A fair(burne) analysis.
The plan was perfect. The second you were sure he’d slipped in through the window, you had given the order. Your men plugged every exit to the building, tightening the noose your foe had unwittingly laid around his neck. “I know you’re in here!” You had cried, struggling to curtail the smirk curling the edges of your mouth. There was no way out. Was. And then Private Wagner had abruptly turned on his heels and leapt out of the nearest window. “Es tut mir leid, boss. Could have sworn I heard something out there, but all I found was this rock!”
Sniper Elite: The Board Game is a silly experience. But then again, so is the series that inspired it. We recently had the chance to take an early prototype through its paces over the course of several base-raiding missions. Interested to know how well a video game about shooting Nazis from several hundred meters away translates into the analog world? We’ve investigated how well Sniper Elite: The Board Game lives up to the digital experience it’s based on.
What Sniper Elite: The Board Game gets right about the video game
It’s time to slot into the mud-coated boots and grizzled jawline of Karl Fairburne -- legendary sniper and bane of Nazi testicles. Sneaking into a German military base, he must plot a path to two hidden objectives, with the controlling player using a secret board to track his furtive movements to and fro. Fairburne’s mission won’t be easy, however, as up to three other players will take command of the camp’s guards, attempting to locate the American pig in their midst. Working together, they can foil his plans by running down the clock or, preferably, lodging a few bullets of their own in his backside.
World wars aren’t exactly a font of humor, but anyone who’s lined up a particularly impressive slow-mo nut shot in Sniper Elite will be well aware that developer Rebellion’s shooter has never taken itself very seriously. Stealth-combat video games are pretty much systematic comedy generators. Intentionally idiotic AI guards interface with wonky physics and bumbling human players to concoct a variety of entertainingly nonsensical scenarios.
Sniper Elite: The Board Game captures this aspect perfectly. Up front is an ostensibly straight-faced experience. But in action, you’ll often find your table chuckling at the scenarios which unfold. It’s not uncommon for a swarm of Nazis to bundle into a room, certain that the Sniper lies within yet awkwardly unable to say precisely where he’s standing. The image of your typical slow-witted video game guard is immediately evoked. Clumsily sweeping corners, these goons were always going to struggle to spot a foe hopping between a convenient abundance of chest-high boxes.
The guards are idiots, but you can be too
Video game baddies are well-known for their overly generous shouting -- “Are you over there, Mr. Protagonist? I’m going to reload now Mr. Protagonist! You know, just in case you wanted to run between bits of cover!” -- and Sniper Elite: The Board Game is entertainingly familiar here, too. The Nazi players must loudly declare each space they check or shoot into. Bursting in with a shout of “a-ha!” or a hail of gunfire, they’ll typically be met by a wry shake of the Sniper player’s head and the embarrassing knowledge that they just peppered a filing cabinet with ammunition.
The Nazis have a few nasty tricks of their own, however, all designed to catch that pesky Sniper. Each Squad’s officer comes with a special power, the most dangerous of which is the Scout’s teleport. Transporting a soldier to any position on the map, it’s the perfect way to scrub a smug smile from the Sniper’s face after they reveal a completed objective. Magically teleporting Nazis might not sound realistic, but it holds thematically if you imagine the Sniper completing their objective with a whoop, only to awaken a sleeping guard they didn’t spot in the corner.
The Sniper feels like the protagonist
The round structure to Sniper Elite: The Board Game can feel ungainly at first but makes sense when you consider the source. Like most hidden-movement games, the Sniper goes first, sneaking through the base, stealing equipment, and shooting up guards. These events are only announced at the end of the turn, however, and the guards will never know in which order they took place.
This means every round starts with a flurry of rustling, secretive action. The guards have to watch as the Sniper grabs their shot bag and declares the number of tokens to be drawn. They’ll have no idea if the result was a success, who’s been shot, or where the shooting took place until the Sniper’s turn wraps up.
In effect, the Sniper acts as the storyteller. Announcing the events of the last few minutes, they’ll relay which guards hear the clump of footsteps, who gets distracted by the thud of a rock, and when poor Müller suddenly collapses courtesy of a hole in his brain cavity.
It pays for the Sniper to roleplay a bit, toying with their descriptions before allowing the guards to scramble in response. No matter how terrifying they can be to play, the Sniper is in charge and dictating the plot of each game.
To succeed as a Sniper, it pays to get creative. While the guards are forced to try and cover almost all objective potentials, the Sniper can take the game at their own pace. Rushing in with abandon is entirely an option, but you can also try more devious mischief. Firing from one building to hit a guard in another is a brilliant way to mislead your hunters. Or it seems great until you draw two red noise tokens and reveal yourself to be standing directly next to an officer and his two lackeys. It’s the thought that counts, right?
Sniper Elite: The Board Game allows you to approach the compound in your own style, and depending on just how lucky you are, even the bold and brash can find success. Inspecting and tracking a squad of Nazi guards before executing (and entirely messing up) your strategy is a crucial part of Sniper Elite, though we’re afraid to inform that quicksaves don’t exist in the board game edition.
A few bugs in design
We had a smashing time with the Sniper Elite: The Board Game prototype, but as with any video game, a few bugs and oddities did surface. For a game with Sniper in the name, shooting at range is an oddly rare activity. In fact, the game actively encourages you not to.
The farther away a target is, the more Aim tokens the Sniper must pull from their shot bag to succeed. This doesn’t just make the shot harder, it also increases the risk of drawing noise tokens or causing a weapon jam. As such, it usually pays for the Sniper to sneak up close, unloading right next to their target in complete silence. Sure, you could read this as using a silenced pistol, but we feel like you aren’t really living up to your title there, Mr. Fairburne.
Once we’d grown accustomed to the structure and worked through a few obtuse rule descriptions -- the latter of which we imagine will be tidied up for the commercial release -- our time with Sniper Elite: The Board Game was a blast. Despite a distinct absence of long-range shooting, it’s impressive how well it captures the core gameplay loop of the video game series. Following a successful Kickstarter campaign (late pledges will be opening soon), Sniper Elite’s cardboard debut isn’t expected to ship until the second half of 2021. We have to admit, we’re always a bit wary when a big license announces a tie-in board game. But after these initial playtests, Rebellion has definitely forced us to adjust our sights.
When he’s not losing himself as a mercenary in Gloomhaven, Henry Stenhouse can be found gobbling up all the latest and greatest party games, then wondering why he can never find the time to actually play them with friends. Share your love of Penguin Party with him on Twitter @Fernoface or drop an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.