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Review of Horizon Zero Dawn: The Board Game

Horizon Zero Dawn is one of the most popular video games of all time. Steamforged Games has taken the world from that popular digital game and turned it into Horizon Zero Dawn: The Board Game.

The board game focuses on one small aspect of Horizon Zero Dawn, The Hunters Lodge. In this board game version of HZD, one to four hunters head out in hopes of taking down a Sawtooth and gaining enough glory to be called first among equals. 

Disclosure: Thanks to Steamforged Games for sending us a review copy of this HZD board game. No other compensation was provided. Links in this post may be affiliate links. As an Amazon associate we earn from qualifying purchases. 

 

What do you get with Horizon Zero Dawn The Board Game?

The box for Horizon Zero Dawn the Board GameHorizon Zero Dawn: The Board Game was designed by Sherwin Matthews and features art from the Guerrilla Miniature Games Art DeptartmentThomas Lishman, and Doug Telford. It was published by Steamforged Games Ltd. in 2020 after a successful Kickstarter.

This board game version of Horizon Zero Dawn plays with one to four players. A full game consists of five hunts, each of which takes an hour or two to play through (the suggested game time listed on the box is for one hunt, not a full game). This video game themed board game was designed for players ages twelve and up and is rather heavy. 

Horizon Zero Dawn the Board Game focuses on one aspect of the video game of the same name, The Hunters Lodge. In this game, players take on the roles of hunters who are competing to see who can earn the most glory through a series of five encounters that culminates in The Hunters Call where they try to take down their prey, the legendary Sawtooth. Along the way, players will earn suns for glory, level up, meet merchants, and improve their equipment. In the end, the hunter who earns the most suns will be named first among equals, that is if they manage to survive. 

For a look at the fantastic miniatures you get in in this HZD board game, check out my Horizon Zero Dawn The Board Game Unboxing video on YouTube

One of each miniature that you get with Horizon Zero Dawn The Board GameThere you will see everything you get in the box, including some really top notch miniatures, thick double-sided modular boards, a wide variety of counters and tokens, and a ton of cards. The cards include a deck for each of the four hunters, larger machine information cards, machine behaviour cards, three merchant decks, a deck of smaller salvage cards, an event deck, and a tracking deck. There is also a rather thick rulebook and eight custom dice. All of which is tucked into a plastic insert. 

While this insert was great for getting the game into my hands in good shape, it’s not so great for organizing all of the stuff once you’ve played. It does provide good protection for the miniatures, but it doesn’t have a good way to sort the tokens and cards. 

I was personally surprised by just how small the hunter miniatures are. However, I understand that this was done to be able to keep everything in scale without the machine miniatures being massive. 

The rulebook is okay but not great. While I found it pretty easy to read through it’s not great for referencing during play and in a game with this many small rules that can be a problem. While the rulebook has a table of contents it does not have any form of index and the summary on the back is missing some items I think are key for referencing during play.

 

Playing Horizon Zero Dawn the Board Game

Trying to take down a Sawtooth in Horizon Zero Dawn: The Board GameWhen you sit down to play a game of Horizon Zero Dawn The Board Game the first thing you are meant to do is pick a hunt. The thing is, if all you own is the retail version of the game, there’s no choice to be made. This box only contains one hunt, a hunt for a Sawtooth. 

Of course, a ton more hunts were unlocked during the Kickstarter for this Horizon Zero Dawn board game, but if all you have is just this one box, you will be working to complete the same hunt every game. For those that missed the Kickstarter, there are a number of expansions you can pick up to expand your game. 

Next up, each player will pick a hunter to play. There are four hunters in the box, each representing a familiar culture from the video game series. Players will collect the miniature, card deck, and skill token for their chosen character. They will then find all of the level 0 cards in their deck and set up a play area including their hunter card, starting equipment, deck, and starting resources. 

The remaining cards are set aside to be used when levelling up after a successful hunt. 

