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Five days with Fifth Edition Dungeons & Dragons

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At age eight I was rummaging through a book stall at an agricultural fair, and I found a book that would change my life. It was “What is Dungeons & Dragons” and it stood out like a monstrous thumb among the worthy tomes on seed rotation. If I hadn’t bought it, it’s unlikely you’d be reading this column right now.

I haven’t played D&D in 20 years. I gave up at the advent of third edition, deciding it wasn’t worth re-learning the rules all over again.

Now, fifth edition is out. And my eldest daughter is eight, the age I was when I discovered the game. The co-incidence felt like a sign: it was time to teach the game to my kids, and rediscover it myself, too.

So I picked up a copy of the Starter Set.

Day 1

The box contains some nice marbled polyhedral dice, some basic rules and an adventure. Tempting as it is to start with the latter, I felt I ought to brave the rules first.

It felt intimidating after such a long time. And while the booklet is slim, it was a little hard to piece things together. There’s no character generation material. Instead you’re given five pregenerated adventurers to run. Some of the rules you need to understand things like levelling up is printed on those character sheets, which is a bit confusing.

Once I had it though, it felt like slipping into a warm bath of wonderful nostalgia. These rules didn’t feel like third edition, with its confusing plethora of feats and tables. This felt like the game I remembered, but cleaned up, streamlined yet at the same time made more flexible.

Every stat now has a plus or minus modifier, and it’s used to change a d20 roll. You compare the result against a difficulty number to see if you succeed.

Sometimes that difficulty is fixed, like the armour class of your enemy. Sometimes it’s a vaguer call from the DM, like the 15 that’s suggested for a “difficult” task in the rules. But that basic system, supported by simple rules for a broad sprinkling of skills and proficiencies, is all there is. It’s all the game really needs.

Everything else is just like it used to be, only better. Everyone levels on the same advancement tables. Spell casters have flexible “slots” instead of having to memorize fixed spells, but the principle is the same. And the maths of the system have tweaked to ensure that the power differential as characters advance is big, but no longer vast.

Quite suddenly, after 20 years, I’m desperate to play this thing again.

Day 2

First things first, though: I need to read that adventure. It’s called The Lost Mine of Phandelver, a corny title right out of the D&D history books.

With that emblazoned on the title page, I’m expecting a classic, by-the-numbers dungeon crawl. But I’m in for a surprise. The adventure has four parts, the first and last of which are standard, but exciting, dungeon delves.

Between, however, are two glorious free-form sections. These see the characters exploring first a town and then a number of wilderness locations, looking for clues. No railroads here: the players can, and likely will, wander around until they’ve gathered the clues they need.

This might seem a big ask for a novice Dungeon Master. But the adventure book is full of helpful hints on how to keep things running smoothly.

After all these years, I think I’m going to need some of that advice. I do the rest of my prep work as best I can. I collect all the figures from my D&D board games and make copies of the character sheets. Just standard fighters for the kids so they don’t get bogged down in rules, and a cleric for me, so they don’t get killed.

I show my eldest the box, and the dice. She recognises the logo and gets very animated. But it’s bed time. To be honest, I’m not sure who’s more excited: me, or them.

Day 3

I’d been planning to wait until the afternoon to run the game, but as soon as they’re up, the girls are pestering me to get going. So we eat breakfast, clear the table and I set up a makeshift DM screen from the box.

I don’t spend any time explaining the rules or the concept of role-playing. The idea of pretending to be someone else in a fantasy world is as natural to them as breathing: they do it playing together every single day. I’m both worried and curious about how they’ll handle combat.

At first, it’s adorably naive. However everyday the concept of role-playing might be, they know nothing about this paradigm. Within ten minutes they’ve fallen into a pit and walked past some gold because they don’t know to check for traps or search for treasure. I use my in-game character to nudge them in the right direction.

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Then they run into some goblins. Their first instinct is to try and sneak past, but the greenskins are guarding the entrance to a cave. After searching for a back entrance, they get stuck in.

