Faced with the daunting task of turning Bethesda's series of 80-hour, single-player video games into a cooperative board game that could be finished in about two hours, Fantasy Flight board game manager Andrew Fischer and his team sat down and made a list of what they felt was essential to Fallout.
"This could be as specific as the SPECIAL stats or as wide and archetypical as making morally ambiguous decisions that have a permanent impact on the world," Fischer said. "We started designing around this skeleton.”
Balancing the series' flavor and mechanics with the limitations of how much cardboard could fit in a box, Fallout: The Board Game—which will be released on Nov. 30—lets one to four players try to become the most powerful force in areas of the wasteland from Fallout 3 and 4 and their respective DLC.
"In my initial planning, we had stuff from [ Fallout and Fallout 2], but in the end, all of our quests come on cards and we only have so much room for that,” Fischer said.
Most of the board game's action is focused on the East Coast of the game's post-apocalyptic setting, letting players explore areas like the ruins of Washington, D.C. or coastal Maine. In each scenario they can complete a series of unique quests and choose to side with one of two warring factions such as the Church of the Children of Atom and the residents of Far Harbor. Each player also has a secret objective such as exploring the whole map or maintaining a balance between the factions, whose power waxes and wanes based on the choices players make.
Like in the Fallout video games, those choices can have surprising and dramatic results. The board game contains hundreds of encounter cards which each present players with two or four choices for resolution. For example, when encountering another person exploring the wasteland you might attack them and take their stuff or persuade them to work with you.
“All the big important choices you make in encounters will change the game in some way," Fischer said. "If you want to free all the super mutants in a location, you’re going to go fetch a bunch of super mutant cards and shuffle them into the game. Now other people can come across the consequences of the choice you made.”
Another player reads the prompts on the encounter card so the deciding player doesn't know what the outcome of their choice will be, even if they've faced that particular situation before. For instance, opening a cabinet in one encounter might reward you with a gun, while in another it will prompt a fight with a giant cockroach.
“We wanted to put a little bit of uncertainty in the game for players who are going to replay the game a lot," Fischer said. "Theoretically, you could memorize the hundreds of cards in the game, so there are some generic encounter cards where the prompt text is the same, but what happens when you do each thing is a little bit different.”
A character's capacity to handle various situations is based on their stats in seven areas: strength, perception, endurance, charisma, intelligence, agility and luck. Fischer acknowledged that it would have been too complicated to have each ability scale the way it does in the video game, but he refused to strip characters down to just a few stats like "mind" and "body." Instead the game makes the SPECIAL abilities binary, so your character is either strong or not.
“That way you could get all seven, but keep it simple enough that it’s easy to advance in just a two-hour board game,” Fischer said.
Each encounter lists a series of abilities and characters that have the relevant ones get a chance to reroll the dice to get the results they need to succeed. For instance, completing a physical task might advantage characters with agility or strength. The goal was to make each stat feel relevant and meaningful to the game experience.
Players can also choose from five different characters with unique starting stats and special abilities. Fischer's team made another list of the archetypal characters from Fallout and which ones they'd most like to play with the caveat that they didn't want any character to be too monstrous. The winning options include a vault dweller leaving the security of his shelter and a veteran wasteland explorer, but if you want to be a little weirder, you can play a ghoul that's actually healed by radiation or a brutish super mutant that gains power from visiting irradiated areas. The goal was to please people with different play styles while still making each option competitive.
“We balance them based on our perception of the power of something and a lot of user testing," Fischer said. "Each of these player abilities is the third, fourth or sometimes ninth take on the ability.”
Another element that changed significantly during the game's development is how it handled death. Death, which comes when your hit point and radiation trackers meet, gets your character shunted back to the starting tile without their inventory.
"For a while, we were all about permanent consequences," Fischer said. "There was a version of the game where you died, and that was it. But another part of Fallout is enemies that feel dangerous and scary. In a multiplayer board game, you don’t want to have someone die in the first 45 minutes and not have them playing for the rest of the time. We ended up kind of opting for a respawn with a certain amount of detriment. You’re set back by dying, but you’re not out of the game.”
While players are competing against each other for influence in the wasteland, they're not attacking each other.
"That's not really a core part of the Fallout experience," Fischer said. "We didn’t want this to turn into a PVP brawl when it got close to the end of the game. We wanted players to be interacting with the world."
That doesn't mean you can ignore what your tablemates are up to. All quests are open to any player and only the first person that completes it will get the reward.
“You kind of have to keep an eye on what everyone is doing and hedge your bets to decide what the best approach is for you," Fischer said. “While you’re not directly fighting the players, you do interact on a turn by turn basis.”
Fallout can also be played solo, with the player racing to gain power before one of the two factions fully takes hold of a region. That's something that could happen in a multiplayer game, causing all the players to lose, but the deck that serves as an in-game timer is much smaller for one-person games in order to make that outcome more likely. It takes Fallout: The Board Game back to its single-player roots where you have to figure out the best way to succeed in a hostile world.
“You don’t have the more unpredictable tension of fighting your friends, you do get that hard pressure of the game,” Fischer said.
Fallout: The Board Game is out on November 30th.