WBG Score: 8.5
Player Count: 2-6
Published by: Hobby World
This is a free review copy. See our review policy here.
I like card-based fighting games. I like cyber-punk, dystopian, fantasy themes. Helpfully, I also quite like board games. So, this seems like it should be a winner. Designers Ekaterina Gorn, Igor Sklyuev also made Master of Orion: The Board Game, which I have never played but it is a game that always interests me due to its theme and the fact it always seems to be available for such a reasonable price. Anyway, back to NEON. The cover alone intrigued me, and I was excited to try this one to see what new things it brings to the very busy card based fighting genre. Let's get it to the table and see how it plays
How To Set Up NEON
There are three game modes in NEON: Resurrection, Battle, or Squad. In Resurrection, the fighter with the most points is the victor. Battle is a last fighter standing situation. Squad is a team game where players work together to try and get the most points. The first thing you need to do is decide which game mode you want to play this time.
When you have made your choice, shuffle the arena tiles and lay them out in a random order to form a circular arena. Next, assemble the drop ship and place it into the center of the arena. This will take a few minutes the first time, but then you can leave it fully formed. However, it won't fit in the box like this. Taking it apart is difficult as the cardboard connects very tightly, and I feel like I am damaging it each time I do this. A minor frustration for a component that is largely in the game for aesthetic purposes. It looks cool, but what am I supposed to do with it after each game?
Moan over. Shuffle the numbered scoreboard tokens and place them in a face-up stack in the ship's central tower. They fit in very nicely and make up a little for the fact you cannot store the thing! The top token will let you know which sector to remove first during the first submerge phase. More on that later. Then shuffle the bot tokens and place one face down into each area. Then place the round tracker sheet next to the arena on the side that matches your current player count. Now shuffle the three equipment decks and place them next to the arena, and for the Resurrection and Squad mode, also shuffle and place the Enhancement deck.
Each player now chooses a fighter and takes the cards, tokens, energy tracker clip, and miniature that comes with it. I store all these together in a separate baggy, so you can just give out the chosen bag to each player and it has all their bits. Some fighters have special tokens for unique weapons they alone have access to. I add these all to the bags as well. Take the matching player mat and choose the correct side to use based on the mode you are playing. For your first setup, take note of the top right on the mat, which will tell you if your chosen character should have a special token or not. Each player sets their energy tracker on this mat to three using the energy tracker clip and places their mini onto the drop ship. Each player shuffles their cards, draws three, and places the rest as a face-down draw pile. Finally, place the search tokens, dice, and HP tokens (HP not needed for Battle mode) next to the main arena, choose a leader, and give them the start token, and you are now ready to begin."
How To Play NEON
The game then runs through four phases in sequence and turn order until the end game condition is met. In Battle, this is simply when there is only one fighter remaining. For Resurrection and Squad, the game ends when the final round is over. All games can also end if all fighters are eliminated.
Phase One - Choosing Cards
The game starts with each player choosing two cards to use this round. The players will have drawn two cards to their hand during setup, draw a third card so you have three to choose from. The cards are split down the middle and offer two actions per card. You must choose three actions in total per round. To do this, you must use one card to cover half of another. You can do this however you like, rotating cards either way to pick the three actions you want from the six available on your three cards. The cards also have a number on the top which represents your initiative. The lower the number, the earlier you will take your action this round. When you have done this, place the two cards you want to use face down, with one card covering the other half. Place your third card down to be used in the next round. All players will then flip their cards simultaneously to reveal their chosen actions and initiative. Any ties in initiative are broken by the player with the leader token.
Phase Two - Actions
This is the main part of the game, where in initiative order, all players will now carry out the three actions shown on their cards for this round. The main actions are to move, search, fight or defend. But you can also gain energy or carry out the takeover action to claim the leader token, as well as your own character's unique special actions. Let's go through them all one by one.
Defense - If any player plays a defense card, this is activated before any other player takes their turn, irrelevant to initiative. All players who played this action will add one forcefield from their player mat to their miniature on the main board. You can have a maximum of two of these at any one time. They will then also gain two energy. You can never have more than six energy.
Attack - This is the main action you will be carrying out during the game. The first thing to do is choose a weapon and target. You can attack the bot tokens as well as other players if you choose to. They will reward you with extra ammunition as shown on the back of their tokens. Each player will have a basic attack shown on their player mat that allows them a limited range and attack strength, but once you have searched you will be able to add more powerful weapons that allow you to roll more attack dice and do damage from a further range. The area you attack from may affect your attack as well, potentially allowing you to spend energy to roll extra dice.
Once your weapon and target are elected, roll the dice equal to your weapon's strength and the target's range. Certain powers on the weapon and your player mat will allow you to re-roll one time if you choose. The defending player may have some powers that could force you to re-roll or affect your attack too. This could happen before your roll or after. The defending player will then roll their defense dice. This could be affected by their forcefield, their location, or current gear. Once all modifiers and area effects have been taken into account, all attacks that have not been nullified are then enacted on the defending player who takes one damage for each attack they could not block. In Battle mode, this would mean removing one health token from the defending player's board for each hit. In battle, each token is worth one health point. For the other modes where some health tokens are worth two or three, you will remove one health point. If the target was a Bot and at least one damage was caused, the Bot token is removed from the board and added to the player's mat and can now be used as ammo.
In resurrection or Squad mode, if a fighter loses their final health token, they become defeated. If their player mat is on the A-side, then they must flip this to the B-side and move their mini to the drop ship, essentially resetting back to their starting conditions. They can keep two gear cards of their opponent's choosing but can then draw two green, one orange, and one equipment card. If this happens when your player mat is on the B-side, then you are eliminated from the game. In Battle mode, you will already be on the B-side and are simply eliminated.
