In Tomorrow by Dirk Knemeyer of Conquistador Games you play a major world power in a possible future where overpopulation has left very little choice except to actively and forcefully depopulate the world in order to save humanity. We tried effective sex education and the Catholic Church finally started adding birth control to the communion wafer – but to no avail. All of these options have been attempted but it came down to this. You play the leaders of one of six superpowers (India, United States, European Union, an Arab Caliphate, Russia and China) – each can engage in different types of warfare to lower the population – military, biological, or cyber – as well utilizing espionage and several strategies including back-stabbing, negotiation and (my favorite) sweet, sweet, nuclear vengeance. Before you get too carried away, remember that you need to reduce the world’s population to a sustainable level cooperatively as well as position your superpower with enough political capital to come out on top at the end. Remember! Tomorrow is only a day away!
What would a review of Tomorrow be without a disclaimer? I would like to throw two things out there right away – the theme and the graphic design – since these are the two complaints about the game I have heard most often. The designer, I think, made an active decision to utilize a very spartan design along with a (potentially) very disturbing theme. It doesn’t take a biological weapons engineer to put the two together. The game is not about relishing in the forceful depopulation of the world – it is a game of tough decisions, player interaction, back-stabbing and cooperation. There is a rich variety of player interaction in the game and therein lies the strength. Were the graphic design and artwork more robust, players would walk away with an unfortunate impression. They would believe the game was basking in the gruesome theme: Which it isn’t. It is taking no pleasure in it. The theme is a painful fact. The board and card design is meant to be stark to allow players to psychologically immerse themselves in the game-play more so than in the theme.
I think this was an important consideration when designing this game. Were the box and card art full of nuclear explosions or overflowing hospitals, the players would feel too entwined in the theme. By keeping everything simple you distance yourself from the actions being taken. And that I think was the point.
Players can imagine themselves within a deep underground committee pouring over maps and making tactical decisions while consciously distancing themselves emotionally from the actual devastation being wrought.
Therein lies the psychological aspect of the game. Rarely did anyone see the pawns on the board as anything more than pawns on a board. I didn’t think “I need to wipe out 210,000 people from India in order to succeed. I thought “I need to pop three pawns off the board from India.” The abstraction from the theme makes this playable. Hell, it could have been invasive wheat crops being trimmed from the face of the earth. It is the anti-Pandemic.
Another thing I love (LOVED) about this game’s design is that the pawns are far too large for the map. What better way to exemplify the theme of global overpopulation than those pawns practically popping through a country’s border like a fat uncle’s belt on Thanksgiving…
- Designer: Dirk Knemeyer
- Year Released: 2013
- Category: Environmental, Modern Warfare, Negotiation, Moral Ambiguity
- Game Mechanic: Area Control/Area Influence, Co-operative Play, Variable Player Powers, Cognitive Dissonance
- Number of Players: 4-6
- Suggested Age: 18+
- Playing Time: 90 minutes
- Time in Therapy Needed Afterwards: 2-3 hours
How do I play?
Set-up: First, place all the over-sized pawns of the appropriate color in the numbers indicated on the board. Once the board is setup with pawns, do not jostle the table! These things can go over like dominoes. Place the death marker on the “x” of the threat track. This handy little track will let you know how well you are doing to cooperatively lessen the environmental impact of overpopulation.
Then place the disease cards, and three piles of strategy cards next to the board. Shuffle and choose 9 event cards. One event card is pulled at the beginning of each new round and will present some challenge for the group to resolve. These event cards also act to measure out the nine rounds you have to bring the threat marker down to the happy face (Yay! We trimmed the world population!). If you can’t get it down to Mr. Smiley in 9 rounds everyone loses. Humanity is lost and we are guaranteed to never see how bad the Breaking Bad spin-off actually is.
Then choose which world superpower each player will be. I prefer to randomize this aspect of the game since, like in many cooperative games, each player will have different powers, benefits and restrictions. In a 6 player game every superpower is chosen. In a 5 player game, no-one plays India (just like in Street Fighter, no-one really likes playing Dhalsim). In a 4 player game no-one plays India or the Arab Caliphate. Gather up each country’s cyber-markers, turn order marker, control markers, nukes and action cards.
Now is a good time to remind everyone that each country has some special abilities represented on one of their action cards.
The Arab Caliphate has “Terror.” This doesn’t wipe anyone out on a grand scale but it does force one player to remove one of their two actions during a turn and can seriously hamper a dominant power. It can be blocked with an “Espionage” card. Additionally, the Arab Caliphate may, once per game, “Strike Them at Home” and view one player’s disease cards then take one to be utilized in that player’s home nation.
