Review: Gamma World

Gamma World Box Cove Illustration

I have been doing some extensive coverage of Gamma World this week on my blog, providing various thoughts on the game, and now it is time for, dum, dum, dum… my final review.  I have been experimenting with a new format for doing these reviews, so this one might read a bit different than my last review of Amethyst: Foundations.

This new edition of Gamma World, which uses the base rules of 4th Edition D&D, and tweaks them, is actually the 7th Edition of the game.  I can’t really comment on these earlier editions, or compare this game to those, because in all honesty, I have never played them.  This edition of Gamma World has been my gateway into the game; so, please forgive me for not getting into any edition commentary or comparison.  I’d like to keep this review focused narrowly on the core box, which was released in October (reviews of the two expansions will make their way here once I add them to my collection).

Rather than talking about what comes in the box, which you can easily just read on Amazon or the Wizards of the Coast website, I would like to get right into thick of it and talk about the Good, the Bad, and the Miscellaneous, thought about the game that I had either while reading through the rules or playing the game itself.

The Good

One of the first things that hit me was the art of this game.  I really liked the box art and the art in the books.  It all struck me as being very comic/crazy.  When I picked this up at Christmas, my wife remarked that she really liked the art as well, and was willing to try the game out just because of that.  Coming from someone who doesn’t play role playing games at all, that is saying something.  But, you can’t judge a game by its box art, so it’s time to go a bit deeper.  I really liked the tokens that were included in the box, especially the fact that they were clearly numbered.  The maps were also very nice and artsy, though I can’t say that I would use them frequently.

Rules for character generation in this edition of GW are simple and streamlined.  Instead of a class/race combination, characters start with two Origins which come with all of their powers and abilities one will need, aside from a single roll to determine the one skill that the character can use.  When I sat down with one of my players to play the game, I had him roll up three characters instead of one, because I didn’t want to modify the adventure set out inside the rule book (we were lacking other players at the session, so we made do).  We were able to work together and make three characters in about 20 minutes.  I would say that is pretty fast.  Some of the highlights of character generation include the total humor that comes from getting two oddly paired origins, or simply the discovery that comes with learning what the actual origins are (I didn’t reveal what they were to the player ahead of time).  Gear selection was also a hoot.  We both had fun pondering the kind of weapons that his PC’s were geared with and had even more fun finding out what kinds of random junk and loot he was carrying around (included were several canoes, a couple water purifiers, some fuel and some pack animals…).

The actual rules for Gamma World are very similar to the rules used in 4e D&D, but there are some distinct differences which change the game quite a bit, especially when it comes to lethality.  I really liked most of these changes and I felt it helped to speed the game up immensely.  Not having to worry about healing surges was a great change of pace, especially when that can get to be a bit boggy in 4e; it also lets me wrap up a combat when I feel it has gotten stale without having to worry about how many surges the party would probably have expended in trying to bring down the last Porker which they had totally surrounded and bloodied.

Combat in the game is fast, furious, and exciting.  Death in GW is a lot easier than 4e with no death saving throws or negative hit points for that matter.  So, when my player had a natural 20 rolled against him that dropped him to 2 hit points, he was seriously worried for a moment, but Second Winds did manage to come over to this edition of the game, which was a relief.

The creatures that are included in the core box are interesting and freaky.  I really liked running the encounter, contained in the provided adventure, which features the Yexil, a weird half-lion, half-bat creature that shoots lasers from its eyes (no, I am not making this up).  It got to see some seriously good tactical play in our session and forced my player to use up some of his Omega tech to bring it down.  I also really like the creatures that GW provides which essentially fill the roles of stuff like Orcs, Goblins, and Kobolds.  I would consider running many of them in a game of D&D, especially the Porkers and Badders.

The last good thing that I would like to talk about are the Cards… those much talked about cards which have stirred up all kinds of rants and rages across the blogosphere.  Honestly, this is not a good feature of the game; I found it to be a GREAT feature of the game.  I was highly skeptical at first about how these cards would fair under actual play.  I thought that random tables would work just as nicely, but once you experience them you will be convinced.  Maybe the collectible aspect of the cards has some people angry, but using them turned out to be a game changer, turning the game from fun, to fantastic.  It kept the pacing very fast.  I didn’t need to look through books to find out what something did, I just had to look at the card.  The ease of just passing a card to my player when he found some tech, or experienced an Alpha Flux made things incredibly easy.  He didn’t have to write anything down anywhere, we just kept moving right along.

