Posthuman in all its glory.
An exhausted looking woman with spiky black hair dragging a bloody baseball bat walked along the path. An old man and his son approached her. She was starving, having been hiking and camping the post-apocalyptic wasteland for days, but somehow they looked worse. They begged her for a few cans of food. She wrestled with her conscience for a moment; there was no telling how far away The Fortress was. Digging through her pack, she found her last two cans and handed them over. 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.”
Sounds like the ending to a decent movie right? Not a movie at all. Instead, that is exactly how one of my first games of Posthuman ended. Sort of. 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.
A lot of this journey is abstracted. There are multiple boards in Posthuman, one in the center and a personal board you build with tiles as you play. While the art, playing pieces, and flavor text do a great job at setting the scene, really getting the most out of the story requires you to accept some of those abstractions. For starters, the main board in the middle of the table is the Journey Track. The trail winds over mountains and across rivers, marked by spaces bearing the numbers 1, 2, 3. These numbers tell you what encounter level you need to draw, but this path does not literally mean that you are going over the river and through the woods. Your character might be in an urban city space in front of you while your marker on the Journey Track is in the river.
A grizzled ex-cop, ready to wander the waste.
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. Some people have said they don’t like this, as it doesn’t make sense. I personally don’t mind it too much. 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.
If you can move post these abstractions, you’ll find a game that excels at telling a story. 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. Any fighting in Posthuman can be deadly, but fighting a mutant is especially bad. When a mutant deals melee damage, they can pass whatever it is that is causing the mutations on to you in the form of scars. Some scars are just scars, but others are an actual mutation that your character may succumb to. Get three real mutations, and you have the choice to give in and go mutant. Get five mutations and your body can no longer resist.
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. Once you’re part of the hive-mind, you are everywhere and nowhere. 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. Playing as a mutant involves using your new mutant actions to steal, shoot, or even directly attack the remaining human players. Of course, this is another way to spread mutations and build the hive-mind.
Upclose shot of the mutations. Things aren’t looking good.
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. It also feels very swingy. I’ve seen players eliminated on their first attempt at melee combat, and others stroll through the game with a baseball bat and never take damage. Combat almost feels like a thing you need to get through to get more 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. The game comes with 6 prebuilt characters but once you’ve got the hang of the game you can make your own. That being said, once it is set up it can be reset very quickly which is great for solo play…and I really like Posthuman’s solo mod. You lose the interesting Mutant Mechanics, but it becomes a timed race that amps up the pressure. Stopping to forage or explore a tile because you want more bullets needs to be balanced against making sure you can actually reach the fortress.
Mutated, or evolved, depending on your perspective.
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.