I'm a huge fan of games set in the Neuroshima universe. Neuroshima Hex 3.0 is in my personal top 10, and 51st State is a current favorite of my extended gaming group. The setting itself isn't really that unique, offering a Terminator-esque post-apocalyptic world in which various factions are vying for control of what few meager resources remain. The real selling point for me has been the strength of the games that are set in the universe. The theme is a bit thin in both Neuroshima Hex and in 51st State, but it works well enough with the mechanics, and the games are both awesome. Based on that, I was excited to try out Neuroshima: Convoy.
Designed by Ignacy Trzewiczek, who also designed 51st State, and Rattle, Battle, Grab the Loot (not set in the same universe, but a game I really enjoy as well), Convoy is the most directly thematic of the three games that I've played with the Neuroshima theme, placing players into the middle of a running battle through broken cities that are being destroyed around them, but it's also the hardest game to get in to. The rules and gameplay are fairly straightforward, and the game plays in a brisk 30 minutes, yet the asymmetry of the factions makes the game feel incredibly imbalanced until players become very familiar with it.
Convoy is a two player card game where one player plays as the Moloch, a faction of killer robots attempting to carve a path to destruction to, and through, New York, while destroying four other cities along the way. The other player plays as the human Outpost, determined to stop the Moloch convoy at all costs before New York is totally destroyed. To win, the Moloch player has to have cards in their deck, or a robot remaining in New York after the final battle is fought, while the Outpost player's goal is twofold, requiring the Moloch player have no cards left in their deck and that there be no robots left in New York after the final battle.
Each city in Convoy has a set number of Battle Stations for each faction that determines how many Robots/Soldiers etc. can be placed there at any one time. At the end of the players' turns, a battle is fought over a District in the active city, rewarding the player who wins that battle. The side with the highest total strength will win the battle, but winning isn't simply a matter of placing the biggest, toughest cards down each time. The Outpost's units are very mobile, and often have powerful effects that trigger as they enter a new city, while the Moloch player is able to augment his Robots with Modules, that can not only increase their strength, but can also grant special powers to the Robots. The turn order has Moloch first place Robots and play instants, then the Outpost places units and plays instants, and finally the Moloch gets a chance to play and use their Modules. The back and forth turn order lends the game a cat-and-mouse feel as each player tries to outplay the other without over-committing, while also preventing their opponent from gaining the upper hand.
One very interesting thing about Convoy is that players can place cards in future cities as well as the current city, and can power them up if they play them into a future city that is unoccupied by their opponent. This means that players have to take the measure of not only the current city in which the next battle will be fought, but also each city that has yet to come in to play. This adds an entire layer of strategy, bluffing, move and counter move to the game that can be hard for new players to grasp. Even experienced players need to be familiar with their faction's cards to know which cards are best played to assist in the current battle versus which should be played into a future city, or held in hand for deployment at just the right moment.
That same strategic depth is also one of the stumbling points of Convoy. Making the right strategic choice not only requires intimate knowledge of the faction that you are playing, it also requires intimate knowledge of the other faction as well. Successful strategies for Convoy require you to know what to play, when to play it, why you are playing it, and what to expect your opponent to react with. That knowledge and familiarity takes quite a bit of time to acquire, which is great for players who have a dedicated opponent who are willing to play multiple times in order to gain enough knowledge to really make the game shine. Unfortunately, it also functions as a double-edged sword, meaning that players who are unfamiliar with the game will often feel like the game is imbalanced, and an experienced player will almost certainly wipe the floor with a new player.
When the equilibrium of player understanding and skill is reached, Convoy is a lot of fun. It's fun to play as the Outpost player and strike strategically at the Moloch force while avoiding taking too many losses from the unrelenting onslaught of powerful Robots. It's equally fun to play as the nigh-unstoppable death machine that is Moloch, unleashing powerful and deadly Robots on the weaker humans, carving a trail of destruction in their wake. Moloch can't simply put all of it's eggs in one basket though, as a smart Outpost player will know which battles to pick, and which to concede, moving their soldiers to where they are most useful, slipping in to land a powerful blow or slipping away at the last moment to fight elsewhere. Convoy is easy to learn, and easy to teach, just know that you will need to put time and many plays into the game to get the most out of it.
A note on player count: Neuroshima: Convoy is a strictly two player affair, but it falls into an even tighter category than that. To really make the most out of the game, the same two players need to play the game enough, and have the same skill level, to maintain the game's balance. This isn't just a game for two players, it is a game for the same two players.
A note on “chrome”: Neuroshima: Convoy has good quality cards and components, and thematic art. Battling over city districts, leaving a trail of destruction in your wake fits in perfectly in the Neuroshima universe as does the asymmetry between the two factions. The rulebook is small, in keeping with the small form factor of the box, so it can be difficult to find certain rules clarifications as some rules run from one page to the next, but that becomes less of an issue as player familiarity with the game grows.
The bottom line:
Neuroshima: Convoy is a fun game, but it takes time and familiarity to really make the most of it. In order to have the best experience while playing, both players need to be familiar enough with both the Moloch and the Outpost decks to know what they contain, what to expect, and how to plan for, and counteract, what their opponent will play. This is a game best suited to players who have one dedicated opponent that they like to match wits with. When you are first learning the game, it can feel incredibly imbalanced, and can feel that way until the necessary level of familiarity is reached. There is a balance between the two factions, but expect to put in 5 or 6 games to really start to see it, and expect to absolutely demolish new players, regardless of the faction that you play, if you are already familiar with the game.
Get this game if:
You like asymmetric card games.
You have a dedicated opponent who you can play the game with.
You enjoy really digging in to a game in order to explore its nuances and quirks.
You love the Neuroshima universe and fiction.
Avoid this game if:
You want a card game that you will only pick up and play occasionally.
You want a pick-up-and-play card game to play with many different people.
The copy of Neuroshima: Convoy used for this review was provided by Portal Games.
Neuroshima: Convoy is a fun game, but it takes a while, and quite a few plays, to find the balance and familiarity that is required to really make the most out of it.