The Surprising Success of Tabletop First-Person Shooters
‘Adrenaline’ and ‘DOOM’ are very different board games, but both offer eye-opening experiences.
I'm not much of a first-person shooter player. Other than a tweenage obsession with Duke Nukem 3D, I've been pretty much oblivious to developments in the genre, and my rare attempts to test my mettle online have unfailingly resulted in swift and humiliating death.
Even to an outsider like me, though, it's clear that 2016 was a hell of a year for the FPS. From the desperate, mud-spattered struggles of Battlefield 1 to Overwatch's anarchic focus on fun, the genre has obvious depth and variety.
These creative triumphs haven't been confined to the digital realm, though. Board games—which are themselves going through a bit of a golden age—have been getting in on the action, with recently-released titles that attempt to bring the violent appeal of shooters to players' kitchen tables.
Analog adaptations of video games aren't a new phenomenon. Titles like XCOM, Civilization and League of Legends have all been reimagined as board games. But while strategy games and civ builders might seem like obvious candidates for tabletop translation, FPSs are a different matter.
Ordering units, managing resources and leveling up characters are all easily recreated in cardboard and plastic. Blowing an opponent's face off with a close-range shotgun blast? Not so much. Intrigued, I decided to see whether a tabletop game could encapsulate the simple joy of running around repeatedly shooting your friends.
Following on the heels of last year's delightfully bloody digital reboot, DOOM is a cooperative board game from designer Jonathan Ying that drops players into the series' familiar Martian hellscape. From the minute you set eyes on its grim, menacing box art, it's clear that it takes the aesthetics of its source material seriously.
From its viscera-smeared interlocking floor tiles to its death-metal-occult iconography, it exudes gore and grittiness from every pore. But the game's most impressive element is its collection of plastic miniatures representing your squad of marines and the horde of Hell-spawned beasts they're forced to confront. There are the grotesque, shrieking Revenants, the hideous but oddly cute Pinkies, and the malevolent, twisted Cyberdemon that towers over everything else on the board.
That's not to say that DOOM relies solely on its looks, though. Under the hood, it's actually fairly meaty, with complex rules governing everything from movement and shooting mechanics to equipment and defensive bonuses for ducking behind cover. It divides players into a team of protagonists, each controlling a single marine, and an Invader adversary in command of a host of demons. Over a series of missions, each played out on a different level map, the marines attempt to fulfill objectives from simply clearing an area of enemies to rescuing terrified scientists. The Invader, meanwhile, tries as hard as possible to kill them.
Marines can rush towards weakened enemies to perform glory kills in hand-to-hand combat—an element lifted directly from 2016's video game.
As a marine, your available actions on each turn are dictated by a deck of cards that spell out how far you can move and how effectively you can shoot. Picking up weapons scattered around the board lets you power up your abilities by adding new, more dangerous cards to your deck—representing everything from chainsaws to rocket launchers.
As the Invader, your turns are more consistent: Your demons can surge forward and attack every time you activate them. They also come with a variety of special abilities, which you can activate using "Argent energy" accumulated over the course of the game, making them faster, tougher and deadlier in bouts of dice-based combat.
It might seem a little unfair, but it's balanced out by the fact that marines can respawn after being slain, and by their ability to rush towards weakened enemies, closing in to perform glory kills in hand-to-hand combat—an element lifted directly from 2016's video game.
It's all thematically appropriate, and it makes for some tense, hard-fought missions. But while the game has a lot going for it, there's no point at which it actually feels like an FPS. In reality, it's more like a dungeon-crawler with guns, and while there's plenty of scope for tactical masterstrokes and carefully-calibrated teamwork, it's not so much a DOOM game as an engaging, combative co-op in a DOOM skin.
It's not the only option right now for gun-toting tabletop violence, though. Adrenaline, from Croatian designer Filip Neduk, may not boast a big-name licensed IP, but it finds inspiration from the entire gamut of FPS history. And while, like DOOM, it comes with a set of plastic miniatures, it's a very different game in just about every other respect.
Where DOOM paints its world in shades of dirt, steel and spilled innards, Adrenaline's color palette is gleefully garish, bursting with neon shades of yellow and purple like something from 2000 AD. While DOOM challenges players to work together to defeat a common enemy, Adrenaline is a straight-up, every-person-for-themselves killfest with opponents attempting to bump one another off in a frenetic orgy of flames, bullets and laser beams.
The game gives you three simple actions to choose from on your turn: Run Around, Grab Stuff or Shoot People. You'll move from room to room on a map, picking up weapons and ammunition as you go. Each weapon comes with its own particular advantage: Machine guns let you spray multiple targets, flamethrowers burn opponents along a searing line of fire, railguns pierce through walls to strike opponents hiding behind cover.
It takes time to master each addition to your arsenal, and to discover the best ways to use the game's cramped environment to take advantage of each type of gun. On a gut level, it feels far more emotionally authentic to FPSs than the DOOM board game's squad-based tactical approach.
While both games are pretty accomplished, Adrenaline feels more firmly rooted in the spirit of the video games that inspired it.
There's also a deeper, more thoughtful side to Adrenaline. While your primary focus will always be on shooting, slashing or smashing your opponents, some plays are more effective than others. You'll earn points not just for fragging rivals, but for the amount of damage you've dealt to each opponent when they die—whether they're dispatched by you or by an opponent. It means that judiciously spreading your aggression among multiple enemies can be a better plan than relentlessly attacking the most obvious targets.
And every time a player respawns, they become slightly less valuable. Killing an opponent who's already been slain nets you fewer points, providing an incentive to go after the biggest, baddest, most dominant players at any given time.
While both games are accomplished, Adrenaline feels more firmly rooted in the spirit of the video games that inspired it. It's also the one I'd prefer to play again. But what's really interesting in playing and comparing it to DOOM is the radical difference in the games' approaches.
Two designers working from broadly similar source material have come up with games that could hardly be more different from one another. One is dark, complex and demanding; the other lighter, quicker and packed with an escapist sense of fun that doesn't diminish its tactical challenge.