1 Chit, 3 Giggles
Can a flawed game be a good game if it's fun? That's the question I wrestled with most often when reviewing this game. It's true that most board games, of which thousands are released every year, are not perfect, and this is fine; either because they achieve what they set out to do and correcting them either ruins the objective or experience, or because the game is great and minor mechanical foibles don't overall mar its brilliance.
After the arrival of Fabled Fruit in 2016 and courtesy of our interview with Stronghold Games President Steven Buonocore at last year's Spiel convention, we were already anticipating another game using the interesting Fable system. What surprised me though was that not just one new game arrived but three! Three brand new games, all designed by Friedemann Friese, titled Fear, Fortress & Flee. Not only did they use the mechanic that so fascinated us from their spiritual predecessor, they also went even further and created something called Fast Forward, which is in essence a brand new way to teach you the game while you're playing it. It's worth pointing out at this point that multiple people referred to the games as 'a bit like Fluxx' after hearing this, but I can only see vague similarities between the titles. I shall explain why below. First though, I will be only be discussing and dissecting the first of this series called 'Fear' as it's the only one I've sat down and properly played through, but I will touch on elements that are relevant to all of the games.
Fear is a game of ghosts and numbers, both scary to many people depending of course on your belief in the paranormal as well as your mental arithmetic skills. While the theme is barely there (the idea is you are trying to chase ghosts, but it says a lot that I only knew this from having to look it up), the gameplay is a classic game of drawing and playing cards. The deck is the key component of this game, as it is the only component. There isn't even an instruction booklet. Instead, the game teaches you the rules through the revelation of cards which they've called Fast Forward, meaning you can get stuck right into the game. The deck deals out the first few rules cards and will occasionally throw up more later which must immediately read, often to tell you new things about how the game works and occasionally add a new rule. As I mentioned earlier, this may sound to you like Fluxx, but the difference is that these special rule cards come up far less frequently, only one is active at any time and are played out in a particular order. The Fast Forward aspect has been quite neatly done, and while it won't work for heavier games, I'm all for less setup time in games so long as the quality doesn't suffer.
How the game works is simple; on your turn, you will either draw a card from the deck and add it to your hand, or you can (or must, if you already have three cards) play one card from your hand into the centre, forming a communal set. These cards you play have a number on the front, and if you should ever cause the total of the communal numbers to go above 15, you lose the game. The clever bit however is that once a player is eliminated, everyone else adds the total of the cards in their hands, and the person with the highest becomes the winner. Therefore you are encouraged to want to hold onto high valued cards, but if you can't manage your hand well enough or you get too greedy, you may eliminate yourself. It's a very simple concept and it works very nicely.
The cards may also contain actions, which occur after playing them, and do things like change direction of play but may also affect the cards in the middle. Special rule cards that crop up infrequently add a global rule which remain in effect until the next one comes along, often at a pace of fewer than one per game (depending on the number of players). This sounds interesting, but I confess I found a couple of the special rules had very little impact on the game, leading to us inadvertently neglecting them on at least a couple of occasions.
The box says it takes fifteen minutes to play and honestly it pretty much always did last that long, which surprised me (I could talk about this subject some more but I'll save it for another time). It's such a simple game with really simplistic choices, and so we breezed through pretty much every game we played.
The revelation of cards is fun enough that after finishing up a game, most of the time we went straight back in for another one. That's how Fable (and to a lesser extent Legacy) games should work. They should want you to carry on playing until some external factor stops you from doing it, whether that's a late night finish with work early the next day or a neglected partner. Another great aspect of the game is the way the cards are discarded. For your first few games, certain cards are going to cause you to to lose the game, and when that happens that players entire hand is eliminated for the rest of the playthrough. This essentially curates the deck, getting rid of useless cards depending on the current rule set. Sometimes certain cards are great, but the next game they are useless, but if they cause your elimination, they'll be gone for good. It's a neat way of evolving a game and forcing players to go through the deck instead of randomly removing some.
Aesthetically the game very much fits alongside all of Friedemann Friese's other titles. It's playful, mostly functional and a bit green. This will likely not put anyone off nor draw anybody in particularly, but it does the job well enough.
Ultimately though, this game's flaws are hard to ignore. Luck plays a huge factor in your game, often with well meaning players simply being unable to win regardless of their actions. Our first few games were won by the same person, the least strategic player of the group, and despite playing well it is hard to own a victory if your opponent simply drew worse cards than you. That is fine however, if you go into the game aware of this issue. Another fault is something I touched on above, that of the Special Rules. They sound like game changers but we rarely encountered situations in which they played a notable part of the game. Perhaps a different/greater selection of rules would have made more of an impact, or perhaps we were unlucky. Either way, playing without them often seemed like it would have resulted in the same exact game or even a less frustrating one.
Overall, Fear is a mixed bag of mechanics that forms a coherent game, and ultimately I concluded that a flawed game can still be fun, as often it manages to entertain in spite of them. Fear will not rise to the top of my Christmas List this year (well, I suppose I own it already so that's not exactly fair to say, but you know what I mean) but we played through the whole thing so it certainly has something going for it. In addition, the price is about right. For a few hours of fun, I feel like I got my money's worth, and it certainly hasn't put me off the potential of Fable games nor its Fast Forward system. Ghosts, whether you believe in them or not, are a bit of harmless entertainment, which is a perfect metaphor for this game.
Review by Russell Chapman