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Call of Duty: The Board Game brings FPS excitement to Gen Con

The storied franchise makes an ambitious transition to the tabletop

Cards from Call of Duty: The Board Game show stylized, comic-book style art of operators waging war in close quarters. Image: Arcane Wonders/Activision

I’ll admit it: I was skeptical about Call of Duty: The Board Game. First person shooters rely on twitch reflexes and heart-pounding action in an attempt to capture the electricity of armed conflict. Board games, on the other hand, rely on careful planning and measured activity. The two formats are fundamentally at odds. But after playing in a demo of the upcoming Call of Duty board game from Arcane Wonders, I can say that much of my apprehension has fallen away.

Set up to play on the table, Call of Duty: The Board Game features a central map depicting the battlefield as well as miniatures representing each player. You take on the role of highly trained operators from the video game series, such as Shepherd or Ghost, and compete in a head-to-head match. The goal is to move your soldier around the map and secure the central control point while also trying to kill your foe. When gunfights do break out they are swift and deadly, with the loser being killed outright. Yes, gone, ready to respawn next round. Meanwhile, the operator that domed their opponent is free to run around, possibly capturing control points or securing a more favorable position.

A render of components from Call of Duty: The Board Game. They include a DM screen, of a type, that conceals individual player’s movement from each other. Image: Arcane Wonders/Activision

While I haven’t engaged in the tactile offerings of the design (Polygon’s demo was performed online, via Tabletop Simulator, in advance of this year’s Gen Con), I have seen the game’s clever maneuvering system in motion and felt the tension of attempting to outthink my opponent and catch them in my sights. In fact, that movement system is at the very core of the experience.

Before every round, each player takes four sequenced movement tokens and secretly plots them on a minimap of the larger board. The hidden movement system riffs somewhat on similar systems found in aerial combat games like Wings of Glory and Star Wars: X-Wing Miniatures Game. With it, you commit your operator to several movements in advance. The idea is to get into the head of your opponent, taking into consideration aspects of the map such as cover or a control point, and then try to set yourself up for perfect lanes of fire. After each step of movement, you check line of sight and commence firing if necessary.

The line of sight system is brilliant. It takes obvious influence from several popular miniatures skirmish games that came before it, including Restoration Games’ Unmatched and Fantasy Flight Games’ Tannhäuser. While the system works wonderfully in those other games, it feels like an especially natural fit for Call of Duty. Colored lines on the board illustrate which spaces can see each other, as well as defining choke points and areas of interest. Cover is clearly delineated, elevation is taken into consideration, and all of this feeds into the tactical considerations of movement. This system also allows for ditching the traditional ruler common to miniatures skirmish games, speeding up the flow and pace of combat.

Several plastic tokens with cardboard chits on top. One says tactic, while the other two show boots and say move.
Movement markers are plotted secretly, behind a screen, hiding your maneuvers from the other player.
Image: Arcane Wonders/Activision

The shooting system is a nice balance between straightforward and thoughtful. You decide which dice to roll, forming a pool of three potential colors based on whether you want to favor accuracy, defensive fire, or all-out aggression. Your results are combined with a card chosen from your hand, and then filtered through your weapon and any positioning bonuses. One of the interesting elements of combat is that it’s an opposed action with each side rolling and performing the same steps. It’s a relatively clean combination of mechanisms that surprised me with its effectiveness. The pace of play is such that losing a fight doesn’t result in much time at all sitting around waiting, yet there is a definite tension in conflict that heightens the experience.

This core system is multilayered, offering a basic rulebook that is easy to teach and understand for someone that does not play hobby board games frequently. But there is an additional set of advanced systems that can be included. These offer details such as aiming down sights for increased accuracy, spending killstreaks to call in special benefits, customizing your operator’s deck of cards, and special asymmetric character abilities. Each individual detail is simple, and I had them all tossed at me at once, easily able to cope with the increased rules density while continuing to plan my turns with alacrity.

A close-up shot of a set of renders from Call of Duty: The Board Game showing Ghost, his miniature, and the stats of the M4 he carries into battle. There are tokens for magazine contents. Image: Arcane Wonders/Activision

My main takeaway from my brief demo is that Call of Duty: The Board Game does not exactly capture the intense moments of twitchy gunfire emblematic of the FPS genre. If that’s what you’re looking for, I’d recommend tracking down a copy of the criminally underrated Seal Team Flix, a currently out-of-print dexterity-based game that uses flicking to mimic the precision and response of a virtual rifle. Instead, Arcane Wonders’ Call of Duty seeks to capture the strategic layer of this style of video game. It fosters those moments where you make live-or-die decisions while under withering fire, stimulating the big-brain plays of flanking an opponent and catching them off guard, or jumping through a window to cut someone off from escaping. It’s more concerned with the tactical decision making in FPS games, which is a reasonable and shrewd goal when paired with the limitations of this format.

Heading into this demo, I was unsure what to expect. Designers Bryan Pope and Benjamin Pope have dispelled such concerns, and have left me yearning for more. With two core sets promised for launch, the ability for team play, support through several different modes —including capture the flag, control, and deathmatch — as well as a bevy of tactical options, I’m thoroughly enthusiastic for this game to hit Kickstarter in the fall. The wait for the physical product is something that will be harder to stomach — these miniatures look like they’re going to be excellent.

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