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Review: Fast Forward series (Fear, Fortress, Flee)

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Fast Forward is a new series of games from Friedemann Friese that do not come with rulebooks. Instead, the games in the Fast Forward series are sorted decks of 90 cards each, and the rules of each game are discovered during play. The Fast Forward games also use Friese’s Fable System, introduced in Fabled Fruit, which evolves the gameplay from one game to another but whose components are fully resettable.

The series was launched with three games–Fear, Fortress, and Flee–and each game is stand-alone, yet it makes sense to review them together. For one thing, part of the fun of each game is discovering it as you go, so I have to be vague on some details to avoid spoilers. And for another thing, the system works pretty similarly in each game.

The Fast Forward System

Before I look at each game individually, I’ll let you in on a little secret: I like rulebooks. Okay, that’s not completely true. I am often frustrated with rulebooks, especially poorly written ones. What I like about rulebooks is preparation. Before playing Fast Forward, I can count on one finger how many times I’ve shown up somewhere, read a rulebook cold, and endeavored to play that game then and there. That game was Trajan, and that decision was a disaster. Forewarned is forearmed. Give me that rulebook.

As I’ve written elsewhere, my game nights are structured: I usually have a game set up and am prepared to teach the rules before guests arrive. Why do I do things this way? Because I like to have my questions answered before the game begins, and I try to maximize the time we get to have fun by eliminating setup and the need to consult the rulebook to answer a question I should already know the answer to. I realize this doesn’t make me the typical games learner and player, but before we begin, it’s worth knowing my bias: I don’t mind learning and teaching games.

So the concept of “learn as you go” (which I’ve written about elsewhere) isn’t as appealing to me as it probably is to most, but I do like the idea of the Fable System’s evolving gameplay, making each game unique.

So what did I think of Fear, Fortress, and Flee? Here is a brief review of each of the Fast Forward games, followed by a conclusion with my thoughts on the system as a whole.

What terrors could be lurking in this simple, unassuming deck of cards…?

FEAR

The basic rules in Fear are simple: on your turn you have to either draw a card or play a card to the center of the table. You can’t hold more than three cards, and you can’t pass, so eventually you will have to play cards to the center. If on your turn you are forced to play a card that would push the total of all cards in the center past 15, you lose, and the player holding the highest sum of cards in their hand wins. The loser’s cards are removed from the game, and the remaining cards are shuffled and placed on top of the deck for a new round.

The main rules in Fear. New rules cards can get added throughout the game.

The rules in Fear may sound simple, and in this case, they remain as simple as they sound. As play progresses, new special rule cards become available, and cards that allow for special actions (beyond just number cards) gradually flow into each game.

For me, the progression of Fear was too slow. The basic rules of the game are simple–bordering on simplistic–and there’s enough luck involved that I wasn’t very invested in the early games. I felt at the mercy of the system rather than in command of clever play. I was waiting for the game to move on and get better, but by shuffling the remaining cards and putting them back on top of the deck, it felt like we were moving too slowly to make it significantly farther from one game to the next.

Fear did get more interesting as the games went on, but for my taste, it took too long to get there. Fear is played in discrete games, and there are ways to “save” the deck from one game to the next, so you don’t have to start with a fresh deck each game, nor do you have to play through the deck in a single sitting. I like this idea in theory. However, in practice, the interesting aspect of Fear is its gimmick–the deck evolves as the game goes on! learn the rules as you play!–so it misses my interest on both ends. As a quick-to-play filler game, it’s not very interesting unless you play long enough for the game to change. But the game is also simple enough that it’s hard to sustain my interest long enough for it to get interesting. And if you save the deck and have to teach the rules the next time you play, you don’t benefit from the gimmick of having no rulebook in the first place.

The cards in Fear. I like the bright colors and the ghost art, and the stock here is great.

The components here are nice. The ghost artwork is colorful, and I like the large-format cards. We did have some trouble with some of the awkward and imprecise English phrasings of the rules, and since the rules were so simple and were already walls of text on cards, I wish I could have settled the questions I had before sitting down to play, rather than the democratic method of trying to agree on a single interpretation around the table.

Fear reveals an interesting game system, but the system is more clever than the game. For my taste, it took too long to find the fun, and by the time I got there, the game didn’t pay me back for the time I’d spent on it. This one was not for me.

The cards in Fortress.

FORTRESS

Fortress is a bluffing/hand management game. On their turns, players must either draw one card or try to take over a fortress. To take over a fortress, a player plays as many cards as they want, but all cards must have the same number, and the value is [(face value of cards) x (number of cards played)] (so, for example, three 1s would have a value of 9, [1+1+1] x 3). If another player has the fortress, they evaluate the cards and say whether the attacker wins. If the attacker wins, the attacker takes the fortress, places their attackers face-down under the foretress, and takes one of the defenders to their hand. If the defender wins, the attacker takes back the cards used to attack and gives the defender a card from their hand. The game ends once three hourglasses are drawn from the deck. At that point, whoever has the fortress wins.

