Frag Playtest Review by C. Barber on 29/07/01
Style: 5 (Excellent!)
Substance: 4 (Meaty)
Do you remember a time when you had little need for the twitch reflexes of a snake handler, and the words "death match" meant nothing? Celebrate mindless nihilism and slam-bang violence with yet another gem from the eye-in-the-pyramid gang.
Author: Philip Reed and Russell Godwin
Category: Board/Tactical Game
Company/Publisher: Steve Jackson Games
Page count: N/A
Year published: 2001
SKU: SJG03495 1339
Comp copy?: no
Playtest Review by C. Barber on 29/07/01
Genre tags: Other
Its a short, ugly word, kind of like something you'd expect to hear coming out of the maw of some inhuman predator. Its meaning is quick, violent death, and it usually has something to do with firearms and solitary, caffiene-powered mouse twitching.
Frag, from Steve Jackson Games, is a board game that simulates a multiplayer, 'first-person shooter' computer game. If you've ever played a death match, or been within two yards of games like Doom, Quake, Unreal, Half-life, Tribes, etc., then you should have no problem envisioning the basic, time-tested formula: spawn, run around, get stuff, kill, be killed, repeat. The game not only captures much of the experience of scurrying around and ruthlessly slaughtering everyone in sight, but it also wryly incorporates metagame elements that are unique to computer games.
The game comes in a magazine-sized box, replete with full color cards, cut-out counters, and a color, double-sided 21" by 33" game map. My group cut out the counters while I read the rules, and after a brief encounter with point-based character creation, we were on our way.
The rules state that a "huge quantity" of six-sided dice are needed, and they're not kidding. Every game mechanic is resolved using a number of dice related in some way to your attributes or weapons. While daunting at first glance, the mechanics are simple, and we stopped checking the rules much earlier than I had expected.
After a few turns, the tempo had picked up, and the pace began to more closely resemble that found in heated internet play. Roll, move, roll, snag weapon, move, attack, roll, move, attack, roll... Even the ungodly amount of dice being rolled didn't detract from the edgy feeling I had when trying to find out where I could run to avoid being smeared outright. And when I couldn't avoid the sticky, crimson smearing, I was back in the action on my next turn anyhow. It was snacky fun, in a non-brain-intensive, frat-boy sort of way.
As it states proudly many times in the materials, the game is about mindless, nihilistic violence, and it admits that there's not a bit more to it. It doesn't have an engrossing storyline, or in-depth background, or even a plausible plot. And it doesn't need one, as the games it emulates have proven over and over again. Plots are things wussy, book-reading, mama's-boy, English-major, writer-types need; this is a death match!!
Frag sets out to simulate a FPS, and does so with considerable success. The game does a good job of interspersing in-game weapons and gadgets with the little things only a true geek could apprecitate: game-affecting quirks like Lag, No Carrier, and other game hacks help to simulate the computer gaming experience in a satisfying way. The art on most of the cards has an iconographic style that screams "sterile computer", and the rest is a gritty kind of future-punk that should be familiar to those well-versed in slime pools and chainguns. I was very pleased with the aesthetic treatment it was given.
Frag also lends itself well to user-created modification, something else common to the genre it seeks to mimic. With a concept as simple and changeable as "first to three kills wins", the game conditions are flexible without needing to disturb the core mechanics at all. New game maps can be drawn up simply, given a large enough piece of paper and creative impulse. Now anyone can enjoy level creation, without needing to know the first thing about LINEDEFs, SECTORDEFs, and texture alignment.
While the game does achieve its aim to simulate hectic, missile-dodging combat, the seams do sometimes show through. There are little options facing a player whose turn ends in a vulnerable position on the map, something that frustrates one accustomed to being able to hop and circle-strafe one's self out of danger. It also tends to favor those currently on a spree with more health and specials, lopsiding sometimes to the point of frustrating the underdogs into ganging-up on those ahead. And while not being at all detracting, being able to see my opponents' faces and reactions instead of being alone in a darkened room, hunched over a glowing monitor was a flaw in the verisimilitude of playing a first-person gore-fest.
But these rather minor complaints aside, Frag does what it sets out to do, and does it well. With ideas for maps already in my head, and a team-play expansion scheduled for August release, I forsee way too many hours of dice-tossing, blood-staining diversion in my future. Happy fragging, gringo!