Fallout Board Game Review

Many video game board games either end up feeling bloated or completely divorced from their original material. Can Fallout take a game all about being a 'Lone Wanderer' and turn it into a fun social experience?

By Rob Clarke

I hate to start a review of Fallout saying "War never changes," but this time it really has. It's made of cardboard now, for example.

Armed with hundreds of hours of Fallout experience from the original game all the way up to Fallout 4 (Yes, I even played Brotherhood of Steel on the Xbox, unfortunately), join me as I strap on my Pip-Boy and take another trip into the wastes.

You can jump straight to the analysis below to get my thoughts on the experience, or you can read directly on to learn about the rules of the game. Think of it as running around in a vault hitting radroaches with a baseball bat for five minutes.

The Wasteland Survival Guide

In terms of pure quantity of components, there's a lot of here for the money.

In Fallout, each character plays a wasteland survivor, and you’ll be spending your time on a tile map of the wasteland. The exact tile and layouts used will depend on your choice of setting. Each setting also has different factions and a different ‘main’ quest to try to complete.

The aim of the game is to gain the most ‘influence’ in the wasteland, which represents your deeds as you play. Each player starts with a hidden objective card called an ‘agenda’, and each of those cards give you one influence point by default and then more points for completing bonus and secondary objectives. For example, one card will give you +1 influence if every tile but one gets revealed during the game, and +2 influence if all the tiles get revealed.

You pick up more agenda cards as you play, giving you a variety of different objectives to chase. A number of objectives will involve helping out the ‘factions’ in each game. Every setting has two main factions, such as the Enclave and the Brotherhood from earlier Fallout games, or the Railroad and Institute from Fallout 4. The game will also end if any of these factions advance far enough on their own separate influence track, changed by making different decisions in quests.

And so, armed with objectives, you set out across the wastes taking two actions per turn. As you might expect, you can move, reveal tiles, and heal up. As far as more exciting actions go, you can also fight, have encounters and complete quests.

As you reveal tiles, you’ll also reveal enemies of different types. These can be fought or avoided, but every turn some head towards the players, always hunting those closest or those weakest. Some enemies will land you with loot if you kill them, all enemies will grant you experience. Higher level enemies not only take more hits, but can end up doing some serious damage.

Fighting involves rolling dice which represent where you and the enemies are hit. Enemies require you to hit them in a ‘weak spot’, though they can sometimes have multiple weak spots at once. You can reroll or otherwise change combat outcomes with weapons and armour items that you can pick up as you explore, but it’s a relatively simple experience with no real special skills or abilities.

As well as fighting, players can have ‘encounters’, with take place in settlements, the wasteland proper or one of two vaults. Many of these happen only once per game, though some are basic events that will repeat, such as finding basic loot or going shopping. An encounter will usually give you choice, such as helping a dog that’s being abused or trying to talk down a woman with a bomb. These are read to you by another player, so you’ll know the skills required but not the consequences of your success or failure.

A lot of the games quests and encounters require those skills through a simple skill check system. Much like fighting, this all about rolling dice and hoping to gain enough points depending on the action. For example, a ‘4’ skill check requires you to roll 4 or above hits on the dice to pass. With a maximum of six points on all three dice some of the harder checks can be difficult to achieve without help, which is where the games experience and levelling system comes into play.

Nearly all decisions and combat in the game will come down to these three dice.

Kill enough enemies or complete enough quests and you’ll gain a level, which means picking up one of the games ‘SPECIAL’ tokens, representing Strength, Perception, Endurance, Charisma, Intelligence and Luck. As you gain these tokens, you’ll get to reroll those dice in tests that involve those attributes. For example, if you want to knock down a door you’d use Strength, so if you have the ‘S’ token and you do a test that requires Strength, you get to re-roll. Items, weapons and armour can also modify those checks.

The game also includes some basic traits to track your character which can affect how the story plays out. Took too many drugs to help your skill tests? You could become addicted. Decided that instead of helping someone escape from raiders you join the raiders and loot the good guys? You could become vilified and shunned by future settlers who might have helped you.

