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Fury of Dracula 3rd Edition Review

The original Fury of Dracula was a seminal game of my childhood. Whisked off the shelf as a curio on a trip to get some gaming miniatures, it quickly became a staple. Van Helsing and his pupils spent hours sweeping Europe, seeking for the Count. Instead they often found feral wolves and savage gypsies as the vampire secretly spun his wicked web of intrigue across the continent.

That copy is tattered now, worn down by love. The chits are soft at the edges, the box battered and the figure of Dr. Seward snapped off at the knees. He still struggled manfully after his quarry, those paired feet creeping into my adult years like the memory of childhood sins. Yet a little of the magic had gone. The game could be frustratingly random, and it needed an aggressive Dracula player to make it work.

A second edition fixed those problems at the cost of bloated rules and play time. It wasn’t a worthy trade off. Worse, the balance had shifted toward the hunters. Dracula was constrained by bizarre rules that made it hard for him to double back on himself, so the hunters had an easier time to box him in. He didn’t seem much of a Prince of Darkness when he couldn’t even cross his own trail to escape.

Here, now, is a third edition. The box cover might a laughable vampire Liberace but I had such hopes for the contents. Somewhere in the fog between the those two flawed editions was an incredible game. A game that smoothly wove deduction and strategy with thrills and theme. I knew that game existed, but I wasn’t sure there was a designer on the planet who could tease it out.

Inside the box, disappointment. There was still a location deck. There was still a six-card trail. Yet promise gleamed at the bottom of the card stack in the form of special power cards. There are several ways now for the Count to confuse his pursuers by moving twice or not moving at all. The best is Misdirect, a new card that not only lets Dracula double back but removes a link in the trail. Many unsuspecting hunters can stumble in the resulting hole in the chain of clues.

This is just the start. It seems that the developers thought the best way to get the best of both previous editions was to re-arm Dracula. Not with greater strength or fangs but with the powers of lies and obfuscation. At each place he visits, Dracula can place an encounter. Some of these are there to hurt the hunters but others exist to thwart or bamboozle them. They can lose turns, get moved away, prevented from searching the town for vampires. One, if allowed to “mature” by spending six turns on the board, even clears out half the card trail, leaving the hunters chasing after ghosts.

I would never have thought that adding misinformation was the way forward for this game. But it works. It works brilliantly. The hunters are grasping at endless tendrils of data with a variety of tools and cards to help them get more. Everything they need is there, but piecing it together demands method and skill. So much so that having one player run all four hunters can be too much to handle, remembering who found what, where. The Count meanwhile is doing everything in his diabolical power to muddy the waters.

Combat has had a major overhaul. Hunters now only fight vampires and Dracula himself. This allows the combat system to be boiled down to simple icon matching with a few special effects. It’s crude but effective, allowing a balance of luck, bluff and skill without slowing down the game. Facing a vampire at night is a stream of hot terror, cards flashing past and damage accumulating at lightning speed.

Dracula felt too weak in the previous edition. Initially, it felt like he’d gone too far the other way in this one. With his newfound combat prowess and slippery box of tricks he ruled our first games like the dark prince he ought to be. It seemed unbalanced, frustrating for the hunters. But it’s a testament to the skill of this design that we wanted to keep searching. Not just for Dracula, but for a way to beat him.

When we found some, it revealed yet more layers of excellence to the game. Dracula can coast against unskilled hunters. They, in turn, have the harder time of it, and never get an easy win. They have to learn to behave like pawns in a chess game. As a group, they can triumph, but only by making individual sacrifices when needed.

When they learn this, games become agonisingly tight. By the end Dracula will have been lost and found repeatedly and Europe will be awash in the blood of hunters. Although the focus seems to have moved away from action to deduction, this edition might actually be the most brutal of the three.

The production evokes a fine sense of gothic grandeur. Yet the real period feel comes from the way that the mechanics evoke the characters of hunters and Dracula alike. The former are puritans, calculating efficiencies, working through probabilities, forming plans to ensnare their quarry. The latter is the very devil. A terrible, charismatic liar who must use all their powers of cunning, bluff and misdirection to put his pursuers off the scent.

This version of the Fury of Dracula is a triumph. It’s become something greater than the sum of its previous editions. Where one was short and the other long, this walks a satisfying line between. Where one was cast as a hunt and the other a chase this can be both. Where one was seen as a combat game and the other a deduction title this can be both. And as the game captures your imagination like the mesmeric eye of the vampire, you can be sure of enough repeat plays to see it in every one of its many guises.

