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Cracked LCD- Evolution in Review


Dominic Crapuchettes is best known for his popular party game Wits and Wagers, but that ought to change with the 2nd edition release of Evolution, a design co-credited to two Russians- another game designer and a biologist. This is a two to six player title that ranks among the most thematically resonant card game designs that I’ve ever played. I’ve become quite fascinated with how each session results in the creation of a unique biosphere in which animals defined by one to three characteristics as well as their size and population struggle to adapt and survive. It’s a game clearly in the same lineage as Evo and Dominant Species, maybe even going back to Karl Heinz-Schmiel’s Tyranno Ex while glancing sidelong at American Megafauna. But Evolution is considerably quicker and simpler – and therefore more accessible. Its concepts are clear and logical, the gameplay immediately challenging and competitive.

Everyone gets a small punchboard card at the beginning of the game that represents your first species with a size and population of one on a scale that goes to six. You also get three cards that indicate various traits that can be applied to your species. Maybe they’ll have long necks, are climbers or have hard shells for protection. Or maybe they are carnivorous and eat other species for breakfast. Evolution of the species is a modular affair, and finding combinations of traits that work in a given biosphere is one of the chief strategies of the game. Over the course of the game, you’ll find yourself managing multiple species with differing and sometimes synergetic qualities, which makes for quite a compelling game with few rules.

Before each round, additional cards are drawn. You get three plus one for each species, which means that taking on new species also increase your options. Everyone picks one card to play face down to create a food pool for the round. Each has a food icon and a rating which may be positive or negative and the sum of cards indicates how much food is available on the big watering hole board. What follows is a once-around wherein everyone can play their evolution cards to either add traits to a species (up to three each) or discard cards to increase a species’ body or population size. You can also discard a card to start a completely new species. Cards can also be held from round to round.

Once everyone has finished the cardplay segment, it’s feeding time. The food cards are revealed and plant food tokens are placed on the watering hole. In turn, everyone gets to take one food token and feed a hungry species, meaning one that has not had enough food tokens to match its population. But it gets a little tricky, because some species can get bonus food due to their traits and shortages can mean deciding between feeding one species while starving another.

And then there are carnivores. Species with the carnivore trait aren’t interested in peacefully munching at the salad bar. They’re out for meat. If a carnivore species is bigger (i.e. has a higher size rating) than another, they can feed on the weaker one. There are a number of defensive traits that prevent meat-eaters from preying on smaller animals and it is also possible to feed your carnivores with your own species…or to breed smaller species specifically to keep the predators well-feed.

Once everyone is fed, all of the food tokens are removed from the species boards and placed in these fine, screen-printed bags for each player. These are points. The more your animals eat over the course of the game, the higher your rate of success will be. You also get points for each animal you have at the end of the game.

Now here’s the thing that may not be immediately apparent about all of the above. This is actually a subtly intricate, smartly designed game that richly conveys specific biological themes. Evolution is very much about how different types of animals impact each other in a biosphere. Playing this game leads to “aha” moments when you see how a very large, apex predator type animal weeds out the smaller, weaker animals and leads to other animals developing defenses and getting bigger. There are specific traits that generate symbiotic relationships between your species for protection and food-gathering. When there isn’t enough food to go around, animals tend to be in smaller population groups. Especially thriving animals remain on the board for turn after turn, continuing to earn points and adjusting to the changes introduced by other species – and other players.

This is a highly interactive card game, so those expecting it to be a multiplayer solitaire, tableaux-building affair should be warned. The carnivores allow you to directly attack and impact other players. Setting your animals up to get more food that your standard ration and starve others out is a more indirect way of attacking. And if you’ve got carnivores in your stable or if you think you can get by on the food that is currently in the watering hole, you can play those negative food cards to actually reduce the available sustenance.

But every player might have a different approach. Some may go for big animals with low population. Some might focus on building up just a small number of species while others spread more laterally. Aggressive players might control the tempo with meat-eaters for a few turns, at least until defense cards make them less viable in the current environment. More passive players will look for hardier species, keeping the watering hole full, and capitalizing on feeding bonuses. There’s a wide range of ways to succeed, and it all depends on what animals are on the table and how they are being played. It’s highly suitable as a family or gamer game.

Although the rules are simple, it can get quite complicated with managing several different species and reacting to those of others. Fortunately, a limited number of trait types keeps things fairly easy to parse and the underlying logic of how things work holds it all together. That said, I can’t help but wish there were more traits in the game if only to increase the already huge range of possibilities and to create more surprise. There aren’t necessarily dominant strategies or particular upgrade pathways that are out of balance, but after several games some patterns do tend to emerge. What I would really like to see in future expansions is something like the Dominion model, where the card pool is built from subsets of traits so that each game features a different range of options.

