Despite being a subgenre that’s existed for several decades, co-op games have to occasionally re-prove themselves as to be somehow to be worthy of a player’s time. Part of this is because there is a small but vocal part of the hobby base who are averse to the very idea of co-op games, with a few going so far as to claim – using some bizarre form of board game prescriptivism – that co-ops aren’t even games at all. That because these games don’t have a human opponent and operate at least in part by a preprogrammed set of functions, that somehow the idea of teaming together to face the system itself makes them games of lesser standing to nearly every other game of comparable weight and size.
Which is an absurd claim to say the least.
That said, one area where cooperative games do have to walk a fine line is in how well it executes its premise. Always trying to find the ideal intersection between difficult and random, a good co-op wants players fighting against a series of obstacles and situations to overcome. And it wants the outcome to not be guaranteed.
Essentially, a good co-op is the kind where you enjoy losing and where it entices you back to try again.
Faza, the inaugural title by designer Benjamin Farahmand, is one such co-op. In this 2-4 player title humanity is on the edge of extinction, and you are its last hope – ray guns and all.
So if you think you’re up for the fight, then grab a stick and prepare to start swinging.
The game begins, expectedly enough, on the defensive. Faza takes place two years into a prolonged war in which humans have not been doing well, and it’s only due to the recent development of a faction of Faza rebels turning against their own kind do you even stand a chance. Not a great chance, mind you, but a chance.
Leaning into classic elements of both humanity on the brink tales of survival and some wonderful Bradbury-esque pulp sci-fi kitsch, Faza tasks you with cooperatively trying to stop an alien invasion before time runs out – or die trying. Most likely it’ll be the latter.
This is the first of Faza’s two major selling points. With some appealing retro sci-fi artwork, a picturesque box cover, and a heavy orange-colored pastiche that surprisingly works, Faza attempts (and succeeds) at creating a game right out of a 50’s era comic. The game offers plenty of camp but does so in just the right allotments, being careful not to oversaturate the aesthetic or pull focus away from the game, letting the theme speak for itself.
It’s also just really fun to say. Faza Faza Faza Faza…
Hey, if you’re going to face an extinction level event, you might as well do it in style.
To save Earth, you as Faction Zeta must work together to plan basic strategy, take calculated risks, and hope that there’s just enough luck on your side to win the day.
When Faza starts each player chooses from a pair of Character cards that provide you with a special skill or power. Additionally, everyone starts with four Player cards matching their Character’s role. These Player cards serve two purposes. First, Player cards contain both a top and bottom ability that will enable you to move about the board and / or punch some aliens square in their evil mandible-laden faces. Whichever is more useful in the moment.
Generally speaking, the top ability of each card corresponds to moving around, whereas the bottom ability reflects modifiers for attacking aliens or providing other tactical benefits. Thanks to Faza’s asymmetric player powers, however, the permutations are slightly different depending on which roles you’re playing.
Secondly, the four Player cards serve as your health. Whenever you are forced to take damage in the game, one of your cards gets flipped over. If at any point you have all four cards flipped over, you die and everyone loses. Because clearly the war can’t go on without you.
Faza itself is played out on a 4×4 grid of randomized and numbered tiles, representing the battered and semi-barren landscape that you’re inexplicably still fighting life and limb for. (It is our only planet, after all.) Players begin on their corresponding Outpost tiles, whereas the three motherships – along with their contingent alien drone forces – start on the highest three valued tiles with four health each. These motherships, which loom large in all their silent intimidation, are your primary targets.
Procedurally, Faza is refreshingly easy to teach, with each round consisting of just two phases. First, the players collectively take their turn trying to stomp out enemy drones, recruit rebels to the cause, and attempt to blow up the massive alien motherships wreaking havoc across the land. All of this is done in free-form group style; there are no dedicated player turns. Instead, you as the group decide how best to proceed each round. You are able to take any of the 5 actions as often as you desire or are able to during this period, though moving around the board, modifying an attack, or using other special powers involves exhausting one of your Player cards.
