Wednesday, 4 May 2016


RED NOVEMBER (Revised Ed.), Fantasy Flight Games, 2011
"A Frantic Game of Survival On a Gnomish Submarine"

Imagine the scene.... you are your life partner sit down for a nice evening of board games. You play a few games and one of you wins all the games and the other person loses all the games. One person is happy, one is unhappy. Slowly, the relationship disintegrates, lawyers are brought in, children are traumatised.... it's just not necessary. Thankfully, a good number of decent co-op games are now on the market that don't shatter relationships and therefore ensure that little Tommy only sees Daddy at the weekends. Where most board games pit players against each other, or a team of players against one player (usually the evil overlord of some sort (e.g. Fury of Dracula, Heroquest, etc.)), cooperative games pit all the players together against the game itself. The most common way of achieving this is by having some sort of time limit and a task or set of tasks that need to be achieved before time is reached. 

How is this achieved in Red November? "Bad times have hit the experimental gnomish submarine BFGS Red November." [I have to interrupt here to say that I genuinely don't know what BFGS stands for. They never say. It's certainly not Big F'ing Gnomish Submarine, as we'll see shortly."] The sub has gone crazy, and everything is going wrong all at once. Fires are burning, the sub is leaking, and critical systems keep failing. Help is on the way, but the gnomish sailors must work together to survive until the rescuers arrive."

In other words, this game follows the totally standard format of co-op games, in having a task and a time to achieve it. Given that it follows the standard formula so tightly, how does Red November do it in a way that makes it different and exciting?

"Red November is a cooperative survival game for 1-8 players playable in 1-2 hours...."

Wait! 1-8 players? That's interesting. Not only can this game apparently be played solo but it can conversely take twice the number of people that your regular board game can take. The game expects you to play with at least three people, which is why there are starting places for 3-5 players, 6 players, 7 players and 8 players. What they don't indicate on the board is where you start if you're playing solo or with 2 players. Despite the fact that you can take a fairly educated guess, that's a little oversight. But let's open the box and see if there's anything else creative and exciting inside...

Board and rules. Nothing spectacular here. Let's go further...

And here you find the standard FFG (Fantasy Flight Games) box set-up, with a gap in the middle for the actual game contents and two large dividers to fill up the rest of the box space. And here's the first item of concern with Red November. It's clearly designed to be deliberately small to suggest a cramped submarine, but I find it's impossible to escape the thought that FFG was just trying to save money by providing the smallest possible game tokens and cards. Yes, there are eight figurines, but each one is only just larger than a thumbnail, and I have small fingers. No, really, I had to have an oboe made specially for me because my hands are so small.

How small? This small.
The same feeling of being cramped could have been achieved with a normal sized board and significantly larger gnome figures. And since we're talking about the gnome figures, I must mention that they all look exactly the same. Yes, FFG have just created one figure and mass produced it in a wide range of colours. So the figures aren't exciting at all. They're tiny and fiddly and no-one playing the game really pays any attention to them. In theory, they could be painted to make them more interesting (leaving the bases the original colour), but they're so small I don't fancy trying that any time soon. FFG get points for a novel idea but loses them instantly in the implementation.

Perhaps the game play is more novel. Players start in randomly determined rooms and the first turn, particularly for the very first player, is always spent not really knowing what to do because there are no crises to deal with, so most people head to the Captain's Cabin, where there is Grog hidden, or to the Equipment Store (room 8) where you can pick up tools that might help you in the future.

Perhaps the most unique feature about the game is the fact that there is no set turn order. A time track exists round the edge of the board and each player places their marker on the time track. Once all pieces move clockwise round the track, the game is won. But there are three measures on the board that need constant attention because they keep increasing - the asphyxiation level, the heat level and the pressure level, three tracks that are on the top left of the board and whose token is an extremely simple coloured wooden block. As in really cheap, wooden blocks. 

If any one of the three cubes reaches the end of their line, the game is over and all the gnomes die. If any cube passes the star midway along the line, then a successful reset by a gnome only takes it back as far as the star. If a gnome resets the track when the cube is still on the star, it resets back to zero. This is a very simple but effective mechanic that makes you afraid of drawing event cards (see below) because you don't want to move the cubes further along the tracks. In the two games we've played so far, we've had tracks reach one space from the end and stay there for a few turns, threatening game over. That makes for a really good amount of tension. This is the mechanic that really makes the game fun.

"I want you to create a really clever token for these tracks."
"How about a cheap, small wooden cube?

The time track is perhaps the most interesting and novel element of the game. In a rush against time, the designers realised that what's important isn't who is next, but who is last. Here's what I mean. Everyone starts with their time marker on the same space on the time chart...

... but then as they progress their markers move along the time line. The person who is at the back of the time line always takes the next turn. Why? Well, it's quite clever. Let's say your gnome decides to spent ten minutes trying to put out a fire. At the same time, another gnome takes four minutes to fix a leak. The gnome who has spent less time can then go and try to address a situation elsewhere on the sub, so the person at the back of the timeline, whoever it may be, always goes next. In the picture below, for example, yellow took an extremely long time to perform an action and so progressed furthest along the time chart. Green goes next because they're furthest back. What we know for sure is that Green, Orange and Red will all get a turn before Yellow, and that can be very useful for planning. This is perhaps the most novel part about the entire game.

As you move along the timeline, your marker crosses spaces with stars on them. Usually these signify drawing an event card (which is always either negative or neutral, never positive) but sometimes they allow you to draw an item card. 

Unfortunately, there's a problem. The board is so small that when your marker moves along the timeline, especially if you cross another person's marker, you often can't see if you've crossed or landed on a space that has a star on it. So, while the above configuration is how the game is meant to be played, it's better when those pieces are put next to the timeline but off the board. That surely was not the idea in design. This means that you're left playing a game where your pieces have to be off the board and where you cannot bump the board otherwise the pieces will go flying and you'll forget where you were. This is undoubtedly the most frustrating part of the game.

