Fallout Shelter review

Fallout Shelter (2020)

Game Details
NameFallout Shelter: The Board Game (2020)
Accessibility ReportMeeple Like Us
ComplexityMedium Light [2.00]
BGG Rank1146 [7.24]
Player Count2-4
Designer(s)Andrew Fischer
Buy it!Amazon Link

TL;DR: It's basically okay!

For a lot of people, the Fallout franchise is defined by high adventure. It’s about striding out into a broken world and finding ways to change it for the better – or for the worse. For me though, the real magic of Fallout has always been in the Vaults. For those that haven’t had the pleasure of encountering Fallout in the wild, the elevator pitch of the series is that there was a nuclear war between the USA and China. It escalated to a global conflagration that obliterated the world as we knew it. Those that survived (at least in the remnants of America) did so primarily in the deep underground structures known as Vaults – enclosed, self-sustaining shelters constructed by the Vault-Tec company. What most people didn’t realise though when they signed up for protection was that the vaults were never designed to save anyone…

Fallout Shelter box

Instead the vault network was a kind of grand social experiment designed to explore scenarios of offworld settlement. Only those lucky enough to find themselves in a ‘control’ vault would experience something akin to the promised self-sufficient and functional society. The rest, well. It varied. In Vault 106, psychoactive drugs were pumped into the air system a mere ten days after the doors were sealed. In Vault 112, all the inhabitants were hooked up to a perpetual virtual reality experiment and psychologically tortured by the vault Overseer. Vault 51 was a brutal experiment in stoking political factionalisation. Or perhaps given the trajectory of the United States… it was an experiment in the continuation of brutal political factionalisation.

In most Fallout games, you emerge from a vault into a post-apocalyptic landscape and that’s where fun is. I though have always found the greatest joy was found in exploring abandoned and occupied vaults and digging deep into their mindset of ‘design for dysfunction’. When the first Fallout board games were announced, I admit I was left somewhat cold because they didn’t look like they’d capture the elements that I felt mattered the most. What I wanted was a vault construction game, and that’s almost what we have here in Fallout Shelter. It’s a game of creating an effective, efficient vault where the denizens can maximise their happiness even in the face of regular invasions from raiders, death-claws and feral ghouls.

An empty vault

The mechanisms are simple. Fallout Shelter is a game of collecting resources with your fixed but growing allocation of workers. You begin with the infrastructure of a simple vault that generates power, food and water. Using the resources you collect you then build new rooms, each of which makes available greater treasures and wider opportunities. Dwellers can be ‘trained’ in certain faculties, which allows you to double the often meagre yields associated with rooms. Those training opportunities come from facilities you construct. However, the bigger the vault grows the more it becomes a target for external threats and each of those will need to be dealt with before the rooms they occupy can be safely used. First vault overseer to place six rooms triggers the end condition, and the player with the greatest happiness wins.

In that respect, it works pretty well. I mean, it doesn’t explore any new territory – it’s a design constructed from entirely off-the-shelf components. But it’s fine. It all works and it creates a passably enjoyable experience that packs an interesting decision space into its subterranean compartments.

But man, what a missed opportunity to do something actually S.P.E.C.I.A.L.

Way back when I reviewed Discworld: Ankh Morpork I talked about the ways in which an existing pop-culture property can be used, and also how it can be misused. I don’t think Fallout Shelter mishandles its licence, but I think it’s a fundamentally shallow application – a thin layer of paint that doesn’t at all capture the magic of the setting. You could change this into a game about building a high-rise apartment and I don’t think anything really fundamental would need to be altered. Where the Fallout elements shine through are all confined and contained within the aesthetic. To be fair, that’s been absolutely nailed… but also it was by far the hardest part of the licence to screw up.

The art-style perfectly captures the sinister cutesiness of the franchise. The Vault Boy, the cheerful icon of the setting, is everywhere. He’s a ubiquitous piece of semiotic symbolism just as he is in the franchise proper. The threats that appear in the vault are all drawn from the canon of the games, and the equipment you pick up is all perfectly thematic. The game even comes in a metal lunchbox which is a lovely touch for fans. In other words, all the surface elements are here – present and correct in all details.

Vault Overseer console

However, as with Discworld: Ankh Morpork there’s no evidence that anyone involved managed to capture anything of the soul of the experience. It’s the skilful application of Fallout as a brand as opposed to Fallout as the living thing that millions of people adore.

Remember… the vaults were never designed to save anyone. And they certainly weren’t designed to maximise happiness.

One of the most striking aspects of the Fallout franchise is how it welds anachronism and cheerful denialism into a compelling, rock-hard and unforgiving atmosphere. Few things in Fallout are what they seem to be, there’s always darker implication – real or imagined – that underlines each of the artistic choices. At least, that was certainly true before you could unironically buy Vault Boy bobbleheads as throwaway geek merch. When Funko starts scratching at your door it’s fair to say that your reputation for iconoclasm is in serious jeopardy. Dig beneath the modern surrender to commercial exploitation though and there’s genuine and implied horror behind every single element of the setting. Consider Vault Boy himself as an example:

Vault Boy

Look at him! What a cheerful little chap, giving you a cheeky wink and a thumb’s up as if to say ‘everything is fine with Vault-Tec’. Look at that big smile and that clean-cut wholesome haircut. Where’s the darkness in that?