China has “Closed Society.” This allows China to start with the cyberspace card. Once per game, China can demand the cybercard from the superpower who controls it.
European Union has “Secretary General.” This allows the EU to determine turn order. This power can be overridden by the cyberspace card.
India has “Peaceful Oversight.” Each of India’s control markers will count as two control markers once placed in a minor power. Basically they are benevolent and peaceful overlords and I, for one, would like to welcome our new yogic leaders.
Russia has “Desolation.” This means that no disease can spread into or out of Russia.
The United States has “The CDC.” The US is more difficult to target with biologic attack due to the CDC and the large amount of Indian doctors in their employ. The US may roll a die when faced with a biological attack. On a roll of 1-2, the disease is eradicated. USA!
In addition to these superpower-specific abilities, each superpower has the following mundane actions they choose two from each round.
Biologicals: Attack another nation with a biological agent (disease card) or pick two new disease cards from the disease deck. Then wash your hands afterwards.
Cyber: One player has control of the cybercard (the cybercard is no joke. It allows the controlling player to determine turn order, choose a new strategy card or to steal one from a player) and by playing the cyber card you have a 50% chance of taking it. Each player has two cyberkeys (one red and one yellow). These keys are the encryption being used to hold cyberspace. When playing the cyber action, you reveal one of your cyberkeys. If it matches, then you get the cybercard and control the Matrix!
Espionage: This blocks a biological, terror or another espionage card. Use these to anger and enrage your allies. Nothing to see here, please continue on to the next bullet point…
Military: This action allows a player to target a minor power, and place control markers in order to win control over it. It also allows a player to support or oppose another player’s military attack. Resolution is simple – the person with the most control markers wins. The rest of the markers are flipped over to their “exhausted” state and returned to the player at the end of the phase. No luck in the resolution of military actions. No dice rolled.
Nukes: You can launch a nuclear attack on any country adjacent to one you control. Be warned, while it takes down one pawn for every 5 (really not a great number), it also increases the communal threat track by three. Remember that you want to decrease the threat track, not increase it. Also, the player targeted and the player releasing the nukes will lose three political capital points. Not too many Slim Pickens moments here so use them carefully but when you do, a “yeeehaaww!” is mandatory…know matter what superpower you play.
Event Phase: When one of the nine event cards are pulled, the players will resolve the event matching the color of the threat
track. If the threat track is on yellow then the yellow event on the drawn event card is read aloud and resolved.
Cyberspace Phase: During this phase the current holder of the cybercard executes one of three actions. She either can determine turn order, choose a strategy card matching the color of the threat track or steal a strategy card from another player.
Action Allocation Phase: During this phase, each player secretly chooses two action cards and places them face down in front of them. These will be the actions that can possible be played and resolved during the next phase. As a refresher the action cards are Biologicals, Cyber, Espionage, Military, Nukes and/or some of the special abilities of the nations (such as “Terror” from the Arab Caliphate).
Action Resolution Phase: Once everyone has secretly chosen and laid their cards face down in front of them, we start resolving actions. First the European Union or holder of the cybercard determines player order. Then each player, in order, choses to play one action or pass. This continues until all actions are played or each player has passed. Some actions are played out of order such as “Espionage” to block an action or “Military” to support or oppose another player’s played military card.
Refresh Phase: Recover spent action cards, cyber markers, and control markers. Players may also recall control markers on minor powers (by exhausting them and taking them back during the next turn’s refresh phase) or adding control markers to bolster their presence in a minor power.
How do I win?
You win by earning Political Capital (PC) throughout the game. It can be earned in a few ways.
Annihilating Population Pawns: Each of the pawns your remove from the board (usually through the applications of biological warfare) moves the threat track down a few spaces. Removing these pawns earns you one PC per two pawns.
Keeping Your People Alive: All those people living in your superpower? Yeah. Keep them breathing. Some superpowers (such as India or China) have massive populations and will earn one PC per saved pawn. Other superpowers with smaller populations (Russia and the US) will earn 5 and 3 PC per saved pawn respectively.
Expand and Protect: Or as I like to refer it – Conquer and Command…because that is what you do. You take over a lesser power through military show of force and then keep them from being nuked or sneezed upon. For your troubles, you earn one PC per surviving pawn.
Strategy and Event Cards: Don’t forget the cards! Earn them! Do what they say!
You can also lose some serious PC by being nuked or utilizing them. Points are also lost through certain strategy cards that may be gifted to you by your friends.
