At the start of my Call of Duty: The Board Game preview, I’m equally skeptical and intrigued. How can developer Arcane Wonders adapt one of the fastest, twitchiest, and frankly best FPS game franchises of all time into a methodical, turn-taking board game, without losing what makes it special?
The combination of slick art, recognisable character miniatures, and big-name license made the board game a sure-fire hit on Kickstarter; with 13 days to go it is already well past its $75,000 funding goal. But as bitter experience has taught many board game collectors, crowdfunding success doesn’t necessarily create the best board games – see our Skyrim: The Adventure Game review for proof.
Imagine my surprise and delight, then, when I discover that the new CoD board game is not only good, it’s an excellent adaptation of the source material.
If marketing director Robert Geistlinger – my teacher and opponent for the demo game – is to be believed, the board game reproduces the ebb and flow of Call of Duty so well that, when veterans of the videogame series play him at it, they almost always win.
The game’s main board is a Call of Duty arena, well illustrated and simplified into a series of nodes. Connecting lines indicate where your operator minis can move and what they can see.
Both players have a copy of that main board hidden behind a screen. Each round, players programme their movements and other actions by placing tokens onto their private board, and then simultaneously resolve them, moving their operator around the main board. If two fighters ever have line of sight to each other, the bullets start to fly.
Combat is bloody. Players don’t have health – they’re either alive, wounded, or waiting to respawn at the start of the next turn. It’s technically possible for both players to survive a combat, but so unlikely that Geistlinger says he’s only seen it once in 60 games. Assume that every combat will end in at least one death.
In each combat you’ll select a pool of dice and a combat card. Your goal is just to finish the fight with the highest combat score – whoever has the highest total lives, perhaps walking away wounded if their opponent finishes with a very close score.
You might enter combat with one or more advantages or disadvantages, like having a clean line of sight or being midway up a ladder, which translate into bonuses or penalties to your combat score. This rewards you for good positioning, but it won’t win combat on its own: your choice of dice and card will have a huge effect.
Blue aim dice improve your weapon’s aim – the better your aim, the better the combat bonuses you’ll get from your combat card. Red dice represent your operator’s aggression, adding straight to your combat total and chance of winning the fight – most of the time. Green defense dice decrease your opponent’s aim; ruin their aim completely and they’ll critically miss, discounting any bonus from their red dice.
There are plenty of other little details on top of that, and the tactical choices felt incredibly deep. Combat cards vary greatly in what they contribute to a fight – a card might offer good damage even on a glancing hit but provide little bonus for a bulls-eye, or it could be the opposite, catastrophically powerful but only if it directly hits. Others have useful abilities, contributing aim or speed or ignoring enemy cover, or even offer utility outside combat.
Did I mention that your cards are also your ammo, and you can only refill your hand by spending a vulnerable action reloading – or by dying. Respawns happen almost immediately: once a fight ends the survivor can choose to continue resolving their actions, or simply end their turn. The losing player refreshes their ammunition and consumables, picks a spot outside line of sight on the board to spawn on, and gets ready for the next round.
The Capture the Flag mode I was playing gave points for killing enemy operators and for holding the flag at the end of turn. Geistlinger said the final game will have all the game modes you would expect, from team deathmatch to hardpoint: the Kickstarter offers muliple different starter sets, with a range of Operatives and the chance to expand up to six player games.
The last part of the Call of Duty formula my demo touched on was the operator’s loadout. You’re free to pick your weapon and choice of consumable item (like grenade or claymore) before the match, and Geistlinger says that the final game will also feature weapon attachments. Then, based on a set of keywords found on your Operator and on your chosen weapon, you can customise your combat card deck with advanced cards.
Arcane Wonders has doubled down on the psychological side of the FPS; this is absolutely a game about getting inside your opponent’s head. Predict your opponents moves to get the drop on them – predict how they’ll fight to drop them.
My demo took place on the virtual tabletop Tabletop Simulator, so I can’t comment on the quality of components, and the experience was a little fiddly just from virtue of playing on a virtual tabletop. From what I’ve played, Call of Duty: The Board Game promises to be agonizingly tense when played one on one, and an absolute clown car of near-instant murders when played multiplayer.
If you fancy a big box board game with miniatures and don’t want to wait for a Kickstarter package to arrive, check out our guide to dungeon crawler board games. If you love plotting military maneuvers but prefer something a little slower, check out our guide to the best war board games and best strategy board games; and if you want something head to head, we can recommend some excellent two-player board games.