Released in 2015, Florian Fay’s Apocalypse Chaos is a dice-allocation game of cooperative programming. This puzzly brain-burner with a campaign mode imagines up to four-players working together to protect their downed spaceship from the onslaught of attacking alien hordes. Should you answer the call to action, rolling your dice and formulating your plan? Or should you give in to the endless legions and succumb to the sweet mercy of death? Check out our thoughts below.
What’s in the Box?
Apocalypse Chaos is a component rich game featuring nearly one hundred varied tokens, a deck of cards, tons of dice, and modular game boards arranged in three dimensions. Inside the box, you’ll find:
- 1 Rule book
- 20 custom six-sided dice
- 5 each in four different colors
- 4 Hero Player Boards
- 1 in each color
- 5 Standees
- 4 Hero Standees (1 in each color)
- 1 Scientist Standee
- 10 Room tiles
- 8 plastic pillars
- 31 Enemy/Equipment/Boss cards
- 90 various tokens
- 5 Cardboard Barricades
How to Play
Apocalypse Chaos is, at heart, a cooperative dice placement game. Each player is given a hero board representing their character, and each character has slightly different stats in each of the seven different placement areas: Initiative, Movement, Melee Attack, Ranged Attack, Defense, Special Ability, and a Dice Action. On a turn, players will roll their dice and activate by allocating their dice to the different areas on the board. Each die contain 5 faces correlating to the actions on the player board with the final “Star” face counting as a “Wild”, which can be placed on either the Initiative allocation area or one of the two actions on a player’s hero board marked with a star.
In many dice allocation games, players traditionally have the opportunity to re-roll dice. Not so in Apocalypse Chaos! Instead, players may allocate dice to their Dice Action area, where they may either trade in two dice with a matching symbol to change one of them to any face or where they may make the dice available for other players to “borrow” for the turn – however, no more than two dice can ever be acquired or lent by any given player. This means that you can “trade” dice with your team on any turn as long as no player every has fewer than three of their own dice and no more than seven total dice.
Why would you need to trade and allocate dice? Excellent question! Each player controls a hero who must move around a modular board in order to defend their team and ship spaces from the attacking alien hordes which will descend and attack every turn. You will work to attack, defend, and activate the tiles looking to gain strategic advantages from the rooms you occupy and by puzzling out the programmatic movement of the aliens in relation to the space of the board. Many of the room tiles , which could be at “ground level” or elevated via plastic pillars during setup, have icons printed on them that can be activated by a player on their turn. Instead of allocating dice to a hero board, a player may save them to place them onto an occupied room in order to activate that rooms bonus. The raised platforms often offer strategic benefits which allow players to be protected from many basic alien attacks while also allowing them to attack from the high ground. However, controlling the high ground alone isn’t a path to victory as enemies will use their ranged attacks to target support pillars when possible. This creates the potential of collapsing platforms and inflicting significant damaging for anyone on or under it.
So what about those hordes of evil aliens coming to kill you? These enemies are represented by cards, which move around the perimeter of the board in a pre-programmed fashion. In many respects, Apocalypse Chaos share similarities with tower-defense games where creatures spawn at the perimeter and attack a central location. The spawn points are established at the beginning of the game, and a number of random cards equal to the number of players are spawned on these points every turn – unless you and your team can do something about it! On an enemy’s turn, as established by the initiative order (determined by number of lightning bolt icons on the cards and heroes), the aliens will resolve the actions pre-printed on their card from left to right. All of these threats will perform some combination of melee attacks, ranged attacks, and movement in varying order – however, many also have special ability that will activate on their turn, allowing them regenerate, throw grenades, or even fly and attack.
Since the game is variable, and has missions that could be played in a campaign, victory and defeat are variable and based on the mission objectives. However, in the introductory mission, players win when they have defeated all of the “Boss” enemies in the deck. Losing can occur with all players are eliminated or if the players have not won within two turns of the first player elimination. For the most part, the game is a programming puzzle wherein players will watch to see what spawns and where, roll and allocated their dice, allowing the game’s programming and attack mechanisms to play out, and attempt to survive long enough to meet their mission objectives.