While it’s not unheard of, this more open style co-op approach can lead to some initial confusion in terms of what you should be focusing on or what the best course of action may be. However, this less structured approach works for Faza both mechanically and flavorfully by letting the players determine for themselves how best to proceed. As a result, the game fosters a palpable level of engagement and collaboration that keeps people interested in what’s transpiring at any given moment while simultaneously embracing a slightly chaotic feel. Still, coordination will be needed if you want to actually survive. Faza is less dependent on the framework of the game to create a challenging scenario that will be hard to beat, but that doesn’t mean victory will be easily achieved.
Which brings up Faza’s second major selling point: it can be hard. Maybe not Ghost Stories level hard, but you are going to lose. A lot. Ironically, though, this fact is actually welcomed in most co-op games, as you want the game to test you and best you. Great co-op games are those that cause you lose just enough times that when you do finally succeed, that victory feels substantive. If a co-op is too easy to win, then it loses its inherent appeal. Faza comes with three different difficulty modes to help you tailor your experience slightly to that end, but even the default Normal mode will give you a healthy trial to face.
And let’s just say Hard mode is aptly named.
Combat in the Faza is a simple Success / Fail system, rolling one die for each drone on your location; a 4 or better will defeat a drone, whereas a 3 or less means you suffer damage. Killing drones in Faza is vital, partially because you can’t leave a space with enemy drones on them, but also because each drone you defeat is collected as a ‘point’. These points in turn can be spent to fuel Character skills or recruit Rebel aliens.
Rebels are useful for two reasons: a Rebel on your space will take a damage for you instead, sacrificing themselves for the cause, and that Rebels are needed to attack one of the motherships. Which means that not only do they make good cannon fodder, but they’re also kind of required to win the game.
Taking out the three Faza motherships is your goal, but this is easier said than done. To attack a mothership, both you and a Rebel must be on the same tile as a mothership and that tile must be clear of drones. Only then can the Rebel go all Randy Quaid on sabotaging it. Once that happens, the Rebel is lost and the health of that mothership drops by one.
But because no good deed goes unpunished, every successful attack on one of the Faza ships causes them to retaliate, represented by a deck of event cards. Flavorful and wide-ranging in their effects, some of these event cards come in the form of player rewards…but most involve the Faza performing a mean counterstroke of some kind. Usually at the most inopportune moments. Beyond combat rolls, the Faza effects are the biggest randomness element in the game, and they shouldn’t be taken lightly. A couple of poorly timed reveals can completely undermine your chances at making it out alive.
Once the players have decided they no longer or aren’t able to take any more actions, the Faza ships move according to their movement rules and then activate, each causing havoc in their own ways and then dropping out more drones. The Carrier ship spits out even more drones onto the board, and the Destroyer seeks out and damages players. The final, the ‘Former ship, is the most insidious of the lot. As it moves to new tiles it flips them over to their ‘Fazaformed’ side, as the aliens literally remake Earth to be like their home. Fazaformed tiles are often hazardous to your health if you end your turn on them, and if the aliens manage to flip over all four of the player’s Outpost tiles, you lose. Because everyone is dead.
To add even more bleakness to your alien-fighting day, even if you manage to bring a mothership’s health to 0, that ship becomes disabled but is not completely destroyed. When that happens, its card flips over. Defeated motherships no longer move but will still activate when it’s their turn, which include some kind of punitive act and then remove two drones from the supply. And if there aren’t any drones to remove – you guessed it – you also lose.
Seriously, the Faza are jerks.
If, on the other hand, you manage to defeat all three ships and survive to tell the tale, then humanity is saved! You win, and your reward is to start rebuilding on what’s left of the planet.
In many ways, Faza follows in the footsteps of other challenging but enjoyable co-ops such as Forbidden Island and Pandemic. Playthroughs can painstakingly devolve from the edge of success to utter defeat in short order, snatching defeat away from you just when you feel you have a solid chance at victory. But it does so in that intoxicating way all good co-ops do, having you mutter “Next Time” as you begin picking up the pieces. With a wonderful dose of retro sci-fi artwork, an appealing table presence, and dynamic team-centric turns where everyone gets a say over the best course of action, Faza makes for an engaging, tough, and often unpredictable game of daring survival. All it’s missing is a Buck Rodgers cameo.
If you think you have what it takes to join Faction Zeta and fire some lasers in defense of the planet, you can enlist right now over on Kickstarter.
This project has earned the Seal of the Republic
Photo Credits: Faza cover and artwork by Benjamin Farahmand.