It’s a riot. They’re learning to behave sensibly in the game environment. After the guards, they refuse to light a torch in case it attracts attention and ask my Dwarf to lead them around with his night vision. They explore the caves, rescue their friends, down the big bad in the final cavern.

In the showdown, everyone gets knocked out except younger daughter. She’s terrified, rolling the dice then hiding her eyes and squealing in case she misses. But she does it: with a little dice fudging, she saves the day.

Fifth edition has both experience points and a “bookmark” system where you gain levels at specific points in an adventure. This is one: everyone goes up to level two and is very proud, even though they don’t quite know what it means.

Day 4

In the morning I ask the girls what their favourite part of the game was. “When we found the treasure!” says the eldest, carefully toting up the gold pieces and adding them to her character sheet. “When I saved everyone!” says the youngest, her eyes shining with pure, unadulterated glee.

“Do you want to play some more?” I ask, already knowing the answer.

Yesterday, they learned everything they needed to move to the next part of the adventure, but they’re too young to piece it together. They whisper conspiratorially, planning what to do next, but they can’t decide. So I use my character again to help them work out where to go.

This session is much more based on role playing and skill checks. It showcases how powerful and flexible the new system is, but the youngest finds it a little dull, and starts building towers out of all the pretty dice.

They end up scouring the crowd in a tavern for clues. They order “fruit whiskey” at the bar. Elder daughter is loving all the slowly-peeling onion rings of the scenario, and tries to piece the mystery together. They don’t have all the clues yet, though.

Eventually they face off against the main antagonists in this location, a bunch of human brigands. They’re not happy about fighting other people, and decide to use the flats of their weapons to knock them out at first.

It’s interesting that they had no such qualms with goblins.

They hit on a plan to try and scare members of the same band by carrying round tokens of their previous victory, and fronting it out. We use more skill checks to see if it works, which are just as thrilling as combat.

It does work. One of the surrendering guards tells them there’s a horrible “eye monster” guarding the next cavern. They’re both apprehensive and excited about meeting it.

They tip-toe into the cave and ask to see a picture of the dread beast. Usefully, there’s one in the scenario booklet, so I show them.

They both run screaming out of the room, in a delighted panic. I think that’s a good time to end today’s session.

Day 5

It’s Monday again, after the high of the weekend. Time for me to go to work, and them to go to school, and everyone to reflect on how things went.

For my part, I’m bowled over by this edition. These basic rules run fast and smooth. Even the cut-down set in the box feel like they could be easily manipulated to handle most situations.

It’s almost the game I remember, except tweaked to be the game I always wanted it to be.

Although the details you need are annoyingly spread out over the booklets and the character sheets, new players can get everything they need with careful reading. And the supplied adventure is excellent, giving you a reason to buy the box over just downloading the free version of the rules.

As for playing with such young children, it went better than I dared hope. They’re primed by their own play to accept this kind of game. I hope they never grow out of that.

Part of me feels like a bad parent for introducing them to what might be the nerdiest thing in my whole nerdy cabinet of nerd hobbies.

But most of me feels like I’m riding a Unicorn across a galaxy of sparkling pixie dust. I’d forgotten how much fun role-playing could be. And I’d never imagined how much extra fun it would be doing it as a family.

I know what we’re all doing next weekend.

Now Playing: Lords of Waterdeep

Lords of Waterdeep - a European style worker placement game made by an American company for a fantasy setting

At a pre-Christmas gathering, I ended up chatting to a friend about worker placement games, as you do. He’d enjoyed a lot of Puerto Rico and Agricola with his family but, it transpired, he’d never played Lords of Waterdeep, which I’d been playing loads of on the iPad.

So the next time I visited, I took it round, Skullport and all. We threw in both expansions and played a six-player game. It turned out to be quite a ride: I drew a lord card that got a bonus for each building owned and focused on that instead of quests. As a result I lagged way behind the leader for the whole game, was able to deflect attention away from myself when take-that opportunities came up and then got a truly massive end-game bonus that tied me for the win, only to lose the tiebreaker.

Stupid tiebreakers.