Cracked LCD- Cthulhu Wars in Review

I was very, very skeptical of Cthulhu Wars to say the least. I’m not a big supporter of the current trend toward crowdfunding in the hobby games market and I’m not entirely on board with the concept of these “Cadillac” games with astronomical presale prices. But there were three things that drove me to ask the publishers if they would send me a press copy. One is that I had heard great things about it from folks whose opinions I trust. The second is that I wanted to see what one of these luxury class games- in this case one retailing for $199- had to offer in comparison with more traditionally priced designs on the marketplace. The third is that Mr. Petersen is certainly not some upstart, armchair game designer selling their product with a flashy video and lots of promises. This is the guy that created Call of Cthulhu, still my favorite RPG of all time. And he also had a hand in designing games like Doom, Quake and other seminal, hugely influential computer games.

So “the Great Old One” himself responded, issuing a command to one of his Servitors to send a copy to me. A few days later I got this 11 pound box in the mail and opened it up to find a big, black box with good illustrations and luxurious embossing. It looked deluxe, sure. Opening it up, I was a little underwhelmed at first. It’s hard to not expect to be completely blown away, but the reality of it is that Cthulhu Wars is still a physical product, not a life-changing experience. But then I dug through the layer of punchboards and the map and saw IT. It wasn’t Cthulhu that caught my eye, it was Hastur. A huge, bright yellow monstrosity that put me in mind more of old fashioned plastic dinosaur figures more than gaming miniatures. I picked it up and just kind of laughed at it. Was it the taint of madness?

Also packed into the hard shell plastic tray were a huge Cthulhu that could be a replica of the statue in the story. There were Dark Young, tentacles frozen in mid-writhing along with their mother, Shub-Niggurath. Nyarlathotep, looking indeed like a Crawling Chaos. And the majestic yet abominable King in Yellow, of course rendered in yellow plastic. It’s been a very, very long time since I have been impressed with miniatures. These impressed me not just with their size, but also their detail and the implication that these were toys meant to be played with. In addition to these incredible pieces, the game is also packed with scads of great-looking monsters and cultists for each of the four included factions. Nightgaunts, Byahkees, Hunting Horrors, Deep Ones, Fungi from Yuggoth- if you know these names, you’ll be thrilled to hold these pieces in your hands.

After the initial sanity check, the reality set in that some of the components simply aren’t as impressive. The cardboard is pretty standard stuff and I’ve seen better in less expensive games. The gate markers in particular could have been and should have been more visually striking. The player mats and tracks are cardstock when they should have been thick punchboard. It’s hard to avoid being disappointed in the bag of plain old black 6mm D6s- games a fraction of the cost of Cthulhu Wars have custom dice. The maps are decent, but the visual design lacks the impact of the plastics.

I don’t usually spend a lot of column inches discussing the physical product in my reviews, but Cthulhu Wars definitely deserves it because of the consumer cost and also because it is such a wild mix of incredible and mundane. The effect is something like driving a Cadillac and realizing that it is just a car after all. It’s still a Cadillac and that matters, but it is important to keep expectations in check. This is still a small press, crowdfunded board game. And it is worth noting that the current “Onslaught 2” Kickstarter campaign offers both free and paid upgrades to several components. You pay extra for the seat heaters and deluxe floormats.

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Out of all of the things I expected out of Cthulhu Wars, the last thing I expected to be quite honest was to encounter an incredibly streamlined, highly refined “Dudes on a Map” design that I think is the best in its class since 2005’s Nexus Ops. This is a spectacular piece of development work that showcases Mr. Petersen’s experience and expertise in creating game systems, mechanics and concepts. This is absolutely a “fun first” design built to put players into a very specific setting, give them the insane powers of an alien god, and then get out of the way as much as possible to let players play. It is highly accessible, approachable and easy to learn. Administration is at a minimum- there are very few tokens to fuss with, no decks of cards to learn and manage, and the bookkeeping is as simple as it gets. In a way, it’s very old fashioned, but it also cuts through a lot of the clutter and bloat that have plagued “conquest” style games over the past decade or so.