The Details: Setup
Usually, I like to give a detailed setup and rules run through after the Overview. If the above rundown was enough for you, feel free to skip down to our final thoughts. If you’d like a little more depth, then keep reading.
In Apocalypse Chaos, the setup is going to vary depending on the scenario that you choose to play. I’m not going to give the setup rules for each of the eight missions found in the rule book, but I will briefly mention how to set the board for a four player introductory game. This should prepare you to play a couple of times before moving into the more dynamic aspects of setup in the seven available campaign scenarios.
To play the introductory game, players will begin by shuffling the room tiles numbered I though VI, choosing four to place randomly in a 2×2 square. The remaining two rooms are then placed above any two ground level rooms using four plastic pillars to hold each upper level tile aloft. After creating the “ship” out of these tiles, take as many Vortex tokens as there are players, placing them in the areas around the perimeter of the board as shown in the mission setup. The Vortices are going to be the spawn points for the aliens throughout the remainder of the game.
After setting the board and Vortex tokens, all remaining tokens should be placed within easy reach of all players. Then, each player should select a hero standee as well as matching hero board and dice in their color. Each player will place a Life Marker on their board in the top-most place of their Life Gauge, marked with a heart. After setting up their hero boards, players will randomly select a start player who will place their standee in one room. Moving clockwise, players will each place their standee in a room, making sure that no two players share a room.
Finally, players will need to prepare the Enemy card deck. The Enemy cards are reversible, with Equipment printed on the reverse, and split into two categories – Grunts (with no stripes in the upper left corner) and Bosses (with 1 to 3 stripes, indicating their level). For the basic game, players will separate Grunts and Bosses and shuffle them separately face up before randomly selecting the appropriate number of cards from each deck to form a single Enemy pile according to the mission chart in a stack beginning with the bottom, then the middle, then the top. For example, in a four-player, introductory game, the deck would consist of 3 random Grunts on the bottom, followed by 3 random Bosses in the middle, and the 6 Grunts and 3 Bosses shuffled together and placed on the top. This gives you a distribution of 9 Grunts and 6 Bosses where players are sort of aware of the order of the cards, but not entirely (you are not allowed to count the cards in the Enemy pile at any time). All remaining Enemy cards will be returned to the box for future games. And now you’re ready to play the introductory game!
The Details: Playing a Turn
Each game of Apocalypse Chaos is comprised of a series of rounds that repeat until players have accomplished the Victory or Defeat conditions. Each round is broken into the following four phases:
- Arrival of New Enemies
- Prepare the Heroes
- Global Offensive
- End of Round Effects
Each round begins with the summoning of new enemies for you to face. Beginning with Vortex 1, and proceeding numerically, players will draw an Enemy card, placing it on the Vortex so that the top of the card is parallel with the edge of the board. This orientation is important as it will determine line of sight, and as Enemies move around the perimeter of your ship, the top of their card will always remain parallel to the edge of the board. Each enemy placed receives a Life Point token equivalent to their Life Point value. This token is used to track whether an Enemy has been activated in later phases, so it is important that they are all placed with the same color face-up.
If the Enemy card placed contains a Radar Symbol to the left of their name, an additional Enemy is drawn and placed on the same active Vortex. If a Vortex is “closed”, no Enemy is placed on that space. If players need to draw an Enemy card but cannot, an Assault immediately begins.
To conduct an Assault, one player will roll one of their dice. Any rooms that have a matching icon will have a -2 Fire token placed in them, which will activate during the End of Round Effects phase. If there are no matching rooms, the die is re-rolled and Fire tokens are then placed. If after two rolls, there are no matching rooms -the Assault ends.
After all active Vortices have had at least on Enemy place on them, we move to Phase Two: Prepare the Heroes.
