Flash Point: Fire Rescue (2011)

You can find our accessibility teardown of Flash Point here.

If you ever saw the Doctor Who episode ‘The Empty Child’, you’d be forgiven for finding the cover of Flash Point just a little bit creepy.

Box art

Are you my mummy?

Flash Point is not a Matt Leacock game, but it definitely seems to have been spliced together from some of his DNA.  It’s not ‘Pandemic, but with fires’ but there are certain core mechanisms that draw heavily from that style of game.  It’s got an action point system, roles, and an escalation mechanic that seems powerfully influenced by Pandemic’s epidemic cards.  However, it gives its own particular spin on all of these systems by being a game that is crueler as a result of its heavy dependence on randomness and the claustrophobia of explicit spatiality.  With Pandemic, the world is your stage.  Within Flash Point, you’re dealing with the rooms of a single, chronically badly designed house.

To set up the game, we pick one side of the double-sided map.  The front is easier, offering as it does four points of ingress.  The other is more difficult, giving only two entry points.   This won’t necessarily cause fire-fighters to get in each other’s way, but it will limit opportunities for easily reaching the places of the map that are necessary.

The house, you see, is on fire.  Quite badly on fire.  We arrive on the scene to a conflagration that is on the verge of burning out of any control.   More than that, we arrive on the scene with a time limit – it’s only a matter of time before everyone inside is killed, either by fire or by structural damage causing the entire place to collapse.  That’s obviously ludicrous, because even jet fuel can’t melt steel beams, right?  Right?  What’s the chance a simple house fire could cause a building collapse?  OPEN YOUR EYES, SHEEPLE.

The exact setup of the game varies depending on your hubris.  You can choose a difficulty level defining just how badly you’re going to be screwed.  This determines how many explosions, hazardous materials, and hotspots are going to be distributed around the map.  All of these are bad things, and the more bad things we have to deal with the harder it’s going to be to win.  This isn’t a linear relationship.  The difficulty curves like a scimitar.

The house we’re working with is in a bad state.  First of all we’re going to light it up.  We roll a dice, and check a lookup chart in the manual, and then we place a single fire token in the appropriate location.

One token

I’ll teach you to burn

That’s not so bad, is it?  I mean, anyone can…

Explosion

You were only supposed to blow the bloody door off

Well, okay.   See, the fires aren’t really our biggest worry.  Our worry is when there are explosions.  Every explosion sends red hot flames into every adjacent space.  If it’s blocked by a door, it destroys it completely.  If it’s blocked by a wall, it blows a chunk out of it – we indicate that with little black cubes.  Two of those in a wall and it’s gone, leaving the fire free to spread into other rooms without adopting the polite convention of going via the door.

If there’s already a fire in an adjacent square, it creates a shockwave which sends the fire even further, past all the existing fire, until it reaches an empty square, a wall, or a door.  Yeah, explosions are bad news, and when we place our first fire we also have it explode.

And then we do it again.

A second explosion

Hot enough for you?

And again.

A third explosion

Uh… guys…

And maybe even again, depending on how lucky we’re feeling.  Crikey, that’s a lot of things to worry about, right away.  Dealing with the fire is a costly, time-consuming process and when the conflagration engine at the heart of Flash Point starts to heat up, it’s going to rapidly expand to the point we’ll need to productively panic.

These fires are bad, but only part of the bad is on the surface.  Each of these starter fires gets a ‘hot spot’ to go with it.  Every time those squares are the target of advancing fire, we place another fire.  And they never go away, even if we get rid of the initial blazes.    They represent the smouldering ashes and slowly kindling fuel of a recently devastated house.

Oh, but we’re not done yet.  Once you’ve resolved the initial explosions then you add hazardous material. When a fire touches any of those, it explodes instantly and creates another hot-spot.  Eep.  We don’t have to worry about it just yet, but if we see a fire raging near any of those we’re going to want to make a special effort to either sort it out or stay well clear.