The Nora Marksman cards from the board game version of Horizon Zero DawnA leader is chosen and they take the encounter cards for the chosen hunt (again there is only one of these in the core box) and create an Encounter deck by sorting the cards by level and stacking them so the level one cards are on the top, followed by the level two, all of which is stacked on top of the level three cards.  They then draw three encounter cards and choose what the first hunt will be.

Then the board for the first hunt is set up based on the encounter card chosen. This will be made up of two to four of the boards, each of which will be seeded with machines and other scenery bits. Players then place their hunters onto the edge of the starting board indicated on the encounter board. 

At this point, it’s time for the first actual hunt. You will be playing through four of these before getting to The Hunters Call which is the final battle with your chosen adversary. 

Just starting our first hunt in a game of Horizon Zero DawnHorizon Zero Dawn: The Board Game is a busy game with a lot going on and lots of variables and things to track. Due to this, what follows will only be a vague overview of how the game plays without getting into the actual details. This isn’t meant to be a how to play but rather give you and your group a good idea of how things play out so you can make your own decision as to whether or not you want to dive deeper. 

Each turn of a hunt has a number of phases which starts with the active character taking two actions. 

Action options include; sprinting, which lets you move two squares but alerts all passed machines along your path, sneaking, which lets you move only one square but doesn’t alert adjacent machines, crafting, which lets you cycle your discards back into your deck, distracting, which lets you toss a rock to move a machine, ranged attacking, which uses your equipped ranged weapon as long as you have an ammunition card, and melee attacking, which uses your equipped melee weapon. 

The Dice from Horizon Zero Dawn: The Board GameAttacks are made by rolling the custom dice and looking for hit symbols with various boosts being added by action cards from the player’s hand. These cards can add more dice, give re-rolls, or allow for additional actions. Similar to the video game attacks can cause various elemental effects like Fire, Ice and Shock damage. There are also rules for trap weapons and area of effect attacks. 

When attacking most machines you have the choice of trying to take out the machine itself or trying to knock off components. Removing components can make machines easier to defeat or give you access to useful scrap. Destroying the machine gives you glory, but so does removing components.

 

After the active hunter takes their two actions, it’s time for the machines to act. 

Machines start off non-alert and stay that way until any number of things alerts them, such as when one of the hunters attacks them, or they take damage, an alert enemy is in their square, or a hunter is in their square, a hunter is in an adjacent square that doesn’t contain tall grass or when a hunter sprints by them.

Machine Behavior Cards from Horizon Zero DawnNon-alert enemies follow the paths laid out on the board. If these paths lead them off the map, that machine is considered to have escaped. Alert enemies instead follow what it says on their behaviour card(s).

Each behaviour card features a branching path of actions that the active machine will take often based on whether or not hunters are near it when it activates. Some machines are more concerned about where other machines are (Striders) or if they are still carrying cargo (Shell-Walkers) to determine which actions they take. 

Machines will move about the board, alert other enemies, and of course attack the Hunters. When a machine attacks it does a set amount of damage which a defence roll can mitigate. Defence rolls are based on the attacked hunter’s armour and may even totally prevent the damage. As part of the defence roll, the hunter must dodge to a new square. (Note this, as it’s the rule we forgot the most often when learning the game). 

When a hunter is damaged they have to discard cards from their hand, and then their deck once their hand is empty. If their deck is ever empty they are knocked out. Knocked out hunters miss a turn. They also lose any earned Glory and come back with a fully shuffled deck.

Machine information cards from Horizon Zero DawnNot too big a penalty but you have to watch out because if the number of hunters that get knocked out ever matches the player count your group fails at that hunt and gets no reward. Unless this is the final Hunters Call hunt, you still continue on with the next hunt. 

Once all machines have been activated there is a maintenance step. Here you determine if you’ve lost or won the hunt and continue on to the next player’s turn if you haven’t. Hunts are won by defeating a set number of machines based on the encounter card that started everything rolling. Once players get to this total they have the option to continue to take out any remaining machines in an effort to get some bonus scrap.

