Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Saturday 5 April 2014

NBC Mañana

Tomorrow: an apocalyptic nightmare, published by Conquistador Games, is one of the most challenging games to be crowd-funded via Kickstarter in 2013. It is challenging in two ways. First, in its subject matter, and second, in its game play. It takes as its subject matter, the idea that humanity is in the process of killing the planet and thus ultimately, itself. The solution, as devised by the world’s great scientists and leaders, is a radical onereduce the planet's population in order to save the Earth and the survivors. Tomorrow's game play involves the culling of humanity, 70,000,000 people at a time... At game's end the players will score points not only for the survivors they control, but also for those that they killed during the game. Such slaughter may not be to everyone's liking.

In order to conduct such slaughter, each player takes the role of a global superpower that will employ cyber warfare, and biological and nuclear weapons to whittle away at the world's inhabitants. Although it looks like a standard game of strategic global domination, Tomorrow is anything but that, and to play it as such would be at odds with the game's intent. Tomorrow is in fact a semi-cooperative game with a time limit. The players have to cooperate in order to kill the required population, but must do so before the world ends. If they fail to do so before the world ends, then everyone loses. Yet even if the players succeed in annihilating the required numbers, this does not mean that everyone has won as it might in any other cooperative game, for in the desperate future of Tomorrow, there can only be one winner, that being the player who has killed the most and has the most survivors and has thus acquired the most points of Political Capital. Tomorrow is in effect, a sort of anti-Risk.

Designed for four to six players, Tomorrow carries an a suggested minimum age of seventeen plus, which is not surprising given its subject matter. Each player is the leader of a global superpower—China, the European Union, Russia, and the USA  in a four-player game, plus the Arab Caliphate in a five player game, and India in a six-player game. Each superpower begins the game with a nuclear and military arsenal, the size varying from superpower to another. Both Russia and the USA have the largest nuclear arsenals, whilst the USA has the largest military. Each superpower has the ability to deliver these military and nuclear attacks as well as biological attacks. It can also conduct espionage missions and it also has a special ability of its own which is invariably useful and thematic.

Game Set-Up for six players.
China begins play with control of Cyberspace, which enables it to draw Strategy Cards, steal Strategy Cards from other superpowers, or dictate play order each turn, and as a ‘Closed Society’ can once per game regain control of Cyberspace if it has lost it. The European Union holds the position of ‘Secretary-General’ and determines play order each turn unless overruled by whomever controls Cyberspace. Russia suffers from ‘Desolation’, its home territory being so large that diseases caused by Biological Attacks do not spread into or out of Russia. With ‘CDC’, USA controls the Centre for Disease Control, which means that sometimes a biological attack on its home soil can be stopped. The Arab Caliphate can conduct acts of ‘Terror’, either to prevent another superpower from taking one of its actions or once per game, to sneak into a rival superpower’s virulent disease store and unleash it on that superpower’s home territory. Lastly, India possesses ‘Peaceful Oversight’, which enables it to protect minor powers it occupies more effectively. Of these special abilities, only ‘Terror’ requires a player to use it as an action—the others are all permanent effects.

At game’s start, each player receives his arsenal of military and nuclear missile tokens, a set of Action Cards, three diseases for use in Biological attacks, and his population pawns. These are set up according to the numbers on the board. Population pawns are also added to the regions of the world occupied by the minor powers—Canada, Central America, South America, North and South America, South Korea and Japan, Southeast Asia, Australia, and Oceania, again according to the numbers marked on the board. The minor powers also have their population pawns. They also have their own armies and nuclear missile tokens, though they come into play with certain Event Cards. The game’s Strategy Cards are shuffled as are the Event Cards. There is a set of Strategy Cards for each of the game’s three Threat Levels—Yellow/1, Red/2, and Black/3. Each card provides a benefit and many also provide a player with extra points of Political Capital at game’s end. For example, the Yellow/1 ‘Antidote’ Strategy card can be played to prevent a disease spreading into a territory that you control and is worth +1 Political Capital; the Red/2 ‘War Crimes’ Strategy Card is played on a superpower when it removes the final population pawn from any power to levy a penalty of -3 points of Political Capital; and the Black/3 ‘Defense in Depth’ Strategy card gives a bonus to support the defence of a minor power that is being invaded. Most Black/3 Strategy cards simply award points of Political Capital (which are somewhat lacking in flavour, but this offset by the fact that they mainly drawn once play has ended and scoring begins).

