Level 7 [Escape] – A Review

Level-7-Escape

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.

contentsWhich 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.

box

Last Night on Earth – A Review

last-night-on-earth-2

I go ages without doing a board game review then two come along at once. This time it’s the turn of Last Night on Earth by Flying Frog Productions, a turn based Zombie survival game.

Before I get into the rules and game play let’s look at what you get in the box. Well, lots of cardboard as one would expect from a game of this type but includes gaming tiles that allow you t play over a various locations in the town your characters find themselves in, game cards, profile cards and scenarios. You also get 8 heroes, 14 zombies, dice and a soundtrack CD. I’ve got to be honest, the soundtrack wasn’t really a soundtrack. It wasn’t creepy music that got you in the groove for the game. I’m not saying it was bad, but I am saying it didn’t fit in with the game and I turned it off after a couple of tracks. It’s a nice idea but didn’t quite work for me.
Last Night on Earth Box Open

The overall production value is very good. The models are a passable standard and from the looking around I’ve done on the interwebs suggests that they’ll stand up to painting, which is great news for the more die-hard wargamers out there. If I’m honest the actual artwork on the board tiles and vehicle cut outs were a little basic but I suppose it was done to keep costs down and also the emphasis is on the zombies and heroes not the board. But what it lacks in creative splendour it makes up for with intelligent design as the board is made up of a central tile then four (out of six) L shaped tiles that allow you to play across different parts of the remote, besieged, town.

It’s a very simple but effective design that allows for, if my maths is correct, 15 possible board combinations. Which doesn’t seem a lot but its enough variation that’ll keep the board looking relatively fresh.

The characters, like much of the game has its roots firmly planted in all the various archetypes that made the zombie horror genre so popular with the drifter, the sheriff, a priest and the school Jock all making an appearance. Each character has their own strengths too which includes special attacks, extra speed or the ability to heal in the case of the busty nurse.

The game itself keeps its focus around the genre that inspired it and the scenarios reflect that, each one cinematic and for any fans of the zombie/horror genre easily identifiable. Zombies obviously have the numeric advantage as well as deck of cards they can draw upon to make life difficult for the plucky heroes trying to live out the night.

The heroes too have a deck of cards they can draw on when they search rooms which can give them weapons of various types in including shotguns, flare guns, baseball bats and chainsaws. Searches will also throw up event cards which can be used to either hamper the zombies or boost the performance of the characters. And you’ll need it because unless you get the right mix of characters (as you have to choose four of the eight at random) you’ll struggle to win the most basic scenario.

The game mechanic is very simple. Zombies move one square. Heroes move D6. Fair enough. In combat zombies roll 1 D6 and Heroes 2D6, highest roll wins. Fair enough? Well, no. Although high roll wins, a Hero needs a double to kill a zombie otherwise it is merely fended off. But where it comes unstuck is that in the event of a tie, unless it states otherwise, the zombie wins and inflicts a wound. This seemingly benign rule, couple with the sheer number of zombies that can and will fill the gaming space means that it’s easy for a character to be killed on turn 1. And when losing two costs you the game, it’s a bitter pill to swallow.

The numbers stack up like this. Statistically the average roll on a D6 is 3. The average on 2D6 is 7 of one combination or other. None combination of 7 affords the heroic player a killing blow. So because you need double fours, fives or sixes to deliver a killing blow your odds of killing a zombie outright shrink to – 3 in 36 against a zombie who has a 3 in 6 chance of getting an equivalent result with the added bonus that a draw is a win.

Now heroes can spend an action searching buildings which will garnish them with the aforementioned weapons and events. And should they get their hands on firearms then the tide turns very quickly and the hero player starts to feel a glimmer of hope in their soul. But granting the zombie player the win on a draw means that it’s the only way the hero player will win. One of the play tests I ran through on Friday night had me kill the required two characters in 3 turns. The run through before that it took 5. The right Zombie Cards cropping up at the start was an undeniable help, but it was far more to do with no matter how well Neil (of The Chaps) rolled, as along as I could match or beat it I would win.

To be completely clear, Last Night on Earth is a good game. More to the point its a fun game. And you can play it in an hour which is ideal if you’re short on time or fancy doing something different of a lunch break at work. The rules are simple and emphasises the importance of game play and the cinematic. By keeping it simple you get to focus on what really matters which is heroes trying to stay alive whilst zombies come at them from all sides. Although the rule book could do with a tidy. Far too much ‘which will be explained later’. There are some genius touches in Last Night on Earth. The sunlight tracker is a particularly brilliant idea. The ability to cut power in buildings, causing heroes to stumble around in the dark. Or for buildings to be overrun entirely meaning heroes can’t go in them at all. Zombie pits can pop up in random locations suddenly putting real pressure on the heroes and increasing the threat risk significantly.  It’s all very cleverly done to create that sense of dread and foreboding that’s so fundamental a zombie survival film let alone game. Which makes the ‘tie’ rule all the more unbalanced.

The characters are fun, the special rules giving them their own unique tactical advantage – although if you get the Sheriff from the off you’ve got a good chance of survival thanks to him starting with the revolver and the special rule that effectively means he’ll never lose it. The Priest is rubbish. If you get him just use him as a proverbial sacrificial lamb. We quickly worked out the strongest character combination which, I suspect, is why you have to choose randomly.

With a slight rule tweak Last Night on Earth is as good as they come. And for around the £37 mark isn’t bad value either. The expansion: Growing Hunger is already available and boasts for heroes, armed zombies, plague zombies, new tiles for bigger boards and new rules. At £25 it’s pretty good value as there’s only marginally less in there than the main box.

For all my ranting, Last Night on Earth is a good and fun game. It looks ace and plays well. It has bags of character from the heroes, to the Zombie Card that’s actually called nnngghh. If you’re a fan of the zombie horror genre you’ll love this. Actually you’ll love it even if you’re not.