The concept is cool and anyone that loves Lovecraft- from the original stories up through recent games such as Eldritch Horror- will immediately appreciate it. What if all of those gate-closing, cult-thwarting, Cthulhu-shooting exploits in other Mythos-inspired games was for naught and the Great Old Ones won? The core game’s map depicts an Earth upon which mankind no longer holds sway, the Great Old Ones along with their minions and monsters struggle for dominance. Cultists spread their abhorrent practices across the post-apocalyptic wastes, establishing gates through which they can summon monsters and even the Great Old Ones themselves. The overall goal of the game is for your faction to earn 30 Doom points. This only takes 60-90 minutes once your group has a handle on the game.

Fundamentally, Cthulhu Wars hews close to the Dudes on a Map tradition that goes back to Risk. Moving pieces and fighting with them is the prime directive. Combat is a matter of rolling dice equal to the combat value of everything in a space with sixes killing any unit (even a Great Old one) and fours or fives resulting in “Pain”, effectively a rout or forced retreat. There are also some other cool concepts at work. For example, if you put a monster in a space with an enemy’s Cultist that does not have a monster of their faction then you can abduct them to earn extra power. So a Nightgaunt can fly in and snatch up a guy left alone holding down a gate.

Each turn, all of the Cultists you have on the board generate a Power Point and you get two for each gate you control. The meager, misguided worshippers are also expendable, so you can sacrifice them for more power. These points are used to pay for movement, battle, gate construction, summoning, kidnapping Cultists and paying to use your faction’s Spellbook powers. These abilities- each player has six- are earned when you complete a specific goal keyed to your faction’s agenda and overall strategic direction. Shub-Niggurath has “achievements” keyed to spreading her “Thousand Young” across the map. Nyarlathotep is focused on control of gates and gaining power. Hastur’s Yellow Sign gang benefits from The King in Yellow spreading desecration into territories, the Undead springing up to serve his majesty. The followers of Cthulhu earn Spellbooks from controlling the oceans and devouring other players’ pieces.

The Spellbooks are outrageously overpowered and unfair. Some of them are at Cosmic Encounter levels of rules bending or breaking. Cthulhu can submerge with a couple of Shuggoths and Star Spawn and spend just one power point later on to pop up anywhere on the map. Nyarlathotep has a Madness ability that allows his player to choose for everyone else where “pained” (routed) figures are moved to after combat. Hastur can move to a Cultist that accidentally spoke his name and then abduct them. The Black Goat faction can turn their congregation into one die combat units.

The point is that all of these appropriately godlike powers are extremely powerful and desirable, while also giving each faction both a unique flavor and a variable, situational strategic direction each game. Some Spellbooks interact with a faction’s units to augment their abilities in movement or combat. They are all well balanced and well written, but it is imperative that new players understand what each faction’s special ability is along with all of their Spellbooks. Unaware players may miss the importance of not allowing the Black Goat’s monsters to run rampant or of keeping the Crawling Chaos player out of gate territories.

Scoring all of the above is quite interesting. In each round, each player get Doom points for each gate they control. Each player also has the option to perform a Ritual of Annihilation wherein power points are spent in exchange to effectively double the points earned from gates and give the annihilating player a secret Elder Sign mark worth one to three points for each Great Old One they control. But it is also at the expense of resources available during the turn. The Ritual becomes more expensive each time it is performed and there is a terminal point at which so many of them ends the game whether someone has reached 30 Doom or not.

This scoring method has a knock-on effect- it keeps the game moving forward, continually escalating the stakes but without creating the kind of “steamroller” effect that often occurs in this type of game. There are a couple of checks and balances in place. If you manage to get two more gates than everybody else on just one turn, you can do the Ritual to get a four point jump in addition to a possible three point boost from an Elder Sign, which also serves to baffle the “beat up the leader” impetus. And then there is a charity provision that enables a player that gets just completely devastated on a turn to earn power points equal to half the leader- which can be a big boon.

This is a very aggressive, very fluid game so fortunes and territorial control can change dramatically over the course of the action. There is no turtling, the close quarters map with few territories simply doesn’t allow it. Rebounding from losses is fairly easy, and “Pain” results are more common than kills. The feeling this generates is one of struggle between equivalent powers punctuated by dramatic shifts in game state.

The immediacy of this game- coupled with its easy play and approachability- makes this one of my favorite designs in this genre space. I love that it is a game that someone can come to my house, see on the shelf, get curious about and I can have them up and running with it in about ten minutes. Setup and commitment are minimized. Impact and engagement are maximized.

