Earth Reborn Review: Mayhem Evolved

Earth Reborn 

Designer: Christophe Boelinger
Publisher: Z-Man Games, Ludically
Players: 2-4
Ages: 13+
Time: 30 minutes-3 hours
Times Played: 6x Mostly 2-player
MSRP: $80

Reviewer: Frank Branham

Disclaimer: I have a business relationship with Z-Man games who is publishing my game Battle Beyond Space this year. I also did a few translations of the designer’s games for Descartes/Eurogames in the distant past.

Looking at the promos for Earth Reborn, I was not really certain what to make of it. The designer has some rather eccentric titles in his portfolio ranging from the delightful Dog-board-lite-RPG of A Dog’s Life to the Chess-like Dungeon Twister. Z-Man was publishing the US version and Zev and I have extremely compatible taste in games. Combine that with some really pretty miniatures, and I was firmly hooked.

So what is It?

Earth Reborn falls somewhere between a hardcore miniatures game and an RPG. There is a ton of content in the box and in the rules. The rule depth is the kind of thing you get with a hundred-page minis game that comes with separate metal minis. Except that the $80 box contains everything that you need to play.

The premise behind the game is very, very European. Through mismanagement, and overuse of toxic substances, our beloved Earth has been laid to waste by various naughty governments. The small pockets of heavily-armed survivors spend their time trying to steal each other’s technology, and generally be mean to each other. They are also armed to the teeth with crazy, futuristic weaponry and drop pods.

Two US-based factions are represented by the 14 figures in the game. NORAD is the moderately bland US “good guys” faction. Their opponents are the Salemites, who follow in the footsteps of Herbert West, and reanimate dead people with glowing green zombie juice. For them, I think I’ll go with “bad guys.”

The characters are a wacky and almost stereotypical lot: Hispanic female ripped whole and bleeding from Aliens. Zombie with circular saw for an arm. Crazed goggle-wearing zombie master. Insane zombie made out of spare parts, who has been upgraded over 400 years. Gigantic walking tank. Enslaved Cherokee who turns on his masters. Token Asian ninja dude.

And in the Box?

….is a lot of stuff. A pack of custom dice, a deck of cards, a cloth bag, 14 plastic minis on really odd-looking stands, and 8 GIGANTIC sheets of tiles, counters, frames for the board. Lastly are two rather frighteningly-large books: one with rules, and one with scenarios. Of special note is the plastic insert. This does a rather good job of partitioning the Tetris-meets-Fallout-looking tiles, with cut areas for every individual shape.

Miniatures:

Are really nice. They are plastic, 28mm “heroic scale” minis with remarkable and very dynamic poses and great detail. The poses and detail are pretty much the equal of the $5/each metal Malifaux figures I have. The figures each consists of 3-8 pieces but are already glued together, attached to the bases, and primed for painting. This is good and bad. If you are painting the figures, the prep is mostly done. If you aren’t painting them, you are stuck with extremely pale off-white shades (white, pale blue, and very pale pink). Assembly at the factory was actually done quite well. I saw only two seams on the minis that required filling with putty before painting: typically I have to fill in two seams per figure.

Painting the minis requires a little care, as there is crucial game information on the base.

Two giant rulebooks?

These sound worse than they are. The entire game is like some gigantic onion of content. Each scenario introduces a few more rules. And you aren’t apparently playing the actual game until you are weaned off the scenarios and using the SAGS. SAGS stands for something on the order of Scenario Auto-Generating System. The layers of our post-apocalyptic onion are sort of:

  1. Move and Stab
  2. Shoot and Interrupt
  3. Interact with Objects and Special Stuff,  Search for Stuff
  4. Torture People and Screw with their Comms, and be Traitors
  5. SAGS

Layer 1 introduces a weird concept. The game centers around order tiles which have action icons on them. You play a tile on a character and then that icon allows you to spend action tokens to move or stab or shoot or do stuff. There are limits to the number of action tokens you can assign per character.

The rest of layer 1 is pretty typical minis stuff. The dice system seems like a variant of Descent. There is an added complication of varying attacks and defenses for facing, which explains the strange color patterns on the bases.

And yet there are still half a dozen more crazy sets of icons on the character cards. And when playing that first scenario, the reason for the whole multi token complexity makes zero sense. You have WAY too many action tokens, and the complexity of the order tiles seems out of place for a simple game.

One cute concept is that everything is destructible. Doors. Walls. Bits of machinery. Mostly doors are the issue, as they are everywhere in the level.