In the second phase of the round, all players simultaneously roll their dice and begin allocating their dice to areas on their Hero board. The players are encouraged to discuss and work together to plan their assault. This is where the real bulk of the game takes place. The players can see the pre-programmed actions that the Enemies are going to take, and they can see the Initiative of those enemies. The game now becomes a collaborative puzzle wherein the playgroup is attempting to create the most effective path to destroy the Enemy cards while limiting damage, hindered by the resources that they have rolled. Players will be placing dice onto their Hero board, activating their abilities to Move, Attack, Defend, or take special actions. As previously mentioned, the players may share dice as long as they have no more than seven at any time and at least three of their own.
In addition to normal actions, players may allocate their lightning bolt dice to increase or decrease Initiative by 1, may spend dice to activate the actions of the room they occupy (this requires the spent dice to match the icon on the room), sped two matching dice to change the face on one of the, or to activate the External Support Team (EST). This last option requires that all players collectively spend dice equal to the number of players in the game. If they do, the EST activates at the beginning of the Phase Three before anything else occurs.
Finally, throughout the course of the game, players will collect Equipment when defeating Enemies. Some of this Equipment will require dice to activate, so players may allocate their dice in order to take advantage of Equipment effects.
After all players have decided how they will place dice, Phase Two Ends and Phase Three, the Global Offensive, begins. It is important to note that once the next phase begins, players cannot change the allocation of the dice.
The Global Offensive begins with the EST attack and then moves through each player and Enemy in Initiative order, from most lightning bolts to least. If players have contributed enough dice to activate the EST, all Enemies take 1 damage against which armor and shields offer no protections (this is called Unstoppable Damage). If an Enemy is eliminated though an EST, its card is discarded from play.
After the EST is resolved, turns are taken in Initiative order beginning with the Enemy or player with the highest Initiative and moving though the order until all actions have been taken. If there is a tie for Initiative follow these rules:
- Initiative tie between an Enemy and a player: the player activates first
- Between players: the players are allowed to choose the order
- Between Enemies: the Enemy at the closest to the lowest number Vortex goes first
- If tied Enemies are at the same location, the one with the highest remaining Life Points goes first
- If still tied, the players choose the order of activation
- If tied Enemies are at the same location, the one with the highest remaining Life Points goes first
On a player’s turn, they may decide the order in which the various activated actions on their Hero board resolve. Movement allows players to move orthogonally equal to the number of arrows showing on their board. Players may not move diagonally and moving up one level is considered moving 1 space. Movement cannot be split with other actions. So a player may not, for instance, move one space, attack, and then move another space. Finally, a Hero cannot end their turn in a space with two other Heroes – each room has a limit of 2 Hero Standees when a player’s movement has ended.
If a Hero chooses to activate their Melee Attack, they may choose one enemy adjacent to their tile on which to inflict damage equal to the strength of their attack – however, Heroes must be on the ground level to use the Melee action. Ranged Attacks work similarly with the exception that players may not target Enemies that are adjacent to them. All Ranged attacks must target an Enemy that is at least one room space away from the Hero. Heroes may “shoot” downward from an elevated platform at an enemy adjacent to the room below them. Line of sight is not clearly explained in the rule book, but a character may only shoot orthogonally when targeting enemies, never diagonally.
A few notes about attacking. A Boss cannot be the target of an attack if one or more Grunts are in the same area as the Boss – Grunts must be targeted first. Further, a Hero may not split his damage between two possible targets unless otherwise stated by an ability or Equipment card – all damage from a single attack must be directed at one target, however multiple attacks may target multiple Enemies.
If a player’s attack would bring an Enemy’s Life Points to zero, that Enemy is eliminated and the player whose attacked killed it collects the card, turning it over to its Equipment side. That Equipment card comes into play immediately and can take effect right away (assuming it does not need to be activated with dice).
If a player allocated dice to the Defense action, than all damage that would be inflicted on them during this round is reduced by the number of shields showing on their Hero board (unless the damage is Unstoppable).
