Every once in a while a games comes out that causes waves in the hobby. Most of the time, it’s because it brings a new mechanic or a new way to do things, such as when Settlers of Catan, Puerto Rico, Dominion or Twilight Struggle came out. Each of these games revolutionized the hobby in some way, mostly because they brought new rules, new structure or a new way of looking at things to the hobby. Unlike video games, not many board games come out with controversial subject, such that some people might not even want to play before judging the game. Honestly, I can’t even think of another one, except for one wargame which wanted to recreate the Warsaw uprising. The controversy was warranted here, with a subject matter that is best left alone.
Along comes Tomorrow, a game that sent a shock wave of disgust through the game community when it was announced. Why? Because in the game, you play a super power who, along with the other super power, decides that unless something was done about the overpopulation of the planet, we are all doomed. And thus an alliance of sort is made: together, the super power must reduce the Earth’s population by about half in 9 “years” or everyone is doomed. But, and there’s always a but, the one who does the best job will emerge as the new super power (ie, will win). Is it really in bad taste to make a game about the need for global depopulation? I guess it depends on where you stand on the questions of the Earth’s future and whether you believe that we are agents of our own future. How does it fare as a game or game subject? Let’s check it out.
In Tomorrow (Conquistador Games) by Dirk Knemeyer, the players take the roles of one of six different super powers (US, EU, Russia, Arab Caliphate, India or China) as they try to reduce the world’s population by half over the course of 9 turns. Each turn the players will be able to do 2 of the following: launch a devastating virus attack (Biologicals); invade a minor country (Military); nuke a territory or country (Nukes); block a virus attack or an attempt at blocking an attack (Espionage); take control of cyberspace (Cyber). Using these actions and some diplomacy, the players will slowly remove population pawns until, hopefully, they save the planet. At the end of the game, the one who has the most Political Capital (PCs) will become the new super power and win the game.
This is one gorgeous, understated game. It comes in a square, half-height matte box and black is the color of choice here: both the box and the board are predominantly black, with the continents being done in 2 tones of grey and the only color coming from the small silhouettes of pawns and the national flags of the six super powers. The wooden pawns, all 100 of them, are large and pretty colorful, with the brightest colors reserved for the super powers and the more toned down for the minor countries. Each pawn represents roughly 70 million people.
Also in the box is 1 dayglo green dice, tokens (for cyber status, control, nukes and turn order), 36 actions cards (6 per super power), Event cards, some player aid cards, small Virus cards, 3 decks of small Strategy cards (yellow, red and black) and a card to denote control of Cyberspace. There is also a very nice rulebook, which is fairly well organized. There are some small erratas, which can be found on the ‘geek.
Since I backed the Kickstarter campaign, my copy came with wooden tanks and nuclear explosions to replace the cardboard tokens, They look very nice and intimidating, but are not necessary to the enjoyment of the game. Still, I’m glad I got them.
The whole package is very sober, lending the game a mood of authenticity as opposed to being lurid and exploitative. It does help to feel like someone who holds the fate of the world in their hand. I also like the size of the population pawns, which simply pop out of the map, making it very easy to see how overpopulated some regions are.
The set up is quite simple: place all the pawns on the board (number and color of pawn for each location is indicated on the location), give each player a set of super power Action cards, their tanks and nukes. Shuffle and deal 3 Virus cards per player. Give China the Cyberspace card. Shuffle all the Strategy cards per color and place them next to the board. Place the Death marker on the X of the Threat track. Shuffle and remove 3 Event cards, flipping over the first Event card. You’re ready to go.
A turn has 5 phases:
- Flip and enact Event Card according to current Threat level (yellow, red or black). This might give a bonus to the player who is able to do what the card states (take or hold a territory, launch a virus, block a virus, etc) or change the game conditions.
- The player who currently owns the Cyberspace card can either: take a Strategy card of the current Threat level; take another player’s unplayed Strategy card; override the EU’s special power and dictate the current turn order. Note that if a player is the target of the Cyberspace card, he can block the action by playing his Espionage card out of hand, at the cost of 1 Action (he will select only 1 card next phase).
