Over the Horizon

I’m an advocate for the power of games: computer games or tabletop games. I believe games have the ability to entertain, enlighten, bring us together, and help us relax. That said, computer games and tabletop have their strengths and weaknesses. When computer games become tabletop games, like in Horizon Zero Dawn: The Board Game, the results are not always positive.

For those not familiar, Horizon Zero Dawn is an open world computer game. It sees you playing a young woman called Aloy on an adventure in a post-apocalyptic earth. This world is occupied by wondrous, and terrifying, mechanical creatures, deadly bandits, and factions friendly and foul. The game is full of things to do: a map full of quests to complete, items to collect, and creatures to see. It’s a game I played and enjoyed and have completed to my satisfaction (I have finished the main story).

One type of quest in the computer game involves you hunting specific types of creature to earn the respect of the hunting lodge in one of the major cities. It is this aspect of the game that the boardgame version of Horizon Zero Dawn focuses on. The board game is designed by Sherwin Matthews, with art from Guerilla Miniatures Games Art department, Thomas Lishman, and Doug Telford. Guerilla Games are the publishers of the computer game. The board game is published by Steamforged Games

My character laid out with the board of the game in the middle of the table. Two people's hands can be seen opposite with their own characters laid out.
The game in full swing

There is no way that I can see a board game ever capturing the vastness of the Horizon Zero Dawn world. A game that makes you appreciate the efforts of all the artists and designers involved as you climb to the highest peaks, charge through the lush valleys, and dive into secrets surprising and exciting. It was a wise choice to focus the game on a single aspect. In doing so the team at Steamforged Games have left consideration for solo play, though the core of the game only comes out with multiple players. 

That core is a semi-cooperative series of encounters culminating in a final hunt with a fearsome foe. In the core box of the game that this review is focused on, that foe is the Sawtooth. These are giant, tiger-like robots that you encounter relatively early in the computer game. 

Each encounter takes place over a set of 3 x 3 grids, arranged depending on a card layout. When you set up an encounter the lead player decides the layout card giving you the board, terrain, and enemies. The player who is furthest behind in points, or the youngest at the start of the game, decides on an event card. These event cards inevitably give the player in last place a bit of a boost, or inconvenience the other players. They are often amusing and annoying in equal measure. 

An image of the Sawtooth from the computer game
The Sawtooth from the computer game

When you first find your prey, you are cautious. Hiding in the long grass, or taking refuge in ruins, you watch and wait. As the robots follow their patrol routes, printed on the map tiles, you see an opportunity and strike. 

Each hunter is a little different. Each one comes from a different faction of humans that exist in the computer game. The hunters with their own set of equipment cards and their own deck of cards. 

Attacks are a simple affair of rolling different coloured dice and getting pips. Some dice throw up crits that give you bonuses based on the equipment you are using. Compare the starts of the beast, knock some health off, jobs done. 

As you take beasts out you get glory, which are your victory points for each individual encounter. At the end of the encounter you get awards based on your glory, each carrying a certain number of victory points. The person with the most victory points after the final encounter is the winner and is promoted into the hunting lodge. 

Each encounter also requires the killing of a certain point value of creatures to be considered successful. Kill them all and you get some bonus scrap for your troubles, but a lot of the time you will find yourselves having to let some of the creatures go to concentrate on harvesting enough points to get through the mission successfully. It’s a nice moment of decision as you have to chat amongst yourselves figuring out how to all come out of the encounter relatively intact. 

What this mix of mechanisms gives you in the early encounters is some of the best semi-cooperative gameplay I’ve seen. I’ve always been sceptical of this particular mix of mechanisms: co-operative with a ‘winner’. Horizon Zero Dawn, actually pulls it off though, at least initially. You get situations where you can take out the smaller robots on your own, or at least think you can. The bigger foes though, see you chipping away at components and the creature itself. 

This means that when it comes to your turn you have a calculated risk to take. These monsters are dangerous and can take you out. You can work towards taking it out, but maybe someone else gets the final kill and the glory. Maybe you can just plink away at them and endure the subsequent attack. Monsters move and act after each player’s turn, and will often go for the last thing to cause them harm. Taking this route, you can create an opportunity for yourself but risk getting taken out. 

Your deck is your life, so whenever you take a hit, you discard some cards. This throws another factor into your choice about how hard to go at a creature. If one of your opponent’s is ahead, maybe you can let the creature live to attack them and give you an advantage. This series of decisions are interesting and provide a great tension at the table. 

In between hunts you get the chance to not only buy new gear, but also upgrade your hunter. Taking skill upgrades and spending scrap to augment your character. Your deck increases in size, giving you more health, new skills are added, weapons get new abilities and more, or different, dice. 

