Friday, April 30, 2010

Red November - Wee Drunken Gnomes In A World Of Hurt

I have a good friend who was a naval officer, and he told me that the single most dangerous aspect of life at sea is the constant scourge of a fire on board. He noted that although drowning is a bad thing, indeed, there is not a whole lot worse than being trapped inside a watertight room with the ship burning and sinking around you while all you can do is sit and wait for the air to run out or for the fire to reach and incinerate you. Well, after that conversation I have both a newfound respect for the men and women who serve in our navy, and I have nothing but pity for the gnomes that inhabit the Red November, a Silver Line game from Fantasy Flight Games.

The premise of the game is that you play one of several gnomes who serve aboard the Red November, an ill-fated gnomish nuclear submarine that, at one point or another during the game, will be on fire, flooded, on the verge of being crushed, be completely devoid of oxygen, have a reactor meltdown, or my personal favorite, eaten by a Kraken. To paraphrase a quote by R. Lee Ermey, the ship "is in a world of shit". The good news, though, is that the gnomes are a crew of hardened sailors that have the capacity to fix these items cooperatively, and they only need to survive for an hour until help arrives to save the stricken vessel. It's simply an odyssey in chaos, with gnomes scrambling over one another to correct the myriad problems before being killed individually or as a group. It's also a complete and total blast to play, and I cannot tell you how many times I've played this, as it is a favorite with both my wife and myself.

The intriguingly illustrated little box itself is quite small by any standard, and is about the same size as Citadels’ box. Within is a well designed quad-fold board that lays out at about a foot long by seven inches wide, which is perfect for small play areas like a bar or coffee shop. It has spaces for a multitude of bits, pawns, and has several tracks to help with the upkeep of the various deadly situations that will result in certain doom if the players fail. Further delving into the Lilliputian box, you'll be greeted with a variety of well-drawn chits, a ton of half-sized cards, three little wooden cubes, plastic gnome figures in eight colors with matching stackable plastic timekeeping buttons plus an extra white one as a ghost timekeeper, a cute little rulebook, and a single D10. All in all, the production value is reasonably high for what you pay for the game and the art is both whimsical and rather on the good side.

Setup takes all of about three minutes, with each player taking a gnome figure, its matching timekeeper, and its matching card, which rather humorously tracks not only which color your pawn is, but how drunk your gnome is as well. After rolling the D10 to determine which numbered room your pawn starts in and taking two item tokens, you then set your timekeepers on the "60" mark on the outer edge, get the event cards in a pile, set the doom tracks to zero by placing the three wooden cubes on their appropriate places, and finally, putting some items into the storeroom and grog (read: vodka) in the captain's quarters.

When the game starts, there's nothing bad happening, which allows the first player the ability to do whatever they want, be it moving to an area they think may flare up or they can head to pick up an item in the storeroom or some grog at the captain's quarters. The downside, however, is that they're also the first player to draw an event card, which is the cause of all the bad things that happen on board.

Gameplay is really simple in Red November. You may either move, as many spaces as you wish, which costs one minute per space, or perform an action, which costs variable amounts of time, depending on how long the player wishes to spend on it. Once they complete an action, they move their timekeeper along the time track on the outer edge of the board, and if they pass a space on the track illustrated with a star, they draw and resolve an event card for each star they've crossed. These events vary greatly in scope, with Respite cards doing nothing at all and other cards that cause fires to break out or spread, floods to occur, main components of the ship to fail, hatches to become stuck and block movement through them, or other really, really bad stuff. The mechanic for repairing these is simple: The player moves to the room that they want to fix, decide how long they want to spend fixing it, and roll a D10 to determine the outcome. The idea is to roll under the number of minutes you chose to spend working on the problem, meaning that the more time you spend to fix a problem, the more likely you are to succeed. Item tokens help you with these by providing a bonus to your roll, and most items are specific to a type of problem, like a water pump that evacuates the flooding in a room or a shop manual that helps you repair a broken engine.

All of this seems easy until the fires start to erupt or a room starts to flood. You cannot move into or through a room on fire unless you have an extinguisher on hand or take a drink of grog to provide you the liquid courage to run, intentionally, into a room that has burst into white-hot flames. The downside of the grog is that every time you drink a snifter of it you have to perform an inebriation check, and failing causes the gnome to faint for ten minutes. If a room catches fire during that little siesta, the gnome dies, instantly and painfully, with no recourse.

Similarly, you cannot enter a room that is completely flooded, but can open an adjacent hatch to allow the water to recede, spreading the flooding to that adjacent room while lowering the amount of water in the original room. Rooms that are half-flooded also pose another problem in that they take more time to cross through, costing you valuable minutes and potentially forcing the player to draw more event cards. Another problem is that rooms that catch fire add to the Asphyxiation track, brining the entire crew and ship one step closer to a watery grave.

The last type of nastiness that can happen on board due to event cards are the Timed Events. These cards force a player to put a special marker on the time track which, when all players have crossed them before resolving the issue, cause an instant and painful end to the game, with all players dying and the ship sinking. These are the most nasty simply because when they occur, all hands on board generally decide who has the best item to successfully repair the damaged system, and that person has to stop whatever it is they were planning on doing and run to save the ship on their next turn. You generally have ten to fifteen minutes to do this, and in the case of the Kraken attack it is incredibly tough because you need to get an Aqualung item to leave the ship, which is one of the rarer items, and in order to effectively attack the Kraken you need a spear gun, which although is not as rare, it's not an item that you generally want to get. The good news is that the Kraken card is removed from the deck until the first reshuffling, so you have some time to prepare for the attack, which in fact may never come at all.

The last ten minutes of the game are more deadly than the rest as well because the stars are closer together and many players may already have gotten to the end, thereby removing them from play and leaving the remaining players to save the ship alone. The game ends successfully when all players have expended all 60 minutes and the ship hasn't sunk, imploded, become devoid of oxygen, or any other manner of expiration. The game is fast-playing, easy to learn, and remarkably well designed. That, and it's a tremendous amount of fun.

Things I truly loved:
*Fast, frenetic gameplay keeps everyone on the edge of their seat for the entire game
*Collaborative conversation really gets players in the character of a harried sailor aboard a doomed vessel
*Really decent art makes the game not only easily understandable, but humorous
*Replayability is exceptional, and I never really get sick of it; playing 3 games in a row is not out of the norm
*Drunken gnomes are funny, I don't care who you are

Things I wished were different:
*There seem to be more Blocked Hatch and Fire Starts cards than necessary, making the game very tough to beat if you get several in a row
*If the box was a hair taller it would be more conducive to getting the lid to completely close once all the chits are bagged properly
*The rules have some spots that take a bit to get your head around, but they're minimal an after a play or two you'll be an expert gnomish sailor

If you like cooperative games and have even a modicum of a sense of humor, this is a complete win for you. This is, hands down, my wife's favorite cooperative game and every time it hits the table we have one hell of a good time. I would recommend this to any person on the planet that reads English, has 45 minutes, and enjoys a fast, light cooperative game.

4.25/5 Stars

Learn more about our doomed sailors at: November


Sharon said...

Far too many chances for an untimely death for this game to be fun for me - more than once my gnome tried to put out a fire and instead became fuel for it, just because of the capriciousness of the dice.

Anonymous said...


As per the revised rules, if you fail a roll to put out a fire, you may make an emergency move to an adjacent room, paying time as usual. The only way a fire can kill you is if all exits to the room are blocked, or if you'd fainted there.

In any case, the rules also allow for 'less deadly death mode', which gives a player a new, itemless, sober gnome when her old one dies. This removes the player elimination portion of the game.

Great review, btw.