Oh, but we’re not done yet!  Then we place a few more hotspots depending on our level of difficulty and the number of firefighters we have.  Eep again.

We also have to place the Points of Interest tokens.  These are little circles with a question mark indicating potential victims or false alarms.   To win the game, we need to rescue seven people or animals.   We lose if four of them are killed.

It’s not all bad news though.  We’re well funded, and each of us is a skilled professional at the top of his or her game.  We’ve got the best equipment, the biggest fire engines, the best PR in the business.  We’re on top of this.   Call us Icarus.

Specialists

Are You Our Mummies?

We each get a specialist card that determines what kind of firefighter we are.  We get an ambulance to which we’re going to need to drag injured people.  We also get a fire-engine with a powerful hose, and if one of our fire-fighters reaches it they can change their role to something more situationally useful.  Basically they shrug off whatever specialist equipment they have and haul on another set.  It takes time, but might offer a vital advantage in a tense engagement.  

Each firefighter begins somewhere around the board, at a point chosen by the player controlling them.  Then it’s a race to rescue enough people before the building collapses, or too many people are killed.  And a race it is – either of those things can happen in a flash.  Point.

One thing that Flash Point manages to represent almost perfectly is the intensely unpredictable nature of fire.  It’s going to rage through this building in a way that seems almost malevolently sentient.  There will be lulls and moments of relative calm that end up creating the context for impossible chaos to follow.    We’re going to be ‘advancing’ this fire after every firefighter has had a chance to control the situation.  We roll the dice, and place a smoke token where it says.  Or at least, we do that if everything is going well.  If the square is empty but contains a hot spot, we roll again and place another smoke marker, and we keep doing that until we place the marker on an empty square.

That’s fine, but it rapidly escalates.  See, if you put a smoke token next to a fire, it instantly becomes fire itself.  If you place a smoke token on another smoke token, it becomes fire.  And if you place a smoke token on an existing fire?  Boom.  That’s an explosion, baby, and that’s going to make your life much, much harder.  It’s like drawing an epidemic card in Pandemic, except it can happen multiple times in a single turn.

Explosions and the associated shockwaves will really mess up your day, destroying walls and doors and adding in new spatial adjacency that you have to deal with.   They’ll spit fire into far off corners of your rooms, causing the relatively harmless smoke to ignite into hot, flaming death.   If the fires hit your firefighters, they get knocked back to the ambulance.  If they hit a victim, then they’re just dead.  If the fire hits a hazmat, you get another explosion, which creates another hot-spot.  In later stages of the game, when the fire is beyond any meaningful chance at controlling, all you’re doing is rolling the dice with all the grim determination of a detective kicking over a body.   You know someone is dead, you just need to work out who.

What can you do to deal with this?

It turns out, quite a lot.

Flash Point adopts a standard action point allowance system, but it offers a much wider range of choices than most games in this family, and is more respectful of spatial context.

Menu of options

The Set Menu

At the simplest level, your job is ‘get to a victim, carry them out to an ambulance’.  It’s basic pick up and deliver stuff even if the stuff is being delivered through brutally virulent flames.   The cost of this though varies depending on where you’re moving and what you’re carrying with you.  You can move through smoke at no extra cost, but moving through fire requires two action points and you can’t end your turn there.  Moving while carrying a victim or hazardous material also costs two action points.  You can’t carry a victim or hazmat through fire.  Your plan for exiting the building may need to change in a heartbeat, and that can be the difference between life and death.

Doors need to be opened or shut (1 AP each), and chopping through a wall costs two AP.  You can turn fire into smoke for one action point, and smoke into nothing for one additional point.  Some specialists too have extra actions they can perform, and specialists on vehicles have more actions still available.  They can drive around, change their gear (if on the fire engine) or fire the deck gun to extinguish mass amounts of fire with four action points.  It’s all very dynamic and flexible.

