Martin GUnited Kingdom
BristolDon't fall in love with me yet, we only recently met
Browsing Gone Cardboard at the weekend, I noticed a pair of upcoming new releases based on Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy. Having devoured the books on a beach holiday last summer, I checked out the rules, rather suspecting they’d be the usual dismal book/movie tie-in fare. But actually they both sound rather promising and since there’s little information up about them as yet, I thought I’d do a quick rules review.
The story (no spoilers!)
Haven’t read the books? Here’s what you need to know. The trilogy takes place in a post-apocalyptic USA, now known as Panem and divided into 12 districts ruled over by the dictatorial Capitol. The Districts exist mainly to service the needs of the Capitol’s elite, and, in punishment for a failed revolution, they are each required to send an annual Tribute of a teenage boy and girl to compete in the Hunger Games, a televised battle to the death in an arena filled with cunning traps (think Battle Royale). On coming of age, each citizen has their name entered into the annual Reaping draw to become their District’s contestant and face almost certain death.
At the start of Book 1, we find our heroine Katniss Everdeen in District 12, the coal-mining district of what was West Virginia. It’s a hard-scrabble, feudal life of hunting, bartering and somehow getting by. If you can’t feed yourself, there is one way to get enough grain to survive, but it’s not a pleasant one... adding another copy of your name to the Reaping.
Possibly to increase their appeal to families, the games aren't set in the brutal, murderous world of the Games themselves. The design team have instead come up with Jabberjay, a Werewolf/Resistance style social game which pits District citizens against Capitol citizens, and District 12, which portrays the start of the story described above. The designers of both games are Christopher Guild, Bryan Kinsella (one of the designers of Star Fleet Captains) from Wizkids, and freelance designer Andrew Parks. Parks has the biggest repertoire of other games to his name, including Core Worlds, Parthenon: Rise of the Aegean and Ideology: The War of Ideas, while Guild appears to be a first-time designer.
So on to the rules. The board game, District 12, describes itself as "a resource management board game for 2-4 players" (that’ll hook the kids!), set in the dog-eat-dog world of the Seam in District 12. The main mechanic is card drafting via worker placement, somewhat reminiscent of Tribune: Primus Inter Pares. A turn track also allows a look-ahead at which cards will be needed when, which reminded me of another literary adaptation, Beowulf: The Legend.
The board is divided into several areas representing key locations from the book: the woods where Katniss hunts; the black market known as the Hob; and the Everdeen family home amongst others. There are 12 turns, each of which simply involves each player moving their single worker to one of these locations and activating it. There must be a vacant space, and workers stay on the board from turn to turn, so blocking and turn-order effects will be possible.
Most spaces allow the player to acquire resource cards (representing food, fuel, medicine and clothing) in different ways. For example, the woods represent unreliable hunting by allowing the player to flip three cards and keep a food card if at least one is revealed, and the Hob allows you to trade a card with one of your choice from a face-down pile.
After each player has activated their worker, the turn track moves on, triggering resources to be added to the board and more importantly, demanding occasional discards from the players. Every 3 rounds, the players must discard specified resources from their hand, building up from a single food to a complete set of four resources. Each card also has a number of resource points (1, 2 or 3) but these values are only important in final scoring, when each player totals up the best 6 of their remaining cards to see who wins.
There are also 11 special cards, representing characters and objects from the books. Each player starts with one and replacements can be acquired later. The powers aren’t all listed in the rules, but it sounds like the starting ones will provide in-game benefits, but later on you will want to trade for a card that gives an end-game bonus: the classic Euro income-to-VP trajectory. There are also specified turns when inter-player trading of resources is allowed. There are scaling rules for 2 and 3 players, and it doesn’t sound like the game could last much longer than an hour.
The key mechanic
OK, so far it sounds like a decent stripped-down resource management Euro, with the aforementioned echoes of Tribune and Beowulf. Where does the Hunger come in? Well, with one unusual and rather bold rule that won’t sit well with all players. Each player starts with one Reaping Card entered in the Glass Bowl for drawing at the end of the game. Every time you fall short of being able to discard a necessary resource, you must add another Reaping Card. After the final round, the Reaping Cards are shuffled, and one drawn. That player will become a Tribute and is ineligible to win.
The automatic loser has appeared in games before, for example the poorest player in High Society and the meanest player in Hab & Gut. But in those games, the choice is deterministic, not random. Here, it’s perfectly possible that you could not go hungry all game but still end up screwed by Fate. It’s brilliantly thematic, but I can see it causing tantrums! Anticipating this, the designers have provided a variant, but it’s rather a bland one involving a small point loss for 1st, 2nd and 3rd most Reaping Cards in the pot. The penalty seems small enough that Reaping would carry no real threat, and it may even be better to add a Reaping Card than ditch a valuable 3-point resource.
The accompanying card game seems to draw a lot from The Resistance. It’s for 5-12 players and has the same split into two teams: a smaller group of District citizens who know each other’s identity, and a larger one of Capitol citizens who don’t.
The action comes from Status Cards marked 1 (Ignored), 2 (Accused), 3 (Exposed), 4 (Hidden), 5 (Fled), which will track players’ changing status through the game. Each player is dealt two cards at the start of a round, and they then take turns to assign one face-down to another player until all players have been assigned two cards. Each player’s cards are mixed up so that the assigner is unknown, and then revealed, with only the higher card counting as the player’s new status.
The major wrinkle is that a player can only go to Fled status from Accused or Exposed, not from Ignored or Hidden. Interestingly, this means that Fled cards, with their high value, can also be used protectively to stop players becoming Accused or Exposed. A Fled player is basically eliminated from the game, only allowed to assist other players in a minor way. Additionally, if your status is Exposed twice running, you must reveal your hidden identity.
The Capitol citizens win if all the District citizens are exposed in this way or have Fled, while the District citizens win if a round ends with at least two more Fled Capitol citizens than District citizens. I’m not a huge fan of this kind of hidden role game, mainly because I tend to be bad at them, but it sounds good for those who like them.
Impressively, the rules also include a different, entirely co-operative version of the game for 2-4 players. The District and Capitol citizens are represented by a central pool of role cards, and players work together to protect the District citizens by playing face-down status cards against them. Random cards representing the security forces are also added, and statuses are resolved each round in the same manner as the team game. Crucially, the amount of information players can share is restricted by a convention: they can identify to the others only one card they do have in their hand or one card they don’t have.
It will be interesting to see how successful this pair of games is. The previous game in the franchise, The Hunger Games: Training Days, from a couple of years ago and also designed by Kinsella seems to have gone by largely unnoticed. Credit to Wizkids for coming up with not just one but two fresh-sounding games and for not bottling out of the harsh, capricious Reaping rule in District 12.