One of Oracz's greatest designs, the simplicity and depth of Neuroshima Hex makes it a pillar of the modern gaming world.
Michal Oracz is one of my all-time favorite designers. There are little elements that turn his games from something that might have been easily definable into moments where you're attempting to compare it to something else and simply failing. Theseus: The Dark Orbit is the game that convinced a friend who detests Dudes on a Map games to play one and actually enjoy it; mostly because she insists that Theseus isn't a DoaM and, in many ways, she's right. It's kind of a DoaM, but it's also kind of a puzzle-solving game... except that the puzzle is created by the opposing players, rather than the game itself, and you're busy creating one for them, too. Similarly, Cry Havoc seems like another mini-heavy wargame, but the innovation created by the combat system, where you have to weigh the advantages of winning the actual fight over capturing or killing as much of the enemy as possible (which is, y'know, how you usually win the actual fight in most games), was so unusual that no less a designer than Eric Lang admitted that he outright swiped the concept for Rising Sun. But most people would suggest that Oracz's crowning achievement is one of his earliest: Neuroshima Hex; not only for its enduring depth, but also for the thematics that his company, Portal Games, has used for so many other successes.
At its root, Neuroshima Hex is really a simple game. You draw three hexagonal tiles on each turn: discard one and play or save the other two. Whoever has the most points (i.e. life total on their HQ) after all the hexes have been played is the winner. In some respect, it's a DoaM, as you're attempting area control with units that have different abilities and, frequently, different modes of attack. There will be a number of battles fought with casualties inflicted on both sides that reset the board conditions each time. OTOH, like Theseus, it's kind of a puzzle solver, because you have to predict the result of combat that might come next turn or not for several turns, which gives it more of an abstract nature. Throw in the variety of no less than 17 different factions, each with a clear and distinct identity, and you have a game that feels like it could be masking a certain level of complexity, in the same way that some minis games like 40K imply that you're just rolling a lot of dice, but which have dozens of arcane rules and stats that take a number of plays to truly comprehend. But NH falls under that "easy to learn, difficult to master" tagline, because understanding your random draw is easy. Figuring out how to make best use of it is what takes time. Just as important, the average game should take about a half hour, which means there are lots of opportunities to gain that wisdom. So, I thought I'd use this short series to delve into some of the nuances of the game and the various factions and try to elaborate upon some of the magic therein.
The setting of Neuroshima Hex is one of post-apocalyptic chaos, drawn from sources like the Terminator and Matrix films. In 2020 (around the time you're reading this(!)), an electronic entity calling itself Moloch decided to change the natural order of things and take over. That entity is still waging war with the remnants of humanity and... other things that have emerged in the interim. That’s what your battlefield looks like. The first thing to keep in mind is how you look at your battlefield.
The board is a 19-space hexagon (keep in mind that I’ll be talking almost strictly about the 2-player game here.) Two of those spaces will always be occupied by your respective HQs. The game is based on how you and your opponent fill up the other 17 spaces. Since the game is played down from 20 points and actual combat can often be kept to a minimum, it’s often important to set up key moments where you can do a minimum of damage to the opposing HQ. I’ve won a number of games with narrow margins like 19-17. Similar to Tiny Epic Mechs, it’s not about huge explosions and blasting each other to pieces (usually.) It’s typically about getting in a few hits at the right time and then foiling your opponent’s attempts to do the same.
There are two types of damage in the game, for the most part: melee and ranged. In the former, you have to be next to what you’re hitting. With the latter, you can be across the board and even shoot over your own units’ heads. But both of those properties pale in comparison to the other key aspect of most tiles: Initiative. If your opponent strikes before you do, it doesn’t matter how cool your gun is. You’re dead, anyway. So, you have to be aware of the essential nature of your faction and how it interacts with the opposition. Is it more ranged-based or into close combat? How fast do your tiles act? How mobile are they, if at all? How many Battle tiles does your faction have, so you can consider the odds of when to use one and when to discard?