The family were about to go on holiday and begged me to sell them the game to take away with them. Although it’s a game I’ve extolled the virtues of in the past, I readily agreed. Why? Partly because I knew I could just play on iOS if I wanted, partly because I knew I could pop round to the families’ house for a game if I wanted. But partly because all that time on iOS convinced me it’s not quite as good as I originally thought.

Don’t get me wrong. I still think it’s good. I still think it’s about the best worker placement game around. I still think it’s a game anyone with a passing interest in the genre, or indeed with sampling a diverse range of game styles, should play.

But what repeated exposure to this, my most-played worker placement game has convinced me of that is worker placement games are fundamentally not as exciting as they should be. The game state just isn’t fluid enough, and there’s not enough interaction. Sometimes, you’ll take a turn and wait in tense anticipation to see if someone grabs a space you need before you. Sometimes you’ll artifice a delightfully creative plan to work around the game and steal a boost over your opponents. Sometimes, but just not often enough.

It doesn’t matter how many “gotcha” cards, or how many on-board variables you throw into the mix. Lords of Waterdeep integrates both with great skill and gleeful abandon. It’s just struggling manfully against the drab, weighted straitjacket forced on it by the fundamental mechanics. Sad that I’ve ended up in a hobby where these things are celebrated as the pinnacle of entertainment.

Dungeon Command Wave 2 Review

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You may remember that I wasn’t hugely impressed with the initial releases in the new mix-and-match miniatures skirmish line Dungeon Command from Wizards of the Coast. The absorbing tactics of the maneuver phase had to be counterbalanced against a dull and predictable combat mechanic. But there was potential there, the maddening hint of unfulfilled promise.

Stand-alone games don’t get a second bite at the cherry. But this isn’t a stand-alone game, it’s a series of modular packs meant to combine together and increase your options. And so I thought I’d put the second set of releases, Tyranny of Goblins and Curse of Undeath through their paces to see if they pushed the envelope, did something more impressive with the creative ideas that underpinned the concept.

In short, they do. And it isn’t an incremental leap either: almost everything I found wanting about those initial releases has been remedied to some extent in their newer siblings. To explain why, I need to break it down in more detail and that’s the focus of the review. So if you want a higher level overview of how the game plays, you might want to check out my previous Dungeon Command review first.

The biggest single point change is the variety of order cards on offer. In the previous offerings most of these effects were combat-related, leading to tit-for-tat offensive and defensive play and a fast burn rate of cards. Here the potential effects are much wider, encompassing the management of existing cards in play, positioning and most importantly, movement, bolstering the most interesting part of the game with further variety.

Now when you attack you have no idea whether your opponent is sitting on a handful of defensive cards, or a bunch of effects he’s hoarding for later use. The uncertainty adds a level of tension that was lacking in the base game, and sorely missed.

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These new sets also feel a lot more cohesive and thematic. Goblins are supposed to be fast-moving, and flexible, making up for individual weakness with strength of numbers and that’s just how they feel. There’s even a “grovel” card. The whole thing just made me want to make mean, screechy goblin noises to accompany the actions of my little army of cringing servants. It’s not such a strong effect with the Undead set but there’s still a palpable sense that these are creatures that are summoned rather than merely deployed.

The improvements even extend to simple things. Presentation, for instance. Wizard of the Coast’s infamous fast-warping cards are still in evidence, but the figures in these boxes are better-painted and more varied than their predecessors. They also make better expansions for the Adventure System games, with Curse of Undeath propping up Castle Ravenloft particularly well.

However, the real meat of the changes comes not from these sets as individual items but from the suddenly much extended range of combinations that can be obtained by mixing them with each other and the original modules. When there were just two sets, the mixing and matching of monsters and items seemed more like a theoretical possibility rather than a reality. Now it’s very much worth the time and effort, with plenty of cards and monsters that synergise with those from previous sets. Occasionally the results can be distractingly daft, and the sets are more thematically cohesive left as they are.

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With four different boxes to choose from you can now also choose to check out the multiplayer rules that were included from the first releases but unusable without access to duplicate sets. It works well with more than two, subject to all the usual provisos of multi-player like king-making and bash the leader which will either delight you or send you running back to take cover behind your stacks of worker placement clones. Four player perhaps runs a little long for what it is though.

