Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Earth Reborn - The Miniatures Mission Simulator Sandbox, Complete With Kitty Cigars

Well, this is the last of the Nate reviews; if you recall, Nate, a F:AT user sent me some games to review as a tribute to a dear friend of his that he lost. I thought it fitting to save the best, or at least the most in-depth, for last, notwithstanding the fact that he was most interested in hearing how I felt about this game, particularly as a two player game. Sorry it took so long, Nate; to get through the tutorials and then play three games using the scenario generator is a tremendous amount of time investment. Earth Reborn, quite simply, is the single most realistic tabletop skirmish game that I have ever set my paws on. It has more chrome than a full-dresser Road King being ridden by the Silver Surfer. In fact, I'm not entirely sure that there's NOT a rule for virtually anything you could conceive of. Don't take that as a criticism, though, because this game is perfect for those who want to play with cool little toys in a mission-based miniatures skirmish, but also want the depth of options normally found in a RPG or PC simulation game.

What shocked me the most is that this is not only from Z-Man, a company not inclined to do "15 pound coffin box" games, but that it was designed by a man who I consider to be one of the greatest designers of our time, Chris Boelinger. What didn't shock me was that it is truly remarkable as a design, and the ambition and sheer scope of the game has set the bar quite high for all other games of its ilk to come. This is, I suppose, the next step in the evolution of games like Space Hulk and Descent, and this is mere inches from being so complex that it really should be an iOS app or full-on PC game. In fact, about 3/4 the way through the scenarios I was thinking to myself that this game is the analog version of the Jagged Alliance series.

The core story behind the game is there is a big nuke-ya-ler war and everyone dies, aside from the people who hid in big, underground cities for 500 years or so. Think "Fallout" without the radscorpions, raiders, and Pip Boy. As an aside, just for the record, the half-life of Cs-137, the longest-lived radioactive element in nuclear fallout, is ~30 years, so they essentially hung out underground more than 10 times longer than they needed to. Anyhow, out of the ashes, when the planet has once again become inhabitable on the surface, the people emerge to rebuild their planet, but things aren't as peachy as one might hope. There's two factions, the NORAD folks, who were the scientists and soldiers, and the Salemites, who are essentially folks who went mostly completely mental and read way too much Lovecraft, came up with absurdly bad names such as Franck Einstein and Jack Saw, and started reanimating their dead for what I can only assume are necrophiliac purposes. 

Now, the back story is actually pretty slick and interesting, centering on alternative energy sources, with the best bit being about that Greenpeace is the one who really starts the whole royal rumble that ends up with the near extinction of all life on earth. Really, though, the long and short is that the two sides are hell bent on duking it out because their world views are so askew from one another that they can't possibly live in harmony. Without being too coy, all I can say is that "war never changes." The scenario guide has this eleven page u-chronic timeline that lays everything out and describes the characters and factions in great detail. I have to admit, they went to great lengths to come up with an interesting, albeit implausible, story with which to get players into the mood and make you care about what caused the strife surrounding the game play.

But enough about the back story and that bollocks, let's get to the "product".  First, while there is SO MUCH SHIT IN THIS BOX that it took me damned near two hours to punch, bag, and otherwise organize it, there's not a tremendous amount of battle space. Part of this time was trying to get everything to fit in the box, which was met with utter defeat, and I summarily tossed the insert into the skip because it's much easier to get everything back in the box without it. Each tile is double sided, though, so while you're not going to be making anything even close to the scale of a Space Hulk setup, you can certainly outpace Incursion as far as the size of the place where the characters can tool around. A large amount of the volume of the tiles are one-space and two-space tiles and counters, wee bits, and, of course, the command tiles that make up the control mechanism in the game.

We're talking about a top-notch production here, although I have to admit that I found most of the art outside of the cover art fairly lackluster. I'd put it just above mediocre, but not bad by any means. It gives Descent a run for its money as far as "bits", and there's more than enough stuff in the box to play for a very, very long time. All that said, the miniatures are the centerpieces, though, because they are beautiful. There's only twelve of them, but all are great, and just like Dungeon Twister, come in two colors so you know which side the character is on. All that said, this wonderful little sandbox is not without some serious kitty cigars buried within.

