March 31st, 2005
I’m a board gamer, not a computer gamer. And when I do play video games, they are almost never “First-Person Shooters.” I have nothing against the genre and enjoy playing them from time to time, but I seem largely immune to their more addictive qualities.
So I didn’t buy Doom: The Board Game because I’m a Doom fan; I picked it up because, rather unexpectedly, I’d been hearing good things about it from fellow board game fans. Those in a position to know said it was remarkably faithful to the computer game in atmosphere, but the raves focused more on the fact that it encourages strategic play, provides plenty of opportunities for meaningful decisions, and rewards clever tactical maneuvering. It was this assessment that convinced me to pick up.
But I try to pick it up as rarely as possible, for fear of throwing out my back. The first thing you notice about Doom is the weight of the game, and a peek inside the box reveals the reason: it is packed with components, including scores of small (and some not-so-small) plastic miniatures, dozens of rooms and hallways, and hundreds of counters, as well as dice, cards, reference sheets, and rulebooks. Yes, I said “rulebooks, plural — the game comes with both an instruction booklet (describing how the game is played) and a scenario guide (outlining the five “levels” that players can attempt). But don’t assume that the quantity of rules automatically makes Doom a hideously complicated enterprise. While it’s true that the game features lots of minutia — different stats for different weapons, different ablities for different monsters, etc. — the core system is simple, elegant, and teachable in a matter of minutes.
For those unfamiliar with the video game, here’s the premise. The Marines are conducting Interdimensional Studies in a Martian base, and when something goes kaflooey a portal is opened into the depths of Hell. (I’m not clear if it’s literally Hell or just another plane of existence, but, suffice to say, you wouldn’t want to spend spring break there.) All manner of monstrosities rush through the doorway and overrun the base, killing everyone in their path. As one of the remaining survivors, the goal of the player is to equip himself with the weapons laying around and sprint through the base, shooting (or punching, or chainsawing) everything that crosses his path and striving to find an exit.
In the board game, 1-3 players play as the Marines, and the remaining person serves as the Invader player (thereby controling the monsters). At the start of the game the only “board” on the table is a single room, with the Marines inside and a few doorways on the perimeter. Doom comes with modular rooms and corridors that connect to each other jigsaw-style, allowing the Invader to build the base as the Marines go. In other words, the Marines don’t know what lies behind a door until they open it, at which point the Invader adds the newly revealed area to the existing board and populates it with all sorts of baddies. There is also equipment hidden throughout the levels, allowing Marines to acquire new weapons, ammo, armor, health potions, and more.
Combat in Doom is quite simple. The game comes with a four different types of Combat dice, each with its own characteristics. The blue and the red dice, for instance, do a lot of damage, while the yellow and green dice allow for longer-ranged shots. Each weapon in the game uses a unique subset of the dice: when firing the shotgun the player rolls a blue and a red die, making it a short-range but lethal armament; the pistol, meanwhile, uses a yellow and green die, allowing a Marine to inflict minor wounds on distant enemies. Players possess a number of ammo chips, and must discard one whenever a bullet icon appears during a dice roll. Ammo is therefore a limited and extremely valuable commodity
When a Marine dies — and he will — he is not eliminated. On his next turn he reappears on the board and continues to battle. The Invader player receives a “Frag Point” for each Marine death, however, and wins when he’s accumulated a preset number. The Marines win upon finding the exit and escaping.
Let’s start with the good news: Doom: The Board game is a fun, exciting, and very tense affair. The Invader player is allowed to place one or more monsters onto the board at the start of his turn, so the Marines are never given the opportunity to rest and regroup. They must constantly push forward toward the exit (or toward where they think the exit lies — remember, they don’t know the layout of the level until they’ve opened doors and explored), and must keep a close eye on their remaining ammo lest they run out at a critical moment. The Marines all have distinct special abilities and are able to exchange equipment amongst themselves, and players who make thoughtful, team-oriented decisions will greatly increase their chances of survival.
But those chances of survival for the Marines — even when experienced, even when they work as a team — are bleak. This is the bad news. When played by the full compliment of four players, Doom overwhelmingly favors the Invader player. (When played with three players — two Marines v. the Invader player — the game seems balanced, and when played one-on-one the game apparently favors the sole Marine.) There has been much debate about this issue, and while some dispute that the imbalance exists* and others insist that the imbalance doesn’t matter (because the game is a blast even if the Marines consistently go down in flames), the majority opinion is that the game is virtual unplayable without the adoption of some variants or house rules. One of the more common suggestions is that the Invader play the game not to win, but to ensure that the Marines have a tense, closely-fought match. That works (it’s how I play, in fact), but it means that the Invader has to pull his punches and assume the role of “dungeonmaster” instead of playing to the best of his ability, and that might not be to everyone’s liking.
It’s also worth noting that the game takes 150-180 minutes to play and requires a huge amount of table space. Whether those are pros or cons, I’ll leave to the reader to decide.
I like Doom: The Board Game — so much so that I don’t mind the three hour playing time, and that’s saying something. But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed that the balance issues weren’t ironed out before its release. The designer has since released two “fixes” for the game: a “difficulty mod” that increases the amount of health and ammo the Marines start with, and an easier (and shorter) “Introductory scenario” (both of which you can find on the Doom support page). I appreciate these “patches,” but it seems like after-the-horse-has-left barn-door-closing to me. It’s too bad, because the core system is well designed. If I had to guess, I’d say that Fantasy Flight Games put a lot of time, effort, and playtesting into getting the game itself right, but then skimped when refining the scenarios.
Even so, I’d certainly recommend Doom to anyone who enjoys the video game, and to those board gamers who don’t mind a lopsided contest or have the patience to seek out and adopt enough house rules to get the game to shine.