Last December, I took a trip to Philadelphia for one of the country’s biggest board game conventions, PAX Unplugged. There, I found perhaps one of the best board games I’ve added to my personal collection, Fire Tower. The game was an immediate hit with me, thanks to its great art style and simple mechanics.
Fire Tower is a competitive, king-of-the-hill style board game for two to four players. Each player assumes the role of a fire lookout over a vast burning forest who must protect his or her tower at all costs. At the same time, players compete to push the encroaching fire toward each others’ towers, hoping to catch them in the flames. The last player to have his or her tower standing is the winner.
During play, players take turns laying down cards to control various aspects of the environment in the forest. Some cards cause the fire to spread, others control the wind, and some allow players to commandeer teams of firefighters to push back against the blaze.
One of Fire Tower’s biggest strengths, I believe, is just how versatile the game can be. Even the game’s weathervane tile, which is only used to track the wind direction, has two sides and two different tokens, made solely for the purpose of your viewing preference.
Artistically speaking, the game is well-made and pleasing to look at. The board, cards, and tiles are designed in a bright, hand-painted style.
Best of all, while most other games may use flat, two-dimensional tokens for things like fire, Fire Tower introduces us to over 11 dozen three-dimensional “fire gems.” Each of these bright orange crystals represents an individual fire, and when scattered across the board, they give the entire game a strangely pleasing look.
The game is heavily inspired by real-life firefighting techniques and uses them to craft a distinct theme for itself. The cards, for instance, use actual firefighting terminology to describe certain game mechanics.
The game also blends in some funnier fire-related terms with the real-life ones. In the very center of the board there’s an “Eternal Flame,” the source of the game’s wildfire that never goes out. Why does it exist? Who knows? Who cares? The absurdity is what makes the game fun to learn and even more fun to play.
There are four suits of cards in Fire Tower: fire, firebreak, wind, and water. Fire cards create fire, firebreak cards stop the fire, wind cards spread the fire, and water cards put out the fire.
Each card contains rules for how it is used, meaning that players can learn one card at a time instead of trying to memorize them all at once. In addition, players redraw cards after every turn they take, allowing a continuous exchange of cards between players’ hands and the draw piles.
The game creates a deliberate strategy in how its cards interact with one another; a single fire card, for instance, can create much more fire than a single water card would be able to put out, which means the one that gets played first has the advantage.
Combine this power disparity with the randomness of the card draw and what you get is a game where acting first and constantly taking action against other players is normal. It’s unlike other games where you must slowly set up a plan to win.
Another big strength of Fire Tower is that it doesn’t have a single winning condition, and players that “lose” can still play instead of watching the rest of the game. A player that has his or her tower burned down can come back as a “Shadow of the Wood,” or the vengeful spirit of their burned tower.
A Shadow player still takes turns as the other players, but instead of trying to protect their own tower, they can win if they burn down everyone else’s towers simultaneously. It’s not easy to do, but it’s still possible.
Fire Tower has seen considerable praise since its release, and in response, the game’s publishers, Runaway Parade Games, have released an expansion called “Rising Flames.” The expansion adds more mechanics based around real-life firefighting, including “firehawks,” real-life birds of prey that drop burning debris into dry fields to force out mice and other rodents, thus spreading the fire in the process.
You can find Fire Tower and Rising Flames both on Runaway Parade’s website.