Review: Meltdown 2020

Posted by James (admin) on November 3rd, 2011

Some years ago a friend of mine who is a teacher told me about a co-operative exercise he’d created for his students where they organised search-and-rescue operations.  It sounded great and we discussed how it had potential for a board game as he plays some Eurogames.  So, I was very interested when Meltdown 2020 was announced.

In Meltdown 2020, players are trying to evacuate their meeple from the area where reactors are starting to meltdown.  Each player starts with 3 vehicles which each have a speed (spaces it can move) and a capacity (max number of meeple it can carry simultaneously).  The vehicles are a bus (spd:2 cap:4), car (spd:3 cap:3) and a helicopter (spd:4 cap 2).

The board is made of large tiles laid out randomly.  Meeple and vehicles start on marked spaces and, across the board, are reactors that may meltdown.  The winner (as this is not a co-operative game) is the player who rescues the most of their people (the most healthy survivors breaks ties).

The game is very simple.  Each turn has 3 phases: all the payers move their bus, then all players move their car, then all players move their helicopter.  Vehicles can pick-up and drop-off people as they move, can pass through other meeple/vehicles, but can not end their turn in the same space as any opponent’s vehicle.  Meeple that are transported to one of the 2 airfields are airlifted to safety.

After both the buses and the cars move, an eight-sided dice is rolled. On 1-7, the matching numbered reactor gains a meltdown marker.  After the helicopters move, the dice is also rolled but the matching number reactor has a meltdown marker removed.

At the end of a round, any meeple near enough to reactors that are melting down will suffer from radiation – the closer they are, the more radiation they pick up (which can kill them completely) – and the more meltdown markers on a reactor, the further away the radiation effects are felt.  If a reactor gets 5 meltdown markers, the game ends as the country is wiped out.

That’s it.  As I mentioned, it’s a simple game which plays quickly.  I think Meltdown 2020 would work well for a family audience, but for me as an experienced gamer, it was just too light.  Don’t get me wrong, I like simple, fast, fun games, so I don’t need a game to be complex, but I found Meltdown 2020 just didn’t have enough decisions to make and no real pressure so that I didn’t feel I was involved.

One main element that definitely affected our game was that our dice rolls for removing meltdown markers kept coinciding with markers we had already placed, so leaving only a few meltdown markers in play.  However, even though I recognise our lack of meltdowns may be unusual, the key issue for me is that the game doesn’t offer enough decisions.  Plus, it seems down to luck who won because it was the few meeple that happened to be near the meltdown markers (who got affected by radiation) which determined the winner.  Also, players can keep rescuing meeple even if other players are finished, so the time pressure didn’t exist for us and careful use of movement was unimportant.

It’s a shame because it feels like the current game is just the basic game, and a fuller, more satisfying (advanced) game is lurking within with the addition of a few extra rules.  For example, starting with some meltdowns, or not removing meltdowns for the first turns, so pressure is present from the beginning.  These would need a little more finesse (like no reactor can have more than 3 meltdowns in the first rounds) so bad luck doesn’t add too many meltdowns too quickly.

However, luck would still play a major factor in determining the winner because it’s luck if your meeple are near a reactor that is melting down.  If players could see which reactor was going to meltdown next (i.e. dice rolled one turn in advance) then this would give players more control and add some decisions – players may think about throwing meeple out of their car and turning it around to go rescue others who are about to get irradiated.

Other ideas strike me too: Allow the players to move opponents’ meeple when driving by.  Identical card decks for each player that add or subtract from a vehicle’s speed.  Have the game end when one player has removed all their meeple so players decide whether to grab one meeple and get out, or risk grabbing more.  Airlift deadlines, movement blocking, airlift capacity, etc. – there seem to be so many things that could make this a richer game.

Outside of the gameplay, I love the look of wooden meltdown markers with the radiation symbols.   However, I was a bit disappointed with the artwork on the tiles which are pastel shades a bit like map regions as this could have been more interesting without reducing clarity.

Overall, I really want to like Meltdown 2020.  Maybe the designer (who created the excellent Powerboats) intended to create a game for families or younger audiences.  I think it will have an audience that enjoys it; however, as it stands, it’s not deep enough for me.


[Played with 3 players]

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