Sunday, September 3, 2017

Dave Reviews: A Game About Evil Pharmaceutical Companies And Zombie Apocalypses That Isn't Resident Evil


If you're going to bring specialist characters into a game about saving the world from a spreading plague, you'd better bring some special gameplay, because this space is motherfucking taken.

Raxxon does... that... ish?

Apparently this game was available by invite only. That's a little weird for board games, but between the Dead of Winter connection and a community with enough people who blow their loads over feeling special for five seconds to make sure they got those invites out as fast as possible (don't give me shit, I didn't say I was any different), it built a reasonable amount of hype. Enough to create questions as to whether the game could live up.

And damned if they didn't kind of do that. Each character has a slightly different suite of abilities; for example, every character can evacuate citizens, but where one can clean out a full row from the crowd of citizen cards, another can pick one and evacuate all the adjacent face-up cards. In addition, each ability creates consequences that must be dealt with on future turns, and characters can have different consequences attached to their versions of the abilities.

As if that weren't enough, the consequences all have the potential to be bad, but they're not all definitely bad. The best example is turning over face-down cards. Early on in a turn, you want to be able to do this so you can evacuate people (or see who you're air striking... yes, you can bomb parts of the crowd), but negative effects happen if you turn over too many of a single type of infected citizen. The lesser effects for flipping one or two are manageable, but three or four might bring night, which ends the turn. Since you add a new infected card to the deck for each infected citizen in the crowd--whether they're face up or face down--and the pile of new infected cards also acts as a timer for the game ending, having a turn end before you're ready can effectively (or quite literally) lose the game.

Another consequence is flipping Raxxon cards. Since they're the pharmaceutical villains, and you lose if their outbreak track (sorry, power track) reaches eight, it's easy to want to avoid their cards as much as possible. It turns out many of their cards don't raise their power, and others only trigger if you've played another certain card, so that consequence isn't so bad! Until you have a bunch of triggered cards, at which point everything can spiral out of control real, real fast.

The goal of the game is to evacuate all the healthy citizens. You can't leave anyone behind. That may sound just a bit unusual at first--games frequently ask you to save most people or most areas, not literally everyone--but it doesn't seem that bad. By the end, though, whatever shortcomings you may have had in your strategy become apparent, and there's no padding in your goal to save you. You're down to the last few people, but they're lost in a huge crowd of infected, you need to fish them out of the deck, then flip and find them before you flip too many infected while also gauging the value of an airstrike on some face down cards. It's a good way to avoid a turn ending when you'll lose the game, but if you kill a healthy citizen you get a negative consequence and that person goes to the discard pile, which means you either have to start a whole new turn or run through the entire deck and reshuffle on that turn to find them again.

Approaching the game imperfectly makes for a compelling first playthrough. Of course, if you play again you'll want to be as perfect as possible. As you get better, you'll play it smarter; the game can get ramped up in difficulty by having more of the extra infected cards start in the deck as opposed to a separate pile. The basic approach won't change, you just have to be cleaner about it.

And that's why it's not clear whether or not Raxxon has any real longevity. By needing to save all of the citizens, you eventually reach a point of serious card counting (the rules allow this), which brings the game down to odds. Improving your odds means removing infected cards from play for as long as possible, which requires you put them in quarantine. Once you know this, balancing quarantine actions with everything else you want to becomes the game, and eventually everything comes down to whether or not you can avoid getting unlucky with card flips and ending a turn before you're prepared for the next day.

That's an oversimplification, because there is no automatic set of moves that will most likely lead you to victory. The optimal moves are dependent on several different factors, which is what you want. But where it initially looks like a game with several potentially bad things you need to juggle while you search for a path to victory, it winds up being whatever variation on 'get everything you can into quarantine' works. And since the infection deck only adds cards to the playing deck if you have infected on the board, in theory you could play unlimited turns if you never have anything bad on the board once you've all passed, which would let you can handle this zombie outbreak in as controlled a manner as you want.

Raxxon's not a bad game, it's not a great game. I don't know if it's definitely good. It's a reasonable thing to spend some time doing. Does that help? If it does, tell me. I don't even know how much I want to play again.

Score: Nineteen successfully rescued healthy people out of thirty.

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