October 21, 2011

Board Game Review: Red November

Red November (Fantasy Flight/Bruno Faidutti & Jef Gontier, 2008)
1-8 players / 12 + / 60 minutes

"Captain," exclaimed the frantic helmsgnome.  "We are dangerously approaching the depth limits of our hull rating.  Any further descent I fear will crush us!"

"Send Baturin to the Engine Room for repairs immediately!"

"Sorry, sir, he's trapped in the crew's quarters - all hatches blocked!"

"Well, man, then send Gusyeva!"

"Sir, he's going to rescue Baturin."

"For the love of Mother Gnomia!  Then Shvakova?"

"Putting out a fire in the Reactor Room, sir."


"Uh," the helmsgnome hesitated, "he's passed out."

"Fine, then you, Mayorsky, shall repair the engines."

"Sir!  You've already ordered me to the Oxygen Pumps"  Then pulling a mangled book from his tunic, "I even have my manual, see!"

Standing at a dignified attention, "Very well, Mayorksy, I shall see to it personally!"

The captain marched to the hatchway but was interrupted with startled alarm.  "Sir!  It's the Kraken!"...

What You Get:

Compact components that pack quite a wallop!  While this second printing comes with a larger board and in a larger box than the original Silver Line run, it's all still undersized, though functional.  The gnome figurines are pliable and cute.  The cards are downright tiny, with print smaller than I'd personally like, but they work and are of good quality.  You get a pile of nice sturdy cardboard tokens, plus three wooden cubes, to mark various problem areas on the sub, like fires, floods, and blocked hatches.  Additionally, you get small, plastic "mini-thimbles" (which can stack neatly) that are used to mark your progression on the time track running around the edge of the board.  Overall, the humorous artwork is almost perfectly thematic.  While certainly gnomes are fantasy, the game's title still evokes a Russian image which is aptly conveyed through the artwork.  I guess if you're like me, you'd struggle to adequately express what you imagine Communist gnomes on a Cold War era submarine would look like.  But after seeing this game, you'll probably say, "That's it!"
Board, cards, tokens, and pieces.
 The Quick Rundown:

The object of Red November is for all gnomes to work together and survive for 60 minutes on the game's time track.  The problem is that the submarine seems to have been developed by the same people responsible for such other brilliant ideas like New Coke, trickle-down economics, Windows Vista, The Backstreet Boys, and whoever drafted Todd Blackledge over Dan Marino (oh, yeah, that was the Chiefs...grrrrr!).  Or in other words, it is the worst piece of engineering since the automatic seatbelt.  Just about every minute some malfunction, or other near catastrophe, threatens to doom the fated vessel and its submariners.  In no particular order, you can explode, overheat, be crushed, asphyxiate, drown, burn, or be eaten by a Kraken.  Everything you do takes time.  As time passes, events happen that are usually bad.  Fixing those takes more time which means, well, you get the idea.  To accomplish damage control, you must move your gnome to the affected section (one minute per room) and then decide how many minutes, from 1-10, you'd like to gamble on trying to fix or repair the problem.  You then toss a d10 hoping to roll that number or less - otherwise you failed to fix it.  You are allowed to acquire and carry a number of items that may give you bonuses to those times and most of them are specific to certain problems.  (For example, the Deactivation Code gives you a +4 when trying to shut down a missile malfunction.  If your gnome is in the missile room and you gamble 4 minutes on trying to fix it, you'd have to roll an 8 or less.)  As each gnome advances his marker around the time track, he will have to draw new event cards at various points along the way.  So while you take the time to successfully fix one problem, two or three more could potentially spring!  But if the boat survives to the end, everyone wins - except, of course, any cowardly comrades who might have slipped out the back hatch with an aqualung, abandoning their mates to their supposed doom.