Of these two new releases, I prefer Tyranny of Goblins. It’s just got more interesting cards and characters as well as playing just like a scrawny bunch of mewling weaklings ought to. It also offers clearer and more obviously powerful effects around which you might want to group cards from other sets and build your own custom warband. Plus it’s nice to be able to add some classic goblin fodder to my adventure system games.

One early review of these games I read suggested that if you didn’t like the original sets, there was nothing here to change your mind. I heartily disagree. These feel like a big step up from the previous releases, and make Dungeon Command a more rounded, more exciting and more interesting game than it originally was.

Given the value inherent simply in having more cards and figures to mix, and playing multi-player, it seems bizarre Wizards didn’t release all four together. But now they’re all here, and while it doesn’t suddenly catapult Dungeon Command into my top five from last year, I suddenly find myself awaiting the next series release, Blood of Gruumsh, with more than a trace of anticipation.

Dungeon! Review

I can vividly remember the first time I saw a copy of Dungeon! Visiting some of my Dad’s friends who had a son a year or two older than me, he pulled a copy out from under his bed and suggested we play. I was gobsmacked, not only because I’d unwittingly stumbled into the company of a fellow geek in the making, but because up until that point I’d only ever considered Dungeons & Dragons as a role-playing franchise. The idea that it could extend to a board game seemed stunningly innovative to my young self.

But it seemed to cover the bases well, with a recognisable premise of heroes venturing into a multi-level dungeon to kill monsters and collect treasure, with danger and reward increasing the deeper you went. And the monsters and magic and treasure that I encountered that afternoon were all bona fide dungeons and dragons exports. So we played, and played, and played again. I was amazed that the considerable complexities of the role-playing game could be boiled down so simply and effectively.

Because it is simple. You pick a hero, and maybe a few spells from a choice of just three, move five spaces per turn and if you walk into a room you draw a monster card appropriate to its level and roll two dice to see if you can beat it. If so, collect a treasure card from that level. If not roll another two dice to see if it beats you. First to collect a set amount of treasure wins. Explore a dungeon, kill monsters, grab loot. It’s Tomb, only much faster and simpler. And much better.

Tomb, of course, was a game made for adult hobbyists. But its problem was it added length and complexity to the basic formula without adding strategy or fun. Dungeon! is a game for kids, and it does what it does in a wonderfully refreshing no-frills manner, caring little for the niceties of modern game design. In fact this new fifth edition of the game, originally published in 1975, has changed one rule, and one rule only: now, a trap causes you to lose a maximum of two turns, whereas previously it was up to six. That’s it. It’s an improvement, but it’s also like 30 years of game design never happened.

But why should anyone care? Remember, it’s a game intended primarily for children, not for adults to play against one another. Children don’t need complexity, or detailed narrative, because they have the imagination and the credulity to fill in all the gaps without the sort of creative hand-holding that adults need. Many of the classic children’s games that make up the staple of occasional family gaming are founded on similar principles to Dungeon! A lot of luck, a tasty serving of narrative and a bit of gambling. They haven’t changed in decades, so why should Dungeon!?

What has changed are the components and the price. Earlier editions were garish, clumsy things, furnished with art that looks laughable by modern standards and with components outsized beyond need which forced the price up. This edition has great art, especially on the new board and it has serviceable components. Cardboard standups instead of pawns is a bit annoying, and the cards have gone too far the other way, now being too small for comfort. But these small sacrifices have been made in the service of pushing the price to bargain basement levels, allowing it to undercut mass-market tat and even put it in the range of teenage pocket money.

One thing has been added, and that’s official solo rules. There are three suggested ways to play, two of which are badly flawed. The third, however, is a lot of fun. In hunted mode, you draw a powerful monster and scamper round the dungeon as it pursues you, trying desperately to gather enough treasure for the win before it kills you. Even more random than usual, but oddly tense and exhilarating. It’s probably the most enjoyable way to play without a child to share the experience with. And frankly, it’s probably worth the meagre cost of the game all by itself.