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Brilliantly editorial in its design yet over-the-top in production, the final question in regarding Cthulhu Wars is one that has likely been on the minds of any reader who has not yet either bought the game from the previous Kickstarter campaign or pledged on the recent one. “Is it worth it”? It’s a harder question to answer than it seems because in comparison to other products on the market it’s difficult to argue for it when you can easily buy three or even four very high quality, comparable titles for this game’s selling price. And that is before you figure in the expansion material, which is also premium priced with a full set of add-ons costing $600 before shipping.

But here it is. The answer might be regarded as something of a cop-out, but I’m going to tell you, reader, that it is simply up to you. Take a look at what is online, take a look at what is offered in the current Kickstarter, think about what your tastes are and what your group likes to play. Consider if a luxury-class Dudes on a Map game is something you want as a centerpiece in your collection. If you are interested in the Cthulhu Mythos, factor in how much you think that playing with these awesome figures and powers would be fun. Play someone else’s copy- if you dare to tempt yourself.

For my part, I think it is worth it because it is a masterful design that evokes an old fashioned sensibility while presenting itself in a very modern and very innovative set of rules that feels outside of the usual set of influences and antecedents. The miniatures, if you can call them that, do actually impart a sense of grandiose, cyclopean theater to the game and I would not want them to be reduced or replaced by less extravagant components. I appreciate the heart and soul of this game, I value that Mr. Petersen in some sense regards it as a culmination of his life’s work in games. The expansion content lingers in my thoughts like some kind of malignant corruption, the sound of a mystical unseen flute summoning my wallet.

I love this game and I think it is one of the absolute best games released this year and in time it could become one of my favorite games of all time. It is the best crowdfunded board game released to date. Like most of the games I cover, I was given it to review so take from that fact what you will. But if not for Mr. Petersen’s generosity, I would have been on my phone ordering a copy immediately after my first play.

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Dungeon Saga Review

If you know your dungeon crawl games, I can give you the shortest review ever of Dungeon Saga. It’s a cross between Descent and HeroQuest. It has the aesthetics and design philosophy of the latter, but incorporates the overlord versus players setup of the former. Job done.

Still here? Okay then. Dungeon Saga has one standout hallmark. It’s full of smart design decisions which offer a little extra depth, a little extra theme, while keeping things as approachable as it can. That’s impressive. The question is whether it’s enough to make this title stand out in one of the most crowded genres in board gaming.

Let me give you an example. Fighting borrows a combat mechanic from, of all places, Risk. Each player rolls dice and compares the values sequentially, highest dice winning each pair. No great interest there. But if there’s more than one model attacking you, you lose one dice for both attack and defence. If one’s in your rear three squares you lose another dice for that combat.

Anyone can grasp both the rules and the logic of this. Yet this swift stroke brings a sudden element of tactical positioning to your play. In the tight corridors and irregular rooms of the dwarf king’s hold it’s easy to get outnumbered if you’re not careful. So, players must jostle for position, watch each other’s backs, consider leaving good positions to stop someone getting surrounded. A simple combat mechanic with a tiny tweak to give you something to think about.

Here’s another. In this base set, the overlord player represents a Necromancer. He has a limited number of actions every turn. Each of these can either move and attack with a minion on the board, or turn a pile of bones marker into a fresh monster which can’t act that turn. Again: a simple, logical concept. Again, it creates some fun complexity. Do you trade off attacking now for the chance to get better position next turn?

There are a few other things in the bag: ranged combat and spells, doors and chests. But on the whole it’s a simple package well suited for family play. However much care went in to getting maximum bang from the mechanics, there’s too few rules to build major depth. Certainly nothing that can compare with the rich tactical smorgasbord of Descent.

There’s no better example of this than the campaign system, or lack thereof. Heroes start each scenario with pre-determined equipment which gets better as you run through the campaign. Like everything else in the game it keeps things clean and functional, ensuring you can pick individual adventures and find them balanced. Yet it can’t recreate the magic of slowly scaling the ladder of power. You already know how you’ll have improved by the next scenario.

Instead all we have is a setup where adventures get 15 attempts to beat the eight adventures in the book and can earn the occasional extra dice. Yet again it’s wonderfully sparse design, achieving just enough flavour from very little. But again, it offers a limited sense of continuity and may be a barrier to replay value.

