on Feb 10, 2016
An old man and his son approached me. I was starving, having been hiking and camping the post-apocalyptic wasteland for days, but somehow they looked worse. They begged me for a few cans of food. I didn’t have much, but I knew that if I ignored their plight it would eat away at my conscience until I found The Fortress, or died trying. Digging through my pack I found my last two cans and handed them over, I could always forage more. The man smiled as he took them. Standing up, he cast off his dirty cloak, smiled, and said “My name is Gary; welcome to The Fortress.”
That is exactly how one of my first games of Posthuman ended. Well, not exactly. The stuff about Gary letting me into the fortress was made up; I could have drawn that card from the encounter deck earlier in the game when I wasn’t about to walk into the final space on the Journey Track, but that doesn’t matter. That card, in that game, represented a final test of my cage-fighting character’s humanity. Give up the last of my food and I was allowed to continue into The Fortress as the victor, hoard it and I would have lost all hope and morale. Posthuman’s strongest feature is the narrative that emerges as you embark on a journey through the waste to find The Fortress, the hallowed MacGuffin of this story.
Your journey is abstracted in many ways. Your actual character moves along a personal board built as you play out of various terrain tiles that tell you how many encounter cards you need to draw and how many supply cards you’ll earn for completing the tile. There is some fairly standard variety to the tiles (urban tiles are more likely to yield bullets, forests more likely to yield food) that can influence where you go and peppered within the stack are special tiles that symbolize places like churches or farms where your character might gain a special bonus so long as they rest there. The game’s main board features the Journey Track, a series of spaces marked with the encounter level you’ll need to face along a route that winds through rivers and valleys, but those rivers or fields have no bearing on the tiles you draw.
Similarly, even your personal map of tiles is not meant to be a literal representation of the route you’re on. Regardless of what direction you initially head out on, so long as you share a terrain type with an opponent you are free to trade or share resources. There is no north, south, east, or west on this narrative and figurative journey that your character moves along and it can feel a bit strange at first to trade with an opponent in a forest, climb up and over a mountain, and trade with them again in the next forest when they have yet to leave the original one. Eventually, however, you begin to realize that one of Posthuman’s themes is the idea that being in the same place doesn’t necessarily mean you’re together. Share your food or swap weapons all you want, but ultimately your journey is your own and you must face dangers or succumb to them on your own.
The story of the game is excellent. The encounter decks will introduce you to a large variety of enemies, both human and mutant. Hungry children, psychic mutants, and gun traders are some of the more social encounters you’ll come across while slaver trains, mutated rhinoceroses, and wild packs of dogs are some of the things you might fight. Injuries sustained against mutant enemies will earn your character mutation scars. Accumulate enough and you will earn the choice or inevitable requirement to join the mutant hive-mind and turn your attention directly against your opponents. In practice, the mutant transformation is excellent. Mutants have an entirely new set of actions and abilities, and transcend the idea of moving a dude on the map. Afterall, the mutants are always in the shadows and can strike from anywhere. Depending on which mutation you draw you will adjust your character’s stats and gain powers. A “Small Frontal Lobe” might reduce your mind stat and hand size while horns will boost your strength and make you better in combat. It’s an excellent option for those falling behind, and also mitigates situations where a player draws particularly hard combat encounters while their opponents don’t.
Unfortunately, some of the mechanics don’t back up the strong narrative. Shooting is relatively straightforward, but melee combat takes quite a few rounds to wrap your head around. While shooting, every hit deals a wound. In melee, successful rolls are compared with the winner dealing damage based on weapons, stats, and critical rolls. It’s clunky, and gets in the way of the story. Combat feels like a thing you need to get through to get more of a story instead of a fun mechanic in its own right. Similarly, setting up all the mini decks and fiddling with the player attribute chits takes a little longer than I want, though I appreciate that those same chits allow for a robust custom character system.
At the end of the day however, I don’t care about the mechanics being inelegant. The variety of encounters, objects, and weapons ensure that each game plays different and the will-she-won’t-she tension that appears when your opponents begin collecting mutation scars weave together a great experience. Players can weave a communal story that plays out differently each time. In one game, players may race to the Fortress with no one turning mutant. In the next, someone may evolve a third of the way into the game and begin terrorizing his opponents immediately. It’s great for replayability, and even better for storytelling. I unpack the game excited about the story, and pack it back up wanting to explore the world again soon.