Wed. Nov 30th, 2022
Two letters short of being truly SPECIAL!  Also note the VATS dice.
enlarge / Two letters short of being truly SPECIAL! Also note the VATS dice.

Charles Theel

Welcome to Ars Cardboard, our weekend take on table games! Check out our full coverage of board games at cardboard.arstechnica.com.

Would you be surprised if I told you that the new precipitation board game from Fantasy Flight Games (FFG) was something special? You really shouldn’t be, as FFG has a fantastic track record of intellectual properties like Battlestar Galactica, Star Wars, and Doom. precipitation is the latest success here, a tabletop design that feels like a passionate love letter to the source material, even if it stumbles in some areas.

This cardboard version of the digital classic is best described as a narrative adventure game for up to four players. Contestants compete for thumbs (the energetic expression for victory points) by participating in branching story paths, acquiring equipment, and casting their weight behind one of the factions vying for supremacy.

hello mate

The genre of the adventure game is an old dog. Finding lasting success requires a clever hook to separate from classics like: Talisman and runebound. Mage Knight achieves this through a focus on deep mechanisms laced by hand management. precipitation takes a different direction, framing the game around a beautifully emerging story. It gives you scripted stories to explore and wiggle room to forge your own chapters.

Four scenarios are included in the box, and each has two factions pitted against each other, for example a group of Synths fighting the Institute in a tragedy that questions the nature of humanity. Other scenarios include Children of the Atom, the Brotherhood of Steel, and of course the Enclave. It is a true amusement park where fans can have fun.

The game comes from the game’s huge card library. Each card is numbered to make cataloging easier, as you will often draw cards from the deck during play. Scenarios determine which cards are placed face up, giving players the first nuggets of story to chase. Each map offers multiple goals, which act as a race; get there first and you win a reward. Depending on what conditions are met for each objective, rewards are awarded and the environment changes when that card is removed and a new one (or two) is taken from the library.

Chasing these scripted goals is addictive. You can choose to hunt a Synth or perhaps go to civilization to track down a rumor. As the game progresses, your investment grows and your heart rate soars like a Deathclaw on the hunt.

To achieve your goals, explore the game’s hex map, carefully using your limited action points on each turn. Wandering enemies like raiders and hideous bloatflies will follow you and converge in your position with a somewhat mindless AI. You’ll be looking for gear like a Pip-Boy, a fighter jet, or even a worn-out rifle (although it’s oddly hard to get hold of firearms).

The attention to detail is remarkable. In addition to a slew of beloved items and characters, the experience and combat systems are spectacular. The SPECIAL skill system as a whole is abstracted into obtaining individual letter tokens that spell that iconic acronym. Each letter won offers a second chance when participating in a skill test with that skill. As you gain experience, you’ll get letters and possibly perks, which act as powerful single-use abilities.

Combat is similarly streamlined in a roll of the dice, looking for body part icons that match an enemy’s vulnerable areas. This distillation of the VATS system is clever as a nod to the video game, but it’s also deceptively useful at masking the math behind the role. This allows you to stay cognitively immersed in the world, rather than focusing on dry system elements. The dice-based tests are also resolved quickly, minimizing downtime and moving the game forward.

War never changes

All of this is really secondary to the core focus on the story. By throwing his identity completely behind the narrative search system, precipitation runs a fine line. The writing and branching decision trees are certainly captivating. You’ll be instantly hooked on the adventure that you can pick yourself, although I’m not sure it’s really worth it in most scenarios.

The game constantly lures you with excellent stories, but they are often incidental to victory. Those calendar cards determine your optimal path and must be followed if you want to win. Often, they’ll persuade you to support and advance a particular faction, meaning a myriad of narrative options are a no-go.

Perhaps even more frustrating is that the storyline never quite comes to a climax. Since chasing many of the fragments wastes your time or boosts a faction as opposed to your own cause, it can feel like you’re being led in a specific direction. The game often ends abruptly without a satisfying last minute, clever joke, or wise revelation.

The upside here is the drive to replay each scenario and pursue those parts you never untangled. Replaying a game whose most satisfying aspect is a scripted story might be an unsatisfactory proposition, but the design team behind precipitation coped with this challenge quite well. Side quests offer interesting twists and alternate encounters, even when replaying a familiar scenario.

The game also enjoys randomness that can turn some off. Outside of the dice, there is a certain level of fortune that is determined by the story objectives. There may be a new card on the table with the aim of exploring Vault 83…

The agenda cards also emphasize this arbitrariness. If two of the three players are given starting targets that encourage them to keep the Brotherhood of Steel afloat, the third player can easily fall behind as they don’t benefit from a natural alliance determined at random. Those are the breaks in the wasteland, but if you’re looking for a sharply balanced competition, you might walk away frustrated. Again, the story experience is the star here.

A happy result of this design is that the number of plays can be seamlessly reduced. precipitation even works great as a solo experience, with a lone player battling the natural timer of factions getting stronger. This is surprisingly satisfying, the only loss being the absence of an emotional connection from reminiscing with others about the series. This game does such a good job at manifesting those past experiences in the precipitation universe you can’t help but indulge in some shared nostalgia.

Despite the imperfections, fans of both the precipitation series and adventure games in general will find several fantastic concepts here to hang their hats on.

By akfire1

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