A leveled up character from a game of Horizon Zero Dawn the Board Game. After a hunt is completed you enter the campfire phase which starts with the victory step. Here you compare the earned glory of all of the players and assign sun tokens, with the most suns going to the player with the most glory. That player also gets the leader token, while the fledgling token is given to the player who scored the least glory. The leader will get to pick the encounter card for the next hunt. 

Next players level up their Hunters, so long as the hunt they just finished is higher level than they are. Hunters start at level zero, so the first successful hunt will always level everyone up. After that, it will be up to the leader what level the next hunt is and that will determine when you level up next. Every character has a unique talent tree and they pick one of the two options for the next level. These will include new cards that are added to the hunter’s action deck, or new permanent abilities, or perhaps new equipment. 

The three merchant decks from Horizon Zero Dawn the Board GameThe last part of the camping step is for everyone to go shopping. Here a set of cards is drawn from the appropriate level merchant deck and players get to spend the scrap they’ve gathered on new equipment, ammo, weapons, and modifiers for their existing gear. The merchant’s stock refreshes after each purchase and while the leader gets the first pick the first item the fledgeling buys is free.

After camping it’s time to move on to the next hunt. Unless you’ve reached the Hunters Call card and the fifth and final hunt, the leader draws three encounter cards and picks one, the fledgeling draws three event cards and picks one, and you move on to the next hunt. 

The final hunt is represented by the Hunters Call card and features a bigger board with your chosen prey on it. The Leader has no choices to make for this encounter but the Fledgeling still gets to play an event card. 

This final battle plays out the same as the previous battles with one exception. Hunters that take down one of the hunted machines chosen at the beginning of the game earn a bonus half sun token. Also, if the hunters fail at this hunt they lose the game. 

Watchers in Horizon Zero Dawn tend to alert other machinesAssuming your team is able to take down their final prey, they earn suns just like in a normal victory step and then the player with the most Suns is declared the winner. 

In addition to playing competitively as described above Horizon Zero Dawn: The Board Game also offers a cooperative variant. Here players are encouraged to work together but if any one hunter is knocked out, the entire team loses the hunt. 

There is also a variant rule that allows the trading of items between players during the campfire phase that can be used alongside either cooperative or competitive play. 

 

We have really been enjoying the board game version of Horizon Zero Dawn

Sean and Deanna both enjoying Horizon Zero Dawn: The Board Game more than they expectedI don’t play a lot of video games. As I’m sure you would expect I’m much more into multiplayer tabletop games where I gather with a group of friends and play a game at a table. That said I do play some video games and my consoles are often what I turn to when I can’t get a group together for a tabletop game night. However, the short list of the relatively few video games I have played does indeed include Horizon Zero Dawn.

Not only did I love Horizon Zero Dawn, I actually took the time to 100% the game as well as The Frozen North DLC. To this day, it’s one of the best video games I’ve played. So when Steamforged Games reached out looking for reviewers of the retail version of Horizon Zero Dawn: The Board Game I of course jumped at a chance to check it out.

This video game based board game is my first experience with Steamforged Games. While I’ve been watching what they are doing and we even talked quite a bit about their Epic Encounters boxed sets on our Sunday Brunch live shows, this is the first full game of theirs that I’ve gotten to experience and I have to say that I am impressed. 

Part way through an encounter in Horizon Zero Dawn The Board GameI’m somewhat ashamed to say I wasn’t expecting much from Horizon Zero Dawn: The Board Game. As you all know the history of licenced board games is filled with terrible games. While I didn’t expect this to be terrible I was worried that this game might have been slapped together quickly in order to jump on the HZD hype and not lived up to its namesake. I’m relieved that this isn’t the case.

