Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Review: Gears of War the board game

I think its fair to say that the Gears of War franchise has been a little bit of a success for Epic Games and Microsoft alike. Its shifted a fair few units and I'm pretty certain the reason I'm still clinging onto my tired and creaky Xbox 360 Elite is to sample the delights of Gears 3. No doubt the curse of the Gears RRoD will strike and finally kill off my 9th 360 for good. So why is it so successful? Its not the cleverest game on the block and neither are its protagonists but I guess that's been half of its appeal, right? The style of the characters and animation certainly owe a little bit I guess to a certain future warrior from a certain Gothic sci-fi franchise, in some cases shamelessly so. But its certainly no direct rip off and its universe has its own distinct flavour. It was the brutality of the action and the awesome way in which the Locust were 'introduced' to the game environment via emergence holes that had people hooked... it also had me thinking that its mechanics might make a good Dungeon Crawler when I first saw it. Seems that somebody at Fantasy Flight Games had the exact same idea... and I say thank the Lord above that they did!!! Here's the Fantasy Flight Games video that's been doing the rounds to give you a taster...

Product Description

The massed ranks of the Locust and the 4 COGs on parade

Its another one of those 'games in a box' that I seem so addicted to lately. I think its fair to say that the box isn't as jammed pack full of stuff as say some of the other games I've reviewed lately, say like Mansions of Madness. However the game miniatures are arguably some of the best I've ever seen in a board game and you get 32 of them. Comprising of the 4 COGs and 28 Locust of varying types, they're all really nice. There's a veritable gaggle of different game cards and card tokens. You get 9 specialist D6's for defence and attack (red and black respectively) and a load of two-sided floor tiles. Its not a small amount of stuff by any stretch of the imagination. I also liked that the cards and some other components came sealed in zip lock bags so I don't have to buy my own for a change and I hope this is something Fantasy Flight Games and other manufacturers start doing a little bit more of.

Gameplay 9 out of 10

The Locust horde don't stand a chance!!!
I think its fair to say that if you've played the Gears of War console games you'll have a greater appreciation for how this game actually physically plays out on the board. Its genius it really is and Corey Konieczka has done a wonderful job with both this and indeed Mansion of Madness the other Fantasy Flight Game I've recently been hammering to death!!! So why is it so good? Well I guess I'd better start at the beginning and discuss character selection and set up. You see there are 4 COGs to choose from and each has slightly different rolls and rules... but its subtle very subtle like one being able to pick stuff up without expending an 'Orders Card', another being able to move one place after completing an action and so forth and so on. In terms of skills and abilities all round they all play the same way but have slightly different rolls, its subtle and clever. Next up is the mission set up. Now the boards are randomly generated BUT within very limited set parameters depending on the mission. You select the cards you need for your mission shuffle them and then generate the board randomly from these preselected card tiles, this means that although the challenge is ostensibly the same, in practice its not and provides a different set of challenges depending on how the tiles fall into place. As I said genius. The next clever part is that the Locust spawned on these map pieces relate to the number of players and the mission you're playing, this means the challenge is scaled appropriately.

...oh hang on a minute where the hell did they come from?
Next up is the play mechanics, and its this that has impressed me the most while playing the game. You see there are always 3 types of monster in every game you play, A, B and C, depending on the mission you are playing these could be anything really from Tickers all the way up to Berserkers. You then create an A.I. deck of cards that will control the Locust horde that this specific mission requires. You do this by taking out all the cards that don't relate to the Locust you are facing and the general cards that aren't part of the mission. This deck is then shuffled and cards drawn randomly by the player in their 'Locust Activation Step', now given the game doesn't have a GM or a human adversary this could've been a recipe for a formulaic and predictable disaster... but its not. The Locust seem to act with a purpose and aggression that's reminiscent of how they play in the console version of the game, they act wisely and intelligently and provide you as a group of gamers with a stern challenge. They're also not predictable because you're never really quite sure how the gribblies on the map are going to operate, or whether an emergence hole is about to open up underneath your very feet!!! Its great and it leads to a tense game as your decision making could be wise or very dumb depending on what the A.I. deck throws at you.

WTF! Who invited these ugly SOBs to the party...  we might b...
hey guys where the hell are you?... seriously... GUYS!!!!

Will somebody just buy her a box of chocolates!!!
The next thing I'd really like to talk about is how you control your COGs. Its a very simple mechanic but one that has a lot of depth. Your characters have a selection of weapons, ammo counters and special abilities, much like any other board game really. These are your stats if you will, but to do anything in the game you use 'Order Cards', which are then discarded afterwards. 'Order Cards' are randomly generated by a deck and are predetermined actions that you can do like move 3 spaces and shoot or search for ammo clips, there are loads of different ones. At the start of the game most characters will have 6 cards and Fenix can have 7, because... well... he wears a bandana!!! In the 'Heal Step' at the start of your turn you can draw two more 'Order Cards' to try and bring your hand back up to the maximum of 6 or 7. This is vitally important as these cards don't just represent what you can do, they also represent your health!!! Yep if you get through your cards quickly you'll die!!! Its hard to explain how good a mechanic this is, but it really is brilliant, it adds a really in-depth resource management mechanic to an otherwise quite straight forward dungeon crawler type game. The dice too play a clever roll, the custom dice in the game are black for attacks / dealing damage and red for guarding. They have a number of special symbols on them and work really well for quickly assessing whether something is dead or not, again it all just helps with the speed of play that the symbols rolled tell you visually straight away what's happened, much like the good old Blood Bowls block dice used to.

