Game Night Verdicts #24 – Gen7: A Crossroads Game

Not everything is as it seems with Gen7. For starters, despite what it says on the box, Gen7 is a cooperative game built around complex optimization challenges. Set in a distant future, humanity travels among the stars on a fully automated ship. Which in turn means all you have to do is simple maintenance work with the occasional bit of trouble-shooting. But then an unusual occurrence leads to a baffling event, which in turn leads to a shocking discovery and so on. In other words, a story unfolds as you play the game episode by episode. The campaign‘s plot unfolds in a different manner, based on how successful you are in completing each episode as well as the occasional story-steering decision you make.

gen7-englAs for the game itself, it‘s fairly straight-forward worker placement affair, in which you place dice to get resources. Those are in turn used to solve tasks like keeping the ship from blowing up. You know, first level maintenance work. Some of those tasks you have to solve on your own. Some you can tackle with the help of other players. Each completed task you take part in gets you merit points. If you collect enough of those by the end of an episode, you will be a promoted and given access to special abilities. These perks are – spoiler alert – pretty indispensable by the end of the campaign.

The game‘s mechanisms are easily handled and its difficulty strikes just the right balance. It takes a little bit of effort to squeeze out a win, but it‘s rare that you feel victim to dice rolls or card draws. The rules have few loose ends you need to explain away as „balancing“ or „thematic abstraction“. While the core mechanics are simple and straight-forward, it‘s the volume of variables, threats and a continually changing situation that provides the game‘s challenge. Gen7 is vaguely reminiscent of Spirit Island in that regard. Both follow a design tradition among cooperative games, that puts an emphasis on an overwhelmingly big challenge. One that can only be dealt with by chaining together your group‘s actions in an optimized and optimal way. The bogeyman of the alpha gamer is supposed to be kept at bay by flooding the game state with information. As long as nobody at the table overestimates their combinatorial abilities, or obnoxiously explains the „correct“ move for this turn to you, you‘ll be fine. In other words, there is no alpha gamer in Gen7, provided you‘re not playing with one.

Gen7 is also a new iteration of the crossroads system, first seen in Dead of Winter way back in 2014. It‘s been refined and adjusted since then, naturally. While shared and individual missions are still present in a way, the traitor element has been done away with. The crossroad deck now also changes over time, with cards being removed and added as you hit various story beats. Still, if your personal story card isn‘t drawn on your turn, you‘re out of luck and it gets placed at the bottom of the crossroads deck again. Designer Steve Nix has posted a variant on Boardgamegeek, that is supposed to increase the likelihood of you triggering those cards. Considering that most of the game‘s appeal lies in exploring its story, this rule should probably have been part of the core game.

In fact, Gen7‘s story is its biggest strength. After the amateurish writing in Gloomhaven (and its even more cringe-worthy translation into German), I was ready to give up on storytelling texts in board games altogether. Gen7 at least managed to convince me that these texts can also reach the heights of being perfectly functional. The often full-paged text passages manage to hit the right note and keep it throughout. To be fair, I don‘t know how much of this was due to the translation work by Susanne Kraft in the German edition, I played.

The story itself, though, is pretty grim. Add some bad luck to certain decisions you make, and the tone quickly spirals away from the can-do optimism of Star Trek, to the grimy despair of Battlestar Galactica or even Alien. Not every gaming group might be up for that. The box illustrations may hint at intense drama, but the actual plot can end up quite a bit harsher than you might expect.

But Gen7‘s weaknesses aren‘t found in the story, but the lack of variance in its gameplay. Each episode plays out very similar to the next. On occasion you swap out some parts of the board for another, and that is pretty much all the change you will see. The campaign unfortunately lacks any real twists and surprises. An argument could be made, though, that if you leave enough time between individual episodes, you might overlook it.

An exercise in tone…

Story and mechanics do end up stumbling a little, when they result in a weird tonal mismatch between the personal plotlines and the main story. The latter quickly ramps up in intensity, whereas the personal storylines tend to have a more casual, almost pleasant tone, reminiscent of an 80s TV show. Even though there is nothing wrong with the writing in the stories themselves, it‘s the juxtaposition in play, that paints them as absurd and unintentionally ridiculous.

…and how to fail it.

It also doesn‘t help that Gen7 has to exist in the shadow of its cooler great-uncle: Pandemic Legacy. A game that managed to make in-game successes feel integrated into the overall campaign experience. People and places meant something to us as the game went on, because our decisions (and occasional random chance) gave them an important role. Sadly, in-game achievement and story experience are fairly distinct from each other here. Gen7 plays a lot like video game in that sense. After a completed level you are given a cut-scene that advances the plot. You can enjoy the quality of one, and appreciate the challenge provided by the other. But the two rarely seem to me coalesce into a unified experience.

Speaking of unified, the campaign consists of exactly 7 episodes. Which is great, since it‘s far more likely that you and your friends will be able to find seven game nights, than the demands other campaign games place on you. It also cuts down on the number of plot points you need keep in mind, to appreciate the entirety of the story as opposed to only its individual chapters.

Tragically, the campaign‘s length is also the product‘s weakness. Games like Pandemic Legacy, Betrayal Legacy or even Charterstone have already set certain expectations when we relate a game‘s price point to the time we need to invest in it. Gen7 is noticeably shorter than comparable games, but slightly more expensive than the majority of them. Even if seven episodes fits the time constraints of most gaming groups, Gen7 feels overpriced by comparison. Opinions differ on whether the game is interesting enough to reward a second of even third playthrough to explore a different plot line. I‘m leaning towards no, but I know of players who are looking forward to playing the campaign again.

Either way a price comparison is unavoidable, and Gen7 doesn‘t look great in that regard. If you are a budget-conscious gamer, the strengths of Gen7 might not be enough to justify its price.

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