Not only is Horizon Zero Dawn: The Board Game a great representation of the video game, it’s just a very solid thematic, Ameritrash dice-chucker with lots of player agency and character customization. 

What impressed me the most was the way the designer decided to focus on just one part of Horizon Zero Dawn, the Hunters Lodge. This is a brilliant way to let players explore part of the world without having to live up to the epic nature of the whole game. Taking on the role of a small group of hunters about to head out on a hunt to take down one of the game’s legendary beasts fits perfectly as a board game theme. 

A watcher about to be taken down in a game of Horizon Zero Dawn The Board GameDue to limiting the scope of the game, I feel that made it possible for them to really nail down the mechanics for this one thing. The three steps of The Tracking Phase, The Encounter Phase and the Campfire Phase really do give you that feeling of being part of a hunting party, and the epic nature of this quest is further reinforced through the amount of game time it takes to get through the entire quest. 

While thematic, this does lead to what I think is the biggest problem with this game — its overall length. While the rulebook notes you can finish the entire game in one night, I can’t see many groups wanting to do that. When we played each individual encounter phase was taking us an hour or two, with additional time required to shop, level up, customize our decks and get each hunt set up. 

You are looking at six to ten hours to complete a full game of Horizon Zero Dawn: The Board Game. That alone is going to scare many game groups away. 

My not so great storage solution for Horizon Zero Dawn: The Board GameTo make things worse, the game doesn’t really give you a good way to save your game between hunts. While you can put the boards, machines and most of the various card decks away between hunts, you still need to keep track of which cards from each action deck players have unlocked, where they are on their skill trees, what scrap they have gathered, how many suns they have earned, etc.

One solution for this would be to use baggies for each hunter, but then the box insert doesn’t really have a place to put all of these separated out components. As noted above, this insert is designed to store the minis so they don’t get damaged and is not much good for sorting the other bits in this game.

Of course, none of this is a problem if you are lucky enough to have a game space where you can leave the game set up and return to it later. 

 

Now if your group doesn’t mind signing on for a potential ten hour game experience, quite possibly split over multiple nights, there’s a lot to like in Horizon Zero Dawn: The Board Game.

A picture from our first play of Horizon Zero Dawn the Board GameI like the mixture of thematic, dice driven adventure game with light deck building. The system here is a hybrid of dungeon crawl like moves and attacks using custom dice and card driven combat do to just how much each hunter’s action deck can modify play. You don’t need to use any cards on your turn but in order to do well on the hunt it’s going to take figuring out the best use for every card in your deck.

I also love how asymmetric each hunter is, though some do seem much more useful than others. In particular, the Carja Warrior seemed to be the most difficult to play well, though I will admit for competitive play they were great at stealing kills. Further adding to the asymmetry when levelling up, you follow a customization tree that means that two different plays of the same hunter could feel quite different depending on what path is taken. 

Even with this though I do wish there were a couple more hunters in the core box. I would love to see more variety when playing with four players in particular. 

Fighting Grazers and Scrappers in a game of Horizon Zero Dawn The Board GameSpeaking of variety, my biggest disappointment with this game is the fact that you only get one hunt in the base game box. Not only that but this base hunt is against what many would consider one of the earliest, not all that impressive, machines from the game.

Sure it’s the first big one you encounter but compared to many of the other massive machines you face when playing through Horizon Zero Dawn, a big hunt for a Sawtooth just doesn’t get my blood pumping. That said, this base box did make me want to go pick up expansions so we could experience another hunt. 

After our last play, even my Euro-loving wife was online checking out what else there is available for this game. So I guess if Steamforged Games’ goal was to give you a taste and leave you wanting more, it worked. 

 

Another concern worth mentioning is that this is a thematic dice-chucker and due to that the randomness of the dice can be a factor in every game. This is especially true during your first couple of hunts, when the low level equipment doesn’t allow for building very big dice pools. You will spend a lot of time planning out an attack only to have it fail due to a bad roll. This is going to turn some people off, but I thought fit this style of game well. 