Layer 2 fixes that. Shoot is pretty basic, but the Interrupt rules make the whole game click together. Interrupt (called Duels) is the ER version of Overwatch, allowing you to perform actions on the other player’s turn. This requires winning a blind bid of action tokens. After that, you can do any two actions of the appropriate color. However, you can only add one order token.

This part gets involved, and it reveals the genius of the game. Traditional Overwatch (see Space Hulk) rules allow you to shoot at the other guy. ER allows you to run away, blow up an intervening wall, spawn a zombie. If you did a wee bit of prep, you can set up a reasonable ambush. Even at Layer 2, there is a sophistication here that rivals the more tactical aspects of RPG combat systems, but in less than 8 pages of rules.

At this point, you also have a REALLY good if basic tactical minis game with as much depth as is typical for a board game. The rest is all icing, and is like having the first few expansions in the box with your game.

Into the Mouths of Madness…

Layer 3 starts into the character customization. And begins the first peek into the depths of madness. You see, most rooms also have special things that can be activated. Things like cutting power, or other funky lab things. There are also a bunch of common items which aren’t on the board but can be found by just kind of looking for them.

Looking for them apparently brings with it a whole alien system of flipping through a deck of two-sided cards. Dice rolls give you actions that you can use to rifle through the deck. And all of these cards and tiles use an cryptic iconographic system to describe the action and its effects.

Oh yeah, there is also the walking tank. It is an oversize figure that is too large for many of the narrow doors and corridors. At this point in the rules, we expect to see a little hack in the rules for “squeezing” (D&D term) through the narrow bits. Nope. Not here. Instead the tank gets a big honking gun that is specialized for removing things. Walls. Doors. Chunks of building. The first scenario with the tank feels just a little bit like that boulder scene in Indiana jones.

Layer 4 goes completely over the brink into rules for spying , torturing, taking prisoners, and interrupting communications to restrict the token supplies of your opponents. There are also the possibilities of traitorous characters who can be activated by your opponent.

Actual scenarios

At this point, you’ve been playing the 8 scenarios in the scenario book. The included book includes only two player scenarios, but multi-player scenarios are available in PDF form on the Ludically website.

And they are really, really, just oh wow good. The typical minis game at this point is going to hit you with the classic two-on-two-kill-the-other guy scenario. The advanced scenario might be the “innovative” capture-the-flag.

Earth Reborn starts with Insane Zombie falling for Hispanic Girl, and trying to search frantically through the compound to find her cell and break her out. And they just get better from there with complex tactical situations, hidden tokens, fires, multiplayer standoffs.

Each scenario has a few special rules to really make it stand out. And there is a bit of an X-Com feel to them, although we don’t get aliens in this. The big downside is setup. To make things as modular as possible, the tiles are fairly small and double-sided. Setting up a scenario is pretty painful as you have to empty out the entire box, flip tiles to both sides to put together the jigsaw puzzle, and then add the separate door tokens on top. Folks who think that a Memoir ’44 map is hard to put together are going to hate this. 10 minutes to set up and 45-60 minutes to play. Not too bad, but I really wish there were fewer tiles in sections.

The pain is probably diminished by SAGS. This is a scenario-generating system that includes giving different objectives to each player and makes building the map into part of the game. I did say probably, because I am still in the scenario-playing phase of my experience.

Looking over the method of creating a scenario and the cards looks great. This means that the players contruct the board any old way to make things look interesting, then are given varying objectives from a deck of cards. This is similar to the excellent Malifaux, and the classic Mutant Chronicles. Both of these systems work remarkably well in practice, giving those games life well beyond a basic set of rules. (Mutant Chronicles, in particular, contains an almost painfully simple and basic rules system. The scenario and campaign systems in that game propel it into the stratosphere of genius.)

The Experience

Every play of ER once we got beyond the too-vanilla Layer 1 has been more like an RPG than a minis game.

I bolt my way across a rubble-strewn wasteland, slip into my lab, and get a door in between me and the sniper behind me. Only to see Bob pop in through the other door. I have my gun ready, and so stand my ground and take the first shot. But Bob has armor and a grenade launcher. I barely survive, but the grenade also blows apart the door behind me. And the sniper carefully lines up her shot…

I’m trying to get Ms. Zombie out of the compound during an assault. The first two invaders head the wrong way and get pinned down in an extended firefight, allowing Ms. Zombie and her companion to shamble…very…very…slowly toward an exit. The last invader is bright enough and races ahead to block the door with her body as she is ripped apart by the two zombies. The zombies desperately manage to claw their way out the door, seeing the sunlight as the last agent dives around the corner in a last desperate leap to shoot poor Ms. Zombie in the head.

