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Neuroshima Hex!

February 26, 2009

Neuroshima Hex! is a tactical wargame for 2-4 players, published by Portal/Z-Man Games.  Design by Michal Oracz, playable in about 30 minutes.  Ages 12 and up.

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(images courtesy of www.zmangames.com)

How many plays does it take to know a game’s merit (ignoring the subject of relativity in the “art” of criticism)?   I’ve pondered this question often lately, especially when I break out Neuroshima Hex for the sixth time in an effort to get a feel for its long-term replayability.  Replayability is of course a hard aspect to judge without repeated plays.  Theme and components can be judged fairly after even one play in most cases.  But what of mechanics?  These are tough questions I’m not going to attempt to answer, but they bear some thought.  Neuroshima Hex! certainly provides some fodder for finding those answers, however.

RULES SUMMARY

Neuroshima Hex! employs a tile system incorporating three different types of tiles: action tiles, units, and modules.  Examples of action tiles include Move, Push Back, and Battle.  Units are the game’s troop types, while modules are tiles such as officers and medics granting your units certain bonuses.   Four armies are provided with the base game, all individual in their own look and feel.  HQs are first on the board, and each army’s HQ grants various bonuses as well.   The first player to do 20 damage to the opposing player’s HQ wins the game.  Alternately, the game may end after the final battle granting victory to whomever is ahead on points.

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Players take turns drawing three tiles and after discarding one, either place the remaining two on the board or use action tiles as they see fit.  Units have simple symbols that provide information about which direction they will fire, the phase of the battle in which they will fire (initiative value ranging from 0-3), and any special abilities they may have.  The longer triangles are ranged attacks, the shorter melee attacks.

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For instance, this Moloch unit can attack straight ahead with a ranged attack of a strength of one, doing one damage to the first enemy unit, module, or HQ it hits.  The 2 and 1 are initiative, indicating it will fire once in phase 2 and once in phase 1.  The plus sign is a special ability of toughness, granting one extra wound to the unit.  Compare to another unit, this one of the Outpost army:

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This unit can attack in one direction with a melee strength of 2, as shown by the two short triangles on top, and in the other direction with a ranged attack, strength 1.  It will fire once in phase 3 followed by an attack in phase 2.  Its special ability is mobility which allows it to move once per turn after it is placed on the board. 

During battle, players start with the highest initiative values and resolve all attacks simultaneously.  After removing casualties, the next highest initiative resolves.  In this way, the board is cleared for new units, or survivors stay on until the next battle occurs.

GAMEPLAY ANALYSIS

I can honestly say this one is unique, or at least I’ve never played anything quite like it before.  The tactical nature of the combat can be quite intense.  One must constantly be trying to see several “moves” ahead in the sense of what your opponent may play on his next turn and what the board will look like after each phase of the next battle.  The game provides a visceral experience which is an impressive feat for a board game. 

My concerns are two-fold: balance and luck.  The armies are radically different.  In theory, this asymmetry is ideal, but it seems very difficult to win a game against the Outpost, a highly mobile army, if you are playing the Borgo, the close combat specialists with limited movement and almost no ranged attackers.  Moving the HQ at the right time can be devastating against the Borgo, and it’s fairly easy to turtle against them as well.  I haven’t seen such issues with any of the other armies, however, and it’s possible that my relative inexperience can account for this concern. 

The second issue is a bit more troubling – that of the luck factor.  I would have liked more options on my turn.  Drawing a powerful tile at the wrong time can put you at a serious disadvantage.  Likewise, drawing all action tiles two turns in a row is not much fun either.  Granted, both players must work around this possibility of bad luck, but I can’t help but feel a different drawing mechanism or the possibility of storing a certain amount of tiles for later use could have gone a long way towards mitigating some of that luck.  The problem with such a fix is that it would probably increase the play time of the game.  Right now, Neuroshima Hex! clocks in at a lean 35-40 minutes with experienced players, and it seems about perfect for a game of this weight. 

As it is, Neuroshima Hex! remains a fast tactical brawl which is highly unique and stylized.  Its pros far outweigh its cons, and expansions (one of which is already released) and scenarios will add to the experience. 

RATINGS

Components/Presentation: 7/10 – The board and tiles are a little small for my taste, as it can require some hunching over the table to see the necessary symbols.  But the great artwork gives each army its own identity.  The rulebook gives very helpful turn-by-turn examples and an efficient FAQ.

Theme: 8/10 – The apocalyptic sci-fi setting is based on a Polish RPG which I know nothing about, but it translates well into this wargame.

Mechanics: 8/10 – I’d like to score these higher just for originality alone, but my concerns mentioned earlier hold me back. 

Replayability: 9/10 – With the four armies playing so differently and creating vastly differing matchups, you’re going to have a lot of time in this one before it starts to feel old.  Add to that the possibility for playing 3 or 4 players and the option of team play, and it becomes apparent that there is a lot of game in this box.

Fun Factor: 8/10 – If you like intense tactical battles and don’t mind burning a few brain cells in the process, you’ll love Neuroshima Hex!

Overall: 8/10

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