I’m sitting at a desk. I’m looking over my notes scribbled lawlessly during several incursions into a Nazi castle. I’m wrangling with many thoughts trying to formulate an angle. But there’s only one way to launch this V2 rocket.
Reichbusters is a misfire.
This is a cooperative dungeon crawler where the dungeon is a Third Reich hideout and the orcs are Wehrmacht troopers alongside twisted mutations and bio-mechanized wizardry. In short, it’s Wolfenstein, which means it’s hip.
Reichbusters certainly nails appearances. There’s a ton of quality miniatures, tiles highlighting fantastic locations full of detail, and a cohesive graphic design that spits darkness in your face.
But that wonderful essence struggles to reach beyond the surface. I love the concept of sneaking around, worrying about creating too much noise and splitting the difference between avoiding or unloading on patrols. The problem is that the fantastic bits are either shallow or buried under so much cruft it’s like apple-bobbing into a 7-layer cake full of tacks and rusty nails.
“Oy, I lost my eye in layer six! Oy, I’m playing Reichbusters!”
Let’s examine that concept of stealth. Noise in this game is a unifying concept as it forms the entire arc of play. You sneak about the castle attempting to wear out the tip-toes of your standard issue combat boots. Then the alarm goes off and the undulating CasaFan smells of poo.
To get there is just as messy as the end state. Noise dice are rolled when performing certain actions; by certain I mean almost everything. Sure, firing a Thompson submachine gun in close quarters is of similar volume to the pit at a Morbid Angel concert. But opening a door? How about grabbing a medical kit off the floor? Picking your nose?
True, the noise mechanism doesn’t just represent decibels but also the degree to which a nearby patrol may become alert from your actions. Sure, and I’d be amenable to that if the constant rolling wasn’t quite so obnoxious. The repetitive nature of these rolls is problematic because the process is convoluted.
You roll noise alongside your pool of attack dice. Then if you have at least one success you flip a noise card. The card will then typically have you re-roll a noise die or two, varying the already swingy results courtesy of exploding dice. Finally, after going from dice to card to dice again, you look back at the card and check a target number to see if enemies spawn.
Before the alarm is raised these reinforcements are Space Hulk-like blips that push through doorways and defend choke points. Some of the time these will enter your line of sight immediately and you will have to flip a spawn card. These spawn cards list different letters depending on the strength of the patrol token as there are three varieties. You then take those letters and reference a card utilized by the specific scenario you are playing to determine which miniatures to plop down on the table.
There is certainly some joy to be found here. Sneaking around, biting your nails as you fidget with your weapon tokens trying to decide whether to unload with a machine gun or stick with your weaker knife – it’s entertaining and captures the basics of its storytelling goals despite the extra effort.
But this is not the entirety of the noise system. Running in thematic parallel but in mechanical perpendicularity, a separate process exists for tracking enemy alert levels and the base’s alarm status.
In the pre-alarm state enemies can be suspicious, alert, or entirely idle. This is progressed in steps as you move into a protagonist’s field of view. But this mechanism is entirely a visual representation. If you rat-a-tat-tat with your MG and cut up four troopers – even if the targets are in direct line of sight of a non-alerted enemy – you will escape unnoticed, at least as far as the alarm is concerned. Now the noise check will likely spawn more blips slowing your progress ahead but the actual alarm doesn’t move forward.
Those blips have 99 problems but my dude ain’t one.
Noise also extends to other parts of the system in a similarly rough and unfocused manner. For instance, there are a wealth of neat items you can pick up seeded directly on the map during setup or occasionally dropped by enemies. These are slick tools like disguise kits, helmets, grenades, and even the alien Vril-tech, although oddly you can’t find even a single new firearm.
Nevertheless, the problem is that picking each of these up costs a precious action as well as triggering a noise roll. The action is really the larger cost but the noise further cements that you’re better leaving all of the goods behind and just focusing on the task at hand. This feels off as you end a mission with neat little packages strewn all about the map and just out of reach.
All of this is indicative of the game’s problem of presenting overwrought sub-systems that lack unification. It feels sloppy and in desperate need of an accomplished developer. The pace does speed up a tad once your jimmies are weathered and you’ve played a few games, yet it still doesn’t pass the sniff test.
But let’s get back to your turn because that all happened in the middle of it.
You can perform two basic actions such as moving or shooting, but in the design’s finest moment you can take advantage of your character’s asymmetric deck to play an unlimited amount of action cards out of your hand. Tossing out four or five in unison and burning down an entire wing of the castle is utterly awesome.