The rules cards in Fortress. Of course, more rules cards come out as the game progresses that change the way it is played.

Fortress, like Fear, is a simple game, but I found it a little more compelling than Fear. There are some fun twists as you play through the deck, and there is more potential for cards to be removed from the game, so the composition of the deck can change dramatically. Also, from round to round, you are guaranteed to mix in five new cards, and these can appear anywhere, not just you’ve drawn the “old” cards, to add new flavor to the play stack. I like this.

I also like the hidden information in the game. There’s a decent amount of bluffing and tactics in trying to take over fortresses. A player may put three cards in a fortress–but are they three 1s? The cards get stronger and more interesting as you progress through the deck, and as cards are removed, it becomes harder to know for sure whether the numbers you need to collect are even in the game. (Although this is a place where the rule card could have been clearer–when cards are removed from the game, are they removed face-up or face-down? The card doesn’t specify; we played face-down.)

Take the fortress before the hourglasses show up. Easier said than done.

The artwork in the game is interesting, and I like the large-format cards. The evolving gameplay makes a little more sense here than in Fear–it’s a slightly more complex game–although even here, I would have preferred to know the scope of the game before beginning.

While I liked Fortress better than Fear, I had similar problems with it. For one thing, while there are opportunities to bluff, players are mostly at the mercy of the cards they draw. My friends and I played through the full Fortress deck over a lunch hour, and it was frustrating, round after round, to draw the 1s that hadn’t won any fortresses the round before and were still not strong enough to conquer the fortress of the current round. Out of twelve games, I won two (one game was a draw as the three hourglasses came out before anyone took a fortress). Lest you think that this is just sour grapes, the player who won six of the twelve rounds was ready to move on too. While he had won, he didn’t feel particularly clever for how he had done it. Then again, while we were mostly at the mercy of the cards, there were a few good bluffs that made the game more interesting.

Aside from luck, again, I found myself wishing a rulebook had been included, if only to clarify the imprecise English on the cards before playing. The new rules that came up during the game weren’t appreciably more difficult than the rules of the first game of Fortress, but they did make the game significantly more fun. It was a bit of a bummer that we had to play several simple games to get to rules and cards that made the game better.

I wouldn’t refuse to play Fortress again, but I’m not sure I’d seek it out, either. While we did have fun over our lunch hour, the deck discovery is probably the most interesting idea here. Without its gimmicks, I don’t think I enjoyed Fortress enough to suggest it.

FLEE

In Flee, players represent one or more characters running away from a  monster. One character has the monster card in front of them, and the goal of the game is to progress through all three chapters of the game without the character with the monster being forced to take a turn. (The monster can switch players during the game.)

Flee is Friedemann Friese’s homage to escape rooms, and that’s somewhat apparent in the puzzly play of the game. But while Flee lacks the overarching narrative and setting of an escape room, it does provide an interesting (and replayable) puzzle. I enjoyed Flee quite a bit.

Flee set up. There are always four characters in the game, regardless of the number of players.

Flee uses the same Fast Forward system of Fear and Fortress, but I think it works much better in Flee, mainly because the game is divided into chapters, and it makes sense from a narrative perspective (such as it is) for each chapter to behave a little differently. The rules for the game and the rules on individual cards were easy to understand, and even though there is text on every card, it didn’t get overwhelming for me. I think Flee shows off the strengths of the system.

And Flee is an interesting puzzle. You’re essentially playing keep-away, trying to manipulate turn order and what cards each player has and can play in order to prevent the player with the monster from having to take a turn. There are cards that let you reverse the turn order, cards that let you take cards from other players, or give cards to other players, or exchange cards, and so on. And there are nasty cards that, if you’re forced to play them, make the game more difficult.

Flee is divided into three chapters that you discover as you play through the deck.

The puzzle itself is interesting, but what makes the game exciting is that the puzzle evolves as you play it. What seems like a good strategy at one point can be thrown for a loop later in the deck. Cards come up that you weren’t expecting, and now you have to quickly adapt. With each shift there are also ways to combat the new effects, but players never get cozy, able to rest on their laurels. The game is Flee, after all, so there is a lot of running involved.

The game involves a way to reset it when you lose. If you lose in the first chapter, you have to sort the deck and play the cards again in that order. I lost my first go through the first chapter, and it was a little demoralizing to have to start again, but my mistake was easy enough to identify and remedy that it wasn’t a huge deal to have to begin again. In the second and third chapters, the game provides a way to reset that is more organic than sorting cards, and it definitely retains your sense of progress through the deck. You aren’t stuck in an endless Groundhog’s Day loop from which you can never escape. (I know; I lost two more times before I won.)

