According to my Steam account, I have played 108 hours of Fallout: New Vegas. I know I’ve played at least as much Fallout 3, but ever since I updated to the GotY Edition, Steam reset my stats so I don’t know how long I’ve spent on it despite completing the main storyline plus all the DLC’s…stupid GotY Edition…I’ve also logged a fair amount of time in Boston and Far Harbour in Fallout 4, but never bothered with Nuka-World because–well, that’s a topic for a different blog.
So yeah, I’ve spent a fair bit of time in The Wasteland. And as I wrote about just last month, my curiosity always perks up when a videogame company decides to port its product to the tabletop.
The challenges of taking a videogame and making a boardgame–a good boardgame–out of it are many. How do you preserve the real-time tension and excitement? How do you immerse players without bogging them down in fiddly mechanics that in a videogame would be taken care of by the CPU? Inevitably, as in adapting a book for the screen, some things must be tossed over the side. But which things?
A further problem in bringing Fallout to the table is that, like the Wolfenstein franchise, the videogame has no multi-player mode. Speaking of which, isn’t BJ Blazcowicz ripe for tabletop treatment? Mmmmyeah, maybe the theme is too…tricky. (And yet, Tannhäuser.) Should a Fallout tabletop game be full co-op, (Earth Reborn)? Semi-co-op, with rival Vaults (Outlive)? Or full-on-competitive, with PvP (Arctic Scavengers)?
And yet Bethesda Studios (love’em or hate’em) decided to take the plunge. They certainly didn’t pussy-foot around, either, teaming up with Fantasy Flight games, who have established a reputation for well-designed games with high-quality components.
Interestingly, though, FF decided to put two relative unknowns on the job: Andrew Fischer and Nathan I. Hajek. (What, was Kevin Wilson busy?) Hajek broke in a few years ago designing expansion content for the 2nd edition of Descent (including the Road to Legend app), and Fischer’s only other published game is this year’s Runewars Miniatures Game. Neither guy exactly has a proven track record. Interesting choices to assign a big-name project with a fervid (and detail-oriented) fanbase.
Despite their relative inexperience though, Fischer and Hajek seem to have carried it off. Maybe they were Fallout fanboys chomping at the bit to make their mark. The design integrates the theme in many ways, some obvious and some not so much. SPECIAL is a central mechanic (as it is in the videogame) but drastically–and very elegantly in my opinion–simplified. No numeric ratings: you either have Strength, Perception, Endurance, etc., or you don’t. This binary treatment of stats is then woven through the rules for Encounters, combat, gaining XP, levelling up, the perk system, and acquiring new gear and companions. One design decision allowed the designers to incorporate a huge amount of Fallout into the boardgame organically and with a minimum of fiddliness. Well done.
Another efficient use of game design is the deck of Agenda Cards. Completing certain Quests and Encounters allows you to draw one, which is worth at least one and possibly more Influence if you can fulfill the additional requirements on the card, which incentivizes different strategies. But Agenda Cards are also used to randomly determine which enemies activate each player-turn (via icons at the bottom), and every time the deck runs out the game’s end gets closer. One not-so-obvious corollary is that as the game progresses and players earn more Influence, the Agenda Deck gets smaller and therefore cycles more quickly, making game-time pass that much more quickly. Very clever.
As for multiplayer, Fischer and Hajek opted for semi-co-op, in that it’s a race to gain a certain amount of Influence (the threshold depends on the number of players), but players can trade gear, and all players lose if no one has reached the threshold by the end of the game. Although some will be disappointed that you can’t turn your Fat Man on your opponents, I’m sure some people will house-rule it in (and you can’t rule out possible PvP rules in an expansion). But the emphasis on the game is on narrative, and constant interruptions for firefights would overwhelm that, so I think it was the right decision. It also makes the game solo-playable with almost no changes to the rules.
The four scenarios included with the game are based on various Fallout 3 or 4 storylines, including DLC: the Capital Wasteland; The Pitt; the Commonwealth; and Far Harbour. (Here’s hoping for a New Vegas expansion, but without the wooden Matthew Perry voice acting.) Each scenario plays out on a different map arranged from hexagonal tiles, most of which start face-down and needing to be explored in order to reach the first Quest’s destination, which gets things moving. There are also two rival factions (different in each scenario) who start out hostile not just to each other but also to the players. As the game proceeds, you might earn the option to declare loyalty to one or the other, or even switch allegiances, all of which have consequences.
The “CPU” of the game’s Quest and Encounter system is the Card Library, a numbered deck of cards, which get swapped in and out of the game as players begin chopping at the decision tree. The Card Library allows the game to “remember” decisions you have made; make an enemy, and she’ll be back later to hunt you (or maybe one of the other players) down. And, like the videogame, there are sidequests you can pursue as well as the main storyline.
Fantasy Flight wisely decided to hew closely to Fallout’s graphic design, which immerses players in the post-apocalyptic world of the Wasteland, right down to screengrabs for card art. They also went for the two-booklet rules approach of their other games such as Arkham Horror: TCG: one with a first play-through guide and one with an alphabetized rulebook. Hey, if it ain’t broke, don’t nuke it, am I right?
Fallout: TBG is best summarized as a very light RPG with choose-your-own-adventure mechanics. It’s hardly the huge open-world sandbox of its videogame parents, but it provides a good atomic blast for your buck. So if it’s more pew-pew campaign-driven tactical gameplay you’re looking for, you might as well wait for Fallout: Wasteland Warfare, which is due out soon enough. Meanwhile, the rest of us will enjoy this game, thank-you-very-much. It drags a bit with four, but with one to three players I think I provides an excellent taste with just a hint of rads. But heck, that’s what RadAway’s for, right Vault Dweller?