Designed By: Gordon Calleja
Publisher: Mighty Box
A copy of this game was supplied free by the publisher for review.
(Single-Player is a series designed to review tabletop games that can be played solo, as well as with friends. While I do talk about playing the games with friends, these reviews will primarily focus on the single-player experience.)
In my relatively few years upon this rather damp globe that we call Earth I’ve inhabited a lot of postapocalyptic worlds. Through the magic of videogames, movies and books I’ve seen many variations on the idea of a world in ruin, where humans are barely managing to survive, living from day to day with little hope for a brighter future, from the Mad Max series to Fallout. Posthuman, though, is the very first board game I’ve played that has a postapocalyptic setting. Another Kickstarter success story it seeks to be the Fallout 4 of the board game world, delivering some light RPG elements with an emphasis on combat and theme. The end result is mechanically sound, but for some reason I struggled to enjoy it.
In Posthuman you step into the boots of either a pre-made character or a creation of your own, attempting to journey through the harsh lands to reach The Fortress, the rumored last bastion of hope for humanity amidst the chaos and horrors of the new world. Along the way you’ll need to forage for food, scout the terrain and make it through a lot of encounters with the inhabitants of this dismal landscape, all to advance the Journey Point track to 10 before you draw The Fortress event card, which gets added into the bottom three cards of the quite small event deck. New weapons will be found, camp made, seasonal conditions dealt with and horrific mutations shot because ain’t nobody got time for that. It’s thematic strength is easily the highpoint of Posthuman, really putting you into the shoes of someone trying to survive in a harsh world.
This is a one of the first games that I’ve reviewed for Single-Player where solo play and group play create very different experiences rather than just mildly differing ones, so I’m going to focus on just delivering the solo rules first before touching upon how the feel of Posthuman changes a lot with other players sitting around the table. Be warned, though, this is a sizable review, so you might want to go grab a beer and some popcorn. And book a holiday. Call in sick or something. Do what you have to do.
The game comes with quite a few premade characters such as the Cage Fighter, the Butcher and the Ex-Cop, each of which have their own stats that affect the game, namely Speed, Strength, Melee, Mind and Shooting. A character’s stats also dictate their maximum health and morale values for the game, so somebody with a high strength can take quite the beating before falling unconscious, while somebody with a high mind stat has a lot of morale, which could be very useful. These character cards also list any starting skills that they get, plus any extra skill cards they can draw. as well as starting gear like pistols and knives. If you want to create a custom character then first all stats get set to a default value of two, at which point you can spend development points to increase them. Your mind stat dictates how many skill cards can be drawn and kept from the deck to create a pool of starting abilities, although you could opt for a house rule that lets you pick out specific skills for better roleplaying, as drawing random skills can leave you with some strange combinations, like someone who is crap at shooting while somehow being an expert with assault rifles. Finally the character receives one starting equipment card in the form of a flare, and then further cards can be bought by spending food from the starting amount of 7. It’s a robust system for anyone that really wants to get into the roleplaying side of the game. You could even grab a pen and piece of paper and jot down a backstory.
The stats you choose aren’t permanent, however. Throughout the course of the game defeated enemies can be spent to gain XP, with three points of XP letting you acquire a new skill from the deck and six points granting a permanent upgrade to a stat of your choice. Combined with the wide range of gear you can acquire along the way there is a strong sense of progression in Posthuman, which is impressive because it plays quite quickly at around 30-minutes for a solo run. Strangely it was building a character with high shooting skill that I found the most game changing, as with a good gun in hand it became possible to rip through enemies before close-quarters combat became a reality. Mutants aren’t so scary if you fill them full of holes from a few hundred feet away.
