The Doom Boardgame Turns the Crucial Shooter Into a Lengthy RPG

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The <i>Doom</i> Boardgame Turns the Crucial Shooter Into a Lengthy RPG

The DOOM franchise, begun in 1993 with one of the most influential videogames in history, is undergoing a rebirth at the moment with a new version of the videogame as well as a reboot of the 2004 boardgame. The videogame pioneered the first-person shooter genre, but the new boardgame merely borrows the theme and setting for a co-op game that plays anywhere from one to four players as marines against one opposing player as the demons. It’s longer than most games I own and play, but there’s little down time for players, and frequent collaboration among the marines makes it as social as any game of this length could be.

Doom (stylized in all caps, but that’s already getting annoying) comes with twelve “missions” for players to work through, all built off the same basic template: Players assemble a board; place objective tokens, demon spawning portals, and goodies for the marines to collect across the board; and begin with the marines typically all in one spot and demons spawned from any portals they can already “see” from that location. The marines’ goals vary from game to game, but collecting all objective tokens is a common one, while the demons’ goal is typically to kill a certain number of marines. A player on the marines’ side gets to start over from the beginning location when killed, or “fragged” in the game’s vernacular, while the supply of demons is limited to a specific number per portal.

The core of the game is combat, which involves both tactical movement and firing weapons, all of which is handled through decks. The demons’ deck is set from the start of each game, while marine players’ decks can grow during the game as they acquire new weapons on the board. An attack can involve multiple cards chained together, but for each attack, the targeted player (marine or demon) turns over the top card of his/her deck, rather than playing something from his/her hand cards, for defense. Each card has a defense value on its upper right that might cancel out one or more damage points dealt by the attack, or allow the player to “dodge” (cancel) all damage points at once. There are certain hand cards that can be played to supplement this card on defense, so choosing which cards to hold for defensive purposes is part of a player’s decision set on each active turn.

The player playing as the demons also functions as the dealer, and handles more of the administrative work such as shuffling the deck each round that determines the turn order. Each marine gets one turn, and the demon gets one card in that deck for each monster type currently on the board (between one and four). On a turn, a marine player may play one Main Action card that allows movement and/or an attack, and then an unlimited number of Bonus Action cards, all from his/her hand, which starts at three cards but can be expanded by other actions.

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The demon’s turns work differently, as that player activates all demons of a single type at once and uses any of the six cards in his/her hand to supplement the demons’ innate movement and attack capabilities. This creates a straightforward back-and-forth dynamic between marines and demons: the marines know that once the demon player’s turn is up, they’re going to be hit with a swarm of attacks, so reducing the number of demons of a specific type is better than weakening all but eliminating none.

The balance of the game varies by mission, as each sets parameters on the number of total demons that can appear and when they can hit the board (generally after a marine opens a door on a room containing a portal). In our one full play-through of the game, with three players as marines and one (yours truly) as the demon, the game took about 3.5 hours in total, with the marines winning by claiming all three objective tokens from me, while I only “fragged” three marines of the required six, and found that the last demon I got to summon was nowhere near as powerful as he needed to be.

While the mechanics work well, there are some serious implementation flaws in the boardgame. There’s no easy way to keep track of damage to demons; we ended up slipping the 1- and 3-point damage tokens on or under the bases of the miniature figures, but that was a kludge, not a real solution. I inadvertently started at a disadvantage because I didn’t see the tiny-print Setup line on the card that sets the rules for the demon player in the mission we used. The rules for determining line-of-sight for an attack and cover for defense—if you have cover, you get to draw a second card for defense if you don’t like the first one—are needlessly convoluted and, worse, aren’t identical, so I can have a clear line of sight to shoot your guy, but you can still have cover, requiring two separate steps to draw imaginary lines on the board. At some point, realism needs to fall by the wayside to make a game faster or easier to play—and, come on, we’re talking about demons from another dimension appearing on a space station on Mars. We’re not looking for Gustave Courbet’s approval here.

The base game comes with two campaigns of six missions each, where the balance between marines and demons varies by mission. But Doom’s rules also allow—not that we needed their permission—players to create custom decks for marines, and really, what is stopping you from tweaking any mission’s setup or rules to set the balance to your liking? It’s almost infinitely extensible, and tailor-made for expansion decks, more missions, more demons (and thus more miniatures, or as I call them, “cat toys”), and so on. This isn’t purely a role-playing game, but it has that feel—the narrative of a legacy-style game plus the immersive and cooperative nature of an RPG. If that sounds like your kind of experience and you can handle the two- to three-hour play time, I think Doom will be one of the best games of its kind you’ve tried, even though I don’t think it’ll see many repeat plays in my house for the same reasons.

Keith Law is a senior baseball writer for ESPN.com and an analyst on ESPN’s Baseball Tonight. You can read his baseball content at search.espn.go.com/keith-law and his personal blog the dish, covering games, literature, and more, at meadowparty.com/blog.