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Boarding Columbia: An Up-Close Look At The BioShock Board Game

by Matt Miller on Jul 05, 2013 at 11:00 AM

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Much of the video gaming world has spent recent months exploring the city of Columbia in Irrational's long-awaited BioShock Infinite. The adventure of Booker DeWitt and Elizabeth in the dysfunctional floating city has proven to be one of the best game experiences in years. For those hungry for more opportunities to explore Columbia, Plaid Hat Games is set to release BioShock Infinite: The Siege of Columbia board game this summer.

Plaid Hat isn't one of the biggest companies in tabletop gaming, but its lineup of titles in recent years has proven its worth. Its stellar cooperative game, Mice and Mystics, and its recent sci-fi gang war title, City of Remnants, both garnered critical acclaim. Someone at Irrational must have enjoyed those games, as Plaid Hat was entrusted with the keys to Columbia. "I don't know what exactly caused them to go with us over some of our bigger, more prominent competition, but I'm incredibly grateful that they gave us a chance," says Plaid Hat Games president Colby Dauch. "I think the product will speak for itself that they made a good call there."

The Siege of Columbia fits comfortably as a partner game to BioShock Infinite. The events of both games coincide, but we get a whole new perspective on the action. "We knew from the beginning that we didn't want it to be about playing as Booker and going around Columbia, fulfilling the events of BioShock Infinite. That's already in the video game," Dauch explains. "We wanted to do something different, so instead we put players in the role of the Founders and the Vox Populi." Players control leaders from each faction, and in the war that ensues, each player fights to take control of the city. Dozens of miniatures represent the handymen, mechanized patriots, boys of silence, and other iconic denizens. Special mini leader figures like Daisy Fitzroy and Comstock also wander the board, able to help turn the tide of a fight. The special figures for Songbird and the airship offer opportunities to fly to new locations and devastate opponents.

One of the most interesting features in Siege of Columbia is the inclusion of game piece miniatures that represent not only your troops in the war, but also the roving characters of Booker and Elizabeth. Even as you engage in combat with opposing forces, Booker and Elizabeth independently move around the board. The duo acts as an additional force for chaos, attacking both sides of the conflict. Early in each turn, a new event card is drawn that changes the state of the city, but also dictates Booker's movements. Using a personalized hand of cards, players can spend cards to vote whether the event will occur, guiding Booker's aggressive abilities in one direction or another. Alternately, an event might bring Elizabeth close enough that one side could take control of her or have her open up a tear that provides much-needed supplies to whichever faction is near enough to capitalize.

Cards that aren't used to vote on events can be played toward upgrading your army, adding new units, and enacting special abilities during combat. Players are faced with the tactical choice each turn of using cards for money, influence, or battle. "How I spend those cards each turn is the crux of the strategy in the game," Dauch says.

While the Risk-style deployment of army units follows a traditional board game structure, innovation is introduced through one of the familiar elements from the video game. "Moving is one of the cool parts of the game because of the skylines and the way we've worked those in," Dauch says. Rather than the comparatively slow movement of pieces to adjacent locations on the board, units can hop onto the skylines and zip to distant spaces. Each time they do, a bad roll of the dice might mean those forces tumble to their deaths.

Beyond some fascinating gameplay mechanics, The Siege of Columbia may draw in a lot of players through the force of its gorgeous presentation, art, and materials. Fifty-plus miniatures are all sculpted in painstaking detail, new original art is based directly on the memorable designs from the video game, and in-game text and cards are bolstered by the cooperation of Irrational. "Right up until the end, they were adding their little flourishes," Dauch tells us in reference to his team's cooperation with Irrational. "'Instead of saying the girl Elizabeth, say the Lamb Elizabeth. Instead of calling this card Booker, call it False Shepard.' We knew some of those things, but it really helped to smooth over those last pieces of theme and polish."

The worlds of tabletop and video games share a common pool of players, so it's intriguing to see how each medium can capitalize on a given fiction. The Siege of Columbia looks like a love letter to fans who can't get enough of BioShock Infinite's enticing premise. Can the board game live up to the legacy established by its virtual sister project? We'll be ready later this summer to find out, when The Siege of Columbia hits store shelves.

[This article first appeared in Game Informer Issue #242]