Meltwater, from designer Erin Lee Escobedo and published by Hollandspiele back in 2018, is my latest favourite game.
But it is unlikely to be so for everyone.
This Is The End….
It’s the theme, you see. The central concept, of using starvation as a weapon during a post-nuclear apocalyptic vision of End Times, could be considered somewhat ‘off-putting’.
Can the experience of achieving victory through annihilation of the human race actually be described as ‘enjoyable’? Bleak certainly, uncomfortable… probably.
Meltwater is a game that is as likely to be admired from afar for its cleverness as much as it is played for enjoyment. Noted for its commentary on the self-destructive nature of humankind rather for being a truly enjoyable gaming experience.
Nevertheless, Meltwater is a great game. A game that takes the Cold War to its ultimate nightmarish conclusion. A ‘here’s what could have happened’ if the US and USSR had launched their nuclear missiles and, worryingly, still might happen.
Perhaps Meltwater is a game to be experienced more than enjoyed.
So what makes Meltwater such a memorable gameplay experience? Here are my thoughts…
Three Cool Things
The Doomsday Clock
Each turn ends with a card reveal. A ticking clock in paper form.
This card tells players two things: where new life, in the form of refugees, will appear on the map at the end of the next turn and…
…where death, in the form of radiation, will follow.
The clocking is ticking. A palpable sense of dread hangs in the air. A tension is present that so few other games can come close to.
It’s the Epidemic cards from Pandemic with all hope of finding a cure removed.
The clock is ticking. Players need to position their forces to take advantage of refugees to replace lost units, while ensuring existing units don’t end their turn in a ‘dead hex’.
Save what you can, sacrifice what you can’t, leave nothing behind for the enemy.
The clock is always ticking.
Players have tremendous power in Meltwater.
Note: that’s Power. The ability to direct or influence the behaviour of others or the course of events.
Not powers. Made up superhuman abilities or asymmetric game devices.
The player power in Meltwater is over life and death. The ability to decide who lives. And, who does not.
During Meltwater’s ‘Starvation Phase’ overpopulated hexes are reconciled. Units flee to friendly spaces if they can, defect to the opposing side if they can’t.
If there is nowhere to run, or the surrounding hexes are already at the population limit, the active player decides which units survive.
Your units or theirs?
Each game of Meltwater ends the same way: with a handful of units surrounded by radiation, a ticking clock and the knowledge that victory was theirs.
A bleak vision carried to its ultimate conclusion.