One Sentence Synopsis: I hope you’re not claustrophobic…or afraid of drowning…or of big-ass mutant fish…
Unauthorized scientific experiments usually turn out well. I mean, just look at the benefits that came from the research in Resident Evil: the creation of a pathogen which gets rid of all your worries and makes you want to just enjoy the simple things in life like eating. And, unlike some narcotics which result in the same thing, the change is permanent!
Ok, so maybe I’ve got that a little backwards: unauthorized experimentation is usually not such a keen idea, especially insofar as the creation of militarized, mutant animals are concerned. Fortunately for any gamers who want to mount up with their friends and blow some stuff away, maybe even saving some expensive equipment in the process, that’s exactly what has happened in Michael Robins’s cooperative, tactical miniatures game, Fathoms.
Following a futuristic war caused by botched resource exploitation which resulted in the creation of a new continent and nation, Midatlantia, world powers established a joint underwater research station, “The Dome”, for the benefit of all mankind. Although research in the station provides many worthwhile technological and biological advances, it is believed scientists have started unauthorized lines of research. Now, following an issue with the underwater drill and subsequent loss of communications with the facility, your team of elite characters must make its way into the depths to restore system power and see what the problem is.
Fathoms is a scenario-driven, overlord-style game with unique flooding and underwater mechanics that pits a cooperating team of 2-5 players against one player who controls the monsters and generally runs each scenario. Think Level 7: Omega Protocol, Descent, or Super Dungeon Explore. Each scenario plays out on a section of the modular board which fits together in a pre-determined layout for the floor of the facility on which the base game takes place. Players have the option of playing through individual scenarios utilizing the entirety of the map at once, giving them the freedom to pursue objectives however they wish, or of starting Fathoms‘s persistent campaign which is composed of seven scenarios and leads the team through a story-driven discovery of one level of The Dome. (Please note the rules explanation and all components pictured are from a prototype, and may not reflect the final, published product or rules. Components may change).
The beginning of each mission starts with the lone Fathom Master setting up the board and reading the session’s mission summary and objectives, and players choosing a character and then buying equipment one at a time from the items, weapons, and armor card decks. Each character has unique stats and abilities, all of which are cleanly laid out on the player sheet each person receives for their respective character. Players use any acquired experience from previous encounters to learn new skills, ranging from additional dice rolls when taking certain actions, to gaining additional movement options that are otherwise not available, thereby enabling them to better confront the FM’s denizens of the deep. The player boards also have space to record experience, and pre-determine armor and damage ratings so players don’t have to redo their math every time they need to roll for something.
While the number of stats on cards and character abilities may throw some people off, gameplay in Fathoms is actually very straightforward. Turn order is decided by initiative rolls at the start of each full round, and on his/her turn the active player is able to take any combination of two actions, with the FM taking two for each Abyssian(monster) unit in play: move, make an attack, or take an action (i.e. open a door). Moving consists of shifting a number of spaces equal to a character’s movement value, modified for moving on land or in varying levels of water. Attacking involves rolling a number of 6-sided dice as specified on the player’s weapon cards, along with any modifications allowed by their abilities or other cards; 1-3 are misses, and 4-6 are hits. Damage calculations are simple, with Abyssians dying if the incoming damage/hits are higher than their defense rating, and players rolling a number of dice equal to their armor value and absorbing one point of damage for each success, and taking a health damage for each unblocked hit. Players become unconscious when they reach zero health, though their teammates can use a revival action to get them back into the fray.
In addition to spawning Abyssians when players gain access to new areas and controlling those monster units, the Fathom Master is also in charge of spending experience points he/she accrues at the beginning of each full round equal to the current mission’s tier level, one XP for each character dealt damage the previous round, plus one if all characters were dealt damage. The resulting points are spent in two ways: the FM can either take their chances with the FM card and roll a 6-sided dice to produce an effect, or they can save the experience and spend 14 to draw an event card. The dice rolls result in any number of helpful(or detrimental, if you’re one of the other players) results, adding units to the board or increasing the attack of Abyssians already in play, while the event cards include generally nasty occurrences that may negatively affect everything on the board, or just make the situation more difficult for the team of heroes.
