PLEASE STAND BY
Let’s get the full disclosure out of the way at the very start. I spent many, many high-octane hours playing Fallout 3 on the Playstation 3. I was such an avid fan of the story driven yet open sandbox video game that, when Fallout 4 came out, I immediately bought a new Playstation 4 just so that I could play it. I was an easy mark therefore for this board game version published by Fantasy Flight Games.
The premise of Fallout is that there has been a nuclear war that has all but destroyed the United States. In the video game, you are a survivor in this post-apocalyptic world who has grown up in an underground shelter – one of several ‘vaults’ in the game’s vast explorable expanse. As you explore the devastated wasteland outside your vault, you face the menace of hostile creatures mutated by radiation, scavenging human survivors, grotesque mutant humans, irradiated ghouls and menacing robots. You will interact with them all. Some will offer you quests or missions to complete; a rare few can be recruited as companions; the vast majority will try to kill you. During the course of your exploration of what turns out to be the dilapidated remains of the US city of Boston, you encounter feuding factions, each of which will seek to enlist you into their ranks, forcing you eventually into picking sides.
Modular boards and Pip-Boy trackers
FFG’s board game adaptation of Fallout eschews a conventional board. In order to better simulate the video game’s element of exploration and discovery, the board game is instead played on a modular board made up of semi-randomised large hexagonal tiles. The exact layout (distribution of known locations, easy and hard hidden tiles) is set out on each of the scenario cards which are then flipped for use as a tracker for that scenario’s two rival factions. The tiles that don’t represent known locations are only revealed (flipped) when a player explores them. This offers a reasonably effective and certainly very workable approximation of the video game experience.
Players (1 – 4) can choose to play as one of five characters: not just the refugee from the vault but also a wastelander, a ghoul, a super mutant or a power-armoured former member of the Brotherhood of Steel faction. Whichever you choose, FFG has done the franchise proud with five beautifully detailed plastic miniatures. These are so good that, like me, you’ll almost certainly be left wanting more. By contrast the tokens that represent the creatures, monsters and reprobates you encounter are a bit of a letdown. You’ll especially miss not having miniatures representing the companions you may potentially pick up in your travels. Companions are way underdeveloped in this game: they are acquired much like loot or equipment and are treated too much like single-use tools. This is a disappointment. Perhaps there’s scope here for a future expansion from FFG with better developed companions that each have their corresponding plastic minis. Please take note FFG.
Players each have individual boards. These notionally represent the Pip-Boy (portable computer) device worn by your character player in the video game, although they actually look nothing like the Pip-Boy. The individual boards are used to keep track of the radiation and hit points the character takes. The hit points and radiation start from opposing ends so they advance towards each other – causing the character’s death when they meet. As in the video game, however, death is at worst only a temporary setback: if your character is killed you respawn next turn on the game’s starting tile with hit points fully restored and the loss only of unequipped cards. This means death is far from final; indeed, there are circumstances where it can turn out to be a profitable career move. You’ll need to take care using the tracks on your individual board because you’ll be constantly pulling plastic pegs out and pushing them back in to a cardboard peg board. This seems a poor design choice from FFG because the board is bound to take wear after a few games. If you play this game a lot, the peg boards are going to end up looking like they’ve been through a nuclear conflagration.
It isn’t just the characters that respawn. Most tiles include a spot indicating the type of enemy that will spawn there. A token of that type is selected at random and is placed out. Some of these will pursue and attack the players’ characters; others will simply stand their ground, only fighting back when they are attacked. Players will want to take the various creatures out, not least because that’s how they score experience and loot, but it feels odd to find the game instantly respawning another token there as soon as one is eliminated. The video game does provide for locations to be repopulated with creatures but, by contrast, there is usually a respectful pause of 24 hours in game time before this respawn occurs.
During the course of play, players will use the experience they earn in order to level their character up. They will do this by selecting letter tiles from the word SPECIAL, representing the seven skill attributes in the video game (Strength, Perception, Endurance, Charisma, Intelligence, Agility and Luck). Every time a player slots a letter tile into the space for it on their individual tracking boards, it increases the number of experience points that will be needed for the next levelling up but it will add to the likelihood that the player will qualify for rerolls for encounters and, with certain equipped gear, for combat. The game incorporates Perks that give a player a special (usually one-off) power, and, of course, there are Nuka Cola bottle caps that serve as currency in this bleak post-Quantitative Easing world.
Game play in Fallout is geared around the use of the special ‘VATS’ dice. There are just three six-sided dice in the game but they are cleverly custom designed to fulfil multiple functions. They highlight various body parts on each of their faces (arms, legs, torso, head). The creatures and renegades you encounter can only be killed if they are hit in certain parts of their anatomy. So, for example, if you are fighting an enemy that can only be hit if you strike its legs, then the only die faces that will count as hits are those that highlight the legs. Meanwhile some die faces additionally have one or two asterisks on them. These represent the hits the creature dishes out on the character. This is a rather clever device because it means the same single dice roll is applying to both participants in any combat. This reduces the need for tedious multiple dice rolls while at the same time ratcheting up the tension over whether or not to go for a reroll (where the player has that option): a reroll may help you take down the creature but it could also inflict extra damage on you.
The other key element of Fallout is the use of encounter cards. These contribute quests and missions that all players can go for but they operate initially in a similar manner to the Crossroads cards in Dead of Winter. When you face an encounter, another player draws the card and reads out the flavour text and options. The active player will usually have to make their choice between two options without prior knowledge of the consequences of success or failure. Often the choices will involve a ‘test’ requiring the player to successfully roll a set number of asterisks on the dice…
Players in Fallout start the game with an agenda card and have the opportunity to pick up more cards during the course of the game. The cards function as victory points in their own right but they also set objectives that will score the player further points for achieving their objective. Typically, agenda cards will score points for one faction scoring better than its rival over the course of the game, so a player will have an incentive to advance the cause of one faction over another. This seems an element that is less well thought through than others in the game. With four players, it is perfectly possible that three could have cards favouring the same faction. When this occurs, the player who is solely working to an agenda favouring the other faction is pretty much doomed to failure.
The other core element of Fallout that seems less well conceived is over whether the game is co-operative or competitive. It is playable, and very enjoyable, as a solo game. Most solo games scale up as co-op games. Here, however, the designers have taken the deliberate decision instead to make the game competitive with two, three or four players. Problem is, the design feels oddly uncompetitive. If I am competing head to head with an opponent, it feels wrong that we can both occupy the same space but not ‘encounter’ or attack each other.
Andrew Fischer and Nathan Hajek, the designers of this board game adaptation, have based it very firmly on Fallout 4 and have taken the design decision to lovingly pack as many elements of the video game as possible into their board game edition. Despite my gripes, in most respects they have succeeded admirably well. If, like me, you are a Fallout addict, then you will definitely want this game. If you are coming fresh to the franchise, this is still a very playable game and, perhaps surprisingly, one that can be enjoyed without any prior video game experience. Overall, even taking account of my nitpicking, it scores an eerily glowing 8/10.
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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.