It’s worth it because it’s plain, dumb fun to trawl your way round the rooms on the board, actually encountering nasties you only ever read about in the Monster Manual, gloating over your hoard of gold, poking your atrophied adult imagination into wondering what might have been perpetrated in named rooms like The Torture Chamber or The Hole. And it’s not like it’s completely skill-free either. Dice win the day, but you can place tiny bulwarks against fate by choosing effective movement paths and balancing the risk to maximise your gain.

And if you do have kids, and you like a good thematic game, you can’t pass this up. The world is awash with mass-market children’s games based on dreary real-world or educational themes, and with European imports made especially for youngsters. The mantra of simple rules and short play times suits children’s games extremely well, after all. The style of game I fondly remember playing as a child, featuring vampires and giant spiders and battling robots, seems to have gone out of fashion. Dungeon! is back to remedy that, a game that theme lovers can use to introduce their offspring to the questionable delights of underworld delving. It’s Gulo Gulo for the Ameritrash crowd.

I hate to remind you all, but we’re coming up to Christmas, the one season where ordinary families can be relied on to gather round a roaring fire and play board games together. Games that, perhaps, have been newly birthed from their gift wrap and shrink after dwelling beneath the antiseptic smell of pine for a few days or weeks. You know the usual culprits: Monopoly, Life, Scrabble and others will be bringing joy and annoyance in equal measure to millions this December. If there is any justice in the world, Dungeon! deserves a place alongside its peers on that list.

Lords of Waterdeep Review

Lords of Waterdeep - a European style worker placement game made by an American company for a fantasy setting

I don’t like worker placement games. It’s the most tired, overused and systematically abused board gaming mechanic on the planet, and while it has produced the odd important game in the past, the monotonous regularity with which new and entirely derivative games based on it continue to appear is beyond parody. It was therefore with some trepidation that I discovered Wizards of the Coast had decided to continue their triumphant re-entry into the board gaming mechanics by releasing a Dungeons & Dragons game using worker placement, Lords of Waterdeep. More so when I got sent a copy to review.

One of the signature issues with poor worer placement games is a startling lack of connection between theme and mechanics. There’s no particular reason that this should be the case: the basic principle of having a limited pool of workers and assigning them to carry out a variety of different tasks each turn would seem to have a variety of real-world applications. And clearly the people who designed Lords of Waterdeep understood this and went to a lot of effort to buck the trend. Each player represents one of the secretive lords of the greatest city in the Forgotten Realms, and sends agents into the city in order to accumulate resources such as gold and adventurers to complete quests that help keep the city from harm. It hangs together well as a cohesive whole, aided by sensible choices about the things needed to complete different tasks: recruiting for the city guard requires your agents to muster a few fighters together, for example, while exploring the caverns underneath the city to clear out a nest of Beholders requires a large, diverse and well-equipped party. Cards and other requisite materials are lavished with quality art and thematic quotes to help get and keep players in the right frame of mind.

So given the effort that has been expended on overcoming this oft-lamented obstacle in the genre it’s a shame to see that it’s largely wasted. All the right ingredients are there but the game portrays action at a level so much higher than the meat-and-potatoes of quest fulfillment that it tends to just get ignored. A player might need to send secretive agents into the city to recruit three thieves and two clerics in order close a portal into a nether dimension of unimaginable evil, but what he’ll actually say is “here’s three black and two white cubes, someone add twenty victory points to my track please”. If you can find a group of players who are deeply familiar with the Forgotten Realms setting, and enthusiastic enough about it to really put the effort into making the theme come alive (and Dungeons & Dragons has sufficient devotees to make this a plausible scenario) then it’ll probably work. But for most gamers, all that detail will simply pass over their heads.

