Level 7 [INVASION]

And to think, it all started when we busted out of an oversized test tube in the depths of Subterra Bravo. Remember what fun we had, skittering in the darkness, crawling through ducts and trying to Escape the horrors of a subterranean complex full of hostile aliens and merciless guards? Oh! And then the whole place went on Lockdown, and it just got so darn wacky that the powers that be sent in those roguish lads from Disco Team to enact the Omega Protocol.

Ah, good times.

And now, of course, the Hydra are here to hunt down the remaining Ghin and their collaborators – that’s you and I, donchaknow – in a full scale Invasion.

Yes, Losties, today we’re looking at what’s inside the the heaviest box that came back from GenCon with me. I’ve been vocal about my advocacy for the Level 7 franchise in the past – Escape and Omega Protocol are both excellent games in their own right – and once again Privateer’s taken the IP and moved it into another genre of board gaming. Escape was a semi-cooperative game of survival horror, Omega Protocol was, if I may use the term loosely, a dungeon crawl that had some of the best darn balance in terms of protagonists vs antagonists that I’ve ever seen in any such game, and now Invasion kicks it out to the global scale.

Before heading to hang out with pals Valrus, Gaspy and Autojack the other night to play the game, I spent some time playing the ever-awesome X-Com: Enemy Unknown, and Autojack pointed out that it was an excellent primer for the evening’s planned Invasion shenanigans when considering global positionning of defences, using the world’s resources to combat invasion… of course, the X-Com teams never had to deal with Dr Cronos…

There really is a ridiculous amount of content in the box, so let’s do a run through of the individual components. I would first, though, like to point out that despite a rather significant number of moving parts (both literally and figuratively), Level 7: Invasion manages to to cover all of its rules in a 20 page rulebook that is in fact only 10 pages of rules (the first 10 pages being component breakdown and descriptions), and it’s written in such a manner that you could literally set up the  board, open to the Ghin Mercenaries step, and play the game *as you read the rules*. After years of assorted games from a wide variety of manufacturers whose instruction manuals leave something to be desired, this was such a very pleasant surprise.

Also, you can learn to play about 85% of the game just by watching the video tutorial here:

Privateer Press have been exceedingly helpful in making this game accessible. Sure, on your first play through you’ll make an error or to, but in the end I’m thoroughly impressed. The rulebook even has a comprehensive index of game terms to help you look up whatever’s befuddling you. Combined with the chronological phase-by-phase way the rulebook is written, this is one of the easiest board games to learn that I’ve ever come across.

Okay, components…

The Invasion board is six panels that unfold into a map of the world, each international coalition clearly identified by colour. Four zones are left dark – Greenland, Arabia, Eastern and Western Australia. These are dead zones; at the start of the game the planet’s already endured orbital bombardments and other devastation. Clearly, the invading Hydra flattened Arabia in an effort to mess with fuel reserves, Greenland to mess up the fishing industry, and both halves of Australia because if any nation’s going to develop a vaccine for alien venoms, it’s going to be the one that’s been dodging snakes, spiders and platypus for the last few centuries.

My pals have tried to reassure me that Australia being a dead zone is *not* game developer Will Schoonover’s vengeance against me for that time in Poughkeepsie.

Situated over on the side of the board is this little beauty. Not only does each player have a selection of dials on their consoles (we’ll look at them in a minute), but there’s a dial on the board itself where the players keep track of the Hydra’s ability to genetically modify themselves, constantly improving as they evolve countermeasures to human military ingenuity. Like I said earlier, this game as moving parts. The Adaptation dial works like a countdown clock – the more Hydra you defeat, the faster the dial spins until they break out a new trick to make life heck for the defending coalitions.

Handily divided into baggies are the military forces of each coalition, your dice, a dirty great pile of Hydra soldiers and the dropships that make me thing of Combat Pineapples. It may just be because I like pineapple. Combat Corn Cobs would also work. Some of the dropships need a little hot water to straighten their pegs, but overall I’m very impressed with the models.

Oh, the poor lonely Hydra soldier… all he wants to do is hug it out…

And then there’s the counters… Each of the five players has their own console, pile of cards, counters and soldier figures. Each of the cardboard components is thick, sturdy cardboard, colour coded and very sharp looking. Make no mistake, despite the high stakes – saving the world and humans from extinction, after all – this is a very pretty game.

Behold, yon console in its nascent state, along with a selection of the components that you’re going to see used with it during the game. Each coalition has twelve army dudes available to it, and the number of research tokens is dependent on which coalition you’re playing. In the case of Asia, you generate two research tokens per turn.

Once you’ve got all of your dials attached, your console will look like this. The three power tokens are just on there because they were looking lonely. The main dial represents your military-industrial complex – your ability to muster defenses against the invading Hydra. Should this dial ever hit zero, you’re toast.

The three smaller dials represent your coalition’s reserves of food, fuel and minerals. You’ll use these primarily to pay for research – either of your own technology levels or to further the Cronos Project – and to maintain your armies.

The countries listed on the left are the member nations of your coalition. It’s here you’ll track, using cards, the status of your nations, including whether they’re overrun or liberated from the Hydra as the game progresses.

Like each Level 7 game, cards play a significant role in how the game plays out. Four neat little packets? Why, surely they’s not so big a deal, right?

HAHAHAHAHA, oh, you kidder. So many card categories!

