Digital Heart, Analog Brain – Fallout Wasteland Warfare Review

There’s a duo of old Saturday Night Live skits where Tom Hanks plays a pushy Israeli salesman named Uri. He tries to force a call-in customer to buy a VCR player, constantly repeating the line “Is Sony guts!” (Adam Sandler fans may recognize this skit as Sandler’s first on-screen appearance, and also a joke he returned to in the movie Zohan). Although it’s a fairly old sketch, the joke “is Sony guts!” stuck with me through life and I’ll often repeat it when dealing with slightly off-brand things, a joke that is literally only funny to me as I get older. As I played Modiphius’ miniature skirmish version of video game franchise Fallout, Fallout Wasteland Warfare, I kept trying to push Uri out of my head. “Is Fallout guts!” is all my brain kept telling me as I tried to juggle a sometimes unwieldy amount of bookkeeping while shuffling my miniatures around the 3×3 area, perhaps unconsciously trying to convince myself that once I got all of the systems down, I’d find the same love I have for Fallout itself. At the end of the day, I feel a little better than Uri’s customers did, but even as I write this review, I’m left unsure of how I feel about my time in the wasteland. 

Brotherhood of Steel Knights for Fallout: Wasteland Warfare. Credit: SRM

Before we get into why, I do want to state that Modiphius were nice enough to send me a copy of the Fallout: Wasteland Warfare Two-Player box, and a resin box of Survivors. Full disclosure: I did not end up using the Survivors for anything in this review, as I stuck to what the starter box offers incoming players. However, it is worth mentioning that the quality in miniatures you get between these two is actually noteworthy in that it is very different: if you are buying in, prepare to be a little disappointed in the plastics versus the resins. I have some real issues with the soft PVC miniatures in the starter box; after priming them, some of them lost almost all definition (the Super Mutant with a pipe gun especially), and the thick plastic bases were a bit warped to the point that even hot water couldn’t flatten out the Deathclaw’s base. If you are purely interested in this product from a painter’s perspective, do not buy the plastic models. 


A Bicycle Built for One

Fallout First Mission. Credit: Kenji
Fallout First Mission. This game takes up a LOT of real estate, as the edges of my table were filled with cards, equipment, tokens, and other things. Credit: Kenji

Fallout: Wasteland Warfare is a skirmish game that is ostensibly for 1-4 players, but in my time with the game, I think this game really wants you to play it solo, or at least co-operatively. I will state this flat out: playing this as a versus skirmish game was not fun at all for myself and my review partner, and the occasional inclusion of A.I. controlled monsters made that even weirder. At best, I think FWW is a solo game, and will be best enjoyed if you play it with that in mind; in fact, I’d almost argue that they wanted to sell this as a solo game, and either someone in their marketing (or who controls Fallout itself) said “No, it must be sold as a 2 player versus game”. If you approach this game solo, you will possibly enjoy it a bit more than if you go into it thinking this is going to be your next big skirmish game. 

The issue here is that the AI system works well in theory, but not always in practice. AI characters are controlled by a matrix, and each turn you roll the Blue die and base their actions off of that die. What ended up happening in my solo games was that the action the character would take made very little sense; for example, during a mission, a Super Mutant was attempting to interact with an objective. On the following turn, however, the die roll said it would choose to instead attack, and the book was not clear as to whether that meant it would try and clear the objective first, and then move towards a target, or simply just start moving blindly towards attacking the nearest target. Another instance had a Super Mutant roll an attack, but since he couldn’t reach the target but did roll “reckless”, the book explains that he just walks out in the open, and on my activation was summarily shot to death. A third quirk is that even though one mutant had a gun, he didn’t roll an option that said he could shoot it (even though he was in range), so he just stood there and did nothing. The big problem this created, for me, is that as someone who tends to play a lot of solo games, I need the explanations of those AI systems to be fairly exhaustive so I know what to do in these cases; the issue of having to write the rules myself as I go “Well, he can shoot, so he does,” or “no one would ever just walk into shooting range out of cover,” is that then the AI system itself is useless, and I’m just playing against myself. 