Move - This allows you to move one space to either side of where your mini currently resides. On your first turn, you will be on the drop ship, and you can move from this to the main board for a free action. Note that each sector has its own unique power and this will apply to your fighter as soon as it moves into it. This could be to affect its attack or defense, ignore the damage from submersion (more on that soon) or for the train station, to cause you to immediately travel one more space if you move onto it.
Search - Each area can be searched to find new weapons, gear, and ammo. Each area will have a symbol either representing a one, two, or number three sector area. When you search in a new area, you simply need to place a search token to show it has been searched. They can then take either three green, two orange, or one green and one purple equipment card based on which area they searched in. Later, if anyone searches in an area with a search token already present you must pay one energy for each search token currently present.
All equipment must be immediately played onto your play mat. There are six different types shown by the icons on the botop left of the card. You can only have one card of each type. If you ever draw a card type that they already have, then you can either simply discard one of these cards or play it on top or underneath the other card with the same icon. This can then be used as ammo for the other card. For example, many weapons have a secondary action that can be activated if you have the right ammo card tucked underneath. The tucked card must be then discarded as this ammo has now been used, but the secondary power will often bring you very useful powers.
Takeover - If you don't currently have the leader token, take this from the player who does and add it to your mat. This may affect this round's turn order if there was a tie involving the player who just claimed or lost this token. The player who played this then gains one energy.
Gain Energy - Simply gain the shown energy on the card, either one or two.
There is also a wild card which allows players to keep their option open and choose what to do on their turn, and either search, move, gain energy, or fight.
Phase Three - End Game Check
Once all players have played out their actions, then it's time to check the win condition for the mode you are playing. If this has not been met, then move onto the Submission phase.
Phase Four - Submission
Check the round track sheet and note if one or two areas are being affected this round. This will be shown by either one or two area token symbols being shown for your current round. The current face-up number in the middle of the drop ship will tell which area is being affected first. If you only have one area submerged this round then all players can plan for this as they know what was about to happen. But most rounds have two areas submerged, and this second one will be unknown to all players, so may catch you out. All areas that are submerged are removed from the game area, and all tokens on it and put back into the box. Any players who were on it are moved to an adjacent area and must suffer one damage. They can spend two energy to avoid this, and some areas will help you avoid the damage too.
In this way, the area to fight in will reduce each round, and players will be forced into a smaller area.
Play will then move onto the next round where these four phases are repeated until the end game condition is met
Is It Fun? NEON Board Game Review
A good fighting game needs to have clever card play. But a lot of great games already do that. To stand out and deserve a place on your shelf, it also needs to do something new. We have seen a slowly diminishing play area before, Blood Rage being a great example. Multi-use cards with a choice to be made about which part you use set in an Action Queue is also not uncommon in the board game world. Looking at you Gloomhaven. Unique asymmetric player powers and Dice manipulation are, of course, very popular with all genres, particularly in fighting games like this. Dice Throne being a recent example that also does both well. And I really enjoy the sense of exploration in the way you search and find cool new weapons and gear that can make huge differences to your subsequent turns, very much like Robinson Crusoe. But the thing that makes NEON stand out for me is the seamless combination of all these varying mechanisms integrated beautifully into the lavishly ubiquitous theme.
The choice of whether this game is for you over similar games in its field will come down to theme. If you like the idea of characters from history battling it out against each other, look no further than Unmatched. If you want to play with cartoonish minis go for the Funkoverse games. If you want a more dynamic map, with the cyberpunk theme, then maybe NEON is for you.
Now, onto that clever card play I mentioned because, to me, it's so interesting. Each round, you will be picking three actions to carry out from the six available to you. Two actions on one card will be available next round, but one action will be taken out of the equation for the foreseeable future when you cover it with one of the other actions. This is a very interesting choice. You're not only thinking about what you want to do but what you are stopping yourself from doing. You must also consider what the other player(s) may be scheming. Like Colt Express, don't want to be firing into thin air.
Some players will go for the kill early on, trying to inflict maximum damage to gain an early advantage. Another strategy is to play the long game, build up a powerful arsenal, avoid combat in the early rounds, and then pounce when you are fully tooled up. Trying to predict what other players may be thinking, particularly in a two-player game, is key. If another player moves away from you, out of range, while adding powerful weapons and defensive gear, while you blindly fire into thin air, you may find that in later rounds when it comes to combat, you may be severely outmatched.
But of course, all of this comes down to the roll of some dice. You can stack the odds in your favor. Roll more dice. Give yourself re-rolls, and turn near misses into hits. But the fate of your attacks is still not fully in your control. If you do not enjoy games that introduce a chance element of luck like this, this may not be for you. But if you enjoy trying to manipulate the dice gods to look fondly upon you, and nudge the odds to be more in your favor, you may well have a lot of fun with this game.
It looks stunning, each game feels unique, and the pace of the game suits my attention level just right! I have seen some comments on BGG questioning the speed turns come about. I can only assume this is in higher player counts with first-time players. Because for me, I find this electric. Choosing your cards can take a moment, but all players do this at the same time. Then carrying out your actions is an individual thing, but watching others do this is fun. So, perhaps this comes down to the crux of if this game is for you or not. If you like the idea of watching this battle unfold before your eyes, you could just fall hard for this game. When my family plays Colt Express, we take it in turns to reveal the cards we all played and then tell a dramatic story as each one is revealed one-by-one. We cheer and boo like a Pantomime. It is the most fun part of the game for us. Watching our choices play out before us in a hilarious series of failures and successes. If that sounds fun to you, then I would suggest checking this out.