- All the players now select 2 Action cards. These are the cards that will be active during the turn. The player will not be able to use any other cards, so chose wisely and some diplomacy might be helpful too…
- The EU player (or the player controlling Cyberspace, if he chose to do so during phase 2) now select the first player, who can play or pass. Once that player is done with his turn, the next player is selected, again by the EU (or Cyberspace owner) player, until all players have acted or passed.
- All the player can now act or pass, in the same order as the first Action round
- All tokens are refreshed. Players can bring back Control markers, but they won’t be able to use them until 2 turns (ie, they will not be available next turn).
Each player has has a hand of 5 cards, which are common to all the players except for the Arab Caliphate, who have a sixth and unique action card. These actions cards are always available at the start of every turn and it is from these that the player will decide what actions he will take during his turn. A card may have actions it can perform or it can be a reaction card, used when someone else uses an action.
The first card, Biologicals, can be used to launch a deadly Virus or to draw 2 new Virus cards. To launch a Virus, the player simply puts the Biologicals card in front of himself and places a Virus face-down atop the action card. He does not have to state what the Virus is or where he will launch the Virus. If asked, he can refuse to answer, tell the truth or lie. Deals can be made as well. Any player who has an Espionage card as 1 of their 2 Action cards can counter the Virus by simply showing their card and stating that they are blocking the launch of the Virus. Unless someone else counters the Espionage card, the Virus will be blocked and placed face down under the Virus draw deck without showing it to anyone.
Should the Virus not be stopped, then the player who launched it indicates where it will hit and removes as many pawns from that territory as the top part of the the Virus card indicates. This can take one of 2 forms: either a straight amount of pawns (0, 1, 2 etc) or a fractional amount (1/2, 1/3, 1/4). If it is a fractional amount, then round down the amount removed. So, if the fractional amount is 1/3, then 2 pawns would be removed if there were 6, 7 or 8 pawns in a location. Then, the player checks if the Virus can spread. There are 2 pieces of information under the line: the chance of spreading and how many pawns will be removed if it does spread. The chance of spreading is the target number needed on a 1d6 roll to spread to a location. Only locations that touch the initial location can have the Virus spread there, so depending on where it is placed, the spread could be very little. Note that the Virus only spread to adjacent locations and stop there. They do not continue spreading.
Once the Virus has finished knocking out pawns, the Death marker is moved down on the Threat track, depending on which pawns have been removed. The game takes the view that the carbon footprint of a population pawn is different depending on who they are. For example, both pawns that come from the US and Russia move the Death marker by three spaces, whereas pawns that come from China and the European Union are worth 2 spaces and all other pawns are only worth 1. Thus, it means that there will be territories that are worth hitting more than others, simply because the reaping will be better, if not in the Political Capital (PC or vps) category, at least in the lowering of the global Threat.
The second possible action is Nuke, which is pretty straightforward: select a territory, place a Nuke counter and remove 1 pawn, with 1 additional pawn for every 5 remaining pawns. Remove 1 Control marker as well, if there are any present. Instead of moving the Death marker down, move it up by 3 spaces, as Nukes are not really good for the environment. At the end of the game, any territory which bear a Nuke marker will score -3 PC, with the owner of the Nuke also getting -3 PC. Not a good result for anyone, but sometimes it is what is needed to pass a strong, clear message. Note that unlike Biologicals, Nuke cannot be blocked.
The Military action card allows a player to occupy a minor country so as to, in the short term, earn some Strategy cards or, at the end of the game, earn extra PCs. As such, simply playing the card and stating where the Control markers will go is enough to take over a territory, unless another player who had selected the Military card as an action wants to counter it. Combat is very simple: no dice rolling, simply 1-on-1 elimination. For each Control marker that the attacking player puts forward, it eliminates an opponent’s Control marker. Any left over Control markers are placed in the territory. When the Death marker drops from one track (yellow to red, red to black or at the game’s end) to the lower one, all players who have Control markers in minor territories takes one Strategy card per territory.
The Espionage card is purely a reaction card: it can be used to block a Virus, another Espionage card or the Arab Caliphate’s special card. In other words, pick this cards as one of your 2 action cards and lose one of your actions, but you’ll be able to prevent someone from doing their action at some point. Note that since it is possible to block another Espionage card, it is legal to counter someone’s attempt at stopping a Biologicals, even if it is not the same player who attempted the launch. In other words, diplomacy and deal making is sometimes worth doing.