Mostly though the action point system is a proxy for what you’re really spending every turn – time and spatial flexibility.   There are twenty-four damage cubes in the game, and when they’re gone the game is over.  When you’re watching the fire approach a potential victim on the other side of a wall you need to weigh up the time cost in getting there, versus the time cost in just chopping through to save them.  But…

The victims are placed on the board face down, and they’re not all people.  Some are false alarms, and you can only know what they are by visiting their square.  That is, unless you have an imaging technician available.  So not only are you weighing up the time cost of chopping through the wall against the reduced structural integrity of the building, you’re also having to do so with imperfect information.   Two damage cubes will turn a wall into a door, but that’ll move you 8% further towards oblivion.  You don’t have the luxury of being able to linger though, because the fire is raging and you might only be a single die roll away from another fatality.   Is that guaranteed 8% better or worse than a potential 25%?

The game then is made up of a number of cost-benefit analyses that run on the grim calculus of acceptable loses.  If a room is absolutely full of fire, can you risk it?  There may be other people in other areas that are easier to save:

An easy victim

This looks like a milk run

This ongoing analysis is especially fraught because situations can escalate wildly on the basis of a few bad die rolls.  A room can go from completely safe to deadly inferno in a couple of turns:

Spreading Fire

Well, shit

In a couple of turns.  It’s all to do with the mechanics of fire escalation.  Perhaps the firefighter is standing in some spreading smoke.  It flares up, and boom – now you’ve got a problem.  When one of those smoke tokens turns to fire, they all turn to fire during the flashover phase.

And then a few turns later, you roll a square with a fire token  This time, it’s smoke on fire which is another explosion.  It blows the doors off, shock-waves off towards the top of the building, and ignites the hazmat.  Then the hazmat explodes, inflicts serious damage to the walls, and sends shock-waves everywhere once again.

Escsalation of fire

Getting hot, hot, hot

So yeah – are you going to try to get that poor woman to safety?  Or maybe focus on one of the ones that you can probably save?  You can afford four fatalities.  It’s grim, but there’s an equation you have to balance.   You might be able to get to her via the bathroom, but will she still be there by the time you make that happen?

Dead victim

Rest in peace. Or as close as you can get to peace since you’re on fire.

Every time you lose a victim, or reveal a false alarm, a new point of interest is revealed on the map once the fire has been resolved.   This might be good news, giving you an easy victory.  Or, it might be just more bad news in an already pretty bad day.

Because no matter how hard you try to control the blaze…

Firefighter in trouble

Guys, a little help

Everything is burning, and not everyone is going to make it out…

Fire everywhere

This is fine.

At its best Flash Point is good.  Great, even.  It’s full of tense, interesting decisions and opportunities for clever strategizing.  You really get to consider the space as an evolving puzzle to be solved – that victim that was impossible to reach last turn may suddenly be a simpler prospect once the wall behind them is destroyed.   On the other hand, the victim you were planning to save might end up being a casualty of cost-benefit once the hazmat outside their door explodes.  Maybe the one you wrote off earlier is actually the easier option now.  Your plans, like the fire itself, will change constantly.

When the blaze is especially bad, you might want to consider spending the hefty four points on the deck gun in the hope of extinguishing a square and everything adjacent.  You do that on a dice-roll though, and you can’t do it in a quadrant that already contains a firefighter.  You also need to manoeuvre the fire-engine to a space adjacent to the quadrant to use it.  Can you get all that to line up?  And if you can, do you trust the dice to work in your favour?  It can genuinely change the flow of the game, and there isn’t a right answer – that’s an interesting decision no matter what way you look at it.

But when it’s not at its best…

We played a game of Flash Point that was soporifically dull.   We had the driver specialist, and they can fire the deck gun at half cost.  Two blasts of the deck gun early on extinguished in its entirety one of our starting blazes.  Our other three firefighters managed to get the fire mostly under control.  When we rolled, we ended up missing hot spots and existing fires.  While the house was filling up with smoke it was never creating a serious danger.   I spent my turns hoping that I’d roll something catastrophic just to add at least some entertainment to the evening.