Fallout Rescued by Dogmeat. Credit: Kenji
Fallout Rescued by Dogmeat. Credit: Kenji

The other odd quirk is that Fallout has a somewhat interesting activation sequence. On your turn, you place a ready marker next to a character, but can then choose to not actually activate the character yet, passing your turn. After a while, I stopped using this system altogether, because the AI doesn’t do this, meaning that I could just sit my characters in their deployment zone, ready them, and let the AI go, before swarming my PCs to the AI one after the other. This is complicated further by the system in which players go first; in many scenarios, the AI controlled player would go first, meaning that simply waiting around made it so my characters would go back to back in a double turn. Frankly there are ways to house rule this into alternative activations or other things, but out of the box, the system of who goes when, and how that functions in AI play, is a little awkward. That said, when the AI mode works, it works quite well. Once I ironed out some kinks and made some judgement calls, I found that missions would generally play fairly smoothly in the sense of what was going on, and controlling my own party and the AI party did take on a certain rhythm that made sense. The problem, though, was the game itself, and this might be my largest criticism that is sort of a compliment: Fallout does not know how to get out of its own way on its path to be Fallout.  

War Sometimes Changes

If there is something that is both the highest praise and biggest criticism I can levy against FWW, it is that the Modiphius team tried almost too hard to recreate the video games on the tabletop. The rulebook betrays this fairly quickly, as it is broken up into a getting started tutorial, the rules of the game itself, and then a campaign book, which is also the second half of the rulebook (More than a few times I got confused by the rulebook indexing pages and chapters it doesn’t have, only to realize it was counting the campaign book). There are copious tokens, stats, cards, equipment, and traits to keep track of, and if you end up playing with the Settlement deck or the RPG book (both sold separately), FWW morphs from a somewhat basic skirmish game into Analog Fallout 4: you build a settlement, and all of your missions generally focus on building, expanding, or upgrading your settlement as a final reward. If you engage in the RPG version of the game, you’ll roll an entire character sheet that takes your character’s card and equipment and merges them with all sorts of perks, including things that delve into seemingly useless traits in a miniature skirmish game, like bartending. 

Fallout Second Mission. What is even happening. Credit: Kenji
Fallout Second Mission. What is even happening. Credit: Kenji

There is, frankly, just too much going on in FWW in just the base game, and the gameplay can be ponderous and confusing. The rulebook again rears its head here, with occasionally unclear explanations of how exactly certain actions work. In a tutorial mission, players were tasked with flipping over tokens to see what was under them, but the game wasn’t exactly clear on if picking things up costs an action (you get two every turn) or not, which created some issues when characters (both PC and AI) could interact with numerous items in a single activation. There are also an increasingly large number of cards and tokens to keep track of, with tokens generally tracking certain effects, interactables and objectives, and cards representing things like weapons, equipment, consumables, and more. As mentioned, if you’re playing with the Settlement deck, there are even more cards to keep track of, and if you’re using the RPG book, you will have a literal character sheet to reference. I found this all frankly overwhelming, especially because you generally only get 1 card per specific miniature type, even if you have more than 1 of that miniature on the field. In the aforementioned mission, I had to start putting collected items underneath the miniatures that had them, as the 3 Super Mutants and 2 Survivors shared 1 card respectively, making it nearly impossible for me to remember who had a shotgun, pipe rifle, and baseball bat and who had a pistol, hunting rifle, and laser gun; common wisdom would see you placing these with the respective character cards, but since you only get 1 Survivor card and 1 Super Mutant card, that wouldn’t work. 