The most irritating flaw in the entire affair is that the spent eleven pages of story to immerse you in the theme and feel of the game, and unfortunately, it fails to get you over the hump because of a truly bizarre graphic design choice: the icons and text. On almost every single room tile, card, and other bit of this game, there are a ridiculous amount of these over sized, gaudy icons. There was a debate on Fortress: Ameritrash about the icons back when this game was released and the reviews started stating this was the game of the millennium; one camp said that they are intuitive and easy to use, another camp said that they were ugly as a witch's grizzly pubic region. I stand by my assessment of the latter, and now that I've finally played this enough to have an informed opinion about the product as a whole, I'm telling you that the icons damned near ruined the whole experience.

The terrain tiles are simply so busy with iconography and text that it takes you out of the immersion that otherwise exists and painfully reminds you that you're a portly, balding guy sitting across from someone else playing a game. It's as if the graphic design team assumed that every person who played would be nearly blind, and so they put huge, bright orange icons and big, black, bold text all over everything, just to be sure you wouldn't miss anything. It's quite a disappointment, really. How about instead of labelling something "Kitchen", you hire a good artist and make it look like a kitchen? And if you're going to spend 10 full scenarios, at an hour or more per, to teach me a game, how about you ditch the icons all over the place, and print a small booklet that has each room's special abilities, or at the minimum, just make the icons about half the size of a pencil eraser?

What makes Space Hulk so incredibly immersive is that you have Dudes, Alien Dudes, Corridors, and nothing more. There's no icons or room identifiers all over the place on the tiles, making what is beautiful and concise into something busy and fugly. It does its level best to allow you to FEEL like a Space Marine in the service of the God-Emperor or an insidious alien swarm bent on assimilating all life in the universe. In Earth Reborn, this policy of slapping icons everywhere simply halts the suspension of disbelief like a supersonic F/A-18 into the side of the Carl Vinson. I understand why the icons are there, or at least why they felt they needed to be there, but I think the game would've been far better served with a couple of pages in the back of the book explaining what each special room's options are rather than printing the distracting icons all over the otherwise very thematic and awesome tiles. Or maybe some very small icons rather than huge, bright, gaudy ones. What they did is the equivalent of having "THIS IS JUST A BOOK: THERE ARE NO SUCH THINGS AS GREAT OLD ONES" written on the margins of every page in every HP Lovecraft book.

And this design concept doesn't stop at the tiles, it continues onto everything, with the character cards being the most apparent. I mean, these are, hands down, the most complex, ugly, too-much-shit-on-a-shingle set of hieroglyphics-laden cards I've ever seen. Even the item cards are loaded. After several plays, you get to know what they all mean, but honestly, the graphic designer who worked on these did no favors to players due to the density of the icons on the cards. The information most assuredly had to be there, but I believe that there was a better way to do it, as evidenced by some player-made cards that are infinitely superior. The graphic design is simply ugly as a muddy fence on a rainy day, and it could have, again, easily been avoided by shrinking the icons or simply thinking a little harder about the look of the game as it applies to suspension of disbelief. A saving grace is that there are player shields which act as a sort of Rosetta Stone, with all of the icons laid out in understandable terms for all to see.

Now, all of the graphical complaints said, none of them in any way take away from the fact that the game is brilliant in almost every sense. The brilliance starts with the teaching method, which amounts to a scenario guide that walks you through the game, beginning with simply moving around, all the way through advanced combat tactics, and shamefully, ending in a scenario where one side has to torture secrets out of another side's character. Why the hell they decided it would be a good idea for board gamers to be able to faithfully re-enact torture is beyond me. It may raise the bar on things you can do in a game, but in this respect, it lowers the bar in what SHOULD be available in a game. Worse, it's not even optional. It's a required part of the learning process to run through the torture tutorial. Replace the word "torture" with "interrogate", and all of the sudden the game loses that repugnant feature that does nothing to elevate the game. And Jesus wept.