Taking on a Shell Walker
A shell walker getting pummelled

Unfortunately the interesting semi co-operative elements of the earlier hunts are quickly left behind. As difficulty ranks up the semi-cooperative element becomes less of a feature as you fight more threatening foes.

The game has weird arcs throughout. We found the highlight of the game was the shell-walkers in the middle of our series of encounters. They have components to destroy, are a large threat, and interesting choices like being able to knock their storage off them that gets you scrap, but makes them angry. 

By the time you get to the final encounter you are easily strong enough to take down the sawtooth, and it is just not a very interesting monster. They are big, aggressive creatures you need to kill, and you can’t really do anything about their ability to do that. This arc, with the peak in the middle, makes the game overall feel emotionally flat and unexciting. 

The rulebook is kind of a mess, with information not repeated in important places, and a lot of flipping back and forth required to get a handle on the game. There is also an unforgivable lack of player aids. A summary on the back of the rulebook just doesn’t cut it. Especially when that summary doesn’t include a cheat sheet for monster AI. These missing aids feel particularly egregious in a game that comes in at £110 from the publisher directly. 

I think it is important to look at the price here. There is only one complete ‘hunt’ in this core box, that of the Sawtooth. The final encounter of this box will always be that and there aren’t even different cards to have a slightly varied setup for it. Sure you have a little variety in how you get to that final encounter, but to me it feels like you are pretty much ‘done’ with the core once you’ve had your first full playthrough. 

Horizon: Zero Dawn was a Kickstarter game. It was one of those games that came with all the trimmings: loads of expansions, towering miniatures, fancy tokens, all that jazz. If you backed at the pledge of £100, you got the core game I am reviewing, and two big expansions with some more hunts and options in them. I wanted to take this game on to assess if the core on its own is worth your considerable time and money.  

Play time is also a consideration here. We all know that the playtime on the box is never accurate but it feels particularly egregious here. The game says 60 – 90 mins and you can get an individual encounter done in that time. The issue is the full game is 5 encounters and closer to 6 hours. You could save your game in between encounters but there is no provided way to do that in the box, you would have to figure that out yourself. 

Steamforged did send me the Thunderbird expansion to play with. This is a huge, formidable foe in the computer game, that takes a lot of skill to takedown. The issue is I can’t bring myself to play another 6 hours or so of this game to get to the final encounter with this boss. You would have to do that every time you bought a new hunt expansion, and I just don’t see the appeal. Let’s also not ignore that if you were to buy the Thunderbird expansion you are looking at another £70 for a little more variety in your experience. That’s £180 for both, a staggering amount of money for not much game. 

The hunters take on a Sawtooth in the final encounter
Taking down the Sawtooth.

Horizon Zero Dawn doesn’t make me angry. It just really disappoints me. The designers made some smart moves focusing an open world game down to a single aspect of that game. An aspect that still contains some of the threat of those big monsters, if not the wonder of encountering them for the first time. The semi-cooperative elements fit the setting, and some of the story of the computer game. Then it just feels like development stopped with that thought. 

The monster design veers wildly between easy to kill, fun puzzles to work out how to defeat, and boring giant creature that you just have to wail on for a while. The joy in the computer game is of coming up with cool ways to defeat powerful foes. This game feels like it gives you less opportunity for that kind of innovation and improvisation, though you do get a taste of that from time to time. 

Horizon Zero Dawn: The Board Game, feels like the perfect expression of the issue with Kickstarter games of this type. They are maybe a good proposition at the time, where you get a load of things to play with for the same price the core retail game is going to be. When they come to retail, and ask the same price for less game, the value proposition of that experience drops off a cliff. 

That isn’t the real issue here though. There are numerous companies on Kickstarter whose model is precisely this: make a game where you feel like you are getting lots of ‘content’ but the core experience isn’t solid enough to make any of that extra material worth playing. As long as we, the hobby game community, keep backing them, these companies will keep making them. They will keep promising these wonderful experiences, only to be hamstrung by their own production promises, leaving them little time to actually make the game any good. 

There is a treadmill that these companies get on. They start churning out more and more lavish experiences, while forgetting that at the core of any board game project is to make it a fun experience. It feels as if the more lavish these games get, the more the actual ‘game’ part of the experience gets forgotten. As long as we, the hobby game community, keep giving them money these productions will not stop. We can choose to end it. It is possible for us to vote with our wallets, and buy games that are complete, better designed, and value for money. Maybe then these companies will release that what matters is creating the best game they can, not endless content that will never get played. 

Steamforged Games sent me a copy of Horizon Zero Dawn and the Thunderbird expansion for review.

Iain McAllister

Tabletop games reviewer and podcaster based in Dalkeith, Scotland.

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