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.


José Ml. said...

Non sense, there's no thing such as too much theme or for Dirz you'll die in the fiery halls of our undergound lab. Haha.

Dude, you realize that this is a fantastic game and that you're whining about it being too nice and too pretty? It sounded like an old man "I can't read....." haha

Anyways, I'll grant you that the counters were made on cheap cardstock and that the maps are busy, however that doesn't detract from gameplay.

As for the rules, I know this is a bit more elaborate than your tipical tactical miniatures game, but if you're used to playing those you shouldn't have much trouble reading the rules a couple of times and consulting them on the first game.

It's a great game and that looks and feels awesome to play and if you'd read spanish i'd forward you a copy of my review of this game.

Matt Drake said...

I think the problem, Jose, is not that I don't read Spanish. It appears that you have trouble reading English. Also, you're just flat-out wrong, which I guess can be attributed to translation, but I suspect it's more the fact that someone said something you don't like about a game you play all the time.

The flat counters are difficult to pick up if you place them on the base of a figure, which detracts from game play. If you don't have trouble with that, then congratulations for having suction cups on the ends of your fingers. Also, if you think it's OK that the rules that tell you when you get event cards are in the section about stuff that sits on the floor, and NOT in the rules about event cards, then it's clear that you've got your head stuffed up your ass.

Which may be why you have trouble reading English.

José Ml. said...


As you can see from my comment I did critize your review but in a light hearted manner. I have been reading your reviews all the way back when you talked about AT-43 and always laughed with your humor.

However, I think it's rude of you to say that I don't understand or can't read english when that's not exactly the case, I'm fluent in 3 languages and have to constantly switch between the 3 of them to work.

As a matter of fact I've lived in England for one year and often contribute with articles on fortess ameritrash and have never had a trouble communicating in English.

I was certainly under a different impression about you, I thought you were easier to approach and more open to discussion, perhaps you're already too big in your head to discuss with another boardgames fan, perhaps you're racist, I don't know and don't care. However, I do know that such a personal attack on myself was totally uncalled for.

I simply mentioned that I had already published my own review of the game in spanish, because I thought for a moment it'd be fun to compare notes of the game with someone else, however it seems that you are not open for discussion or even open to the thought that maybe other people interpret things differently and thus a cultural difference could provide a different outlook on the game.

Thanks for replying to my comments, I now know just a bit better who's behind this reviews and will steer clear of you in the future.

Anonymous said...


So you've read many of his reviews and you thought he'd respond in a way other than how he did?

Wind Lane said...

Jose - He criticized your ability to read english because your complaints were things he'd addressed - he even said that he likes the game and wants to play more - yet you talked like he only bad mouthed it. Honestly, when I read your comment right after reading his review it sounded to me like you'd only read half of his review - stopping when you didn't like what Drake was saying.

Matt Drake said...

Jose, brother, if you can't take it, don't try to dish it. You tell me I'm whining, and expect what? An apology? Some hand-wringing? I started this site so I could say exactly what was on my mind, and I'm not going to start dancing around the comments section to spare tender feelings.

All the stuff you complained about, I addressed in the review. The review which, incidentally, was actually attached to the complaints you were making. It's kind of like if Dolly Parton was slapping you in the face with her boobs, and you said, 'that's OK, but I wish you had bigger titties.'

Pete Miller said...

I'm not gonna get in a debate about the merits of a game review, but this game is about impossible to get at a good price.

However, based on my experience with AT-43, Rackham rules are very disorganized.

Anonymous said...

Hey Pete,

Check this out...yes...that is 25 frigging euros for Hybrid AND Nemesis. Get it while it's still available!



pepelegit said...

i found this review via a hybrid google search, and i'm glad i did; i just sorta feel like telling you why.
i picked up this game about a year or so ago, thinking to myself, 'this is gonna be soooo cool.' then i opened the box, and thought, 'hmmm, very nice...' then i picked up the rules, and after reading through those, i packed it up and put it in my closet. haven't even opened it since. i've almost traded it a bunch of times, thinking i don't play it, so keeping it is pretty lame. my point?
i'm gonna give it a try again. thanks.