Games: Doom The Board Game

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.

* Kevin Wilson, designer of Doom: The Board Game, says the game must be balanced because he can win any scenario playing as the Invader player or on the side of the Marines. That may be true, but he’s the designer, fer crissakes. That’s like saying Bobby Fischer vs. me in chess is an even matchup because the Fischer could win regardless of whether he plays black or white.
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23 comments.

  1. Well, if it bothers you (or anyone else) that much, new missions could be designed. Something like this:
    http://www.boingboing.net/2005/03/15/laptopcontrolled_pro.html

    would be interesting, and at least make it easier to employ. Cool either way.

  2. Gah! defective HTML (near the non-functional link to Doom support page)…

  3. I did not care for Doom at all as it seemed far too slow paced to me. After 2-3 hours of play you look back over the experience and realize that you explored only 3 or 4 rooms, something that would have taken 2 or 3 minutes in the computer game. Sure, computer games and board games are not directly comparable but the “first person shooter” genre seems far more suited to electronics than cardboard.

  4. I notice this post is dated “31st March”. Is this a cunning way to avoid April fools? I’m hoping you carry on this trend and post 32nd march as well…

  5. *

    I wonder what that mucus-like substance between its jaws is.

    Maybe it’s . . .

    mucus.

  6. I notice this post is dated “31st March”. Is this a cunning way to avoid April fools?

    Isn’t March 31st an actual date? maybe he just posted the day before april fools day.

  7. So you play 3 hour board games, read books, watch movies, and write witty essays. I assume you also have a job somewhere. Please tell me how you do this with a toddler? I have a 3-month-old, and I have read maybe 20 pages of a fiction book — I’ve been reading blogs instead, because I can pick it up and put it down much faster. DVDs — well, if it’s 21 minutes or less, I might actually get the whole thing down. I haven’t played any board games since last year — the few times potential players have come over, they coo over the baby instead.

  8. Thanks for the review! I’ve been on the fence about this one.

    I’m curious if anyone has also played “Memoir ’44” and can compare the two. In particular, I’m curious about two-player games.

  9. It’s already been done. Space Hulk (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Space_Hulk) played very similar to how that sounds, and that was out in 1999.

  10. Might I suggest another game worth checking out? It’s called “Betrayal at the House on the Hill”. You and the rest of the players are exploring a haunted house. At the start of each turn, you explore rooms and draw room tiles – so the lay of the house is different each game. At some point during the game, one of the players turns traitor and is out to destroy the rest, be in the form of a chess game with Death, werewolves, evil aliens, a cult, giant two headed worm…there are 50 different scenarios, so even if you repeat, chances are that you won’t remember what the secret is. It’s a very fun and addicting game, and you might want to check it out. :)

  11. Alan: I try to post every weekday, but when if a particular entry goes long (as this one did) I might not finish writing it until the following day, or even two-days hense. In those cases, I still tend to post it with the “start date.”

    Buck: I wasn’t doing any recreating when The Squirrelly was three months old. It’s only been in the last five months or so (he’s 13 months, now) that I’ve resumed game playing. Once they establish a regular bedtime, you can start planning the occasional activity in the evenings. But even now The Queen and I mostly watch TV serials on DVD (we just started The Shield) because 60 minutes per night is about the longest we can devote to entertainment these days.

    MrChucho: I prefer Memoir — it’s as fun as Doom, but plays in a third of the time. But even though both are combat oriented games, they are not strictly analogous. Memoir is for two-players, Doom is for 2-4; Doom is also cooperative, which sets it apart from most other fighting games. And although some of the scenarios for Memoir are unbalanced, the game is short enough that you can play a scenario twice, switching sides from the first game to the next, to address the issue; this is obviously not an option with the three-hour Doom.

    Sparticus: Yes, but Space Hulk is out of print.

  12. Ok, so it seems I slightly losing it. Apologies.

  13. >> * Kevin Wilson, designer of Doom: The Board Game, says the game must be balanced because he can win any scenario playing as the Invader player or on the side of the Marines. That may be true, but he’s the designer, fer crissakes. That’s like saying Bobby Fischer vs. me in chess is an even matchup because the Fischer could win regardless of whether he plays black or white.