Similarly, placement is key in this game, and the first one is often the most important. Do you want to be up close and personal with your victims? Then you probably want to place your HQ in the center of the board if you’re placing first or a space away from your enemy’s HQ if you’re placing second. OTOH, if you’re the distant love letters type, you’re probably better off sticking to the edge of the board to keep space between you and those wanting to (literally) tear you down. That initial placement will then set a path for how you proceed with your units. However, don’t forget that the HQ is a unit and can be relocated with a Move tile just like anything else. If things are going awry, change/adapt/overcome.
Moloch: 17 warriors (Blocker x2, Hybrid x2, Gauss Cannon, Juggernaut, Hunter-Killer x2, Protector, Guard, Armored Guard, Armored Hunter x2, Hornet, Net Fighter, Stormtrooper, The Clown); 6 modules (Medic x2, The Brain, Mother, Officer, Scout); 11 actions (Battle x4, Move x1, Push Back x5, Air Strike)
Moloch, the cause of (and solution to!) all of Neuroshima’s problems, has 17 warriors (i.e. hexes that actually commit to combat when a Battle is initiated), more than any other faction in the game except Borgo and Iron Gang, and about evenly divided between melee and ranged attacks. Most players do tend to view Moloch as a shooting faction, since they have the awesome Gauss Cannon, which can wipe out whole rows of enemies, and a number of units with Armor, which favors setting up shooting nests that can't easily be pried apart without really fast enemies. In other words, Moloch likes to turtle, spray and pray. Many players think that the best route to take in that respect is to place the HQ on the edge of the board and then surround it with (hopefully Armored) shooters, but Blockers, with Armor and double Toughness, serve the purpose of preventing damage to your HQ just as well. (Remember what I said about winning with narrow margins?) Interestingly, the machines have the lowest number of units that can actually be enhanced by their HQ’s ability (7.) However, Moloch also has multiple Toughness units, which means even if you do get near them, it’s often going to take two hits to carve your way through. Other key units are high Initiative, multi-directional melee units like Hunter-Killers and dual attackers like the Stormtrooper (with Toughness), who can kill one enemy in a line on one phase and the next on the next.
Howevah, Moloch is a bunch of big, stodgy machines. They lack mobility almost entirely, having only one Move tile. Their modules are often incidental, other than the Mother (extra attack) and their two Medics (further frustration with Armor and Toughness.) They also have issues with timing, as they only have 4 Battle tiles, so it will often be your opponent who has more of a chance to initiate fights in their favor. They do have 5 Push Back tiles, though (more than any other faction in the game except Dancer), which means that enemies clustering around their bunker might find themselves exposed more than they like. Those tiles can often be used to save their HQ and set up a better Air Strike, as well.
Borgo: 17 warriors (Mutant x6, Claws x4, Net Fighter x2, Brawler x2, Assassin x2, Super Mutant); 6 modules (Officer x2, Scout x2, Medic, Super Officer); 11 actions (Battle x6, Move x4, Grenade)
From Moloch, we turn to their original creations: the mutant slave warriors of Borgo. Like Moloch, Borgo has 17 warriors and among the highest average initiative in the game, which is only further empowered by their HQ. They need that speed because they only have two ranged units among those 17. Aggressive HQ placement is important for Borgo. Check that: pretty much aggressive everything is important for Borgo. You have to come to grips (almost literally) with your opponent as quickly as you can, because your guys, while fast, aren’t very well suited to cracking open bunkered-in opponents (like Moloch.) You have no Toughness except on one module and it seems like your mobility isn’t great (the only Mobility is on your two Assassins: the ranged units.) Like Moloch, your modules can be kind of an afterthought.
Except… there’s a strategy there that’s almost dictated by the identity of the faction: hit and run. Or “hit and die”, more accurately. You will often strike before many of your opponent’s units. You want to use those strikes to get in as many hits on the enemy HQ as you can before you die. Key to this effort is the placement of Net Fighters, who not only will freeze the HQ but also deal out 3(!) hits. Drop a couple Mutants in front of them to keep them alive and, if you’re able to dish out a couple battles worth of damage to the HQ, you’ll take a big step toward victory. I mention that it seems like your mobility isn’t great, but Borgo actually have the third-most Move action tokens in the game, behind Dancer and Outpost, so it is possible to get your pieces into decent positions. Or move your HQ up so that everything hits faster and you can close the vise on the enemy. A well-timed Grenade can preserve that narrow margin of victory by removing a threat to that forward-placed HQ.
