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Cooperative action points
Punching frog monsters and sharing action cubes in Hellboy: The Board Game
Last week I shared things I wish I had known about Affinity Publisher when making my first printed game. This week we are looking at an interesting way to use action points in Hellboy: The Board Game!
Hellboy: The Board Game
Hellboy: The Board Game (2019) is designed by James M. Hewitt and Sophie Williams:
Hellboy: The Board Game is a co-operative experience in which players face off against some of the comic's most famous foes. Up to four people take control of iconic BPRD members, such as Hellboy, Abe Sapien, and Roger the Homunculus, then explore gothic locations and uncover ancient artifacts.
Each character has special rules, strengths, weaknesses, and unique actions. Missions are in shrink-wrapped Case File card decks, only to be opened when played. There’s a modular tile board (like many dungeon crawlers) that is set up based on the scenario.
Each scenario includes encounters, monsters, and things to investigate. You gather information to prepare for the Confrontation — a final battle between the Agents and one of the Bosses.
As a huge fan of both Mike Mignola’s art and the Hellboy comics, this is (thematically) one of my favorite board games. It’s mechanically tight, and avoids much of the fiddliness endemic to dungeon crawlers.
Hellboy: The Board Game also does one small thing that I think is really interesting!
Action point systems
But first, let’s briefly talk about action point mechanisms:
A player receives a number of Action Points or Operation Points on their turn. They may spend them on a variety of Actions. The earliest example of a game listed on Boardgamegeek that uses AP's is Special Train (1948).
Action points might be fixed or variable:
Fixed action points: In Pax Pamir: Second Edition by Cole Wehrle, the active player may always perform up to two actions. There may be bonus or “free” actions that might be available depending on specific game states, but in general, the actions are fixed at two.
Variable action points: In Blood Rage by Eric Lang, you have action points based on your current Rage. Some actions cost a single Rage, while others might cost multiple. Players might steal Rage from each other by losing battles on purpose. When you are out of Rage, you may not take any additional actions (even free ones).
Similar to how Rage is upgradable in Blood Rage, Hansa Teutonica also allows action points to be upgraded throughout the game. You begin with just two actions per turn, but can eventually upgrade to five actions per turn.
Android: Netrunner (one of my top games) has asymmetric actions points (“Clicks”) that are usually fixed, but may be modified by cards. The Corp gets three, while the Runner gets four. Few things get the adrenaline going in a game like a fourth click run!
In the Emberwind TTRPG, each player has four action points to spend each combat round. Fast actions cost one point and slow actions cost two points. Therefore, player characters can take a mixture of fast and slow actions: 4 fast, 2 fast + 1 slow, or 2 slow. There are also free action that cost zero points.
So let’s see how Hellboy handles action points!
Spending action cubes
In Hellboy: The Board Game, each player spends their three action cubes during the Agent Phase of the game. Players can spend them in any order, can discuss how to use them, and can alternate between players. This continues until all the cubes are spent.
There are six basic actions available to all characters each cost one action cube: Move, Fight, Shoot, Examine, Clear, and Interact.
Each BPRD agent also has some unique actions specific to their character. Hellboy has the Big Right Hook, Abe Sapien has a Precision Shot, and Liz Sherman can Immolate. Most cost one or two action cubes.
The Fight, Shoot, and Examine actions require a test performed by rolling a set of three test dice that match the agent’s skill level. Black dice are the best (4, 3, 3, 2, 2, 1 faces), and then red, and then orange, and finally and yellow are the worst (1, 1, 1, 0, 0, 0 faces).
Hellboy is great at fighting, so would roll red dice for Fight tests, but isn’t great at shooting and would roll yellow dice for Shoot tests. Similarly, Johann Kraus has red dice for Examine, but orange dice for shooting.
Dice boosting and teamwork
Players can spend action cubes to upgrade their dice. One cube changes a yellow to an orange, an orange to a red, or a red to a black. If you really want to succeed at the test, you might want to do some upgrades.
Here’s the interesting part: Other players can perform an assist, and spend their action cubes to upgrade someone else’s test dice. I believe this simple mechanism drastically changes the feel of the game:
Players can now succeed at tests where they might usually fail: Hellboy is a bad shot, but if everyone else contributes, suddenly he has a chance to make a critical ranged attack.
You don’t just give someone your actions, you boost their actions: Having a shared action point pool would feel completely different (e.g. just letting Hellboy take the Fight action more times). Instead, this lets players control their own characters, but get assistance when (collectively) the team needs the test to succeed.
Thematic tension can be built around key actions. At the end of an important battle against a frog monster, that last hit needs to finish it. Instead of one player just rolling their dice, everyone contributes and is vested in dice roll result.
Cooperation becomes a core part of the game. Instead of everyone taking their actions and playing to their strengths, now the characters become a unified force. Victory comes by spending cubes where needed the most, not just evenly distributing them among the players.
Some of my best moments in the game have been when everyone contributes an action cube so when Hellboy swings his Right Hand of Doom, it’s with three black dice.
It’s hard to explain, but somehow this makes it feel more like working as a team rather than just playing toward a cooperative goal.
Some things to think about:
Cooperative games can be more than just a shared goal. While working toward a shared objective is certainly important, working as a team is more than that. The ability to boost other players is just one way to accomplish this.
Custom dice open up many options. They might add cost and complicate distribution, but custom dice allow for interesting probabilities. Even upgrading across standard types (i.e. d6 → d8 → d12, etc.) isn’t always the same thing. It might be worth considering custom dice.
Consider the impact on social dynamics. Depending on the personalities of the players at the table, one person might end up controlling the action. Allowing others to share actions or assists might exacerbate this problem.
What’s your favorite action point system? What are some other ways to increase teamwork in games beyond just having a shared goal?
See you next week!
— E.P. 💀
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