On the most romantic day of the year I decided I’d write about boardgames. One of the things I resolved to do was play and review more of them. True to my word I got hold of Level 7 [Escape] by Privateer Press.
For those that haven’t heard of Level 7, it’s a semi-cooperative survival horror in which 4 civilians have to escape a secret government facility within which humans are being harvested by an alien race who feed on fear. Basically really shit Dark Eldar.
Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is work your way through the 7 levels and escape the facility with as many of your marbles as you can hold on to.
The box contains a lot of cardboard. Lots and lots and lots of cardboard. 47 tiles, lots of counters, profile cards and playing pieces.
Which is actually a bit of a disappointment. Just about every board game I’ve ever played has plastic playing pieces so the fact the Level 7 comes with a flobbidy gillion plastic bases to slot card playing pieces into is a bit weird. And poo. And they’re just far far too big.
The playing tiles are gorgeous. Every single one of them is different in some way and the attention to detail is superb. Unfortunately you never get to see any of that detail because the cards for the characters, guards and clones are huge. Laying one down – which you’ll do frequently – will cover half a tile. This is needless to say problematic if multiple pieces get knocked down over the series of turns.
To be fair, the tiles are also too small. This may seem like I’m labouring the point about the pieces being too big, but because Privateer wanted to cram as many tiles on to the frames as possible they made everything small to the point that you have to really scrutinise certain icons to make sure you do the right thing, and all the white arrows on the floor to indicate doorways aren’t very clear. And as door ways, and with it a means of escape, are quite important it’s a bit of a pain.
That said, the production value is very good and that goes for the tiles, tokens, playing pieces and the decks of cards. It all looks ace. And I can’t emphasise enough the quality of the artwork and overall presentation of the game as a whole.
It plays pretty well too. Although I have to point out one thing. It isn’t a horror. It doesn’t come within a country mile of the title because there’s nothing remotely suspenseful about the game. Last Night on Earth, for all the niggles, ramped up the stakes to the point that you appreciated that shit was getting real and that only very careful planning would keep the heroes alive. A game can never be horrifying because it’s just a game, but the good ones provoke enough of a response that you can imagine how horrific it would be. Level 7 doesn’t quite deliver. Granted, and to its credit, when shit gets real it gets just as real as LNOE did and, if anything, you feel even more helpless. But it’s helpless in the ‘I might as well just take him off the board’ way rather than the ‘come with me if you want to live’ way.
Level 7 is let down by the cardboard. The event cards are all just a variation on a theme. That said you find yourself hoping for mild misery over any other kind so there is an element of tension but as none of the cards are positive you’re never looking forward to the Event phase of your turn. But then again, maybe that’s the point. Grinding you down all the while aliens and guards are hunting you down.
But it’s hard to get excited about scary aliens that feed off human fear when they can topple over if there’s a draft. It’s also hard to get excited about aliens that play exactly the same as guards. You could use coins with green dots and blue dots at this point for all the difference it would make. The only difference between the two is that the aliens are drawn to your fear rating and the guards drawn to your threat rating. But as it can be quite hard to increase your threat rating they’re not that much of a worry beyond the ease with which they will bust you up. And in the game I played with Neil and Lee of The Chaps we didn’t draw a single event card with a guard on it during the event phase.
The concept of Fear in the game is an interesting one. If your fear is low you can think clearly but you don’t have enough adrenaline in your system to respond to threats. Too much and you’re psychologically crippled. Lots of things in the facility the characters interacts with causes bowels to loosen slightly be it a creepy corridor, an area with no lights or the dark and confined spaces of the air ventilation system. As fear increases it can afford you bonuses – as your system floods with adrenaline and the fight or flight instinct kicks in – but it also makes you a more appealing prospect to the aliens that appear to be wandering the corridors freely. It presents you with a difficult decision as a mid level of fear increases you attack rolls, however, an unlucky event from your fellow escapees could result in your fear increasing very quickly which would force you to use adrenaline cards which acts as both bonuses and wounds. If you run out you’re knocked unconscious and you have to rejoin the action slightly weaker than you were before. Run out of ‘lives’ or vitality points and you’re out of the game altogether.
The adrenaline cards are a nice touch. You get as many as you have vitality points and you can recover one per turn as they get used either through compulsory discard or to offset a particularly unpleasant event. The benefits on the surface can appear game breaking. Being able to manipulate your fear level as well as give your characters bonuses can give you a real edge. Especially if there’s a lot of aliens around as it can mean the difference between them hunting you and hunting one of your comrades. However, the rate at which your fear levels increases or the swiftness with which an enemy can descend upon you, the bonuses are badly needed. And even recovering one card a turn it is, by no means, a game winning advantage. It just means you have a chance.
The problem is that just about every room you go into causes a fear event or some borderline impossible test to avoid something terrible happening. Usually an alien leaping from the shadows to punch you really hard in the face. It isn’t scary,but I suppose it does make you desperate. You pray for an uneventful turn. That the card that brings woe down is the one your mate picks up. I can really see what they were trying to do even though, for me they don’t quite manage it. And because the rules are a little vague it lacks atmosphere because you’re never entirely sure why things are happening, you’re just doing them because it says so. Although it’s another rule book that isn’t written in order of game flow so there’s lots of back and forth.
It’s made worse by the fact that the concept isn’t clearly thought out. The scenarios are levels 7 working up to 1. The scenario featuring the name of the game is the most basic scenario. And it isn’t very good. You don’t get any skills and you can in a 4 player game, if you’re lucky, find the exit with in 3 turns. And more over, as you end scenario 1 by finding a lift, why wouldn’t you just press the button for topside? I know the game is trying to ease you in but it generally lacks the peril that the rather cool short Privateer put together tries to instil.
WARNING: CONTAINS ADULT CONTENT
The problem is that because fear is such in integral part of the game it’s hard to over look it, despite the core rules surrounding exploration, searching and challenges (face manging) working rather well. A turn only last a few minutes so you can smash through a couple of games in a night. Plus the way the game escalates means that you can very quickly find yourself in a tight spot which, if your co-players are feeling uncharitable, will end very messily. Although if they’ve been clever, they’ve used their adrenaline cards precisely so it will end messily for you.
Although certain rules are also very easy to abuse. For example, each scenario has a limit on the number of clones and guards that are allowed to occupy a tile. There’s also a rule that says an alien or guard that has been knocked down during a fight cannot get up if there’s a player piece in the tile with them. Presumably because they keep their weapon trained on them or just keep lumping them into unconsciousness. This means that you can use a player to essentially shut off an entire avenue of progression by keeping knocked down enemies knocked down. And as there’s no obvious progression system or any some-such you can fling yourselves in to the guns of the guards knowing that you will some how survive the attack and make it back to the rest of the group in time to start the next game. And there was much rejoicing.
Although Level 7 has some bugbears – mainly the cardboard playing pieces – and the whole horror aspect doesn’t entirely deliver, it is a good game. It’s also very quick to play and looks awesome. It is a fast paced game with events unfolding very quickly so a plan rarely lasts long and fortunes can turn on a pin head. The mechanic and required dice rolls are simple and straight forward to resolve so once you’ve figured out all the rules it doesn’t slow down the rate of play. The card system is such that you have to think tactically about not only your hand but those of your opponents, all the while weighing up your fear and threat and knowing when to make the most of them.
The size of the playing pieces does bug me and you’ll probably be better of substituting the cardboard for some 15mm models but it’s still a good laugh.
Level 7 [Escape] is available from Firestorm Games priced £37.75.