It’s hard to believe that it’s been three years since Horizon Zero Dawn made its debut on my PS4. I can’t tell you how many hours I spent playing the video game, but I instantly fell in love with the world and gameplay. Sneaking through tall grass, shooting robotic dinosaurs with a bow and arrow was just so satisfying. If you haven’t played this gem already, you should definitely seek it out.
Skip over to 2018 and you have the Horizon Zero Dawn: the board game making its debut on Kickstarter from Steamforged Games. This campaign funded to the tune of £1,393,260 with almost 10k backers. Now that the game is finally arriving to backers, I had a chance to sink my robotic claws into the core game and am ready to tell you my thoughts.
Horizon Zero Dawn: The Board Game can be played either competitively or fully cooperative. We’ll focus on the competitive play (technically semi-coop) as that’s the main mode of play. The goal in the game is to acquire the most glory over 5 hunts. Each player starts by choosing one of the four unique hunters to control.
Once out on a hunt, each player takes a turn in a clockwise manner, with enemies activating after each player goes. On a player’s turn, they can do two actions (no repeats):
- Sneak – Move 1 space
- Sprint – Move 2 spaces but will alert nearby enemies.
- Lure – Move an enemy to an adjacent space (throwing a rock)
- Ranged – Make a ranged attack from up to 2 spaces away
- Melee – Attack a target in your space with your melee weapon
- Craft – Shuffle the bottom 3 cards of your discard pile into your deck
Combat will have you rolling attack dice based on your weapon and ammo (if making a ranged attack). Much like in the video game, many enemies will have parts you can destroy on them, making them overall easier to take down and earning bonus glory. The player that delivers the killing blow to an enemy earns salvage and glory.
After a player’s actions, all enemies activate. Alert ones will move and try to attack the nearest hunter. Non-alert ones will follow their patrol path, and if they wander off the board, they leave the hunt depriving the players of glory.
Once all enemies are gone the hunt ends and players move to the next phase. It’s here players earn sun tokens for having the most glory during the previous hunt, level up, and buy new equipment from the merchant with their salvage. Then the next hunt begins. The fifth and final hunt is always against the Sawtooth. At the end of the game, the player with the most sun tokens wins.
If playing cooperative mode, players just need to survive all hunts with no one dying—glory doesn’t matter.
Making a board game based on a video game isn’t as much of a gamble as it used to be. In the past, many times a board game simply used their video game license to sell copies of the game to fans, with a theme that was only paper thin. But times have changed and now we are getting games that are not only based on video games, but pretty excellent as well. So where does Horizon Zero Dawn fall in that range? While not perfect, it was actually a lot of fun.
The first choice you are going to have to make is whether to play the game cooperative or competitive. The game is billed as semi-cooperative but it’s not really. It’s only semi-coop in that you don’t want other hunters to die, which would end the hunt prematurely. But that rarely happened in our plays, so it was mostly a kill stealing slugfest. As far as which mode I prefer, I’m somewhat torn. We actually had more fun with the cooperative mode, as kill stealing and take that aren’t big with my group. And that’s what competitive mode can boil down to. You want to be the one to take out the enemy or else leave it alone entirely. Simply damaging it only makes sure that your opponent is going to score the kill for it, taking the glory and salvage.
But cooperative mode, which clearly wasn’t the main focus of the design, was just a tad easy. I’ve played it from solo to 3 players and we were never really in danger of losing. This is especially true once we started figuring out the strategy of the game. In one of my solo plays, I walked through the game fairly easily. That being said, if we were able to ratchet up the difficulty a bit, we’d definitely love playing this mode, because working together to take down the bigger Dinos was a ton of fun.
And that’s one thing I can definitely say about Horizon Zero Dawn, is that the mechanics are smooth and the gameplay is engaging. I loved the level up system, as simple as it was. After all encounters but one, you will be gaining new skills, and increasing the cards in your deck. Your deck also doubles as your hit points, so beefing that up is always good. The merchant buying is a bit of ordered chaos as you draw specific types of cards, but it will be random what you are actually offered. Getting news weapons and ammo that fit your character type is always a treat.
I’ve honestly been having a ton of fun in this game and my one, big criticism is probably from the lack of variety. Horizon Zero Dawn suffers a bit from Planet Apocalypse syndrome where you have a game with solid mechanics and great bits, but lacking in replay value. This is due to only having one end boss. You will always be fighting the Sawtooth for your fifth encounter and have mostly the same battles leading up to it (just in different orders). Horizon Zero Dawn is really begging for expansion to help add some variety. Fortunately, those are coming next year from Steamforged Games. I’m not sure how many from the Kickstarter will make their way to retail (they weren’t sure when asked), but you are definitely going to want a couple of them to keep the game from getting stale.
Make no doubt about it, Horizon Zero Dawn: The Board Game is a good game for players that want a skirmish-light experience. And that’s what you’re getting here. There isn’t really any story to speak of, so it will be the mechanics that drive the gameplay forward (and maybe a lot of the source material). But despite the chunky rulebook, the gameplay is pretty streamlined and after you get a game under your belt, turns should go by quickly.
My only hesitation from telling you to run out and buy Horizon Zero Dawn right now is the lack of variety in the hunts, as you’ll be facing the same enemies over and over. More hunters and a diverse lineup of final bosses would go a long way to helping get this one to the table more often. I’m also hoping some of the expansion enemies will up the challenge a bit, as even though fully cooperative play was our favorite mode, it was just too easy. But overall, I really enjoyed taking down these robotic dinosaurs and will be eagerly awaiting more baddies to face.