TV's favourite Time Lord takes on the Lonely Assassins in this new game from Gale Force Nine, and Don't Blink makes some bold choices from the outset. While GF9's other Doctor Who board game, Time of the Daleks, draws on the show's near-60 years of history and makes use of its most enduring alien foes, this entry is laser-focused.
For a start, there's just one Doctor - Matt Smith's Eleven, objectively the best modern Doctor (don't @ me, Tennant fanboys), ably assisted by his companions Amy, Rory, and Clara. And just one foe, the Weeping Angels. They debuted 44 years after the Daleks and are arguably even less mobile than their famously stair-averse counterparts.
There's no galaxy-spanning apocalyptic plot. The Doctor's time-travelling police box, the Tardis, has crashed on a derelict spaceship. The crew needs to scavenge four components to get it going again and escape. Unfortunately, the ship is home to Weeping Angels - statue-like creatures that can only move when you're not looking at them, and who can send you out of time with a single touch.
It's delightfully simple: anyone who's watched a couple of episodes of the show, especially during Smith's tenure, will grasp the idea at once.
That accessibility underpins the whole game. There were probably two ways this could have gone - a big, Nemesis-style starship-crawler with dozens of meticulously detailed miniatures and a choice of Tardis crews, or something altogether more affordable.
And in a world where so many nostalgic properties end up boardgameised (is that a word? Let's make it a word!) into massive cubes of prohibitively expensive gorgeousness, there's something to be applauded in creating a fun, quick game for practically pocket money.
A Mad Man With A Box
So, let's talk about components. Don't Blink is the size of a modest-length hardback book, and much lighter, so it's easy to transport for a gaming away day. If you were hoping the bijou box was bigger on the inside, you'd be disappointed, but it does have a suitably thematic spine-chilling surprise when you lift the lid.
Inside, you get a 16-page rulebook, nine double-sided floor tiles making up the spaceship, a Tardis tile, four repair part tokens, four action tokens, eight Weeping Angel standees, and four Tardis crew standees.
The only plastic you'll find here is in the bases for the standees - no dice, no meticulously detailed miniatures. It's a low-fi approach that feels absolutely right for this game, and GF9 have leaned into it wholly. The tiles, tokens, and standees are all suitably chunky and substantial, and we get proper photos of the actors in their roles, not vaguely recognisable artwork that sidesteps image rights.
You can always grab Time of the Daleks and the right Friends Expansion for Tardis crew miniatures, but there are good reasons not to. For one, the standees are really good - back in the day, I played Leading Edge's otherwise-excellent Aliens game to death, so believe me I know what a bad standee looks like.
For another, a 2D standee makes it easy to tell exactly which way the character is facing. And that, as it turns out, is pretty important to the gameplay...
When I Say Run, Run
Don't Blink is, at heart, a dungeon crawler. A band of brave adventurers journeying into unexplored ruins in search of treasure - it could almost be a much simpler Descent or, given the space theme Aliens: Another Glorious Day in the Corps. What makes this game stand out from the rest, though, is the combat - because there isn't any.
It turns out hitting malevolent stone statues with sticks, swords, or even an M41A Pulse Rifle does them no harm at all. Do you know what Weeping Angels hate, though? Being watched.
Yes, in possibly the most British game mechanic of all time, you can only keep the Angels at bay with a hard stare. Brilliantly, this weakness extends to Angels looking at each other; presumably, they live their whole lives desperately avoiding each other's gaze, like passengers on the tube.
This is really useful, as our heroes can only move six spaces per turn, while Angel's zip along at nine, so long as no one's watching. Players can even drag Angels into position to stare at each other, but there's a catch. Sometimes a statue is just a statue.
The heart of Don't Blink's gameplay lies in outwitting your opponent through card selection. Each turn, the Angel player decides which four of their eight markers are real Angels (the rest are harmless statues). Only these four can take action, and the player only gets four action tokens, so you can send them all racing headlong towards the heroes, but they can't do anything when they get there.
Of course, even if you hold back an action token to capture a hero, your Angel might not be able to use it if that hero (or another with a line of sight) holds their nerve and heeds the call to... don't blink.
Call My Bluff
Yes, we finally get to the crux of the game. Each turn, Tardis crew players assign a card to each hero (you always start with four heroes, shared between the non-Angel players), which either says Blink or Don't Blink. Blinking at the wrong time can be fatal, while Don't Blink ensures Angels are stopped in their tracks - as long as you're facing them.
Obviously, it's not so simple as picking Don't Blink cards every turn, because every time one of those is revealed, it's discarded, while revealed Blink cards go back in the pile for future use. This adds a strong sense of urgency to the Doctor's team; takes too long to recover those repair parts, and sooner or later you're going to just be left with Blink cards.
The Tardis crew start with ten Don't Blink cards, but you can increase this to the 12 provided for an easier game - I'd recommend this if you're playing against an experienced Angel player or just get fed up losing, as it's designed to be a tough game for the heroes to win.
There are also four special Don't Blink cards - one for each hero - which provides one-off advantages such as recovering spent 'Don't Blink' cards or improving line of sight for a turn. Choosing when to play these is a tough choice, as afterwards they go to the Angel player, granting them a special ability such as an extra action point or ignoring a Blink check.
You Go That Way, I'll Go This Way
There's a fair bit to explore tactically in Don't Blink, especially for the Tardis crew player. Do you split up and dash for each of the components, knowing the Angels can't attack everyone at once? Or do you stick together in a group, taking much longer, but covering every approach?
Hand management is another consideration. It's tempting to hoard your precious Don't Blink cards for later turns, but as I discovered on the first turn of my first game, that can mean losing one of your heroes early on, along with her special ability, leaving the remaining heroes even more exposed.
I'd split my team into two pairs and got very unlucky with the Angels my opponent had chosen to activate, heading straight for them. A different decision by either player would have seen things play out quite differently. However, even though I was left on the back foot for the rest of an ultimately unsuccessful game, it didn't feel like the situation was entirely irretrievable. Sadly, though, I'm quite capable of making more than one bad decision per game.
So far, I've only tried Don't Blink as a two-player game, but I can imagine that having the five players will make things interesting as you argue over tactics and the supply of Don't Blink cards dwindles, especially since once your character is captured by the Angels, you're out of the game.
On the other hand, every 'hero' player wins if their team succeeds, since in theory they can be rescued once the Tardis is repaired, though if you really want to trust your fate to a time machine that's been patched up by Rory, that's your look-out.
All of this means there's quite a lot of replayability, and the short playing time only encourages this. Once you know the rules you can zip through in under an hour, or even less if the Tardis crew is careless or unlucky. It also means you can take turns as the Angels player - a good idea, as this tends to be a more reactive role, with your decisions each turn depending on exactly what the other side is up to.
I'm not sure how much you'll keep coming back to it once you've played through the various permutations, though. It feels like the sort of game that's challenging until you defeat the Angels, but maybe lacks the depth to keep you coming back once you have.
Let's Sum Up...
In Doctor Who episode terms, if you think of Time of the Daleks as a pulls-out-all-the-stops anniversary special, then Don't Blink is very much that midseason episode that has one good idea and runs with it, leaving a lasting impression.
I liked it a lot, for its commitment to its theme, and relative simplicity. This is a game you can quickly explain to casual gamers and which doesn't require a big-time commitment. It takes longer to set up some games than it does to play Don't Blink.
Hopefully, it will lead to more Doctor Who releases like this - simple, low-budget games themed around a single Doctor and scenario. But it's difficult to see how they'll top the perfect blend of gameplay mechanics and story that Don't Blink manages to accomplish.