There is a Flight expansion on the way that I think looks really exciting and will likely be a must-have, but it’s not like you’re going to wear out what is in the $40 box any time soon. This is a very complete title that offers a great theme (not just a setting), surprising depth and it plays two to six players in around an hour yet it is definitely richer and more robust than the “micro-games” of the past couple of years. It’s also an attractive, well-produced game. I love the illustrations because they remind me of any number of dinosaur and wildlife library books that I read back in the early 1980s.

I went into Evolution interested primarily because I like this kind of theme, being a dinosaur kid and all that, but wasn’t sure it was going to deliver on it. Yet here I am about to give this game one of our No High Scores High Score awards because every time I’ve played it I’ve said “damn, that is a really good game” while packing it away. It always manages to surprise me with its brilliantly clean, well-considered mechanics and its unusually specific approach to conveying subject matter. This is a great card game, and one of the best I’ve played in some time.



Cracked LCD- Fallen in Review


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.

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.

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.

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.

Cracked LCD- Hearthstone in Review (again)


OK, so for most folks this is a way, way late review since Hearthstone has been out now for over a year, not including time in Beta. It’s also a review that might stir up an obnoxious debate as to whether the digital CCG should be regarded as a video game instead of a tabletop game. And almost certainly, lamentations about it being free-to-play and supported by IAPs – let alone that it is a collectible card game that requires that you actually pay for it if you want to be competitive- will certainly follow. And this is also the second time I’ve reviewed Hearthstone. Last time was just over a year ago here on No High Scores.

But here’s the deal. Hearthstone recently released its long-awaited iPhone-friendly update and I’ve been playing it almost non-stop since. I had played the IOS edition briefly when it first came out as an iPad-only release, but because that device is almost always covered in the sticky remnants of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and clogged up with countless Lego, Disney and Angry Birds apps for the kids I didn’t really dig in for the long haul. Now that it’s in my pocket, I can play it all day long. So now it’s time for me to issue forth (again) on what I think is one of the most significant games to date that has married the strands of tabletop and video game design.

Even though Hearthstone takes place on a touchscreen (or a PC monitor), it is 100% a tabletop game design and the designers at Blizzard went to great pains to make this game look and feel tactile. You don’t have to have a little deck-holder built into the onscreen game table, but seeing your cards fly out of it and then manipulating them by touching and dragging gives the game a genuine sense of being physically real. The UI makes those employed by also-ran digital CCGs like Shadow Era look prehistoric by comparison. Blizzard always makes an extremely polished, highly refined product and this game is no exception.

Refinement extends to the actual design, which at first blush is a standard Magic: The Gathering-descended game. Mana, attack/defense stats, keyword abilities and so forth. You can even use a lot of the same terminology to discuss it. But dig in and what you will find is a game whose designers have likely spent 20 years studying Garfield’s design and what made it so successful and then applying some judicious revisions to make it more accessible, more stable and quite possibly more fun.

One difference at the outset is that you pick from one of nine character classes. That class has a special ability and it represents your in-game ego- no vague “Planeswalker” conceit, no grouping everything into colors here. But more than that, your chosen class determines a base set of specific cards that you can use to build your deck to pummel another player into submission by reducing their life with minion attacks, spells and card effects. Each class has specific foci, strengths, weaknesses and unique strategies. On top of those class-specific cards, you also build from a pool of neutral minions to fill out your 30 card deck.

That’s right, 30 cards. That’s a very short stack for most CCGs, and in fact it’s well below the minimum in most other games. But that’s because Hearthstone runs tighter with typically shorter games and an automated mana development curve. There’s no need to figure out which ratios of which colors of which resources to load your deck up with, you automatically get one mana crystal a turn. So by turn ten (if it goes that long), both players are even stevens at ten mana. Of course, discounts and other card effects can shift that balance but the point is that you’ll never be “mana screwed” or find yourself top-decking a Plains card at a do-or-die late game moment.

But like any card game, luck of the draw plays a significant factor in any game regardless of how stacked your deck is with great cards. Both players get a turn one mulligan if they choose, and I’ve played many games where I felt like that choice almost decided the game. Visit any Hearthstone forum or discussion group and you’ll hear plenty of grousing about the RNG (random number generator) and I’ve cursed it myself from time to time. But the truth of it is that Hearthstone embraces the fact that luck is the great leveler in an environment where you might have a novice player that hasn’t spent a dime on the game competing with another who’s spent hundreds of dollars on booster packs and is coming to the table with a deck full of Legendary or Epic cards.

