Monday, September 20, 2010
Board Game Review - Incursion
If you're like me, your favorite games are combinations of really exciting stories wrapped around really fun rules. Not always, of course - I play the hell out of Dominion, and the theme in that game could literally be anything at all. But most of my other favorites, stuff like Warhammer Quest or Railways of the World or Last Night on Earth, combine a good story with good rules to make a great game. Games like Agricola prove that you can still have a good game even you're working with a lame theme (I like the game, but being a red-blooded, meat-eating American, I would rather shoot aliens than plant corn). But can a really great theme carry a mediocre game?
Maybe, if the theme is good enough. For instance, start with zombies, and a game's potential instantly jumps. Now make them Nazi zombies, and it's getting even better. Add in powered armor, a couple werewolves, a hot German villainess and an underground bunker full of doomsday devices, and you may just have the greatest theme ever made (we are assuming, of course, that the target market for your game is comic book nerds who like ridiculous violence, which would be me). And this is one theme that can carry a game, even if the rest of the game has a few problems.
Incursion is all about some supernatural wackiness in World War II, where the Nazis are making zombies and werewolves and all manner of sick perversions (by which I mean awesome monsters). The evil Nazis have set up shop underneath Gibraltar, where they send out exploding zombies to sink enemy ships and otherwise cause mayhem. The Allies aren't having it, though, so they build some power armor and go in, guns blazing, to shut down Hitler's freak show. Madcap violence is sure to follow.
The art supports the theme perfectly. The zombies are gruesome, the werewolves are lean and cruel, and the tasty German broad is, well, tasty. The Allied soldiers of the Lucky Seventh are tough and well-armed and ready to blow large holes in everything. Beautifully illustrated cardboard standups depict all the various fighters who can mix it up in these grunge tunnels, and if you've got the scratch to pay for them, you can also buy miniatures (though the standups are nice enough that you may decide you don't need the minis).
The game is basically Space Hulk with a fresh coat of paint. Never-ending hoards of zombies run around the tunnels while some incredibly well-armored and extremely violent good guys blast them into piles of rotting goo, which means that at its basic level, the differences between Incursion and Space Hulk are essentially cosmetic. But Incursion has one thing Space Hulk does not - variety. Sooner or later, you'll get bored with genestealers, but you can whip up a different army every time you play Incursion. Try it with werewolves and the creepy German dame. Try it with the deep-sea diver and his cadre of exploding zombies. Try it with the zombie-controlling dominatrix and an enormous zombified horde. All the mixing and matching will let you customize the bad guys eight ways from Sunday. The good guys can be hand-picked, too, but honestly, they're not as much fun. They mostly all have big guns and armor. Nazis get all the good toys.
Another thing missing from Space Hulk is a big, double-sided board. In all fairness, the tiles in Space Hulk were more fun, and while I know a rookie publisher could never afford to compete with the brilliance of those embossed tiles, it would have been nice to see a more attractive board. The art on the board gets the job done, but it has places where the Photoshop work is pretty obvious, and a few pieces just don't go with the others. I hate to be a snob (I don't really), but a fully illustrated board would have been much better. This board is a little visually bland, and could have been a lot better if the same guy who did the mind-blowing figure art had drawn the board.
The rules, by comparison, are not bland. They are extra-spicy. There's a ton of cool stuff happening, and enough options to let you choose a lot of different strategies. You might juice up your wolves a little and send them to outflank, or you might send a mighty zombie horde charging straight into the guns, hoping to run them out of ammo so that the remaining shuffling undead can get close. You can run a screen with the bomber zombies, or you can set up a fire lane and cover the most important exits. In one game, the Nazis completely surprised the Allies when, in a scenario where time is of the essence and speed should win the day, the Germans decided on a frontal assault, and ended up chewing through the Lucky Seventh like metal-wrapped taffy.