Part 1:

  • The Assault Event deck, which upgrades to the Devastation Event deck as the game proceeds. These cards tell you what the Hydra are up to on a grander scale each turn, as well as which drop ships are deploying new troops.
  • The Cronos Project, which you  must complete if you’re to save mankind. This will take a concerted effort from all five coalitions of nations. Not only are the requirements for each stage greater than any one nation will likely be able to afford themselves, but each stage must also be completed when Dr Cronos is within the borders of specific coalitions. For example, Dr Cronos must be in South America to complete the first stage.
  • The cards on the top right corner track the technological advances of each coalition. If you want to survive you must take care of your military, society, agricultural industry and the biological sciences. There are six tiers (0-5) for each, and they all bring more means to fight back against the Hydra.

Part 2:

  • The Drop Ship deck tells you where to land drop ships each round, and will be used in conjunction with the Event deck(s) to determine where new Hydra soldiers appear on the map. In the first portion of the game you’ll land three drop ships each turn, but once the Devastation wave has been reached, you’ll get a bonus drop ship every turn. That’s right, I said bonus. Like it’s a cool thing. (*shudder*)
  • The Ghin Mercenaries are available for hire to give you an edge over the Hydra. Extra offensive power, defensive reinforcements, even some Ghin scientists, because they look so cute in those little lab coats. Mind you, that extra Research token goes an awfully long way, especially for the coalitions that start with fewer.
  • The territories on the deck at the top middle are placed on each player’s consoles when their member nations become overrun. While overrun a nation finds its ability to provide resources to its coalition hampered, to there’s an income penalty for as long as the nation’s overrun. Should the coalition manage to liberate the territory the cards are flipped; there’s still a penalty thanks to lasting damage left by the Hydra occupation, but it’s not as severe.
  • On the right you have the bonus cards – a Skill card for Level 7 [Escape], and a commando kit card for Level 7 [Omega Protocol].

Now, how about gameplay? Pal Gaspy took North America, Valrus took Asia and Africa (he volunteered to play two consoles because I was referencing the rulebook as we played), Autojack took Europe, and I commandeered South America. One thing became immediately clear, and that’s that trading plays a significant part in the game, especially in the early stages of the game when no-one has the infrastructure to resist the Hydra’s attacks, be they bombardment, crop decimation, or the dreaded Titanomax Virus.

Now, let’s take a moment to spell out the terms here.

  • If we lose a coalition that has not yet completed its portion of the Cronos Project, humanity loses.
  • If the territory where Cronos is currently hiding is overrun, humanity loses.
  • If we can’t draw a Devastation Event because the deck’s out, humanity loses.
  • If we complete the Cronos Project, and survive the turn, humanity wins.

Got it? Okay…

With Dr Cronos starting in South America, we had to plan how to get him into a neighbouring coalition to fulfil the requirements of the stage two of the Cronos Project, which is humanity’s sole win condition. If we don’t complete it in time, we’re all kaput. Hydra soldiers seemed intent on blockading us within the continent, but the Brazilian Volleyball Commandos were having none of it and punched a hole through Hydra lines, enabling Dr Cronos to move on to Africa.

Africa was, of course, dealing with its own issues. Hydra drop ships seemed determined to overwhelm the African coalition, but dammit, we needed to get Dr Cronos in there. This was a great example of how, while you do need to tend to the needs of your own coalition, everyone needs to work together if you hope to survive. We were looking at potentially losing Africa before we’d even paid for the first stage of the Cronos Project…

But we weren’t going down without a fight! The Brazilian Volleyball Commandos escorted Dr Cronos into the Nigerian League while the German Bratwurstkommandos moved into North Africa and Asia sent in the 112th Outsourced Telemarketers to liberate the Dominion of Ethiopia.

Casualties were great for for all coalition forces, but the end result was an Africa free of Hydra and able to do their part for the Cronos Project. Except for the Kenyan Federation, they were still playing host to one tourist…

As the game progressed I decided that I could no longer stand the indignity inflicted on my homeland, so the Peruvian Llama Cavalry joined forces with their Asiatic friends and kicked those darn Hydra out of Australia. BAM!

What? Biased? Me?

Meanwhile, back home, the Hydra were loading up in Bolivia to the point where, along with my loyal defenders, there simply wasn’t enough room for all the models. We fought hard! We fought tough! Glorious battle was held, and in the end, Bolivia was free!

… and then we looked around the rest of South America and said “Huh…”

… and then the Hydra sent in another drop ship, just to make it very clear that they weren’t done with Bolivia yet.

Now, here’s the thing I wanted to point out, and the reason I stated the “humanity loses” terms earlier. This is the board at the end of the game. Hydra everywhere, we *did* manage to complete the Cronos Project but that triggers the Annihilation Strike. Yay! You Finished The Project! Now See If You Can Survive This…
If you look in front of Valrus’ right hand, right next to the  hobby knife that Gaspy was using to clean up a Pyre Troll while we played, you’ll notice… nothing. No cards. We drew the last of the Devastation Event cards. In other words, if we hadn’t completed the Cronos Project this very turn, we would have lost the game, with the Devastation Event deck acting as a doomsday clock.
We did triumph, but it was only through grit and determination and teamwork. And Peruvian Llama Cavalry, because that should totally be a thing.

Level 7 [Invasion] has tight rules, high quality components, balanced gameplay with a significant challenge to the players guided by more than just which coalition you choose to play. If I have a complaint about the game it’s that it really does fly best with five players. One the one hand it is generally speaking a 3+ hour game, so it’s certainly worth gathering some pals for an afternoon or evening of shenaniganry, but trying to hit that magic number of 5 players is a challenge in itself at times.

The Level 7 setting has evolved and grown over the last several years and given us three very different styles of board game, each capable of appealing to a different style of player, or providing a different mood and experience for board game night while still playing in a familiar setting. Level 7 [Invasion] ramps up the scope – it’s no longer personal. Now it’s survival of the species.