Once you have a character picked out or created a persona and everything is set up the game begins proper. A new turn is started by flipping over an event card from a pretty small deck, meaning you’ll see events repeating themselves far too often for comfort. These events bring modifiers into play for the turn, perhaps increasing the combat skills of mutant enemies or describing how players feel like their being followed by something in the shadows, resulting in a penalty to any mind tests. These last for just one round before the next card is drawn. More interesting are the seasonal cards that can bring things like hefty snowfall, stopping you from doing anything but camping, or scorching heat that reduces your max health. These cards remain in play until a new seasonal event is drawn, meaning their rules combine with regular event cards, too. I love this idea because it neatly captures the passage of time. A game of Posthuman is played very quickly, but these seasonal events remind you that your journey is taking years to complete. It’s a pretty cool thematic touch in a game that’s already strong in that area, as we’ll talk about more.
With that out of the way you typically have to feed yourself, or suffer penalties by moving the starvation marker to the left, potentially costing you morale and health. You can always opt to not feed yourself despite having food for whatever reason. Should you not be able to or willing to stuff your face with food and can’t move the marker any further to the you’ll be considered knocked out and will suffer the corresponding penalties, namely you’ll find yourself magically back at the beginning of the map with your health reset to 1.
Each turn you can take just a single action, meaning with so few event cards to draw until the fabled Fortress appears there’s a strong emphasis on moving blindly through the modular world using the move action. Yes, that’s right, the board isn’t actually where you move around, rather it serves merely as a track for recording how close to victory you are. Instead you move around a series of randomly drawn tiles, with a move action consisting of taking a single terrain tile from one of the two heaps and laying it down so that the roads drawn on it match up to one of the roads of the area you’re currently standing on, creating a map that’s unique to your character. Then you just hope your little wooden meeple over to the new chunk of land, possibly muttering something about claiming all the oil or delivering freedom. These cardboard tiles are split into different types of terrain that indicate what you’re more likely to find when scavenging, so city tiles, for example, are the most likely to let you draw from the weapon deck while forests tend to have a lot of food. There’s even some special titles, like churches and inhabited towns. Far more importantly, though, tiles contain the very things needed to earn those precious, precious ten Journey Points; Zones
Each tile will boast up to three zones, and each zone requires one or more encounter cards to be drawn and resolved in order to be completed and for the player to earn a Journey Point. When you first move on to a new tile you automatically trigger the first zone and must start drawing from one of the three encounter decks, each harder than the last. Which one you take from is determined by your current place on the main board, thus you have to tackle harder encounters later in the game, at which point you’ll hopefully have managed to snag some helpful gear and bumped up a few stats. Some of these encounters are more about story, and so you might encounter a man with his son begging for food; if you give him whatever scraps you’ve managed to acquire you lose valuable resources, which may not be an option if you’ve got a bit of travelling to do before you can pick up more food, or if you opt to leave him you take a fairly large morale hit for being a heartless prick. There’s quite a few encounters of this sort that ask you to give up valuable resources such as your food and ammo, usually in return for a boost to your morale. You might run across an orphanage, for example and give them some food in return for feeling like a better human being or choose to leave them. Other types of encounter ask you to dodge traps or defend yourself against mental incursions, requiring a roll against the appropriate skill. Not surprisingly encounters such as this can be a bit annoying as it’s essentially the player being randomly penalised or rewarded for being good or bad at something that’s largely out of their control, but the game’s strong emphasis on luck does also help make it replayable. Considering the setting, though, it does feel like there’s a lot of wasted potential within the encounter decks for more intriguing cards.
Owing to its postapocalyptic nature the vast majority of encounters in Posthuman involve fighting a wide variety of enemies, using an okay dice-based system where luck more than anything else determines victory or failure. Each combat encounter begins with a good ‘ol gunfight, a chance to potentially finish off an enemy before ever needing to engage in fisticuffs, provided you have a gun and some ammo to spare, although I suppose you could always try throwing your pistol at their head if you don’t. Keep in mind that the enemy can fire off a few rounds, too, though, and who shoots first (Han Solo) is determined by comparing speed stats, so you could potentially find yourself leaking important fluids before you even get your pistol out of its holster or manage to utter a brave war cry. To determine what dice you get to roll you first take the number listed on the weapon card, and then add it to the amount of dice that your skill in shooting grants. Once you’ve got your total you set the dice free, also known in the wider gaming community as “rolling” them. Each gun in the game has certain range that its effective up to, so a pistol with a range of 1 can only count any crosshairs rolled with a 1 in the middle as a hit, whereas something like a hunting rifle can hit up to a range of 3, making the chances of scoring a few early wounds much more likely. To balance this out, though, you’ll typically find that long distance guns typically either cost more ammo to use or get less dice to roll.
