Playing hard to get
This is a game that was initially launched via a publicity stunt. Publishers Plaid Hat Games sent out copies of the game to a batch of lucky recipients as a free promotion. Included were three invitation cards that could be passed on to friends allowing them to buy a copy of Raxxon direct from the publisher. There was, at that point, no retail release. Meanwhile, Plaid Hat denied that Raxxon was even a game, insisting on describing it as a kit designed to train community members on how to identify and quarantine infected neighbours.
Depending on your point of view, this was either a clever or annoying marketing ploy. For a brief time at least, Raxxon was high on the hot lists. People were begging, borrowing and trading invitation cards on the internet, with the viral marketing and pyramid sales acting as a very direct analogue of the infection theme of the game.
In part, excitement about and interest in the game stemmed directly from its elusiveness: the fact that it was not more widely available and could only be bought by invitation added to its desirability among games players and collectors. This was only part of the story, however. The name Raxxon appears in Plaid Hat’s most successful board game Dead of Winter, and features strongly in the Dead of Winter Long Night sequel/expansion game. Raxxon was very obviously part of the Dead of Winter universe; was the mysterious Raxxon game a new expansion to Dead of Winter or maybe a prequel to the original game?
Is this more of the same?
Dead of Winter is a semi co-operative survival game. Players control initially two or more characters and the players have to work together so that their colony collectively survives a succession of crises and challenges while fending off the existential threat of zombies at the borders of their colony. It is not a fully co-operative game because players each also have their own individual objective which is likely to involve them hoarding some resources at the expense of the colony in order to secure an individual win if the group as a whole is successful in beating the game. There is also the possibility that a player’s objective may make them a traitor out to sabotage the colony, so that, as in the Battlestar Galactica board game, players are constantly suspicious about trusting each other.
The Long Night expansion/sequel to Dead of Winter gave us more of the same, so players who managed to get hold of a copy of Raxxon were initially expecting something broadly similar. This is where, for some, the disappointment set in…
They may share the same universe but Raxxon is not Dead of Winter. In Raxxon, players each represent a specialist in the leadership team in a city suffering a zombie infection. The players’ task is to work collectively to evacuate those in the city population who are healthy before the city is overrun by the infected and before the Raxxon Pharmaceuticals Company has gained enough power to seize control of the city. This means Raxxon is a fully co-operative game. It also means that, despite its antecedence, in play, Raxxon is rather more reminiscent of Pandemic than it is of Dead of Winter.
The game includes six specialists for players to choose from. Since Raxxon caters for from 1 to 4 players, this means there is scope for a fair amount of variability between plays as there are differences in how the game proceeds depending on the particular specialists used. The game set-up allows for the difficulty to be varied by altering the number of infected population cards that are shuffled into the draw pile that represents the city’s population. Be warned: the introductory game is likely to lull you into a false sense of security. It fillets the deck, calls for only 9 infected cards and requires the evacuation of just 20 healthy citizens. The introductory game will almost certainly result in such an easy win that you may be left wondering if there is really any game here at all. Persevere. You will find the introductory game helpful in reinforcing the rules but you won’t experience the game proper until you move on to tackling it in ‘regular’ mode. This increases to 30 the number of healthy citizens that have to evacuated. It also raises the number of infected cards to 15. Playing with 18 infected is considered to be ‘hard’ mode and the game offers the option of increasing the number of infected to 21 as ‘expert’ mode. If you attempt this, you are likely to find the game impossibly difficult.
Separating the Raxxon zombie game from the crowd
Without going into too much detail over the game play, crowds are formed by laying population cards face down in a grid (3 x 3 for one or two players; 3 x 4 for a three-player game; 4 x 4 when playing with four players). Players will use their actions and abilities to identify the healthy citizens so that they line up in the same rows or columns, as cards that are adjacent in this way can be airlifted together to safety. Similarly, a row or column of infected citizens (and any unrevealed cards in the row or column) can be killed in an airstrike action. Infected citizens may also be quarantined, taking them out of the game for the current and next round.
Certain actions allow a player to take an additional action but nothing comes entirely for free: the cost of taking advantage of this is that the player has to draw a Raxxon card. This is where at last the game gives a clearer nod to Dead of Winter. The Raxxon cards are distinctly reminiscent of the Crossroads event cards in Dead of Winter. They each include some flavour text and some are conditional or character specific (ie: they only trigger if particular conditions are met or if a named character is in play). Most give the player a choice between two probably negative options. Unlike the Crossroads cards, the Raxxon cards reveal to players the consequences of their choices before they make their choice. They also differ from Crossroads cards in that they are likely to be shuffled back into the pack: you will find in play that you sigh with relief to draw a Raxxon card that is inapplicable but you will curse when that same card wreaks damage when it re-emerges later in the game and is triggered because conditions have changed. Many of the Raxxon cards advance the Raxxon Company along its power track, so their use can hasten the end and loss of the game…
Players have a wide choice of actions available to them but every action they take has a potentially negative consequence in the next round. This means that play in Raxxon is about working out and managing the right balance of actions. If your character goes gung ho doing all they possibly can in one turn, the next turn is likely to be a disaster unless they pass altogether, sitting out the rest of the round. You quickly come to realise that, whereas Dead of Winter is a board game that can play rather like a role-playing game, Raxxon becomes a push-your-luck puzzle-solving exercise. That’s not to say that Raxxon is unengaging. There is enough flavour on all the cards (citizen cards as well as the Raxxon event cards) to carry the theme through so that, in play, this never feels like an abstract game. On the downside, the fact that Raxxon is a full co-op with no hidden information means that it is susceptible to ‘alpha player syndrome’: sadly there’s nothing to stop a bossy player turning a multi-player game into a solitaire where they order all the moves.
As a puzzle game, Raxxon scores a very creditable 7/10. It works especially well as a solo game. And, even with the health warning that this game is very different from Dead of Winter, fans of the original game may still be clamouring to buy it. That’s because Plaid Hat have slipped two new Dead of Winter characters into the box. The two standees correspond to two of the characters in Raxxon and can be added either to Dead of Winter or Dead of Winter Long Night. The Meryl Wolfe character has the special ability of once per round shuffling the Dead of Winter crisis contribution cards, looking at them and drawing one to hand. At any time at her location when a bite is rolled on the exposure die, the K D James character can immediately play a medicine card to reroll the die. Plaid Hat have even included two new Crossroads cards representing the two new characters. There will be more than a few Dead of Winter enthusiasts who buy Raxxon just to get their hands on these very desirable little extras.
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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.