Generally speaking, I hate remixes.
When a song, particularly a pop song, hits the radio, that’s the song, the one that a songwriter wrote, and a singer performed, and the public took in as its own. I don’t want the live version, I don’t want the “Radio Edit” version (the one that snipped 45 seconds so that it removed some of the fade in/fade out melodies to fit ad-supported radio stations), I don’t want the cover by some random jazz band, and I definitely don’t want the KIDZ BOP version.
But remember that stretch in 2019 when Lil’ Nas X released Old Town Road, then after it had a run on the Billboard Hot 100 for a few months, the country charts decided it just wasn’t quite country enough? Lil’ Nas X went out and got Billy Ray Cyrus to join him for a remix of Old Town Road…and the song went nuclear. Over the last 10 years I’m not sure there has been a signature remix that hammered it quite like Old Town Road, and when you listen to the different versions of the song, that remix really didn’t change much to the structure of the song beyond adding Cyrus to the vocals. (Oh, and that remix video is so good!)
Which brings me to…the game Final Girl by Van Ryder Games???
Hostage Negotiator 2.0
Final Girl is built on the systems featured in the 2015 solo game Hostage Negotiator from Van Ryder Games. I bought a copy of Hostage Negotiator at Gen Con years ago; that was my first dedicated solo game, and I loved it.
The tension in Hostage Negotiator was what kept me coming back. The idea of playing a negotiator who uses a hand of very thematic cards to buy time while trying to get some of the hostages out before they are killed off by the round’s antagonist was just perfect to me; I love bad cop movies and I REALLY love the Samuel L. Jackson flick The Negotiator, so playing Hostage Negotiator just felt good.
Ultimately, I made it a few months with Hostage Negotiator before selling my copy and moving on. Fast forward to PAX Unplugged 2021, and there I was, standing in front of AJ Porfirio and having a bit of a flashback because as I stared at his latest release, Final Girl, at the Van Ryder Games booth, I swore I recognized the mechanic on the player board.
And then it hit me. Final Girl IS Hostage Negotiator, but this remix is one of the greatest board game remixes ever. Final Girl takes the best parts of the cardplay in Hostage Negotiator, maintains the tension of the original game, rethemes the entire enterprise into a core box system that lets players swap in various elements from other expansions in this new Final Girl universe, and blows the original game’s artwork out of the water with a pulpy, distinctive, bold style that makes the box really pop on your shelf. And for a horror movie junkie like me, Final Girl brings it all home by making players the female protagonist in the game, similar to classic horror-film franchises such as A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Poltergeist.
Final Girl is a masterpiece. I thought Under Falling Skies would be the best solo game I played in 2021, but Final Girl has taken the prize.
Someone Will Die
In Final Girl, your goal is simple: kill the killer and you win.
Playing as a female protagonist who is one of the last people standing at whatever setting is chosen for that game’s scenario, your goal will force you to rescue a few victims, move within range of the killer, and execute successful “Horror Rolls” (skill checks) using 6-sided dice to slowly wear those bad guys down and knock them out before they murder you.
Just like Hostage Negotiator, you’ll have a hand of cards that you can strategically plan around each round, and all of them are tied to rolls of the horror dice. Wanna walk from one space on the Location Board to another? Play the Walk card, roll a couple of bright red D6s and hope you make it to your intended destination. Need to sit and heal up a bit? Play the Short Rest card and hope your rolls give you 2 critical life points back instead of just one.
Many of the cards utilize a cost that eats into the time you’ll spend running around the board. That’s important, because any leftover time you have is spent during the Planning phase on the “Action Tableau”, the card market where you will be able to buy better actions for future rounds while also scooping up any free action cards available from previous turns.
Managing your hand in Final Girl, just like Hostage Negotiator, is such a blast. That’s because on your Horror Roll, 1s and 2s are misses. 5s and 6s are successes. But 3s and 4s are the toughest choice: an icon showing 2 cards. That means you can convert 3s and 4s to successes, but only if you burn 2 cards from your hand, and let’s just say your hand is never bustling with extra cards.
That makes your selections in the Action Tableau so challenging. And picking the cards you think you will really be able to use in the next round is key, at least until a game effect randomly discards half of your hand, killing off your great planning. (Like a movie, so many random things happen in this game. The balance of strategy and tactical ingenuity in Final Girl is part of the fun.)
So, you’ll play your Action cards, save some Victims, maybe even attack the Killer. (At least in the first 2 boxes I have played, the Killer’s location is not secret, so you don’t have to spend time locating the Killer, a big concern of mine when I first opened the rulebook.)