Once you’ve dealt with the single round of ranged warfare, which is meant to simulate an entire gunfight, and assuming everybody is still actually alive and kicking you engage in up to three rounds of melee combat using the game’s impressive range of weaponry, including such classics as a sickle and chain, a sledgehammer and the betsy blade. Both you and whatever disguising mutant or hapless human you’re facing on the field of battle begin with three orange dice, and then modifiers are added. Whoever has the highest melee rating gets one extra dice to replicate their superior skill in screaming like a girl while trying to chop the foe’s head off. And should the enemy outnumber you, because certain opponents come with randomly drawn followers, then they earn themselves an extra dice due to not being man/mutant enough to face you one on one. Bafflingly if you’re party outnumbers the enemy, because you can pick up followers along the way, too, you don’t get a bonus. Once you’ve got the dice total sorted out you roll and then work out the results using a system that differs quite greatly from the ranged combat. Crosses denote outright misses in the way as ranged dice do, while a shield icon blocks an enemy attack, removing that dice from the pool. The hatchet symbol represents an attack but doesn’t indicate damage like you might expect, while the outline of a hatchet counts as an attack in certain circumstances, such as when your character has the highest melee rating available of five or when an enemy has the Warrior ability. A hatchet symbol with a drop of blood above it indicates an attack plus an extra point of damage should you be successful in actually striking the enemy. There are a few other things to consider, too; having a high Mind stat lets you re-roll up to two dice per encounter, while a high speed gives you the opportunity to replace up to two of the standard dice with green defense dice. Finally there are question marks that exist on both the ranged and melee dice which have different effects depending on the weapon being used, which is a really cool idea. Mostly typically they correspond to standard attacks, but sometimes do much more, like knockdown attacks that leave the opposition reeling next turn. Once you’ve rolled you quickly calculate who has the most attack symbols, and that person deals wounds to the opposition, reducing their health. The amount of wounds is figured out based upon the stats of the weapon used, plus any bonuses acquired from strength, skills and the dice themselves. If the enemy is still alive after a round of combat and so are you, the battle continues for a further two rounds. If everybody is still fine and dandy after that the enemy flees, and the encounter is viewed as unsuccessful.
If it sounds a touch awkward, then you’re right. It’s not entirely intuitive at first but after a few rounds it becomes easy enough to understand.As you can tell, it’s very luck heavy, as is the rest of the game. You’re at the mercy of decks of cards, of tiles and of dice. With so much luck already involved getting shot and KO’d by a mutant because of a good roll of the dice can be infuriating, as can drawing an encounter and finding yourself facing down a huge group that will clearly decimate you. The game grants the option to try to evade encounters, but it can only be used sparingly. Most of the time you’ll just have to fight. The problem I have is that I don’t feel like I have any say in combat; any bonuses and things I can add were all gained through luck as well, like finding a good sword or picking up an awesome gun earlier on. You can only mitigate bad luck in combat through good luck elsewhere in the game. Perhaps if combat encounters were less frequent it would have helped, but being attacked by enemies makes up the vast majority of run ins that you’ll have. That’s a shame because the game is far better when it’s telling a story using it’s more interesting encounters, like one awesome moment where you can have sex with a stranger for a morale boost. Now that’s some authentic postapocalypticness right there.
