I’ve been wanting to write about Flash Point: Fire Rescue for a while. Cooperative games comprise my favorite genre in board gaming–heck, I love co-ops in video games, as well, though at the end of the day, I tend to prefer the more immersive single-player experience. Amongst tabletop game designs, co-ops most closely emulate that single-player video game experience, pitting the player(s) against the game itself, to win or lose as a team. All you need to design a good competitive game are a few simple rules and an understanding of human nature, but it takes real cleverness to design a good co-op, to craft an antagonistic system of rules that creates constant tension and drama without feeling overwhelming, random, or hard to remember (since, unlike video games, the players must enact these rules themselves). When done well, though, cooperative games fill several important niches: they’re great for introducing to new players, since players are encouraged to discuss their options as a team; they’re ideal for groups who don’t like competitiveness or cutthroat actions, and they allow players of differing skill levels to participate together without fear of a runaway game; and finally, they make perfect candidates for single-player gaming. As such, cooperative games dominate my collection.
Among co-ops, Flash Point: Fire Rescue hits the perfect sweet spot. It presents itself as an accessible game for families–the publisher’s website features lines like “Get those kids away from their screens!”–and with its simple-to-understand rules and universally appealing theme (who doesn’t like firemen?), it achieves that goal. However, unlike other kid- and newbie-friendly co-op titles such as Gamewright’s Forbidden Island and Forbidden Desert, or Fireside Games’ Castle Panic, Flash Point packs in enough depth and expandability to keep veteran cooperative gamers coming back, as well. If I had to recommend a “one size fits all” co-op board game, this would be the one.
Flash Point also does something magical with its dice. I normally avoid co-op games that rely heavily on dice rolls, because they tend to signify an antagonistic system ruled by randomness, and how satisfying is it really to know you’ve overcome the “challenge” of a random number generator? However, while Flash Point has the players roll the dice (a six-sider and an eight-sider) at the end of every turn, the rules that translate these rolls into bursts of flame and screaming civilians cleverly emulate the real-life spread of fire, allowing the players to predict and outmaneuver the blaze even as it grows chaotically.
The board’s broken into a grid of numbers matching the potential values of the dice. In the grid square matching your roll, you must…well, the rules have a different word for it, but I find it easier to think of as “adding heat.” If you add heat to an empty space, smoke appears. If you add heat to a space with smoke already in it, the smoke becomes fire (the flash point from which the game borrows its title). If you add heat to a space already on fire, it becomes an explosion, sending shockwaves in all four directions–basically, you trace a line in the direction of the shockwave until you find a space without fire or a solid wall (or closed door), placing fire in the space or damaging the wall (or blowing the door off its hinges), as appropriate. As fire spreads, the concept of “flashover” comes into play–if a space with smoke is ever adjacent to a space on fire, the smoking space ignites, as well, which may set off a chain reaction, instantly turning a smoke-filled room into a blazing inferno.
Into this clever simulation come the firefighters, tasked with only one job: rescue the civilians (and pets) trapped in the blaze. The dice also bring “points of interest” into play during the course of the game; these points of interest could be civilians, or they could be false alarms. The firefighters must identify civilians and drag them to the safety of the ambulance circling the building before the fire claims them. This often necessitates a host of other actions: dousing flames, opening and closing doors, and even chopping through walls. Be careful, though–the building can only sustain so much damage before it suffers a structural collapse, ending the mission in immediate failure, so any new holes you make only speed that process along. However, sometimes it’s a necessary sacrifice to reach a civilian in time.
This sums up the basic or “Family Game”; the “Advanced Game,” which I played, adds many new features, including hazardous materials, hot spots, firefighters with unique special abilities, and a yellow fire engine from which the players can change crew or spray the firehose. The game also supplies a double-sided board featuring a choice of easier and harder burning house. For gamers unsatisfied with these options, expansions bring in a host of new features: 2nd Story adds two-story buildings, ladders and windows; Dangerous Waters brings in a boat and a sub, with rules for metal walls and mission-critical resources; and the forthcoming Honor & Duty brings in airplane and subway environments, with rules for navigating particularly difficult terrain.
As for my latest session of this game…well, it didn’t go as well as I’d planned. My Driver/Operator character wasn’t able to efficiently fire the deck gun, since the game doesn’t allow you to target areas containing firefighters. Midway through, I switched him out for the Rescue Dog, but couldn’t use him efficiently, either (a tricky character, the Rescue Dog can squeeze through tight spaces and move across the board quickly, but the other players must first clear a path through the smoke and fire). My Hazmat Technician disposed of several hazardous materials, but in retrospect, his services might have been better employed elsewhere. After only three rescues, the structure collapsed, killing the rest of the people inside and critically injuring my firefighters, who will live to serve another day.
It’s hard to describe in words how naturally the fire spreads, so I’ve included an illustrative slideshow of the last few rounds.