Roughly three years later and I finally had a chance to sit down and play through a complete game of MERCS Recon, a Kickstarter I backed way, way back in 2014.
MERCS is a miniatures game where players take on the role of an intrusive para-military force working for mega-corporations. Operating as these ‘MERCS’, they must break into an opposing companies corporate office and complete missions that include scenarios like capturing certain employees, obtaining proprietary items or simply neutralizing all enemy agents in the building. Along the way, players face increasingly hostile and more difficult corporate security forces that attempt to stop them through random spawning determined by the buildings security threat level.
This is a Kickstarter from a company that has had a lot of negative reviews, specifically because of this very Kickstarter campaign and while I agree with a good percentage of the sentiments (long over due shipment, very poor quality components, very poor rulebook proof), I at least was one of the lucky backers who received pretty much the entire package of products I was expecting to receive for my tier level. I bought-in at a pretty hefty price and also went for a good deal of the add-ons. To say that I was disappointed with the final quality is an unfortunate understatement.
However, after going through the game a few times in solo-mode, which in its final incarnation was not part of the product, despite its promotion as such a game (a main reason I backed the project in the first place), and finally having some friends play the game with me, I must say, it is rather enjoyable. My personal feelings about the actual gameplay itself can be summed up as follows:
- The game moves at a fairly quick pace, despite the number of ‘accounting’ that needs to be done every turn. Turns happen rapidly, and the number of decisions available for players are quite expansive, but not enough to cause paralysis.
- The opposing forces offer a challenge to players, enough so that as the game grinds on, the accumulation of threats begins to be much more difficult to overcome. This ramping up also feels fairly natural and not at all forced, considering it is the players actions that determine the advancement of these challenges.
- There are a number of options available to players that make each turn feel genuinely unique. Players choose from one of the two (although at my level I have six) mercenary teams to play from. Within each team are individual ‘agents’ with their own suite of abilities. Each team and unit are different enough that players have the ability to play to their strengths.
- The dice mechanic is well-thought out and very well implemented. The pool of attack and defense dice seem very evenly balanced. I do not have the inclination to go into a probability discussion about the chances of rolling for the game, but on the surface, neither the players, nor the opposing forces seem lopsided in terms of power and defense.
- The ‘fog of war’ mechanic– enemy forces are visible on the board but their toughness and type are hidden until players have Line-of-sight– is also a very nicely implemented concept. The morphing quality of this mechanic, where these ‘heat-signatures’ can be either casual employees or armed-to-the teeth security forces creates a nice sense of tension and curiosity.
- The theme. I must say the game very well nails the intrusive gameplay incredibly well. The various mechanics, combined with the pacing of the game creates a tight, well-moving game that is remarkably playable and doesn’t get ‘bogged’ down with excessive calculations or meta-gaming. I chalk this up to the dice pool being straight-forward enough and lacking any modifiers that the game is able to unfold at a nice clip. My group found it especially hilarious in playing the Keizai Waza faction and imagining our MERCS as yelling intimidating and threatening commands, all in Japanese, to bewildered and clueless corporate cubicle warriors.
- Despite wanting to focus solely on the gameplay, I can not escape the absolute low quality nature of the game materials. A good majority of the marker pieces seemed worn right-out-of-the box and many of them fell apart after the first solo run-through. The dice, which rely on clever images of ‘bursts’ and ‘shields’ are very poor quality and really distract from the rolls. The miniatures themselves are also not very good quality although they do look respectable enough once painted.
- The rules (emphasis added). They have a good deal of items that are open to interpretation. For instance, the first turn seems largely set for the opposing forces to take a slew of actions, even before the players’ presence becomes ‘known’. Doors, which according to the rules block LoS, also may need more clarity as to how they operate once breached, or moved through. These are just two items out of a list.
- The opposing forces are essentially the same, despite their increasing difficulty. It would have been great to have enemies with unique abilities as part of the core game. However, I did end up with a slew of Kickstarter unique enemies which really made up for the vanilla-nature of the standard enemies. However without their inclusion, the opposition forces all seem the same (which I guess as per these types of ‘wet-work’ styled movies, they certainly should be).
- The Breach & Clear mechanic is a little too simplistic with its core-mechanic, a simple roll-off, lacking options for players. It would have been very interesting to see more options available during B&C but, I think the designers wanted to further the overall game-play and keep it in-line with the rest of the mechanics so as to not over-complicate these scenarios.
- Set-up time. This is really just something inherent to most miniatures game.
Overall, MERCS is a good game, granted with only a limited number of play-throughs (Unconvinced? Board-game-geek gives it a solid 7+). My initial impressions of the gameplay after watching many video run-throughs were confirmed once I sat down and slogged through the rule-book. For what it tried to pull-off, a fast-paced shoot-’em up corporate-espionage breach & clear miniatures game, it did so. And despite its company and the products many, many, many flaws, it did so rather well.