In fact, theme is the game’s single strongest feature. I love how you can acquire a guitar and just sit there while camping, playing a song to bump up your morale. I love encountering cool things when travelling aside from just another mutant that needs a kick in the pants. When the game comes together and the cards deliver a bit less combat the theme really comes alive and the fights become more interesting. You might move on from scavenging a city where you discovered a new assault rifle that will surely come in handy, only to stumble across one of the special tiles, like an inhabited village. You stop off and trade some supplies before moving on again and getting caught up in a scrap that really leaves you beaten up. As a reward, though, you find a wooden puzzle toy, another method of keeping morale up, plus some handy equipment in the form of binoculars which will make it even easier to scout the terrain. These stories make playing Posthuman solo worth it, but they can infrequent due to the amount of combat.
You can’t die in a fight, rather you get knocked out as we discussed earlier, dropping you back to the starting tile and leaving you struggling to make it to that final position on the journey board before the Fortress card appears. That is, unless you’ve previously taken some Scouting actions. A scouting action lets you draw as many tiles as there are exits on the one currently occupied by your playing piece and lay them down without having to move, giving you the chance to examine the landscape before moving next turn. This is handy for a few reasons; some tiles contain black zones where you still have to complete an encounter but won’t get a journey point for the effort, making them a waste of time. Other tiles might have three zones before it’s classified as being completed, which is important because a complete tile lets you draw supply cards that might contain food. In many instances having to move through three zones before getting to draw supply card might be too many if you have low food and can’t afford to take starvation damage.
Once a tile is completed you can also take a Forage action on the next turn to draw a single supply card. Food and ammo obviously appear in supply cards, but you might also get chance to draw from either the weapon or equipment decks, although there are other occasions when you’ll get the opportunity in other ways. The range of gear that the game includes is impressive. You might snag a map that let’s you draw two tiles when moving and discard the one that you don’t like, or a bag that bumps up the amount of stuff you can carry. You might even pick up an old MP3 player that will help boost morale so long as the batteries hold out. As for weapons there’s bows, saw axes, LMGs, sniper rifles and even flamethrowers. Between equipment, weapons, skills and stats there’s a lot of room for some roleplaying here, especially with all the different encounter cards.
The final action you can opt to take is to Camp, letting you regain some health at the cost of not moving or potentially advancing along the path to victory. You can recover some Morale, too, if you’re camping on a safe house, special blue areas on tiles that also come with the added benefit of letting you consider yourself fed without actually using any food.
With one single action per turn and the fact that there isn’t a lot of spare event cards before you draw the Fortress, each turn feel like it matters. There’s not much room for things to go wrong, although the manual does suggest decreasing difficulty by starting the game further along the journey track. Scouting out the terrain helps avoid bad situations but also eats up one of your precious turns, encouraging you to move blindly and just tackle what comes. Likewise you’ll need to set up camp from time to regain some health, but that ticking clock whispers in your ear that maybe you should just press on instead – Who knows, you might get lucky and defeat the next few encounters with ease.
And that’s it for the solo game. The manual can be a slog to get through and there’s quite a lot of things going on that need to be remembered, thus it can take a few plays before everything starts to come together smoothly. And frankly it’s not overly exciting even when it does, a dungeon crawler essentially where I felt like the few decisions I was making were far outweighed by the luck of the dice, cards and tiles. The game’s hefty reliance on luck can be a strength from time to time, when all those cards and tiles come together to tell a compelling story, but all too often I wound up having fight after fight with only the occasional moment of respite presented by something more thematically interesting. It’s not a bad solo game, it just feels….okay. Good, even, but nothing about it really stands out.
Once you add some extra players, however, and the game’s mechanics start to make a lot more sense as trading comes into play. If one or more players choose to camp while on the same terrain they are free to trade as they see fit. This leads to some great story moments as players negotiate over the table, one perhaps offering to sit down and use their storytelling skill (yes, that’s a card) to boost morale in return for food, or a great sharpshooter exchanging a spare weapon for precious ammo. It’s a competitive game and so you might expect trading with other players to be a last resort, but I found it happened quite frequently. It is, after all, better to trade with the competition than try to stumble on with almost no health and wind up being sent back to square one. Literally. And simply racing against someone makes the game a lot more fun. The ticking clock of finding the Fortress is enjoyable, but it’s nothing compared to the tension of catching up with a fellow player in the last few rounds, overtaking them and snagging the win.
