GMotW: Red November

Red November box Hey all. Happy Holidays, and New Year, and Not Apocalypse, and all that rot. How’s it going?

My wife and I were lucky enough to get a few board games for Christmas, including Fantasy Flight’sRed November, the game about gnomes surviving for one hour on a submarine which is currently in the process of falling completely to pieces. It, uh, it is not super-easy to do so, it seems, and we managed to get killed with a few minutes left on the clock when the missiles armed themselves and everyone was trapped by a combination of malfunctioning hatches and hallway fires on the other side of the ship. Everyone, that is, except for those of us who had been killed in the interim because they tried to put out the fire in the missile room which would allow them to stop the launch. It’s okay though, because even if they had managed to hold off that trouble we were going to die of asphyxiation in another two minutes.

Good times!

Red November is a game in which every minute counts; rather than having any individual goal be a victory condition, it’s about surviving until the end, regardless of the state of the ship. Your only goal is to keep things operational enough that you aren’t all killed before the game ends, which is what makes this rule so delightfully terrible.

The player decides how many minutes to spend attempting the repair. He can spend between 1 and 10 minutes.

Well. That doesn’t sound so bad. HOWEVER.

The less time you take on any given task, whether that be pumping out water, fixing the engine, putting out the many, many fires which have started on the ship or fending off the mighty Kraken (all necessary tasks!), the less likely you are to succeed. You roll a 10-sided die, and try to roll at or under the number of minutes you spent, you see. Sure, you might be able to hammer on the reactor for one minute and prevent the ship from exploding, but it would be better to take two! Doubles your odds! Take five, and it’s a fifty/fifty chance! Take ten, and you are guaranteed to fix the thing! Why, then, not take ten minutes on everything?

Because the resource management of the game is clever. Problems don’t arise every turn, oh no. They arise every few minutes. If you take ten minutes to fix the engines, then you’ll draw, oh, three to five cards to represent potential disasters, and these will also take time to deal with! Sure, you can ignore the occasional leak or small fire, but if the pressure gauge is nearing its end, every card you overturn threatens to be the one which ticks it up two more notches and makes the ship collapse under pressure. So you have to ask yourself not just how much time you are willing to spend on a task, but how many dangers you are willing to put the ship under. Heck, if you take ten minutes to fix the engines, there’s a decent chance that one of the resulting disasters will start them breaking down again. There is no safety, and your best bet lies, therefore, in resource and risk management. Take as little time as you feel you can justify, use any goods you can get your hands on to increase your odds of success, and by all means, prioritize taking care of the major impending disasters (the reactor is one bump away from going critical) over the minor annoyances (all three airlocks are on fire).

The great thing about this is that it means every roll, every single one, totally sucks.

No, really. I mean, okay. Sometimes you spend a minute or two in desperation and it pays off, and sometimes you spend six minutes and roll a six and your time spent feels exactly worthwhile, but so much of the rolling ends up in one of two camps:

“Dammit! Why didn’t I spend another two minutes on this?” when you don’t make it, or “Dammit! Why did I waste so much time on this?” when you roll less than what you needed. Because wasted minutes are only slightly less painful when they come with you getting the reactor to not explode.

It’s frustrating, but not in a “bad user-interface” sort of way; it’s a good frustration, the sort which sells the panic and helter-skelter parade of indignities and failures which IS working on the Red November.

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