Previewing: Unknown

Imagine, if you will, the game of Carcassonne. Picture its sprawling cities and farms, each tile slowly revealing the next segment of a largely tranquil and bucolic region.

So peaceful...

So peaceful…before The Incident.

Now picture would happen to that sleepy little Carcassonne region if it was struck by some sort of apocalyptic disaster, the survivors of which must scavenge for food and items to survive, and dangers surround every corner.

Then you’ll have Unknown, the tile-laying survival game.

Unknown is a Co-Op game about exploring the ravaged world. The future is no longer certain, safety and security not guaranteed. There are many days where just getting food is a struggle. This is the world you and the other players have entered.

Unknown begins, unsurprisingly, in a bunker. Because, as every book, movie or TV show tells us, in the case of a world-ending event, you just need a good bunker. It’s sort of a requirement. Here is yours:

The starting base. Cozy, no? Prototype Shown

The starting base. Cozy, no?
Prototype Shown

Players are given characters that each possess a unique ability and some starting resources that help’ll the team explore, fight, and survive the coming difficulties. The most common of these resources are Ammo, Scrap, Medicine, and most importantly, Food. The bunker starts with a number of Food rations, depicting a host of different canned, shrink-wrapped, and freeze-dried goodies. Food is key, as at the end of each round one Food is consumed by the party. Should you be unable to eat, everyone loses. Due to death. From the starvation.

Oh yay. Alien hunting. What could go wrong? Prototype Shown

Oh yay. Alien hunting. What could go wrong?
Prototype Shown

The goal in Unknown, besides avoiding going all Lord of the Flies on one another, is to achieve the game’s main objective. One of the appealing things about Unknown, though, is that the objective changes from game to game, as players randomly draw one each session. In addition to setting the victory condition, the objective also determines which tiles and monsters are used, giving each game a different feel to it.

Each round players take turns utilizing their Action Points – usually three. While there are bunch of different actions, the most common of these are moving from one tile to the next, exploring new tiles, and acquiring resources. Exploring is as simple as adding a new tile adjacent to your current location, so long as you never create a 2×2 tile grid. This can seem strange at first, but it actually helps propel that whole underground tunnel vibe.

Prototype Shown

Prototype Shown

To acquire resources, you have to be on or adjacent to the tile you’re looking to rummage through. Acquiring the listed resources flips the tile over. Once tiles are flipped over, though, that’s it; those resources don’t just magically reappear.

As a result, Unknown can be a bit harsh when trying to get necessary goods. The tile reveals are random, and there are only so many med kits and spare bullets to go around. However, the need to find resources (especially additional Food), sometimes forces players to venture out and explore more desperately than they otherwise would want to, and this lends to the game’s theme quite nicely.

An impassible tile. Prototype Shown

An impassible tile.
Prototype Shown

Not all tiles are about getting resources, however. Indeed, many tiles instead depict environmental effects. You could try to explore a new segment and run into all sorts of nastiness, with tiles such as a Blocked Path, or a Gas Leak, or a Rubble Slide, and none of them help you one bit. Some delay you, or force you in different directions, but many also slow you down or even deal damage.

If Unknown were to end there, though, all you’d be worrying about is an occasional sprained ankle. It’d also make for a poor survival horror story. Luckily, Unknown also has a bunch of different monsters also trying to end your already-grim existence. Some monsters will seek out and attack the players, while others will seek out your base in an attempt to eat your Food. To offset this unfortunate fact, the monsters in Unknown have some fantastic custom meeple designs to them.

Prototype Shown

Prototype Sketches Shown

You’ll need to eliminate these threats by building traps or fighting them out right. If a monster takes enough damage to kill it, it’s removed. By contrast, people tend to stick around: the first damage a player takes reduces their total AP by 1 until, and a second incapacitates them.

These don't work anymore.

These don’t work anymore.

An incapacitated player is bad – just like real life – where they are stuck where they are and cannot do anything until help arrives.

Unknown therefore becomes a race to keep the party fed, stave off the monsters, and ultimately achieving your goal. Every round counts. One thing that Unknown does differently than many co-op games, however, is that turn order is very fluid. Players decide for themselves the order each takes their turn. This helps foster that team-based notion you’d expect from cooperative games. When paired with each player’s special ability, you’re able to play off each other’s strengths nicely without being at a disadvantgae simply based on where you sit at the table. And that’s a nice little perk in this bleak environment.

At the end of the day, Unknown is all about questing: questing for items, questing for resources, and questing for a way out of the dismal situation the players have found themselves in. Everything is scarce, except for danger. Make no mistake, the world of Unknown does not like you, and it will do what it can to stop you. However, this doesn’t come at the expense of worthwhile gameplay. Unknown has a lot of variety and a fair share of random tile encounters, but it isn’t incredibly complex or long. Rather, Unknown seems to play itself out with just the right amount of game tension and game length you’d expect for a tile game. Just a whole lot darker. If your party is strong of will (and at least marginal luck), you may just have a chance to make it through.

If you think you have what it takes to be a survivor in these dark times, then be sure to learn something about the Unknown, currently over on Kickstarter.

Photo Credits: Carcassonne by BoardGameGeek; Life Alert button by Life Alert.