Wednesday, June 3, 2009
Board Game Review - Hybrid
I've never tried to candy-coat the fact that I am not a fan of games with weak themes. I don't want a theme that could be swapped out with a dog race, elephant hunting or midget dance contests. I like my games to deliver a 'yeah, I sorta did that' feel. I want to hear the screaming starfighter engines (despite the fact that you couldn't hear them in space). I want to feel the hot breath of the minotaur before I cut him down to size. I want to taste... OK, never mind, I don't actually want to taste anything, unless it's a cooking game.
So it feels horribly out of character for me to say that a game can actually have too much theme. It seems like saying you have too much money, or too many strippers. It doesn't seem possible.
And yet, here I go - Hybrid has too much theme.
Hybrid is essentially a dungeon crawler for two players. One player is the Order of the Griffin, a group of elite slayers-of-evil lead by the enigmatic and powerful Ambrosius. The other player gets to take on the roll of pure evil bad guys, the creations of the evil emperor Dirz. Dirz is long gone, but he left countless underground crypts full of his undying creations - terrible monsters built in cloning tubes and activated hundreds of years later.
So far, this has one of the coolest, darkest themes ever made. The miniatures that come with the game are all metal, and they are just as detailed and amazing as anything Rackham ever made (which is not that big a coincidence, since the game was made by Rackham). There are 12X12 tiles that you lay out to build your dungeons, and the art on these is just amazing. Even the doors are jaw-dropping gorgeous. You'll be able to smell the stale air and hear the dripping water (as long as you're playing in a leaky basement). It's awesome.
The combat system works incredibly well, too, and continues to contribute to the feeling that you're reenacting desperate battle against unholy terrors. Every figure has a natural value - the number under which you must roll to swing a weapon (or shoot a gun, or block a blow). Rolling under this number on an attack causes a point of damage, and reduces the natural value of your target by one. When that natural value becomes zero, your genetic Tinker Toy monster or self-righteous templar takes a dirt nap.
This would be interesting enough, but then you add in action modes. When you activate a figure, you have to choose an action mode. The options are stabbing, shooting, blocking or hauling ass (that's a paraphrase). And each action mode has six levels, and each one does something a little different. The novice strike allows your warriors to ignore their wounds when attacking, while the heroic strike deals out a little extra pain. Skilled firing lets you cover a doorway and shoot out of turn at the bad guys who come through, while the expert move lets you tie up your enemies as you run past. By choosing the right level for your action mode at the right time, you'll be able to attack twice, or get bonuses to your rolls, or sneak around and dodge your foes until the time is right to jump out of the shadows like Jason Voorhies.
To give you that extra bump now and then, you can also play action cards - but you don't get very many, so you better make 'em count. Play them when you just have to get the initiative, or when you really need to hit, or when you want your opponent to blow a roll. Just don't play them too often, or you won't have them when you need them, and then the clone monsters will just run around blowing up your heroic warriors and laughing diabolically (if they had mouths. I'm not sure they do).
And the cards are the first sign that Rackham might have gone just a little bit overboard. On most of the cards, there is more flavor text than game text. So you can read six paragraphs in miniature italics about how Ambrosius once used his cape to filter his coffee before he told one of his knights to tie his shoes, and then you get one line that says, 'remove this card from play after you play it.' There's so much flavor copy that all the text has to be incredibly small - and it's reversed out against a dark background, which, as any serious graphic designer will tell you, makes it even harder to read. It would have been nice to just have a couple lines, like "Ambrosius consulted his maps and said, 'oh, hell, we were supposed to exit three miles ago," and then rules you could actually read without medically-prescribed trifocals.
Then you've got the map tiles. When I say that these are a visual triumph and true works of art, that's not entirely good. Because they're so God-Bless-America illustrated that you can't tell where the squares are. You're moving on a 1-inch grid, but you can't see the grid for all the climbing vines and puddles of goo and skeletal remains. I'm not lying when I tell you that it slowed us down trying to figure out where the figures belonged (maybe we were both retarded, but we played several games, and this problem came up more than once).
Finally you've got these fantastic miniatures. The templars are so detailed and amazing, you can see the wrinkles in their faces and the wind in their hair. The hybrid monsters are so lovingly sculpted that you can pick out veins and tendons. And they have swords sticking out, and guns, and shooty-thingies (not guns - more like Chewbacca's bowcaster) - and you can't put two of them next to each other, because the one guy's weapon pushes the other guy back. I'm just glad I hadn't painted my figures, because all those arms sticking out everywhere would have been knocking off paint all the way to the primer.
But you know what? It's totally worth it. Hybrid is a sickening amount of fun, once you break out the magnifying glass for the cards, establish whether any given space is a floor tile or a cow patty, and figure out how to put your figures so their arms don't fall off. The combat is insanely smooth, incredibly flexible, and seriously fast. Tactical and strategic opportunities abound - plan your moves, set up screens, approach with caution, hit hard and fast, or choose some other strategy to win the day (as long as the dice cooperate). This is more fun that a kiddie pool full of jello shooters (unless the Girls Gone Wild are in the pool. That definitely would be more fun).
Unfortunately, to get to all this fun, you have to wade through what is easily the worst rulebook I've ever read. I'm not even remotely exaggerating. The rules that tell you when to draw event cards are not in the section on event cards. No place in the rules does it explicitly tell you how to make an attack - you have to read two or three different sections to find those rules, and then put them all together. The rules are drop-dead gorgeous, full of miniature dioramas and fantastic illustrations, but they seem to have fired anyone who might have said, 'yeah, this looks nice - but can you tell me how I move again?' The first time I read the rules, I actually gave up and put the game away for three months.
So yes, you can have too much theme (still not sure about too much money, though). When all that flavor and mood and atmosphere actually impedes you from playing the game, someone should have practiced just a little bit of restraint. And when you have to read the rules five times, then find one of Universal Head's rules summaries just to figure out who goes first, then it's pretty clear that the creators of Hybrid spent too much time focusing on aesthetics and not enough on practicality.
But then, when you've got pieces this gorgeous, and a game this good (once you figure out how to play it), you should be able to tolerate a little confusion. So you're not sure if that's a vine or a wall. A couple games from now, you'll know exactly what to do every time, the game will move like clockwork, and you won't even notice when your gargantuan mauler beast can't actually stand next to the hard-on warrior with his gun sticking out in front of him. You'll just play, and you'll flat-out love it.
Incredibly cool backstory
Stunning quality components (mostly)
Smooth, intuitive game play with ludicrous amounts of flexibility
Incredible replay value (I know I can't wait to play again)
Too much chocolate, not enough milk
Rules organized by anaesthetized rodeo clowns
For some reason, Rackham decided that the single tokens you use the most should be printed on the thinnest cardstock they could find, and be almost impossible to manipulate easily.
I couldn't tell you where to find a copy of Hybrid. I got mine at GenCon. Now and then, they pop up on eBay.
Posted by Matt Drake at 7:12 PM