The very glossy rulebook for Horizon Zero Dawn The Board GameWhile playing, we did run into a few things that didn’t make a lot of sense to us. One of these included weapons with excellent critical hit abilities that used dice that didn’t have any critical hit symbols on them. After doing some research learned that there are cards in an expansion that can add dice to these weapons, but you won’t find them in the base box. In particular, there’s one Carja Spear upgrade that’s actually worse than the base weapon (unless you have that expansion). 

Another issue that came up when learning the game was the rulebook. I mentioned this above in passing but the rulebook here could use some work. It’s okay for sitting and reading through but not great for either teaching the game or referencing during play. The biggest issue is one of small but important rules scattered throughout the book in places you wouldn’t think to look for them. An example would be status effects. Instead of having a status effect section that lists all of them and their effects on both hunters and machines, there is instead a section on them under machine damage and another section under hunter damage. 

A look at some of the Action Cards from Horizon Zero Dawn: The Board GameWhile this made learning the game rough, with our first couple of hunts taking double the time they should have, once you get everything down the game actually flows very well. With a group of experienced players, you can easily get down to an hour an encounter. 

Overall we found Horizon Zero Dawn: The Board Game to be an excellent adaptation of the video game. I love the way it focuses on one part of the video game and then makes that part really shine. Through the exploration, encounter and camping system, you do get the feel of being on a hunt and the character progression you make as the hunt goes on feels very rewarding.

The problem with this though is that a full hunt is a long epic event, longer than most people are going to want to play through in one night.

Groups also need to look carefully at what type of game this is, a thematic dice-chucker with strong character optimization options, before deciding if this is a game for them. Finally, you also need to be aware that this box is only a taste of what Steamforged has to offer for Horizon Zero Dawn. In this box, you only get one hunt and four characters, and there’s a good chance you will end up wanting more.

Our first play we used the wrong side of the boards in Horizon Zero Dawn the board gameFor fans of Horizon Zero Dawn, you are going to want to check this game out somehow. If you are a fan of thematic games, dungeon crawlers, and dice heavy adventure games, you should just go pick this up. If you and your group generally prefer games with less randomness and more player control, I recommend finding a way to try before you buy. 

If you know nothing about Horizon Zero Dawn there’s still a lot to like in this game. My podcast co-host Sean knew nothing of the video game or its setting and was easily able to jump into this game as the theme of a pack of hunters trying to take down a legendary beast is pretty universal. While he didn’t know the background of his Nora Hunter the cards and abilities in his deck all made sense mechanically and he enjoyed the game and was able to play with no issues.

Lots of machines on this map from a game of Horizon Zero DawnNow if you are more into the Euro side of gaming and prefer games like Gloomhaven over say HeroQuest, this is probably not the game for you. That said, my wife is the big Euro gamer in our group and she ended up enjoying this game way more than I would’ve expected (perhaps because she’s also a big fan of the video game). 

Personally, I’m super happy Steamforged sent a copy of the Stormbird Expansion along with our copy of Horizon Zero Dawn, so we will get to try out another Hunt.

You can be sure that once that expansion hits the table I will be here with another Horizon Zero Dawn: The Board Game review and talking about it on The Tabletop Bellhop Gaming Podcast

Even with the Stormbird sitting here beside me, I’m still tempted to pick up the other expansions that are available, especially the ones that add additional heroes and other humans as adversaries instead of machines. 

 

When I signed up to review Horizon Zero Dawn: The Board Game I braced myself for disappointment. I loved the video game so much that I didn’t think any board game could live up to the Horizon name. I was completely shocked by just how good this board game is. It wasn’t at all what I expected but looking at what they’ve done with it, I think it’s the perfect Horizon Zero Dawn board game.

What’s a game that you got where it wasn’t at all what you expected, but then ended up being way better than you would have thought? Tell us about it in the comments below.

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