I love 4X board games, but I don’t love the effort that it takes to actually get them to the table. The depth and breadth of these big, beefy games offer some of the most interesting, memorable, and fun experiences that you can have on your tabletop. However, they often require an entire evening or, more often, an entire day to play, and the time between player turns can often stretch into the 20 minute plus zone. Enter Downfall by Tasty Minstrel Games, a 4X game that plays out over a set number of turns and uses card drafting as the action selection mechanism for players. It certainly manages to address some of the obstacles that keep 4X games from hitting the table more often, as it plays in a relatively brisk 2-ish hours, and it keeps the action moving every turn for all players, but it also stumbles a bit in its overall execution.
I’m going to focus on the positives first. Downfall does an excellent job of selling its theme. The game is set in a post-nuclear-war world full of radiation and danger, and before you can succeed you have to figure out how to survive. Radiation is an ever-present enemy, constantly spreading out from inhospitable Dead Zones. If players don’t keep the spread of radiation in check then more Dead Zones are created which can turn the board into a cascading death trap as it irradiates everything in its path.
On top of contending with the omnipresent radiation, players have to find enough food to feed their survivors, and stone, oil, and metal to fight the radiation, build shelters and units, and research new technologies. Resources can be hard to come by, and it can be difficult to feed all of your people (and it gets progressively harder as the game moves forward) so the game really feels like a struggle for survival in a deadly world, even when you don’t take the other players into account.
Another great thing about Downfall is how quickly turns move. Players choose their actions by drafting a card from a hand of four cards every turn, passing the three cards they didn’t choose to the player on their left. Players then take their actions semi-simultaneously before picking up the cards passed to them, drawing one from their personal deck, and choosing their next action. Card drafting is fun, and you have to be conscious of the actions that you are taking as they go into your personal discard pile which will eventually get shuffled and become your new deck.
You also need to be mindful of which actions you are passing to your opponents, as each card passed to them is an option that they will have on their turn. Each player has a 2 card reserve that they can swap cards in and out of, but if you aren’t careful about planning ahead you can leave yourself in desperate need of an action that you just can’t seem to get a card for. Thankfully each card has a minor action printed on the bottom and, when used smartly, can bail you out in a time of crisis. The drafting, mutli-use cards, and quick turns keep the game moving and keep players engaged, and there are rarely times when the game bogs down.
I mentioned semi-simultaneous turns because, even though the rulebook says you can do most actions simultaneously, in practice that only works for a few of the actions. Any action that requires a player to move to new tiles or, more importantly, discover hidden tiles can’t really be performed unless all players are paying attention because it’s important for all players to see what has been discovered as resources are so scarce, and doubly important once players start to expand their territory and bump into the territory of other players.
Once players do bump into one another combat becomes an option. The combat is deterministic in Downfall, and it’s simply a matter of adding up how much combat power each player has to determine a winner. Combat can’t be initiated by a player on the same turn that they make an aggressive move, it is either initiated by a card action, or by the Event track, so the defending player almost always has time to react which is nice, but survival in Downfall is difficult enough that combat left my group with a bad taste in our mouths. Instead of feeling victorious, we often felt like we were being mean spirited.
The game world itself is each player’s biggest enemy, so moving in and taking territory often felt like kicking someone while they were down rather than taking down an adversary. Even if you aren’t trying to take territory, ensuring that a combat will happen on the Conflict spaces of the Event track is a valid option to stop other players from gaining points because if there are no fights then everyone gets to score Peace points for how many territories they control. Even when you reserve combat for just this purpose it doesn’t really feel good to do even if it is an incredibly important tactic for controlling the scoreboard. Instead it feels awkward and game-y because it’s less about scoring points for yourself and more about denying points to your opponents.
The Event track itself is another positive that the game has going for it. Tucked into each player’s deck are Winter cards. When these cards are drawn they are immediately discarded and the Event track token is advanced one space down the track. At fixed intervals you’ll have to feed your survivors and all gathered un-stored resources will spoil and be removed from the board, you’ll face the spread of radiation, Conflict/Peace will be triggered, or a random Event Card will be revealed.
Only 3 Event cards are used each game, from a deck of 25, and they can have wildly profound effects on the game. These cards are fun, exciting and sometimes brutal, but they lend the game a huge amount of replayability. There are always a fixed number of turns in each game of Downfall, and the Event track really helps lend the game an air of foreboding as you can always see just how many Winters away each upcoming event is, but you can’t ever be sure just when those cards will be drawn. This lends the game an excellent sense of risk vs reward as players try to time it just right in order to be in position to deal with the looming Event.
