My friend frowned at the game on the table and said “you know, I really wish there were a better game just like this.”
I don’t know if I could better sum up my rather complicated thoughts on Rob Daviau’s final game with Hasbro, Risk: Battlefield Rogue, a game that as of right now is only available in the US through Target stores. It’s a strangely undernourished and possibly underdeveloped product, bearing of course a huge EA video game license on the eve of said license’s next generation debut. But it’s also- at least on the package- a Risk game, so it should have some appeal there as well. Most compellingly, it’s the only significant board game in recent years to seriously try to tackle the highly fetishized modern military subject matter popularized by first-person shooters.
You’d think that Risk plus Battlefield alone would be all the marketing this game needs, and apparently you’d be eligible for a job in Hasbro’s marketing department because that’s about the extent of the effort that was made to make this a saleable, appealing product. The box art and titling is sure to catch some attention, but beyond that the box copy is sparse and the scant imagery doesn’t make the game look like a $30 purchase in any way. It’s also the only game on Target’s shelves that isn’t shrinkwrapped, the box top held on by stickers. Open it up and you might be quite surprised at how thinly produced and chintzy the game appears, despite lots of plastic soldiers mapping to the Battlefield classes. Some may argue that this kind of cheap production is common for an American mass market game, but I can’t help but expect more when a game proudly displays “made in the USA” on the box.
There’s hardly any art in the game at all- I can’t believe the graphic design people at Hasbro couldn’t do something more with the cards than to put a very faint rain background on them. The six map tiles have hazy terrain textures that may or may not be from the game. Cardstock is pitiful. Inexplicably (and without game reason) each player’s air support tokens are backed with tanks, so it’s either an uninteresting strategic decision shoehorned into the design or that ugly specter of cost-cutting production rearing up again. I don’t like to spend too much column space on these kinds of matters, but I think it’s important to note how flimsy this game looks on the table and feels in the hand because these elements set the tone for the experience it provides- the feeling of something unfinished and carelessly released without any sense of polish or faith in the product.
It’s certainly not Mr. Daviau’s fault, I’m sure- this man has done some of the best work in the industry in the “crossover” games field, those mass-market titles that bring in hobby elements and wind up classics. But the sense I’m getting from this game every time I play is that there is something great here that either died on the vine or was never quite allowed to develop into what it should be- and what it should be is a great tactical wargame with extremely simple rules and more than a little of the flow of a Battlefield match on a PC or console.
It’s scenario driven, with six reversible tiles depicting areas divided into irregular zones. Objectives vary from capture-and-hold to escape-the-map to total elimination. Each player- the game supports up to four- starts in a zone with a squad consisting of an Assault, an Engineer, a Support, and a Recon. One of these men is elected squad leader. On a turn, the player gets to draw a Command, Weapon, or Air Support card provided that certain zones containing their respective icons are not enemy controlled. Additional draws are provided if friendly forces control these. Movement is quite smart, with a four-man unit allowed to move anywhere on its tile or into the first zone of the next.
Combat is a “splats and shields” mechanic, which I love. Defenders might get to upgrade a standard defense die if they’re in a zone with a cover token. Both sides can play cards for die upgrades or other benefits provided they have the right squaddies. Overall, it’s a bloody and quick game with a low turn count that doesn’t really feel like Risk at all. But it does feel actually feel like Battlefield- it’s funny that there are “Battlefield Moment” cards in the Air Support deck that essentially kamikaze your token into enemy troops- whether on purpose or as the result of an incompetent pilot.
There are some really smart mechanics at work. I particularly love how squad composition and management is critical to success. You have to keep squad leaders on the board, preferably in forward positions, because they’re also spawn points- just like in the video game, you want to try to spawn back with your squad. A mixed squad gives you more access to card use, but each unit’s special ability only kicks in when you have more than one unit of a particular type. So one Recon is a short-range sniper. A team of four can shoot three zones away. Budgeting cards is crucial, and players that blow their cards to get upgrades might find themselves regretting it later.
Tanks are available, but face some terrain restrictions while getting a little defensive help from engineers who are almost certainly creeping along behind the armor with their little fix-it tools. Air support is brutally effective, particularly if you control all of the air support icons on the map meaning that the other team can’t field their own air support to dogfight yours. They’re left trying to get an engineer into position with an RPG card out to counter you.
This all sounds really awesome, doesn’t it?
Unfortunately, after playing this game over and over again and trying very, very hard to love it I have to concede that it just isn’t awesome. I really want to like this game because I love Mr. Daviau’s designs in general, I love this kind of crossover game, and I love that it’s a refreshing theme. But there are too many issues that this game creates from its wonky, oddly sparse and surprisingly confusing rulebook (unwisely divided up into three “difficulty” levels) to its overall lack of anything approaching balance or fine-tuning.
Most games have ended in one side just steamrollering the other- I haven’t seen a close game yet. And usually the driver of the steamroller is the one that has managed to control the Command card points, the Air Support points, or both. Without Command cards, a team is almost paralyzed and unable to spawn. Without Air Support, they’re just going to get pounded over and over again by endlessly respawning abstracted helicopters/ground attack aircraft. Players that make those four man Recon units are going to just hammer squads trying to approach key positions. Control the tempo by forcing the other player to constantly have to respawn back at their starting point and waste two turns getting to the next tile again. Do all of the above and you’ll win the game unless you just roll badly.
There are rules that just don’t work right. There are some special abilities and effects that feel either wildy overpowered or near-useless. The turn sequence timing feels off- it’s almost weird to say that about a finished design, but it feels like the order of process isn’t right. The four-man squad limit screws up the respawning, because you have to move those men out before you can put more into your starting point. But most cards spawn them before you move. Too often the stripped-down rules create a game that feels like either a static, uninteresting tug-of war or a complete blowout- usually coming down to card availability more than board position or strategic play.
I really thought this game was going to be something, even as far as three plays into it. Maybe it was wishful thinking, maybe it was my desire to see this kind of game done right. It could be that some house rules and some end user tweaks might save the game and make it something more than it is right now, but as it stands Risk Battlefield Rogue feels like a poorly playtested, crudely developed rough draft of a game rushed onto the market and left to almost certainly wind up in Target’s post-hoildays clearance. Wait, and try it then if you’re still interested.