To top everything off you also need to keep an eye on your radiation level. Whenever you walk through a radiated area on the map or fight a radiated enemy, you’ll take radiation damage. If your health ever drops below the amount of radiation, you’ll die. Dying isn’t too harsh though - you’ll lose your non-equipped items and be sent back to the starting space, but you keep your experience and money. Think of it a bit more like reloading a game where you might lose a little bit of progress rather than having to fully restart.

Mechanics, systems and the 'feeling' of Fallout

Normally I’d jump straight into discussion of mechanics at this point, but I want to quickly talk about something a bit fluffier but incredibly important: Fallout The Board Game feels like Fallout The Video Game in the most important ways. For all the million tiny changes to the world to make the conversion make sense, for all the new mechanics and streamlining of familiar ones, this is demonstrably and completely a Fallout experience. It’s not a reskin or a lazy translation.

This goes beyond just having names and art work from the video game. Many of the best companions and well-known weapons and items and locations appear here, but that’s not enough on its own. What’s impressive is the combination of mechanics, story and artwork carry over the tone of the series.

Not quite original

I use the word conversion a lot in this review and you should see this as a conversion of the Fallout story as well. Not everything is directly ripped, but really this is more of a re-telling of things we’ve already seen rather than any attempt to expand the world.

Sure, it’s the end of the world, but it’s also sometimes a funny, random and exciting place to be in. The main quests are large in their scope, but there’s plenty of smaller encounters that are fun to follow and interact with even if they aren’t going to change the outcome of your game, just like the side quests in the video game. It’s post-apocalyptic but it’s not about ‘survival’, there’s no scavenging for food and water or bleak, depressing quest arcs here.

The visuals help with the tone, from the player character boards modelled after the Pip Boy interface you use in the game, through to the meaty and detailed miniatures that represent your position in the world. This is nearly all new artwork as well, so there’s none of the jarring changes in art direction that you sometimes get from movie and game conversions where they use the original art or, worse, lazily grab screenshots.

The only thing that really felt lost thematically here is that beautiful retrofuturism - seeing the wasteland from 20,000 feet in the air kind of loses the beauty in the detail that Fallout is famous for.

Of course, Fallout has the advantage of standing on the shoulders of giants as far as its world, lore and story. You don’t need to know what a radroach is or what you would expect from the Enclave if you’ve spent hundreds of hours in the game - your imagination does the heavy lifting. This brings me to the first thing that may turn some people away from this experience: Fallout isn’t really a ‘narrative’ or story led game.

If you wanted to really experience a lasting story and detailed vignettes in the style of games like Tales of the Arabian Nights, you’re going to be disappointed with the game.

For others, this may be more of a blessing. There’s no stopping the game for five minutes while you sit around listening to three paragraphs of overindulgent exposition. You jump straight to the immediate problem, and the two or three decisions that you can make.

Setting the world on fire

Nothing in Fallout takes more than 30 seconds to read at any given time, and providing you’ve played the game nothing really needs to be any longer, but if you were sold mostly on the story-telling experience, you may not find what you want here. Honestly though, I think you could argue the same of the modern games, especially Fallout 4. Most of the quests and characters in that game aren’t particularly amazing, and the real story is the one you make in your adventures around the wastes, in the funny things that happen and the mess you end up making.

Here, Fallout absolutely shines. If it isn’t a narrative game, it’s certainly an adventure game. You’re not just invested in your own actions, either. It’s fun watching how decisions from the rest of your group play out as well. Bad rolls end up being more funny than frustrating, as your heavily armoured friend with a massive weapon continuously tries and fails to shoot a raider in the legs over a couple of turns. The modern versions of Fallout have always been at their best as a looting, exploring, world-building piece of post-apocalyptic tourism, and the board game continues that tradition.

It may be hard to tell in pictures but these minis are a nice, chunky size.

It’s fun just to get lost in the world. You can find two vaults in the game and each has its own mini-story, the largest little chunks of continuous narrative that you’ll find outside following the main quests for each objective. One of our more narrative focused players stopped following and completing the main quests to just go in his own little adventure in one of the vaults and still came out not only with a sweet sniper rifle but also ended up being the joint winner of the game. The only downside is with only two vaults that both feature in every setup, you’re going to get through that specific bit of content quite quickly.

New to Fallout?

You can absolutely enjoy this game without knowing anything about the video games. There is the occasional unexplained terminology, and you will of course get more out of it if you played the video games, but if you want a post-apocalyptic adventure game, it's not a deal breaker to go into this blind.