The Cyber card is simply used to attempt to grab the Cyberspace card from whomever currently possesses it. By using the card, the player attempts to guess which of the two Cyber token, the yellow one or the red, the current owner has placed atop the Cyberspace card. The owner must then reveal the token and, if the first player guessed correctly, hands the card over to him. Else, the owner of the card must keep the guessed Cyber token showing, which means that if someone else attempts to take control of the card during the same round, he will get it automatically.
In addition to these five action cards, players get an additional card which stipulates their super power’s special power. Most of the special powers, like the EU’s, are more of a permanent power than an action since they are always “on” and do not need to be selected. The EU’s special power is that it gets to control the player order unless the Cyberspace owner decides to override it. Russia’s special power is always active, protecting Russia from Virus spreading into it or out of it. China starts the game with Cyberspace and can, once a game, claim the card back from whomever is currently holding it without using a Cyber card. The US has the CDC, which allows the player to attempt to stop a Virus from affecting it or any minor territory it controls by rolling a 1 or a 2 on a dice, and this once per turn. India’s power is one of persuasion, allowing it to double the power of their Control markers when they are in a territory. The Arab Caliphate has Terror, which when chosen as an action card, allows the player to exhaust 1 player’s action for the turn or, once a game, look at another’s player’s Virus cards, choose one and trigger it in that player’s capital.
Strategy cards are basically one-shot special powers that can give a player a number of different advantages, sometimes even giving extra PCs. Some Strategy cards are “gotcha” cards, which you hand to your adversary, giving them negative PCs as well. The black Strategy cards, on the other hand, are straight up PCs, giving the player between 1 and 4 PCs at the end of the game. Whether or not this unbalances the game remains to be seen, but once you know that this is the case, you try and make sure you occupy as many territories as possible when you feel the game is almost over.
The game can end in three ways:
- The Death marker has made its way all the way to the smiley face at the bottom of the Threat track. The game ends immediately and players tally their points. Whomever has the most PC (Political Capital) wins
- The Death marker hits the Skull icon at the top right of the Threat track. Game over, immediately and everyone loses.
- There are no more Event cards in the deck when the Event phase comes up. Game over, too slow. Everyone loses.
Once the game is over, assuming that the players haven’t collectively lost, players count up their points, starting with any pawns that have survived (between 1 and 5 PC, depending on the home nation). Players then get 1 PC per 2 pawns in territories where the player has Control markers, another 1 PC per 2 pawns that the player has eliminated, any PC given for any Strategy cards that the player has played and lose 3 PC per Nuke they launched or Nukes in their territories. Add up all the PCs and whomever has the most is the new super power.
Before I look at how I feel about the game side of things, a few thoughts about the subject matter. I really think that Conquistador Games did a bang on job with what could have been a difficult subject, in that they treated it in a mature, sober manner. They could easily have gone overboard with the virus cards, that while some do bear goofy names, are not graphic. The Population pawns do convey a sense of detachment to what they represent, yet, the sheer amount of them at the start of the game give the impression that yes, there are a whole lot of people on the planet, even if some areas look rather barren. Is it cynical to think that the global population of the planet is too high? No, I really think it is a fact of modern life. Does something need to be done about it? Well, there are two choices I guess: either we try and fix Global Warming by changing our habits or we fix it by reducing the amount of people on the planet, and this game presents what that option would be like. Grim, but makes you think beyond the game mechanics, which I really enjoy in a game.
Gameplay-wise, I’m not 100% sure how I feel about this game: on one hand, it is quite simple to teach and pick up and the core ideas are really interesting; on the other hand, it is very hard to keep a position or even fully evaluate how someone is doing and thus it is a very fluid game. Now, these impressions are not necessarily mutually exclusive and Tomorrow can still be a very good game to introduce people to both the idea of overpopulation and take a few steps into games that involve a lot of diplomacy and debating, but with the situation being so fluid, it’s hard to say if their first experience will be a good one.