The Event Deck represents tomorrow’s news that will affect one or more of the superpowers. Each Event Card describes three events, one for each of the game’s three Threat Levels. Only one of the events on an Event Card will apply that turn, this depending on what the current Threat Level is. At Yellow/1, an Event Card gives ‘For Israel!’ which awards any superpower that nukes the Arab Caliphate with a Strategy card and a +5 Political Capital bonus; at Red/2, ‘Religious Radicals’ in India award anyone that nukes India with a +5 Political Capital bonus; and at Black/3, ‘Panicked Bloodlust’ forces everyone to launch a nuclear or biological attack that turn or be unable to act. With twelve Event Cards in the deck, there is plenty of variety here, but only nine are used to form the Event Deck in play. This Event Deck is the timing mechanism in Tomorrow. With an Event Card being drawn at the beginning of each turn, the superpowers have only nine turns before in which to deplete the world’s population or the world ends...

Lastly, the Death Marker is placed high on the Yellow/1 Threat Track, which runs parallel to the Red/2 and Black/3 Threat Tracks. As the game proceeds and the world is depopulated of Population pawns, the Death Marker is moved down the Threat Track, moving from the Yellow/1 Threat Track to the Red/2 Threat Track and then the Black/3 Threat Track. The aim is to get it right down to the bottom of the Black/3 Threat Track by game's end.

Each of the game’s nine turns consists of five phases. First, an Event Card is drawn and its effect is noted for that turn. Second, the current controller of the Cyberspace card chooses either to take a Strategy card from the current Threat Level, steal another superpower’s Strategy Card, or override the European Union’s Special Ability to determine the play order for that turn. Third, each superpower chooses two of his Action Cards that will represent what it will do that turn. Fourth, the European Union (or the superpower that controls Cyberspace) determines play order, one superpower at a time. As each superpower is revealed, it chooses either to pass or use an Action Card. Once every superpower has played or passed, they get to do it a second time in the same order. Last and fifth, all tokens are refreshed and new diseases acquired if any Biological attacks were launched.

Each turn a superpower can undertake up to two actions using its Action Cards of which it has a hand of five. The ‘Biologicals’ Action Card enables a superpower to attack a minor or major superpower with a disease such as ‘British Hugging Duckling Syndrome’ or ‘Beubonic Wrath’. Each disease will typically kill one or two Population pawns in the targeted region and usually has a chance of spreading to adjacent regions as well—Russia being the exception to the latter. Alternatively, the ‘Biologicals’ Action Card enables a superpower to gain two new diseases. The ‘Cyber’ Action Card lets a superpower attempt to wrest control of Cyberspace from the superpower that currently holds the Cyberspace card. When played, the ‘Espionage’ Action Card prevents another superpower from using either the ‘Biologicals’ or ‘Espionage’ Action Cards as well as the Arab Caliphate from using its  ‘Terror’ Action Card. The ‘Espionage’ Action Card is the only card that can be played reflexively and out of turn. The ‘Military’ Action Card is used to launch a conventional attack on a minor power such as Canada or South Korea & Japan—such attacks cannot be launched on other superpowers. Such an invasion can be countered or supported by other superpowers and temporarily exhausts the army units until the next turn. If a superpower successfully invades a minor power, it must maintain an army in the region and will be rewarded with a Strategy Card when the Death Marker moves from one Threat Track down to the next (from Yellow/1 Threat Track to the Red/2 and then the Black/3 Threat Track). A superpower can launch a nuclear attack with the ‘Nukes’ Action Card. Only China, the European Union, Russia, and the USA possess missiles that can target any region on the planet, while the Arab Caliphate and India have missiles that can only strike adjacent regions. Launching a nuclear attack has a negative effect. It only kills one Population pawn and levies a penalty of -3 Political Capital upon both the attacking superpower and the superpower in possession of the targeted region. Further, it drives up the Death Marker on the Threat Track, not down it, and nor does the attacking superpower points score points for it at game’s end. The ‘Nukes’ Action Card cannot be blocked though…

Africa, the Arab Caliphate, and European Union have suffered biological attacks.
China has invaded Canada before the USA does and declared the Canadian Communist Republic.
India has initiated a peacekeeping mission in  Australia.
When Population pawns are removed from the board, the Death Marker on the Threat Track is driven ever lower. How much by depends on where the Population pawns come from. For each Population pawn from Russia and the USA, it is moved down by three spaces, by two spaces if from China or the European Union, and by one space from anywhere else. This feels a little odd, but essentially, the value of each Population pawn represents not just  70,000,000 people, but also the impact they have on global resources.