Which leads to the big, nasty discussion that is required about how Hearthstone is monetized. Yes, it is free-to-play and monetized via the purchase of booster packs, Arena entry fees and adventure packs. Yet there are no timers, paywalls or anything like that. When you break down a card you don’t want to generate Arcane Dust to build one you do want, you don’t have to wait three days or pay $5 or whatever to speed it up. You can literally play the game and never spend a single dollar, and I think you could do so and enjoy it at a casual level without a doubt- especially playing with like-minded friends. You can still earn boosters, arena tickets and other rewards just by playing the game. But yes, if you want to get the most out of the deckbuilding and really get involved with the game, you’re going to need to spend money. It is completely transparent, and it is completely respectful to both players that want to spend and players that do not.

For my part, I’ve purchased the adventure packs (Naxxramas and Blackstone Mountain) and have absolutely enjoyed playing these single-player options. They seemed expensive, but the series of challenging, puzzle-like bosses and the ample card rewards turned out to be well worth it and I’m looking forward to what’s next in that area. I’ve bought a handful of boosters, but most of my extra cards have come through earning gold by completing daily quests that challenge you to win a certain number of games as a particular class, cast X number of spells, kill X number of minions- those kinds of things. You can get a booster for 100 gold (normally two packs is $2.99) or you can get an arena ticket for 150 gold, which always gets you at least one booster and other rewards. It’s well worth it.

Arena is a draft mode, and it’s brilliant even though I’m absolutely awful at it. You get 30 choices of three cards each to build your deck and then you play against matchmade players until you lose three times. Then you get your reward. Do well enough and you can cover your fee to get back in there with a new deck. The game does a tremendous job of incentivizing playing it.

The Ranked mode is where most play occurs, and it’s a random ladder where you are matched up with similarly-ranked players. It can be frustrating if you’re paired up against someone who is running a class or deck type that just destroys what you are using, but them’s the breaks. You ain’t gonna win ‘em all. But the idea is to keep winning more than you’re losing to advance in rank.

But there again, I’m not very good myself so a lot of times I feel like I’m just beating my head against a wall. I’ll tweak a deck, maybe stick in a couple of new cards and try it again. This is fun to me, but I’m also not ultra-competitive and I’m not keyed into whatever is going on in the meta or whatever. All that is definitely if you want it, and Hearthstone can become a very serious hobby occupation if you so choose. There’s virtually infinite depth and variety, as is usual for a well-developed CCG, and there are always more cards to pursue to fill out a deck or to realize a certain strategy. Heck, maybe you want to have a completely gold-card deck- those are kind of like foils. God help you. I fall somewhere in between the causal and the hardcore and I’ve got my limits and expectations set. Much like most players, I suspect, in a game that has literally millions of them at this point. It’s really up to you how deep you want the rabbit hole to go.

Beyond all the debate over whether the game is “pay to win” or whatever, beyond whether certain cards or builds are broken, beyond whatever grief the RNG is giving a player what remains is that Hearthstone is a simply staggering piece of game design. Every time I play, I marvel at some subtle aspect of it or some unexpected combination of mechanic and situation. Quite frankly, I think it blows every other CCG that has come since Magic out of the water and not only because there are certain elements of it that could only happen in the digital space, but also because it is as close as any game has gotten to matching the genius of Garfield’s original design. It’s so clean, so unfettered by complication that it almost comes across as simplistic. But what you are really seeing there is the designers of the game acknowledging that a great design needs to be accessible, approachable and inviting.

I think it’s very symbolic that the game is visually and audibly framed as if you were walking into a tavern to play a game on a table with a real player. That’s another fine point that the creators of this game didn’t miss- that one of the things that made Magic great was that face-to-face interaction, even if here it is reduced to canned emotes. The community is huge, the meta intimidating but just as alluring as it is in real-world CCG play. But then I think of all the things that Hearthstone eliminates- even things like having to sort, store and manage a large card collection, having to find time to go to a CCG hall to play against real players who may or may not proper hygiene- and I realize that this is very much what the future of tabletop gaming could be, regardless of the luddism of the whole “gaming unplugged” set.


Cracked LCD- Super Fantasy: Ugly Snouts Assault in Review @ Review Corner

super fantasy

This week’s review is over at Miniature Market’s Review Corner, and it’s a good one.

