The Great Fire Of London is beautiful! I mean look at it; have you seen it?
Look at that!
Here it is again with candles…
Man! That board, look at that board. All that wood?
Okay, this was one of the first games I ever got and that up there, that’s why. I’m going to put away the sexy tinted glasses for a while to get through this review, but you can see the visual appeal of this thing right? It begs attention. It’s so damn classy! I’ve played a lot of games with a lot of people at this stage and the reactions from unfolding this board in front of people, have yet to be duplicated, in any facet of my life.
The Great Fire is a kind of light game with sparks of satisfaction as you engulf a cluster of your opponents properties in flame; and then of tedious dismay, as the same thing repeatedly happens to you, or as your opponent gets the glory for putting out fires that you commanded the bands of fire fighters to contain.
It’s a game in reverse in many ways. Unlike so many other games, you’re not really collecting victory points or building a vast colony of settlements because you already have all these things. You start the game with 40 victory points and 20 properties randomly distributed across the city. There’s some scope to score additional points by putting out fires and safe guarding key areas, but what you’re really doing is damage control. The fire is spreading, you can’t stop that, all you can do is vainly try to control the destruction until the deck of fire direction cards depletes and ends the game.
At the beginning of the game you’re secretly assigned a colour and given 3 cards that represent locations that are worth yet more points to you if they survive the fire (they probably wont). You’re dealt a handful of direction cards which will later help you control the fire, and you then take turns placing your land lord and some communally controlled fire bands on the board which is split up into a series of areas. Each area has between 1-5 houses of a random distribution of colours and they instantly start burning to the ground.
The game causes a psychological break by forcing you to take on two opposing roles every turn. The first part of your turn will give you the delightful responsibility of spreading the fire. This is done by choosing a red fire cone on the board and playing one of the direction cards from your hand to move it through more fire and into another area. Once in another area, if there’s nothing there to stop it, all the houses will be burned down and replaced with more fire cones. Conversely the next part of your turn will be spent by allocating 4 action points between your land lord and the communal fire bands to then try and contain and put out fires.
The strategy is obviously to try and ascertain which colour properties belong to who, and burn them down appropriately during the ‘spreading the fire’ phase of your turn, without causing yourself too many problems; then you work furiously to place fire bands and put out fires in such a way as to protect your own buildings and areas of interest without completely giving away what you’re so desperately trying to save.
That sounds kinda good doesn’t it? And it is, kinda good… The problem is, the game recreates the difficulty of trying to save your particular little wooden building from a fire that blazes through an entire city of wooden buildings, a little too well.
It’s your turn, you take a fire marker from Pudding Lane, drive it through a channel of flame and then use an east direction card to make the flame depart to the Tower Of London. There’s 5 houses there and no fire bands so the whole thing goes up in a glorious plume of smoke; which is great, because none of those houses were yours and the Tower is almost certainly one of the locations some of your opponents have to protect… Score! You take 4 more fire makers from the supply, so now there are 5 in the Tower, replacing the houses and creating more opportunity to engulf the surrounding areas in flame.
But then this is the frustrating bit. You’ve got an ‘action’ phase. Now during the action phase you have 4 actions that can be spent 1 at a time by either moving your land lord or a fire band from one area to the next, or, if you’re in an area where all fire markers are under control by fire bands, you can use an action to order the bands to put the fires out. When this happens, the fire markers are removed and you keep them in your player area as trophies worth points at the end of the game.
This isn’t as easy as it seems though. Because the fire bands are a communal resource, they get pushed and pulled all over the place. The chances that you’re going to be able to move enough onto fires, get yourself over there and put it out, all within four actions, isn’t great. There’s no point even positioning them for your next turn, because between then and now, 2-5 other people are going to be moving them about. If you tie them up by getting them to fight fires, someone else is likely to swoop in there and give the order, stealing your glory and precious victory points.
It’s a frustrating game! You want to ignite St Paul’s Church, not just because you hate god for making you this way, but because it’s got a cluster of red and blue houses on it and those scum bags haven’t lost nearly enough real estate yet. You want to do this and you can, there’s a chain of fire leading to it and you have an appropriate direction card to place, but… The surrounding areas contain far too many of your own houses. If St Paul’s goes up, you could easily be down 8 more points by the time your next turn comes along.
And that’s the worst part! It’s so hard to predict your next turn or to even predict Chris’ next turn. You think Chris is going to make moves to protect what’s obviously his property in Bethnall? You think your points for keeping Shoreditch safe are well protected because of this? They’re not; the mad bastard just willingly burned down his own house! Why? he figures someone was going to do, it may as well be himself so he can reap the rewards and try to mitigate the loss.
