I’m not a Gears of War fan in general–I’ve never played the video game, and my knowledge of it was mostly limited to “wasn’t that the shooter game that used ‘Mad World’ in a TV commercial once?” I may be thinking of a youtube video, I’m actually not sure. I knew it was an FPS, and that it used a cover system, and it had aliens, but I haven’t really played an FPS since Battlefield 2, so my knowledge ended there.
What I did know, on the other hand, was that the board game version was designed by Corey Konieczka, who is pretty much my very favorite game designer working today. He’s worked on some of the best games in my collection–Battlestar Galactica, Mansions of Madness, and Rune Age–and he’s had a hand in some other great games that are a lot of fun (Runewars and the World of Warcraft Adventure Game, to name a couple). His designs show an amazing ability to combine mechanics and flavor; my gaming tastes, as you may have noticed, lean very heavily toward the “thematic” end of the scale, focusing on games about monsters and space ships and wizards and so on, and Konieczka does that better than anybody, hands down. The Galactica game, for example, manages to replicate not only the many different elements of the show (politics, military command, fleet management, spaceship combat, paranoia, treachery, and so on), but also the feel of the show. While playing the game the mechanics almost melt away, leaving nothing but a tense, desperate atmosphere that pulls you through to the end. The rules and the flavor blend together almost seamlessly. Corey Koniezcka does that in all of his games, and I’ll follow that kind of talent anywhere.
So when Gears of War came out, I picked up a copy.
First things first: the models in this game are so amazing they got me back into miniatures painting after a ten year hiatus. The aliens/monsters are cool, both in design and in sculpt, and the four hero figures are appropriately tough-looking. The hero figures are also, unfortunately, very hard to distinguish, which is what led me to the mini-painting–I figure if I paint them I’ll be able to tell them apart without picking them up to see which one has the tiny goggles on his forehead. The other components are cool as well, with sturdy plastic, nice cards, etc. They also all fit in the box pretty neatly, which is a nice bonus considering how tightly a lot of other games get crammed together.
In play, the game is very much like a fantasy dungeon crawl, a la Descent or Castle Ravenloft. Each player takes a hero, who has special powers and equipment, and together they explore a maze/building/cave full of monsters and loot. The main difference between this and a traditional fantasy game are the guns, and I love the way the game handles ammo; it’s a driving concern without being an onerous chore. The bad guys are fully automated by a couple of decks of cards, so there’s no Overlord or Dungeonmaster; the players are all on the same team.
What separates Gears of War from the many, many other dungeon crawls I own is the card system, which governs not only moving and attacking but wounds and healing as well. See, your hand of cards is also your life points, which has a massive web of fascinating and delicate interconnections. You play one card on your turn to act, and you can play several cards out-of-turn to react to enemies and other players, but every time you do you get closer to death. Even more interesting, when an enemy hurts you it doesn’t just tick a few hit points off a list, it directly affects your ability to act and react. A hero caught in a hail of fire will find himself with only one or two cards left, which might not be the right ones to help him escape; conversely, a hero who over-extends himself moving around and playing actions might find himself with too few cards left to survive the next monster attack. On the one hand this is a smooth and strategic system of resource management; on the other hand, true to form for Corey Konieczka, it’s a hugely thematic storytelling device that creates, without any extra effort, a lot of great character moments. Taking too much enemy fire, for example, causes you to instinctively dive for cover, retreating from the battle for a few seconds while you draw more cards and get your health back up. The first time this happened to my friend Steve, a big fan of the source material, he nodded and said “wow, just like in the video game.” The rules and the flavor go together perfectly.
My only major complaint about the game, which has made our playgroup skip over it more than once when deciding what to play, is the huge variance in difficulty. Sometimes the game is way too easy, and sometimes (though less often) it’s way too hard. Worse yet, it doesn’t seem to have any knobs you can adjust to tweak the difficulty, so there’s nothing you can do about it–it all depends on which enemy cards you draw and when. When the game randomly decides to be challenging, it’s incredibly fun and I recommend it highly. When it just rolls over and lets you win without a fight, the playing time is still just long enough to feel disappointing.