Board games and apps are slowly starting a beautiful relationship. At the moment, they are two starry-eyed lovers slowly getting closer and closer together, considering the wondrous possibilities. We’ve had excellent examples of good times between apps and board games, Imperial Assault is one such example. However, with the good comes the bad and it is here that board games and apps have made Leaders.
Now that I’ve got my weird analogy out of the way we can start by saying that Leaders tries. It has some great ideas which in theory are enticing and exciting concepts but in practice actively make the game worse. Leaders tries to be both complex and revolutionary but also simple and basic. The result is clever ideas without any flair. Or to put it another way, Leaders tries to be what if Risk was more interesting and had an app, and ends up being a slower, worse and more boring version of risk.
As the word ‘Risk’ might have tipped you off, Leaders is a game about global domination. It is set during the Cold War. Each player takes control of faction and leader within this setting and gets a spattering of troops in given locations depending on the scenario you are playing. Each turn, you take the app and enter how many production points you have (territory owned) and key this in which is added to your previous total. Now you can spend those points on research new technology, recruiting troops, sabotaging your enemies, sending alliance requests and few other actions. The important part here is that this is all secret. You do it behind the cover of your smartphone so nobody knows who you are sabotaging, how many troops you recruited and so on. This gives the game an air of mystery and the unknown as you have no idea what your friends are doing. This is an excellent idea and makes the whole idea of ‘fog of war’ come alive.
In practice, though, none of these actions are especially interesting. Sabotaging your opponent is a dice roll and if you succeed then you remove some of the troops they’ve recruited. An embargo does the same but reduces their production. Since you have airdrop troops to anywhere you currently have units, recruiting troops is ultimately boring as they can be placed anywhere. If you choose to do some research, then it is just an investment of production and then waiting for a few turns for a bonus. And spies, one of the most interesting and terrifying parts of the Cold War is reduced to you getting to see what technology your opponent has. You don’t get to steal that tech or doing anything interesting, just see what it is. And the tech is so uninteresting as to make this a pointless endeavour anyway. All of the military tech is visible as it affects combat rolls and the others equate to a bit more production or a larger chance of success when performing things like embargos, spying or sabotage.
Next, we have the issue of why not. The amount that your opponents lose when embargoed or sabotaged is substantially more than their cost. This means if you aren’t doing both of these every turn then you are probably going to lose. If an opponent recruits a few planes and tanks, costing in the region of 50 production, you could easily destroy them all for 10. This means, you always produce a few normal soldiers so that they die first in sabotage, which is boring. And because everybody knows how powerful these actions are, everyone is embargoing and sabotaging everyone else meaning games frequently hit a stalemate where very few troops are being produced but one player has slightly more so they win the game.
And winning the game is very Risk. In most scenarios, you either need to have a high enough production (own locations), research some tech or specific missions which are things like recruit units, complete diplomacy etc. However, many of the missions are very tedious and unlike a video game like Civilization that has a lot of nuance in how diplomacy works, in Leaders, you’re either in an alliance or you give people production.
Writing this has made me frustrated with Leaders all over again. I can see the potential. I can see the scenarios like Capture the Flag where you have a base and last person with their base left standing is the winner, and I love the idea of them. However, the core gameplay within the app and outside of it are so fundamentally uninteresting as to render the rest of the game unimportant.
Going back to my Risk comparison, sure Risk is a lengthy game but turns are not particularly long unless you are doing a lot of attacking. In Leaders, there is a lot to do in the app and it means that other players have nothing to do while they wait. They don’t know what you’re doing (although they will assume you are embaroging and sabotaging them) and thus cannot react, plan or do anything but wait and see what happens when it’s their turn. It is never good when this happens as you don’t care about other player’s turns as you get all the information that is relevant on your app at the start of your turn anyway.
Once again to compare it Risk, being able to collect troops one turn (returning them to your player board) and drop them in another location the next sounds like a really good idea. It means that slowly moving troops across the board is eliminated, reducing a lot of the length of a regular game of Risk. However, it also removes any consequence of placing your troops. You can zip them in an out of continents on a whim and place them elsewhere and means that troop placement is again not an interesting decision.
I hate to go on at Leaders because it has something within it that could be great but none of it works to make it anything other than frustrating and lengthy. It was a slog to get through the games I played and nobody wanted to play it again afterwards. It wasn’t enjoyable to sabotage someone after the 10th time, it was just par for the course. Instead of bettering system set out in Risk, Leaders runs into issues of its own making and doesn’t fix any of the problems with Risk.
If Leaders was more complicated and had more moving parts, then I could see some of it working. As it stands, Leaders succeeds in being far too simple and uninteresting for the time commitment but at the same time more complicated than a normal game of Risk. I know that the app has some updates and expansions and potentially they might overhaul some of the systems. However, at the moment I cannot recommend Leaders at all.
Thanks for reading. For disclosure, we received a free copy of Leaders from Rudi Games. If you want a more positive board game review, George wrote about Mini Rails or for some video games then why not check out why I loved the map in Hollow Knight.
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