See there’s incentives for spreading the fire beyond your better judgement. At the start of the game, over a third of the areas have a black disc placed face down on them. If you’re responsible for burning these areas down, you get to retrieve this black disc, which could be one of three things; it could simply be a victory point, or a token that allows you to move two fire markers in one turn or most intriguingly of all, it could be gun powder; which lets you blow up an area, destroying houses but making it harder for the fire to spread in that direction.
You see, in many ways the game is awful, it makes you feel awful. In most games, you progress; you gain points and build things and collect things and you really do feel like you’re crawling ever closer to a possible victory, it’s satisfying. In the Great Fire though, you’re loosing from the very beginning. Your houses are burning down and your victory points crumble away with them. Your every move brings you closer to the brink of loosing everything and your only solace, the only thing that can make you feel good about your self, is by making sure everyone else is loosing as badly as you are.
Sure, there’s ways of gaining points by putting out fires and collecting fire markers. However this is almost only possible through collaboration or at least opportunism, and you know that if you gain 3 points by ordering 3 fire markers to be extinguished, it’s at a cost of helping another player preserve points by protecting their properties from the spread.
The game really is about damage control; it’s about trying to control losses and mitigate them by making sure they’re shared losses or by trying to make sure you benefit in some small way. even when you win, you don’t feel like you won, you just feel like you didn’t loose quite as badly as everyone else.
It’s an awful game, but is it also a good game?
Here at Kicking Down The Door I’m coming at things from the perspective of discovering the hobby and for me, this game was a big part of that. Unfortunately it’s not a game that can be described as a gateway to most people being introduced to board games, in fact it’s more of a bolted door… on fire; it can even be difficult for people experienced with board games to get to grips with. The rule book is your typical obstacle and the rules for advancing the fire can be clunky, unintuitive and too easy to get wrong for something so important. The game it’s self is counter intuitive, as I said, in most games you build and collect, in this you burn and loose; it can be a sharp corner to get your head around.
The communal fire bands are a unique feature too and one most people aren’t sure how to wield. Too many first games see players awkwardly moving fire from one area to the next and fire bands from here to there, with no real considered intention and frustrated at their inability to see a long term plan or strategy. Instead they take their move like it’s one of the flaming embers of the game, getting rid of it quickly, in a way that seems the most obvious in the heat (get it?) of the moment.
A few players will see a strategy or style of play emerge from the smoke of the game, but no sooner does that happen, then the game is over and you’ll find that few of them have the appetite to try again; and appetite is something this game will readily require of it’s players. You will need a specific hunger to give you the patience to fight your way through this game and over come its antagonistic game play. It feels like the game is punishing you at first and you’ll need a dedication to pull you through that, so you can arrive at a realization that The Great Fire, isn’t a bad game at all, it’s just a different game.
Different? You ask; different how? Different better? Was it better than me?!
Not necessarily, just… different. The Great Fire is one of those games that suffers from being quite a light and potentially quick game, but one that is so different from others, that people can have trouble getting to grips with it. It can be comparable to 7 Wonders maybe, where the game is quick and the play is fast, except instead of seeing your civilization intuitively and satisfyingly grow, your being robbed of that satisfaction and instead you watch it steadily burn to ashes. Like 7 wonders though, there can be a lot of concepts that the uninitiated will find difficult to grasp and implement.
Though if you and your friends can persevere through this starkly different style of game play, you might be able to see that the beauty of The Great Fire goes beyond its aesthetics. The unique and sometimes confounding mechanics will give you an experience of game play that, once you learn to stop stressing out, will give you a feeling of well earned satisfaction, when you alone emerge from ruins of London’s biggest disaster, not entirely ruined.
Once you get your head around the idea that you’re not going to see your wealth build or your resources pile up and realise, that what you’re trying to accomplish, is to just emerge the ‘least worse off’; you can have some real, honest, push your luck fun as you all wantonly torch the city with the abandon of the pyromaniac that lives inside us all.. Right? We all have one of them right?
There are a few reviews of this game out there, that claim The Great Fire is a gateway game. Kicking Down The Door says it’s definitely not. A light game? To some, yes; maybe even a great game to others, but be warned, you may have trouble getting people to fight through the flames and find it with you. Here at Kicking Down The Door I’m afraid we can’t recommend this game. Sure there are a lot of good things to be said about it, and it would have a good home in the collection of an experienced gamer; but to those who are just stepping through the gateway of the board gaming world, the glowing beauty of this game may attract you like a moth to a flame, but those moths almost always burn to death. Now I’m not suggesting you’ll receive the same fate, but putting your friends through this as one of their early board gaming experiences, will almost certainly leave them feeling burned out.
So what does Kicking Down The Door recommend? Stay tuned…