“Five years ago, there were barely any dungeon crawl games on the market. Kevin Wilson’s Doom board game from 2004 eventually led to Descent, which sort of put the genre back on the map. Just a half decade and a couple of Space Hulk reprints later, there are tons of these kinds of games out there largely thanks to Kickstarter campaigns for mediocre attempts at recapturing the feeling of playing Heroquest or Warhammer Quest in the 1990s. But there have been a couple of great hall-crawling, hack-and-slash titles to come out of this boom, and Marco Valtriani’s Super Fantasy: Ugly Snouts Assault is most definitely one of them.”

Cracked LCD- Assault on Doomrock in Review


My first impressions of Assault on Doomrock, a new co-op adventure game all the way from Poland courtesy designer Tom Stasiak, were “wow, this game is a mess” and after getting completely mauled by the Beasts of Doom in the first battle, “wow, this game is really freakin’ hard.” It took a couple of tentative games worth of head-scratching and rules-checking before the two halves of this stunningly original design coalesced and my reaction shifted to “wow, this game is really interesting.” And then back to “wow, this game is really freakin’ hard”.

So this is one of those that may not grab you immediately and it definitely requires that you dig in and get acclimated to the way it does things. There are faint whiffs of Talisman and similar adventure games in its lineage, but this is most definitely not another flip-a-card team whack-a-mole nor is it another rote dungeoncrawler. Mr. Stasiak’s work here is highly idiosyncratic, maverick and it is totally the kind of what-the-hell-is-this design that keeps me interested and afloat above the turgid sea of mediocre titles out there today. But you’ve got to have some patience with it, as is usually the case with games that are trying to do something different.

Storyline is about what you’d expect. Team of adventurers sets out to battle forces of evil, has encounters, gets loot, fights monsters, et cetera and ad infinitum. Each player takes a character class card and a Trait card, which is both an advantage and a disadvantage. You might wind up a Sadistic Ranger, a Frustrated Mage, or a Stinky Warrior. These two cards also define the four ability cards you begin the game with, all of which create a distinct sense of character- especially when you level up in the game and add new abilities. There are no stats. Each card may have an attribute and a couple of symbols that in sum dictate your strength, intelligence or agility for purposes of meeting equipment requirements.

Three location cards are laid out at the beginning- mountain, wilderness and town areas. Each of these cards has a number of areas that the players- always acting as a group during this stage of the round- can visit. Some might require the players to spend Heroism tokens, for example if your gang decides to rob the shop. Others might require you to draw a Peril card to make a roll on a loot table. Or maybe you want to just explore the secret areas, drawing an encounter card and dealing with whatever happens, foul or fair. Money is tight as all get-out, especially since it is used not only to buy common and epic items to equip the heroes, but also to level up and buy new ability cards from a generous stack.

Here’s the gimmick, and it’s a good one. There’s a setting card placed at the beginning of the game that has a global effect. It has a number of Time tokens placed on it Moving from location card to location card costs a time, as do many of the local actions. Venturing forth to new location cards from the deck costs them too. And when they run out- it’s time to fight and the whole game practically becomes an entirely different one.

There are three of these rounds in the game, with two major battles and then the fight against the main boss is the third. All of that adventuring you do under that tense time limit, all of that looting and buying and levelling, is to get you ready for these imminent fights. Hope you managed to stock up on Heroism and Shield tokens and had the time and money to get everyone a new ability, because you are going to need all the help you can get. You will be outnumbered and more than likely outgunned.

The battle segment of the game makes some brilliant abstractions in terms of how it depicts the tactical battle between the heroes and the Zombie Horde, Exploding Tomatoes or Tentacle Monster. There is no grid, there is no map. Either you are adjacent to another character or minion or you are distant. That’s all you need to sort out whether you are using melee or ranged or if you need to maneuver into positon for either kind of attack or effect. I love this- minimal and effective.

When the battle starts, the encounter card is revealed and minion tokens are set up on the table. The heroes decide how they want to gather or if they want to stand alone. The stakes are high and you can lose the game in the first of the three battles easily, especially if you haven’t gotten the hang of how this all works. If it’s your first game, you probably will.

