Bytes & Pieces: DOOM

There is no more iconic title in all of video gaming than Doom. So perhaps it’s inevitable that someone would end up making a board game out of it. A moment’s thought, however, illustrates that any road to this design was likely to be long and hard.

The Doom we eventually got from Fantasy Flight Games took inspiration from the third installment of the video game franchise. That’s unfortunate. As an action-packed first-person shooter it was already a poor fit for tabletop. That sort of tension is effectively impossible to replicate on a board. Many games have tried, and most have failed. Worse still, in doing so the result is almost always the bad sort of dice-fest. The sort that’s long and boring rather than short and thrilling.

The sad truth is that, much as we might want it to be otherwise, Doom suffers from all these problems, and more.

Even its fanbase bemoan the enormous play time that the game can run to. “Keep it moving”, they say. “Keep things short”. Which is the sort of advice you’d want to hear when it comes to playing what ought to be an action-packed combat game. Yet Doom is anything but action-packed.

Those same fans often extol the tactical virtues of the game. And it’s true that there’s plenty of levers you can operate to keep things interesting. Marines have to co-ordinate to try and lay down fire and advance while occupying strategically helpful positions on the map. Not an easy task when there’s demons swarming out of every corner and the board section round the corner is hidden until you get there and the invader player plonks it down.

Half the problem is, though, that to get the most out of this part of the game you need to take your time, plan, co-ordinate actions. In other words to enjoy the game at its best, you’re forced to endure it at its worst: no tactics without it taking forever. In telling the naysayers to play it fast and enjoy the tactics, those that love the game are asking you to do two mutually contradictory things.

The other half of the problem is that when you do put in the effort to get the tactics right, the dice tend to wipe you out anyway.

The feeling of climbing a vertiginous cliff in order to win is, at least, true to the video game. At least it is if you played it on one of the harder settings, as you should. But playing against the uncaring silicon of a computer is one thing. In Doom you’re playing against another flesh and blood player who controls the demons.

It works in the sense that it gives the hellish adversaries a feeling of depth and intelligence. Compared with the “AI” card controlled Locust in the Gears of War board game who tended toward either foolish or repetitive action. On the flip side, it fails because it feels unfair. Doom ought to be hard and scary, but in a board game it’s not good enough to make it hard and scary for one side by making it unbalanced.

It’s particularly unfortunate that this tabletop version took inspiration from the third title in the video game franchise. Doom 3 was as much a horror game as it was an action one. There were as many, if not more jump scares than there were tactical set pieces. Sudden frights are just impossible to replicate in a board game. The pace is too slow, and the players need access to too much information to make fun decisions.

So while the evocative art and fine miniatures in the game make it look like Doom 3, the play itself feels more to me like the original. The version of that game I purchased came with a pack of stand-alone levels. They were quite different in feel than the base game, which offered a steady progression of weapons and power. Instead, each level felt like a tactical puzzle where you had to work out where to run, where to hide so you could reach the items needed to take down more powerful foes.

That’s kind of what the Doom board game feels like. Not the running or the hiding. But that sense of each board section being a puzzle, something to work through and retry until you get it right. A tabletop game based on that feeling could work. It should work. But Doom pretty much ruined itself by making each attempt at the puzzle last hours rather than minutes.

For all its faults, I look back on Doom: the Board Game as a seminal title in its own right. It laid bare the problems with the mechanics it had inherited from Descent, and thereby gave us the vastly improved Descent 2 and Imperial Assault. It showed how problematic a versus model could be when trying to replicate a video game, which lead to the excellent co-op title Gears of War. It’s not a game that I would ever want to play again. But it’s a game I’m thankful exists for us to learn from.

 

Written by Matt Thrower

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