Monday, May 16, 2011

Fragged! (A Review of Frag)

Many games out there require thoughtfulness, planning ahead, strategizing, plotting, countering, sidestepping, and all sorts of brain-exercising activities.

Let me just start off by saying, Frag is not one of those games.

Billed as "A first-person shooter board game,"  Frag is fast paced, action oriented, and light on depth.  If you could take Halo and make into a board game, you'd probably end up with Frag.

Let's talk about what's in the box.
 (Be it noted here, I'm reviewing "Frag: Gold Edition" a fairly recent reprinting of the game with updated graphics and rules.  There is an older edition, of which I am unfamiliar with, and it may contain different pieces, cards, and possibly rules, so don't come crying to me if you buy the wrong version and it doesn't match up with what I write about.)

the arena of battle
You get a very large, 2-sided board, each side containing its own separate map, which is where the action takes place.  One side has a lot of walls and rooms to run into, while the other is very open, with spawn points inside rooms but once you leave those, you're stuck out in the open.

There are 6 plastic space marines, each with a corresponding "stats" board, allowing up to 6 players, although you could easily use extra generic pawns and some scratch paper to add more players (though a larger map would be recommended if you decide to do this.)  There are "Gadget," "Weapon," and "Special" cards, ammunition markers, and bloodmarkers, as well as a set of 10 "paired" markers with numbers to correspond with a cache of weapons left on the board without an owner. Also, you get a boatload of dice.  Literally, I bought the game and brought it home and there was a guy in a boat dumping off all the dice.  (Okay there wasn't literally a boat, but it paints a funny picture in my mind).

How it Works
The game is pretty simple:  be the first to get to 3 frags.  It doesn't matter how many times you die, as long as your kill count reaches the top first.  The Stat board tracks your frags, and has markers up to 6 frags, so you could play to a higher amount, but I've found that the 3 frag target makes for a pretty decent game.

yay for minis
To start, each player writes (with the included erasable marker) stats on their own board.  Each player has 7 points to spend on Health, Speed, and Accuracy, with a maximum of 4 in one stat and a minimum of 1.  Health is how much damage you can take before dying, and also determines how many weapons you can equip at one time.  Speed determines how far you can travel during your turn, as well as how far you can jump.  Accuracy determines the distance you can attack from, and putting 3 or 4 points in your Accuracy stat allows you to make 2 attacks per turn.

Each player starts with 1 of each of the cards - gadget, weapon, and special - and everyone spawns in order before the first player takes their turn.

A turn works like this:  The player first rolls a number of dice equal to their "Speed" stat.  (eg Speed: 4 rolls 4 dice.  Speed:1 rolls 1 die.)  The resulting total his how many squares they can move.  Players cannot move diagonally or through walls.  Doors are fair game, although certain doors only allow movement in 1 direction.  If you step on a square with a Gadget or Weapon icon, you roll a die, and get the corresponding card if you roll 4, 5, or 6.

To attack, the player must stop, declare who they are attacking, and then roll a number of dice equal to their accuracy (is there a shorter way to say that?).  If the total rolled is equal to or higher than the number of spaces (not counting diagonals... or rather, diagonals count as 2) between the two players, it's a hit!

very useful stat board with erasable marker

Then, the attacking player rolls a number of dice equal to their weapon's Damage value (each player has a pistol with unlimited Ammo that has a damage value of 2, but weapon cards are usually far superior albeit with limited uses).  The player being attack rolls dice equal to their health (sensing a pattern?).  This next part is a little confusing, but both players add up their totals, and the damage total is divided by the health total (rounding down), and that's how much damage is dealt to the defending player.  If the result is less than 1, the defender takes no damage.  For example, lets say the defender has Health: 3 and the Attacker attacks with a weapon of 2 Damage.  The Defender rolls a total of 5 between their dice.  If the attacker's roll totals less than 5, it does no damage.  Rolling 5 exactly, or any total up to 9, does 1 damage.  Rolling 10, 11, or 12, would do 2 damage.

Damage temporarily reduces the defenders Health.  If their health reaches 0, that player is FRAGGED.  The attacking player scores a Frag and the dead defender will respawn at the start of their next turn.  This also results in the dead player's equipped weapons being dropped on the map for anyone to pick up, as well as a blood pool token, which can be picked up and used to restore health.

Weapon cards represent more powerful tools of destruction, albeit with limited ammo.  Many weapons provide simple damage bonuses, although many have special effects such as a specific range (thus requiring no roll of Accuracy for a hit when the range requirements are met), or a specific type of damage such as energy, which can be boosted (or defended against) with certain cards.  Some weapons allow multiple attacks, others increase in power at closer range, and there is even the classic and deadly "portable nuke."

Gadgets range from protection (Armor) to health packs, to cards that modify your stats, to cards that can protect against a certain attack or allow you to use two weapons at once.

Special cards, which are obtained only when you score a frag, offer very powerful in game "Hacks" that allow you to travel through walls, kill a player at any time (no one scores the frag for this), LAG someone causing them to lose a turn, or double your own stats for a round or two.

Okay, that's how the game works.  Now lets get down to how it plays.

the coveted weapon
The Review
Frag is, as mentioned above, pretty fast paced.  It's also easy to learn and pick up, especially if experienced players offer basic tips to newbies.  If you've ever played a frenetic First Person Shooter, though, you'll get the gist of it right away.

