Designer: Justin De Witt
Artist: Víctor Pérez Corbell
Publisher: Fireside Games
Review copy supplied free of charge by the publisher.
I‘ve had the misfortune to be involved in a few fires in my times, most of them started by me because of reasons, and during all of them I never once considered grabbing a handful of dice and hurling them at the flames to put them out. Not once. And yet here’s Hotshots clearly showing me that true firefighters use dice to combat the spreading flames. Man, firefighters are freaking hardcore, aren’t they?
Yup, you and up to three other folk (though the game lists a 2-player minimum you can easily play solo) take on the roles of firefighters attempting to combat a raging forest fire that is threatening to consume huge swaths of the land. It’s a theme I’ve never seen before, so Fireside Games have to be commended for coming up with something unique. Now just watch as someone in the comments proves me wrong.
The board is made up of a bunch of hexes that you can lay out randomly or use one of the suggested layouts in the rulebook that are based on real-life locations such as Yellowstone Park. Some of these tiles will get instantly set ablaze at the start of the game as indicated by little dots, so you’ll plop down the game’s crowning glory in the form of soft, plastic fire tokens which are just freaking terrific. I mean seriously, they look great! It’s almost worth buying the game just to get hold of them.
On your turn, you can move up to two tiles, but you can’t move through tiles that are currently on fire, instead you can only enter or leave them. Then you can opt to fight the fire, assuming there actually is any on the tile. And that’s your entire turn. Nice and simple.
When you arrive at a tile that’s ablaze you grab the six dice and hurl them across the table, the goal being to match symbols on the dice with symbols on the tile. So long as you match at least one symbol you can put it aside and roll the rest of the dice, again keeping any matching symbols before rolling yet again and so on. If you manage to match three dice then you get a firebreak which you place between two tiles in order to help stop the spread of flame. Four symbols let you remove a single fire token, while five symbols allow you take away two fires while also gaining a random reward token or firebreak. Finally, six symbols equals three removed fires, a firebreak and a reward token which can include a variety of useful things.
Failing to match a symbol when you roll, though, results in an explosion which adds another fire to the tile, potentially bringing it to its Scorch Limit as printed on the tile.When this happens all fires are removed from the tile and its flipped over to its blackened, scorched side. When this happens not only does it bring you one step closer to losing the game but it also adds a fire to an adjacent tile with the lowest Scorch Limit, potentially even creating a chain reaction. Finally, if there were any characters on the tile they remain there, but for each one a dice is placed on the camp tile and cannot be used again until a player goes back to the camp to free the dice.
You can mitigate the chances of explosion by having support, though, Firstly if you’re adjacent to the lake then you can ignore one failed roll, and secondly for every other player on the same tile as yourself you can also ignore an explosion, so it pays to stick together right up until the point where the tile that everyone is standing on gets scorched.
It’s a simple but effective set of push-your-luck mechanics. You can stop rolling at any time provided you haven’t triggered an explosion, but since winning the game requires every single fire on the entire board to be put out there’s always that desire to push your luck a little bit more.
Each of the four firefighter characters boast their own unique powers that can be used so long as their matching tiles haven’t been scorched, so there’s a nice little secondary goal of trying to protect specific areas of the map. Two of the characters are able to swap symbols on the dice, another can move any other character a single tile and the final one is capable of drawing two cards from the Fire Deck and choosing which gets played before returning the second one to the top of the deck, a potentially invaluable tool. These skills are all tied directly to tiles on the board, though, and if those tiles become scorched the matching ability is no longer usable.
As for how the forest catches fire, one card from the top of the Fire Deck must be drawn at the end of each player’s turn and these dictate how the fire moves and spreads across the board, engulfing everything as it goes. The most common type of card simply adds one or two fire tokens to one or two cards with the depicted scorch limit that are already on fire, and if there are multiple tiles with the same limit the players get to choose, something which perhaps gives the players a little too much control in certain situations.
The other cards are based on wind direction which will occasionally change when you draw the appropriate card, and the current direction of the wind gets tracked using a little token. Light breezes, heavy breezes and combined cards all spread fire, across the board, and some of them can even ignore firebreaks completely. The key is that light breezes only add flames to tiles that are not currently on fire, while a heavy breeze is capable of setting new areas aflame while ignoring your firebreaks. The most dangerous, though, are the light and heavy combined gusts that will add flames to existing fires or set alight new tiles as well.
A final twist comes in the form of a special tile that hosts a plane, helicopter and truck, each capable of helping combat the blaze once. The plane, for example, can get rid of one fire token per tile across a three tile straight line, while the helicopter can put out all the flames on a single area.
Indeed, there are a few tiles that have their own special rules, like one that will explode and set fire to everything around it, or the Fire Cache which will remove all reward tokens from the game when scorched.
The game draws to a close when eight tiles become scorched, OR if your base-camp tile happens to go up in flames. Of course, if you want a bigger challenge you can always drop the loss condition to seven tiles, six or even five.
What I loved about Hotshots is that while it’s easy to learn and simple to play it also requires a nice amount of brainpower and communication. While it’s possible to run around stomping out every single fire as it pops up and win, in most instances you actually need to strategically allow certain tiles to become scorched so that you can contain more serious threats. Everyone I played with enjoyed discussing whether to send one person off to deal with a minor outbreak caused by an Ember card, the only type of card in the game capable of setting ablaze a specific tile, or whether we needed to rush over and control a tile that contained fuel tanks which when scorched when also set all the adjacent tiles on fire. It never reached the same frantic decision-making of something like Pandemic, but it struck a nice balance of accessibility, thoughtfulness and fun.
The downside is repetition. Each turn feels pretty much exactly the same as last as you move around, throw some dice, match the symbols and repeat the process. Some turns you might just get to move two spaces and never even reach a fire. Turns go by quickly, though, so if this does happen at least you won’t have long to wait.
I would have also perhaps liked some long-term goals aside from simply putting out the fires, something like having to rescue people on the board. A small expansion could easily add something along these lines.
Overall, this is a great little game from Fireside Games, and a superb choice if you’re looking for something a little more on the light side for a casual crowd who just want to have fun while still exercising the old brain a bit. It almost feels like a lighter, more relaxed version of Pandemic. But with fire. Take that how you will.
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