Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Board Game Review - Earth Reborn

A couple weeks ago, I heard some Metallica on the radio. Then I got to work and someone mentioned Zombieland, and since I was already humming Whiskey in the Jar in my head, I leapt to For Whom the Bell Tolls, and I had a kind of shot of inspiration. And here it is:

We need some heavy metal board games.

It's not like there have been no solid attempts at making a metal game. Space Hulk should have been pretty hardcore, but while it is awesome, it's not quite loud and raw enough to go with a little rowdy Quiet Riot. It's fun, but it has a little too much polish to be metal. Space Hulk is more like the kind of music young people play at raves while they ingest ecstasy and have sex with strangers. The same can be said of a lot of other games with lots of violence but streamlined rules - they start out metal, but then they get all cleaned up and corporate.

The very next day, still pondering a kick-ass headbanger board game, Earth Reborn showed up at my house. It was like fate was in my head, guiding me to the answer I had silently asked. No, not that question. I still haven't heard back on that one, but I have a tarp and a shovel in the back of my truck, just in case.

I'm not sure it was intentional, but it sure looks to me like when Cristophe Boelinger was making Earth Reborn, he was staring at an Iron Maiden poster and listening to Sabbath. I'll run down a few elements, to illustrate my point.

1) Raw and unpolished
2) Loud and fast and violent
3) Zombies and machine guns
4) A guy with a giant saw blade permanently attached to his arm

Add it up, you get headbanging metal. You also get Earth Reborn, the most thrashing, hardcore, flat-out heavy metal game I've ever played.

The first indication that Earth Reborn is a heavy metal game is the post-apocalyptic setting. This isn't just post-nuclear armageddon. In Earth Reborn, China and the US are threatened by Greenpiece (yeah, I spelled it right), and so everyone builds underground vaults and hides for five hundred years. The NORAD guys get all paranoid and military, and while they build mechs and learn how to shoot heavy weapons, the people living underneath Salem learn how to make zombies. So now you've got heavy machine guns and robots fighting creepy guys who make zombies in an irradiated wasteland. And just in case you've been listening to Michael Bolton and Air Supply for the last ten years, that is heavy metal.

Of course, when guys in powered armor shoot vicious aliens in a derelict pile of space junk, that's also pretty metal, so there has to be more to Earth Reborn to make it truly metal - and there is. For starters, look at the art. Zombies with glass tubes attached to their heads to give them superhuman intelligence. Top-heavy women with guns nearly as big as their boobs. Guns and claws and kevlar and night-vision goggles. The illustrations in Earth Reborn look like they could have been taken directly from a Judas Priest album cover.

And then we get to the game, and if we weren't sure if this was heavy metal before now, we are now. In an age of gaming where we've become used to universal resolution, elegant rules and streamlined mechanics, the insane variety of things you can do in Earth Reborn is like a Thin Lizzy guitar solo to the brain.

Forget about having some carefully worded special ability on a character card that lets you use one particular guy in one particular way. Screw that - send your wounded gunfighter to the infirmary to heal up, and drop a mine on the way to discourage pursuit, then send the crazy scientist to fill up his syringe in the chem lab before he runs to the bathroom to drop a deuce (I didn't make that up - it's in the game). You'll roll a bunch of dice - the more the merrier - and you'll do anything from firing guns or stabbing people in the gizzards to activating the radio scrambler or torturing a captured opponent. Search for enemy plans in their stronghold. Blow up the command room. There are so many things you can do in Earth Reborn that you'll play dozens of times and still never try everything. And most importantly, not one of those things is neat and tidy and streamlined. They do all make sense, though. They're just not so abstracted that you're placing a clue token and acting like that means you bribed a gate guard.

Most of all, Earth Reborn is like heavy metal because it is fast, violent and fun as hell. There are rules for playing with three or four, but mostly you'll be across the table from one guy, who will be doing everything in his power to kill the living and raise the dead, and it will be awesome. I can't remember a time when I had this much fun playing a two-player face-off shoot-em-up game. It's just plain incredible.

