As a leader responsible for one of several bunkers of colonists on a post-apocalyptic planet, your job is to preserve both your colonists’ lives and your reputation, through any means necessary, until the mining ship responding to your distress call reaches Arkosa. Simple enough… except the ship only has the capacity to save a single bunker of colonists, so you and your fellow leaders will be competing not only against the planet, but each other, in order to be the last man—err, alien—standing by the end of the game.
The theme of post-apocalyptic, bunker-based survival reminded me strongly of the digital solo player Fallout Shelter, at first. But Arkosa is definitely designed for tabletop gaming rather than being a digital adventure: you don’t have to manage your resources or fend off attacks in real-time, and combined with the direct competition against other bunkers (the other players or bots in the game, if playing solo mode), Arkosa is nicely set up for the strategic long-game e.g. plenty of time to plot deviously against your fellow leaders – mwahahahaaa!
The game consists of only three rounds, which may not sound like a lot, but each one involves players taking turns to perform up to 2 actions each, repeating until all players have chosen to pass, or can no longer perform any actions, which signals the end of this round. We frequently had situations where one of the two of us would perform as many as three extra turns (six actions) after the other one had passed, before also ending their round, perhaps because there are so many options to choose from: explore to scavenge resources and/or new colonists for your bunker, trade resources, spend an action to accept a bribe card that may give you the edge over your opponent at the edge of the game, generate resources, interact with colonists in your own or opponents’ bunkers, build or activate new rooms – the list really is that long, and more!
Before getting started, however, you need to perform the initial setup for the board. As there are so many different elements simultaneously feeding into gameplay, with several different short- to medium-sized card decks to shuffle and draw from, this easily results in a different starting board setup every time. Add to that the dynamic gameplay, where every player’s independent decisions will impact on their fellow colony leaders’ options as the game progresses, and no two games will play out in remotely the same way. You may also have to switch to a totally different strategy depending on the cards you and your opponents draw in the next round. And that’s even before introducing the different gameplay modes: advanced mode, starter setup (which is focused on in this review as it’s the mode we played) and solo mode. The occurrence of randomly-timed events is simulated with an event tracker that advances a different number of steps on each player’s turn, depending on the actions they choose, triggering the drawing of event or raid cards of different magnitude when you reach marked spots on the path. These events may affect you, one or more of your opponents, or all players in the game, for better or worse, depending on how smiley Fortune was feeling when she arranged your event decks.
I really enjoyed the interactions between all the different mechanisms in the game, and the strategic thinking they encouraged: do I send my colonist out to collect resources and trigger an event card – or, worse still, a raid? Or do I play it safe and generate resources from the safety of the bunker, or exchange them in the trade pool, but lose out on the quantity or value I would be guaranteed if I instead manage to dodge all the various dangers outside the bunker? And what if Rival Leader #682 decides to visit The Crash Site before my next turn and poaches the colonist with that super morale boost that I really need to stop my reputation plummeting further?!!
However, I think my favourite thing about this game is the artwork, especially the alien colonist cards. True to the well-known saying, first impressions I gain from artwork on crowdfunding game projects do tend to stick, though I will always check out the game in more detail before deciding whether to back or not. All the artwork looks hand-drawn to me (I’m definitely not an expert so please don’t quote me on that!), but it certainly doesn’t look amateurish, and every single colonist card we drew was unique, hilarious and brilliantly imaginative, both visually, and in their individual attributes, such as needing fewer resources to explore a site on the planet’s surface, or being able to trigger a bonus to morale in your colony. My favourite attribute of my favourite (yes, I’ve used that word a lot in this review!) colonist is one that is decided by the role of the normal d6 (standard six-sided die) included with the game, as it is pure chance whether you get to use the ability to your advantage. I’m not going to spoil the surprise with further details, except to say that the colonist’s name was Joe, so do look out for him in the game, and I will say that when I decided to push my luck with Joe, the rewards on offer were often worth the risk and the cost! However, don’t forget Arkosa is a harsh environment: even when you weigh up the risks, some of your colonists may never return from that expedition to scavenge valuable scrap metal from The Drop – they might get attacked by feral raiders, or fall victim to assassination if your opponent’s bunker happens to contain a colonist with this special ability. Or maybe even cause chaos with time travel, depending on the roll of the die! Every single alien in your colony has their own portfolio of abilities and effects, one of which you can decide to activate as one of your two actions each turn.
To do this game justice for all the effort that has gone into its creation, you really need a couple of hours for setup, learning and playthrough, plus a decent-sized table as it is a bit of a table hog and setup is almost-but-not-quite as complex and time-hungry as epic games like Dinosaur Island! You do also have to change some aspects of the board setup between rounds, not always just refill or replace components like-for-like when used up in the previous round, but this makes sense as Arkosa’s underlying story arc progresses further with each round, and so therefore do the conditions of play. Without the story to underpin the structure, I think those changes could feel a little too abstract, even though they keep gameplay fresh, but fortunately this isn’t the case. Also, things work a little differently in other modes; as previously mentioned, this review focuses on starter setup for your first game.
Another first game top tip is to get your hands (or tentacles? paws?) on 5-6 bowls for keeping the different types of resource token supplies separate from each other (I admit it, I stole this idea directly from the primary-coloured plastic bowls casually featured in the background of Toon Hammer’s own Kickstarter campaign video! – but it is a good one!)
The brightly-coloured artwork and detail on the components and colonist cards by illustrator Mattie Harrison, plus the high quality of the almost-final preview copy, demonstrate the time and care spent on crafting the game. Toon Hammer want Arkosa to be the best it can be, and they’ve tried to pack in maximum enjoyment and replayability into this engaging and quirky game, which you will want to play again, and again, and again.
Thank you to Angela at Toon Hammer for providing us with this preview copy of the game