There is a little more to the experience here than the actual play, however. When I look at Earth Reborn, I see such amazing amounts of details and care in every aspect that it awes me. The art and sculpting are amazing. The wealth and sheer mass of rules and detail is astonishing. The rules are clear, and actually fairly simple. Tactical choices are tricky, and the outcomes are often surprisingly complex.

The Bad Bits

I can only think of two:

  1. The aforementioned long Tetris puzzle game before you start the written scenarios.
  2. The action system is structured so that each character has a limit of actions per turn. This can be split as desired among movement, actions, and combat. There is a tendency to spend them mostly on combat. That kind of leads to some static bashing / shooting standoffs in narrow corridors. It isn’t as pronounced as some games–the scenarios and reasonably deadly resolution help break up these stalemates after a couple of rounds.

The Part at the End Where Your English Teacher Told You to Summarize

This is the kind of modularly-designed game that just screams for expansions. And for once, I don’t really care or look forward to them. There is just SO much stuff and so many options and possibilities in the base game that it feels complete. (I would immediately pounce on some preprinted scenario maps.)

My opponent for the first session looked at a cheap Tannhauser expansion on the way out and promptly declared it “obsolete”. I agree. I also think it takes out Malifaux, and quite a few traditional minis games. It has the depth and breadth of those, but with the clarity and ease of entry of a boardgame.

Comments from Andrea “Liga” Ligabue

I’m a Dungeon Twister fan (I think DT is one of the greatest 2-players game of the last decade) and I’m also really happy about this new Cristophe Boelinger title. Earth Reborn is an excellent game with a great attention to the details: the characters and the theme are deeply explored and the mechanics are great. The turn sequence and the command points & interrupt system works really well and make the game experience fantastic. It is a game you need to play a lot before mastering all the mechanics but, on the other side, the scenarios proposed will introduce you, step by step, into the details. If you are looking for a 2-4 players boardgame about skirmish fighting I think Earth Reborn is the best choice.

Ratings Summary From The Opinionated Gamers 

Love It! (2) ……… Frank Branham, Andrea “Liga” Ligabue
Like It  (0) ………..
Neutral (0) ……….
Not For Me (0) …

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9 Responses to Earth Reborn Review: Mayhem Evolved

  1. Adam K says:

    Fantastic game, fantastic system, but it badly, badly needs pre-made maps. Me and a friend played through a few scenarios and it took us much longer than 10 minutes to put together the map each time due to many of the pieces looking too similar to one another and lack of clear instructions (am I supposed to put the 3 x 1 piece of ruined terrain here or just a 2 x 1 next to a 1 x 1?, etc.). It could have accomplished what it was going for with larger pieces of terrain that didn’t require you to shuffle through 30ish similar-looking 1 inch square tiles to find the right piece.

  2. curtc says:

    Who are the six mystery opinionated gamers who rated the game anonymously?

  3. curtc says:

    This sounds great, and I would probably get it… if the minis were painted.

  4. moofrank says:

    The anonymous ratings were expurgated along with 4 P’s and a Silent Q.
    Only two of us rated it.

  5. edroz says:

    This better live up to the hype, we have a copy in the mail winging it’s way towards us.

    Oh, and everyone needs to take review writing lessons from Frank.

  6. cberg says:

    I’ve had my eye on this one since it was first announced. Even with the strike against it for setup time, I now think I will be picking this up. I will say that the “static bashing / shooting standoffs” does bother me a little though; Tannhauser can devolve into the same type of combat at times. The combat can be so deadly that taking the time to attempt to move to safety is often a death sentence.

    I also agree with Ed, this was a superbly written review. Kudos Frank!

  7. Hello Adam,

    The tiles in the scenario maps are represented with exaggerated rounded corners and highlighted edges so they can be clearly differentiated.

    Great review, by the way. Thanks, Franck.

    Jean-Charles
    Ludically

  8. Frank Branham says:

    Jean-Charles:
    Adam’s complaint does match my major issue with the game. The tiles work well with SAGS, but most people will be setting up the scenarios for some time. And it takes awhile to set up a board just because of the number of tiles, and the fact that they are double sided.

    I actually would like to see a couple of introductory scenarios with full-size maps available for printing. Or as a con giveaway. It would make it SO much easier to introduce the game at a public event.

    • Doug Creek says:

      I own…..and love this game…>>I TOTALLY agree with your suggestion of
      full-size maps for the scenarios<<…..would very much help in getting others into
      to this great game…….even if they won't go that far…and produce them at least
      give us…..a full size pdf file of each scenario…so we could print them…..

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