Friday, June 29, 2012

On Board the Red November

Red November is a different sort of cooperative game. Certainly, everyone remains on the same team. But it's more like 6 rats might all be on the same team if you toss them in a bag and throw it in the river. There exists the kind of overall strategy that comes with staying alive: fires must be fought, floodwaters need be pumped and door hatches must be reopened and unstuck. But the chaos reigns so heavy that small strategy…so-called "optimal play," just doesn't seem to exist.

So no matter how smart everyone else at the table might be, you'll have plenty of intellectual and personal space to stretch out and slowly (or possibly quickly) asphyxiate to death.

There is danger in Red November. Not the "saving the kingdom" sort of danger you see in other games but a close, personal level of danger you can feel icily over your shoulder and smell on your own grog-saturated breath.

The game starts with a perfectly functional, if highly experimental and star-crossed, gnomish submarine. Each player represents a different gnomish sailor, going about his normal day-to-day duties. The job of every player is to ensure the Red November continues to function for a full 60 minutes of in-game (turn-based) time. The beginning player gets a single glorious turn of trouble-free bliss to make plans, then the cacky starts hitting the fan with alarming regularity.

Events are drawn from a central deck, about 60 cards in total, and the absolute best event for the crew is "nothing happens." Most of the other cards result in a more routine level of danger: fires, flooding, overheating, and increases in pressure. Finally, a few choice cards produce the major threats to the game. Major pressure, overheating and asphyxiation events…as well as the occasional accidental missile launch and ever a kraken attack.

The structure of a turn is you deciding which current situation is the most pressing, deciding how much time it will take to get there, and then deciding how much time you want to spend working on the problem to hopefully solve it. Walking around takes a couple minutes, unless you have to spend some time wading through water-filled rooms. Then when you get to the fire, or the broken cooling pipes or whatever, each minute you choose to spend fixing the problem adds 1 to the roll of a very ominously colored red Action Die.

Suceed the the problem is fixed, fail your roll and you spend your minutes for nothing. And something else probably breaks in the meantime.

The random distribution of the events in the deck mean your group will go through short periods of relative calm (when there is only a few fires or floods to deal with) followed by periods of crazy activity.

Drawing some events before other events can either make things easier or exponentially harder. Drawing a fire is bad enough. But drawing a blocked hatch event which happens to disrupt access to the area on fire is much, much worse.

Throughout the vessel you will stumble across extra equipment to help in your many tribulations. A water pump provides a handy bonus to a single pumping roll, saving you valuable minutes. A engineering manual provides a bonus to a single engine fixing roll. Again, saving time.

There is one item which must be held above all others, and that is Grog. Grog is to gnomes as spinach is to Popeye…providing an instant bonus to any activity you might be facing at the moment.

Drinking Grog helps you

Enter a burning room
Fight a Fire
Unstick a sealed room hatch
Pump water out of a flooded room
Fix the oxygen re-breathers
Cool off the engine
Bring the Red November closer to the surface
Fight the Kraken
Guess the secret abort codes to stop the launch of nuclear missiles

To prevent you from drinking all the Grog to gain all these amazing powers, there is a downside. Each use moves you further down a inebriation track, from giddy "stage 1" down to half-comatose "stage 4". Passing out becomes more of a hazard the drunker you get, and a passed out gnome is living on borrowed time indeed. Fires and floods become instant death if you happen to be in the same room in a passed out condition.

Overall, Red November is crushingly hard and highly random. Sometimes a flood will happen next to a fire, and put the fire out automatically. Sometimes a hatch will seal itself shut and a fire will break out and the nuclear missiles will start launching, all on the same room, and then you better hope you can clear the stack of problems before the whole submarine goes up.

In the last game I played, luck was with us…feeding the team fires and floods in an orderly fashion and keeping us on our toes but close to armageddon only a few times. My character died (passed out in a room that started on fire) on the last turn, but his ghost was able to enjoy the sight of the remaining gnomes making it back to safety. It was the first successful win during my ownership of the game.

And it all fits in a pretty small box too!