But your goal is to kill the Killer. The Killer’s actions are great in that they are very easy to initiate: usually, target a Victim nearby (or maybe even you!), walk towards that Victim, murder them off. Every dead victim hikes the Bloodlust Track up another notch which makes the Killer faster, stronger and usually an even worse problem than it was a moment ago. Then a Terror card is played, which serves as the Killer’s event system, with a series of additional things to manage or Victims to add to the Location board.
Planning for each turn is a fun mini-puzzle that changes every game thanks to the variable setup and the random selection of items to find in a given game.
The Final Girl System
The Final Girl Core Box includes your dice, player board, meeples, heart tokens and everything else you’ll need to play expansion content. You need the Core Box to do anything else; from there, you can add expansion content—known as Feature Film boxes—to your heart’s content.
The playable characters in Final Girl have different skins, with 2 Final Girl characters in each Feature Film box. The different characters are quite similar. All of them have a special power (either a one-time bonus or an ongoing effect) that triggers after you save their allotted number of Victims from the board, anywhere from 4-6 Victims. But character choice comes down to a choice of skins; do you prefer Nancy or Barbara or Adelaide or Meiko or someone else based on their appearance?
The real choices in Final Girl come with each expansion’s Location and Killer boards. Each Feature Film box comes with one of each Location and Killer, and across the Season One product line there are 5 Locations and 5 different Killers that can be mixed and matched. Then you add in a couple dozen different setups and 10 different playable characters, and you have something that might be enough to be your only solo gaming system for weeks, if not months.
And the variety within these different Locations is fantastic. My experience playing through the review content of Final Girl took place using 2 of the 5 Feature Film boxes for what is known as Season One: “Slaughter in the Groves”, featuring a cult leader who harnesses energy by collecting victims in certain locations on the Sacred Groves Location board, and “Carnage at the Carnival”, featuring Geppetto the Puppet Master and a carnival that doesn’t feel like the right place to bring the kids. (Not just my kids. ANY kids!)
Loads of items, weapons, events, and “Terror” cards are in each expansion. You’ll likely not see all of it from any single box for a half-dozen plays in the same game, although I have already seen some item duplicates in the first 2 boxes I opened up.
Need more flavor text than what you get in the box? Don’t worry, Van Ryder’s got you. If you go to the Van Ryder site, you can use the completely optional “Gruesome Deaths” manual to animate kills as if you were reading a book after any Victims bite it during the game.
Finally, let’s talk about the actual design of each Feature Film box: I love it.
These packages are the perfect representation of simple elegance. Both the front and back box covers are magnetically sealed to hold the box together, and these covers are then used as either a Location or a Killer Board. Cards are kept secure using the plastic inserts on both sides of the box, and the size of the entire Final Girl collection can easily fit into a large backpack. Or, if you are like me, you’ve found your perfect game-on-the-go box that can fit on a hotel desk for solo play after a long day walking around a convention hall.
A Love Affair (with Blood, the Occult, Murder and Knives)
Final Girl never struggles to find ways to create dread. The health meter is tight. The time meter—the scale you’ll use to buy cards before the Killer attacks every round—is tight. The number of resources you can find to defend yourself is tight. The number of great attack cards is REALLY tight.
And that tension is what makes Final Girl shine.
Now, tension is great, but that tension turns to outright anger on occasion, especially when poor dice rolls lead to your character’s demise early in the scenario. And I got straight up murdered off the board in one instance thanks to a situation where I topped the Bloodlust track and triggered 4 consecutive ongoing effect Events in a row. On my next turn, I took damage from 3 Minions and the Killer with my 5-health Final Girl and was killed off faster than you can say “Camp Crystal Lake.”
But those situations are rare. And even then, poor planning did me in; you really have to invest in searching sites for weapons and items if you are going to survive in Final Girl. Rushing the ending is almost impossible, which I appreciate.
Final Girl is quite a puzzle, with theme for days, and great reference material for fans of classichorror franchises. With so many expansions already in the wild, you’ll never run out of reasons to look at the beautiful art by Vladyslava Ladkova, Tyler Johnson, Roland McDonald, Tumo Mere and many other credited artists.
Final Girl is the only solo game you’ll need to buy this year; it’s a tough customer that is infinitely replayable. I played it 6 times prior to writing this review and I could play it 50 more times and still find joy in the proceedings. It’s a slick production, and if you want to splurge on minis to replace the included wooden meeples or go bigger and get the amazing dual playmat set (seriously, amazing), go to town. The Kickstarter is live for Season 2 and it’s already gotten 5,000 fans to buy in.
And for the record: I do sorta like the KIDZ BOP version of Old Town Road. In fact, please excuse me while I go queue that up right now!