Finally, each Hero has a Special Ability that can be activated. The more dice that are allocated to this ability, the stronger it becomes. These actions include preventing Enemies from taking actions, restoring life points, forcing enemies to move, and performing Unstoppable Melee damage. For details on each of these actions, see the rules. Needless to say, these can be very effective in accomplishing your goals for the turn.
Enemy actions work very similarly to play actions, except they happen in a prescribed way. On the bottom of every Enemy card are a series of actions that happen when that Enemy activates. These always activated from Left to Right and they are not optional. If multiple actions appear together in the same bubble, those actions happen simultaneously before moving to the next action.
For Enemy cards, there are some slight differences in how attacks happen. Unlike Heroes, Enemy cards do not target. Enemies’ Melee Attacks will attack all Heroes who are in an adjacent room, and the damage is not split – all Heroes present suffer the full amount of damage from the attack. If there are no Heroes in that room, the attack does not happen.
Ranged Attacks from Enemy cards, like those of Heroes, do not attack the adjacent room, but will attack the first room to contain one or more Heroes in their line of sight (moving in a straight line from the top of the Enemy card). If there are no available rooms to target, the Enemy will instead target and destroy the highest pillar of the closest platform in the Enemy’s line of sight. If this attack destroys the third pillar of a platform, the platform is destroyed. All Heroes below the platform would suffer 4 damage, all Heroes who were on the platform fall into the room directly below them and also suffer 4 damage. If there are no rooms below the destroyed platform, any Heroes who would fall are instead eliminated.
As Enemy cards are activated, players should flip their Life counters to show the alternative colored side. This allows players to track which Enemies have been activated this round. At the beginning of the phase, all Life tokens should be one color (red or gray). By the end of the round, all of the Life tokens should have been flipped to their alternative colored side (gray or red).
After all players and Enemies have activated or been eliminated, the Global Offensive phase ends, and the final Phase of the round begins – the End of Turn Effects. The phase happens in three steps:
- Players lose Life Points based on various conditions:
- Fire: If a Hero is in a room with a Fire Token, they take Unstoppable damage equal to the total value of the Fire tokens.
- Grenade: If a Hero is in a room with a Grenade token, they take Unstoppable damage equal to the value of all Grenade tokens in the room, then the tokens are removed. If a Hero placed a Grenade token in an Enemy area on the perimeter of the board, then those tokens also “explode” and deal damage to any Enemies in that area, the tokens are then removed.
- Ensure that all Enemy Life Point tokens show the same color.
- Players retrieve all of the dice of their color from their Hero boards and teammates.
After these steps are complete, the round ends. If the players have not yet won or lost based on the conditions of the mission, then a new round begins with Phase One: Arrival of New Enemies.
And that’s pretty much it. There are some additional rules regarding action icons, Equipment cards, Room Tiles, additional tokens, Barricades, Objects, and the campaign mode – but I’ll leave those for you to discover. As of right now, this rules breakdown should be enough to get you up and running for a basic, introductory game – and you’re definitely going to want to play the preliminary a few times before complicating things with the Missions or a Campaign.
So now you know how to play Apocalypse Chaos – the questions is, should you? Here’s the thing. I really like what this game is trying to do. I’m not quite sure that it’s successful though. I’ve been trying to review this game for months, and I have a rule – I need to play a game at least five times before I write a review, and in practice it’s usually many more (I shoot for at least 5 at every player count). I need to be able to see all the various player counts and different things that are happening in the game and be sure that I have a relatively good grasp on the rules before I’m willing to commit pixels to screen (is this the digital equivalent of “pen to paper”? Sure. I’m going with it). For Apocalypse Chaos, I had a very difficult time meeting my minimum goal of plays, and it took about six months to get to a point where I had enough plays at the various player counts where I felt I could say something meaningful. I would teach it to people, we’d play it once, I’d get some feedback, and no one ever wanted to play it again. There are just so many better games out there. No one hated it, but no one particularly enjoyed it either.