Brotherhood of Steel Knights for Fallout: Wasteland Warfare. Credit: SRM

This sort of mishmash of management of board state makes FWW feel like a very free-form board game more than it does a miniature skirmish game. When things are moving along well, the game is fairly simple: move, interact, shoot, etc., but when the “Fallout” parts of the game start coming into play (SPECIAL skill checks, inventory management, objectives that are not just “kill the other person”), the game creaks at the seams in terms of things you need to keep track of, how things work, and in what order they work. And these missions have lots of variables, with each side usually having different objectives to achieve instead of just “beat the other player”. In most cases, decisive actions are decided with the game’s bespoke dice, and this is where things can really, really go off the rails. 

Is Sony guts! 

Fallout, the video game, is an RPG in which most of the paperwork and dice rolling is done by the computer, with players simply being told what actions succeeded or failed and what that means. Later iterations of the games have abstracted this further, turning the isometric RPG in for a first person shooter perspective, where your own manual aiming would occasionally be hindered or helped by your stats; similarly, many other things, like hacking, were not generally “impossible”, but simply easier or more difficult depending on how your stats reflected your character’s abilities. Much of the stats reflected in your character’s build came out in their interactions with other characters, and the myriad of options available for engaging in those encounters. But at the end of the day, modern Fallout games rely on shooter mechanics first, and RPG mechanics second, with combat being far more action oriented than dice rolling.

In Wasteland Warfare, the reflection of this on the table is the most distorted out of all of the mechanics. All skill checks are resolved using a white d20 that features… not 20 numbers, but a mixture of numbers ranging from 1-10 (skills are successful if you roll equal to or under your skill), and then some bespoke icons that represent things like failure, failure but quick action eligible, success with extra quick action, and critical success. This die alone was the first hurdle I faced, because it wasn’t entirely clear what some of these icons mean, and learning their purposes added an odd wrinkle to the game’s flow.

The effect die come in various colors on d12, which can do things like modify your skill check, add damage, crack armor, or give your actions special effects. The issue is that these effects are not universal, so rolling a bottle result on Dogmeat has a much different implication than it may on someone else, and this spirals into making dice rolling something of a chore to dissect when including the blue effect die. The red d12 is the armor die, a final roll that occurs when damage is being allocated. If a character has an Armor Value, the red die is rolled to see how much incoming damage their armor can block. Players need to roll their Armor Value or lower, and rolling over it means a failure. Except… if the effect die had an armor crack result (in my experience, this is almost always), you subtract that from your Armor Value, and if it falls below 1, you don’t roll the die at all. There is a copious amount of dierolling, and none of it is fast or innate. 

So. Many. Tokens.
Fallout Token Pile. Credit: Kenji

While it may be unfair to compare a game like FWW to 40k or Infinity, my biggest takeaway is that this dice system is just too complicated. Dogmeat, on a good charge, can roll nearly every single die in the box, and still come away from it doing literally nothing because all of the extra damage and bonus effects meant nothing, as I rolled an X and failed my skill check. A lot of actions ended this way; in a tutorial mission that asked me to shoot various markers, I joked to my partner that I’d be rolling a lot because I was a bad shot. To shoot 5 targets, I had to roll the skill check die 25 times total because I kept missing my fairly bad PER skill. Jokes about my skill with rolling dice aside, this didn’t bode well for the regular game, and I was right: lots of combats ended with characters doing literally nothing, which is unsatisfying when the only other player is yourself; turns out jokes about bad dice rolls when you’re alone just make the mood really depressing.

In a game like Infinity, where die rolls are all resolved on a single die, or even 40k or AoS, where rolls all use the same universal die, the system may involve a lot of rules but still feels natural. In Fallout, there are no real roll modifiers other than the actual dice you’re rolling, which means a bad roll is going to suck no matter what, and your results are not immediately clear either. 

