Life After the Strike - My Fallout Review
Maybe it’s because of the hype that I set up for myself (although Man vs Meeple played no small part in that), or my experience with the very successful video game franchise of the same name. At the end of my first game there weren’t a lot of adjectives I could use to describe my experience other than “… this sucked”.
I owe you an explanation. Fallout is a recently released board game based on the video games of the same name, where players find themselves doing their best to survive and thrive in the wastelands of the United States of America. You’ll find yourself controlling a Super Mutant, Ghoul, Wastelander, Brotherhood member, or Vault member while you navigate the radiated landscape and avoiding various threats while trying to complete story-based objectives.
That doesn’t matter.
The game mostly revolves around a major narrative tied to one of the four scenarios that come in the base game, where players side with either of the scenario-specific factions in an attempt to ultimately control the wasteland through influence. The quests progress through a neat “story deck” where after resolving a particular chapter of the story you’re told to ‘stage’ certain numbered cards which provide the next chapter and options to progress.
That doesn’t matter.
Another unique part of the game is the level system. Much like the video games characters can progress through the S.P.E.C.I.A.L. system, gaining perks and tokens as they gain experience in the game through killing enemies and progressing through the various quests. As players gain experience the unqiue level system takes longer for players to level up, once again mimicing the video game experience.
That doesn’t matter.
Combat is another mechanic that is inspired its digital ancestor. When you fight an enemy you roll custom six-sided dice that resemble the V.A.T.S. system from the game, looking for symbols that match your target’s weak spot. Those same dice will hand out wounds representing your quarry fighting back during the struggle, and are also used for the various skill checks in the game.
That… well, you get the point.
The reason why none of these things actually matter is that there’s no player agency in this game. The whole reason most players play the Fallout video games is to forge their own path - you decide if you back the Institute or the Railroad, the Brotherhood or the Mutants. That entire concept, the whole reason players are motivated to forge their own path in the wasteland, is reduced to a random card draw.
The game revolves around “agenda cards”, all with various goals on them that award victory points for certain conditions. Conditions ranging from “explore most of the map” and “hit max level”, or, more commonly, rewarding you for the progress of one of the two scenario factions.
The first recommended scenario has you siding with either the Railroad or the Institute. Except, you don’t get to pick sides - you back which ever side you draw the card for. You, as a player, don’t get to make the fundamental choice that plays such a huge part in the video game franchise, but instead play according to whatever random card you pick up during the game. You’re no longer playing the game, rather you’re just doing your best to live up to the destiny a deck of 24 cards decided you should have.
This is particularly jarring when, playing as a huge lumbering Super Mutant, you’re required to tiptoe around Megaton to gather information. Even more so when you’re playing The Pitt scenario and you’re forced to side with the slavers.
You also don’t necessarily start with a faction alignment. You could get half way through the game, draw the card for the weaker faction, and suddenly everyone else is 3 points ahead of you in a 9 point game. Or, just as bad, you could draw the same faction alignment as them and suddenly you’re playing a semi-co-operative game but no one knows it. Randomly picking up a card that suddenly gives you half your points is a game-breaking design flaw.
Furthermore, the game almost mocks your lack of choice by making you role-play the encounter cards (cards your draw for random experiences in cities & bunkers) - you’re required to make a choice against a narrative without seeing the result, which is the exact opposite of how you’re expected to play the quest cards.
“Play without the Agendas!” the internet says in defense of their beloved IP board game. First off, we’re way past the point at which major releases of board games should require house rules out of the box. Secondly, there are so many other problems with this game.
Even if you could pick the path of the story, the paragraphs you read are just short enough to avoid painting enough of a narrative worth pursuing. Playing multiplayer? That quest goal that was just given to you in confidence by an NPC can be completed on the next turn by another player on the other side of the map. Enemies are little more than a hindrance that you kite around the map, killing when you need them. One quarter of the bunker narrative cards have to do with saving pets. The level system isn’t much more than a reroll tracker - if you have a letter that corresponds to a check, you get to reroll those three fancy custom dice. You get your letters via a random draw, not according to your achievements in the game - you draw two, pick one. The combat and resolution system is basically Yahtzee, except with only three dice, and less than three rerolls.
First PostHuman, now Fallout - I’m still waiting for a well-done post-apocalyptic board game. Let me know if you find one.