Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Review: Red November

My biases first: I am a big fan of theme in games and do not mind reaching through piles of chits if the theme and game play is good enough. While I do favor confrontation, chits, bits and polished pieces of AT games, there are still a large number of Euros that I'll build my farm on or attend auctions at and be quite content at the end of my experience. I also enjoy playing cooperative games with my wife and have recently been trying out a number of coop games that fit well for us. Also, while I never thought gnomes had a thematic or functional place as a player character race in Dungeons & Dragons, I did really like the song "Yellow Submarine" by the Beatles when I was a kid.



Instead of a Russian with a Scottish accent, your Captain is a Russian Gnome with a Scottish accent.


The Overview:
Red November is a multiplayer cooperative game designed for 3-8 players, but playable either solo or with 2 players with each player controlling multiple gnomes. The premise of the game is that the players are controlling a crew of gnomes aboard the BFGS Red November, an experimental gnomish submarine that has run into trouble. The rescue party is arriving in 60 minutes, and all the gnomes have to do is survive during that time to win. However, it is not quite that easy as fires break out, the submarine springs leaks, the crew finds the captain's stash of grog, hatches between compartments are blocked, air runs thin and a host of other problems occur during that time.



A small, but efficient board representing a small, but apparently inefficient submarine.



Your crew of up to 8 gnomes.


Winning is accomplished by keeping the submarine habitable for the 60 minutes, as well as making sure there are at least a few surviving gnomes by the time the rescue party arrives. There are three disaster tracks which record the submarine's current status for the Asphyxiation Track, Heat Track and Pressure Track. If any of these reaches the end of their track by reason of event card, the ship is destroyed and all of the gnomes are killed. There are also timed events that come up, giving the crew a set amount of time to fix a problem. If it is not resolved before the time, the sub is destroyed by the even and the gnomes all die and the players lose. This makes surviving the 60 minutes rather complicated, especially as other events also hamper occur that will hamper your ability to resolve these critical issues.



Disaster Tracks: Asphyxiation, Heat and Pressure.


Turns are not dealt in a set order, but rather managed through a time track which also represents the 60 minutes that the gnomes need to survive before a rescue crew arrives. Each space on the track is one minute and as you pass certain spaces, you are required to draw an event card. Whoever is furthest back on the time track is the next player to go. And each gnome's turn could, in theory, take as much or little time as their player wants. For example, if I wanted to spend 8 minutes trying to fix the engines when at minute 50, I would move my marker down eight spaces and resolve and actions that I passed as I placed my marker on minute 42. This mechanic is dealt with a moving a "ghost marker" to record how far down you will move by the end of your turn.

Resolving actions usually require setting forth a certain amount of time and rolling a ten-sided die to see if you succeed. For example, if you are running out of oxygen, you can try to fix the oxygen pumps to push the Oxygen Disaster Track down. Every successive minute that you commit to trying to fix the problem, improves your chances of succeeding, so if I spent 6 minutes trying to fix the pumps, I would succeed on a roll of 6 or less; eight minutes would succeed on a roll of 8 or less and so on. There are certain items that you can obtain that give bonuses to the rolls, making it easier to repair in less time.

Items are obtained though the Equipment Stores room, where each minute you spend there allows you to grab one random item (you may spend four minutes at a time doing this). You can also loot the Captain's personal store of Grog from the Captain's Quarters, spending up to two minutes at a time drawing two grogs. Items are very useful in the game and usually give bonuses to certain checks. Once an item is used in a check, it is discarded, regardless if the check succeeded or failed. One of the items, grog, is basically gnomish vodka. Plenty of it is available on the ship and it gives a couple of benefits on the turn that it is consumed. First, it fills the gnome with a bit of liquid courage, allowing them to run into a compartment on fire. If a room is on fire, a gnome cannot enter it unless he either drinks first or has a fire extinguisher item. Second, consuming the grog gives the gnome a +3 to any fix it action they attempt that turn. However, at the end of their turn, they become more intoxicated. Each gnome card also has tracker to see how inebriated they are, listing from 0-4. For each grog they imbibe, they move up one level and need to make a check at the end of their turn. The player draws an event card, which also has a number at the bottom. If the number listed is equal to or less than their inebriation level, they pass out for 10 minutes, moving their track down by 10 and resolving any actions that occur during that time. They place their gnome pawn on its side to signify that they are passed out and do not move upright again until every other gnome passes them on the time track. While passed out, a gnome is very vulnerable to fires, flooding and death. Item tokens are cumulative, however, and you could use two repair manuals at once for a +8 bonus total, or drink 3 grogs for a +9 total (though that would increase your inebriation by 3), or combine to use a fire extinguisher for +3 and drink a grog for +3 for a +6 total to put out a fire.



A sampling of item tokens.


During the last minutes of the game, a gnome could decide to abandon his comrades and try to save himself. If he has the aqualung item, he can exit the sub and end his time. If the submarine is destroyed in that time, he is rescued and the sole winner. However, if the submarine survives, he is the sole loser as the others are celebrated as rescued heroes and the gnome who abandoned his brethren is most likely put through some form of gnomish court's marshal.


The Theme:

This is a cooperative game with just a hint of betrayal possibilities in the last frantic minutes of the game. Because events come so quickly and can very quickly change what needs to be done and when, the players really need to communicate and work together. There is a hectic and frantic pace to the game, with a lot of hard decisions that come down to time management and luck of a die roll. All of that translates into the game relating the feeling of panicked desperation of the poor gnomes very well. Tension can run very high during portions of the game as disaster after disaster occurs with very little time and a fire breaks out in a crucial room, leaving little options to get to the disaster in time.

Fortunately, if they die, you don't feel too bad. I mean, they're gnomes. It's not like they are something people like, like dwarves or elves.


