Review of Neuroshima Hex
Designed by Michal Oracz
Published by Wydawnictwo Portal (Poland), Z-Man Games (USA)
If you play only one Polish post-apocalyptic boardgame this year, make it Neuroshima Hex, imported to North America by Z-Man Games.
Neuroshima Hex is a two-player boardgame (with variants for three or four) based on tile placement. You and your opponent take turns placing tiles (mostly representing soldiers) on a grid of hexagons. Every so often one of you triggers a battle where the tiles on the board attack each other. And when you've destroyed your opponent's headquarters, you win the game—
Based on a Polish tabletop RPG published in 2001 (which I've never seen), Neuroshima Hex posits a world torn apart by an apocalyptic battle between man and machine. Surviving humans scratch out a living in ruined cities, and some remnants of human armies try to cohere despite the collapse of an overall command structure. Somewhere north (north of what is never specified) are the machines controlled by a cybernetic entity called MOLOCH. And elsewhere in the wasteland are mutants led by a charismatic creature named Borgo.
You can play one of four factions: the Hegemony (human city-dwellers), the Outpost (human army), MOLOCH, or Borgo. Hegemony units can move around the board with relative ease; most other units stay put once you place them on the board. The Outpost features a number of tiles that get stronger when placed next to other friendly tiles—
A typical game of Neuroshima Hex involves you and your opponent taking turns placing your units on the board. Then one of you will sense momentary advantage (or a long-term plan) and trigger a battle, which will clear some units off the board and possibly damage the stationary HQ units that each side has. Then the process repeats. After about four or five skirmishes, there's one final battle and someone wins. A game takes 20 to 30 minutes to play.
How Much Randomness?
Repeated play of Neuroshima Hex will demonstrate that you can be unusually blessed or cursed by the first random tiles you draw. If you don't draw many combat-capable units early on, you'll fall behind and never catch up. If you get your best units early, you can disrupt any toehold your oppoenent tries to get on the board.
The players I tested Neuroshima Hex with adopted Magic: the Gathering terms for the initial few rounds of tile drawing, complaining about getting "tile screwed" early on and exclaiming that they'd just "topdecked" by pulling the perfect tile at the perfect time. And I think Magic: the Gathering is an apt comparison—
Boardgames are a good place to spot the extremes of random influence, because the random factors aren't hidden "under the hood" the way they are in electronic games. Chess, for example, has very little random influence—
For a Euro-style boardgame, a moderate random influence is welcome because it levels the playing field a bit when the opponents have unequal ability. Place a novice against a chess master, and the master wins every time. Place a novice against a Candyland "veteran" (I can't bring myself to use the word "master"), and they each win half the time. I think unequal matchups are the norm in a typical boardgamer metagame. (Metagame is an amorphous concept, but think of it as the environment that surrounds the game, and you're on the right track.) Most avid boardgamers play a wide array of boardgames among friends—
Teaching the Game
While Neuroshima Hex hits the right note for randomness, it's not the easiest game in the world to explain to a future opponent. And that's another important part of a typical boardgamer's metagame: You're probably going to be verbally teaching people how to play. (Contrast this with electronic games that have built-in tutorials, or tabletop RPGs that give you a book to read ahead of time.) The written rulebook exists, but a typical boardgamer would hardly ever say, "I just got Neuroshima Hex...I'll read the rulebook, then I'll hand it to you." The oral tradition is key to instruction in the metagame.
In two respects, Neuroshima Hex is a difficult game to teach. First, the game appears to be something it's not. When you have a game piece depicting a dude with a gun, and you place it on a hex grid, that screams "wargame" to many future players. But Neuroshima Hex is emphatically not a wargame: no CRT, no zone of control, and none of that Avalon Hill/SPI goodness. It's a game of tile placement; most of your pieces never move once you place them on the board. I'd tell this to players ahead of time, but it wasn't until halfway through the first game that their eyes lit up and they actually believed me. The appearance of a wargame is just too strong.
Second, there are just enough special cases and unusual situations that running through the rules invariably involves a number of detours and tangents into topics like "Can one unit shoot over a friendly unit and hit an enemy unit beyond it? What if it's a low-value enemy unit in between the two?" Important questions—
So prepare to either give or receive a 20-minute lecture prior to your first game of Neuroshima Hex, then expect to fumble through the first game. Once you're over that hump, the game plays smoothly. You may never need to open the rulebook again.
While I wish the game was easier to explain, Neuroshima Hex is a winner. It captures the SF feel nicely, and the general disorder of the game near the end mirrors post-apocalyptic literature. You and your opponent are both trying to plan and build, but at the end it's all in interesting but bloody mess. Replay value is very strong. Each time you play, you'll pick up a little trick that you can't wait to use next time. Because Neuroshima Hex plays so quickly, there's always going to be a "next time."
And add my voice to those who are sorry to see IROSF go. Seek out good game reviews where you can, and try to be omnivorous about it. Nothing says fun like a stack of good games sitting there on the table (or in your downloads folder), vying to be played.