Unless they happen to grow tentacles and choke you to death, anyway. Posthuman’s most compelling and fascinating feature isn’t available in standard solo play. You see, when a mutant wounds you in combat you must draw a Mutant Scar card. Get too many of these when playing solo and its game over, but with two or more people playing you mutate instead, becoming some sort of deformed beast that must try to hinder the other players, hopefully turning them into mutants in the process. What’s cool is how the scar cards you drew are used to form your new mutated being, granting stat increases and decreases while also doing other awesome stuff, like giving you a spiked arm or horns. It’s such a great idea and when one player finally mutates it flips the game, and can lead to a series of disasters as a few more players succumb and begin to hunt down the final player who is racing for safety. When playing as a mutant you draw special action cards that let you do various things like launch telepathic assaults and even attack directly. Interestingly, though, to play these cards you have to predict what type of tile the player you’re going after is going to land on next, bringing a hefty dollop of luck that can leave you feeling rather annoyed. The reason for this is that all players reveal their actions at the same time, using special cards to select what they want to do, and thus mutants have no idea what the players are up to.
It does also feel like the game misses a bit of a trick with its mutant players. Rather than mutating slowly as the game goes on you instead go from being human to a fully grossed-out creature in just a single turn. Me and my friends quickly made a house rule that rather than hiding our scars as the rules dictated we would instead apply any mutations we gained on the spot, discarding guns and swords and axes when needed and applying whatever stat bonuses listed. It made for a far more thematically fun game as our characters evolved over the course of the adventure, sprouting cool horns that aided us in a fight or using horrid bone protrusions to impale foes or becoming absurdly huge. The idea behind hiding Scars is that other players have no idea how close to being a mutant you truly are since some of them could be blank, and a player can, in fact, opt to transform early if they want. It’s a good concept, but we found that it was just as tense watching friends slowly transform and get ever closer to finally falling off the metaphorical cliff and becoming an enemy. Even more intense was when they were hovering around that magical area where they could choose to go full mutant. Would this be the turn? When will they do it? Or will they wait and continue trying to win the game?
Of course you could try get this mutation system when playing solo by taking control two survivors at once, but considering both human and mutant actions are supposed to be hidden it wouldn’t work very well. With such a huge part of the game unavailable to solo players I can’t help but wonder if a single player mode was added on as an afterthought, an attempt to appeal to an expanding market.
Finally before we close out this review components must be talked about, because it’s a little mixed here. I love the character artwork, the custom meeples and the solid dice that have a good heft to them, always a good thing in any game where you’re going to be rolling a lot. Everything else is a little tougher. The terrain tiles look boring, as does the journey board itself, and I’m not a fan of the small cards, either, although it does help ensure that it has a relatively small footprint on the table. It’s all quite solid, though, and therefore should handle any abuse without too much problem.
Ultimately I find Posthuman to be a tough game to review, because it’s hard to pinpoint what doesn’t click with me. Mechanically it falls into what is known in the board game world as Ameritrash, which is to say highly thematic with a lot of lashings of luck and emphasis on pure fun over the more cerebral fun of Euro games, which suits me just fine as I love a bit of dice rolling mayhem. Still, I like to feel like I’m making a difference. You’re at the mercy of cards, tiles and dice most of them time and I’m not sure how much of an impact I ever really had on victory. Quite a number of times I won the game only because the final encounter was a lucky draw that matched my skillset perfectly and let me breeze through. However, luck in a game has its place, after all I really loved Arkham Horror and it’s much the same. Mechanically the game is pretty well made and it really captures the theme well. Being able to create a character is a blast, the combat is enjoyable enough even if there is too much of it and building up your character with better stats and gear is very compelling. In the end if you have a group of people willing to play and don’t mind how much luck is involved in the game, then it’s a lot of fun, the theme coming through strongly so that players will often feel as though they have a story worth telling by the end. However, as a solo game it’s not something I see myself playing very much of. Either way, a very solid effort.