For the love of God where's the Hammer of Dawn when you need it!!!

I think its fair to say that me and 'Mr Chaos Space Marine' enjoyed playing this game on two levels, firstly we appreciated it for the amazing job it has done in recreating the Xbox 360 games, which we both have so much experience with. Secondly we appreciated it for the exceptionally good board game that it is. On this second point my other guinea pig 'the Cursed' who hadn't played the computer games (although he has now borrowed them) really appreciated the games we played. This is the thing I guess for me, the game is a dungeon crawler pure and simple, but its one that plays like a much loved and popular computer game franchise. Regardless of whether or not you've played the Gears of War games or not this product stands on its own merits. It's kind of what I was hoping the D&D Adventure System Games would be, but clearly aren't. Those games seem clinical and antiquated in their approach, in particular to the way monsters activate and attack in very set ways that are easy to preempt and avoid. Those games become about number crunching and choosing optimum strategies, Gears is about responding to the situation as best you can and managing yourself and your team as well as you possibly can and its so much more enjoyable as a game because of it and it generates great engaging narrative.

Detail 9 out of 10

The Locust Horde - Ready to rip your face off in glorious detail

Its clear to me that every step of the way this product has had care and attention lavished on it. It retains the aesthetic vibe of its computer game brethren perfectly and everything oozes that Gears 'industrial' and 'grimy' vibe that the console games are so well known and loved for. The cards in particular retain much of the design elements of the game with the red and black theme all over them, the imagery is also in keeping with the game. The cards remain easy to read and understand and really add to the feel of the game. As do the card tiles, they look so much like they belong in a Gears of War game with gritty urban textures and the odd bit of detailing on them that makes the setting look like a post apocalyptic hell hole!!! Again it looks so 'Gears' and really adds to the flavour of the game... as do the dice. I mean the COG symbols on the specialist dice are a really easy touch, but nevertheless its a nice one. I suppose what I'm trying to say in a round about way is that a lot of care and attention has gone into every aspect and detail of this products components and it helps the game retain the feel of its console forebears.

Some people complained I don't include enough component pics...

However its the miniatures that deserve the biggest mention... and yeah I know that's quite odd for a board game, really odd in fact. I'm going to be blunt, most board games I've seen and indeed a lot of the board games I own, don't really have the best miniatures in the known universe. Sometimes the sculpts aren't too bad but the substance they're made out of is rank. Gears is different. Firstly the sculpts are fantastic, they really are, the COGs look like they're supposed too and are instantly recognisable as who they are supposed to be and they're detailed. Not detailed for a board games, I mean detailed for scale miniatures full stop. Some of their poses might not all be the best but some aren't too bad and are actually strangely reminiscent of the computer game animations. However for me its the Locust that deserve the biggest praise because they're grizzly, pitted and textured skin has been wonderfully recreated and so too has their armour and features. I think from the Tickers to the Berserker each is distinct and easily identifiable to those who have played the console games. Benjamin Maillet deserves a big pat on the back for what he has achieved with these sculpts, Fantasy Flight Games continue to improve in all aspects of their product production and impress me.

The heroes of the piece. As stupid as they are tough!!!
Quality 9 out of 10

Again its a Fantasy Flight Games product... do I really need to say more? If there is one thing their games normally do really well, its build quality. No matter which Fantasy Flight Games product I own, the box is lovely, the components are normally really well made. The card they produce are easily some of the best in the business, if not the best. Their products are built to last and be used, and Gears of War the Board game is really no different. The cards are sturdy and durable and the print quality, as always is exceptional, I think you only really notice how good Fantasy Flights cards are when you see those produced by other companies. Given how much cards are handled during board games the quality of the printing and material is of paramount importance and its great that they don't scrimp on this aspect of their product. The card tiles are all on really nice thick card stock and so to are the tokens, again its all built to last. The final piece of the quality jigsaw for me with Gears of War is the miniatures. They're good. Not just board game good, but actual miniature wargame good. There aren't many mould line on the castings, there are no miscasts and the substance they're made from would be suitable for making wargaming pieces out of. The detailing is crisp and well defined. Its just a quality product.

