The Best Jagged Alliance 2 Successor Might Actually be a Board Game24 Jul 2019 0
We Jagged Alliance fans are a tortured lot. It's been 20 years since the release of Jagged Alliance 2 and we've weathered the storm of the poorly conceived 3D, the completely disappointing Flashback, and the underwhelming Rage (To be fair, Martynas quite liked that one-ED) Finally A.I.M. has answered our call and re-ignited this juggernaut of a franchise--surprisingly, the shiny new gear comes in the form of cardboard.
Jagged Alliance: The Board Game is a merc with no quit. It was a Kickstarter success for publisher Underground Games who have delivered a svelte design that manages to couple nostalgia with a touch of innovation. The presentation as well as game-play clearly indicates a development team passionate about the intellectual property.
This is a cooperative experience that allows players to field classic mercenaries such as Shadow, Ivan, and Fox. The narrative parrots JA2, focusing on the liberation of Arulco and combating Queen Deidranna over a multi-session campaign. It can be played as a one-off affair as you hit the jungle for an hour or so, but it really wants you to dig into the long-form structure and commit to the war.
As it turns out, the war starts off somewhat slow. It eases you in with a couple of learning scenarios that slowly introduce rules. This is a reasonable methodology for a nuanced middle-weight design that's pretty unique. The structure of an individual mission is adjacent to dungeon crawl style titles such as Imperial Assault or Shadows of Brimstone. You're moving across modular tiles, in this case the jungles and hills of Arulco.
The scope of play is a little more detached than its peers. There's a distinct macro feel as you explore new tiles and reveal enemies that you engage in a small skirmish. Tactical movement is confined to this individual area as you quickly resolve a heated combat before moving on to the next bloodbath.
Once you trigger an encounter the area is populated via an exploration card and you are not allowed to exit the firefight until peace is restored. In this manner, the pace of action focuses on getting in and securing these warzones with efficiency and minimal damage.
These isolated firefights model Jagged Alliance 2's tempo rather well. New threats pop up and you must sever the predator's head before it sinks its teeth into your flesh. The combat mechanism utilizes a simple dice-pool that has all rolls made on behalf of the player characters. So instead of tossing bones for an AI-controlled grunt's attack, you instead roll for your merc's defense and attempt to avoid damage. This keeps the perspective focused on the player characters and aligns strongly with the efficient pace.
Combat is surprisingly nuanced. You can take cover in village spaces to increase your defense or lurk in the jungle and rely on stealth. The bevy of weapons you will sift through over the course of the campaign offers numerous abilities to wield. Enemies exhibit simple yet unique behavior profiles and grow in strength as you progress through the campaign, continually maintaining a meaningful degree of challenge. This isn't a tactical brain-burner that will put your cognitive faculties through a gauntlet, but it does offer a satisfying degree of sophistication.
All of this is funneled through a lithe action point system. You spend stamina points to move area-to-area and to trigger action lines on your gear. Weapons will typically offer multiple options, allowing you to fire more recklessly from the hip or with more care at a greater cost. Your stamina pool also doubles as your health presenting a constant incentive to conserve and tread carefully.
That guarded strategic outlook is difficult to maintain. Pressure in the form of the dictator's threat track keeps the fire at your back. If you do not move forward with enough haste you will be caught flat-footed and overwhelmed. Events trigger and Deidranna will launch intermittent counter-attacks. This requires players pass a die roll boosted by rebels they have accumulated over the course of the campaign. If enough patriots support your incursion then you can stave off defeat and press onward.
This time element is superb. It provides a palpable presence for the dictator, weighing upon your actions and instilling an emotional sense of oppression. There's a stark contrast to the bare bones turn limit of Descent, which can feel artificial and forced as opposed to Jagged Alliance's more characterful direction. It's woven into the momentum of play as you bounce between skirmish and momentary rest, never perfectly sure how fast to push.
The big challenge with this style of game is maintaining interest for the long haul. Since a campaign lasts up to 12 hours over several sessions, it needs ample variety and a diverse swathe of tactical encounters. There is a faint feeling of bumping up against the edges of the design space as you realize there are only a few unique enemy types which may not jive with the overall cost of the product.
This is exacerbated by the inclusion of only six mercenary miniatures despite 13 unique merc player boards existing. Instead of modelling each specific character option, they elected to have you choose the closest resemblance and make-do. This is an unfortunate trade-off and it amplifies that strain on expectations.
Despite these niggling production complications, Jagged Alliance: The Board Game mostly affirms its promise by offering upgraded and elite versions of enemies, a multitude of equipment, various side-mission diversions, and even alternate dictators to select from. The content buried within the jungles of Arulco is lush, if not the plastic.
All of this game-play is packed into a normal size box that won't take up an entire shelf. It hasn't launched with a half dozen expansions or a mound of exclusive content that's impossible to track down. As a Kickstarter miniatures board game, it's quite refreshing and lean.
The final question is whether this title will work for those poor souls who have never experienced the Jagged Alliance series. Fortunately, it absolutely stands on its own as a solid work, offering a tactical military shooter that frames the action around a more strategic perspective. The action is gripping and hits hard with that command of tempo. Players who know nothing of A.I.M. will still find smiles rising upon their mugs as they riffle through equipment cards and light up the tree-line. This is a high quality game, full stop.
Despite the strong execution and unique elements, this one feels destined to fly under the radar. Those who take a second look will find this experience thrilling and solidly abstracted to capture the core concepts of its source material. While we may not get that return to form we desperately want, nay, deserve, Jagged Alliance: The Board Game may just be that compelling experience we clearly need.