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Gears of War: The Board Game Review
To The Gearheads in the Audience:
Lets face it, if you're reading this review, you probably already know about Gears of War. If so, skip to the next section. If not, keep reading.
Grind Those Gears
Gears of War the board game is based on the popular Xbox 360 franchise by Epic Games, the same folks who made the legendary Unreal Tournament and (more recently) Infinity Blade. If you're over 20 (like me), you'll also remember a little game called Jazz Jackrabbit that they also created.
The console game was an over-the-shoulder cover-shooter. This means that unlike most other shooters, you can't just charge at enemies and shoot them in the face. Instead, the game rewards players for planning their movement through cover across terrain and taking careful shots when a window opens. It's a tactical action game. How does the board game capture this essential experience?
Guys On A Map
Like the board game Doom and (more recently) Descent, Gears of War the Board Game (GOW:TBG) heavily emphasizes miniatures. All four of the characters from the video game are represented: Marcus, Dom, Baird and Cole. All lovingly detailed in red plastic, each with their own strengths, weaknesses and weapons.
The game is fully cooperative. Unlike Descent or Mansions of Madness, there is no "overlord" player controlling the monsters. Instead, the monsters (called Locust) are controlled by a deck of AI cards that's created during setup. This deck of cards does a good job of randomizing monster movement and attack, an interesting feat considering this game is made of paper.
There are six missions (plus Horde mode) to play through that you might remember from Gears of War 1 and 2. This game was released long before Gears of War 3 or Judgment, so obviously there none of the guns, creatures or missions from those games. Fortunately, there's plenty of content in the box to keep you playing for a long time.
All of the missions will tell you what map tiles to use, what kind of enemies appear on the map and how to win. The setup is semi-randomized, giving some degree of replay value. Each player has their turn, followed by the Locust. This process repeats until the players accomplish their objective or (more likely) are blown to bits.
Any good cooperative game needs to be freakishly hard. After all, once a game is "solved," there will be very little reason to ever play it again. Fortunately (or perhaps unfortunately), the difficulty in Gears can be extremely hard. There's no way to "tune" the game to be easier or harder within the rules, but there are lots of ways to fairly "break" the the game if you're constantly getting crushed.
However, much of the difficulty comes from the dice. A player can make all of the correct moves, be in a perfect position for monsters during the next turn and then roll terribly and die. There's not a good way to mitigate the dice rolling in this game. Unlike Earth Reborn, the game difficulty can swing wildly from turn to turn. Sometimes you'll walk over the enemy like they were made of marshmallow; other times you'll struggle to defeat a low-level minion. It's so random!
Who is this For?
With the level of randomness, coupled with the beautiful, thematic components, you have to wonder who this game is for? The typical Gears of War fan isn't going to drop $60 on a board game (let alone overcome the rules), while established board gamers aren't going to be interested in a tactics game that boils down to playing toy soldiers in a sandbox. My answer? It's for teenage boys.
I work with high school students, and they have a great time ducking into cover and firing rockets at Locust, only to get blown up in the next turn. Players don't compete against each other, so it works well as a kind of team-building game. Everyone can rage against the faceless cardboard AI. I facilitate all of the card draws and behind-the-scenes stuff (rather like a game master in D&D) so the game runs a little more like a computer game than a proper board game.
Pros and Cons
+ Beautiful components
+ Captures the GOW theme and is true to the source material
- Huge degree of randomness; very "swingy" difficulty curve
- Turn-to-turn decisions boil down to "shoot a guy," "shoot a guy a lot," or "run away"
- Game length can easily stretch into two or more hours
Unless you're hoping to entertain a group of high schoolers, I don't recommend Gears of War: The Board Game. It's a nice production and perhaps aspiring game designers could tinker with the rules to make it more tactically fulfilling. If you want a thematic dungeon crawl with an AI dungeon master, I suggest looking at Mice and Mystics instead.
TL;DR: Too random, too long. Get Mice and Mystics.