These days there is so much information about the games, both pre- and post release that text reviews are starting to feel a bit redundant. In the case of Blackout Hong Kong this probably applies to the latter but certainly not the former. There was hardly any pre-Essen information about this game and for reasons I will expand on later this is probably because there was a chance it wasn’t going to make it to the fair.
For those who have been out of circulation for the past few months, this is the latest big game from Eggertspeile and Alexander Pfister in which, during a total power failure, players assemble teams that search for and gather resources to fulfill objectives and earn victory points.
Most of this is handled via cards which are purchased from a card market. These are not added to one’s deck but to a personal objective display and they do not come into one’s deck until one completes the requirements at the base of the card.
The requirements are most often based on the gathering of resources and this is done via a unique mechanic – a rondel of different resources where, in any one round, only 3 are easily available as determined by the roll of 3 coloured dice. One can get the other resources that are not rolled but this requires transport tokens. But it’s not a matter of just selecting the available resources. Players have to use cards in their deck that have coloured squares in the top corner, and the number and type of resources one can gather is determined by the number of coloured squares on the cards played each round. So, putting this all together, for a spread of resources you need a spread cards from the market that have coloured squares. In one’s starting deck you have cards with mostly one square whereas in the market there will be cards with up to 3 squares.
Think you can just play cards to get resources? Think again. This is Pfister. Here he uses a mechanic reminiscent of Mombasa but with some important differences. The first phase of a round is rolling the three coloured resources dice. The second is Planning – where players select up to 3 cards to play and put them face down in designated columns at the bottom of their player boards. Then, in turn order, cards are turned face up and actions are taken, mostly in order to fulfill the objectives on their objective cards. I have already mentioned the main action – gathering resources – and players do just that, using transport tokens if they need resources that are not rolled that round. But there are also cards with specialists and they have special actions – like the mechanic who gives money plus extra money in exchange for a tool resource. Others affect other phases of the round and I’ll mention them later.
After the ‘fulfilling objectives’ phase comes the search phase. I haven’t mentioned the main board yet, not because it is so deadly dull (which it is) but because it is only now that one focuses on the main thematic element of the game – searching in areas of the board and attempting to secure these areas by surrounding them with cubes of one’s own colour.
Let’s first talk about searching. Players can search in any area where they have a least one cube on an adjoining node point. Areas have between 3 and 7 node points, and node points will be touching at least two areas. Searching involves looking at all 3 counters in an area, and then assembling a search team comprising at least one card with a search icon on it, but you need at least 4 search icons to get anything from a search. If one has the required number of search icons one can take one of the three counters and receive the reward. Rewards can be resources, money and so on. This balancing of the use of cards for actions and fulfilling objectives or for search icons is one of the exquisite difficult decisions one has to make. Searching and laying down cubes to surround areas can be an important source of victory points. The more cubes one has on nodes when an area is secured the more victory points one scores. The search tiles also ratchet up the scoring – the more different ones a player has at the end of the game the more points one scores. As if this was not enough, specific search counters also unlock an objective on the emergency plan card, one of which is placed on each Players board at the start of the game. But searching has its cost. Each time you perform a search one random card from the cards participating in the search (remember cards have search icons on the side) is injured and goes to hospital. The only way to get cards out of the hospital is to use the doctor specialist – one of the other specialist cards in one’s starting deck.
Wait, there’s more. If you are the first player to secure an area (by having your cubes on all of the surrounding nodes) you get to place a field office there, and this unlocks one of five special actions, available to be taken at the end of your turn IF you refresh your hand.
Now I have to explain refreshing your hand AND other special actions (called checkmark actions). One of the last phases of the round is refreshing one’s hand. If you have 0 to 4 cards left in your hand you can pick up the cards in the column with the most cards. This aspect of the game is probably the most critical to get right. In each game I have played there has been at least one player that has messed up the timing and this has set them back badly. For the first two games I wondered why cards depicting the resources on each of the coloured dice was included. Then I realized that if all of my, say, red cards were in a column stuck on my player board the chances of getting a resource was slim or costly. You need to refer to this card and spread those resource cards. You also need to balance buying resource cards (with the coloured squares), specialists and other objective cards that give you checkmark actions.
Checkmark actions are free actions (if you can fulfill the requirements) available to you if you refresh your hand that turn. They are obtained through the fulfillment of specific objectives and through securing an area and adding a field office. I haven’t personally been successful in gathering many checkmark actions but I have seen it done and it seems like a sound strategy.