Once you're past the not great art, the bad graphical design, and the torture, the game itself is ridiculously good, from a design standpoint. The game is played using randomly drawn command tiles, each with their own point values for different action types such as moving, shooting, and searching, and command points, which are effectively the meat of the game, and are used to allow the activation of characters and subsequent allocation of the command tiles. The neat thing about the command tiles is that the numbers on the tiles are, essentially, how many dice you roll to try to pass a skill check, for lack of a better term. You can spend extra command points in order to get an extra die, but doing so limits the available actions you can take on your turn. This resource management mechanic is quite different than the usual "action point" systems that other games use; it's almost a mashup of the "push" mechanic from Heroclix and the action system of Dungeon Twister, but with huge random elements dropped in and an innovative interrupt system built in. It's truly one of the most clever action systems I've ever seen, and I hope to see it implemented by other games in the future, because it works really well.

The thing that really makes this so neat is that it's complex at the macro level, but simple at the micro level. There's only really five actions you can take in a turn; move, fight, shoot, interact with something, or search. But, due to the layout of the boards and the scenarios, there are several quadrizillion things to interact with and search for. Everything is resolved easily through dice throws, and what I really love is how you can press your luck and just roll using the command tiles you have, add to a value using command points, or burn a command point to swap out a command tile. That's really the driving force that provides the tension in the game; you really never seem to have enough resources to do what you want to do at any given time, and so you are constantly having to re-evaluate your position and compromise with yourself. I think this is the one thing that shines brightest in the game, and what makes it worth owning; this simple, straightforward mechanic, layered with the terrain, tokens, and destructible terrain make this an incredibly smart, tight design that provides you with a ton of tension and hand-wringing.

To add to the tactical depth and sheer tonnage of awesome in the box, each character has its own bad ass little miniature with its firing arcs printed on the base and specialties listed on the card. Some characters excel at hand to hand combat where others are crack shots, where another is an expert with computers and devices. In the game context, this means that they get to roll more dice than other characters, meaning there's a higher probability of success. Surprisingly, it's a lot harder to shoot and kill people than you might think, but, as you start hitting combatants, their cards are flipped to their "wounded" side, which generally makes them less able to do things effectively. To quote Career Sergeant Zim, "The enemy can not push a button... if you disable his hand." Some have complained that there's just too few characters in the game for the long term, but I'm not sure I agree. On Board Game Geek, in the files section, there are some HeroClix customs that people have made to extend the menu of characters, but honestly, I'm not sure that having too many more characters would be all that valuable, since this is a game played with two to four figures per side, maximum, in a two player game. In a four player game, we usually play with only one.

There are a large variety of items in the game, from smoke grenades to infra vision goggles to machine guns, and this game is packed to the gills with unique and inventive ways to accomplish tasks. In fact, I think there are more item cards than anything else. Each item allows different abilities or augmentations, and while most amount to allowing you to roll more dice to perform a task, some do other things like allowing you to obscure line of sight. The level of detail is, as I keep saying, astounding, and if one were to take the time to come up with a bad ass campaign, I'm sure that you could utilize everything and really make the game shine. The website,, even has a bad ass map builder flash app that allows you to come up with maps and whatnot. Unfortunately, there's not a campaign available anywhere because nobody has posted one. Not there, not on Board Game Geek. So, as it turns out, as much hype and love from the adoring press as this game got, nobody seems to give enough of a shit about it, including Ludically, to bother to put together a follow up campaign after more than a year in print. For as much effort as they expended to come up with a neat story, they completely neglected to cash in on it by putting together a campaign that exudes a narrative that is in line with the back story.