Learning the Game:

The learning curve of the game is fairly easy. The rules are pretty straightforward, though some players may take a little time getting used to the "fluxuating time" that seems to occur with the time track. Still, we found ourselves referred back to the rules very seldom during our first couple of games. It is a little easy to miss a couple of rules in the beginning games, such as our first two games we didn't realize that low water in a room added two minutes to all of our actions in that room. It made us realize in our third game how important pumping was. Also, our first game had us referring to our little cheat sheets whenever we drew an item token. However, it really only takes one play to realize that all of the information you need for what an item does is really readily available on the small tokens.


The Components:

One thing that people seem to comment on this game is how small it is. Well, the obvious response would be that it is gnome-sized, and personally, I find it rather refreshing. The box is small. Very small, in fact. Everything just fits inside of it rather tightly. However, it is nice to be able to bring along the game somewhere without having to lug around a huge box for a change.



These are the components and a sampling of the number of bit and chits.


The board is rather efficient and nicely designed. I haven't played with 8 players, but I do imagine that it would be a tight fit in some of those rooms at certain times. My only issue with the board is that mine does not unfold flatly. It isn’t a huge deal, but I do feel rather silly breaking out my huge plexiglass overlay on such a small board. The gnome figures are nice, though with such a tight squeeze in the box, you do have to watch that the thin ankled gnomes do not bend from the base when placing them in the box.



Your selection of thin-ankled gnome crew members.


The event cards are a little small to shuffle well, but bigger cards would have meant a bigger box, so it is easily forgivable. And while the idea of item tokens instead of cards did seem a little odd at first, especially since people are supposed to hide their hand, it is a very easy thing to adjust to and it does not hinder the game.


Playing the Game:

This game is rather fun. Really, I've been surprised at how much I've enjoyed it. I'm neither a huge fan of gnomes or submarines, but somehow, seeing these little buggers in constant peril, I've enjoyed every game I've played. Hm. Maybe that is why I like it... Because I don't like gnomes or submarines.

Anyhow, the game does a good job of pulling you into the tension of a lot of the decisions and the mechanics are rather simple once you wrap your head around the time track. It is amazing how much can go wrong in such a small amount of time causing everyone to take part in resolving a portion of the minor problems just to get to a major fix that is needed.

And that might be what would turn some people off from the game. It is random as hell. Besides the die rolls to determine if an action is completed or not, much of everything you will have to deal with is a result of card draws. Now while there are no good event cards (just a few neutral "nothing happens" Respite cards), a bad shuffle and the random die rolls to see what room it affects could make saving the gnomes nigh impossible.

However, for me, that is not a turn off. I don't mind games that suddenly turn like that. I find it fun and challenging. I've been involved in a game that ended up with what turned out to be an impossible win due to the equipment in hand and the time remaining before a crisis (the equipment stores were on fire, so there was no way to access a fire extinguisher or grog to get an item to put out the other fire in the engine room in time before the timed disaster ended), however, I still enjoyed the ride to that point. Still, this may frustrate some gamers and I can understand that. I'm just not as attached to winning. Or gnomes.


Scalability:

There is a little bit of a conflict from the box to rules stating if the game is playable with 3-8 or 2-8. Personally, I find the game very playable with 1-8. If you play a solo game, you need to control multiple gnomes. I'm not a big fan of solo games, but I still find playing this by myself to be challenging and fun. Also, it plays very well with 2 players if you each play with 2 (or possibly more) gnomes. You lose a little bit of that attachment to your gnome and don't get that upset if they die in a fire if you play with multiple gnomes, but then it also means that you still continue to play and don’t sit on the sidelines and watch.

Still, more players = more fun. I've not played with a full sub at this point, but I find the game scales incredibly well no matter how many gnomes are playing. For each gnome, you have one more set of hands and actions, but at the cost of setting off a bunch more events, so it balances really well. I don’t know where the hardest or easiest spot is with this game (partly because of its randomness). While Pandemic is much easier with 2 players and a lot harder with 4, I haven’t noticed a huge difference in Red November, it scales very well.


Does the Wife Like It?:

The most important category. I play games without her, but she's an integral part of my core gaming group and my most frequent 2-player game partner. That being said, she is a big fan of cooperative games. And while she is not really anything close to a submarine enthusiast either and is slightly more forgiving of gnomes than I am, she also really enjoys this game. When in the mood for a coop game, she will still reach first for Pandemic, but this is probably her second choice and does not groan when I suggest it. My wife is also less of a risk-taker than I am, and will often take a full 10 minutes to resolve an action to make sure she succeeds. This is good in the long run, however, as she tends to roll terribly. This game has hit our table as a great addition to our 2-player games that we'll play in the evenings instead of watching teevee.


The Pros:

*A shorter game that is nicely travel-sized, making it easy to play most anywhere.
*Very scalable.
*Nice amount of tension in such a short game.
*A solid cooperative game with a few options to get devious at the end of the game.
*Very affordable, especially considering the amount of play I've gotten from my game already.


The Cons:

*Too random for some players.
*Gnomes and submarines are probably not great attention grabbing themes, keeping it from the grasp of some gamers who would really enjoy this game.


Overall:

The more I've played Red November, the more I've come to respect and enjoy it. It is a good game that scales very well. The game play is quick enough to get a couple of games in while waiting for others to arrive before breaking out the "big game" for the evening. It's also nicely compact to enjoy on the go.

I wrinkled my nose at the game when I first heard that it was a game about gnomes in a submarine, but reviews from BGG made me test it out, and I'm glad that I did. Hopefully, the seemingly strange theme doesn't turn off other games and cause them to miss out on this little gem of a game


8/10

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