At the end of the day, Apocalypse Chaos has some not insignificant flaws. It’s fiddly, prone to significant analysis paralysis, suffers from Alpha Gamer Syndrome, has a paper-thin theme, and is pretty difficult. Let’s shoot through each of these criticisms these really quickly.
The sheer amount of stuff you have to remember to do every turn, and the amount of tokens that need to be manipulated is mind-numbing, and quickly becomes very annoying. Tracking the Initiative order with tie-breaks when there are 10 Enemies and 4 Heroes becomes an exercise in bookkeeping. The platforms, while cool, obstruct player vision often leading to stupid mistakes – and moving underneath and on top of them without knocking them over is just UGH. The three-dimensional platforms are really cool in theory, but in practice, after about ten minutes everyone is begging for a better way of doing things. The Life Point markers on all of the Enemies have to be flipped and adjusted so frequently that it becomes a problem to track correctly in an easy and coherent way. There has to be a better way to keep a handle on Initiative. Perhaps an Initiative Track like Mice and Mystics would have been preferable? I’m not sure. But what they have just isn’t great and is so awkward to use that it’s a problem in all of the groups I’ve played with. Ultimately, every time I’ve ever played this with others, it’s always described as fiddly – and that’s being generous.
Moving on, analysis paralysis and Alpha Gamer Syndrome are not insignificant aspects of this game. This is, at its heart, a cooperative programming game. All of the players can see what the Enemies are programmed to do and then they collectively program their Heroes together. This means that even the most well-intentioned group eventually devolves into, “Wait, so this guy is going here and will do this, and then the Initiative order says I’ll go, and I’ll kill this guy – but wait no… then this will happen… hmmmm”. Every. Damn. Time. The rounds begin to drag as players work to figure out exactly what’s going to happen each turn like some cartoon Rube Goldberg machine, and it will inevitably all go awry anyway. So. The. Pace. Just. Slows. Down. And. You. Want. To. Die.
In seriousness, AP can be a huge problem, because the game is essentially a giant puzzle that everyone is trying to collectively solve. Well, I say collectively. This leads to another problem. The game doesn’t do much to avoid Alpha Gamer Syndrome. As with many cooperative games, this game can turn into one person essentially bossing everyone else around because clearly he can see exactly how the clockworks of the game are ticking and only he can fix it and why can’t you just listen to him?! The only thing the game does to avoid this is say that a player can’t force someone to give or receive dice. I don’t know what the fix for alpha gaming is for this is in this particular game, but the conversations can turn less into “what should each of us do individually to have fun and win” and more into “this is exactly what all of you need to do so as not to ruin my plan and if you want to do something else you’re killing our fun.” Some other cooperative board games – like Dead of Winter, Battlestar Galactica, and Shadows over Camelot – try to solve this problem by being semi-cooperative and having hidden information and secret objectives. But those are very different games from this one, and are probably not necessarily good road maps for fixing Apocalypse Chaos. What I will say is this: my groups would rather play any of those co-ops (or many, many others) instead of this one.
Going away from common puzzle and co-op problems, the theme was an opportunity for this game to create a universe and really shine. The artwork is beautiful and interesting and all of the Enemy cards have a unique visual representation. But Z-Man really missed the mark here. The Hero characters are named “Blue Hero,” “Green Hero,” Purple Hero,” and “Red Hero.” For real. I wish I were joking. And as you can see below, the Enemies have names like “Stout,” “Sprinter,” and “Servos.” I guess they’re descriptive? Additionally, there is repetition of these names, which is unnecessary and confusing, particularly when you consider that all of the Enemies have unique programming. There was an opportunity to breath some life into the game, and it all comes away as pretty but soulless.
