Review: Gears of War

Posted by James (admin) on September 7th, 2012

Gears of War is first-person shooter game on Xbox.  The board game by Fantasy Flight Games had been listed as in-development for several years so it was interesting to finally get it play it.  The video game focusses on a small squad of human soldiers (called COG) fighting against an alien race – a lot of the main action involves frantic gunfights, dashing from (or diving over) cover whilst under (and returning) heavy gunfire, and often throwing grenades into large holes in the ground where the enemies are emerging from.

The board game of Gears of War has all the players playing the COG soldiers co-operatively against the game (enemy) and there are various scenarios which determine the map, victory conditions, etc.  Also, some scenarios have multiple stages and the players must complete one stage before they next is revealed.  The map is made of various tile sections and each is divided into several areas which determine movement and weapon range.

Each player has a hand of Order cards (gaining 2 at the start of each turn) which each describe a special action but also act as the player’s health too.  Every turn, players play a card to perform the card’s action (like move 4 spaces and attack, revive a comrade, etc.), or to move 2 spaces, or to do 1 standard attack.  Each card also has 1 of 3 icons which mean it can be played when it is not the player’s turn to either attack an enemy, gain extra defence dice, or move with a comrade.  If a player runs out of cards, they are ‘bleeding out’ until a comrade revives them, which means they can crawl 1 space per turn, don’t get attacked, and gain no cards.

Combat is resolved by rolling a number of dice equal to one of the weapon’s two ratings (normal and overkill) – overkill attacks are stronger but use ammo tokens (and a weapon without ammo tokens can’t even make normal attacks).  The damage caused is equal to the attacker’s total wound icons rolled minus the defender’s total shield icons rolled.  With enough damage enemies are killed outright, or they are just damaged and are slightly easier to kill when damaged.  Powerful special effects of weapons are triggered if any special icons are rolled during an attack.

After a player’s turn, they turn over an enemy card to see which enemies take an action.  One very interesting game mechanic is the enemy AI (artificial intelligence) cards as each enemy type has an AI card that describes what their priorities are and, therefore, dictates what they will do.

Overall, there are some interesting ideas within Gears of War, like the AI which is the best element of the game.  Players can use the AI behaviour to manipulate the enemy a little, which delivers tactical opportunities but there’s still an element of randomness which enemies will act.  Also, there are quite a lot of different enemy types too.  The normal and overkill weapon modes are a nice idea, as are the extra effects if you trigger the weapon’s special ability.  Plus, the production is great, as usual from FFG, so there are nice figures, the artwork is really good.  To add to all this, there’s variety in the cards, characters, weapons, enemies and scenarios.  All the main elements of the video game also appear to be present too: cover, gunfire, big weapon effects, running along behind your team mates, etc.

However, I found the overall effect just didn’t gel together.  The key problem was you’re meant to be a hardened veteran to be feared but it seemed easy to get butchered and, worse, have few options.  I found the main cause of this was that the standard attack or move are very weak in comparison to the orders on the cards, so not having the right type of order at the right moment felt ineffective and left you at the mercy of the card draw.  I wondered if it would have been better drawing Order cards from attack, defence and support decks so you could at least have cards matched to the type of approach you wanted.  Having better standard attack/move options would improve things a lot too.

It seems easy to get injured which curtails some of the heroic fighting spirit.  There must be the danger of the player getting hurt (as immortality is no fun); however, maybe players could be less affected by initial damage so they can take cover and recover if they start to get hit, and taking lots of damage will still kill them.  Maybe damage to a player takes a round or two before damage takes effect could deliver this.

To add to this, the order cards acting as your health causes a problem too.  If your health dictates the amount of options you have, taking damage means you have fewer options so are then more likely to do even worse.  Also, a penalty for taking an action out of turn is a good balance, but costing a card leaves you with fewer options on your turn PLUS you’ll have less health too.  It might have been better to swap one of your Order cards for one that can only do standard actions instead, so acting out of turn gives you fewer options on your turn, but not less health.

Some weapons cards with ammo tokens

We definitely had a few unfortunate dice rolls as almost every grenade thrown at an emergence hole (the objective) failed to destroy it.  I don’t mind dice rolling but only if it’s not possible to continuously fail through bad rolls – if 3 failed grenades could collapse an emergence hole (or just 1 success) would at least have given some eventual certainty.

I wanted to dive from place to place, spraying the enemy with fire, and dashing into the midst of many enemies with tense concern for my safety, but fairly sure I’d be okay if only I could just clear the room and recover for a moment.  Rather than heroic a veteran, I felt more like a weak recruit.

FFG have released a few games like Gears of War in the past (Doom, Descent), plus there have been other similar games like D&D Castle Ravenloft (and its various sister games) from other companies (I have yet to try Earth Reborn which I would like to).  However, for me, the best game in this genre so far remains Space Hulk which is highly tactical, asymmetric and very tense.  It has fewer options but, even though simpler, it still allows a high-degree of tactical play and you can do things like laying down suppressing fire.  In the end, I felt Gears of War was average and I felt frustrated and unsatisfied.


[Played with 4 players]

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