    A bad example on your part. The fact that Fischer could win regardless shows that Chess is *balanced* (you shifted the point from ‘game balance’ to ‘even matchup’ which are naturally completely different things – the former is to do with attributes of the game, the latter to attributes of the gamer).

    The fact that a good player (OK, the designer) can win whatever side he is on does suggest that the game is balanced once you are experienced with it. Almost every game with differing abilities on each side (Blue Moon etc) will seem unbalanced for a while.

    In other words, I would suggest the issue is not so much ‘is it balanced’ (assuming you accept Kevin Wilson’s statement) but ‘how many games do I need to play to gain the experience to play well.’

    I am not saying I love the game or anything (I’ve never played it) – just couldn’t let the chess comparison by without a comment. ;-)

  14. But chess is not balanced — the person who plays white (and therefore goes first) has a slight advantage (which is why players alternate playing white in tournaments). That a grandmaster could beat me 1000 time to none, even if we alternated colors, does not prove otherwise — it just shows that he could be me with or without a handicap. Only if players of demonstrably equal skill were to have such results could we really say it was unbalanced. [deleted this last line because it does not make a whit of sense – MB]

    Likewise, the designer of Doom saying that his game is balanced because he can win playing either side is an empty argument without reassurances that the people he was playing against were of the same caliber as he.

    I’m not arguing that my anology wasn’t faulty (it was). But I would argue that my point stands regardless.

  15. >> Only if players of demonstrably equal skill were to have such results could we really say it was balanced.

    I think you must have typed that in incorrectly. [I did, and I have now corrected it read read “unbalanced — MB] If both players are of equal skill, I think its fairly unlikely one of them will always win. And if that is a standard of ‘balance’ I don’t think many games would meet it. :-)

    I so see your point though.

  16. Hey buck, as a Dad of 6, let me comfort you: the first few years are lean in both big-kid play and sleep, but just wait till they hit 6-13 years old, then its all play time! And the best part is, you get to buy great toys on the premise that they’re for the kids! So yes, having the kid costs a lot up front, but the payoff is spectacular.

    Of course, we won’t talk about after 13 years old…

  17. Everyone tells me it’ll get better :) I loved the piece you wrote on Squirelly’s take on your strategy games.

  18. Yes, DOOM is seriously unbalanced, takes too long, and is a poor substitute for the OOP Space Hulk.

    Memoir ’44 is good, though most of the scenarios are pretty unbalanced as well. Battle Cry was much more balanced.

    Teething – Drag for everyone concerned!

  19. I would think that one serious drawback to the board game is that you can’t download the hack that turns all of the monsters into Barney the Purple Dinosaur, who, instead of making various scary vocalizations, sings “I love you, you love me…” I’m not really into first-person-shooters myself, but that hack definately made the computer game much more fun.

    Maybe you could just cut a bunch of Barneys out of a childrens’ book or something, and use them with the board game?

  20. You don’t play the PC versions so you probably wouldn’t know this, but that sounds like the most faithful translation of Doom to boardgame that one could hope for.

    Pro: A rock-solid game engine with great possibility for modding and expansion

    Con: Saddled with unbalanced abilities, lackluster scenarios, and a playtime maybe 2 to 3 times longer than the concept warrants

    You’ve just described every single game id software has ever made. Their “games” are just technology demos for what the underlying code is capable of. id makes awesome game engines that other people will come along and make into actual games.

  21. But chess is not balanced — the person who plays white (and therefore goes first) has a slight advantage (which is why players alternate playing white in tournaments). That a grandmaster could beat me 1000 time to none, even if we alternated colors, does not prove otherwise — it just shows that he could be me with or without a handicap. Only if players of demonstrably equal skill were to have such results could we really say it was unbalanced.

    Supposedly. The complex opening systems that have developed in chess, however, manage to effectively neutralize the miniscule (so miniscule as to not really matter) advantage for white. As evidence, most (and I mean *most*) games between Grandmasters end in a draw.

  22. This sounds like a very similar setup to HeroQuest, released by Milton Bradley a long, long time ago. We were only 13/14 when we played it, so I can’t comment on how balanced it was. Doom sounds interesting, though.

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