The components in Flee are very nice. I love the large cards, and the Alice in Wonderland illustrations–while completely meaningless in game terms–provide a nice background to the game and do help to give it a whimsical feel. I find the setting charming if unnecessary. The deck is easy to sort, and I found the rules of this game easier to learn and digest as they came up than in Fear and Fortress, whose rules we had some doubts on as we played. The game says you can play with one to four players. I played solitaire, and it took me three resets to make it through the deck (one per chapter, I think). I think this would be fun with two and probably three, but I don’t think it would be as enjoyable with four since one player, by design, doesn’t take turns, even though which player this is rotates. It took me a little less than an hour to make it through the deck by myself; I would imagine you would need to add time for discussion the more players are involved.

A word on replayability: the deck for Flee is pre-sorted, meaning the cards come out in the exact same way every game. This might not seem like a recipe for replayability, and I’m not claiming that the game is one you’ll want to endlessly replay, but I do think it’s possible to play this game more than once. The reason is that there isn’t one set path through the deck. Players make choices of which cards to play when, when to play bonus cards, when to use gold, which cards to retrieve from the discard pile, and so on. Even though I played through the game once, I don’t remember everything I did to win. I remember the main “story” beats (such as they are) and the twists, but those in themselves won’t spoil the game. Add a new mix of players, each controlling their own character, and as long as one player isn’t giving all the players orders or dominating the conversation, there will necessarily be a new path forged through the deck. So, no, this isn’t a game like Hanabi or Pandemic that produces a new, randomized cooperative challenge each game–it’s the same cooperative challenge. In this respect it’s more like an escape room. However, unlike an escape room, with it’s precooked codes and solutions, Flee offers multiple decision points that can vary from game to game. Again, while I wouldn’t play this one often in quick succession, it’s definitely one I would like to play again, especially to beat it in one go.

I don’t know if Flee is a game I’d recommend to everyone, but it’s a game I enjoyed a lot. There’s more text in Flee than in Fear or Fortress, so it might not be a game for beginners, but if you like interesting puzzles, Flee will be up your alley.

The box inserts are decorated, which is a nice touch.

Conclusion

As you can see above, I wasn’t terribly keen on two of the three Fast Forward offerings (Fear and Fortress), and for similar reasons: 1) “Learning as you go” leaves little margin of error for learning the game; the rules have to be precise and not open to interpretation, and I didn’t find the rules cards in either Fear or Fortress to be intuitively worded (although you can parse out the meaning, so I don’t mean to say the games are unplayable as-is; I just think precision is necessary for this system to work as intended). 2) The learn-as-you-go approach might be more interesting with a more interesting or fuller game concept, but in both Fear and Fortress, the underlying concept was simple enough that I would have rather learned the game at one go and had it evolve as it needed to, without withholding rules. As it is, it takes too long for the game to get interesting, and the games can’t sustain interest while waiting to find the fun. 3) Stripped of its gimmicks, I ask myself, Would I choose to play this? The answer is probably no. There are other, better filler games that offer better returns for less effort. Which leaves the question: would I choose this game with the gimmick?

I didn’t like Fear or Fortress all that much, but I think some players will, and the gimmick might appeal to them. What Friese has done in these games is novel, but not so much the learn-as-you-go part: the rules cards are essentially walls of text on cards that could have been walls of text on a rules leaflet. The gradual introduction, I think, would work better in a more complex game, or a more narratively driven game (this, for example, is why I think the system works very well in Flee–for both of these reasons). The Fable System of an evolving play deck is fascinating, and again, I think it would be more interesting in a different game. Friedemann Friese’s games are often on the cutting edge: if you want to see tomorrow’s mechanisms today, or if you want to see a clever seed of a later idea tree, then you’ll probably want to check out Fear or Fortress.

Flee, on the other hand, is a game I would recommend. It lacks the strong story element present in the best escape rooms, but it offers the trade off of being fully resettable and even replayable. Even resettable escape rooms like the Unlock! series and Deckscape are one and done: there are canned solutions that, once discovered, won’t change and you’re not likely to forget. Flee has less story but there’s more than one way to “solve” the game. Player choices matter. Granted, it’s not a game you’ll play each weekend, but the puzzle is fun enough that I can see bringing it out to new groups maybe three times a year or so.

Friedemann Friese is a board game auteur on the cutting edge of game design (see, for example, his ambitious 504), and just like avant-garde creators in other fields, his art can sometimes be more clever than enjoyable. I think the Fast Forward games mostly fall into this trap. He’s introduced a clever system, and I’m excited to see how he (and other designers) develop it, but with the exception of Flee, these initial offerings are games I admire more than I want to play again.

iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Stronghold Games for providing us with a copy of Fear, Fortress, and Flee for review.

  • Fear Rating: 6
  • Fortress Rating: 6.5
  • Flee Rating: 8
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Summary

Pros:

The Fable System of evolving gameplay is fascinating, and the idea to teach rules as the game goes seems like a good one
The cards are on good stock, have charming art, and are of good quality
Flee is a fun puzzle

Cons:

Imprecise rules cause questions I would have rather settled before playing
The Fast Forward system seems like it would work better with a more complex game than either Fear or Fortress
Easy for players to lose interest in the system while waiting for the game to become engaging

6.8 A Mixed Bag

I'll try anything once, but my favorite games are generally middleweight Euros.

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