To create a feeling of the ever-shifting whims of fate, Incursion includes a large deck of cards that can be played to change things up or gain advantages as you go. You might be able to spawn extra zombies, or give your armored troopers a little more speed. Flood the tunnels, cave in the roof, or turn off the lights. Dodge a bullet or guarantee a hit. These cards can really twist the game, and provide a lot of extra tactical options on the fly.
Command points are nothing new, either, but this time both sides have them. You might have a huge bank of them, too, and this is one of the things about Incursion that could feel a little silly. Normally you'll probably spread your points around a little, but if you want, you can spend everything on one guy who suddenly takes enough amphetamines to shoot down the hallway like he has a rocket shoved up his ass. Or maybe he just shoots ten times in a row when he could normally only shoot three. And then at the end of all that, he sets himself to reaction fire, and waits for the enemy to walk in front of him so he can shoot another seventeen times.
Reaction fire is just overwatch. It's not like this is new. What is different is the way a soldier can cover all the directions of a very long tunnel, leaving no way for the enemy to approach without being gunned down in a hail of bullets. And in addition to having a huge field of fire, guns almost never miss. If you're playing the Nazis, your only hope is to send endless waves of walking dead down the tunnel until the good guys run out of bullets.
Reaction fire differs from overwatch in another critical manner. If you end your turn looking at a bad guy, you can't use reaction fire. So a seriously viable tactic, if looking at more zombies than you can shoot on your turn, is to turn around. Yeah, I just said that. You can't see them any more, so now you can shoot. Of course, you can't shoot the ones who are behind you now, but if there are zombies coming from another direction, it might not be a bad idea. In terms of strategies, this can be mildly irritating. Thematically, however, it's absolutely ridiculous. How do you explain that? Do you just say that this armored trooper decides that if he can't see them, they're not there? It's absolutely silly.
Speaking of things that you can spend points on, remember those cool cards? Well, you can spend a few points when another guy plays a card to make it disappear. This would be a great way to run both players through command points, except that the other player can't do anything about it. The dialog would go something like this:
Me: "Ha! I got you!"
Other Guy: "I play Lucky Devil! You missed!"
Me: "I spend two command points to kill that card. So I still got you!"
Other Guy: "Asshole."
It's frustrating to have these cool cards, and have them so often thrown away without doing anything. Turn your guys into killing machines, and before they even get to fire a gun, the other dude turns them into knee-biting hamsters. If you could burn your own points to counter the card-killing, that would help, but as it is, some of the coolest cards just seem like a waste of time.
Despite the fact that both complaints affect the game in major ways, they’re still pretty minor. And they’re minor because, even counting these rules that feel clumsy and potentially irrational, Incursion is still a whole lot of fun. The variety of strategic approaches combines with a huge number of tactical options to make a game that would be quite playable even if it was about farming (though this would be very messy farming, and sooner or later, the police would be forced to intervene). But when you take a fun game and then wrap it in zombified Nazis and power armor, it’s awesome. It’s like starting out with a decent chicken sandwich, and then adding a bunch of bacon.
Incursion is a huge pile of fun. You’ve got your ludicrous body count. You’ve got zombies. You’ve got Nazis. You’ve got werewolves and power armor and hot German women in tight pants. And you’ve got a game system that, while not perfect, is more exciting and varied than nearly any other game of its kind – including Space Hulk. It’s essentially the difference between the prom queen and the hot rebel chick. The prom queen might look amazing and be really clean, but the rebel girl will take you all kinds of different places. She may not be a supermodel, but she’s a freak in the sack.
Lots of different options, so you’re not always doing the same thing
Solid rules make for fast play
Nazi zombies and werewolves, in case I hadn’t mentioned that enough
A few things that just don’t feel well-tested
Some odd rulings that may leave you confused
Grindhouse Games is running some absolutely insane deals on Incursion right now. Hurry up, because they end in less than two weeks:
Posted by Matt Drake at 5:12 PM