The Hunters is a big game. It unfolds across the table with swollen cardboard limbs. It spits hundreds of cards in all directions, cards to represent locations, enemies, and story. No speck of surface is left unsoiled. In fact, you may not even be able to fit it all on your table. Such is life in the robot wasteland of tomorrow.
This longform design from Mateusz Albricht came of age in the crowdfunding arena. It’s now on its second edition, cleaned up from that first appearance and reconstituted in various small ways. It’s a campaign game and a shoddy salesman would call it a science fiction take on Gloomhaven.
That comparison kicks like a pair of jumper cables clamped to your nipples, doesn’t it?
Unfortunately, it’s not particularly accurate, but it is a starting point. Let’s discuss what makes sense there.
First, this game is huge. It has to be, right, since it boasts a campaign that will take 30 or 40 hours to complete. That’s longer than most television seasons. Hell, you could watch The Batman and the Apocalypse Now Redux with time to spare.
It also has that synthetic RPG thing going for it. Players take on roles such as the soldier or scout, each capable of unique feats and competencies. You gain experience and level up over time, developing new abilities. There is also quite a bit of impactful gear to play with, from night-vision goggles to assault rifles to nano-particle armor.
The equipment itself isn’t represented by cards but rather large cutouts. This is a small thing, but I really adore these tokens. They’re rectangular and thin cardboard, but they’re very big. The size is significant because they take up gear slots on the enormous character boards. Additionally, some feature little notches which physically connect to upgrades such as bipods, scopes, and tactical flashlights. Fiddling with the weaponry is very enjoyable, evoking an almost polyomino-like tactile feel.
Perhaps the strongest Gloomhaven parallel is in the card-driven combat. Before we break this open, I have to explain the overall structure of The Hunters.
There are two pieces to this game. The most overt and glitzy is the miniatures on a grid combat. It’s the type of thing we’ve seen before, a little skirmish engagement where your heroes co-operate to fight a squad of enemies. Sometimes it’s simple thugs and ruffians, other times it’s glorious gorilla robots. Yeah, those are a thing in this desolate world.
These fights are short. Nothing like Gloomhaven in that respect. Most will take 20 minutes or so and they function as puzzly challenges where you discuss your capabilities and how best to approach the encounter, then execute and watch it all unwind.
The other half of Hunters is the choice meat. It’s travelling between locations – represented by tarot-sized cards – and triggering story events. There is a huge amount of story, all of it annotated not in a big book, but rather across a couple hundred more cards. This combines and plays off those zoomed-in fight scenes pretty well from a tempo perspective. There’s a very nice duality that works to break up routine and push the throttle.
Let’s get back to conflict.
Gloomhaven is a natural surface-level comparison because each asymmetric class in this game utilizes dual effect action cards. Nearly every card in your 25-count deck boasts a top and bottom ability. The tops are used for your actions each activation, while the bottoms tend to offer reactions – a clever way to incorporate things like overwatch.
But the comparison doesn’t extend far at all.
Gloomhaven is a tightly wound game. It has a very tailored pace built into the Rest mechanism, and the balance and pacing of scenarios is a hallmark of the design. The Hunters A.D. 2114 is not this. In fact, I’d call it very loose. At its best it’s wild and alive, and at its worst sloppy and libertine.
The scope is too large. The extended narrative, random encounters, and visiting of locations is the heart of the game. This is well-edited and is strong enough that it carries you through the ill-formed aspects.
The vestigial functions are most prominently represented by base-building and crafting. There’s a pretty intense resource system. You have to keep a constant stream of food to maintain sustenance over nearly 60 days of in-game time. But you also can scrounge up many different types of tradeable asset tokens, including fuel, electronics, and straight up junk. These can be sold, but they can also be spent to upgrade your hideout.
