Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Flash Point: Fire Rescue - A Flaming Pandemic, Scarring Eyes Yet Overjoying Players

I love Pandemic. Or, loved, I guess I should say. I played it all summer long last year, and my wife and I have a lot of good memories of sitting on the deck, drinking Black and Tans, chainsmoking Camel Blues, and trying to save the planet from viral armageddon. So, when I got this game, I knew I would like it. What I didn't know was HOW MUCH I'd like it. It's superior in virtually every way than Pandemic, but the one thing where it really fails is that for such a theme-heavy game, the boys at Indie Board and Cards absolutely dryhumped a Great Dane until it was bleeding when it comes to the look of the game.

I mean, I feel almost like the guy who bought hair regrowth spray that turned out to be spray paint; this sure feels like a bit of a bait and switch, in a sense. The cover art is outstanding, and whomever illustrated it is expert. The firefighter cards within are awesome, too; truly incredible, lifelike illustrations. But then you get to the board and the tokens themselves and are in for a tremendous disappointment.

They look like a blind art director got in the Wayback Machine, bought a Windows 3.11 icon pack and used those for the tokens. And then nobody said anything because they didn't want to get sued for creating a "hostile work environment." I mean, these things are by and large ugly as a old witch's overgrown bush. In fact, the smoke token may actually be a digital representation of that bush. And while some may like the Zohan's style, I am more than a little disappointed that the art is so incongruous across the entire product.

That said, aside from the fact that the tokens are really ugly and the board is a little odd looking, this game is absolutely outstanding in every other way. It is an incredibly tense co-operative romp that has the players living vicariously through wee wooden buttplugs (that represent firefighters) to save the aforementioned faceless Windows 3.11 icons (that represent fire victims) from little fire icons (that represent fire) and little salt-and-pepper pubic region icons (that represent smoke) that will eventually become fires. The fire outbreaks are totally random, so at any time you may have a victim choking on a witch bush or engulfed wholesale in a burny firestorm of flashovers and explosions. It's a bad pun, I know, but the game is simply a blast.

As I alluded to, the game is about playing with fire. The object is to retrieve seven of ten victims from the building before either the building collapses from too much damage or four victims are killed. Why so many people are in the building, which is a residence is a mystery to me, so we decided that this building is, in fact, the aftermath of the raiding of the Branch Davidian compound down in Waco a little over a decade ago. Talk about theme! I went so far as to put a little beard and aviator glasses on one of the dude tokens for the man himself, David Koresh!

Either way, the as the game progresses, so does the fire, and it's ultimately a race to save as many people as you can as quickly as possible without letting the fire get too out of control. The tight mechanics married to the luck of die-rolling really adds a lot of excitement to the game; one bad roll and ol' Koresh or the lowly house cat can be unexpectedly blown through a wall due to an explosion!

Anyhow, let's get to what you get in the box. First, there's a double-sided board with play surfaces on both sides, which means that it's going to be a different experience each time you change up. Then, there's the cards, of which there's two types. The one cards are simple player color reminders, but they look great, and the others are player character cards. These cards are incredibly well drawn, as I noted. Beyond that is a D6 and D8 die, six wooden "buttplug" style player pawns, several sheets of die-cut chits, and a rulebook, which is really well organized and written.

Finally, there are some player reference cards in various languages that you can literally play the game right off of.  As you can see from the above photo, the cards (lower left) are brilliant, as is the box art, but when you look to the board and chits, it's clear that there were some shortcuts taken. All in all, though, it's forgivable because the design is wonderful. I'm just hoping they sell enough to get a reprint going and will hire Eric Carter or David Ausloos to do the illustrations properly.

There are two distinct versions of the game within, the family game and the advanced game. The advanced game is a lot more complex, and uses all of the wee bits in the box, requiring a lot more upkeep but delivering a much more strategic, rich experience. The family game, though, is no slouch. It is tough to win, and in fact it took me three times with two players to pull of a victory, although with three players the odds seemed to be a little more in our favor for some reason. I'll explain the family game setup, then I'll talk about the differences when the advanced game comes into play, because this game, like Pandemic, is a great fit for both die-hard gamers and as a crossover or entry-level game for the younger crowd.