This is where I’m going to veer back into the negative. The first issue is that resources aren’t created equally. Food and oil are absolute necessities, while metal and stone are handy but a lack of either is not crippling. If you don’t feed your survivors you lose points, and if you don’t have the oil to fight back the spread of radiation then you are doomed. While you can remove radiation for 3 of any resources, rather than 2 oil, that 33% increase in cost is absolutely brutal, especially since each survivor can only harvest one resource per Gather action, and it takes actions to replenish the resources on the board once they are used. The resources themselves having different values isn’t inherently a bad thing, but it can become a nightmare if the board layout denies one vital resource or another to a player. On the other hand, if the board layout is balanced, providing each player with access to the resources they need then the value differences in the resources becomes less of a factor.
The biggest potential problem (I say potential because it can be rectified and doesn’t always happen) with Downfall is in how the board is laid out. Each game uses a random, hidden layout. There are a few “starting” layouts that determine which tiles are in each player’s starting zone, and each player after the first can swap one of their start-zone tiles with a tile that coincides with their place in the turn order, but the rest of the board layout is still random and hidden from all players until they move around the board and explore.
This can result in one player having everything they could ever want neatly tucked into their corner of the board while another player is completely surrounded by useless territory that produces nothing, forcing them to expand ever further in a desperate attempt to get lucky and discover a tile that produces the resource they lack or land to build on. For the player in this position, the game, which is already difficult enough, can feel absolutely brutal and lopsided. While you could use the board layout as a handicap to balance the game between new players and veterans there isn’t a way to know that that is how the board will play out unless you specifically set the board up that way ahead of time.
There may be a strategy to overcome this, but we haven’t found one. Usually, even if the player tries to take territory from one of the players with a better foothold the desperate player doesn’t have the resources to send enough combat power in to actively take and hold their new territory. Ultimately, in games with less than 5 players, we started removing some of the water and dead tiles to at least ensure that someone wouldn’t get completely hosed from the start.
Downfall is a fun game, and it gets better as players become more experienced at it and learn how to properly prepare for the events on the Event track, but it has some warts that can absolutely ruin one player’s game if the random board layout turns against them. This is a 4X game, but it eschews the deep player interaction of most typical 4X games in favor of a strong sense of survival in the face of impending doom.
Downfall isn’t a new-player friendly game but that’s not because it’s hard to learn, it’s not difficult to learn and teach at all, rather it’s not new player friendly because you simply can’t have enough experience to know just how threatening the game itself can be to your survival until you play it a few times. It’s also very difficult to get a feel for the timing of the Event track until you’ve run through a few games and have experienced just how quickly the Winter cards can come out, and how many turns you’ll have before things get really dicey.
Thematically this game is an absolute winner. So if you are a fan of post-apocalyptic dread, you don’t mind the likelihood that the board won’t offer perfect balance to each player, and you like 4X games but don’t often have 4+ hours to spend playing them then Downfall just might be your irradiated cup of tea.
A note on game length: Each game of Downfall will see players taking the exact same number of turns per game based on player count. The instructions actually encourage simultaneous turns for most things, but we found that we were only able to do that on about 1 in 4 turns. All told, games of Downfall usually clock in right at the 2.5 hour mark for my group. While it’s not the speediest game to play it’s consistent so Downfall is easier to get to the table than some of the all-day-long play times of some other popular 4X board games.
A note on “chrome”: Downfall has really good components although storing everything back in the box is quite difficult once you have the massive amount of cardboard tokens punched out and bagged. This game has so many components that I couldn’t actually get the lid all the way back on the box unless I disassembled all of the airships from their stands. After our first few plays we simply quit placing the airships on the stands because they didn’t really save any space anyway, and it wasn’t worth the time investment it took to re-build them for each play. The tiles, while large, can be split into multiple spaces which can lead to some serious overcrowding once you have units, buildings, resources etc start piling up. The rulebook has an interesting layout that made some things a touch confusing the first time I read through it, but it’s very easy to reference once you start playing and need clarification on a rule or action.
The bottom line:
Downfall is a 4X game that is more about surviving than conquering. While you can fight with other players your biggest enemy every game is the harsh irradiated post-nuclear-war world that you are all struggling to survive in. The card drafting mechanics are fun, turns are generally brisk, and the set play time means that Downfall is easier to get to the table than most other popular 4x games, but if you are looking for a deep political system, balanced starting positions, and a large amount of asymmetry between factions you won’t find them here. Downfall takes a few plays to get a feel for, but if you have a solid group who can learn the game together there is a lot of replayability built into this game.
Get this game if:
You love 4X games, but don’t like waiting an hour between turns.
You like games with randomized setup, but don’t mind that the randomization can also lead to imbalance.
You love post-apocalyptic settings.
You like competitive games where the game itself is as much of an opponent as the other players.
You like games with deterministic combat.
You enjoy games that take time and multiple plays to master.
Avoid this game if:
You like multiplayer games with perfect balance.
You dislike card drafting.
You are looking for a game with wildly asymmetric factions.
You like games that actively encourage large amounts of player interaction.
The copy of Downfall used for this review was provided by Tasty Minstrel Games.
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