I’ve now played this game twice and it does take a certain mindset for the game to be fully interesting. The first time we played, we were 4 players (Steph, Steph, Ken and me – yes, it can be confusing to play with 2 other people named Steph…) and we called the game with 3 turns to go as we had gone only about halfway through the Threat track and believed we would be unable to rectify the situation and not lose collectively. We all agreed that we maybe not had been aggressive enough and, with some back-of-the-envelope calculation, we established that in order to be successful, we needed to eliminate at least 9 points of population per game turn, else we would fail (in all, 77 population points must be removed and there are 9 turns). Knowing this, especially in a 4 player game, this means that the players must concentrate on using Biologicals cards almost each and every turn, which narrows down too much the choice of actions a player can take, making the game repetitive. Also, since players only start with 3 Virus cards, it means that they only really have 7 turns in which they can play Virus since they will need the other 2 turns to get the additional Virus cards (and this is only valid if they get good Virus cards). So maybe playing with only 4 players isn’t such a good idea, but at least we got an idea of the game flow and what is needed to be done and the game didn’t overstay its welcome, with us calling it after about 90 minutes.
The second time we played we were 6 players, 3 of which had played the previous week (Steph, Ken and me had played, the new players being Gaelec, David and Pascal). Again, the rules explanation went fairly fast and the players caught on rapidly. I made sure that the players knew about the “9 points of population per turn” base strategy, since I believe it is key to at very least finishing the game. This time, the players really took to using Viruses on the general population, with much better targeting. Lots of pawns were eliminated and we found ourselves in the middle of the second track by the start of turn 3, almost matching the level of destruction we had in the entire first game. The flow was very good and we ended up “winning” the game with 2 turns left, which is very efficient. Again, we thought, especially those who had played before, that the game has a lot of potential but this time we might have been too cooperative, making the overall experience too easy.
Why was the game too easy? Well, I don’t think there’s a single answer to this. We might not have blocked enough Biological attacks. We might have erred too strongly in almost all taking the same actions. Again, this was very much a learning game. I’m not sure we’re fully grasping the game and the ramifications of the different actions. For example, there was only one Nuke used in the entire game. Are nukes really useful? Are they really a threat? The fact that the player launching them will lose three points at the end of the game is definitively a dis-incentive for using them since while you might deny another player points, you will take a hit as well. On the other hand, if this wasn’t the case, you might be tempted to over-use them instead. Not an easy balancing act.
Another thing that leads to some weirdness is the disconnect that quickly happens between the different values of a single pawn. By this I mean that, for example, a Russian population pawn is worth 5 points to the Russian player at the end of the game, is worth 3 points of population when removed from the game and only worth ½ point to the player who removed it. So while someone might be sitting with a big huge pile of dead pawns in front of them at the end of the game, this might be worth 8 or 9 points max, while if Russia has even 2 pawns alive, they will be worth 10 points. While Russia is an exception, it is hard for most players to wrap their head around the fact that dead pawns are not worth the same as their live equivalent. This makes evaluating who is ahead a little tricky since you cannot simply take a look at the map and go “he has more pawns alive, thus he is winning”. The flip side of this is the fluidity of the game: since you’re able to launch a Virus or Military attack anywhere on the map, no position is really safe. All it takes is a single action and your precious population has been decimated. This is especially true of the China/India/Arab Caliphate region, with lots of pawns and lots of opportunity for mayhem.
Between the starting Population pawns, the different end of game values for said pawn, the different amount of Control and Nuke tokens and the special powers, each super power plays very very differently and as such the balance between them is hard to gage. One thing for sure, a player will have to play a few times with each power to get the feel of them and be able to play them correctly or defend against them well. This only adds to the challenge of a game that, while simple rule wise, is very difficult to get a good handle on and thus, ultimately, judge.
I get the feeling that it will take many games before the true worth of this game comes through, which is not a bad thing since it is a very interesting exercise. I’m still very unsure about the negotiation/diplomacy side of things and whether or not any kind of deals can truly be made, but I’m willing to give it another go, or ten more after that. It is the kind of game that stays on the mind, and with a full complement of players of the right attitude, I’m sure it can be a great experience.