Sunday, December 28, 2008

neuroshima hex

So even though I didn't get this for Christmas, I was pleased to do some serious boardgaming with my older brother. He's the quintessential grognard, a wargamer through and through. Over the years, we've had some memorable battles of Memoir '44, and I even beat him once at Napoleon (though I bet he'd deny it). This Christmas, I introduced him to my newest obsession: Neuroshima Hex.

Based on a popular Polish tabletop role-playing game, Neuroshima Hex might very well be the most innovative game I've played this year. It's an intense tactical puzzle, plays very fast, and is just loads of fun. It can handle 2-4 players (with a 2v2 team combat option), and the rules are readily learned in 10 minutes. It's replayability factor is very high, for reasons I'll enumerate later.

I like to think of Neuroshima Hex as chess with guns. But that doesn't quite capture it. You first choose an army to play with; there are 4 factions, each with different strengths and weaknesses. For example, the Borgo (blue army) have strong melee units who can attack adjacent enemy units but they lack ranged fighters that can attack from a distance. The board starts empty and represents a post-apocalytpic battlefield. Each player places their army headquarters somewhere on the board (a single tile). Your goal in the game is to damage your opponent's HQ more than they damage yours. Each HQ starts with 20 "hit points" and if you ever reduce your opponent's HQ to 0, you automatically win the game.

Players take turns sequentially. When it's your turn, you first draw 3 tiles (shaped like hexes) from your army of ~30 pieces. The tiles are flipped over so that all players can see them. You must discard one of the three tiles and of the remaining two, you can play both onto the board (the most common option), keep both until the next turn, or play one and keep one. A unique element to Neuroshima Hex is that once tiles are played to the board, they typically won't move. Strategic placement is a key to victory and you have to think offensively and defensively. Furthermore, tiles can be placed onto the board in any orientation - and this orientation matters, since units attack in specific directions. Here are some examples of tiles/units:

The circled number is probably the most important attribute in Neuroshima Hex - it represents "initiative." When a battle begins, units with the highest initiative will attack first. Therefore, if a unit with an initiative of 3 is face-to-face with a unit with an initiative of 2, the 3 will eliminate the 2 before the latter even gets a chance to attack. The other symbols on the tiles represent the type and direction of attacks that that unit can engage in. A short, fat triangle represents a melee attack, while a long, thin triangle is a ranged attack. The yellow unit above has 1 melee/1 range attack, both in the same direction. The red unit in the bottom-right has a strength 2 melee in one direction, and a 1 range in another. This unit also has a "+" symbol which represents armor, and white borders on three sides which represent shields. In other words, this guy is a monster.

Your army will consist of several "grunts," a few monsters, some officers (that give bonuses to adjacent units, like +1 to initiative), and some "action" tiles. Action tiles can let you move units (and rotate them), push adjacent enemy units back, and start battles. Battles also start if the board ever fills up completely with units (this does happen quite regularly).

Battles are fast, deadly, and deterministic - there are no dice in Neuroshima Hex. Players simply start with the units with the highest initiative (usually 3 or 4), conduct their attacks, remove destroyed units, and then progress to the next initiative round (3 -> 2 -> 1 -> 0). Tactical play in Neuroshima Hex often boils down to ensuring that more of your units survive and successfully damage your opponent's HQ in each battle. Here's a board with some units on it, so let's imagine that a battle takes place at this point:

Note the blue and yellow HQ's labeled in the bottom half of the board. If a battle started now, the blue HQ would take some serious damage: 7 damage total from 3 different units (2 of them receiving a +1 bonus to melee damage from their HQ). But let's focus on the yellow HQ. A blue unit (labeled 'A') is threatening and could do 2 points of damage (thanks to the adjacent blue officer providing a melee bonus). However, the yellow unit labeled 'B' would actually kill 'A' before it conducts its attack due to the higher initiative of 'A' (3) and its ranged attack.

This is a relatively simple example, as many battles in Neuroshima Hex are determined by a complex cascade of mini-battles taking place all over the board. When you place a unit during your turn, you really need to think about all these cascading possibilities - which is what reminds me of chess ("if I move this piece here, he'll probably move that piece there, and then I can move this other piece here, etc., etc."). Sometimes your head will swim with the possibilities, but in the end you'll only have to worry about the 3 tiles in front of you and decide which to discard and which 2 to use.

If none of this makes sense to you but you're still curious, try checking out this somewhat bizarro video-trailer:

And if you're really excited to give it a try, here's the good news: you can play right now, for free. There's a wonderful online version that allows people from around to the world to play each other (mostly it's Poles and Americans). You'll find the java-download here. I suggest that you read the instructions as well, which can be downloaded from the Zman website. And for god's sake, if you dig it, support the mad creator and the minimal Polish boardgame market by buying the damn thing.

An online game in progress. Knowledge of Polish not required.

Neuroshima Hex does so many things right. Being able to choose 4 different armies, each focused around a different style of play, really adds significant longevity/replayability to the game. Several expansion armies have already been published, along with terrain tiles and scenarios. Games play quickly and battles are bloody. You get instant feedback on what moves are working for you and what horrible mistakes you've made. The art style is fun and the components are quality.

My only two minor criticisms of the game are: 1) The armies do not seem perfectly balanced. In particular, I get the sense that the Outpost (green) are hardest to play due to a serious lack of units. However, this is very easy to fix by giving that army an extra mercenary unit. 2) You can periodically get screwed by the tile-draw, especially in the early game. Your opponent may take an insurmountable lead in some unfortunate cases. However, this does not happen often, and I have been able to come back from some serious deficits by playing well. In other words, the randomness of the tile-draws does not trump good, strategic play. Better players are more likely to win, period.

Which reminds me: I beat my brother in 3 out of the 4 games we played. Sweet sweet victory.

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