Breaking Bad The Board Game is of course a TV franchise licensed product. It is a game so very obviously tied into the AMC TV series that it seemed unlikely to me that anyone would consider buying it who was not already very familiar with the TV drama. I voiced this view to members of my games group but was surprised to find several who hadn’t seen the series, didn’t know very much about it but had heard it was good and so said they’d consider getting the game simply on the strength of that. Like drug addicts, seasoned board gamers can sometimes be an easy sell.
A year or two back, Breaking Bad was the multi-season TV drama that was widely praised and raved about by critics but was not quite so widely seen. Like series that had previously been highly regarded, like The Wire, Breaking Bad has mostly aired on subscription services. I don’t think it’s been shown in the UK on the main terrestrial channels (BBC, ITV or Channel 4), so you may not have seen it at all unless you’ve taken out a subscription to Netflix.
Breaking Bad – the theme…
For those not in the know, the Breaking Bad series follows the exploits of Walter White. Walter is a hard working, previously law abiding, downtrodden chemistry teacher in Albuquerque, New Mexico (USA) who has been diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer. He is anxious to provide for his family and secure their financial future before he dies and so he decides to turn his chemistry knowledge and skills to manufacturing high grade crystal meth.
Successive seasons involve rival drug gangs and the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), and these are each represented in Breaking Bad The Board Game, published by Edge. The game plays with 3–8 players. There are four factions, each with two playable characters: the Heisenberg faction (Walter and his associate Jesse), Los Pollos Hermanos and the Juarez Cartel (both of which are rival drug dealing syndicates) and the Drug Enforcement Agency. With 3 or 4 players, each chooses a character from a different faction but, with more players, the two characters in the faction play co-operatively. Where a faction starts with two characters, it has to meet a higher victory condition than a faction with only one character.
So far so good. The character cards and the cards used to play the game draw well on screenshots from the TV series, so you’ll instantly be submerged in the theme. If you are one of those that know the show, you will almost inevitably be drawn into role playing your character.
Each character has a special ability, a starting stash of ‘Blue Sky’ (the blue plastic crystals that represent the crystal meth) and a hit point track. These all vary quite widely; so much so that you will inevitably find players complaining that some are overpowered. I’m used to encountering that ‘grass is greener’ criticism in most games with asymmetric powers: players always envy the characteristics and special abilities drawn by other players which always seem better than their own. That said, the asymmetry of the special abilities and different hit point and meth resources do seem especially marked in Breaking Bad. Even viewed objectively, you will probably conclude that some are very obviously ‘better’ than others.
Breaking Bad – with friends like these…
During the game, players from rival factions can make alliances by allowing an opponent’s chemist to use their lab, but, as you might expect, alliances can be dissolved and allies betrayed. This is a game where there is some negotiation, diplomacy and deal-making but game play is mostly drawing and playing cards. Each faction has its own deck of 30 cards. Like the characters, these too are asymmetric. There are some cards that are unique to particular decks and even the cards common to all have different distribution in each of the factions. The criminal factions win by selling 12 Blue Sky crystals (18 if there are two characters in the faction) or by eliminating all the other characters (all others either killed or jailed); the DEA faction wins if all other characters are killed or jailed, or if all of the meth labs have been put out of action.
From the victory conditions alone, you’ve probably already spotted one of this game’s serious shortcomings: Breaking Bad is a game involving player elimination. Having players knocked out is all fine and dandy if you are playing a 20 minute filler but it is likely to be much more problematic in a game with a stated running time of up to two hours. You could conceivably sit down to play this game and find yourself eliminated early and have so long to wait passively for the rest of the game to finish that you’d have time to go off on your own to watch two full episodes of the actual TV show.
Go to Jail, go directly to Jail, do not pass Go, do not collect $200
And even if you’re not eliminated altogether from the game, there is every likelihood in Breaking Bad that your character will be targeted by the DEA player(s) and sent to jail. If that happens and you find your character in jail, then you have a very real prospect of being temporarily excluded from the game for several turns. Players in jail cannot play any cards or perform any actions or use their special abilities. All they can do is draw three cards. If one of them is a ‘Better Call Saul’ card, they get out of jail and continue their turn. If they don’t draw a ‘Better Call Saul’ ‘get out of jail’ card, they discard the three cards they drew and that’s the end of their turn. In this way, a jailed player might well find they have to miss a succession of turns. The ‘miss a turn’ mechanic might be the norm in simple roll and move children’s games but it seems quite inappropriate in a modern game aimed at an adult audience. In any event, it makes for a very dull playing experience if you are the guy who is having to go anything up to eight rounds without being allowed to take any action or take any active part in the game!
Broken or Bad?
But let’s say you’re not eliminated and you don’t have to sit out several long rounds waiting for a ‘get out of jail’ card to turn up. Is the game good otherwise?
Well, sadly no, not really. It is atmospheric certainly: thanks to its graphics and theme, the game succeeds admirably in throwing you into the world conjured up by the Breaking Bad TV series. However, you are likely to find the game play itself to be rather mundane. The choices open to you in playing the cards you draw are mostly pretty obvious. Yes, there might be circumstances where it could be in your interest to play a hospital card to heal another player rather than yourself if it looks like the early elimination of that player will benefit a third player more than it does you, but, in the main, you are going to be taking for yourself the benefit of ‘good’ cards and using the ‘bad’ cards to dish out damage to others. The main choice is just over which of your opponents you decide to target on this particular round.
When you boil it down, that is pretty much all there is to the game. You can play a Gunfight card to initiate a gunfight with another player (and potentially inflict on them a hit point of damage) but your opponent can counter the attack by playing a corresponding card. There’s no deep strategy here, however. Even if your Gunfight card fails to score a hit, it’s still likely to be in your interest to have made the attack and so deprive the opponent of a card they could use to attack you.
As you probably guessed, I am a fan of the TV series and I desperately wanted to like Breaking Bad The Board Game. I was disappointed. Though Breaking Bad is neither a Bad nor Broken game, I really can’t rate it any higher than 3/10. If you’re neither eliminated nor jailed for a long stretch, you might have fun playing it just once or twice, but this isn’t a game that you’re likely to want to bring back to the table for repeated plays.
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Selwyn has been playing, collecting and writing about board games for more years than he readily admits to. He has written about and reviewed games for Games & Puzzles, Spielbox and Tabletop Gaming, and his Board's Eye View page on Facebook includes short reviews and commentary on both old and new games.