Publisher: Tasty Minstrel Games
Game Designer: John D. Clair
Playing Time: 90-150 minutes
Suggested Retail Price: $80
War to end all wars
By the year 2213, humankind had become proficient at warfare, extremely proficient. No one knows who triggered the global onslaught, and none of the few remaining survivors would even care. It took just 19 days for multiple nations to engulf the planet in a deadly maelstrom of chaos and destruction. A massive exchange of nuclear weapons had devastated the earth, once the nuclear genie was out of the bottle, 99% of the earth’s population lay in ruins.
Those who remain struggle to survive, venturing out from their small hovels with the hopes of rebuilding. However, rebuilding will not come easily, nor without strife against other survivors and the wrath of an angry planet.
Nuclear winter is coming and it is relentless
In Downfall, 3-6 players battle for both supremacy and survival in this 4x game set in a post-apocalyptic earth from Tasty Minstrel Games. Hearing of another post-apocalyptic setting for a board game may induce mental images of Mad Max movies, but this one is very far removed from that vein.
In most 4x games players predominantly turn their attention outwards, save for producing forces to pursue expansion. Downfall changes that up, forcing players to be as concerned with their surrounding radioactive environment as much, if not more so, than their opponents.
A new game board is created each time, using a number of randomly placed, face-down tiles. Each tile has a terrain and associated resource type on it, with about half of them having more than one terrain/resource space for added variability. As you expect, these resources are gathered to feed your people and construct buildings and defenses, but they’re also used to reduce the deadly radiation that is constantly creeping in from the periphery.
Players select a starting location from groups of four revealed tiles, and must select one space to be a dead zone, making it an area that is now devoid of any life or resources. This dead zone in turn spawns four radiation tokens, which are placed in up to four adjacent spaces or tiles, including unrevealed tiles. Radiation is not just thematic window dressing here, but an ever-present, relentless challenge that all players must deal with. Left unchecked, radiation increases, expands, and exterminates everything in its path. In later stages of the game it can create some really nasty expansion chains, reminiscent of outbreaks in Pandemic.
Everyone takes a starting allotment of forces, food, technology cards, and a 13-card action deck. A scaling number of extra winter cards are also shuffled into the action decks, and act as a timing mechanism. During each turn, players draw one card from the action deck into their hand of four and choose one to play, and then pass the remainder to the player on their left. For every winter card drawn by all players, the event track advances that many spaces. Play is simultaneous, allowing for the game to flow at a smooth pace. If there is a question of player action order, it is resolved by a number on the card. It’s very quick, and keeps the game moving along at a fairly good pace.
Action cards have both a major and minor action on them, giving them some versatility and limiting you from having a dead hand. Major actions provide multiple benefits, while minor actions are more limited. Luckily, you get to set aside two cards in reserve at the start of the game. Selecting the right reserve cards ahead of time can save your bacon later.
What makes the card play interesting in Downfall is two-fold. First, with just one action per turn, and so many things necessary to do, you’re forced to prioritize the order in which you carry out your long term plans. All with the hope that you can complete the steps necessary before an opponent infringes on your territory, or the next spoilage phase on the event track. This makes for some agonizing decisions each turn, and you’re never fully confident that you can accomplish what you set out to do before events change the course of play.
Second, you’re not only taking a card for yourself, but determining which cards you want to pass to your opponent. I really dig card drafting mechanisms like this, because it not only adds another interesting layer of decision making, but strategic potential as well. You can try to influence your opponent’s actions with the cards you pass, while also needing to adapt to those given to you by other players.
The event track advances the intrepid march of nuclear winter, an abstract representation of hunkering down for a period until things blow over. In the process, resources may spoil, survivors must be fed or they’re eliminated, territory is scored, and random events take place. Oh yea, this is where that nasty radiation starts to stack up and impacts everyone.
Downfall has the standard 4x fare of resource gathering, building, and researching tech, but feels much more desperate with the tension of waiting on those winter cards in every draw. With one action per turn, you’re constantly restrained to just a single choice of either gathering, building, or expanding, to be able to provide for your people while the growing radiation threat looms in the background. This forces you to push your luck, and take risks that you might normally feel uncomfortable with. It’s a pressure cooker, with a slow burn that ramps up the deeper into the game you go.
The strategies you choose will be heavily determined by not only your starting area, but neighboring areas that become uncovered. If you’re short of food to feed your people, or oil to cut back on radiation growth, you’ll either be forced to push out and explore, or attack a neighboring player who has the resources you need. Other times you’ll be able flush with resources, and can turtle in defense or setup a radiation barrier.
Speaking of that dovetails into player conflict, how much is there in Downfall? Well, that’s really dependent on a couple of things; the players involved, and terrain and resource allocation. The game can be played through with no direct confrontation between players, if that is what everyone chooses.
However, even a player who does not want to battle other players may find themselves forced into aggressor mode, due to lack of necessary resources, or to protect areas that they control. Alternately, you may go the indirect route by expanding out and allowing radiation to take up residence in your perimeter. If played smartly, you can both lay down a protective ‘moat’ of radiation, while at the same time denying your opponents access to resources they really need. Starve them out, so to speak. It’s a valid tactic, but one that can become precarious if you don’t keep that radiation from blowing back on you.
Winning the game comes down to having the most victory points. Points are scored through events, battles, population growth, environment and cultural tracks on the scoreboard. If your people keep dying due to starvation or radiation, you lose 2VP for each survivor lost, and these add up quickly. So be sure to keep that radiation at bay to not lose those victory points. From my initial plays, there doesn’t seem to be an optimal path to success, which is a great thing. This means replayability is high, with fresh challenges every time.
The end is nigh
Downfall is a tense 4x area-control game, with a touch of engine building and push your luck. Everyone is up against the advancement of impending global nuclear winter, and the ticking time bomb of the radiation. You can try to push that envelope, and hope the event track doesn’t advance too quickly, but delay too long at your own peril. Radiation can, and will, chain relentlessly as the game wears on.
At first glance Downfall may seem a bit busy, because it does take up a lot of real estate, and there are a lot of bits and bobs to handle. Once things get going though, you’ll find that it is very streamlined, and the actions intuitive. Games generally average about 30 minutes per player, though it will move faster with experience, except for the AP prone. Be mindful when placing tokens in tiles with multiple spaces, things can get pretty crowded and tokens can be easily knocked about, despite the large tiles.
Downfall uses familiar mechanics and simple gameplay, but don’t let that fool you. With variable setup, unique events that transpire throughout the game, and an event track that advances at different tempos each time, how you tackle things will be unique in every play through. Where it gets weighty is in how you handle prioritizing your one action per turn to take to match your long-term goals. Each game will require you to score in different ways, allowing for great depth of gameplay and challenge that is further rewarded in multiple plays, and a willingness to experiment.
If you’re a fan of 4x games and thinky euros, Downfall is definitely one to give a long, hard look at. The project ends in just a few days, so don’t wait too long to jump on getting yourself a deluxe copy!
Also, be sure to check out the official “How to Play” video tutorial by Paul Grogan from Gaming Rules!
Company Website: http://playtmg.com/
Company Twitter: https://twitter.com/TastyMinstrel
Note: A prototype copy of this game was provided to me for this preview.