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Posted on Dec 4, 2019 in Boardgames, Front Page Features

“It’s Not Christmas Until Hans Gruber Falls Off the Nakatomi Tower!”. Die Hard Board Game Review.

“It’s Not Christmas Until Hans Gruber Falls Off the Nakatomi Tower!”. Die Hard Board Game Review.

Ray Garbee

‘Die Hard. Publisher: The Op. Game Designers: Patrick Marino and Sean Fletcher. Price $ 39.95

Passed inspection:  Light rules with good explanations of objectives and actions. Captures the feel of the original movie. The game is scripted but at the same time players have flexibility in how they go about achieving their goals. 

Failed basic:  If playing with more than two players, the additional players on the thieves’ ‘team’ often do not feel fully engaged with the game play. Luck is a factor – like other card-based games, Die Hard relies on you having the right cards, at the right time to achieve specific goals.

There are few more iconic action movies made in the past 30 years than Die Hard. The tale of New York cop John McClane’s trip to Los Angles to visit his estranged wife quickly transforms into a high-octane action film with a generous amount of humor mixed into the narrative.  Released in July, 1988, the advent of home video media quickly made this corporate ‘Christmas party gone wrong’ a holiday hit on par with Scrooged or National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.

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Patrick Marino and Sean Fletcher have transformed this classic film into a multi-player tabletop game in ‘Die Hard: The Nakatomi Tower Heist’. The game experience contains a strong cinematic narrative flow that captures the key events of the movie’s plot while allowing the players freedom in determining how they tackle and achieve their objectives.

The game parallels the movie and is organized into three acts. In the first act McClane is gathering resources while the thieves begin working through the formidable vault locks. In the second act, the thieves continue their work while McClane works to build support with the LAPD. In the climatic third act, the thieves attempt to break all the vault locks and then blow the roof off the Nakatomi Tower so they can escape in the resulting confusion. Obviously, John McClane attempts to stop this and seeks the ultimate showdown with the leader of the thieves – Hans Gruber.

So, let’s back the box truck up to the unloading dock and see what we’re facing in this game. ‘Die Hard’ is packaged in a sturdy cardboard box. Inside that box is a plastic insert that keeps all the components in place. What are those components you ask? Well, you get the following;

  • Game board
  • Rule book
  • Objective tiles
  • Actions cards
  • Vault Lock cards
  • Tokens and marker cubes
  • A single six-sided die

The game board is divided into three zones. Each zone corresponds to one of the three acts in the game. The game board serves as the setting for each act. You’ll start on the 31st floor as John searches for a way to reach the outside world and collects some much-needed supplies (“Nine million terrorists in the world and I gotta kill the one with feet smaller than my sister.”)

The game board does a good job of conveying a sense of place for each of the acts. It’s easy to read the board and the rule book provides clear explanations of the various spaces and how they impact movement and combat.

The rule book is 20 pages cover to cover. A 10” x 10” booklet printed on glossy, white magazine quality paper; the rules do a good job of explaining the game. While it’s a good job on the rules, it’s not a great job (That title still belongs to GMT’s Skies Above The Reich”). We were flipping through the pages a lot in our first play through as some of the info was not easy to find. Don’t get me wrong – it was in there, but it was not always easy to find. For example – the first time a hazard token appeared, we flipped through the book for a couple of minutes until we finally located the information.

There are a few typos in the rules, but they are all minor and the typos that we found did not affect the play of the game.

The objective tiles are well executed. Unique sets exist for each act and they loosely guide the players actions. For John McClane, the objectives are how you advance the plot and move closer to defeating the thieves’ plan. For the thieves, many of the objectives are not *required*, but they do help advance your cause in unlocking the vaults.

Each side has a deck of action cards. For John McClane these are divided into three decks that correspond to the cinematic acts of the game. For the thieves it’s a single deck that they use to determine their actions and crack the locks on the vault.

Those action cards work with the vault lock cards. These cards allow for a random series of ‘codes’ to be generated that the thieves must pick to unlock the unbreakable vault door. As you progress through the 7 layers of vault codes, they become progressively more complex.

The last set of components are tokens and cubes. These are either cardboard tokens or acrylic plastic cubes. The tokens represent objective markers and obstacles (like the shot-out panes of glass around the computer center).

That’s what’s in the box. But how does it play?  It’s not complicated while at the same time offering a number of choices. The game starts with act I – John McClane is on the 31st floor of the Nakatomi Tower seeking resources and a way to raise the alert. The thieves will try and stop him while beginning to break the locks on the vault. This plays out through the thieves selecting a set of three action cards while the John McClane player selects a single action card. McClane takes his actions (moving, shooting, punching or shoving) as he moves to the three objective spaces to collect a machinegun, a radio and shoes (which don’t fit).

Then the thieves act. Revealing their cards, they first attempt to crack the vault lock code by seeing if they can apply numbers from some of their cards to the outstanding values on the vault lock codes. It’s an interesting mechanic and forms a core of the thieves’ strategy to get the right cards in the right order to crack the lock.  After that, the thieves use their last action card to perform actions. Like McClane these revolve around moving and fighting as they attempt to impede McClane’s activities while achieving their own goals (which generally are to advance breaking the vault locks).

After that, it’s a lather, rinse repeat cycle of game play. Once McClane has accomplished his goals and exits the board, play advances to the next act, where to game board is changed, card decks and objectives adjusted, play resumes (and the scores can really change!).

It’s straight-forward, but it’s not simple. The McClane player is on the clock. If they waste too much time and exhaust their draw deck – McClane dies and they lose the game! The thieves have several ways to win. They can pursue the conventional narrative of the story and break all the locks quickly, or they can shift to an offensive stance that actively tries to kill McClane (The ‘Karl Vreski’ approach).