The dice are fantastic in emulating the unpredictability of fire.  Sometimes that unpredictability is going to lead to a comparatively workaday encounter.  You end up fighting the kind of blaze that nobody bothers talking about when they get back to the station.   It’s the board-game equivalent of being called out to rescue a cat from a tree.   Explosions are an accelerant on the tension of the game, but if they’re not actually happening you end up thinking ‘Oh, that was a disappointment’ when you rescue seven people and win the game.

Essentially, the way the dice roll isn’t just going to determine the evolution of the fire – in a very real sense, it’s going to determine whether you have any fun at all.  That’s putting a lot of trust in Lady Luck.

The game does permit you to set your own challenge of course, and you can always make things trickier for yourself with the variant rules provided, or by increasing the difficulty level.  While those will reduce the chance that you’ll end up sleepwalking your way through a ‘take your daughter to work’ day at the fire brigade, they won’t eliminate it.    The escalation curve just isn’t as reliable as it is in Forbidden Desert, Forbidden Island, or Pandemic. As such sometimes you just won’t have a very interesting time unless you want to fudge a few things here and there.  I’d suggest something like ‘if you’ve gone three turns without a fire, roll the dice and resolve an explosion there’.  The nature of the fire in Flash Point is that once you have the situation under control you probably won’t lose control again – true to life, but not entertaining.

The specialists are all interesting and varied, but the problem is that they too can hugely sway the difficulty of a game.  The imaging technician for example can flip any point of interest marker on the map for one action point.   That’s potentially dozens of saved action points if it reveals a false alarm, and that’s a saving every time a POI is placed on the map.   Remember, Flash Point is a game about spatial navigation against a time limit.  That time limit is vital in keeping tension.  The driver can wipe out huge swathes of fire from the outside.   That can completely change the tempo of the game with a single lucky roll, and since he does it for half the cost of any other specialist and can influence the roll in his favour, it’s tremendously powerful.

I have no objections to the asymmetry of the specialist cards – in fact, it’s one of the things I like the most.   It’s clear though that not all specialists are created equal, and you can create a dream-team if you like.  Not only that, since you can change roles by making it to the fire engine, you’re not even locked in to a strategy.   If it turns out you suddenly need a rescue specialist, or a paramedic, you can tag them into the battle.

The mechanics are flexible, but they aren’t really very elegant.  You’re often left with points left and nothing interesting to do.  The game offers you a system to let you bank these action points, but it just feels a little bit like a workaround to solve a design problem.   In a game as (potentially) tense and exciting as Flash Point, I shouldn’t ever have the breathing space to bank actions.  Every action point should be vital, every turn.   In Pandemic, I can’t remember the last time I wasted an action.  I can’t remember the last time I felt as if the situation was under control to an extent that I could just potter around without threat.

I compare Flash Point to the Matt Leacock family of games a lot in this review.  I know it’s not a Matt Leacock game, and it shouldn’t be expected to conform to the Pandemic design sensibilities.    It feels and plays though very much like it’s in that category of titles.   It’s not so similar that I think it’s an unnecessary overlap in a collection, but close enough that there is great compatibility in the design language and ludic conventions.   It just doesn’t elegantly capture the inevitability of despair in the same way as a Leacock game.  As such it can occasionally feel like a bit of an empty experience.

Still, when the dice do roll in an interesting way there isn’t a Leacock title that can match it for sheer game adrenaline.  Explosions are alarming, shockwaves are game changing, and each accumulation of hot-spots creates an agreeable frisson around the table.  Most of the time too, that’s exactly what will happen.    Most of the time.

We’re giving Flash Point 3.5 stars – a good game, not quite a great one, but one that has the makings of greatness in the box.


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