quality gameplay is now the core focus of these titles, rather than making a quick buck from a gullible grandmother at Christmas time.
The Pac-Man board game failed to set the world alight.
It’s no wonder, either: board game companies are squeezed between high prices and well-informed customers. It is not unusual for a top shelf game to cost as much as $100, with typical prices ranging from $60 to $80. This is outside impulse-buy territory for most consumers, so they will do their research. On sites like BoardGameGeek.com, a bad game will get shredded, and sales are guaranteed to suffer.
The solution, of course, is to make good games and keep the price as low as possible, and this philosophy has been extended even to properties that were once seen as marketing-driven cash-grabs.
While a few companies have taken a stab, American company Fantasy Flight Games has become the market leader in the field of video game conversions. They kicked off with the WarCraft board game in 2003, then moved on to Doom, StarCraft, and more. Other companies followed suit, designing highly rated games like Age of Empires and Railroad Tycoon.
Civilization and some of its many fiddly bits. [Photo: daniel-lim.co.uk]
This week I got to play Fantasy Flight's two most recent forays into video game tie-ins, Sid Meier’s Civilization and Gears of War: The Board Game, released in 2010 and 2011 respectively. What is particularly notable about these two is how highly they have been rated, with BoardGameGeek.com listing Civilization at 33 on its all-time rankings, and Gears managing a respectable 193. If only licensed video games fared so well.
First up, Gears of War. The source game is fast-paced and co-operative, so this is the direction taken by the designers of the board game. Up to four players take on the roles of the series’ four central COG soldiers - Marcus, Dom, Cole, and Baird – and work together to complete challenging missions. The enemy Locust forces are controlled by randomly-drawn cards.
The board game is extremely true to its roots. The COGs can take cover, flank enemies, throw grenades to seal up emergence holes, and even chainsaw them with the iconic lancer rifle. Each COG has varying special abilities, making each of them subtly different to play. Dom, for example, can move the fastest, so is suited to running quickly from place to place, while Cole can act out of turn and take out enemies to protect his teammates.
What I like best is that the hand of cards that is used to control your character, allowing for movement, attacks, and so on, is also your health. Essentially, the more things you do on your turn, the more exposed you are to enemy fire. At the beginning of your turn you draw two cards to refill your hand, and this is referred to as “healing”. It ties in very well with the original game’s healing mechanic, including the fact that when you get shot up you can hide in cover and do nothing for a little while to get your health back. A COG who loses all his cards ends up on the ground bleeding out, needing a friend to revive him.
I played with the full complement of four players, including one who is a fan of the series and two who had never played it. We blitzed the first mission, in which we had to punch through a horde of Locust soldiers to seal an emergence hole. After a period of explaining rules and stepping through everyone’s turns slowly, we soon got the hang of it and blasted through the mission with little difficulty.
Things got a bit more challenging in the second mission, thanks to the addition of the huge and terrifying berserker. As in the original, the blind behemoth must be lured through the level to bash open locked doors. We ended up being too distracted by swarms of lesser enemies, and the berserker mopped us up. Clearly it is not just enough to know the rules; you need a strong strategy as well.
Overall, I had a great time with Gears of War: The Board Game, and I look forward to playing it again and learning hoe to best work together as a team. My only quibble is that I think it may lack replayability, so I hope Fantasy Flight will follow it up with an expansion soon.
Civilization is effectively the polar opposite of Gears. Unlike its fast and lean sibling, it is slow-paced and uses a huge number of playing pieces. Between map tiles, counters, cards, plastic pawns, cardboard counters, and more, it has over 500 individual bits in the box. Setting up a game can take as long as 30 minutes, and a game can take over three hours to play. Clearly this is not a game for everyone.
To be fair, recreating such a sprawling video game experience on a tabletop was always going to be an epic challenge, and if you can tolerate the complex setup and digest the voluminous rules, it is an extremely faithful adaptation.
Most of the key things that make the Civilization board game what it is are here: exploration of a random map, making war with other cultures, researching technology, sending out settlers to found new cities, constructing civic buildings and wonders, barbarian tribes, and more. There are even multiple winning conditions, with military conquest, scientific advancement, cultural development, and overwhelming wealth all being potential paths to victory.
If you enjoy a slow-paced game with deep long-term strategy, Civilization comes very highly recommended, but be aware that it takes a serious investment of time just to learn the rules, let alone to play the game. Then again, Civilization V on PC takes over ten hours for an average play-through, so three hours around a table with a group of friends sounds just fine to me.
As both a video game fanatic and a board games nerd, I love that these two worlds are converging in such a satisfying way. The two games above, apart from capturing the essence of their source material, are also simply good board games.
- James "DexX" Dominguez