Hitting the right notes on tone and really nailing that adventure vibe is really important here, because mechanically speaking, Fallout is not perfect. In all our games I had a great time with my friends, but my attitude quickly became entirely about having that fun adventure, not about winning the game. Between the dice rolling, random events, random tile placement, random levelling up and random loot there is a lot of chance in this game. To use a lazy board game comparison here, it’s more Talisman than Descent.

Your agency is really confined to deciding what your next objective is, rather than making long-term strategic decisions. Let’s say you need more of the games currency, caps, for an objective or quest.

You’ll have to find an enemy that will drop loot based on a random draw of enemies as they get revealed. You’ll need to hope your dice rolls work out to kill that enemy. You’ll then need to hope their loot is money. If its equipment you’ll want to sell it, but to get to a shop you need to go on an encounter and just hope that you pick up one with a shop card. There’s no easy way to make money and no ‘shop’ action you’re guaranteed to make.

Fallout is not a game where I ever feel I can set out to ‘win’, where I can develop strategies to beat players, or even where I feel at any advantage playing with new people. In fact, winning in Fallout doesn’t even feel that good when it does happen. I asked the winners of all my games how they felt, and the response was always the same: I’m glad I won, but I don’t really feel like I had that much control over my victory beyond getting good agenda cards and keeping a vague goal in mind.

The Hidden Agenda

My criticisms of Fallout so far may seem harsh, but they are very dependent on what you want from a game. Providing you don’t mind a game more about exploring and fun times than narrative and competition, those things shouldn’t stop you picking it up. However, there are a couple of mechanical problems that I feel will affect everyone’s enjoyment a little.

The turn order changes far less often than in most games, where every turn someone else goes first. This can feel unfair in a four-player game, especially early on. Everyone goes after the same quests in Fallout, and early on there’s only a few on the table. Once someone completes a quest, that quest is removed from the game and replaced with more, and that has led to times where our third or fourth player has missed out purely by luck of the draw. You do eventually move to another first player, but not every turn.

A more significant problem is the agenda cards. These provide you with your objectives but are not varied enough and rely far too heavily on the games faction system. The faction system generally the weakest part of the game, tracked on a separate board with its own generic tokens and never really feeling properly integrated into the other systems. Unfortunately, so many of the agenda cards are all about the position of a faction’s influence on that track, which is something you don’t have near enough control over.

In one three player game we ended up drawing a faction related agenda seven times between us. Faction influence goes up when quests are completed, but you can’t ever make it go back down, and the game will end when one faction reaches max influence.

The games currency, bottle caps, are sadly cardboard rather than real bottlecaps..

In that game, two of us were trying to fight for the Enclave while one fought for the Brotherhood, which meant the third player could either scrap that agenda card and potentially wait a long time for another, or effectively be in a 2v1 race which would affect a third of his entire influence for the game. Other times the pure amount of these cards means the important of influence is stacked, giving you double points for really doing absolutely nothing at all and ending the game prematurely as all players try quickly to move one faction down the track to the end of the game.

The interaction of faction influence has never really been a big draw with Fallout games, with most players completing the questlines of multiple conflicting factions to see all the content of a game. In the board game, it feels like it wants to provide some variety and decisions, and to fix the game to a hard end so it doesn’t run too long. That would work well if only the game didn’t so heavily load your objectives and victory towards it. There’s some fun objectives in the game: collecting different types of drug, exploring the whole map, amassing wealth… there’s just not enough of them.

I’ve spent time focusing on what Fallout is not because this is not the type of game that I can give a blanket recommendation, so here’s what Fallout is: It’s a very fun, very random and very good way to spend a few hours with your friends. I’m not sure it’s going to win many design awards, but if there was ever an Spiel des Jahres award for best conversion of a video game series, Fallout would be right up there. This is probably the closest we’ll ever get to official, multiplayer Fallout, and for the most part it does the job admirably.

Final Thoughts

Like the video games, Fallout doesn't take itself seriously, and like the games, you can find yourself having fun with this game for many, many hours. There are plenty of flaws, but if don't mind a lack of strategy and a thinner story than you might except some a conversion of a roleplaying game, this is a great experience.