Revisiting Earth Reborn
Earth Reborn is a game that doesn't want you to like it, at every step it takes measures that almost ensure it.
First you see the cover of the box, it's loud, aggressive and trashy. Zombies, Frankenstein monsters, futuristic soldiers, a woman hot enough to make feminists angry... it's ridiculous, it's hyper masculine, it's cliché - but there is a niche audience for that kind of pulpy silliness so maybe you pick it up anyway.
Then you open it up.. no board? Piles of tiles, piles of tokens, piles of dice, some cool looking miniatures, and two giant rule books... one a tutorial that is ten scenario's long just to learn the fucking game. What? You didn't buy a boardgame at all, you bought a detailed tactical mini's system.
You shuffle through the rule book, the icons are garish, the rules are dense, you realize it's a long haul game... most gamers like short games, only some like longer games. Every step it tries to stop you from enjoying it. Every step it tries to alienate you, to prove its inaccessibility. Not only does the book look like crap but the rules are, in some cases, poorly explained or even over explained.
More walls in the way, more effort on the part of ER to keep you far, far away. You give up, you start making up reasons why it's no good, you rationalize you're disinterest and the game fades away from your consciousness.
It would be a shame, it would be sad, but it would make sense. I understand. ER does not care about you and it doesn't care if you like it. It doesn't even try. First impressions are generally bullshit but we carry them around anyway.
Once you get passed all of this you slowly start to realize that it's all a sham. ER is a reasonably simple system, just poorly explained. Yes - the icons are ugly, the colours are all wrong but it all makes sense and it does things that almost no other miniatures game does. It might be the most unique miniatures system I've ever played.
It took me around fifteen hours to learn this game fully (this includes playing all the tutorial missions), I bet I could teach it in 15 minutes (in fact just the other night I walked a buddy through SAGS in about that time frame and we played a great competitive game right afterwards). That's how much unnecessary shit is in the rule book. That said, the tutorial isn't some bullshit game, it's a full game with a fun story arch that really lets you have a blast... so those fifteen hours I spent learning were not a total waste. That was a fun time but it could have been packaged a little differently.
Personally, I think it is worth the effort.
Forget the tutorial scenarios for a moment, if you love this game you'll have to get into the SAGS (Scenario Auto Generating System) and it does just what it says it does. The basis of the game is trying to get mission points. You can get them by hacking the computer systems, by torturing opponents, by using the communications systems, by spying, through sabotage, by killing your opponent, by controlling certain rooms and by fulfilling various requirements on your mission cards (you'll have four during the game). There are dozens of different actions you can do, all managed by the same reasonably simple system and they all do something slightly different and they all have a place in the game. Not only that but pretty much every board element is destructible so the board can be constantly changing as you play. You can put a character with a blade saw for a hand behind someone inside a room and then cut through the wall and attack them.
Even though the system used to cut through a wall, or operate a jet pack, or hack a computer, or use the satellite uplink is the same in all cases it just doesn't feel that way. The actions feel unique and different in each case. It's exciting to try out a new piece of equipment.
This equipment comes from different places. They can be board elements like the communications system or the chemistry lab or they can be pieces of equipment you find like the laptop computer or the medical kit. In fact searching for equipment is one of the best parts of the game. There is a big double sided deck of items you can find (all with related weights so make sure you can carry it) and you get to search through that deck depending on a roll using special search dice. The dice let you either just flip through cards or possibly shuffle or flip the deck, then there's spy points to be rolled as well which give you some options. Then the item you want has to be something you can find in this room. Just match the icon on the card to one in the room you're in. This stops you from finding the US constitution in the armory or a rocket launcher in the bathroom. It's a great system, it feels very real and the action of flipping through cards does represent the idea of frantically searching through a room surprisingly well. Each item has a tangible use given the appropriate circumstance and nothing is a total waste. Almost every room has some searchable items. If I was writing those awesome "One Mechanic Reviews" I would certainly do it on this particular mechanic.
You will, of course, also fight each other. Both hand to hand combat and ranged combat and in both cases with a variety of different weapons. But you knew that part, you just didn't think it would be by some guy using a jet pack to close the gap between you and then attacking you with Freddy Krueger claws while you attempt to run away.
