A social deduction game espousing James Cameron’s sequel to the classic Alien is enough to bring anyone to the table. Burke’s Gambit is as close as you’re gonna get as the crew of a space ship grapple with infection and moral dilemma. It’s an intriguing setup and sparks imagination right from launch.
This sub-genre of table top games is beginning to reach over-saturation. To really stand out, new titles must bring a twist or innovation. Burke’s Gambit’s first wrinkle is its multi-layered setup. Instead of merely dealing out roles stating your team, you’re actually given three separate randomized elements that form your affiliations and influence your strategy.
The first item you’re dealt is a character card. This typically provides a one-time special ability that can potentially be influential. A large number of crew members are included with options such as the Captain, Doctor, and Pilot. Most offer nuance to overall strategy with the exception of the Stowaway. This little hoodlum must be highlighted because they possess no ability and don’t participate in the important voting segment at end game. While this can create interesting decisions and alters the dynamic of player count, it takes agency away from a single person as you feel somewhat muzzled. On more than one occasion we’ve simply left the role out of the game as the person who received it was disappointed.
So we’re past that, you have a special power but you lack an agenda. Now each player is dealt an ID card which determines your loyalty. The majority will be members of the salvage crew, intent on preventing the infection onboard from reaching Earth and spreading maximum carnage. A minority of participants will be Acquisition Support Specialists–it’s more fun to use their acronym–which are all dead-set on bringing that little nuclear tapeworm home to roost. See, these black-hearted capitalists are all about turning the alien lifeform into a weapon for profit and gain. Sometimes you just have to spill some blood to bankroll that sweet penthouse and hover-car.
What’s interesting here is that no one knows who is on their team, not even the ASSes. This adds tension as you have to work to identify your team and organize before the game ends and the ship reaches Earth.
The final aspect of your starting position is the parasite card. One player at the table will receive a card saying they are infected, while the others are clean as a whistle. The problem here is that you are not allowed to look at your status. Yeah, you could have a little bugger with a mouthful of teeth swimming around your GI tract and all you can do is squirm.
The goal here is for the good guys to determine who is infected and space them before reaching Earth. This is accomplished by unanimous vote at end game. Meanwhile, those corporate desk jockeys are manipulating the group and trying to misdirect, as they succeed if the host isn’t ejected. This layered approach of determining loyalty and target is vaguely reminiscent of the underrated social deduction gem Bloodbound. These types of games where you’re working to assemble a puzzle before you can commit to targeted strategy can be quite engaging.
The ongoing tempo of Burke’s Gambit is a different animal altogether due to the reliance on chance. Each turn you pick up a large bag and remove a single die from its contents. You then roll the die and either stick with the result or perform a re-roll. These dice vary in the contents of their face and include options such as scanning a neighbor’s infection status, viewing ID cards, attacking/healing opponents, and even scattering infection cards and re-dealing them. The pace is set by engine results, which are locked when rolled and placed in the middle of the table. Depending on the player count, several of these rolls will accumulate and trigger the end game where a final vote occurs.
You have possible player elimination, wild swings in information density, and constant arguing. Now we’re cooking.
This portioning out of actions and information from random chance is (mostly) delightful. It gives a constant sense of grappling with control of the game state as you rarely accomplish exactly what you want. It also can lead to lopsided games that end early or that result in the group acquiring information too fast, leaving the bad guys disengaged. That random result set and ensuing unpredictable game state is really the most enjoyable and aggravating aspect of Burke’s Gambit.
Luckily the game is fast, lasting a mere 20 minutes. This helps alleviate the odd outcome of rolling a bunch of engine symbols early. The larger problem is that the balance seems slightly out of whack with less than seven players. It’s difficult for the corporate lackeys to gain control as they’re too outnumbered. With seven or eight players the count evens out and information is much harder to corroborate. This is due mainly to how the scanning of information tends to hit those sitting adjacent to you. In small games you can hone in on results and confirm them rather quickly.
If you can muster larger numbers or forgive an occasionally awkward result, Burke’s Gambit does deliver on its promise. The theme is integrated well for this type of game and the reliance on chance engenders drama. It doesn’t rely on mere social maneuvering as the mechanisms enforce conflict and interaction. As a whole this package works well enough and certainly comes in as a worthy entrant to the scene at a very small price point.
Are you a fan of social deduction games? Interesting in trying Burke’s Gambit? Let us know in the comments below!
Cover Image Credit: Charlie Theel
Image Credits: Wizkids, Charlie Theel