30th Sep2019

‘Blackout: Hong Kong’ Board Game Review

by Matthew Smail

blackout-box

When serious board gamers read the name Alexander Pfister, they immediately expect great things. As the designer of Great Western Trail, Isle of Skye, Oh My Goods! and Mombasa, that is no doubt to be expected. It will have certainly come as a surprise to many then, that Pfister’s latest design, Blackout: Hong Kong just doesn’t seem to have clicked, even with the most devoted of audiences. As a fan of all of his previous games, I was itching to try Blackout: Hong Kong to see what all the fuss is about; now that I have, let me tell you what I think.

Firstly, let’s talk about how Blackout: Hong Kong looks. You’ll very likely have heard a fair bit of negative press about the appearance of this game, and in all honesty, I can understand that. The Kickstarter versions that seem to have been reviewed by many are very, very dark with few areas of colour on the board. It might just be my eyes playing tricks on me, but the retail version that I’ve been playing does have some more splashes of colour on it, especially around the various coloured locations on the map. Rather than just a dot of colour, there is now a sort of spray of it that fans out in a more striking way.

Whilst stylish and brighter than some of the earlier versions that I’ve seen, Blackout: Hong Kong is still a very dark game and the overarching scheme is all set against a jet black background. The cards that players use to drive the action are also predominantly jet black, with artwork featuring a single colour that does little to lift things. Other components include cubes of various colours (two of which are bright neon) and a load of slightly dull tokens. Overall, it’s a striking and brave effort, but I tend to agree that Blackout: Hong Kong is a challenging game to see to other players purely on looks.

Next, let’s look at the theme and the objective of the game. As the title suggests, Blackout: Hong Kong is set in a fictional scenario where Hong Kong experiences a long term loss of power power, resulting in rioting, lack of food and medical equipment and everything else that you’d expect when a densely populated city suffers such a crisis. The players will dispatch team members to search districts for survivors and resource, which will in turn be added to their inventory or hand (depending on which.) Ultimately, the players will be aiming to score victory points by fulfilling objectives and plans on their player board, with each one built around the central theme.

If I compare Blackout: Hong Kong to Great Western Trail, for example, then I’d have to say that I think Pfister has done almost as good a job building a game around the central idea. There’s no doubt that the game board feels like a slightly hostile place and that danger is ever present. Over and above that, there’s no doubt that resources are scare and the players will compete fiercely for them, each believing (thematically) that their objectives are more important than those of others. Combine these ideas with the central mechanic of dispatching team members to perform different actions based on their skills and the theme does come together quite nicely if you stick with it.

The turn structure is fairly simple, but combines several mechanisms to make it feel quite compelling and give the player a lot of control, whilst still requiring players to adapt to a slightly changing environment as each round unfolds. Firstly, three specifically coloured dice are rolled (and possibly rerolled) to show three different resources. The dice are then placed on a roundel that shows several resources. The dice colours match the colours of the cards in each players hand, and allow the player to use those cards to collect goods that match the face of the die in their colour.

After the dice have been rolled, the players will all choose cards from their hand and play them face down in the slots at the bottom of their player board. Initially, they will each play three cards, but later in the game, it’s possible to unlock a fourth slot. Each card will show a colour and then a number of cubes, depicting how many resources of the kind shown on the matching die that the team member will gather. Some purple cards don’t match any dice, but instead provide specialist skills such as healing or leadership, which come with their own unique rules.

After this basic deployment, players can complete the objectives that have been added to their board either during setup or during later scouting missions. All objectives are broadly similar in that they require the player to have collected a number of resources, team members or to have scouted certain areas of the map. These are also what the game calls check mark objectives, which expand the functions of the player board. In summary, completing objectives usually grants abilities, new team members (cards) or victory points, depending on what kind of objective it is.

As I mentioned just now, the players will need to explore the map of Hong Kong that makes up the central board. In doing so, they can compete for a bit of area majority scoring as well by placing their own cubes onto spaces. Each district begins with three face down scouting tokens that depict what will be found when the district is searched. There are several ways that these tokens can be flipped to become public information, but during the early turns, they are only revealed to scouts visiting the district. Whenever scouting is performed, one member of the search team will always (automatically) be injured, sending them to a hospital space where they must wait until a doctor specialist card heals them.

Players essentially work through their basic cards to begin with, shuffling in more powerful ones as objectives are fulfilled. This mimics the thematic idea of feeding, clothing or otherwise satisfying a new volunteer, who then joins the cause. Elsewhere, points are also scored for completing the bigger objectives on both cards and the starting boards, replicating the idea of contributing to some central initiative – perhaps ran by the government or a charitable agency. These objectives award points or abilities, indicating that some greater good has been achieved.

The mechanical elements of the game work very well with the theme, which is, I must say, pretty unique. As I mentioned earlier, Pfister seems able to nail the idea of linking a set of in game actions to a theme, and in Blackout: Hong Kong, it certainly feels as though you are exploring a city that is in real danger. I would perhaps have preferred an element of chance when exploring, rather than having a survivor injured automatically, but the idea serves as it is intended – which is to force the players to send cards to the hospital and remove them from their decks temporarily, and then to essentially use one phase of a round to heal that card on a later turn.

If I agree with any of the criticism levelled at Blackout: Hong Kong, it is probably only when it comes to the components, which are indeed very dark. That said, I really do see a slight difference in the components presented in this latest printing, although I genuinely don’t know if there is truly a difference in the way the game is made or not. I’d like to have seen overall better pieces, including perhaps some better, more engaging card art. Another minor criticism is the manual, which I didn’t find to be intuitive at all – it seems poorly translated (into English) in places and elsewhere, it’s just very heavy going.

Overall then, Blackout: Hong Kong is a good, but perhaps not great entry into the heavier side of eurogaming. If you’ve never tried an Alexander Pfister game before, then do begin with Great Western Trail first, but if you already enjoy GWT and Mombasa (which shares mechanics with Blackout: Hong Kong) then this might be an excellent place to expand your collection. Overall, it’s a striking (but perhaps marmite) looking game that nonetheless links mechanics and theme very well to create a medium to heavy points salad that experienced eurogamers should enjoy.

***½  3.5/5

Blackout: Hong Kong is available online at 365Games.co.uk, or at your local games store. Don’t know where yours is? Try this handy games store locator

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