Thus, unfortunately, once the pre-made learning scenarios are done, you're left with a "random dungeon generator" mechanism, which the scenario guide goes into great detail to explain, and does a good job in creating a scenario to sit and play, but does nothing to carry a narrative. This is a game that demands a well designed, thematic campaign and while the tutorial scenarios do provide one, the SAGS (Scenario Auto-Generating System) only provides you a way to create fairly rich one-off scenarios. In actuality, the auto-generating namesake is a misnomer, because there's little automatic about it, since each player takes turns placing a tile back and forth, more or less, until a frame is completed, using a counter track to use points, and then continue to add layers, starting with characters through equipment, and finally ending with each player taking four secret mission objectives. It's actually a very smart way to create asymmetrical, but balanced scenarios because both sides participate in its creation. Further, it's a hell of a lot easier to take turns placing tiles than trying to assemble one from a diagram, because it takes forever to do.

In the end, Earth Reborn has a lot of really cool stuff going on, and it allows players a great deal of freedom in designing scenarios due to the tremendous flexibility built into the game. It also has a vast wealth of replayability due to the aforementioned SAGS and the flexibility within, but it suffers greatly in a number of ways for the same reasons. While the sum of its parts is more complex than any individual aspect, the simple fact that the game is nearly unlearnable without running through the learning scenarios means that you will have to have dedicated players. This is not a game that you're going to crack out with people that haven't played it before and expect to just jump right into SAGS, because there is a fairly steep learning curve. I think once you've mastered it, you can probably effectively teach it, but the fact is that to a newbie, the sheer magnitude of shit to learn in one sitting is daunting at best. If I had to level one charge as the cardinal sin of the game, it's that Chris put too much stuff in the game, in too scatter shot a manner, and so it requires a certain level of dedication to play it. The same can be said of Arkham Horror, but the payoff is much richer there because that game tells a great story where Earth Reborn is set in a great story but doesn't actually tell one.

Now, one thing I have to mention about the physical design is the way they have a puzzle-board frame design that all of the terrain tiles fit into. It's brilliant. With most tile games, they interlock and the edges inexorably start to fray and get ugly. But this design is such that it truly fits together seamlessly into what might, to an outside observer, look like a standard bi-fold game board, at least from a slight distance. If there's one thing other than the command point system that should be passed on to future generations of games, it is this. Granted, as I said, trying to assemble a map from the book takes a long ass time, even if you're an irrationally anal game organizer like myself.

If you have a group, or really, just one other battle buddy who you like to play very heavy thematic games with, this game is an excellent mission simulator. There may not even be another mission-based miniatures game that is as deep and rich as this. In comparing this to Tannhauser, which I think is the closest living relative, so to speak, Tannhauser is checkers where this is not only chess, but that Star Trek three dimensional chess. There is simply an abundance of awesome ideas in the box. Even despite the art being just better than mediocre and the iconography being overwhelming and gaudy, this is truly an epic game both in scope and vision. It is simply not for the lighthearted or someone who is not willing to devote some serious time into learning the game in its entirety.

To rate this properly and in accordance with the policy of the site, We had everyone sit in on sessions so they could learn the game, and we rotated out people during the process so everyone could have a go, over the span of weeks. Then we did some three and four player action, which is neat too since instead of it being a two versus two affair, it is an all-for-themselves game.  In the end, there's a minimum of ten to fifteen hours of game play in the box. There's not that many games that you can get on Tanga for 30$ that are going to provide you that kind of value, so really, it all comes down to whether you dig the depth of this game or not. As far as a "Dudes In A Corridor" type game, it's easily among the top ranks, but honestly, after playing the scenarios through, using SAGS several times, and looking back, it lives up to some of its hype, but not even close to all the hype it originally got. It is most certainly not the best Ameritrash game ever, not the best "Dudes In A Corridor" game ever, and it is sure as fuck not the cardboard equivalent of the second coming of Christ.