Well, what’s actually being represented here – intentionally or otherwise – is an application of the ‘rule of thumb’ encoded in hazmat preparatory material. ‘When you see a dangerous incident, if you can cover your view with your thumb then you’re out of the immediate danger area’. He’s closing one eye so as to more precisely evaluate the chances he’s about to instantly succumb to the blast radius of a nuclear weapon. It seems likely from Internet sleuthing that this was never originally the intended meaning of this imagery, but art often tends to imitate life. Everyone is so immersed in the visual language of the past that we can’t help replicate it in fiction. It’s now an interpretation that is broadly acknowledged as canon.

If ever there was a game that codified the idea of ‘fridge horror’, it’s Fallout. And in that, the Vaults are the absolute best examples. Every new computer terminal you find in the winding metal warrens reveals denser layers of darkness; evidence of humanity at its most fragile; and the consequences of social experimentation done with a truly shocking lack of ethical concern. Imagine if modern science still conducted experiments with the casual disregard for consequence or dignity that we’d expect from the Nazis. And then imagine that is being done by one of the country’s most celebrated corporations working with the sure knowledge that most of their vaults would end in violent disaster.

None of those experiments were ‘Let’s see how we optimise the balance between happiness and efficiency’. That kind of experiment is not nearly sociopathic enough for an organization obsessed with debugging the human psyche so it would better survive long term extreme isolation.

If there was one fundamental aspect of the Fallout series I’d say was integral and irremovable, it would be this overwhelming sense of dark humour wedded to moral decay. And its absence in Fallout Shelter is striking.

Vault threats

Part of the problem is simply in the design of the game. Everyone is in a single vault, and thus rooms are being shared between overseers. Too many independent variables there. Too difficult to extrapolate results. Bad science. A shared vault, unless the experiment is to find out what happens with ‘too many cooks’, isn’t a basis upon which to explore the inducement of psychosis.

Individual vaults, defined at the beginning with experimental conditions and hypotheses, would have been such a cool and original direction to explore and it blows my mind that a Fallout game of this nature was released without something like that riveted with steel through its bones. Even at its simplest, least creative level it would capture some of the cold logic of the vault system and elevate this otherwise relatively workaday worker-placement game into something more interesting.

‘Your power rooms generate twice as much power, but there’s a 50% chance that anyone harvesting them will die’.

‘Psychoactive stimulants are pumped into your air system, meaning each worker can activate twice per turn. However, on a 6 roll they kill everyone on their current level of the vault, and then themselves’

Instantly you’d move beyond a chilly counterfeit of the franchise. You’d get a proper taste of it. Deal cards like this at the start of play for each vault and just… see what happens.

Really though, what Fallout Shelter should be is a game that is less about constructing vaults and more about constructing hypotheses and then testing them. For inspiration, the designers should have perhaps looked to games other than the mobile app that Bethesda built atop the microtransaction money mines. Galaxy Trucker has a system whereby essentially each ramshackle ship you create in real-time is a scientific statement of survivability, proven or disproven by the journey that follows. Fallout Shelter should be laid out so that the ‘game’ is really just an extended form of scoring in which you evaluate the success of your starting premise. From a set of postulates, consequences and scoring conditions you attempt to create the circumstances under which your vault can illuminate some vicious piece of scientific triviality. You should be layering in a series of boons and drawbacks to explore some weird and wonderful setup, with ‘happiness’ being an abstract measure of scientific success. Your vault, in other words, should be a horror story that eventually gets cleaned away and sanitised before being published as a paper in the Journal of Human Fallibility.

Now, to be fair – and I do hate being fair – the digital version of Fallout Shelter has many of the same flaws in that it doesn’t do a good job of being a Fallout game. It may have been the case that the designers of the board game simply couldn’t stray too far from the parameters laid down by the property owners. The mobilification of the franchise has been going on for quite some time, and there’s so much about the setting that is now commoditised on the basis of that which is merely memetic. Perhaps Fallout Shelter couldn’t have been the board game I’d want it to be. I don’t know about that. I do know though that it isn’t what I want it to be, and that’s the basis upon which I have to evaluate it.

Fallout isn’t a milquetoast franchise, but Fallout Shelter is a milquetoast game. Perhaps in the end that’s where I’ll find the subversion for which I’m looking. Perhaps what we have here is a dark experiment into the extent to which my love for the setting will compel me to actively participate in its devaluing. Perhaps the hypothesis under examination here is my own complicity in incentivising the continual dilution of Fallout’s tone and ambiance.

What we have here then is a passably decent vault simulator. But it’s a woefully incomplete Vault simulator and I don’t see how, in its current form, it could be anything else.