Player abilities are primed by rolling 4D6 and assigning matching die rolls to ability cards and over the course of the battle you’ll spend these to activate attacks, evasions, spells and maybe slapping another hero to get a hit point back- I guess it makes that Frustrated Mage feel better. Some of these abilities are “Initiative Enabled”, which means that they can be used before the Minions activate. So the Ranger can pull off a couple of pre-emptive shots with his bow, provided he rolled the right results through an initial attempt and two optional re-rolls. Ones can be used to buy Shield tokens to cancel damage, sixes can buy Heroism tokens that buff some abilities.

After the heroes resolve initiative effects, each then activates two minions by drawing cards from an AI deck. These cards might move the minion to the player with the highest Threat value, the current player, or someone else. They may bite or claw you, inflicting damage that can be canceled with any Shield tokens you have. The Beasts of Doom might roar. The Tomatoes might explode. The Zombies might grab your leg and steal dice from you or vomit on you, causing Exposure.

Exposure is a somewhat unusual concept. Each point of exposure earned either during the adventure stage or in battle adds a token to the hero or minion. And when an attack is resolved, all of the exposure tokens that character has accrued are revealed and resolved. Typically, these increase damage but some push the exposed character away. Some are also blank. This is the only element of chance in terms of resolving combat effects and damage. There are some other effects keyed to exposure, for example the main Dragon boss loses his armor rating if you can put three exposure tokens on him.

Hopefully, by the time the heroes get to their actual activation stage they have some dice left on their cards to move, attack or cast a spell. Together, the heroes get to work out how to best use their abilities to fight which might see any combination of those basic actions occurring in concert with any benefits imparted by artifacts, weapons, armor and abilities. There is definitely some element of games like Descent, where players are trying to coordinate and maximize, but the lack of a granular spatial element makes this a very different kind of fight.

The battles are really the centerpiece of Doomrock and take up most of the time spent playing it. They can be intense, stressful, funny, obnoxious, brutal and unpredictable. But they can also feel too long-winded, frustrating, exhausting and repetitive. But in general, they are rewarding, and bringing your battered heroes back into town to recuperate and count the spoils has a tangible sense of satisfaction. And then a new setting is drawn, and the countdown to the next encounter begins.

What I love the most about this game, aside from its ambitious pairing of two completely different kinds of gameplay, is how clearly and succinctly it creates a strong narrative line. Developing your character from the initial advantage/disadvantage/class template into something more than just +1 stats is great. The team-made decisions during the adventure phase craft a distinct story, usually comically embellished by players. Each encounter is different- if you fight the Beasts of Doom and the Shadow Reapers and then the Dragon in one game, each is a very different encounter with completely unique enemy behaviors and reactions. The tone overall is light, quality humor abounds in everything from the fluff text to the names of the items. The Heroism tokens are heavy metal finger-horns.

But what I don’t like is the overall length of the game, which can run 45-60 minutes longer than I would like for a full table of four. It can degenerate into rambling if-then discussions both in the adventure phase and battle phase, which can cause that kind of group analysis paralysis that isn’t exactly what I’d call fun. And those adverse to the “Alpha player” problem beware, especially because players move and act as a group before the fight begins. To flip that around, Doomrock is quite possibly better as a solo game if you are accustomed to keeping track of multiple characters. You lose the shared narrative, but you gain total control and nobody will be grumbling as the game enters the third hour.

As for the level of challenge, it could be problematic. I think it may be more capricious than genuinely difficult once you figure out how to level and gear up effectively, which is largely dependent on which locations are available and then how to make the most of the characters’ abilities during the encounter. All the tactical planning and positioning in the world doesn’t make a difference if you can’t roll that six you need after three rolls of four dice, which could hamstring one or more of the group. Yet I wouldn’t consider this to be a luck-heavy or luck-prone design- I think that sometimes the game just hates you. Publisher BD Games should borrow the marketing tag line used for Dark Souls- “prepare to die”.

The time element is really quite punishing, possibly too much so, and the resources are tighter than they are in an early Martin Wallace design. It feels impossible to ever have enough money to buy stuff and also to level up everyone, and there’s just not time to earn enough to cover expenses. So that makes the game, in some ways, feel artificially difficult. That said, it doesn’t feel fake-hard like Ghost Stories (for example) does, where whether or not winning is possible only if the cards are sequenced right in the deck AND you roll like a god through the whole thing.

Overall this is a fascinating, compelling design that feels refreshingly bold and possibly innovative. I’m always willing to forgive a few grievances in favor of experimentation, unique concepts and novel mechanics. Assault on Doomrock isn’t really like anything else out there right now even though it may look redundant on the surface. A second edition and an expansion are in the works, and it really needs both to smooth out some rough edges and to increase the variety of encounters.