An abstract that stirs emotion and gets the blood pumping.
Neuroshima Hex! is an odd game as it stands at a prominent crossing of thematic and abstract with its thumb stuck out waiting for Warren Oates to come along in his GTO and give it a ride. It’s decidedly an abstract game yet it also has a huge blanket of theme smothering the composition like a bristling coat on a majestic beast. The fact that it’s now lasted through three iterations and nearly ten years is testament to its durability and lasting character.
This is the same magnificent Neuroshima Hex! that people have been enjoying for years, dressed up in a new rhythm with some new texture via a slick graphic design overhaul. The tiles pop and the board is absolutely beautiful and atmospheric. This newest release also features a quality rules text that’s been cleaned up and even hosts a couple of new surprises. One of the best new elements of this release is the fantastic new three player mode where two players gang up on a single enemy. Play alternates back and forth between each side and the single player’s base possesses a greater degree of health, but the feel is much more interesting and satisfying than the previous free for all that was more problematic than enjoyable. There’s also a large number of solo puzzle cards that feature spicy little challenges requiring problem solving and efficient tile laying to conquer. They’re not meaty enough to justify purchase of the game solely for their inclusion, but they offer a really solid little diversion and additional value pad that is appreciated and worth noting.
Like many abstracts, the core engine is simple to assimilate but allows for a great deal of skill to develop over the long term through numerous plays. Players take turn placing hexagonal tiles setting up vantage points to perform melee attacks on adjacent enemies along specific faces or ranged attacks connecting with the first enemy upon a specific vector. The goal is to take out the opponent’s headquarters before he takes out yours and it’s a battle of attrition and control. The battleground is tight and congested and open dirt evaporates quickly.
One aspect that may prove troublesome for a select group is the nature of the random tile draw each round that results in a faction’s units entering play in an unknown order. Some turns you may really need a tough melee juggernaut to form a wall in front of your HQ but you draw a couple of instant effect tiles and a long range combatant. From the perspective of a thematic gamer this is good stuff as it provides for imprecise knowledge and does a great job in randomizing the experience so that no two games play out similarly. Poor draws are poor draws in the same way that a die may come up a one more often than a six and you can’t sweat it.
There are two key factors in this design that make up its identity and elevate its status – glorious asymmetry and a measured pace of extreme buildup to climax. The former takes shape with each player controlling a very distinct faction in the Neuroshima universe. You have robots, mutants, and partisans spread across four factions that each possess a definite flavor and technique. The setting is like a tasty mashup of Mad Max and Terminator with grit, passion and a bit of smirking fun. Each of the war bands feels very unique and plays quite differently, some embracing mostly melee combat and strength and others flexibility and movement. Mastering each faction in and of itself is a journey that will take dozens and dozens of plays and when one realizes there are numerous additional factions available for purchase the matchups and engagements begin to blossom as your imagination is teased relentlessly.
The pace is perhaps the greatest achievement and is responsible for the greatest defining aspect of the design. While players alternate taking turns placing units on the board, warriors do not attack until a battle tile is played or the battlefield fills up. When either of these occur conflict is triggered and all available units attack in a sequence determined by initiative order. Units attack simultaneously on their initiative number which counts down from three to zero. The quickest of the soldiers will unleash their fury early taking out enemies before they get to go. What this amounts to is a mental juggling of cause and effect as you have to constantly assess the board, figuring out which unit will wreak havoc cancelling other attacks and setting off chain reactions. It’s the most engaging and eloquent quality of play and it’s the source of tension, joy and fury.
The impact of this tempo is profound and not altogether subtle. Players bounce back and forth filling the sparse openings in a smooth yet vicious ballet to a seething and lively beat. The rapidly crowding board takes colorful shape as two composers fill in the void with notes of vigor and sophistication. They duel head to head in brazen challenge as the tempo rises and hearts threaten to leap from their perch. When the crescendo hits and the zenith dawns the resulting explosion of limb and cardboard is bombastic and full of bass like a symphony on edge, completely spent. The whole orchestra goes Borgo and tears each other limb from limb as the standing ovation begs for encore.
This is Neuroshima Hex!, a game that has the unfettering attitude of a Chipotle burrito yet the underlying nourishment of a hearty bowl of Panera vegetable soup. Part of me wants to give it a stiff upper lip for tricking me into enjoying an abstract and another part wants to take it out and buy it a couple rounds. That conflict and turmoil is put aside as soon as the board comes out and the militants hit the table. Massive mechanical robots roll across broken bodies and wasteland punks lay down heavy blankets of fire as my blood is pumping and mind is racing. This isn’t thematic or abstract. This is simply Neuroshima Hex!