The Bad

Some of the minor issues I had with this box were: the short, and completey useless index, which is largely dwarfed by the Table of Contents in actual content; the constant questioning that I experienced trying to remember what exact rules were different in this game from traditional D&D 4e which sent me thumbing through the rule book; the monster tokens having creatures on each side, rather than a bloodied side on one side and a healthy side on the other; the depth of the adventure contained in the book; and finally the relatively cramped and poorly designed character sheets, which I found too hard to write on.

However, beyond these minor issues, there were some larger issues that I had with this game.  For one, the collectible nature of the cards still seems to be lame to me.  The cards were fantastic and I loved using them in the game, but I also don’t like the fact that when I open a pack I might be getting several more of the same card.  There is little call for having duplicates in either the Alpha Mutation deck or the Omega Tech.  I would also not, as a DM, let my players build their own deck; not for reasons of balance, like you might think, but because I actually think that if the player knows what is in the deck, some of the random fun of the game is lost.  This being said, if I ever find a single play set of all the cards on eBay, you can bet that I will think hard about picking it up.

One of the other big issues I had with the game, again, came from the cards.  I hate the fact that the backs of both Alpha Mutations and Omega Tech are the same.  The cards have no art and from what I can tell, no rarity.  I don’t really feel the need to use card sleeves (other than for the DIY reasons I talk about below), so not having a way to clearly distinguish visually which card is which is a problem.  It took a bit of time separating the cards and then keeping the cards separate was a hassle.  I would have liked to have one type of card be one color on the back and the other type of card being a different color.

The other big complaint that I had, which other people have experienced as well, is the issue of longevity.  This game might not work for long campaigns.  Characters are fairly tied to their origins, so you don’t get a lot of wiggle room for customizing your character; also, the level is capped at 10, from which point there isn’t any further support in the GW box.  While the random element to the game is great when people don’t know what is going to happen, or what might pop up, if you get the same Alpha Mutation, or Omega Tech for the 15th time, the game might get pretty stale.  I think there are several ways you could make a campaign style game viable, especially if you had the players running multiple characters and switching out those characters between sessions, but player connection to one’s PC is very low in this game.  When we ran this game, my player was actually, at one point, hoping that his PC would die off so that he could roll up a new one (I think he was beefing with his Plant/Rat Swarm named Piles…).

The Miscellaneous Thoughts and Musings

Some of the issues that I found with this game, could, with the right amount of time and effort, be largely cured by an active and capable DM.  Constantly keeping the game fun and random might mean having to homebrew some of your own stuff for this game, but because the game uses even simpler mechanics than those used in D&D 4e, I could see it being fairly easy to do.  Also, since most of the creatures you find in GW are comparable to those used in 4e, you could easily bring in weird monsters from D&D to add to a GW game (anything aberrant comes to mind immediately).

The cards, if put into two different colored sets of sleeves, are easily kept separate.  Also, by putting card protectors on these, you create an easy method of adding in DIY cards.  It would not be hard to make a template for a blank card with excel or word, then assemble your own new Alpha Mutations and Omega Tech and add your own homebrew cards to these decks.

Also, when you get right down to it, the amount of money that you spend on the collectible cards, if you do decide to buy packs, would not be more than you would spend on both of the Adventure’s vaults that you probably would buy for 4e D&D.  Considering how easy the cards are to use and how much they add to the game, I could see myself picking up several of these packs.  Also, the price point of the cards makes it something that you could easily request your players pick up a few of in order to play, because honestly, a group only needs one copy of the game to run it.  Each player does not need his own copy of the core rules of GW in order to play this game, which is something that really can’t be said of other role playing games, especially 4e D&D.

I also think that a lot of the longevity of this game will not be decided by the character that you are playing, but rather the player behind that character.  Also, with two expansions either on the way, or out already, there are a lot of other character options that are becoming available which could easily add a whole new smorgasbord of options to this game.

I can honestly say that I give Gamma World a 5 out of 5 without hesitating at all.  I have already had one of the players in my D&D home game request that we switch to GW permanently and I could easily see myself doing the same.  It hurts to say it, but GW may beat out D&D for me and mine in the near future.  I look forward to buying both of the expansions and reviewing those as well.  I am a bit disappointed in some of the things I have heard about Legion of Gold (only 8 new origins have made it into the game I believe), but Famine in Fargo sounds awesome.  Oh, did I fail to mention the price of these games?  They are not expensive.  You are going to get a LOT of bang for your buck with the core box and I can only imagine that will hold true for the expansions as well.