Burn Baby Burn – The Great Fire of London 1666 review

I am a sucker for history, especially the more curious parts that seem to have had a major effect on the world we live in today. It may sound odd, but one of my favourite parts of British history is rooted in destruction – namely, the Great Fire of London. A simple mistake by a single person saw a major change in the city that is still remembered to this day, and it shows much influence a single individual can have.

A couple of years ago, Richard Denning (who as well as being a game designer also happens to be one of the organisers of the UK Games Expo) released his game based on the event through his own imprint, Medusa Games. Now it’s been picked up again by the good folks over at Pandasaurus who are running an already successful Kickstarter to get it reprinted – and it’s well worth taking some time to investigate.

Way back in 1666, when a Pudding Lane baker called Thomas Farriner forgot to put out the hearth in his shop, he could never have known that it would end up in the destruction of thousands of homes and the relocation of thousands of Londoners. Of course, centuries ago there was no such thing as an organised fire brigade so the wealthy landowners would have to coordinate fighting the flames themselves – which is where as players you come in.

Before the game begins, houses belonging to all involved are placed randomly around the board. Your colour and some location cards which need to be protected are secretly given to you (to be revealed at the end – there’s a bit of secret information in this one), then it’s time to start burning. Pudding Lane is already well ablaze (as shown by the many red cones that begin the game there) and that fire needs to spread. A player starts their turn by playing a card from their hand showing which direction the flames will go, then moves a couple of the cones into the new district. Houses are immediately removed from the board and placed on the anti-scoretrack (a nice idea where you count down instead of up), but not every space can be razed to the ground quite so easily…

Time to destroy one of the world’s greatest cities! Living the dream, folks…

You see, you also have your own governors who seemingly have the power over fire itself – flames can’t spread into an area where they currently reside. There are also volunteers who are under everyone’s control, diligently attempting to douse the fire as best they can – do this and you’ll grab the fire cones as bonus points. Little discs can also be claimed should you be the first to move the fire into a specific area which could bestow yet more points on you, allow for extra moves or even cause a little explosion. Why would you choose to destroy yet more buildings though? Well, it’s all about controlling the path of the fire – it can’t move through an area where there’s nothing to burn, so could well protect more of your property. Think of it as a sacrifice, one destroyed for the protection of many more.

The Great Fire of London may not seem much at first – play a card, move some tokens, draw a card, repeat – but after a couple of games the true fun of play begins to reveal itself. Trying to work out the other players’ colours adds a deduction element to the proceedings; did you see someone grimace when you ruined a district entirely filled with a certain colour house? Also, you don’t want to give away too much yourself as you move the volunteers and governors about the board to put the fire out and protect certain areas… it becomes something of a battle of wits pretty quickly.

Once the game comes to a conclusion (as determined by the draw pile running out), points are worked out by how many houses are left standing, the amount of fire cones in your possession (whoever has the most is given a bonus and declared “The Hero Of London”) and what – if any – locations are untouched. Certain areas of the board grant hefty extra points should they survive and if you’ve got that card in your hand at the end of the game it could well swing things in your favour.

The board design is *very* pretty. One of those boards I’d like to put in a frame and stick on the wall.

This new edition of the game will see a few improvements over the original. While the issues don’t effect the game too badly, it’s nice to see that Pandasaurus Games have plans to tighten everything up just that little bit more. For example, a couple of missing arrows on the board have been picked upon to be added in, colours are to be made clearer and the fire cones – which are prone to toppling should the table get a shove – are to be improved. As well as that, there are plans to cut the box and board down in size ever so slightly which should hopefully see the board finally lay flat! It’s not a major issue with the original printing, but certainly can be a bit of a pain.

Obviously I can’t speak about production issues of the new version – it’s not been printed yet, of course – but I can pass a few comments on things that will carry over. The art, for instance, is lovely – an extremely detailed pseudo-historic map of central London makes up the vast majority of the playing area which would look great on a wall, never mind covered in bits on a table. It’ll be interesting to compare the two versions of the game side by side but I have a feeling that the Pandasaurus production will come out on top. Check it out for yourself – the Kickstarter has already hit funding but has over a week remaining at the time of writing. The Great Fire of London 1666 is a great game that’s flown under many people’s radars – don’t let the same happen to you.

Richard Denning’s The Great Fire of London 1666 is currently on Kickstarter (until August 17th) and will be published by Pandasaurus Games later in 2012. Copies of the original version of the game are still available from Gameslore and will cost you £34.99.