But like any good heavy metal band, Earth Reborn is not perfect. In fact, the list of flaws may threaten to drive off people who would otherwise become huge fans. For example, the graphic designer for this game never even heard the word 'restraint.' There are icons everywhere. garish colors, sloppy lines, confusing backgrounds, and endless arrays of needless Photoshop layer effects. If Pantera is supposed to make your ears bleed, Earth Reborn targets your eyes. The rules and character cards are painfully cluttered and sloppy.

I could easily forgive the slop on the cards and rules if not for the fact that it flows over to the room tiles. You've got this infinitely versatile building set to make all different kinds of interesting locations, but they're hideous. I know it's the apocalypse and all, but would it kill you to use a bright color? It's been 500 years since the bomb. Could we maybe put in a request to get the grass green instead of gray?

It's bad enough the colors are a mess, but when they make it harder to play, that's a serious problem. I don't know how many times I plotted an entire move, shot at a guy, and ran off to make my escape - only to run smack into a wall that I didn't see because it was the same color as the floor. The artist clearly knew how to use Photoshop. Would it be too much to ask that he learn how to adjust the contrast?

The last thing that is going to intimidate anyone who is not really committed to Earth Reborn is the length of the learning curve. A book of tutorial scenarios teaches you the game, one scenario at a time. The first scenario teaches you about moving and close combat - and when that's all you can do, Earth Reborn is stupid. Then you get to do running and stabbing, but with interrupts - and it's still stupid. Add in guns, and you've got some great opportunities for covering fire and suppression and other cool violence, but you still can't use the mission cards or the surveillance room. In fact, you have to play five or six times before the game really gets good, which means some seriously lame games early on.

But here's the good news - those downsides are lame excuses for nancy boys who can't take the heat. The visual assault of the cards actually makes them easier to play. After you set up a couple times, you'll remember where the doors are. And once you work through three or four of the scenarios, you'll start to realize that you're playing a piece of two-player genius that will rock your face off like Queensryche opening for Motorhead.

If you're a fan of two-player gridded miniatures games, Earth Reborn should be at the tippy top of your wish list. It's crazy amounts of wild fun, with so much flexibility and brilliance that even if you lose every game, you'll have fun. If there's another reason to play games besides having a good time, I don't ever want to know about it.


2-4 players

Fast and fun and violent
Wacky and exciting and over-the-top
If Megadeth and Black Sabbath collaborated on a board game, this would be it

Rookie design mistakes
Wicked learning curve

Noble Knight Games has Earth Reborn for a pretty good discount. If you like games where you shoot zombies and play with cool toys, you really ought to pick this up.


Anonymous said...

extremely good review!
Earth reborn is exactly that :)

Unknown said...

"We need some heavy metal board games."

This cannot be stated often enough. ^_^

Matt Drake said...

One final point - I said that I couldn't remember a 2-player minis game being this awesome. One might bring up HeroScape as a comparison, wondering how I feel Earth Reborn compares to that classic. And I would tell you that while HeroScape is easier to learn and visually superior, I had more fun with Earth Reborn.

I know nobody asked me that. I just thought I would head that question off at the pass.

Unknown said...

And seeing how much you like HeroScape, that's just another great reason to get this game.

I've been reading up some more on Earth Reborn, and I love the idea of being able to do more than just run, shoot and stab - all the interaction and options makes it seem like it'd capture some kind of cinematic feel.
Plus, one of the guy's got a saw for a hand.

Now, if only I had monies...

J.R. said...

Probably the best review I've read about Earth Reborn. It was a must have for me even before reading this, but now I can't wait to get my hands on it.

Wiz-War said...

Ok. You convinced me.

After being inundated with what appears to be a really shoddy implementation of rules and a machine gun assault on the eyes as far as the sheer amount of components, after reading your review I will give this game a shot.

I doubt there has been a game that you have liked that I have not, so I have to try this.

I think it will take me forever to get over the amount of icons on the card since they make my eyes bleed, but that's metal right? ;)

Anonymous said...

After our private conversation on torture, and how against it you are, I'm surprised that you didn't put the torture bit on the Cons side.

This is only coming up because I'm in a conversation with someone on F:AT about why I don't think I'd ever buy this game, and the torture bit was one of them.

Chris, Debra, Clare and Drew said...

Oh man...how cool what an Iron Maiden "Eddie" mini be for this game?