Overall the game captures the feel of the movie. Come out to the coast, have a few laughs…and stop the thieves from killing all the hostages and escaping with the money. 

The game is a bit of a compressed and flattened narrative. Some of the notable actions – the killings of Dick Akagi and Harry Ellis are omitted. Confusingly there is no sense that John McClane is actively trying to save his wife – Holly – from these events as much as he is the hostages. Sorry Holly, you’ve been scrubbed from the narrative!

The big change to the narrative is that the game ties breaking the seventh lock to blowing up the roof in order to get the power cut. This is not how it works in the film. That’s right out of the FBI playbook and it happens BEFORE the roof was to be blown.

Setting those changes to the plot aside, I hate to say it but one of the tangible things that bugs me is the quality of several of the components. I can live with modifying the narrative to support the game play. I can also live with the formatting and layout of the rulebook, but what most disappointed me is the cheap feel that the flimsy, light-weight paper conveys. After a single play through the pages – including the cover were looking wrinkled and beat up. This did not bode well for the survivability of the rulebook.

For a component that will be referenced and handled a fair bit, the paper does not feel up to the job of surviving extended use. The durability of the rulebook does not compare favorably to other games such as CMON’s ‘Narco’s’ or Upper Deck’s ‘Shark Island’, both of which used a more durable paper for their rulebooks.  You can find the full rule book online if you want to protect your original from wear and tear, but reading and handling a rule book is the whole reason why the book exists.

The included miniatures also disappointed me, mostly as the small size of the pieces makes them hard to see on the table and obscures some of the casting details. An obvious comparison here is with CMON’s ‘Narco’s’ that included much larger, detailed personality figures that clearly convey who they are intended to represent. In Die Hard, the figures look to be approximately 20mm. The problem is they are too small to be good personality figures and the game is not really a ‘mass combat’ product where you field enough figures so that that quantity has a quality of its own. The choice of scale feels like a design compromise that I found visually unsatisfying.

The game was quite effective as a two -player game. Nominally the game supports up to four players. But those additional players are all on the thief’s faction. It makes sense from the standpoint that the narrative of ‘Die Hard’ is a story of one man – McClane – against an army of murderous thieves.

But through the lens of delivering engaging game play, I found the role of the additional thieves disappointing. While the additional players contribute cards, their role is more collaborative and subordinate to lead thief, as opposed to being a full partner in the project imbued with a sense of independent agency. If you are not the lead thief, you may not feel fully engaged in the game.

One of the more annoying things in the game is the nature of the card deck driven actions. There are occasionally times when the cards in a player’s hand do not align with the actions the player wants to perform. The thieves may lack shoot actions when the thieves are trying to wound McClane. The same happened to me as McClane when I trying to drive hostages off the roof and had a distinct lack of shoot cards or ammo for my sub-machine gun.

It’s not a fatal flaw and it’s not unique to this game. I’ve certainly been frustrated by this playing multiple games of Command Colors or Memoir ’44 or even Twilight Struggle to know it’s not a problem that’s unique to this game.

‘Die Hard: The Nakatomi Tower Heist’ is not intended to be played as a solitaire game. It has no rules for ‘bots or flow charts to direct the actions of either side. It is possible to play it with a single player, but that player is performing all the work for both sides. You are literally playing against yourself. It will require some adaptation – mostly to the way the thieves select their action cards. It’s not fatal, and there will still be enough random actions relating to shooting, punching and the like that you can’t predict the outcomes with 100% accuracy. If you play both sides, you will lose some of the inherent ‘fog of war’ that comes from not knowing what cards each side holds.

Given the relatively light rules and iconic subject matter, instead of playing with yourself, I’d recommend you get together with another gamer or two and have some laughs relieving the events of the game.

Here’s the tough one – should you buy this game. I think the answer here is a qualified – it depends. If you are a fan of the original ‘Die Hard’ movie, then Yippee-Ki-Yay, you’ll find a lot to like and you should buy this game. It allows players to engage in the events of an iconic movie. Who doesn’t want to be John McClane’s version of the good guy cowboy, or to explore the motivations and viewpoint of Hans Gruber’s exceptional thieves?

Personally, I see this as becoming part of our Christmas traditions right up there with watching the movie itself. It’ll offer several hours of entertainment for my friends and I to sit around the table and reconnect during the holidays.

If you are looking for something with a lot of strategy and depth, then – as Obi Wan might say – this is not the game you are looking for. There’s a lot of variability from game to game due to the card draw and random location of the objective tokens.

But if you are looking for a relatively light tabletop game that will take a couple of hours to play with a small group, then there’s a lot to like in this package. The game has enough variability to keep the replay experience fresh and unique. And let’s face it, people like the exploits of John McClane well enough that they made four more movies!  It may not be ‘Christmas in Hollis’, but with Die Hard, every game can be the worst Christmas office party you never attended!

Armchair General Score: 90 %

Solitaire suitability (1–5 scale, with 1 being virtually unplayable as a solitaire game and 5 being completely suitable for solitaire play):  1

Ray Garbee has been a gamer for decades, Ray’s interests include the Anglo-Sikh Wars through the conflicts of the 20th Century and beyond but his passion remains ACW naval gaming. He continues to dabble with designing tabletop games. His past works include Iron Thunder, Anaconda, Anaconda: Capital Navies, Battleline: 2250 and articles in a number of defunct hobby magazines. When not busy gaming, Ray enjoys working on his model railroad, hiking and sport shooting at the local range.

Die Hard box
external view
31st floor

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