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Cracked LCD- Fallen in Review

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Fallen, a new title from Watchtower Games designed by Tom W. Green III and Stephen C. Smith is a very, very interesting piece of work. I don’t think it quite gets to where it needs to be going, but it is definitely headed in the right direction. And that destination is something that has really kind of eluded game designers for decades- using the contained structure of board or card games to tell an RPG-style story. But usually, what happens is that you wind up with either something that is too mechanical (Magic Realm), too simplified (Talisman), more of a tactical miniatures game (Descent) or are quite far removed from the concept of telling a story and rolling dice against some statistics to see what happens (Mage Knight). More specifically, they tend to miss that having a sort of referee that also engages in crafting a collusive, living narrative with you is kind of the point of an RPG.

That part about creating a story together is where Fallen steps up and takes a swing for the fences, because in this card-based game – which is strictly a two player, asymmetrically head-to-head affair – that is the primary focus of the game. It’s one of those games where text is more than just for flavor; it is the basis upon which the mechanics rest. It is very influenced by paragraph games (Tales of the Arabian Nights and its ilk) and Fighting Fantasy-style gamebooks.

One player represents a Hero, classed as a Pit Fighter, Thief or Sorceress. They start with some basic equipment, some power cards and a set of unique and upgradable skills. The other player is the Dungeon Lord- the Forge Master, the Archivist of Souls or the Ogre King. They also get a deck of special power cards and start with four monsters on the table.

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Each story begins with a kind of prologue specific to the Dungeon Lord character- this kind of sets everything up- and what follows are three story cards’ worth of adventure before a final showdown between the players. Resolutions are dice-based, with players using skill ratings, powers, equipment and monsters to increase the number of dice in their pool to try to beat the other player’s total number of successes. The Dungeon Lord is not here to facilitate your good time. He’s here to kill you. This is the game that manages to pull off having an “overlord” player, if only because it’s one on one and not one against a group.

The large format cards are basically a flowchart. The Dungeon Lord reads aloud a block of text and then typically offers the Hero a number of proscribed choices. There is usually a skill check or challenge involved and sometimes special rewards for the victor. The Hero’s choices determine the path the story takes, and each card reads like a specific chapter of the overall narrative. The three cards out of the 30 in the box offer a lot of variety, but they do not specifically interconnect or tell a cohesive story.

Which may be Fallen’s biggest potential problem. Parts of the collective story hang together really well and there is definitely a sense of a complete narrative with a beginning, middle and an end. The development of both the Hero and the Overlord is rewarding and there is a definite sense of escalation throughout the game. But the text of the story cards and what actually happens usually doesn’t exactly match up, often because of how the Dungeon Lord deploys monsters. When a challenge is played out, the Dungeon Lord can tap a monster to add a number of dice to the check and if the monster has an ability that matches the type of skill the challenge calls for, there might be a bonus. But that monster may have absolutely nothing to do with the story segment tied to the challenge.

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This sometimes creates an odd dissonance in a game so focused on telling a story. There is a workaround that kind of loops the game back around to its RPG roots. If you are playing with a Dungeon Lord that is willing and able to take the stories as written and embellish them so that they make more sense, then the issue isn’t as noticeable. But that does take some skill, and not everyone games with a seasoned, capable D&D veteran that can pull it off. Most of us just kind of have to fill in the blanks and roll with it.

This is fine, because Fallen is quite a good game. There are plenty of decisions in each adventure and a compelling system of resolutions, rewards and resource management. Rolling for a challenge sometimes gives you a chance to charge up a very powerful ability keyed to your character. Or you may deal a wound to either a monster used in the challenge or to the hero, taking a chunk out of their armor. Experience points can be used to upgrade skills or monster levels. Winning a fight also lets you take a draw of two reward tokens- winner picks first and then gives the other player the remaining one. Fortune is the critical currency of the game; you spend it to activate power cards or to add dice to your pool. And there’s not a lot of it to go around throughout each story.

I’m not terribly fond of the end game because I don’t care for having a sort of epilogue segment that breaks off from the main game where the winner is the player who prepared the best for it. But that’s what is here in Fallen, and despite my objection it mostly works. Neither player can actually die or be defeated over the course of the adventure which makes the stakes feel too low. It all has to come to a conclusion in this off-to-the-side boss fight where you basically have to win three skill challenges from special story cards out of a deck unique to each Dungeon Lord. It tends to be an exciting, tense and generally satisfying conclusion with the right sense of do-or-die, but it also feels- again- somewhat disjointed.

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Regardless of the seams, this is the kind of design I like to see- it’s unique, forward-thinking and it offers a fresh take on weary concepts. So far I’ve been pleased with the replay value even without the unfortunate Kickstarter-exclusive add-ons, and I’d like to see this game offer some new classes, new Dungeon Lords and of course more stories. But more than that, I’d like to see any new stories developed with a greater eye toward cohesion. Maybe sets of themed monsters, restrictions applied to monster types used in certain challenges or specific monsters encountered only as part of certain challenges within a story matrix. There’s a lot of ways I think it could go, and almost all of them could only improve this already exceptional game.

Michael Barnes

Games writer Michael Barnes is a co-founder of Nohighscores.com as well as FortressAT.com. His trolling has been published on the Web and in print in at least two languages and in three countries. His special ability is to cheese off nerds using the power of the Internet and his deep, dark secret is that he's actually terrible at games. Before you ask, no, the avatar is not him. It's Mark E. Smith of The Fall.

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