E for Everyone:

Well, you know what they say: "The family that plays together, gets eaten by a giant, nasty Kraken together!"  First off, Red November has the whole cooperative thing going for it on the family friendliness factor.  As the adult, the main point I need to remember is not to "take over" the game by telling, or even always suggesting, which moves and actions my kids should take on their turns.  They have done very well in analyzing needs and implementing solutions on their own.  Now that may sound like fancy corporate-speak (and especially silly considering the crazy theme), but this game is actually a good problem-solving exercise.  You have to decide which player is best able to respond to which danger based on his/her location, inventory, and position on the time track - all relative to the other players.  It's very puzzle-like.  While certainly basic, it is nonetheless a helpful skill to have in the real world.  And I don't think that is too pretentious a statement to make.  There is no whining and grumbling and finger-pointing in this one.  Just a lot of laughs while planning how best to save the stricken craft together - and maintaining your sanity in the process!

Bad stuff can happen!
Also, it has one of the most unique themes I've ever read about in hobby gaming.  Interestingly, from my understanding, Faidutti and Gontier were sensitive to the connection between their game and the real life Kursk disaster and so were careful to retain the submarine theme while not making light of that tragedy.  That makes for a fascinating point of discussion on the topic of theme and content in hobby gaming.  But one that would not be adequately dealt with in a review.  Nonetheless, theming the game with fantastical gnomes was part of that effort.  Adding the Kraken further solidifies this voyage as "over-the-top."  In any event, this title provides a refreshing game play that is unique from a lot of standard options.

That game play also creates a great deal of tension.  It is the definition of chaos - and quite random, to boot!  Playing is the equivalent to sitting on the edge of your seat when watching a scary movie.  In tyring to risk the least amount of time to repair damage, you'll all be transfixed on the die rolls to see if you succeed at each effort.  And every time you're required to draw an event card, you almost dread seeing what will go wrong next!  Will it be a fresh problem relatively easy to address?  Or one that compounds an existing issue?  And in those rare moments when nothing bad happens, you feel a collective sigh of relief!  This tension keeps everyone involved in the game to the very end, even if your personal gnome perishes (yes, player elimination is possible).  Downtine is irrelevant.  Time passes quickly - both game-wise and play-wise!

The intoxication level to the right.
There are a couple of issues that throw a small wrinkle in the 'E' rating - one thematic, one mechanic.  The thematic wrinkle is a small one and probably not a huge deal to most people, but I'll mention it: grog.  Sure, that is certainly appropriate to the nautical motif, but this review is about game play and kids, after all.  Grog in the game gives you two benefits.  One it gives you "courage" to enter a compartment on fire - otherwise you need a fire extinguisher.  I guess one can make a logical kind of argument there.  In addition, it gives you a +3 bonus in fixing any problem, which is a little more difficult to explain regarding a substance that impairs judgement and motor functions!  However the deleterious side effect is that each time you drink a grog, your inebriation level rises which increases the chances that you might pass out.  Not only do you lose precious time while lying in your own drool doing nothing of benefit, but if you're unconscious in a room that catches fire or completely floods, you die.  So in a twisted sort of way, there's an object lesson there for your kids about the dangers of alcohol!
Beware the Kraken!

The mechanic wrinkle is time track management.  In short - it is confusing and fiddly.  Your place on the track is marked with a corresponding colored marker.  For every movement and action that takes time, you move a white "ghost" marker ahead the necessary number of minutes in front of you.  Once your entire turn is complete, you move your marker forward one space at a time, drawing and resolving event cards at intermittent points along the track as indicated, until reaching the ghost marker.  Then the next turn falls to the player furthest back in time, which could possibly be you again.  Then there is the added element of "timed destruction events."  If one of these cards are drawn, you place a token 10 minutes ahead of the point on the track at which it was drawn.  If all gnomes pass this point before fixing the problem, the event destroys the ship and the game is immediately over.  This entire element is confusing for kids and difficult to learn.  Not that it could have been designed any differently - so it takes some getting used to.  And not just for kids, either.  I'm still not confident we are playing it 100% correct with all the various details to consider when managing the time track.  The rulebook is not overly helpful, either, because it is poorly organized.
Tools of the trade.
Okay, I'll Shut Up Now:

In the end, I give Red November an 8 on the Board Game Geek scale (Very good game.  I like to play.  Probably I'll suggest it and will never turn down a game.).  The cooperative element and the over-the-top theme combine to create a funny and engaging experience that is on a different level than standard, competitive strategy games.  The chaos and luck create a good tension that even kids under the recommended age rating should be able to navigate and enjoy trying to manage.

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