Game Review: Tactical Tech

tactical tech board game boxI imagine that most gamers have played chess at some point in their lives. It’s a complex game with millions of possible scenarios. It’s also complicated to learn because you have a variety of pieces and each has its own specific movement and attack patterns. A bishop can move one way, but a pawn is stuck plodding forward, unless there’s a piece to take, in which case it can jitter at an angle. Chess is also what I call a deterministic game due to its lack of random chance; better players, generally speaking, always beat inferior or less experienced players. That’s why backgammon is an interesting alternative, with its simpler rules and element of chance due to the two D6 involved. If you’re a great backgammon player, odds are you’ll win, but it’s not guaranteed if the dice are against you. In both cases, these highly competitive games are a metaphor for battle, with chess the more obvious warfare.

Enter Tactical Tech. A new game by Tektite Games & designer Jake Wible, it updates chess and adds some interesting variations – including walls that block movement and portals that let your pieces immediately jump from one point on the board to another – while still retaining much of that deterministic nature of chess. I had a chance to try out a prototype of the game that featured mostly production quality elements with miniatures straight off of a 3D printer. The game is fun to play, but just like chess, it rewards people who can see bigger patterns and look a dozen moves ahead, with some portions of gameplay that can prove rather tedious.

To start out, the board is comprised of grid squares and you can assemble different boards that offer tactical advantages and disadvantages. For a two player game (Tactical Tech is for 2-4 players, ages 12+ and takes 90-120 minutes per game) it’s recommended that you set up a smaller 3 x 5 board. Like this:

tactical tech - board starting layout - game

On the left is the starting position for team red, while on the right, team white is also set up and ready to go. Like chess, the goal of Tactical Tech is to capture the most important enemy figure, the Command Structure. Interestingly, your Command Structure cannot move at all; once you place it on the board, it’s your job to defend it from incursion while also bringing the fight to your opponents areas of the board too.

I’ve pulled out the top left tile so you can get a sense of how neatly it all fits together. Dark regions are impassable walls, and the blue square on each tile is known as a mineral square: The more of those you occupy with miners, the more resources you obtain each turn to upgrade your pieces and overall game. Pieces can move in all 8 possible directions from a single square, depending on the adjacent terrain.

Look closely and you’ll see tiny little red squares on certain points where the walls are more narrow:

tactical tech board game - close up of narrow wall

The narrower spots are known as Secret Passage squares and if you overlay a secret passage (small chit, above, with the two green squares) it becomes a regular passable – and buildable – square. The two miniatures above are a bit rough in design coming from a 3D printer (prototype, remember!) but the closer one is a Shooter and the further one is a Fighter. The third type of unit you can place on the board is a Mech. A Shooter can move 4 squares on an action and attacks up to 3 squares away. A Fighter can move 5 squares and attack any adjacent square. A Mech can move 3 and attack 4.

There are also stationary structures that are important to your game too. In fact, here are all the miniatures:

tactical tech board game - 3d printed miniatures

You can more easily see the shooter (with the rifle), the mech (in the middle) and the fighter (with his fists up, ready for a rumble). In the back are two portals that let you instantly move across the board, a single barricade that lets you block a passage, and, in the front, a miner (on the left) and a gun turret (zero movement but attack range of 5).

Where this all feels a lot like chess is that every conflict is completely deterministic. All units attack with a force of 1 and all units have 1 defense, so the fighter can take out a gun turret with a single hit, for example. The only variation on that is that a miner, a turrent and a mech can add a shield, which gives them a defense of 2. No counterstrike, no random element of chance, just a ‘you can get to me, you hit me, I die’ approach to battle.

