Gale Force Nine is an interesting company. They produced some of the very best board games of the previous decade, including titles such as Spartacus: A Game of Blood and Treachery, Sons of Anarchy: Men of Mayhem, and Star Trek: Ascendancy. Then, their all-star design team departed and things changed. I wasn’t overly optimistic that quality could be sustained.
In truth, it’s been rather uneven. Tyrants of the Underdark is a very solid if unspectacular title. There were elements of Aliens: Another Glorious Day in the Corps I appreciated, but there were more that didn’t quite work. Their reprints of classic releases have been admirable, and I even found some thoughtful strategic play in their small filler, Pathfinder: Level 20.
Now, we come to Tusk!, and the see-saw swings back towards the ground, slamming into the mud with a loud thwap.
The main issue with Tusk! is one of identity. It wants to straddle the line between light frivolous chaos and strategic old-school Eurogame. That’s a worthy goal in earnest, but the problem is that it doesn’t quite know how to accomplish either, much less a sophisticated pairing of the two.
We catch a whiff of this essence of decline right from the gate. The setup instructions have players placing their starting meeples anywhere they want, in no defined order. There’s no mention of claiming starting hexes clockwise, and the first player hasn’t even been decided yet at this point. It doesn’t feel shoddy or accidental, it feels more cavalier as if the designers thought this would be fine. Just pick a tile and off we go.
But this illustrates their misunderstanding of the finer points of this design and the incentive structure. Starting on the same hex as another player will result in one of you having your early game stunted. In fact, this exacerbates one of the title’s primary problems in that the early arc of growth is extremely sluggish.
This is really a simple experience. You begin with a single tribe member, spending action points to move about the randomly generated hex board. Some tiles have resources such as stones or grass, these are the ones you will seek in the early going. It’s a surprisingly dull task as you spend your limited actions to pick up those resource tokens with few alternative actions.
What you’re really trying to sniff out is meat. Meat is worth victory points at the end of the game, but it also can be spent to unlock additional tribe member from your player board. This is particularly important because it’s the only real growth in the game, and it acts as a gate to the more interesting strategic space that exists.
A small selection of tiles will pop up with three meat tokens, but the bulk of your butchery will occur through hunting. This is actually where things are most entertaining and where Tusk! approaches a nuanced design space.
You see, it’s billed as a semi-competitive game. Again, this term is a pointer towards the lack of familiarity with the scene and the semi-cooperative genre. But I dig these types of games and it had me enthused on this title’s concept.
The element of cooperation here is found entirely in that hunt phase. Players can forego actions on the board with their tribe member and instead place their people on the separate hunt sheet. Once every player has taken their turn, the hunt begins and everyone works together to bring down the lovely mammoth meeple wandering the countryside.
You roll dice in player order, needing sixes to inflict wounds and carve out chunks of meat for your clan. There is some odds manipulation by spending pointy sticks to boost your rolls or lumpy stones to inflict additional wounds. If you don’t take out the beast, it counterattacks likely taking out most of your hunters. If you do succeed, the player who is leading the hunt gets to distribute four additional meat to whomever they’d like.
That last bit is one design element of Tusk! that absolutely sings. There is much discussion and threats are as commonplace as mammoth droppings. You get players trying to strike up agreements on entering the hunt during the round, committing their meeples to the attack only to find another player reneging on their promise and never sending help. It’s delightful and imparts an edge on play without veering too far from the whimsical spirit.
But these moments are frustratingly rare.
As I pointed out earlier, the early game is intolerable. If you can’t get to a meat tile – and it’s very possible one doesn’t even exist on the board – you’re stuck with a single tribe member until you can join a successful hunt. If you can convince others to lend their lone warrior to the cause, you’re stuck with two or three people rolling a single die and hoping for a six. If you’re properly prepared, you may be able to toss a few sticks into the fray and turn it into a 4+, maybe. Even then, with a single roll you can botch it and get gored.
If you lose the fight, you then lose an action with your tribe member on the following turn as you have to stand up.
If you get lucky and come into some meat, you will then be able to unlock a worker or two and do a little bit more.
Then we get to the middle or even late game, which unfortunately leads to more problems. Here, it’s very likely one or two players have consumed the majority of chow and are well out in front of the pack. Tusk! is very guilty of suffering from the “rich get richer” issue, entirely due to a problematic core gameplay loop. There is no semblance of catchup mechanism besides spending your fewer actions to try and attack the leader. This can go sideways, particularly if the successful players keep their tribe members grouped together defensively, which only farther sets you back.
On the other hand, my first impression of the secret objective cards was positive. They give you direction and offer an additional way to score besides succeeding with the hunt. My opinion quickly turned.
Many of these cards push you towards hoarding supplies like the clumps of grass or pointy sticks. In one of my plays, one studious participant spent the entire game just gathering the lumpy stones. They didn’t join a single hunt and won the game due to a ludicrous exchange rate of three meat per stone they possessed.
There’s actually an interesting premise here and the game actually approaches a semblance of theme. The distribution of meat by the hunt leader is a pretty nifty expression of social hierarchy as an assertion of strength. It could be used cleverly to enact reflection on modern society and various foibles of our power structure. It never really engages those big questions and even acts counter to its potential in that the objective cards directly undermine this theme, incentivizing players to disengage from the most interesting and delightful aspect of play.
There are more problems. That element of frivolity and chaos that I posited this game struggles to reconcile – it’s most prominent in the event deck. Some events will outright remove workers from the board, based solely on the type of space they’re in. This is incredibly harsh and irritatingly random for a game that has a governor on its progression. These cards also direct the mammoth around the board in random directions which threatens your tribespeople. If it stumbles into your space it knocks you down, again sapping precious actions from the snail-like pace of the game.
Much of this feels stupid and silly, but not in an appreciable way such as we see in Wiz-War or a Games Workshop title.
Tusk! just doesn’t have it or even know what “it” is. The experience is a dim grind with no flair. There are times when it asks interesting questions, but it gives you no space to answer them. This title strongly reminds me of Uk’otoa in that it fundamentally misunderstands modern design principles and how to apply them. A game is so much more than an interesting premise.
A review copy was provided by the publisher.