Review: Great Fire of London 1666 – Burn It Down!
First published across the pond in 2010, the Great Fire of London 1666 was hampered by production and licensing problems. As a result, precious few copies ever made it from its native England to the States. However, it is now being Kickstarted into a second printing specifically for the American audience.
Great Fire is a stark blend of victory point gathering and harm-your-friends. It also includes a hidden element, and so includes deduction as well. Great Fire touches on many different facets of gaming and, for the most part, does them all very well.
The Basics. The game begins by seeding the districts of London with houses. They represent the buildings and are contained in six player colors. All houses are used no matter the number of players. An even number are placed in each colored district, but they are placed randomly within each district.
Then players select their player pawns and also receive a random card to determine which color of houses belong to them. At the end of the game, they will lose points for each of their color houses that burns to the ground. Each player also gets three special locations that will give them points if they can save it.
Players each get a cards that move the fire. On a player’s turn, they get two distinct phases. First, expand the fire. Second, put out the fire. In phase one, the player sends the fire in one of the cardinal directions and starts burning down the houses in the new location. Players typically want to burn down opponent’s buildings. Some locations give a bonus when burned. Either a point or a double fire move or, most fun, TNT. The TNT allows the player to create a fire break by simply blowing up buildings adjacent to the fire. And if those buildings happen to belong to an opponents, so much the better.
Second, the players can move either their own landowner or the Trained Bands to fight the fire. Trained Bands can contain a single fire cone. If all of the fire in a location is contained, the landowner can issue an extinguish order and start putting it out. The player will receive a point at the end of the game for each cone of fire put out, and the player who puts out the most will get two bonus points.
The game ends when all cards have been drawn. Players count up the points for surviving houses, fire cones, the 2 point bonus, any 1 point bonuses and the special areas that were salvaged. The player with the highest points is the winner.
The Feel. Great Fire has a really neat dichotomy when you play. Phase one is the “screw your neighbor” phase. The goal is to move the fire in such a way that: (1) it will be easier for you to put out; and (2) will cause maximum destruction to land owners that are not you. In a six player game, that’s anyone but your color. But with fewer players, some colors aren’t player colors and therefore have no impact on the game. So there is also a deductive element to determine which colors belong to your opponents.
Even so, phase one isn’t completely without strategy. The actual fire cone you use to spread the fire can be supremely important. If you remove a fire cone from a certain spot, then that location might be easier for you to extinguish the fire. Even though it has a very different feel, and you almost have to switch your thinking between phases, you have to keep phase two in mind during your phase one move.
But you can’t be (or at least shouldn’t be) completely cruel in your fire placement. You want the fire to spread to a part of the city where you can put it out and get yourself some points. Even better, if you can put it out next to your buildings, then that creates a fire break. The rules do not allow the fire to spread to an empty, already burned district if buildings remain eligible to be burned.
Phase two, then, is the real strategy part of the game. Not only are you trying to put out fires, but you can also move the trained bands. In order to put a fire out, all fire cones in that location have to be controlled by trained bands. If there is more fire than bands, then it can’t be put out. And trained bands are tenacious by nature. They will not abandon a fire they are fighting. So you can effectively lock them down and deprive your opponents’ of their ability to put out fires.
Great Fire brings trash talk to a non-combat strategy game. Moving the fire creates an ideal level of player interaction. But, because the player’s colors are hidden, it is impossible to really gang up on one person. The deduction element, then, is critical to making sure that you are attacking the right opponents – or even opponents at all. But on top of that, every decision has to be made in terms of whether you’ll be able to put out a fire. You only have so many action points, so planning and strategy are critical.
If Great Fire has a flaw, it’s that it loses many of its strongest points when played with a full compliment of six players. Six players makes the game a lot more random. While you can still control your own turn effectively, it makes it very difficult to protect important locations. The board just changes two dramatically when five other people spread the fire before it gets back to you. Plus, with six players every player color is used. The deductive element is a bit lowered because you know as long as you’re burning down someone else, you’re hurting someone. A glance at the board shows who might have the most houses still on it, which leads to everyone attacking the leader and pretty much evening things out.
However, if you take Great Fire and play it in the four to five player range, you’ll have a dramatically improved experience. There’s probably a sweet spot at four players, but five is still pretty darn good.
Components: 2 of 5. The game has a lot of interesting ideas for its pieces that just didn’t quite work out right. The fire cones aren’t really cones. They are oblong sticks. So its quite easy to accidentally knock them over and then they tumble and roll wherever they please. The trained band cones don’t sit on the fires quite right and, frankly, look a little silly. Also, the landowner pawns should be completely separate colors from the house colors. It’s too easy to accidentally move the pawn of your house color – which lets other players know your color and ruins the deductive element. The coloring is also a bit off with the red houses signified by orange symbols. Still, it’s all perfectly functional if a bit annoying.
Strategy/Luck Balance: 4 of 5. Even though cards are present, it’s really a very low luck game. The cards represent the four cardinal directions, but with the fire being near the south east corner of the board, there are more north and west cards. Plus the districts are aligned in such a way that the fire can typically spread to another location with the aide of more than one card. Thus, the cards might require a player to think creatively, but generally do not force players into poor decisions.
Mechanics: 5 of 5. I really enjoy the way the game works. The separation of the game into two distinct, yet related phases really provides the players with a way to scratch both the “screw you” itch and to contemplate action point management. Plus, the interrelation means that players can shape the game to their preferred play style. You can use the fire solely as a way to set up a good extinguish. Or you can use your extinguish phase to make the fire more difficult for your opponents. Best yet, both styles mingle nicely together.
Replayability: 4 of 5. Great Fire has an undeniably high replay value. The extremely variable starting position allows each game’s strategy to be unique. And, because it is unique for each player, the fire will move in a different way each game. If you like the underlying mechanics and concept, this is one that can sustain repeated sessions.
Spite: 4 of 5. Spite is high in this game. But it never really takes on that direct “screw-your-neighbor” feel of some games. This is partly because you never know if you are targeting the right individuals. Still, the game can be very aggressive, even if you aren’t sure who is bearing the brunt of a particular aggression.
Overall: 4 of 5. Bear in mind, this score is for a four to five player game. With six, I’d probably downgrade the thing a whole point. It just loses a lot of its charm with a full compliment of players. That said, the four player game is an absolutely wonderful experience and one that leads to laughter, mirth, and trash talk. And, at least in my plays, a healthy dose of misdirection as we try to determine whose houses need some burning. Great Fire is definitely worth checking out.