Further, there’s a campaign, but there’s no real story – which seems really, really odd. There’s snippets of some generalized narrative before each mission (one or two sentences), but they’re super vague and disconnected, and ultimately lack any pretense of existing in some sort of shared universe in which players can feel engaged. It’s like Z-Man had some great sci-fi art assets that they really wanted to use and a game where theme didn’t matter, so they slapped the two together. And to be honest, the theme doesn’t even really a make a whole lot of sense. In the introductory mission, you’re defending your downed spaceship from swarms of aliens. Okay. Sure. I guess? Later, the “story” makes even less sense with those same mechanics, you’re just setting the ship up slightly differently with some altered win conditions. It’s all as pasted on as a game can get and really brings you out of the game.
I’m going to say something crazy here, knowing full well that people will almost certainly disagree – if only because there is an overabundance of these type of games: Apocalypse Chaos absolutely would have worked better as a zombie themed game. I know! You don’t even have to say it. There are too many zombie games already. But hear me out. Some nameless survivors of a chaotic zombie apocalypse (see, even the name works!) find themselves trapped together in a house and need to work together to defend themselves from hordes of attacking zombies, lest that house become their tomb. Then, as the campaign evolves, they have to move from safe-house to safe-house, always with the zombies only a step behind them – all the while, searching for a little help (the Scientist!) and the source of/cure to the zombie epidemic. Doesn’t that sound slightly better and more fitting the mechanisms of this game? I’m not saying it would necessarily be good, but it makes so much more sense and would seem marginally less slapped on than what we were given.
Okay. I’m stepping down from my thematic soapbox to address my final critique: this game is pretty damn difficult. We’re not talking Ghost Stories levels of apocalyptic difficulty here, but enough to make you consider using all of the available rules modifications to make it more manageable. It’s not even difficult because the puzzle is particularly hard. The difficulty is imposed on you not through the mechanical design of the game, but though the incredibly powerful aliens who will come to smack you around. Some of them attack three or four times in a single turn, and there are multiple aliens attacking each round, hitting all players in every room! It can quickly become a process just to manage all of the attacks and damage coming your way, And since part of the this damage-engine-puzzle is controlled by what you and your teammates roll, there’s a huge amount of luck involved and not many ways to mitigate the damage if you have bad rolls. The whole game just feels like nothing good ever happens to you or your team. Games that are hard to win can be fun and rewarding, but if and when you beat a mission in Apocalypse Chaos, you don’t feel like you’ve accomplished something meaningful. You just feel empty. And maybe that’s the point?
Now I’ve critiqued this game a lot, but it does have some redeeming qualities. As I said, the artwork is phenomenal. It’s truly beautiful and the graphic design is clean and easy to read. In fact, all of the components are amazing – the dice, player boards, tokens, modular tiles, and pillars are just really nice. Apocalypse Chaos also scales fairly well. It works great as a solo puzzle experience, and works really well at 2 and 3-players. With 4-players, the difficulty of the puzzle ramps up, but so too does the time. With 4-players you’ll never come near that 60 minute suggested playing time unless you all die horribly – so it’s probably best with 2 or 3 players, but fits all the player counts pretty well.
My favorite thing about this game is that it’s an attempt at innovation. Florian Fay tried a combination of mechanisms in a new and interesting way. Creating a three-dimensional, cooperative, dice allocation game with tower defense-like programming and a (relatively narrative free) campaign is fairly unique. I’m not sure that there’s anything else like it on the market, and for that it deserves some degree of respect. It’s never easy trying something new, and even if this doesn’t quite work out the way we’d hoped, it’s nice to see the effort. While this winds up being a mediocre game that could be taken or left, it’s a great effort at putting ideas into the marketplace – and ultimately, that’s how our hobby grows.
- Beautiful art.
- Innovative attempt at design.
- Great components.
- The rule book is not great, and it takes effort to figure out basic information (like character line of sight).
- Analysis paralysis and alpha gamer syndrome are part and parcel of the game.
- Pretty difficult and frustrating, but not in a rewarding way.
- A wasted opportunity for narrative world-building.
Thanks to Z-Man Games for providing a review copy of Apocalypse Chaos!