Every now and then a game will make me feel a bit dumb. For whatever reason, there will be some hurdle that I can’t get over or around mentally, and so I start to feel as though I’m missing something, as if there is some solution or direction that I’m not seeing that will solve my hang up. Usually it’s a misinterpreted (or completely overlooked) rule that fills in the gap and then makes me feel silly for having missed it, and then everything else about the game falls in to place and I proceed with playing and having fun. Outpost Siberia makes me feel kind of dumb as well, but I can’t seem to find the rule I’m missing, or that bit of obvious strategy that makes the game actually … winnable.
I don’t mind hard games. I love Darkest Night, Nemo’s War is on my shortlist for game of the year, and Kingdom Death is my favorite game of all time, but with each of those games there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and you can gain insight from your losses that will help you succeed at some point. With Outpost Siberia neither I nor my game group can find any way to win without actually house ruling the game, which is a shame, because there are some really good ideas on display, and if the game didn’t appear to be impossible, from our perspective anyway, it’d be a great filler. I usually don’t admit defeat, but after about a dozen plays, without coming even close to winning once, I’ve thrown in the towel on this one.
Outpost Siberia places players in the shoes of a team of scientists who are trapped in Siberia during the storm-of-the-century. Not only do you have to survive the weather, but all sorts of anomalous activity has been causing strange phenomenon, and strange creatures have begun to attack your outpost. In order to win, you have to collectively make it through an Event deck of 12 cards, keep all of the characters alive, and prevent more than 5 monsters from being on the board at the end of any player’s turn. The Event deck has both Good and Bad Events, and you can alter the difficulty of the game by changing the ratio of good to bad cards, but even on the easiest difficulty this game is nigh impossible.
All of the cards in the game are dual use, with and Event or Monster taking up the majority of the card. If you rotate the card until it’s upside-down from the Event or the Monster, it shows what Supply that card represents when it’s part of the Outpost deck. Having dual use cards keeps the form factor for the game very small, and the entire game, including the metal tin that it comes in, could easily fit in a small bag for easy portability.
Each turn you draw 2 cards from the Outpost deck, choose one to keep in your hand and add the other to the communal Supply. Supply cards can be used as the listed Supply, and are often things like Food and Water that are used to survive the various Events that you encounter. Each card also has an attack value that, when played form your hand, can be used to attack monsters. Some of the cards feature Equipment that you can use to heal your characters, cancel the effect of a monster, or be used as a weapon against the monsters. After you’ve drawn your cards you can attack monsters (called Threats) and use Equipment. After that, you draw an Expedition card, which can either be good or bad, but regardless of whether it helps or hurts you, it comes with a cost of either Water or Food.
The difficulty in the game comes from the fact that the players don’t start out with any cards, the Event cards are constantly requiring you to pay Food, Water or take a wound, and the monster cards generally take multiple attack cards to defeat plus a piece of Equipment. Cards are such a scarce resource, and you need to use them for so many different things, that it’s hard for anyone to form an effective hand of cards since you only get to keep a single card each turn. You can try to stockpile cards in the Supply, but if you don’t pay a food or water, or a Threat deals damage, you need to lower someone’s health. The game ends if any single character dies, and the characters only have between 2 and 4 health, so you really have to be careful when you are using your health pool as a resource.
On top of character death, the game ends if there are ever 5 or more monsters in play at the end of anyone’s turn, so you have to prioritize fighting monsters that actively hurt you, while simultaneously keeping the weaker monsters in check so that you don’t get swarmed. There are no scaling rules in the game, so even though it says the game can be played with 2 – 6 players, you absolutely have to use all six characters every game in order to have even a semblance of a chance. Even using all six characters in order to have the largest possible health pool, and playing on the easiest difficulty, we could not ever seem to come close to winning unless we ignored the “5 Threats at the end of a turn and you lose” rule. There just doesn’t seem to be enough time/cards/health to get through the deck, regardless of the choices that we made, even when we were careful about spacing out damage and dealing with the threats that seemed most pertinent.
There may be some trick to winning Outpost Siberia, or there may be some omission in the rules in the version that I have that would balance things out, but as it stands I really don’t know if the game is winnable in it’s current state. I even stacked the deck in a way that I thought was most beneficial to the players and the game ended in a loss. I can’t guarantee that the game is broken in it’s current state, but the fact that I couldn’t even manage a win after stacking the deck, and the fact that one of the characters just seems to be a strictly-worse version of another (Ice Climber Anani has less health than Arctic Explorer Bryan and has what appears to be exactly the same ability at twice the cost) leads me to believe that there’s something missing from the rules. As a rule I don’t go poking around the forums on boardgamegeek.com until after I’ve finished a review for a game, but in the case of Outpost Siberia I sought out help just in case I was missing something, yet I only found other people in the same place I was in; wondering if the game is winnable, scratching their heads about Anani, and speculating about missing rules.
A note on difficulty: Outpost Siberia may be the most difficult board game that I’ve ever played. It’s quite possible that the game is winnable, but without house rules we couldn’t find a way to win in nearly a dozen plays. Be warned; this game is extremely difficult. IDW games has posted a “survival guide” online with some alternate rules, but I found them too late for my group.
A note on player count: Outpost Siberia doesn’t seem to scale with the player count….at all. The game lists 2 – 6 players, but I don’t know if it’s possible to win without using all six characters regardless of player count (and it may be impossible to win anyway). Be aware that if you want to play this with less than six players you NEED to still use all six characters as if six players were playing to stand a chance.
A note on “chrome”: Outpost Siberia has nice cards that stand up very well to heavy shuffling, decent tokens, and a nice tin to store it all in. The art is comic-book style, and does a really good job of conveying the theme. The rulebook explains the rules in an easy to follow manner and has a full-round example laid out that helps players learn the game very quickly.
The bottom line:
Outpost Siberia has some neat ideas, especially with the dual use, reversible cards, but it falls flat in execution. The game rules as written feel unwinnable, and the fun we had trying to figure out exactly how we were going to survive quickly turned into frustration as we failed and failed and failed and failed. Even house-ruling that five Threats in play didn’t end the game only led us to one win on the easiest possible difficulty. If there is an effective strategy to win this one we didn’t find it before my game group gave up on the game.
Get this game if:
You are ready for a masochistic challenge.
You like quick playing games.
Avoid this game if:
You like deep, strategic games.
You don’t like extreme levels of difficulty.
The copy of Outpost Siberia used for this review was provided by IDW Games.
Outpost Siberia has some good ideas, and there is some fun to be had, until the sinking feeling that the game may be unwinnable in it's current state starts to sink in. I enjoy difficult games, but I can't persuade my game group to play this game anymore, as they are all convinced that it's impossible to win.