It is indeed a smart, big game with great ideas. But there's a lot of effort involved to get to the point where those ideas are realized, and the amount of time involved to get the map set up is actually worse than that in a Heroscape map since the tiles are not generic. Add to that the problematic graphic design choices that clutter everything in the game with symbols, and it just isn't going to go down as the Space Hulk killer like people have said. In that regard, it's a bit like an overly long joke with a great punchline; sure, the laugh you get at the end is worth it to the people that can appreciate it, and it will certainly be memorable to them, but many others will simply lose interest and wander off. But boy, if you hang around, I'm not kidding, the punchline is one that you're going to appreciate. I'm very grateful for the opportunity to play the hell out of it, and while not all the Circus folks were insanely ga-ga over it, we all thought it was very unique and as close to a rich mission simulator as we've ever seen.

What Brings Earth Reborn To Life:
- The SAGS system is the best scenario generator ever, allowing infinite replay value.
- The miniatures, while few, are superbly sculpted and designed, and the in-game art is better than mediocre
- The learn-as-you-play technique, lifted in part from Space Alert, is genius
- The overall production value is simply outstanding and sits in the top of the class
- You can actually act out "Lay Smoke, You Dick, And Use Overwatch"

Why It Could Have Been Called Earth Stillborn:
- The complexity can be overwhelming and the learning curve is steep
- Ludicrously poor graphic design eliminates all hope of suspending disbelief
- Requires dedicated players; not a "toss it on the table" affair in any regard
- The great back story is abandoned after the tutorials as SAGS doesn't adhere to it
- No figure expansions, no item expansions, no campaign, and little support

This is a simple call for a prospective buyer, in my mind. If you like Tannhauser but want something deeper, with even more tactical options and a more complex system, AND you have a lot of time on your hands, this is a no-brainer. Just surrender your wallet at the door. But if you want a light "Dudes In A Corridor", mission-based game, this may be too much meat for what you're looking for. At the end of the day, what you get in the box amounts to a very fun tutorial with an excellent random dungeon generator, complete with everything you could possibly want as far as game play options, perhaps just shy of an RPG-grade tactical mission simulator.

4/5 Stars

You can learn more about this game at Z-Man Games page on it:

And you can check out the map builder here:  but only if you use Chrome, Firefox or Safari, because this doesn't run on Internet Explorer.


Andrew said...

Wow. Excellent review. My box has been cracked open, but I have yet to punch or paint the bits. I'm looking forward to doing so one day, but for now - Mage Knight is my complex-game-time-suck. Incidentally, what is your favorite "dudes in a corridor" game?

Also; I made it to Origins and chose to spend most of my time at the bars. Because I play better with beer. I bought; Wiz-War, Rush n' Crush, and the Resistance.

=+=SuperflyTNT=+= said...

Sounds like you made the right call. I didn't make it as personal crap came up at the last minute, as usual. This time worse than usual, though.

Good call on RnC and The Resistance, both fun. I have yet to play Wiz-War, so let me know how you dug it.

Best DIAC game...simple: Space Hulk. I mean, the box says "Man Versus Alien In Desperate Battle". How can you trump that???

Honestly, it's my single favorite genre, and it's pretty crowded. I'd say Siege of the Citadel is one of the best because of the equipment and campaign system although I think it can be unbalanced. I played Claustrophobia once, and it seemed pretty awesome and I love the idea of humans invading hell for "Lebensraum". But there's so many. Waht does it for me with Space Hulk is the incredibly powerful aliens, the overwhelming odds against success for the humans, and the sand timer. What tension!

Andrew said...

Thanks for the judgement. Your highly regarded opinion (along with Matt's and Michael's) made me shell out the money, and time, and paint for Space Hulk. It is one of the prettiest things I own. Unfortunately, it just doesn't make it to the table as often as I'd like. This fact makes me doubly worried about Earth Reborn. Claustrophobia appears to have a much shorter play time, so I may have to investigate. The Mrs. has a 60 minute game threshold, so I have to weigh that factor (I see her more often than my gaming buddies). So far, Wiz-War is goofy and lucky and cruel and fun.