14 November 2019
Finding light in the darkness
The first experience of playing Blackout: Hong Kong is very much in keeping with the game’s world gone dark, if a bit less dramatic. There's confusion, as a single round of
eight different phases unfolds with all its related myriad of rules and objectives, then a bit of panic, while trying to understand how all the steps come to inform each other and in what way the main goal – gaining the most victory points – can be achieved.
While the rulebook helpfully walks players through every phase of the game, outlining all rule minutiae and even including gameplay examples, it can't get across the bigger picture. Being introduced to every stage of the game one at a time helps to calm the initial feeling of being overwhelmed with choice, but only playing through every round and seeing how the actions in one phase influence and feed into later stages of the game will help you to understand the logic and flow of the gameplay. For the first couple of rounds, and even possibly for your first game, Blackout: Hong Kong will be a case of stumbling around in the dark.
But just as your eyes eventually come to adjust to the dark, Blackout: Hong Kong becomes more approachable over time as your understanding of the game grows. And getting through that initial struggle becomes absolutely worth it.
Blackout is divided between players’ individual boards, where the progress of their actions and objectives are tracked, and a map of Hong Kong where the area-control part of the game takes place. The game also has elements of resource- and hand-management and deckbuilding, which interweave elegantly with each other to form a sequence of actions that require careful execution and planning.
The core of the gameplay involves managing volunteers by allocating them to different tasks. Once sent out on an errand, it takes time to gather them back, so new ones need to be recruited by completing objectives. Volunteers serve as jack-of-all-trades for all elements of the game: specific sets of colours help complete objectives, and volunteers can be sent scouting for resources or used to perform special actions, as well generating cubes for the area-control element of the Hong Kong board.
Players need to think not just several turns but several rounds ahead, so some analysis paralysis should be absolutely expected. The satisfaction of getting a sequence of turns planned and completed perfectly or the frustration of making a misstep along the way are all part of what makes Blackout: Hong Kong so entertaining. The sheer amount of strategies and possibilities this game has to offer makes it a challenge you will want to figure out.
While aiming high mechanically, Blackout: Hong Kong falls flat thematically. the premise of the citywide blackout is always lurking somewhere in the peripheral. Your resources are essentials like water, food, fuel and tools. Various actions in the game are activated by volunteers, such as mechanics, doctors or leaders. Players can go scouting in the dark districts to find useful resources. However, none of these elements ever weave themselves together coherently but remain disjointed, thematically similar pieces scattered through the game. As the premise of the game has so much promise and potential, it’s a shame it was primarily used as a coat of paint for identifying types of resource cubes.
The disconnect between the game and the theme also affects the art. While the board showing the map of Hong Kong can become quite pretty as it gets more populated with cubes, the rest of the components are just okay.
It may not be the most exciting or enticing-looking game – if you are attracted by its theme, you may be disappointed. Still, Blackout: Hong Kong’s gameplay elevates it above these missteps. It effortlessly combines many styles of gameplay in one coherent and challenging structure, offering a fun struggle to try to master and an absolute delight to get right.
PLAY IT? PROBABLY
Designer: Alexander Pfister
Artist: Chris Quilliams
Time: 75-150 minutes
This review originally appeared in the August 2019 issue of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.
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