The Outpost: 12 warriors (Commando x5, Runner x2, Annihilator x2, HMG, Mobile Armor, Brawler); 8 modules (Medic x2, Scout x2, Officer, Scoper, Saboteur, Recon Center); 14 actions (Battle x6, Move x7, Sniper)
These guys are the Pure Strain Humans of the NH world (for those of you steeped in Gamma World lore.) They’re the remnants of society that haven’t descended into feral gangs and are still trying to use human technology against the machines and anything else that gets in the way. Outpost have one of the lowest warrior counts in the game, at 12, but a decent number of modules and a rather brilliant amount of mobility. Where Borgo use the “hit and die” approach, tossing mutants into the meat grinder, Outpost embodies its theme of preserving what it can from the old world and can use genuine “hit and run” tactics, setting up a shooting nest as far away as possible and then moving away when enemies come to pry it open. Outpost only has 4 melee warriors but, of course, 3 of those 4 are the ones who have the inherent Mobility ability, so that angle of combat isn’t something to be ignored. Also, like Borgo, given the relatively high initiative rating of their units, the HQ’s power of granting an extra attack can be ridiculously good, since you’ll rarely miss out on being able to access it.
Your basic Commandos are going to be your bedrock. They’re your most numerous warrior type (5) and with a ranged attack on Initiative 3, will often be your most effective. Save one of your 7(!) Move tokens to shift their position when the enemy deploys out of your line and you should be set. Similarly, getting an Annihilator in line with the enemy’s HQ can be key to victory, since double-tapping in every fight is excellent, in addition to using them to remove Tough units. The Outpost are the only faction in the base set to have both enemy-affecting modules and one (Recon Center) that has a board-wide effect. That tends to make their modules far more impactful than the others and resources that Outpost wants to protect, if at all possible. The rather ridiculous moves you can make with Mobile Armor while Recon Center is in play are something to savor.
Hegemony: 16 warriors (Ganger x4, Runner x3, Universal Soldier x3, Net Fighter x2, Thug, Gladiator, Guard, Net Master); 7 modules (Officer I x2, Officer II, The Boss, Quartermaster, Scout, Transport); 11 actions (Battle x5, Move x3, Push Back x2, Sniper)
Hegemony are the Mad Max aspect to the NH world; roving gangs in the wastes outside the domain of Moloch, following the tenets of “survival of the fittest” or, at least, spikiest. Like Borgo, Hegemony are a melee-oriented faction, with 16 warriors and all but 3 of them limited to close combat. However, they also have a reputation for flexibility, given the mix of initiative ratings, the prevalence of Net warriors (tied with Neojungle and Iron Gang for the most in the game), and the mix of modules; notable among them: The Boss (+1 melee and initiative), Transport (+1 movement), and Quartermaster (allows conversion of one type of attack to another.) Hegemony are one of the factions that can adapt well to the “poor draw” phenomenon, where the draw of the tiles determines what you can or cannot do.
Among the standout performers will usually be Runners, whose decent Initiative and Mobility will allow them to fill gaps and/or disrupt opponent formations; Universal Soldiers, with the capability to take out a Tough adjacent opponent at Initiative 3 or be placed at range to pick off more vulnerable targets; and the Net Master, who can not only disable two opponents, but also get in a kill. I’ve had good experiences using him to disable the opponent’s HQ, while being able to clear a defender of that HQ in the same battle. Hegemony also have a good mix of action tiles (5 Battle, 3 Move, 2 Push Back, plus Sniper), which adds to their impression of flexibility and ability to respond to varied situations. One example is that, given the HQ’s ability (+1 melee), it’s not a bad idea to do a Borgo, place it in a forward position, and try some smash-and-grabs. On the other hand, given the decent amount of mobility in Hegemony, moving up during the game is also an option. If you’re wondering why the post-apocalyptic future is dominated by gangs, Hegemony is probably a good answer.
Next time: We’ll look at the other human factions still struggling in our changed world, from the major cities to the lowdown bayous in Neuroshima Hex, Now and Forever (Part II)