Interestingly, the components follow the same pattern of making compromises to maximize value. It’s got little plastic furniture pieces like doors and chests, which are magnificent. Many of the sculpts are excellent too, especially the larger zombie troll figures. The plastic they’re made from isn’t great, though. And the dungeons tiles themselves are thin with generic art. They don’t have jigsaw ends so you can either clip them together and risk damage or lay them out and risk players knocking them askew in the excitement.

Although this is an easy game to pick up and play, it’s part of a wider series. There’s lot more expansions to come and a bigger, thicker set of rules. Kickstarter backers already have some of this material but I’ve not seen it. Part of the charm of this game is its accessibility, but it’s good to know it’s already got plenty of extra material for those as want it.

I like Dungeon Saga. It’s such a smart, compact package, crammed with equal parts invention and nostalgia. So it’s unfortunate that part of what makes it fun is also its greatest weakness. In trying to combine the best bits of other dungeon crawls it had, bizarrely, left itself short of markers to make it stand out in a crowded field.

Descent offers a more crunchy experience for hardcore gamers. The co-operative nature of the D&D Adventure System games make them better for family play. Claustrophobia has richer theme and Dungeonquest is more exciting. But Dungeon Saga is there if you feel the need to add another box of cool dungeon toys to your collection. I kind of hope you do.

Cracked LCD- Champions of Midgard in Review

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Champions of Midgard is a really good game. It’s new from Grey Fox Games and designer Ole Steiness (Police Precinct). It’s also one of the best looking games released this year, all done up in a heavy metal Viking motif with rockin’ fonts and illustrations that will make you want to throw up horns and lick the blood off a battleaxe as you ride a flaming longship into Valhalla. There is dice rolling, monster fighting and a brilliant mechanic that allows you to shame your peers that have proven too cowardly to do battle with the local trolls. It’s easy to get folks interested in it, it’s easy to teach and it’s easy to play. And it’s a single purchase title, not a product line with 25 expansions available out of the gate.

There is a lot going for this game, to be sure. In fact, going down my list of desirables, it checks off almost everything from its pricepoint to its play length. But it’s not exactly a strong differentiator that Champions of Midgard is another worker placement game, and that design schematic has become increasingly stale over the past year or so. It’s certainly no fault of Mr. Steiness, who acquits himself quite nicely by bringing dice-rolling combat and a cool setting into a low-complexity example of the genre closer to Stone Age or Lords of Waterdeep than the more elaborate Feldian or Rosenbergian iterations. Before we get deeper into it, I’ll go ahead and state that anyone that likes either of those two games but wishes there was a little more rock n’ roll in them (so to speak) are probably going to love this game.

Each player represents an upstart Jarl, vying for Jarlship (Jarlhood? Jarldom?) of the village. But said village has monster trouble. Trolls and Draugr are bothering the fine folks, and there are also monsters a boatride away that need to be dealt with for fame, glory, the favor of the gods and monetary bounties. Each Jarl has a special ability and starts with four disappointingly generic Meeples with which to select actions on the non-geographic board. The process is fairly routine, and anyone who has played any worker placement game released since Carcassonne will have a handle on what to do without instruction.

So the bulk of competition, as to be expected, comes from placing a worker down on a desirable spot before someone else does. There are a couple of economic conversion functions available, with the resources including favor, gold, wood and food. There are four spaces that are modular and change every turn, reminding me somewhat of the buildings in Waterdeep although they are fixed for the entire game. A merchant ship comes into port each turn and offers a variable conversion rate. There are also a couple of card draw spots, one is for Runes that you must have to carve into a piece of wood since that’s what it costs and these give you a special action as well as points for the end of the game. The other cards are Destinies that are kept secret and function as individual objectives.

But where it gets more interesting is in hiring warriors. There are three types of warriors- swordsmen, spearmen, and axemen. Each are represented by a different color of D6 with differing odds to hit, block, miss or do double damage. If you want to go fight the monsters, you’re going to have to grab some warriors and some monster cards forbid some types of warriors. Other bonuses and abilities affect specific classes. And anyone that you don’t send out to stab Draugrs can also be dispatched to hunt for food.

Fighting the local monsters is as simple as putting your worker down in front of the Troll card or one of the two Draugrs available each turn. After all workers are placed, the warriors do their thing. You roll up whoever you have committed to fighting a creature looking to exceed their armor value with hit results. The monsters also return the favor, and you have to eliminate warriors back to the general pool (Valhalla!) unless you roll shields or have other effects to save them. Any favor tokens you’ve bought or earned can be used to re-roll. Monsters give you points and sometimes bonus resources- they are actually the principle way that to make money in the game.

