Bytes & Pieces: Gears of War

A frantic first-person shooter like Gears of War is not the most obvious candidate for translation into a table top strategy game. The mere introduction of some simple tactical elements into a classic of the FPS genre ought not to be enough of a basis to build a board game on. Yet it’s proved one of the most popular and durable co-operative board games around.

Part of the reason why is in the description. The video game franchise rose to fame partly on the strength of its online co-operative play. To mimic that on the rising tide of co-operative board games does seem like an obvious way to go.

And the tabletop version does it well. Each player has a hand of order cards that doubles as a health tally, and they get two new ones each turn. This is smart design, mimicking the way the video game replenishes your health if you avoid taking any further wounds.

These cards dictate the options available to players on their turn. Although players are allowed to discuss cards as they see fit, the sheer number of potential choices and the weight of independent decision making defuse the “bossy player” problem that can crop up in co-operative games. Plus there are a number of cards that allow players to make sacrifices to boost their teammates, furthering the sense of pulling together to fight a powerful enemy.

The clever design doesn’t stop there. The game comes with a collection of missions, each of which has a randomized board created from modular pieces. That’s about as close as a board game is ever going to get to replicating the feel of venturing into the unknown. There’s also a strong encouragement for having your team seek cover, just as there is in the original game. Standing in a space that provides cover gives a figure an extra two defense dice. It doesn’t sound a lot, but when you consider most figures have only one defense die against weapons that commonly have three or four attack dice, it’s a big bonus.

All the weapons are also drawn from the original video game. Although reduced to mere dice, some effort has been made to recreate their original in-game capabilities. Your trusty pistol, for example, never runs out of ammo. And the iconic chainsaw on the Lancer allows you to roll four dice with the possibility of getting an instant kill against your target (at the cost of stepping out of cover).

With so much care and attention given to the source material, it’s a bit surprising that the resulting game, while excellent, only rarely provides moments that really give you the same vibe as the video game. The culprit for this shortcoming can be found where this article began—no amount of inspirational design tweaks can make up for the fact that this the original Gear of Wars is a real-time action game, while the board game version is a turn-based strategy one.

One of the oddest and most jarring rules is that figures on the map are allowed to simply ignore enemy figures when they move. Your troops can calmly waltz through corridors packed with Locust Horde warriors, then dive for cover and gun them down once they reach the far end. It’s easy to see why this rule is necessary. Without it, the maps would be too tight for any interesting positional play. But take a moment to imagine how that would play out in a real-time video game and you’ll see how silly it seems. Suspension of disbelief is shattered every time a player does it (even more so when it’s done by a Locust under the control of the enemy AI cards).

Those AI cards also have a lot to answer for in terms of creating logical dissonance. While they do a fine job of making the enemy figures behave in an unpredictable yet dangerous manner, they sometimes throw up bizarre surprises. Most are limited to one of the enemy types on the map. For example, if there’s a dangerous Boomer standing with a clear shot into a roomful of COGs but you draw a wretch card, he’ll just stand there. The wretches will advance and all the players will breathe a sigh of relief. It’s exciting, but not remotely realistic.

Gears of War was one of my favorite games of the last console generation. I loved the way it’s subtle tactical touches engaged the brain just enough to make a marriage of twitch and thought. It remains to be seen if it’s going to be resurrected for the new consoles. In the meantime, though, I’m going to carry on playing the tabletop version for my COG kicks. In spite of its shortcomings as a simulation, it’s the closest thing we’ve got for now. Hurry if you want to join me—the license for the game has not been renewed. So when copies are gone from the shops, they’re likely gone forever.

Written by Matt Thrower

I want more!

Send me emails with awesome news and cool events.