Fathoms carves a niche for itself in the dungeon-crawling genre for a couple of different reasons, but the biggest is by far its unique water breach mechanic which makes the game dynamic and keeps players on their toes. Whether caused by an event card, a lucky six roll by the FM, or by scenario instructions, The Dome’s failing structure will inevitably breach and start filling compartments with water. More water will pour into The Dome each turn a breach is left unchecked, and the water will spill into adjacent rooms and start flooding them as well unless the doors to those rooms are closed. While there’s no danger of players drowning (I guess they all have rebreathers?), players will want to take care of hull breaches as soon as possible due to the buffs Abyssians receive the higher the water becomes, and the negative effects players suffer to their own stats. The effects start off slow, allowing Abyssians to use their water movement values as players are reduced to using their underwater movement stat, but the differences quickly start to build as player weapons are converted to underwater damage values which are usually lower, Abyssians start to gain bonuses to attack and defense, and player armor is reduced. In short, if left unchecked a breach can completely turn the tides of a scenario, and that creates some very tense moments of working together to get to a breach and close it even as enemies swarm around the team.
My group found Fathoms lighter than other games we enjoy in the genre, which is another way it differentiates itself from titles with similar overlord mechanics like Level 7: Omega Protocol. Although I personally really enjoy a lot of complexity in my dungeon-crawling RPGs (I’m a glutton for endless rules and stat sheets), that’s certainly not for everybody, and even during initial playthroughs of Level 7 a couple of my usual players lost interest a few turns in; that interest was restored later on as they came to understand the various systems at play and how their characters functioned, but the initial rules-slog for these kinds of games can be a bit disheartening to some audiences. Enter Fathoms, which sets out how to play in eight pages and uses systems that are simple,straightforward, and easy to grasp.
Now, calling the game light does not mean it is easy; difficulty in Fathoms operates on a domino effect-scale, starting small but progressively getting harder until it turns into a lost cause. It’s up to the team of soldiers to keep that mayhem in check long enough to win the scenario, and I’ve found that realization often comes too late for first-time players; groups that underestimate the game because of initial impressions of being able to easily overrun Abyssians are likely to get trounced as the scenario goals are reached and the FM starts to ramp things up. Combat is already skewed in favor of the Abyssians since there is no damage carry-over if someone fails to do enough to outright kill a mutant, and as the compartments start to fill with water and things swing even more into the Abyssians’ favor players may start to have a frustratingly difficult time getting things back into line. That sort of difficulty ramp may in itself turn off newcomers to the genre, which is who I’d most recommend Fathoms to, so I’d say it’s important to be up front about just how important it is to take care of hull breaches.
Simplicity does not come without drawbacks, and there are a couple of systems in Fathoms I think would benefit from some additional elements or complexity. First, having to outright kill Abyssians and not being able to carry over successful damage into another turn can be frustrating, especially against more beefy opponents. Being able to carry over all damage would make the game too easy, but a system allowing carry over to a certain extent, along the lines of the system in Gears of War, would have worked very well here. Another option is to modify the joint attack system, which is usable only by dual wielding pistols and allows the player to combine the damage of multiple attacks, to apply to all weapons by allowing players to make back-to-back attacks against one target, maybe with a slight penalty to the second, and to combine that damage. My group implemented the second option as house rules and found it worked out rather well.
Second, playing as the Fathom Master can sometimes feel like you don’t have much agency and more like you’re being guided through your role. This is mainly due to the random consequences resulting from the FM’s decision to either roll a dice for an effect, or to draw a random card from the event deck. I’d much prefer a system that gives the FM more ways to spend experience that have verifiable results and, therefore, lends an additional strategic aspect to the role, though that may add too much complexity to the overlord aspect of a game that has really done well in boiling things down to more simple, streamlined systems.
Although I can’t comment on the quality of the finished components of the game, I will say that the creature sculpts were very well done (though a little oversized for the board’s squares), and that the art has a nice hand-drawn feel to it all. The board itself is colorful, easy to understand, includes useful information that keeps players from needing to refer back to the rules for certain things, and overall fits together well whether you’re only placing a few tiles for a short scenario, or making the entire complex open for exploration. The board does only go together in one configuration, however, which adds to the story aspect of the main campaign but may hurt replayability for groups who are used to randomized tile laying for this sort of game.
Cog Takeaway: Fathoms is a lighter entry into the overlord/one-against-many, dungeon crawl genre; the rules are straightforward, setup is fast, and in-game systems succinct, making for a scenario-driven RPG experience that’s more accessible compared to other widely played examples like Shadows of Brimstone, Descent, or Level 7: Omega Protocol. The game doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to difficulty even though it’s less complex, taking full advantage of its unique hull breach mechanics to turn manageable situations into frantic races against the clock that require cooperation and sacrifice to keep the mission on track. The game scales well with different player numbers up to its max of six, with shorter scenarios taking up no more than an hour though you could absolutely open up the entire facility for exploration in longer games. I would have liked some additional tweaking of damage mechanics and the Fathom Master role, but overall Fathoms functions as a good option for those looking for a dungeon crawl or one-against-many experience without an overly complex ruleset to contend with.