There will be instances where you hurl a grenade and kill ten guards who were entirely too stupid to spread out. Yes, the AI running the foes lacks any sense of nuance and lives in the cushioned space between predictable and obvious, but those moments of intense drama where you rattle off an uptempo surge of carnage are damn satisfying. This game’s cinematic qualities are without a doubt its greatest appeal.
Unfortunately those scenes only occur a couple of times per game and must be rationed. A bulk of the strategy is indeed deciding when to go Super Saiyan and blow apart Hitler’s finest.
Reality quickly sets in as your turn finishes. Now it’s time for those pesky Huns to act. Early in the assault this isn’t a big deal. You move a few miniatures, roll some defense dice to resolve attacks and shuffle around alert levels.
Once the alarm has sounded this is as tedious as performing maintenance on a Panzer IV. You will be moving over 20 miniatures tile by tile and then grouping them into attacks after every single player activates. Calling it a slog would be kind.
Often there will be a conga-line of foes stretching far to the corners of the map as they attempt pursuit. You know very well those rearguards won’t likely make it to your position but you must move them anyway just in case.
All of this is difficult to swallow when games like Gears of War tackled more vibrant AI with less hassle many years prior.
It does feel so much better to grab two handfuls of enemies off the board instead of plopping down wound tokens, but the cost is severe as the game begins to sag when it should be reaching crescendo.
The bruises don’t stop there. This is a system full of keywords. In truth, this is a lesser issue because you will internalize many of the abilities upon repeated play the learning curve levels off. However it presents a formidable obstacle in the early going, you know that time when the squad of participants you assembled is ready to take a first impression and etch it into stone. This is not a fast paced game, which edges close to a cardinal sin for its genre, but it can become drudgery when you’re constantly dividing your attention between rulebook, cards, and board.
Some will certainly dig this escapade. I found myself smiling at times and really engaged with the card play. There’s something very zen about lighting up a big hulking Nazi Frankenstein.
I also adore the sense of discovery. Without heaps of flavor text or the en vogue narrative booklet, Reichbusters spits out evocative scenes like an MG42.
Supporting this is a wide variety of enemies, an incredible amount for a core box. This does steepen the learning curve as each has individual abilities but it’s worth the pain.
There’s also a really solid system of generating random missions – called Raids – through a seeded card system. The results are evocative and interesting, even if the mission goal selection could use a few more options. I’m even tempted to state this scenario generation system is the best way to play, outdoing the six-mission campaign by a healthy margin.
Zooming in, the best exploration element are the features. These square cards are set in specific rooms and boast illustrations on their backs which match the tile aesthetics. You reveal them when you gain line of sight and are hit with a surprise.
So when you head into the medical ward you flip that covered corpse card which may result in finding some unused supplies, or perhaps a more nasty discovery such as a cluster of zombies.
These cards come from a subset of shuffled options. You’re never quite sure of what lurks underneath and they’re fully expandable from future products. I find this idea so delightful I wish I could take it into a much smoother game.
Reichbusters isn’t smooth. It’s a messy tentacled monstrosity with a plethora of sub-parts twisted together like a knotted octopus. Interactions and rules are occasionally absent or don’t make sense, and even worse the pacing is occasionally laborious.
This design doesn’t appreciably fit into a space concerned with quality or lasting appeal. It’s a throwback to the past, in both culture and system, where it has taken from others and warped that spirit into a messy abomination.
Everything here should have been geared towards that stealth concept and simplified until it really nailed its thematic points. There’s a compelling notion of asymmetric states of play as the enemy awareness oscillates, but it’s not implemented in a noteworthy fashion. Those seeking such an effort would be better off tracking down the indie titles V-Commandos, Hour of Glory, or Seal Team Flix.
Veteran designer Jake Thornton simply missed the mark. It’s interesting that this one went in the completely opposite direction of his previous work, Dwarf King’s Hold, a game which lacked richness and vitality. That one was so streamlined and bare bones that I struggled to connect with any of it. Reichbusters is very much the opposite. This one doesn’t know when to stop or hold back, burying it’s most excellent elements under a wealth of stuff.
You can sense my anger bleeding through words and sentences and paragraphs. Mostly because there are some excellent concepts here wed to an anchor. The game doesn’t struggle with attaining fun – in fact it can be a downright hoot at its peak – it just requires a degree of effort to get there that the best in class do not.
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I thought this one might be a bit clunky … didn’t back it after reading up on it ….
I was a sucker. Loved the theme of WW2 commandos sneaking around a Nazi base.