The USA strikes back—successfully invading the Canadian Communist Republic and then Japan & South Korea.
Russia has launched two invasions. One in Central America, mostly unsuccessful due to the 
population having been devastated by a biological attack, and in the other in South-East Asia, which is much more successful.
Elsewhere, the populations of the Arab Caliphate, European Union, India, and Russia have been seriously depleted. The end of the game is near...
 Tomorrow ends after nine turns have been played. If by this time the superpowers have failed to drive the Death Marker down to the end of the Threat Track, then the world ends and nobody wins. If they have, then each superpower adds up the Political Capital to be gained from the Population it still has, the Population it killed, any Strategy or Event Cards, and then deducts points from the devastating effect of nuclear attacks. The superpower that comes out of the depopulation campaign with the Political Capital is the winner.

End Game. 
China has driven the USA out of Japan & South Korea—and launched a nuclear strike on Russia.
The Middle East, Central Asia, and northern India have been devastated.
The game was not a loss
—sufficient numbers of the population were annihilated. 

Despite having suffered a nuclear strike, Russia won.
Physically, Tomorrow is a beautiful game, sober and austere, with the look of an actual global threat assessment map like that found in the film Doctor Strangelove. The Population pawns are solid pieces of coloured wood, the cardboard tokens are thick and colourful, and the cards are easy to read and understand. The Kickstarter.com version of the game may include wooden tokens for the armies in the form of tanks and thick and heavy mushroom clouds for the nuclear missiles. Although not necessary to play, they add much to the theme of Tomorrow. The good news is that these wooden pieces are now available from the publisher. The rules themselves need a good read through as although the game is actually much simple than it looks, there are one or two little elements that can be lost when first playing. Some advice is given alongside the rules, necessary because essentially the theme of the game is at odds with the look and style of the game. 

Throughout the rulebook, one piece of advice is given again and again‘Negotiate!’ Tomorrow is a cooperative game and the players have to work together if there is the chance that one of them will win, but that said there is no means or a mechanic in the game that would prevent a player from working against this aim. If a player wanted everyone to lose, then he could certainly cause that to happen. This may well be the game’s Achilles’ heel. Nevertheless, the players really should work together if they are not to lose, and there are plenty of opportunities to bargain throughout the game. In support of, or against, a ‘Military’ Action Card, on whom to use an ‘Espionage’ Action Card, and where to target a ‘Biologicals’ Action Card for example. Throughout, agreements and promises can be made between the superpowers, but these do not have to be adhered to, but such betrayal may lead to repercussions…

One advantage of negotiating is that it can offset each superpower’s disadvantages. For example, the Arab Caliphate is relatively weak, has a small military, and its nuclear missiles are few in number and of limited range. It has the ‘Terror’ Action Card though, which is a powerful threat as it can limit the actions of another superpower. Promising to direct the ‘Terror’ Action Card elsewhere may redirect the attention of an superpower that might otherwise attack the Arab Caliphate. Similarly, whilst Russia and the USA possess the largest nuclear arsenal, there is almost no point in actually using themthe penalty in terms of Political Capital and the fact that their use drives the Death Marker up the Threat Track not down, should be deterrent enough. This does not discount their use as a big stick with which to police the depopulation of the world, that is a deterrent. Such negotiation should of course be accompanied by plenty of ‘table talk’—preferably in character!

Similarly, each player needs to learn how to use effectively each superpower’s Special Ability. For example, both China with its control of Cyberspace, and India with its ‘Peaceful Oversight’, both grant the means to gain Strategy Cards which will give them advantages or Political Capital. Both Russia and the USA possess defensive Special Abilities, whilst the Arab Caliphate can use the ‘Terror’ Action Card to deny another superpower an action each turn, and the European Union can control play order and that can also be negotiated for!

So what of Tomorrow's subject matter? Is it really as controversial as the outcry suggests? Arguably it does call for the players to cooperate in committing mass genocide, but this is simulated genocide after all. Further, is this subject matter as bad as that of many other games, whether that is the death and pillage at the heart of Dungeons & Dragons, the forced labour of the plantation workers in Puerto Rico, or the grisly combat of Advanced Squad Leader? Arguably, it is not as controversial because it is asking players to do no more than they might in any other game. The controversy comes in Tomorrow being explicit about about its subject matter, in being upfront about what the players are expected to do, in making it the point of the game rather than the ‘side effect’ of winning...

Tomorrow is a beautifully presented game with engaging theme aplenty that should drive the game’s table talk. Whether or not a playing group will enjoy Tomorrow will depend upon how they take to that theme. The gameplay is relatively simple, but there are nuances in the design that run counter to the atypical global-political game and such nuances will vary between the superpowers and their Special Abilities. These do provide the game with some replay value, but in the long term, Tomorrow: an apocalyptic nightmare may not outlive its nouveau notoriety despite it being an interesting design and an interesting idea.

[Photographs courtesy of Debbie Leung. Thanks to attendees of Afternoon Play for helping me test out Tomorrow: an apocalyptic nightmare as preparation for this review.]

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