The floor tiles are some of the best I've seen
Service 7 out of 10

This is the second box I've had recently off of OG Games where the packaging hasn't done as good a job as it should have of protecting the box from the delightful individuals who work for the bloody Royal Mail!!! I've emailed OG Games and asked them to consider sending the bigger and heavier boxes in better packaging... and as always Olaf has responded positively, apologised and said he'll see what they can do differently next time. The damage wasn't major but it does take the gloss off of things somewhat and considering how careful I am with my own stuff to make sure it doesn't get damaged it irks me!!! Again though OG Games did get it to me fairly rapidly and I can't fault them on punctuality and speed of delivery... just start packaging things a little bit better guys, I'd even pay a little bit more for the privilege. I know they won't be happy to hear the game got to me slightly damaged as they take such care of things and offer such a professional service otherwise... but I just don't think they can trust the Royal Mail to do their job with as much care and precision as they do there's.

more component pieces... mmm tokens
Price 8 out of 10

I think given the quality and detail of the miniatures and the fact that it truly is a fun game in a box, that you and a bunch of mates can sit round a table with and have a laugh means its well worth the £54.99 RRP in my opinion. Luckily though we live in a competitive world where somebody is always willing to sell it to you cheaper, OG Games for instance sell it for £49.99 and that's a really decent price. Shopping around you might even find it cheaper, whatever price you find it at though (as long as somebody isn't trying to fleece you) its well worth it, because its such an engaging and entertaining little board game.

Macavity proudly 'approves' Gears of War
Overall 9 out of 10

I couldn't give it anything less and it'd have been rude not to give it an Approved by Cats award. I guess if you've never played the console games or didn't like the Gears of War franchise then this game would lose some of its appeal and lustre. However I think that fundamentally it remains a solid product that's fun to play even if you don't know the back story (there's really not much of one any way) or aren't familiar with the world of COGs and Locust. It has impressed me with how quick and slick everything was and how involved a game it is. It has a great tactical element too it and it forces you into beyond just thinking about whats good for you as an individual and makes you work as a team. Sure you can fly solo with this game if you want to but its best with 2 or 3 mates and becomes this amazingly involved game. Its already in the brief time I've had it made a huge impact on my local gaming group of friends and I know it'll continue to do so for a long time to come... sure I got it at first because it was Gears of War, but I love it because its such an utterly brilliant game. It comes highly recommended by myself and indeed my cats, if you have the money you should get yourself a copy, its that good. Peace out!


  1. I want the guy that narrated that video (which was pretty slick) to narrate EVERYTHING I do in life.

    'SinSynn wakes up...he's groggy...tired. He know he must carry the fight to the enemy today, so he gets out of bed and heads to the kitchen, hoping to find sustenance...
    SinSynn comes with special 'Attack Dice,' which always roll ones....'

    Hmmm...maybe not such a good idea....

  2. Hell yeah!!!

    Life would be just so much better with EPIC voice overs. I have to be honest... in my head everything I did was voiced over by this guy...

    He took a swig of vodka coke and rolled the dice, slaying bugger all as he rolled the wrong bloody dice!!!

    Back to the game though, I'm genuinely surprised by how much fun it actually is. I don't think I was expecting it to be honest. I thought it might be something I owned to say 'I've got it'. Honestly I can see my mates wanting to pop wrong for some wargaming and end it all off with a few missions on Gears.

  3. Great review! Thanks
    Seriously considering getting this game (even found it at the crazy low price of £39.99)!

  4. @Darh Tater if you've found it on sale for £39.99 what the hell are you doing waiting around? Go buy it man!!! It truly is exceptional. Really good fun with a bunch of mates. I'm so looking forward to proper expansion packs for this game. I think my head will explode with excitement.

  5. Lol I keep finding myself looking at boardgames and your reviews make it harder to resist! :)
    This game does look amazing and can be played solo which is great! I'm also looking at the mantic games (like you fond memories of heroquest), dust tactics, earth reborn and so many

  6. Yeah sadly I know the feeling Mr Tater!!! Too much shiny, shiny. I would recommend Gears as a board game to pretty much anyone. It's a weird sort of sci-fi dungeon crawl and it's just so damn easy to play. I really found it hard to pick fault with it and my reviewing posse positively loved it and still do. we're all hankering after the first expansion set now. Honestly don't sit on the fence like I did for ages with board games, take the plunge because every day you don't you miss out on awesome gaming experiences.

  7. I think my foray into boardgaming will begin with Gears of War (just looks awesome) and Last night on Earth (love zombies!)......:)

  8. Well I don't trust anyone who does love zombies. Seriously, zombies rule and if you don't like zombie flicks you're just plain wrong!!!

  9. you will be pleased to know I have ordered Gears of War....can't wait for it to come :)
    £39.99 on :)

  10. @Darth Tater, that's awesome news. I don't think you'll regret it as it's a fantastic little game. You'll have to let me know what you think matey!!!

  11. will do mate...we appear to have similar tastes (Infinity, Dystopian wars, Warmahordes, Malifaux....) so should all be good! :)

  12. Right, I think you've sold me on the idea. The Missus' little brother shall be getting this next birthday.

    1. It's a really good game, and one my friends always like going back to.