This is a neat idea. It reminds me somewhat of the fantastic This War of Mine board game. However, it’s more clunky and unrealized here. The problem is mostly that it’s busy work and lacks a purpose. This is because crafting gear is surprisingly arduous. You have to construct a room, possibly upgrade it a level or two, find or buy the appropriate blueprints for the item you want to craft, then pay to actually construct the thing. All of this takes precious campaign days in addition to the resource cost. I’d rather just pay slightly more in actual currency and buy that Kevlar vest instead of fabricating it in my shiny new sweatshop.
The costs seem poorly calibrated. They only make sense if you utilize found resources, since they sell for less than they cost to acquire. But you can’t really plan for finding certain items in specific quantities, and if you randomly happen to get the right mix needed for a particular recipe, you will still need to travel to the right location to buy the blueprint eating up more time.
Even if you go all-in on crafting, you’re unlikely to do much more than achieve one or two level “III” rooms and craft maybe two or three pieces of gear. I believe the thinking here is to limit the power curve and also provide an opportunity to boost explorable vectors when repeating the campaign, but it unfortunately emphasizes the tacked-on nature of this system.
The second area where it gets a little wobbly is in the card-driven combat. There’s this really jazzy concept of each player choosing their starting hand from their character deck at the beginning of battle. It allows you to build a plan for the ensuing struggle and tailor your options according to your opponent and equipment.
But it’s a band-aid.
This mechanism serves as a patch to the bloated constitution of the combat decks. There’s no reason each character should possess 25 cards. You will typically only see 10 or so over the course of a fight, and half of them will be selected before the skirmish begins.
Some who have played this game have commented that the conflict system feels off. Most will point out that at lower player counts a firefight is often over faster than it took to setup – which is a slight exaggeration but it’s a criticism that bears some merit. Or they’ll point out that the effects of losing are stiff, and the cascading failure can ruin a campaign. That’s correct too.
But those are secondary issues to the lack of focus, the lack of tightness in the tactical loop.
I’ve spent a lot of time mentally noodling on what combat would feel like in this game if you had a deck of 10 cards and only drew them randomly. It would require a re-working of many other sub-systems, but it would provide a focus to tightly wind all of the other details around. You wouldn’t have to spend five minutes picking your starting hand, instead assembling a strategy through play.
Extricating the base-building/crafting and narrowing the conflict resolution would have provided a sharp contrast to the narrative systems, ultimately elevating this experience an entire tier.
The Hunters is fortunate. Because, despite the mechanical promiscuity, the bulk of play is indeed engaging. The story is solidly written – a notch below the bar of Tainted Grail, but still able – and the adventure structure is actually quite strong.
As you travel between locations you occasionally hit random encounters. These offer slick choose-your-own-adventure forks. Sometimes they have lasting impact.
The story itself branches as well in unexpected ways. You have to strategically determine your affordability in performing side quests for resources and experience, versus pressing onward towards the main narrative.
The setting is unique. It’s post-apocalyptic and Mad Max in aesthetic, but the desolate areas between cities are inhabited by roaming machines, tokens of a fallen civilization left to listlessly wander. You hunt them by trade.
There are religious cults, scorned partners, budding relationships, and unpredictable social movements.
The land itself is a strong character. The vistas boast variety and a general mystique. Each site is well illustrated, the entire game is visually compelling for that matter. I am really gratified with the way the most sprawling of locations are represented, as each consists of multiple sub-location cards you can travel between. This adds character and texture to the environment.
Overall, this exploration system strongly evokes a Fallout feel. It does a grand job of capturing the identity and scope of that original video game’s environs. In many ways, I feel this contains a stronger Fallout vibe than the official Fantasy Flight offering.
As I mentioned earlier, I also really appreciate the conjoining of brief miniatures skirmishes with the text and exploration heavy portion of the game. Despite my criticisms of the combat mechanism, I still welcomed those engagements which were interesting and noteworthy across the lengthy campaign. I never felt as though monotony or a malaise set in, and that’s largely due to the unpredictable pathing of systems.
I also must give a nod towards the AI structure of foes. It takes a page out of Galaxy Defenders‘ book from Ares Game, offering a menu of behavior triggers to work down in sequence. This system is complicated enough to probe some thoughtful tactical decision making, while not proving overly complex or laborious to execute.
