All of which is a build up to saying that I'm planning to write some short reviews for the games we play and post them here. If nothing else, I'm hoping this will encourage me to think about what aspects of a game work well and not so well, which is good to bear in mind when I'm working on my own rule-writing efforts.
So, without further ado, let's have a look at the first game we've been playing, Level Seven [Escape] from Privateer Press.
The SetupEach player plays the part of a prisoner who wakes up in a secret government facility with no memory of how they got there. They must escape, defeating or outwitting armed guards and alien creatures in the process, before the facility is locked down and they are sealed inside permanently.
Stuff in the BoxThis game comes in a reasonably hefty box, with plenty of the map tiles and cards to allow for a pretty good random experience each time you play. The pieces themselves are all pretty good quality, in particular the artwork on the map tiles is really nice and really gives the right flavour for a dingy underground base.
The playing pieces for the players and enemies are cardboard flats instead of models, but again the art is nice - if I had a complaint about them it would be that they are all quite similar so occasionally they got mixed up, but that wasn't too much of a problem.
You also get eight special dice, which are quite nice, and it's good to have a decent number of them.
The way the game works put me in mind of a tabletop roleplaying game without a GM. Each player starts off with a standard character sheet, which is personalised with randomly selected skill cards. Each character has stats which govern how fast they can move, and how strong, resilient and intelligent they are.
Each player also has a fear and threat scale. Fear can increase and decrease during the game, and as it changes it alters the character's other stats. Having the highest level of fear makes a character the first target of any aliens that are nearby. Threat can also increase, and having the highest threat makes a character the first target of the guards.
The final stat is the character's resilience - how close they are to death. There's a nice little system here. Each turn, you are dealt as many cards as your current resilience level. You can spend these to increase your other stats or create some other effects in the game, but the cards are also used as a health scale. When you are attacked you can lose cards, and if you drop to zero you lose resilience. So, there's a trade-off: do you keep your cards to be better able to withstand attacks, or spend them to gain other bonuses?
When exploring the facility, players draw new tiles and place them on the table to form a map of the base. This means that the layout will change each time you play and creates the risk of getting trapped in a dead end or having to go through dangerous areas. Some of the tiles trigger events that the character must survive, or provide useful items such as weapons.
The enemies move and attack following set rules, and are triggered by events when exploring. This means that generating the map and controlling the enemies is all done by the players, which removes the need for a GM. Characters can either attack or outwit enemies to get past them.
I quite liked the "roleplay-light" way that this all worked together. As each character has different skills we found that during the scenarios (more on those in a minute) one player would normally be best placed to do some key task, so the others were exploring to find out where that character needed to go. The events meant that you could never feel entirely safe, but were relatively safe if you stayed in areas you'd already explored.
There are also more minor rules to cover some more unusual situations, but this was were we started to have some trouble. The rules work pretty well, but are presented in the rulebook in such a way that you struggle to find a particular rule when you need it. There is a list of icons that appear in the game and what they mean at the back of the book, but for some reason this doesn't cover all of them! This meant that we were often flicking back and forth in the rulebook to try to figure out what was supposed to happen, and even after doing that we sometimes had to just agree a solution ourselves. For a boardgame that seemed a little odd.
The ScenariosLevel Seven [Escape] is played out over seven scenarios, each of which represents a different level of the facility that you have to pass through in order to escape.
They are clearly intended to be played through in order, which is what we did after playing the first scenario twice to figure out some of the rules. Having ordered scenarios in this way allows the game to introduce new concepts as you go along.
Some of these are pretty cool - without giving too much away, one of the scenarios in particular pushes characters apart and forces them to explore quickly in order to make it to the next level. We had a lot of fun with that one. Having a series of scenarios also gives you a sensible start and end point for playing the game, and provides some variety as you play, which is nice.
Unfortunately though, some weird things start to happen with some scenarios. A few of them require you to find the exit and a key to use it, which are on different tiles. However, once you've found them both, you generally won't keep triggering new events, which means the enemies won't activate and you end the scenario by pretty much just moving to the end (possibly having to dodge a couple of bad guys on the way).
Also, the difficulty level of the scenarios didn't seem to make a lot of sense. In particular, we found the last scenario to be almost laughably easy - the big baddy will show up and cause lots of damage if your fear level goes up too often, but it's quite simple to avoid having that happen. Now there are a lot of random things that happen, so we could have just been lucky, but this really felt like someone had come up with the idea for a big final boss but hadn't playtested it much so hadn't realised that you could easily avoid him.
The same problem with the rules applied to the scenarios too - we often found ourselves having to carefully re-read the rules of the scenarios as we went along because they weren't written very clearly.
One last thing on scenarios. On one hand, there are seven different ways to play which means you have a bit more variety for replay value. On the other, once you've escaped from the facility you do feel like you've finished the game, so it'll be interesting to see whether we ever come back to tackle it again.
ConclusionWe did have fun playing this game, and it has an interesting concept and some nice mechanics to it. It's unfortunate then that some of the scenarios didn't really seem up to snuff from our playthrough and problems with the layout of the rules meant that we kept having to come out of the game to try to work out how to resolve things. There is an errata available, but for a board game that doesn't seem quite right to me - I'd hope to not have to be checking for rules changes online. I also wonder how much replay value we'll get from what was a fairly pricey box. Overall it feels like a good core game that needs some more polish to really finish it off.
I notice that Privateer have put the rules up on their website which is nice, and also that an expansion pack called Lockdown is on the way. I'll be interested to see if that adds anything new to the game and whether Privateer take the opportunity to clear up the rules and maybe include some reference cards in the box.