So you’re going to want to fight early and often. More significantly, somebody has to fight and defeat the troll card for the round or everyone receives a Shame marker, which counts against your score at the end of the game. But it is a one-person-only spot, so whoever does it has to win or their failure impacts everyone. If they beat it, they also get to give one player a Shame marker. I love this. It’s fun and it adds a sometimes hilarious psychological element to the game. And it is also the only aggressive-aggressive point of conflict in an otherwise passive-aggressive design.

Battling monsters in distant lands is a little more complicated but also more rewarding. You’ve got to either rent a publically available longship or build a private one with wood and gold. You can then load your vessel up to capacity with any combination of warrior dice and food that you like- with the provision being that the journey to the closer monster cards requires that you have one food for every two warriors and to get to the more distant ones you have to pack one food for every die. And then there is a journey card that is flipped to see what happens on the way- which may include battling a Kraken. I really enjoy the logistics and risk-taking present in this element of the game. This portion of the game reminds me quite a lot of the Ragnar Brothers’ classic Fire & Axe.

There are eight rounds of play but it almost feels like two too many because it can feel somewhat repetitious. The monster decks are random so there is no sense of ramping up the difficulty or an escalation pushing players to keep up with a power curve. The overall tension in the design is very low, despite some do-or-die dice rolling. This is a game where the worst thing that can happen to you is that you lose all of your warriors. And then on the next turn you might wind up with more than you had last round.

The ups and downs of sending out warriors sounds exciting and it is, but those three spaces are in the center of the board for a reason. Claiming those spaces and sending the warriors out is the most important element of the game and everything orbits around those functions. The result seems to be that the development curve- considering that this is most definitely not any kind of “engine building” game or “efficiency exercise”- seems to be fairly flat across the entire game. Other than players maybe building their own boat or gradually having more Destiny cards to pursue (goals such as “have the most red monster cards at the end of the game” or “have the most wood the end of the game”), it doesn’t feel like turn seven is fundamentally different than turn two aside from a player’s current resource holdings, and I think this is the biggest weakness of the entire package. There is an extra worker that players can unlock and that increases options, but there have been more than a few points where the choices have felt too restrictive. Particularly in the late game.

Reflecting on Champions of Midgard, I’m inclined to argue that worker placement burnout is one reason that I’m not just completely over the moon about it but I think more significantly that the repetition and relatively flat development curve are more culpable. I keep thinking about Lords of Xidit or Waterdeep where there is a buildup to larger battles that takes time, requiring you to make several profitable choices before you can work up to bigger rewards. But in this design, the strongest monsters in the game might hit on the first four turns and go down easy to a player with a strong warrior pool and lots of favor tokens. But hey, that’s fun too. And this game is fun, no doubt. There’s a lot to be said for a game that offers a great meat-and-potatoes gaming experience with broad appeal and an exciting setting and Mr. Steiness has given us exactly that.

Cracked LCD- Mistfall in Review

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Mistfall, a new game from Polish designer Blazej Kubacki published by NSKN, is quite a piece of work. I think it’s very good and I would wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone that enjoys the Lord of the Rings LCG but doesn’t care for the dec construction, that thinks the Pathfinder ACG is too simplistic or that enjoys the intricate puzzle-solving of Mage Knight. We’re in similar territory, design-wise, as those three titles but the setting is a very well-crafted Eastern European-tinged fantasy setting that nips some of George Martin’s chilly atmosphere and creates a cool context for its unique characters to quest, battle and improve over the course of its scenarios.

However, there is one big wall separating the masses from engaging with Mr. Kubacki’s intricate, quite complex creation. The rules. This is one of those games where you might read the rules and respond with a colloquialism common in the American south- “do what now?”

It is also one of those games where the rulebook does a marvelous job of making the mechanical structure seem harder to grasp than it really is, even though this is hardly a simple design. Once you clear the hurdle of the badly organized but absolutely thorough rules-writing and arcane Euroglyphics, the gameplay itself turns out to be quite challenging to come to terms with. Once the process is nailed down, actually playing the game effectively is the next gate, and players should expect to completely fumble around for the first few games. Each character’s small deck of Basic cards provides a starting point with key combinations and abilities, and you’ll want to master- not dabble with- the heroes to get the most out of playing them. There is a definite learning curve.

