It's here! Like a murderous detective leaping from a Skyline, the Bioshock Infinite board game wants to come crashing into your house and help itself to the money in your pockets. It's a pretty exciting proposition — unlike video game tie-ins of movies, board game tie-ins aren't a meritless lake of bilge water. Some, like the Game of Thrones game, are pretty wonderful. So I was really curious sitting down to play The Siege of Columbia for a lengthy playtest. What have we got here? Bilge or anti-bilge?
Offering a pleasant twist on the setting, The Siege of Columbia's 2-4 players don't actually control Booker or Elizabeth. Rather, you split into teams controlling either Comstock's founders or the Vox Populi rebellion as both sides wrestle for control of the board's districts. Each one worth a different number of Victory Points, and if your side is ever sat on 10 such lustrous points, you win.
So, does that make The Siege of Columbia a gritty, gory war game? Not in the slightest. In fact, I'd argue the board game's biggest achievement is recognising and pursuing the rollercoaster tone of the video game. There's some smart design to mull over, but it's far outweighed by a schlocky desire to entertain.
At the simplest level, this board game's just a lovely object for any fan. Included in the box are 32 adorable little miniatures plucked from Infinite's cast, from Handymen, the Songbird and Comstock's flagship, to Daisy Fitzroy, to handfuls of little shotgun psychopaths. There's definitely a sense that Plaid Hat chose maximalism over elegance for this title, always with two dozen tokens and cards bearing thematic designs to accompany every rule. It's once we get into those rules, though, that things go off the rails. Literally.
Moving your miniatures between any districts on the board means rolling a handful of Sky-Line dice for every piece you're moving. This works a lot like a slot machine. So long as you get one thumbs up, you're fine, and can even ride it further if you wanted to push your luck. Fail to get any happy thumbs, though, and something's gone wrong. You either have to pay an agonising amount of resources or lose that unit forever, as whoever it was — perhaps a little shotgun man, perhaps the deadly Zachary Comstock himself — goes screaming towards the earth. I don't mean it as a slight when I saw that the most enjoyable thing in this game is watching people decide whether to roll the dice for their invaluable troops first, or wait until there's no other option.
Which is horrible/awesome, but nothing compared to the horror of Booker and Elizabeth.
You know what? Scratch what I said earlier. The Siege of Columbia's crowning achievement is that it makes you hate these terrifying vandals just as much as every NPC in the video game. Not controlled by any player, this pair traverse the board instead according to the steps of a randomly selected timeline sheet. More importantly, Booker will randomly aggro and do his best to flatline everything where he stands, and as you might expect, you do not fuck with Booker. Exactly like the Sky-Line, these fights are hilarious when they happen to your friends, but are, of course, absolute bullshit when they happen to you. Odd, no?
It might seem like this sort of random nonsense isn't the best fit for a strategy game, but that's not wholly true. Mathematician and patron saint of gaming Richard Garfield recently did the rounds with a talk about randomness often being desirable in games, because it helps to ensure players are presented with unusual play states, and demands those same players can react intelligently when opportunities (or calamities) arise, as well as simply scheme. And this is before we've gotten into the inarguable tension and tactile joy of rolling dice.
Though it's ironic that I'm quoting a mathematician here. In the end, what lets down The Siege of Columbia is an awkward inability to use numbers neatly.
The Siege of Columbia's box is a nest of tiny integers. Your actual turn doesn't sound so bad — first you make money, then can spend it on units and structures, then you can move up to 4 units, and finally all of your units in contested spaces fight. But like the floaty city of Columbia itself, the board game's rules are elevated nauseatingly by a complex system of cards, which form a second game that everybody's playing.
The hand of cards you're dealt each round all have different values for Combat, Influence and Silver Eagles, as well as a special ability, allowing it to either be discarded to earn you money, to help win any of the votes that commence each round of the game, to help in combat or for that special ability.
Cards that can be spent for one of several rewards is fine in theory. It's appeared in all sorts of games. I've just never seen it accompanied by so much maths. Guessing at how many combat cards you need vs. how many economy cards is fine. But, here, figuring out how many combat cards you need first sees you having to cross-reference your opponents' units with the numbers on the custom dice. Figuring out how much money you need means figuring out what buildings you want, and where, and what that'll cost. Now, imagine doing these sums all the time.
And this is before we've got the Infinite's absurd system of letting players upgrade one of the numbers on one type of card whenever they succeed at anything (done using the game's 40 upgrade tokens, rapidly making your player sheet look like a calculator sneezed on it), which means figuring out what your cards are really worth is a feat of permanent cross-referencing. It's just unpleasant having all of those tiny numbers crawling around on the inside of your skull, because you're not puzzling this out to make great plays. Just to be sliiiightly more efficient that the other guy.
Much better to just throw cards down without thinking about it and have fun. For all you know, this turn's Sky-Line dice are going to dropkick your plans off the city anyway. But then why have all these complex systems in the first place, slowing the game down? It's not like the game's pace needed to be any slower, since the opening few turns see players actively encouraged to first grab all the board's empty districts, often not coming to blows for the first third of the game. In a year where Kemet brilliantly solved that problem, as well as offering the best upgrade system I've ever seen in a strategy game, and doing it all with even nicer miniatures and a third of this game's rules, The Siege of Columbia feels like a tricky purchase to justify.
Tricky, but not impossible. If you did love Bioshock Infinite, and if you want nothing more than to wreck your friend's plans with a swoop of the Songbird and a clatter of dice; if you'd thrill at having Booker foil your plans and stop you from winning in a heart-stopping twist, there's a possibility you should take my critical grumbling as a compliment.
Plaid Hat Games have produced something worthy of being compared to the very best games in the genre, and they've done it with style. Besides, it wouldn't be an Infinite game without a few tears in the design.
Quintin Smith is a games columnist able to identify different board game manufacturers by their scent. He is not proud of this. He's part of a team working to make a home for play in Shut Up & Sit Down, and @quinns108 on Twitter.