Fallout Movement.
Fallout Movement. Movement works from the front of your base to start, but ends at the back of your base; this leads to some odd ‘jumps’ in movement. Credit: Kenji

The system is overly complicated, as if it is trying to involve as many Fallout systems as possible to give you the authentic feeling of your well placed shot missing your enemy, but the result is just actual frustration as your turn becomes endlessly rolling dice at one another (or yourself) with, no lie, an entire round in which my characters and the AI did nothing. The addition of gear, consumable items, weapons, and other effects can really make this even more confusing, as you realize that maybe your PER check would have actually been a success if you remembered that the bowler hat you picked up gave you a bonus to your PER checks, but also your character is addicted to Mentats now and suffers penalties to rolls too.

Sometimes, the guts of the product don’t matter. Sometimes, it just matters if the outer packaging reflects what you want to see on the table, and for Fallout, the only reflection I see is a frustrated attempt to express love for something in the wrong medium. The idiom of “just because you can, doesn’t mean you should” really comes through here, as the amount of fidelity to Fallout the franchise means that the actual experience of playing Fallout: Wasteland Warfare tends to be slow, ponderous, and occasionally frustrating. 

As I Go Ridin’ Merrily Along

Now, this all may sound negative, but I do want to say that if you really, really love Fallout, you may find yourself really, really loving this game. I don’t think FWW is perfect, but it has sparks of insight that belie a fairly interesting experience for Fallout megafans. The more experienced you are with miniature games, the more you might enjoy this game as well, as it becomes easier to ‘tweak’ the game’s rules to your own desires and come up with something that works best in your eyes.

Although mechanically I found the game a frustrating experience, I have to admit that it really did evoke a sense of playing Fallout. The SPECIAL implementation as a line of stats makes sense, and the models in the box (and in the expansions, although I didn’t play with any) are all pulled straight from Fallout 4 and Fallout in general. Part of this seems to stem from Modiphius and their work on licensed RPGs, as it seems like they’ve got the general feeling of Fallout, except for one crucial part: conversations. Perhaps this is where the RPG add-on comes into play, but as a skirmish game, I think the issue I had is that none of this really felt like it mattered, and playing as “Nora”, ostensibly, has no real determining factors.

I am not developing a personality through dialogue, my choices in missions matters only to the completion of those missions, and even my character being removed from play doesn’t stop the mission–in fact, the first mission I ever played had both Nora and Dogmeat get killed, and some random Survivor mook won the day–so it feels hard to attach the personal connection that Fallout games foster. 

Dogmeat in Trouble. Credit: Kenji
Dogmeat in Trouble. Credit: Kenji

Based on expansions available, though, this is a painter’s dream if you have ever wanted to work on your favorite Fallout faction. The Brotherhood of Steel, Assaultrons, various other enemy groups, and a New Vegas expansion allow you to build and paint your favorites, and there is obviously a lot of care and love put into the product. If anything, I think that’s my biggest hurdle to reviewing this game: I think the folks at Modiphius really love their product and really love Fallout, but that doesn’t translate to a fantastic or even balanced game. It does a fantastic job of replicating Fallout aesthetically, but doesn’t create the narrative focus (without, at least, purchasing add-ons), and the rules and managerial aspect cause the game to crawl along while it tries its best to do everything it can to give you an analog version of Fallout

For me, that unfortunately relegates Fallout: Wasteland Warfare to a pass. It has a lot of things going for it, and if Fallout is your absolute life and blood, then you may want to look into it. But as a general miniature skirmish game, or even a solo board game with miniatures, I can’t really recommend the product fully. There is too much fiddling with rules, too many abstract concepts trying to be represented on the board, and frankly a ton more bloat than it really needs to be effective at what is is trying to do. I will say that if anyone is looking to be more convinced, or perhaps to see the RPG mode in action, Ash from Guerilla Miniature Games has done quite a few LPs of the game, including a solo campaign with the RPG module. As for me, I’ll be hanging up my boots, and firing up my copy of New Vegas. Because if there’s one thing Wasteland Warfare motivated me to do, it’s to revisit my favorite post-apocalyptic series one more time… just with PC guts instead of dice. 

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