But Mistfall, if you stick with it, is absolutely worth it. This is a compelling card game that leverages some standard fantasy gaming concepts to provide a unique experience full of tough choices, meticulous management of capabilities and some smartly implemented features that ratchet up tension and create interesting situations for both the co-op and solitaire player. Be warned that it is a game, much like Mage Knight, that I think excels as a solo offering because a lone player can really dig in and take their time to appreciate the gameplay and also work through the processes at leisure, without the pressure of entertaining a group. I would regard three or four players to be the maximum you would want to seat although more are supported.

Once you’ve got the characters sorted- an arcane archer, a frost mage, a shieldbearer and other setting-specific types- you pick a scenario from five included. They aren’t particularly detailed or complex, serving really more as a framework than an actual narrative. Each sets up a number of face-down location tiles, objectives and usually a boss-type antagonist. You’re also up against a time limit to complete whatever goals are laid out for you.

From a starting tile- the Hearthfire Inn, you move a party marker into an adjacent tile. It might have a special function affecting encounters there. You draw an encounter card matching the tile type (Wildlands, Deadlands or Borderlands) and follow the setup instructions, drawing appropriate enemies from three different decks. Each character has an enemy focus rating, which abstractly represents their threat to the bad guys. A Pursuit phase follows encounter set up, and the enemies that were drawn go to the hero areas of the characters with the highest focus, which goes down by half each time.

Once the skeletons, Ghoren, wolves and brigands have picked their targets, each hero gets to play a round to try to kill or relocate enemies out of their area. There is no dice. Weapon cards deal physical or arcane damage versus like resistances and also increase a character’s focus. Other cards can be played from hand or the ready area to increase damage or provide additional effects, but there again you might be increasing the amount of attention that the baddies are giving you and you might even convince them to call for reinforcements.

Once each hero has had a round, the enemies attack and players can use gear in the ready area or cards from hand to mitigate damage. All dealt damage comes straight from your deck- you must bury cards from your hand or discard pile, putting them out of play until you can rest. Run out of cards and you’re dead. After enemies attack, an encounter phase determines if you’ve done all that you need, if it is going to continue another turn or you can choose to flee. If you pass the encounter, there are rewards including draws from a deck containing “transient” rewards (read: potions and magic stones) that is also seeded with one or more special equipment cards for the heroes in the game. This is how the game manages progress- by adding cards to the heroes’ limited decks. You can also earn Resolve points and buy advanced cards, so there is a minor deckbuilding element in play.

The thing that makes all of the above especially interesting is how the cardplay works. You’ve got a five card hand, and cards such as gear and weapons can be placed into your hero area, usually as a “fast action”. Most items have multiple uses, so you might use a bow for lower damage and keep it in play or take a higher damage (and higher focus) option at the cost of discarding. And there is no reshuffle. But you might have an ability or Feat card that lets you place an “exhausted” card back on top of the deck. So if Crow the Seeker throws his dagger at an enemy, he might use his Utility Belt to put it back on to top of the draw deck. A big part of the game is learning how to manipulate and alter card states and to use them to your advantage.

As stated, burial is effectively wounds. Since there is no reshuffle, so the discard pile effectively represents fatigue. When characters rest at the end of an encounter, they get to move cards around- from discard to the bottom of the draw deck (refreshing used cards), from burial back into discard (healing injuries). This element feels sort of like Pathfinder, where you also had small decks and lots of manipulation, but in Mistfall it feels more strategically rewarding and diversified.

On top of the complex hand management, there is also the matter of puzzling how do X damage to Y monster while also planning for the defense phase and working out how you are going to move another enemy out of your hero area. All without running your Focus up and increasing the reinforcement value for the encounter. And then there is the brutal tick of the time cards that move the hourglass on down the line, sometimes enraging certain monsters and accelerating your doom.

It’s a lot to deal with, and it is not made easier by the ghastly rules and byzantine layout. There are also errata, misprints, omissions and plain old bad writing with which you’ve got to contend. This is a game that you are going to play with both the rulebook and and an online FAQ open at all times, especially in the early sessions. But trust me, after you get through two or three games where you’re not even sure you are playing it right, Mistfall clicks and reveals itself to be a sophisticated, unusually engaging design.