As is probably common when confronted with a game with this many interrelated parts I tend to get a little bit of everything but to date this has not worked out for me, mainly because of messing up the timing. Buying the wrong cards at the market; not having enough money to buy the needed cards at the market; not having enough search icons in my hand to take the search tile I need; not surrounding areas and thus not unlocking my checkmark actions; not having the resources or card to fulfill the objectives so I that I can get the right cards into my hand…I sure know how not to play the game.
Still, despite the bland black board that doesn’t remotely resemble Hong Kong and the somewhat pedestrian turn phases which, while each being thematic, feel a bit procedural overall, I love the game in all its puzzling glory. I always feel the next game I’ll be better, and I have improved in some areas only to mess up in others. The game makes me want to keep trying different combinations and I’m happy to play it anytime someone suggest it.
There is also a solo mode and a campaign game that will only be attempted once I understand the game better.
Thoughts from other Opinionated Gamers
Doug G: Shelley and I LOVE this new Pfister title! The mechanism for pulling cards back into your hand reminds me of the recent Kashgar, but this one’s heft and solid interlocking mechanisms make it a winner! Shel and I talk about it on Episode 651 of the podcast.
Alan H: Pfister+Eggertspiele meant purchase for me. The game requires you to plan carefully which you can’t do until you know the implications of your choices so the first game or two are spent learning these issues. If you are a person who decides about a game on the first play then you might miss the subtleties of the game. Which would be a pity as the game has good depth and replayability and rewards your choices. I lost touch with the theme, but that did not worry me, as the interesting systems engaged me. While the game is not the most complicated one, it offers significant challenge with plenty of choices. It was one of my best acquisitions from Essen 2018.
Dale Y: Well, I have only had a chance to play it once, and I was a bit muddled throughout. Having read the thoughts of the gamers above – I’m pretty sure that I need to try it again. I’m guessing that my rating may improve at that time. I’m guessing that a better understanding of the checkmark actions will make the gameplay better. For now, as I have not played enough, I with-hold a rating.
Lorna: Another solid entry from Eggertspiele and Pfister did a nice job or reusing the hand management mechanism from his previous game. It just lacked a little zing to make me love it.
Mark Jackson: My one play of this was great – for some reason, I “grokked” how the game worked… well, enough for a solid 2nd place. I found it a nice balance between creative game systems and capturing a bit of the theme. Like Alan, I think they could have gone farther thematically, but I wouldn’t want them to muddy the waters with chrome rules. I’d be happy to play again.
Craig M: Had the chance to play once and finished feeling like I needed to give it another go which is good, but the experience was muddled like Dale’s. The theme is a fun, fresh choice, but poorly utilized and integrated into the game which was a disappointment given that I thought there was some promise there. For now I’ll toss it in the “like it” category with the the thought it could go up or down.
Simon Neale: This is becoming my favourite of the big games that I picked up at Essen. Balancing how many cards to play into your stacks with refreshing your hand can be challenging. The mechanics all mesh well together and nothing feels like it has been unnecessarily added to the game. I do have concerns over the artwork though as the Scout Token graphics are far too small to be seen from right in front of you that alone from the other side of the table. Couple that with the white print on yellow dice, the similarity of the Book and Fuel icons and you have yourself a few significant issues to speedy play. With the gameplay being so very good, perhaps a second printing can address the graphic issues.
James Nathan (1 play): I really like what Pfister has done with the card mechanics here: the cost structure for acquiring; the further step to “achieve” them; working with the colors in certain piles; using scouting as a scalpel, a hatchet, and places in between, as a trashing mechanic.
But that’s the game I want to play. That’s not this game. Here my experience was muddled by many things, but most of them are the players’ interface with the game. Like Simon says above: the similarity of the book and fuel icons; white printing on the yellow dice; size of the icons on the scouting tiles (though for me, the Scouting action seems disjointed from the rest of what we’re doing).
But also, how the resources are tracked – each player reaching into the central board which can become crowded with cubes that obscure the resource it represents. And by all means don’t sneeze. Could this have been tracked on the players’ boards?
The game was fine, but the physicality of playing it turns me off.
Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers
- I love it! Alan H, Doug G., Simon Neale
- I like it. Lorna, Mark Jackson Craig M., Nathan Beeler
- Not for me… James Nathan
- Abstain. Dale Y