Board Game Review: GEARS OF WAR

Alex gets behind some cover and shoots up the Locust in this board game based on the popular Xbox game.

Designer: Corey Konieczka
Publisher: Fantasy Flight Games
1-4 Players
1-3 Hours

When a work has been adapted for another media you expect something to get lost in the translation. Books are so dense that movies tend to omit a lot of the nuance, games so twitchy that they tend not to retain any emotion from films. The best adaptations play to the strengths of the particular format and do their own thing, but every once in a while there’s one that’s pitch-perfect.

Perhaps it’s easier if you start with a series that’s known more for its fantastic action than its vapid story but regardless, it’s remarkable how much Gears of War: The Board Game feels just like the video game. Nearly everything fans of the series would expect to find is in here- emergence holes, roadie runs, active reloads, the lancer’s chainsaw ability, even most of the famous character (Fenix, Dom, Baird and Cole) and Locust enemies are accounted for. Since the board game is based on the first two video games you can also expect to fight through some familiar missions. The incredibly detailed plastic figures, custom dice and modular tile board featuring some of the most beautiful cardboard tiles in the business certainly don’t hurt- the components add a lot to the experience.

Gears of War is an easy game to pick up and play, since there are only three things you do on your turn. First, you draw two cards, up to your max of six. Then you can discard a card to move, attack, or perform the specific action printed on a card. Last you draw an AI card and see how the enemy responds. Combat is as simple as rolling two different sets of dice (attacking vs defending) and seeing which one shows more hits. Your health is represented by the number of cards you have in your hand, a system which makes your decisions that much more harder- do you discard a card to pick up that new weapon, making yourself weaker for the enemy’s attack?

You also have to carefully use your weapons, since ammo is very difficult to come by. Perform a normal attack with the lancer and you’ll roll two dice, but if you really want to kill something you’re going to want to use an Overkill attack, which uses up one of your ammo tokens from the weapon. Each weapon generally only comes with two ammo tokens, so choosing when to utilize these powerful attacks is key.

The game can be brutally difficult, depending on what you roll and the order in which you draw the map pieces.Each of the seven included missions uses specific tiles from the 17 double-sided pieces included in the game, but the order is always random which can change the game significantly. The order the AI cards are drawn makes a huge difference as well. Those cards can target specific Locust figures for actions (ie, all Boomers move one space and attack the nearest player) or they can be horrible, horrible general event cards (spawn a wretch on every open emergence hole).

It’s different than most games because you’ll actually have to take things slow and make good use out of the cover system in order to best defend against your attackers. Cover is key, really- slide behind a barrier and you give yourself either one or two defense dice added to your roll, depending on the enemy’s positioning. Of course, the Locust can grab cover as well.

One great aspect of the game is that it’s playable from one to four players, and scales depending on how many people are playing. Play a solo game and you won’t see too many enemies coming after you but in a four-player game you’ll just be hounded non-stop. Of course, you have many more people to kill them with, so it seems to even out.

After a few solo plays (yes, you can play this board game solitaire) I got a friend over (one Luke Groskin, who took these fine photographs for me) to play a few games, and we really got into it. The first game we played, well, it was a bit of an embarrassment. We didn’t even make it off the first tile, actually. The mission we chose was “China Shop”, which you might remember as the level from the first Gears of War that saw you dodging and running from a massive, blind Berserker that was trying to smash you into paste. You had the lure the big ol’ gal towards (and through) locked doors in order to get to the next room, heading for an outside area where you can use an orbital weapon and take her down for good. Same rules applied here, but we didn’t get very far. A combination of Berserker and General Event AI cards slammed us with attack after attack, and we were woefully unprepared for the Berserker’s crushing, five dice attacks. I’m not sure we made it ten minutes. We decided to move on…

Our second game was much more successful. Choosing the “Roadblock” mission based on the level of the same name from Gears of War 2 and decided on playing as Cole and Dom (although Luke demanded his beefy character be called Tug McSmashThrob), we mounted up and went on the attack. We were confronted with rooms full to the brim of scampering, explosive Tickers. These beasts run at you and explode after successful attacks, but they also explode when you kill them, so you’ve got to keep them at a distance. Thankfully when they explode they also take out any other creatures in their area, so we let them clump up and used cards to interrupt their movements and attacks, shooting and exploding them two or three at a time. After getting through many tiles full of the little beasties you have a choice of two levels to head into and we chose the second level, heading down and finding out that even more Locust lay in wait. Drones and Boomers joined the fray, completely changing up our tactics. After a pitched battle we managed to make it through, without even bleeding out once (as opposed to the last time, which was a bloodbath.)

It’s nice to see the inclusion of some story elements. After getting to the end of one of the levels (there can be up to three for each mission) you’ll flip a card and see what happens next, whether you’re attacked by a wave of enemies, enter a new level, or what. But the story has about as much depth as the video game, and since after playing through the level once you know what to expect it would have been nice to have cards with different outcomes to change things up. Seven missions (six and Horde mode) doesn’t seem like enough, actually, and it would be nice to see some more support for the game.

As I noted in my interview with Fantasy Flight Games designer Corey Konieczka, he’s no stranger to licensed properties, and he always seems to nail what makes each one unique and translate it perfectly to a board game. Gears may be a tad repetitive and not be quite as perfect as his amazing Battlestar Galactica game but it’s gotten to the heart of what makes the big silly series so much fun by emphasising the relentless co-op action. You’ve really got to work as a team to survive, staying close and communicating with your friends to stay alive.

The shorter missions in Gears are the perfect length and can take just under an hour to play. There’s not many rules to remember, and while there’s some depth to it it’s very easy to understand, especially if you’ve played the video game. It all adds up to a very fun experience, and perhaps the perfect gateway board game.

[PS- Let me just warn you that it’s a very slippery slope. Over the last year giant designer games have been steadily cluttering up my house, leaving my wife increasingly concerned about her choice of life partner. Fantasy Flight Games alone has some truly incredible games like Arkham Horror and The Game of Thrones Living Card Game and more on the way (a new version of Descent, as well as two licensed Star Wars games), but there’s so much to find out there. I say this as I see my copies of Earth Reborn and Alien Factions poking out from under my couch.]