Event cards range from Leak to Fire to Fire Spreading and much more... and those are just the normal events you have to deal with. An attack of the Kraken (for which you need an aqualung and need to swim outside), missiles potentially launching and much more form potential grave dangers to the crew. 

There are definitely some cute dynamics when it comes to the events. If you have a flood in a room, for example, it fills up quite quickly...

If you open a hatch to a room with high water, the waters flows instantly between the two rooms, making low water in both. Low water slows you down but at least it's not impassable like high water. This attention to detail on how water and fire spread in a submarine adds real depth, as it were, to the game. 

Fire is the worst, though. Fire can spread very quickly and if you're caught in it, can be deadly. If you're lucky, a fire will start on a space where there's already water, which means that fire doesn't really start. But if it does start, not only can it spread but it adds to the Asphyxiation Track because it starts to burn up your oxygen.

I am reliably informed that fires don't just use up oxygen when they start but also while they continue to burn. As a former scientist with a crippling combination of OCD and pedantry, the fact that in this game oxygen does not continue to be consumed while fires rage annoys me. If it did, I appreciate that the game would be totally unbalanced, but the truth is that sometimes you just leave fires to burn while dealing with other things, and that does not seem to be sensible behaviour to me on a small submarine. You should be rushing to put out every fire and you don't.

Another challenge which can sometimes be fixed are blocked doors. If a fire is raging and you have to get it out, sometimes you have to spend time just getting the door opening, and that can be very challenging. Fixing things takes an action and takes time. You choose how much time you want to spend fixing the problem (1-10 minutes) and then roll the die. Imagine you decide to spend nine minutes fixing something. You roll the d10 and so long as you roll 1-9 then you are successful. Staggeringly, I have played this game twice and seen two differing players choose nine minutes but roll a 10. And that is actually really annoying because when that happens you realise that the core of this game is basic management of statistics and odds. You can help those odds with cards, like a fire extinguisher which adds +3 to your roll, meaning you only have to take 7 minutes to be certain of putting out a fire. Nonetheless, you're playing a numbers game and sometimes it seems a little stale because of this.

The room on the left has low water. Room 4 is on fire. It would be nice if you could open the door between them and have the water put out the fire, but the rules don't allow that. And anyway, this door is blocked so there are two reasons your plan won't work.
No review of this game can do it justice without mentioning one key element - Grog. No gnome may enter a room on fire until he takes a swig of Grog. But when he does so, he increases his intoxication level by one (to a maximum of four). At the end of a turn where you've had a swig of Grog, you're forced to check to see if you pass out. And that is a lot of fun. The gnomes gradually get more and more drunk which significantly increases their chance of passing out which, in turn, significantly decreases your chances of success. And if you're really lucky, you'll find some Coffee which will reduce your intoxication level.

It's actually things like this that save this game. Turning it into an actual drinking game where you have to take a serious drink every time your gnome consumes Grog makes the game especially fun, although the success of a game shouldn't really be dependent on how drunk the players are. As events build up, gnomes start passing out, they start stumbling and dropping items, the Kraken attacks at the same time that the missiles are about to go off and the chaos is fun. By the end of the game, your board might look a little something like this...

And then the designers add a clever twist near the end of the game. The sub is almost destroyed and you're all starting to panic. If there are fewer than ten game minutes left, any player with an aqualung can go outside, swim away and abandon their colleagues. That's right! It's co-op until you decide it's a totally lost cause and leave your friends to die. If that happens, you win if they do die, and you lose if they don't. That's a really nice twist for a co-op game.... "It's okay, I'll hold onto the Aqualung in case the Kraken attacks." "No, no, it's fine, I've got it...."

So, there are definitely some really nice touches to this game, particularly the intoxication rules, the sense of chaos and the clever way that turns are determined. What stops this from being a top game, in my opinion, is the annoyingly small board and the need to constantly perform a statistical analysis of likely rolls. 

We played this game twice and won twice. The first game had three players and was ridiculously easy, the second had four and was clearly harder. This makes sense because each player can only perform one action but may end up drawing anywhere between 2-5 events in each turn, meaning there's much more to deal with. So, if I were to recommend this game, it would be with a minimum of 4 players.

To the ratings, then...

Accessibility: 4/5 - The rules are short but, weirdly, can be confusing because a couple of differing pages may talk about different aspects of fires, for example. You can easily run a game with only one person knowing the rules and quickly explaining them to the others, though, and that's good.
Design: 2/5 - I've got to go low on this one. The board is nicely drawn but way too small and everything in this game just seems a little cheap.
Depth: 3/5 - Not a particularly deep game, more a game of balancing statistics and placement to minimise damage.
Replayability: 4/5 - It's fun and because much of what happens is dependent on which card you draw or what dice you rolled every game will be different.
Availability: 5/5 - easily available online or in local friendly game stores.

Final Score: 65%. This could have been much better had FFG thought more about how the board works, or doesn't in this case. Unless they actually wanted us to get annoyed at how small the sub was, in which case they lose points for trying to annoy us. A good amount of tension, a lovely possible twist near the end to add to the tension but the downsides to the game, such as the board size and the overdependence of just playing odds, means that while fun, I have to say that there are much better co-op games on the market. If you can get it for free (as if we're somehow all playtesters for FFG getting rewards or something!) or reduced then it's worth picking up. But at full price I would be inclined to say that there are better co-op games on the market and it might be worth spending a little more to get one of them instead. But since I haven't reviewed them yet, I definitely won't tell you what they are, and certainly won't mention Dead of Winter, Pandemic, Flash Point, Mice and Mystics or any other game.

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