To set up the basic game, you first need to remove 2 victim tokens and a blank token from the victim pool, then put the rest in an opaque cup or mix them up and place them in a face-down pile. Then you simply need to look at the illustration in the rulebook and place the appropriate fire, "Point of Interest" (POI), and door tokens as shown.  It takes maybe four minutes from start to finish. In the basic game, the players have no special abilities, don't face hazardous materials, don't use the Ambulance or Fire Engine tokens, and don't use many of the other tokens, so they remain in the box. You can certainly play with the character cards if you wish, but I'd think that would make the game far too easy, especially with lower-player games.

Once the preset fire locations are all placed and the three POI tokens are placed, you place your pawns on any location outside that you wish. It's generally helpful to place them near doors, unless you plan to hack your way into the blazing inferno, which is viable. On each player's turn, they have four action points to spend any way they wish. Moving costs one action point, but moving through fire or moving while carrying something costs two.

Chopping a wall costs two as well, and when you do so, you place a little wooden cube on the wall that you've damaged. If two cubes exist on a wall section, that wall is blown out and is thereby treated as a passable opening. Finally, you can open a door for one action, extingish fires by spending two actions, or you can extinguish smoke using one action. The latter is generally a waste of time, but in some instances it can be a life saver.

What I haven't mentioned is that within the house are the POI markers, which may or may not be interesting as their namesake implies. Sometimes you flip it over and determine that the man you thought you heard screaming was simply an echo of the one that burned up last game, indicated by a fat blank spot on the obverse side. Others, though, have a faceless, incredibly bland icon of an androgynous humanoid of some sort. These are the biggies, because they're the ones you're trying to save.

They can't move on their own in the basic game, and must always be carried. In order to save them, you merely need to get them outside in the basic game, whereas you actually need to move them to an Ambulance in the advanced game. Once you're done taking all of your actions, you roll the dice and look to the references on the board. Normally, you'd put a smoke token on that spot. If there's already smoke there, though, you flip the existing token to the fire side. If there's fire in an orthogonally adjacent square, you place a new fire token on the spot.

Now, if you're just so unlucky, as I am, that you roll a spot that has fire there already, you cause an explosion, shockwave, and subsequent flashover. Explosions are resolved by simply following the four cardinal direction paths from the source to the nearest open space, door, or wall. If there's a wall there, you add a damage cube. If there's a door there, the door is blown off of its hinges and removed from the game. Finally, if there's an open space, you simply add a fire token to that position. If, in any case, there was a POI token, an uncovered victim token, or a firefighter there, death ensues. POIs and victims are removed immediately from the game, and Firefighters are "knocked down", thus putting them on the nearest Ambulance space, marked with a red cross.

After all of the explosive goodness and flying bodies are resolved, you then resolve flashovers, which is simply taking all smoke tokens with an adjacent fire token and flipping them to the fire side. This is always done from the ignition source, so you can make sure you've gotten them all. Again, if any POI or victim tokens were just set ablaze, they're removed from the game. Remember, if four people are killed or you run out of damage cubes, you lose. The last thing a player does is replenish the POI tokens on the board by randomly placing them using the dice. If they are placed where a fire token exists, simply remove the fire token because the token art is so bad that hotness is allergic to it, and the fire is miraculously extinguished. After all of those steps are resolved, it's the next player's turn.

The advanced game comes in a variety of "difficulty levels", from Rookie to Heroic, which alter the setup and gameplay considerably. First, everything is random, so you never know what to expect going in. Second, there are now haz-mat tokens in play, which are wee powderkegs that instantly cause explosions when even the slightest waft of smoke hits them.  These can be carried by players just as if they were little explosive, noxious victims, so that they don't pose an imminent threat. Also changed is the fact that you have hotspot tokens, which act like little firestarters when you place smoke on them, yet don't impede your progress or cause explosions like full-sized fire tokens do.