This game is not about advanced tactics, or setting up traps to unleash on your enemies, or in-depth strategies.  It's about running around, trying to collect big guns and useful gadgets to unleash an onslaught on your opponents before they get to you.

I was surprised at the balance of stats.  At first impression, accuracy is overpowered compared to the other stats - after all, an increased range AND multiple attacks per turn?  Ridiculous!

yellow just got a kill

But I've found, in experimenting with different distribution of my stat points, that essentially any arrangement of stats is viable.  Sure, loading up accuracy is great, but it also leaves you slow and/or vulnerable to attack.  Never underestimate the power of rolling 4, or even 3 dice for your health when being attacked.   And Speed, perhaps the most overlooked stat, is extremely useful for running around and collecting a large number of gadgets and weapons, which can boost your combat abilities to make up for low health or accuracy.  It also allows you to run up to be within a close range, make an attack, and then run to safety.

The attack mechanic is kind of interesting.  Although most of our attacks took place within 1 or 2 spaces, the damage roll seems extremely fair.  Since it's division, not subtraction or comparison of successes, or something like that, a big fat health stat goes a long way in protecting you.  Rolling a total of 10 or higher requires a 20 damage roll to get that 2nd hit, and the weapons are limited enough (a good weapon is around 5D) that good planning will help you survive an attack.

Unfortunately, the requirement of adding up a boatload of dice and then dividing two totals slows the game down a bit.  I like the balance that the mechanic brings, and it certainly is enjoyable to roll a handful of dice instead of just 1 or 2, but in a frenetic action game it feels a little odd to have to stop and add up and divide.  And then there are the occassional moments of epicness when gadgets and weapons combine to result in rolling all 18 dice at once, and that's just insanity.

a sampling of gadgets
You tend to get used to shortcutting the math, though, as long as the players don't insist on completely adding up all the dice to their full totals.  If you have at least one quick mathemetician in your group, you can speed the process up.

Gadgets and Weapons work really well the bring the game into full force.  Everyone has a fair chance to pick up some useful items, and really powerful items make you a target, or have limitations such as ammo counts or limited range.  A weapon that runs out of ammo can't be used again unless an ammo card is found, or if it is dropped and then picked up again.  However, dropping a weapon opens it up to any other player, and you can't pick up a weapon on the same turn you dropped it.  It's a good tradeoff when you end up being the lucky player with the Portable Nuke.  If you don't manage to win the game when you use it, you'll be a hot target for the other players, who will gladly pick it up from your cold dead corpse and wipe the blood off.

Special cards can be devastating if you use them at the right time.  Losing a turn can make you vulnerable, and free frags, despite their lack of points, can level the playing field against a player who has too many gadgets and weapons loaded up on their avatar (as all gadgets must be discarded when that player is fragged, and weapons drop to the floor to be picked up by anyone at full ammo capacity).  There can be a bit of spite involved with these cards, but then, you have to earn them, and they are generally played on the most powerful player, which keeps anyone from pulling too far ahead.

Our first couple of games didn't last maybe as long as they should have, skewing towards one player, but as we learned to collect gadgets to enhance and protect our space marines, the game really fleshed out in all of its gory glory.

here lies the power

Frag makes for a great diversion, a fun, light game when you don't feel like exercising your brain too much.  It's a good game for late nights or after a long work day, or just as a break from heavier, more strategic material.  While there is plenty of room to plan or try different tactics, it works just as well to run around blasting everything in sight, minus the hand-eye coordination and reaction-time requirements of videogames that often create a skill-gap.  It's published by Steve Jackson games, so you can be sure it doesn't take itself too seriously, nor should it be taken seriously.  With plenty of laughs and excitement to be had, filled with epic moments of glory and destruction, Frag works well with a large number of players of all skill levels.  It consistently surprised me with a balance to its seemingly chaotic randomness, from the number of frags required to win, to how damage was dealt, to the value of the different stats.

For what it is, I'd say Frag is doing just great.  And maybe it's a good way to get your FPS-playing friends to try your hobby.

Fast-pace, mindless fun
A great diversion from heavier games
Zany and fun weapons and powers
Stats are pretty balanced however you divide them up.
Plenty of laughs and glory and destruction

Dice combat mechanism works but slows the game down


  1. I have mixed feelings about Frag. It's fun, to be sure, but I find I have to be in the right mood for it. Your summary in the second-to-last paragraph captures my thoughts about it. Most of the time I'm in the mood for more strategic fare, but every once in a while, you want to shoot your buddy, and Frag provides that outlet marvelously.

  2. I also like that more games are including boards with dry erase markers. Though replacing the markers is probably a pain, I feel better about not having lots of tiny slips of paper. (This is especially awesome in a question-answer game like Wits & Wagers.)

  3. You can get a box of dry-erase markers at Office Max for like $2 so replacing dry-erase markers is not much of an issue, at least for me.

  4. You know what we should try? We should print out some copies of the Gadget/Weapon squares and use our old Heroclix maps to play Frag. I think having at least a little more color and detail in the environment will enrich the game aesthetically at least.


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