I don’t want to get lost down an unpaved road, but one of the strongest emotional responses this game elicited was in regard to the current publishing scene, particularly the state of crowdfunding and these big campaign experiences.
This really sits among a forest of such titles. Yes, Gloomhaven, but also Tainted Grail, Sleeping Gods, Middara, Machina Arcana, Descent, and so many more. No one can afford all of these. I’m not talking about economics; I’m talking about time. You, nor I, will ever come close to being able to engage even a small selection of these offerings in a good faith effort.
I’ve been thinking about all of this time I’ve spent in these types of designs and what they offer in comparison to a more standard board game. I do think there is something here, something you can find in the long-form campaign that isn’t present in typical fare. There’s a sense of accomplishment and finality when you complete such a thing, it’s not altogether different than the feeling of finishing a trek through the entirety of The Sopranos or Breaking Bad. When it’s all over and done, there’s a new cavity in your brain carved out and dedicated to your shared history with this artifact. I’m not sure if that’s charming or unsettling.
But if you want one of these deep and lengthy campaign games to commit to, you must be picky. The Hunters A.D. 2114 fights for attention by wielding a rather unique setting, coupled with a reasonably strong narrative. It provides much more story and prose to interact with than Gloomhaven, but it doesn’t come remotely close to that tactical depth.
There is just so much here, there, and everywhere. If this is the type of thing you want to pledge vows to, it will give back. The core storyline features enough side options and various encounters that it will hold up to at least two full plays of the campaign. That’s a ton of time, really.
The expansion content is strong, too. There are a couple of smaller boxes, New Huntsville and Shiptown, which are not necessary. But if you dig this experience and want to replay the core story a second or third time, they will add a tremendous amount of additional side-content and new locations to explore. They’re well-structured and interesting.
Additionally, there is an entirely new campaign. The Hybrids box presents a second story, completely replacing that of the core experience. This stands out strongly to me as it centers the narrative more consciously around the machines, something which is often in the background of the original campaign.
Content in this regard is tricky, however. These campaign games are driven by it, but it’s also difficult to tell whether you will grow weary of the commitment after dozens of hours in that relationship. Sometimes these types of designs suffer an internal conflict in this way.
As a creative work this is indeed an enjoyable design that finds an imperfect level of success. It’s a bit flabby and coarse, but it offers enough surprise and narrative flair to have maintained my attention over a rather significant chunk of time.
Frankly, I do wonder how long the market can keep supporting these life-style games that continue to cannibalize each other’s market share. Someday, will we look back at these behemoth campaign boxes in the same way the wanderlust machines of The Hunters cast side eye at the emaciated scraps of humanity?
A review copy was provided by the publisher.
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I visited this website for the first time today and was pleasantly surprised to find this review as the first page. I have the game and have played through the campaign solo with two characters and loved every second of it. I share most of your criticisms, but feel more enamoured to Hunters than to Gloomhaven, because I’m a sucker for narrative and Gloomhaven made it feel very tacked on and minimalistic. I think it’s the creator’s humility and his clear passion for this project that make me condone a lot of faults in this game, like some “links” on the cards that aren’t right for example, even in a second printing.
This game managed to immerse me in an imaginary world enough to be memorable. It was definitely worth my time and I will be playing it more in the future. Maybe after Oathsworn: into the deepwood, Tainted Grail and it’s stretch goal campaigns, Stars of Akarios, ISS Vanguard… Damn it: you are so right in your final paragraph.
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Appreciate the comment and taking the time to read the review.
It may not be clear, but I think I do prefer The Hunters to Gloomhaven as well. I would place Tainted Grail and Sleeping Gods above both though.
I have ISS Vanguard coming at some point as well, looking forward to it. My next campaign game though is Jurassic World Legacy of Isla Nublar, which hopefully is a change of pace. I have an early copy of that and will be reviewing it for Polygon in a few months.
Too many campaign games, for sure.
Anyway, thanks for visiting and hopefully another article or two proves useful or entertaining.