What do you [dis]like?
The interaction of cooperative and competitive play. In order to win you must reduce the threat level. In order to reduce the threat level, you must eliminate population pawns. Keeping your population pawns helps you win the game overall. That is a recipe for negotiation, backstabbing, temporary alliances and treachery.
Ease of teaching. You can teach this game to 5 new people in one turn of the game. It is very simple to learn and players are usually quick to pick up the game. Although, you should put the least experienced players in the United States, China and Russia to start with and the most experienced players in India, the European Union and the Arab Caliphate as those three are a bit trickier to play.
The player interaction is high and fun. It will not take our group long to learn that, in order to succeed, they will need to talk and plan with each other. With our first play-through, there was very little negotiation and the game was still enjoyable but when that “Diplomacy-esque” dialog between players begins, this game becomes a whole new experience. And this is both a strength and weakness of the game. The board and game-play at times feels like a war game so you fall into that routine and sometimes require prodding to move into cooperative/negotiation mode. This becomes more apparent near the end of the game as the threat marker starts approaching that smiling face which ends the game immediately. Every game we play leads to a bit of interplay where players position the marker back spaces (via nukes) to ensure some extra time to play and ruin other player’s plans.
Variable Player Powers: True to life, the superpower nations are asynchronous. While each have a military, nukes and biologicals; the amount of military control markers and nukes vary. The biologicals, not so much – each superpower has the same amount at the start of the game. However, some variable national abilities tip the scales all over that place. This ensures that the players need to adjust strategies for the nation they are playing. The United States and Russia are massively strong with nuke and military as well as (with the US’ CDC and Mother Russia’s Desolation cards) partly resistant to disease. At the same time they have very few population pawns and are ripe to face a coalition from the Eurasian continent. India and the Arab Caliphate are less dynamic but have some interesting special abilities to utilize along with fairly large populations. China and the European Union will be haggling over the cybercard since it mitigates the European Union’s special ability to determine turn order. In the process both will gather a large horde of strategy cards which will likely cause some indigestion for the rest of the world.
The spartan design: I am perfectly fine with the design. Were the design and art overblown, I think the game would be perceived as crass and/or get in the way of game-play. This is a game where you concentrate more on the people across the board from you than the actual board itself. Part of what makes this game’s design fine for me is that it reminds me of Risk and that makes teaching the game much simpler.
The Theme: Personally, I find the theme fine and playable. A disturbing idea but I am perfectly willing to go along with it as long as the gameplay is fluid. Which it was. However, this game is not for every group. Many in my own group don’t like games with war/violent themes (even the fairly innocuous The Manhattan Project raised some concern with players sitting out). So, due to the theme, this game will likely not spend much time on the table.
The Scoring: Specifically, the black deck of strategy cards which are less strategy and more point dumps for whoever can get to them quickest. It is a minor quibble but for a game that relies so much on strategy and contains so little luck, to have this random assignment of points near the endgame seems disjointed. If any pill needed some flavor text, it is those cards…if you are going to dump points give me something to make it go down easier.
Lack of 2-Player Variant: Again, a tedious little complaint but I would love a 2-player variant. Who wouldn’t want to see the EU and the Arab Caliphate go head-to-head or the capitalist machine of the US squaring off against the Great Russian Bear! Also, it would ensure more plays if I didn’t have to gather up 3-5 players possessing the same level of cognitive dissonance as I do.
Would you rather?
Would you rather play Tomorrow or just admit you are a cruel, sadistic, horrible person right now?
OK, listen. This whole hoopla over the theme of this game. I had more complaints when I tabled The Manhattan Project than when I tabled Tomorrow. Was it strange that we played Tomorrow during our Extra-Life event? Probably not the best timing for it, I grant you. Now, this game was “inspired” by the game “Train” by Brenda Brathwaite. If you are unfamiliar there is a Wall Street Journal blog which interviews the designer and I get physically ill just thinking about it. Now that is a game that challenges you. Tomorrow really just a game with biological weapons and backstabbing in comparison.
Would you rather play Tomorrow or Diplomacy?
I feel that the game-play and negotiation/back-stabbing/alliances are similar in these two games and it is my understanding that the game was inspired by Diplomacy and it shows in the simplified mechanics and player interaction. Since Diplomacy is such an epic undertaking I would probably take out Tomorrow to scratch that itch. At the same time, I would really like the full Diplomacy experience one day.
No closing verse today, my friends. Just the thought of “Train” kicked all the poetry out of me. I plan on huddling in a corner for about three hours…