Now, on top of the setup being much nastier, which is bad for players, the players may choose a character to play, which is good. These characters kick ass in that they look great on the card and are well designed in terms of their individual effects on the game. The Fire Captain gets to move players a couple of spaces on his turn where the Generalist gets five actions per turn rather than four. The Paramedic gets to treat victims on-site using one action point, thereby making them walk on their own, provided a player is leading them. So, a player walking with a treated victim in tow only pays one action per turn to move instead of the normal two for a carried victim. There's eight in all, and all are unique and awesome. An added bonus is that in-game, you can swap out one character for another card that's not in play, so unlike Pandemic, if you find you wish you'd chosen differently, you can fix it at any time for two action points.

On top of the characters, you also get to use the Ambulance and Fire Engines in the advanced game. The Fire Engine is bad ass because it can be moved for two actions to the next valid space, and for four actions you can fire the deck gun into the building, which quenches fires in a large area all at once. The rules for squirting the water cannon are a little wonky, but they're not bad. The long and short is that you have to roll to hit a space, and if the space you rolled isn't in the quadrant you're located at with the truck, you literally flip the D6 die to its opposite side in order to find the target area. A downside of the advanced game is that instead of just tossing victims out the back door to safety as you did in the "family", basic game, you actually have to put them in the Ambulance. Luckily the Ambulance can be moved, just like the Fire Engine, but you don't have to be in the Ambulance to move it.

At the end of the day, the game is awesome. It's really tense, and although I've never been a firefighter, it really seems to be as chaotic, yet somewhat predictable, as a real building fire. Fire follows basic laws in the game, and the only real "X factor" is where a new fire will burst out of the floor since it's controlled by a random die roll. I highly recommend the game to anyone who likes Pandemic, but I also highly recommend it to anyone who likes a good co-operative game. It reminds me a lot of anothe favorite game, Red November, in that you are always pressed to get more done that is actually possible. This game is fun with two, and I give a mild recommendation for that number of players, but it really seems to shine with a minimum of three.

Why This Game Is Muy Caliente:
- Great theme that's well executed, and isn't done to death like so many other games
- Incredibly tense gameplay that will keep you excited the whole way through
- Several levels of play to custom tailor the game to your liking
- If all of the art was as nice as the cover, it would have earned another point
- 45 minutes with 2-3 players is the sweet spot for a co-operative game
- Not an orc, alien, mutant, zombie, or spaceman to be found! ORIGINALITY F-T-W!!!

Why Kurt Russell Set Fire To This Game:
- As I showed, Windows 3.11 icons are actually more detailed than the tokens
- The explosion rules were a little hard to grasp at first
- There's room for AP dickweeds to go all Rain Man on you, just as Alpha Male guy might push people around with "suggestions"

Yes, it's definitely built on the back of Pandemic, but it does Pandemic even better than Pandemic did. I'd even rather play this than Defenders of the Realm, the other Pandemic-engine game. Quite simply put, thus far this is one of the best co-ops I've played in a long time. Were it not for the truly bland and underbaked artwork on the tokens, which are a huge aspect of the game, I'd be a lot happier. As it sits, we docked almost a full point for the incongruous artwork in the game, but if you're not a bits whore like we are, well, you may be able to look past it. Indie Board and Cards really nailed it with this one, as they have done in the past. My only suggestion is that they hire a staff artist or line up some able freelance illustrators.

4.375/5 Stars

Learn more about this game at it's site:

Now, one last thing I want to mention about this game. I didn't pay for this, but it wasn't sent to me by the publisher, either. A guy on Fortress: Ameritrash, Nate, contacted me and told me that he had a friend recently pass away, and that to honor his friend, he wanted to send me some games to review. I'm humbled by the opportunity, and I dedicate this review, as well as the upcomoing reviews titled
"Earth Reborn - Why I'm Starting To Rethink This Whole Anti-Torture Position" and
"Olympos - No, Leonidas, We Can't All Just Get Along" to Nate and his recently departed friend.

David thanks you, too...

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