The basic actions are Move, Attack, Search and Perform Action... 'perform action' is a ton of shit, everything else is straight forward. What's even better is that you can move, attack and move again.. or move one guy, attack with a different dude, then move the old dude back.. unless the other guy decides to try and stop it by stealing a turn in the middle of all that. You can challenge a person when you see them, a bid will happen and whoever wins gets to move next.. this means your enemy can act during your turn even if that character has already acted. Be ready to bid high... this isn't just for op fire, it can be to run away or to use a piece of equipment and the bidding can be quite crucial at times but it doesn't define the game. Although it can become a game in and of itself after awhile. The thing to keep in mind though is that the same 'currency' you're bidding with is the same command points you use to execute the actions you want to perform. Bid too often or too high and you just won't have many actions left to perform. I frequently let my opponent out-bid me... sometimes I'd rather act later and have more actions. Bidding seems like the main component of this game when you first start playing... the subtleties of that system open up after some time is put in.
The other day I was playing a game of this and I played tiles on my characters for four turns before I actually did anything, those tiles have actions on them I could perform - but I choose not to for now. I just put the tiles there and didn't act. When the fifth turn came I played one more tile and started my actions. I had previously put a bunch of gold actions on the character that wasn't active this turn which means I can use her to interrupt my own turn. She had both move and shoot as gold actions. Now both characters can more somewhat simultaneously. She shoots first then runs behind the guy who was originally activated, now my opponent decides to try an interrupt... he wins and runs away but the guy who was originally activated has plenty of move available, chases her down and shoots her in the face, the my other character moves into a better position... all in one turn. That shit happens in ER all the damn time. Add on to this that pretty much everything is destructible so the board can look totally different by end game and hiding in a house won't necessarily save you from being attacked from behind.
Unfortunately there are a few flaws... some of the character abilities are awesome... some much less so. Frank Einstein and Cherokee Bill both have really shitty ones. Frank is secretly in love with feminist nightmare and Cherokee Bill is a dirty traitor. So Frank can be turned to the other team if feminist anger makes a reasonably simple skill check.. this kind of sucks and makes you either avoid her (which is hard... she is really fast) or just not choose him for the scenario at hand. An unnecessary limitation. Cherokee Bill can be used by the enemy on any turn if you don't use him right away. So now two things are scripted for that faction. Cherokee will go first and Frank is watching out for feminist anger. That's just how it is and it is cool in the scenarios.. it's even cool in the SAGS at first but it quickly wears off. More factions are almost a necessity although I do think you can still get dozens of games of this in and have a blast every time. It's still worth it. With all its flaws this is probably the best game I've ever played that has so many things wrong with it. It's a beautiful Frankenstein, an ugly masterpiece and you need to own it for yourself to see how it works for you.
I will never part with Earth Reborn. I see lots of mistakes but I see more inspiration and more genius. It's sad that the game hinders its own enjoyment because more factions would have been incredible, and the system is so beautiful you almost wish it could have been more influential. This is some incredible design work and it's a shame so many balls were dropped on the road from Christophe Boelinger's brain to our table but if you're the right kind of gamer you'll navigate your way into his frame of mind and experience one of the most perfect miniature systems every devised. One that allows for more creativity and imagination than pretty much any miniatures system I've ever seen. This is a game that shows how - what we usually call 'chrome' - can be so much more than that. It can actually be a viable and real part of the game that adds options that make sense, are fun, and add to the story.
Earth Reborn will never get an expansion (my guess) and it would greatly benefit from one, it's honestly a two player game but the web page tries to convince you that it's two to four... sure, there's a scenario or two for that but really it's a two player game and that's it. Still , don't fret, there is a hell of a lot of game in this box even with no expansions whatsoever and I still dream sometimes that an expansion is going to be kickstarted at some point. Probably not, but the game is so good it does make you fantasize about it. Besides, with only two factions there is a real chance that you might actually paint them all one day.
So even though Earth Reborn tried to make me hate it, even though it spat in my face again and again... I still ended up loving it. The most imperfect perfect game I've ever fallen for... and honestly, aren't all our best lovers like that?