Game setup involves just a bit more than pieces and a board: Each player is also collecting minerals to be able to acquire movement upgrades. In fact, here’s a typical player setup:

tactical tech board game - player setup

On the left side is an excellent player summary card that details the four phases of each turn (activation, purchase, sell, earn) along with requirements and nuances of each piece, move, the various cards available and costs of each new unit or structure. Along the top are three starting mineral cards; left is gold, right is silver, and in the middle is the rare “glitch” card that lets you do something nefarious to the board layout. The full inventory of miniatures for team red sits below. To start you have a Command, a Miner, and Fighter on the board. Your first move, unsurprisingly, is to get more units out!

The mineral cards are pretty straightforward, and in addition to buying more structures and units, you can use them to perform research which improves your abilities and unit strength in the game:

tactical tech board game - mineral cards

For example, three gold mineral cards can purchase Gold Research, which then grants the player an additional unit activation per turn and gives all shooters an additional +1 square on movement for the rest of the game. Darn useful, those research cards!

It’s also all quick to learn and easy to understand. A bright 10yo could easily pick up Tactical Tech and enjoy a game or two with friends, siblings or an adult within just a few minutes.

Which brings us to the all-important question of is it actually fun to play? Well, let’s look at a typical attack scenario:

tactical tech board game - battle in progress

Team red has blocked the path to the white Command structure with its barricade and has a turret defending its portal. The fighting task is left to the shielded mech. Meanwhile, team white has an aggressive defense with a mech, two fighters, a shooter and a turret of its own. But white’s placement is poor: The turret can only shoot on the 8 directions so can’t defend the top portion of the board. The white mech threatens the red mech, but with the turrets superior range, that red turret will stop the white mech from moving in. The white turret blocks its units from moving into the red square, and the red barricade ensures no sneaky diagonal motion either.

But remember, everything has a defense of 1, so it’s a no-brainer for white to take out the barricade. Then red turret shoots down that diagonal and takes the white unit (probably that fighter). That sort of tit-for-tat is very much a chess mentality, and with the red portal intact, it’s easy for red to bring more units into play and swarm from the top to get the white command tower. See how that all fits together? Again, though, remember everything has a defense of 1, so the white mech can take out the red turret with a single attack, and the white fighter could then take out the red portal with a single attack. There’s no random chance, if a unit can attack another, it will be victorious.

dice roll two die rollingI’m not much of a fan of chess because of its deterministic nature. If I play someone better than me, they’ll win. What’s the fun in that? Conversely, if I play against someone who is less experienced and has less ability to project future moves, they’ll lose and I’ll be the winner. That’s the same basic limitation I had with Tactical Tech. The design is very cool and there are definitely some fun elements of the game, but there’s a lot of strategic setup rounds where you’re doing research, spawning units and deploying them prior to an attack. This can be rather boring. The simple nature of attacks is also disheartening and that sort of tit-for-tat back and forth definitely characterized our gameplay when we played through the game.

I asked Jake, the game designer, why there wasn’t a simple element like a dice roll to determine attack outcome and he offered a reasonable response: “There used to be dice rolling as the randomizer for attacks, but it dramatically slowed down the game, and had a lot of complaints. Example: You have a brilliant play you execute on your turn and it flops because you get bad rolls. This is especially frustrating if you have been waiting for your turn. It’s not fair to lose the game just due to chance, when you are expected to win. But the downside of no rolls, is that mistakes can be detrimental.”

My final take on this game is that perhaps some house rules would help it move faster and make gameplay more fun rather than it being a purely “thinky” game of playing out possibilities in your head. More starting units would speed things up, for sure, and I might try really small boards too (two players might be 3×3, for example) to force a lot of interaction and shorter gameplay. Dice to determine fight outcome? Maybe.

If you love chess and other games that are played out just as much in your head as they are on the game board, then Tactical Tech might be a great option for you. If not, well, there might be some better options out there that’ll match your style, taste and gamer group size.

Tactical Tech, by Jake Wible, published by Tektite Games. Learn more:

Disclosure: Tektite Games send me a pre-production copy of the game for the purposes of this review. Game design, rules, and game play are all subject to change before being published.

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