Review – Defcon
We've already launched one nuke; what's one more?
|Designer||Carlo De Gregorio|
Control superpowers and use their resources to take over territories, launch strategic strikes, and, of course, nuke ‘em.
In Defcon, players compete for the most points at the end of the game. Most points are earned from controlling territories and from having a good reputation, but they can also be earned by controlling capitals. To begin, each player will choose a superpower and place 1 troop in each of the superpower’s 8 starting territories. Players will draw a hand of 3 cards and roll dice to determine the initiative order.
There are 5 rounds in Defcon, each with 5 different phases. During these phases, players will adjust the initiative order so that whoever is winning goes first, players will rearrange their armies, and players will draw up to 2 cards without exceeding their hand size, which is determined by their reputation (good reputation = higher hand size). Players will then spend their income to purchase resources before the conflict phase ensues, which makes up the meat of the game. After the conflict phase, players will adjust their reputation (nukes = bad for reputation).
The buying and conflict phase are the most exciting phases of Defcon. In the buying phase, players get to watch the player who’s currently winning buy whatever they think they’ll need for the conflict phase. Guessing what opponents are going to do is a big part of the strategy, and if you see someone gearing up for a ground invasion, maybe you should purchase some strongholds to defend your territories. However, the player after you may decide that she’s going to buy some conventional missiles to destroy your strongholds and then take over your weakened territories. The cause-and-effect is real.
The conflict phase allows players to launch ground or sea invasions, launch conventional missiles (targeting enemy troops or strongholds), launch nuclear missiles, all while playing cards and sabotaging each other. The board can change a lot during this phase, and there’s a hint of push-your-luck because everyone only takes 1 action before it’s someone else’s turn, but if you pass, you’re out for the round. Sometimes it’s wise to launch a missile or 2 to stall until your opponent becomes weak enough for your ground invasion. When the conflict phase is over, superpowers must pay the price for their actions (and lose reputation if they were too aggressive). Card often come into play during the conflict phase as well, and these cards, though asymmetrical and unbalanced, provide exciting surprises and keep Defcon from being too Risk-like in the grind for control over territories.
Defcon invites players into many balancing acts. Players will need to balance having enough troops to launch invasions while still being able to protect their (hopefully) expanding empire. Players will need to balance the reputation and territory tracks because, in order to take territories, you make enemies, but if you always play nice, you won’t have any territories. A puzzling catch 22 that requires use of humanitarian aid (which costs precious resource points). Designer Carlo De Gregorio employs some excellent game mechanics, and they usually work well together.
I say “usually” because sometimes Defcon can feel like a waiting game until someone decides to go crazy with invasions, missile strikes, and nukes. Because you lose reputation for going on the offensive during a round, it’s often best to get all your invading out in 1 or 2 rounds instead of slowly dragging it out, lest you consistently lose reputation. For example, once you nuke someone, you’ll lose 3 reputation points. However, you can’t lose any more than 3 during a single round, so you might as well nuke everyone else too. In theory, the reputation track is supposed to keep some level of peace, but what it does is promote chaos, which is fine by me. I just wish there were 2 viable options in Defcon for offensives instead of always feeling like I have to save my entire arsenal for 1 big hoo-rah.
The components are subpar. The art is uninspiring and bland, the tokens aren’t anything special, the cardboard oversized missiles are fun, and the game board looks like it came out of a 1990s version of Risk (not inherently a bad thing). The soldier pieces come in different poses for each army and look great, even if some have trouble staying upright and the gun tips break off easily. The rulebook is well-designed.
If you like Risk and are looking for a step up in complexity and enjoyment, Defcon could be a great pick for you. While the components are subpar (apart from the plastic army men), there’s fun to be had here (who doesn’t want to nuke ‘em?), and the simplicity is a good sell. Defcon is a good entry-level, global wargame. While it’s not my favorite, it’s still solid because it introduces essential wargame/area-control concepts in an easy-to-understand manner (resources, troop placement, managing territories and public opinion).
Giochi Uniti (Asmodee North America) kindly provided a review copy.
The Bottom Line
Serves as a good intro to wargame themes despite it's poor components.