If you know video games, you know Gears of War. One of the biggest franchises out there, the tale of mankind versus the Locust has spawned three games exclusive to the Xbox 360 that have collectively managed to take in over $1 billion in sales since the recent release of the latest in the series. It’s a hardcore, gritty and occasionally bloody mental third-person shooter and the current go-to title for many gamers.
Perfect for turning into a board game then, yes? Whyever not.
It’s not the first time that a video game has been given the cardboard treatment; look at Milton Bradley’s efforts in the 1980s with delights such as Pac-Man and Zaxxon. It’s not even the first time a shooter has been seen on a tabletop; we’ve already had Frag and the really pretty ace Doom.
Gears of War takes all that and ramps it up tenfold. Where Fantasy Flight could easily have copped out and produced a duffer knowing that it would sell well no matter what, they’ve put some consideration into it and produced a truly great game. It looks good and plays well, invariably down to the involvement of one Corey Konieczka. By bringing together one of the best designers out there and a massive franchise, Fantasy Flight have something big on their hands.
I’m getting a bit ahead of myself. For folks who’ve never heard of Gears of War, here’s the rundown. Between one and four players are given a mission (all inspired by ones that appear in the video games) and have a simple objective – live long enough to complete it. Generally this involves working your way through a selection of rooms and corridors while wiping out the near endless supply of enemies – the Locust – and throwing grenades into the holes they emerge from. Hopefully this will give you enough time to wipe out the map and emerge victorious.
I say hopefully because, believe me, it doesn’t happen very often. Winning in Gears of War is a rarity not to be expected.
Set-up is pretty simple. The mission you decide to take on is detailed on a series of cards that outline what room tiles you require, what bad guys you’ll be facing and what you need to do to complete it. Each tile has a small card that says how many enemies the game will start with (dependent on how many people are playing – the game scales really well) along with a one-off special ability that each area grants players.
Characters are selected – lifted from the game, of course – each of whom have a special power; the ability to have an extra weapon perhaps, or the boon of an extra card. Holding cards is very important for a couple of reasons: they represent the actions that you can do by playing one card per turn; this is generally moving around the board and performing attacks. A symbol in the top corner of each card also lets you react to enemy actions but that’s no excuse to throw them away at any opportunity. The cards also represent your life, you see… if you’re attacked, you lose cards. Get down to zero cards in your hand and you’re injured, bleeding out all over the floor.
Thankfully if your team mates can get to you to they wrench you back up on your feet but you’ll be weak – and unfortunately you’re only allowed to draw two cards at the start of each turn. Gears of War is all about balancing what’s available to you and sticking with your mates, much like co-op mode in the video game. If you run ahead all guns blazing you’re quickly going to be taken down by a horde of Locust that will take no time at all in picking you off. Once everyone’s on the deck it’s game over but there’s no end screen here, just the disappointed faces of the other players all staring at you, wondering why you ran on in a quest for glory when you should have played safe.
If you’re going down, you’d best go down fighting. Combat is dice based and dependent on a variety of factors. The weapon you wield is the main thing but you must also consider distance between you and your target, whether you want to use your overkill ability (a more manly name for a ramped up attack) and whether you or your enemy is in cover. Being in cover – hiding behind a wall or piece of scenery – adds to your defence, so if you have a chance to do so, DO IT. You’ll be grateful for that broken down wall when three boomers come charging down a corridor towards you and there’s only three cards in your hand… Throw those dice and pray you’ve sunk enough bullets into the enemy to stop them.
I’ve mentioned that it’s you against the game and it’s got to be said that the AI is handled pretty well. The cards that make up the deck that controls the monsters are all organised during the game set-up; these are shuffled and cycled through as many times as necessary. Once a player has completed a turn, they’re responsible for performing the Locust’s moves by drawing the top card from the deck and following the instructions. Often this will involve movement and counter-attacks but you’ll also see plenty of new creatures spawning as the game goes on – the amount of enemies on the board often gets ridiculous and it can get pretty relentless, but that’s what Gears of War is about, both the video game and this board game conversion.
Along with missions, Gears of War also provides another play mode lifted straight from the 360: Horde Mode. This is probably the best way to get a feel for the game with no missions to complete, just a never-ending army standing in front of you, your colleagues and your guns. If ever a board game felt like something you’d play in an arcade, this is it. Horde mode feels like a score attack, a quick and dirty gaming experience where even adding one or two to your previous best effort feels like an achievement. It’s a great way of getting a feel for how the mechanisms in the game work and when coupled with the training mission”Emergence”, you’ll truly understand how the board game runs.
These practice runs are kind of necessary because the included rulebook isn’t great. It feels somewhat overcomplicated and a few explanations are poorly portrayed, especially when it comes to setting up the game. That isn’t to say that the rulebook is bad; it just comes across as a bit all over the place. Thankfully once you’ve done it a couple of times it’ll all come a bit easier but simple explanations from the off would have been nice to see.
As Gears of War is a Fantasy Flight production you’d expect it to be of high quality and – you guessed it – the whole thing is beautifully put together. If you’ve played Mansions of Madness, it’s equal to that: fantastic sculpts of both heroes and Locusts, thick cut tiles and tokens, high quality cardstock… it’s all quite lovely. The only single poor quality item included is the small sheet that you put the game’s card piles on and around: it’s very flimsy. A good hefty thick display tile would have looked great but as that’s my only complaint, it’s far from a terrible production. In fact, I’d happily say that it’s one of FF’s best.
For gamers who’ve invested time in the series on the 360, Gears of War will be top of their want list. It captures the experience of playing its on-screen counterpart well, never letting up or allowing you a moment to breathe. It’s an all or nothing experience where you’ll either win by the skin of your teeth (and it’s always about just squeaking the victory) or fail in a spectacular fashion.
Those who come fresh to Gears of War, perhaps never even having heard of it, will find a challenging game that may at first seem unfair and unbalanced. Only by embracing how it should be approached – with careful consideration for everything you do – will they get the full experience, hopefully walking away with a smile on their faces even if they’re the last man standing and about to take a grenade to the sternum. Gears of War is brilliantly, utterly ridiculous in the very best possible way.
Gears of War: The Board Game was published in 2011 by Fantasy Flight. Designed by Corey Konieczka, between one and four can play, and it’ll cost you around £45 / US$60. Cheaper than the video game and fewer howling online idiots to deal with when playing! How could you possibly refuse?