Lords of Waterdeep board in play

I’m pleased to report, however, that similar ingenuity has been employed in other areas of the design to much better effect in pursuit of the apparent goal of attempting to sidestep or improve on pretty much every single criticism that’s commonly aimed at worker placement. For example, a frequent problem with games of this type is the repetitive deployment of the same tactics in game after game, leading to rapid disinterest and disillusionment amongst the players, almost as if the game has been “solved” in a mathematical sense. Against this, Lords of Waterdeep deploys the effective weapon of variety. It lifts a mechanic wholesale from another (and infinitely duller) worker placement game, Caylus, in which players can pay to create new buildings with a wide variety of different effects: new resource combinations, the ability to sidestep rules, the potential to swap resource types are the most common examples. If other players send their agents to these buildings then the owner gets a small bonus effect for free. There’s also a lot of variety to the quest cards. While the majority simply require you to pay adventurer cubes and gold in return for victory points some are labelled as “plot quests” and give you a permanent bonus for the rest of the game such as bonus victory points for certain quest types, or the ability to get bonus resources when you take particular actions. In two cases the reward is an extra agent which can be a game-breaking power-up if acquired early on, although this is rare. But for the most part these innovations work together to make sure that the strategies the players need to employ to win have to be changed from game to game to make best use of the available buildings and plot quests, and thereby stop the game from getting jammed in a tactical rut.

Another frequently-cited issue with these sorts of games is that there’s little meaningful player interaction. In the name of trying to ensure that players can’t gang up on one another and unbalance the game, interaction in worker placement tends to revolve around watching other people’s developing positions carefully and blocking their access to key resources by taking them yourself. And again, this is certainly something you can do in Lords of Waterdeep, although the availability of different buildings and the limited number of different resource types (five: four different kinds of adventurer and gold) means it’s less effective than in some other titles. But the game makes up for this, and more, by adding intrigue cards.

Intrigue cards are perhaps the very best thing about Lords of Waterdeep. They have a wide variety of effects which range widely across the interaction scale. Some of them give you useful extra abilities, like the chance to assign an agent to a space already used by an opponent. Others give you free resources but allow the other players a smaller freebie of the same type. Some permit you to discard or steal the resources of other players, sometimes giving them the option to swap these for victory points. There are mandatory quests, irritating low victory point tasks that you can assign to other players to complete before they can finish their existing quests. In short they offer a huge variety of small ways you can screw with your fellow gamers, into which is mixed more tactical choice and none of which unbalance the game. There’s even an interesting mechanic used when you play them: you have to assign a worker to do it, which seems steep just to lay a card, but you get to reassign him again at the end of the round, adding all sort of interesting issues around tactics and timing to the mix. They’re a brilliant, yet very simple innovation, and it highlights the staleness of the genre that no-one else has attempted to add anything similar to worker placement games in the past.

Lords of Waterdeep player mat with adventurer and gold resources

Indeed it’s possible that from this review so far you’ve got the impression that Lords of Waterdeep is a complex game. Not so – the rules are actually very simple and it’s very easy to learn and teach. It also plays in around an hour, with 90 minutes being the absolute maximum with a full load of slow players. Scales well too: more is generally merrier, but it’s still fun with just two. So you might well think it’s a suitable family game and indeed some players have reported that it works well in this role. Me, I’m not so sure. In common with a lot of games that manage to thematic and or reasonably deep off the back of a straightforward set of rules, Lords of Waterdeep pulls the trick of moving most of the theme and mechanics from the rulebook and onto the cards. Whilst the mechanical actions you go through in a turn are easy for anyone to grasp, actually playing the game in even a vaguely effective manner requires players to simultaneously digest and remember a fairly large amount of inter-related information regarding their quests, other player’s quests, available quests, a hand of intrigue cards and the available buildings. It’s a breeze for anyone who’s used to playing modern European-style games, but it’s a world away from mass market titles, and non-gamers are likely to still struggle for several sessions before they get the hang of it.

Lords of Waterdeep battered at my inbuilt prejudices regarding the genre and eventually won a hard-fought victory. It helps that addressing common complains about the mechanic seems to have been a guiding principle behind the design and that, for the most part, the solutions employed have been successful in producing a relatively thematic game that allows enough player interaction and variety to continually keep things fresh and interesting while still retaining most of the balance and strategic depth that are the hallmark of worker placement games. It’s still worker placement at heart, of course, and occasionally things drag a little, but on the whole it’s a solid and enjoyable design that should offer something to gamers of pretty much every stripe. Someone asked me recently what my three favourite worker placement games were: in point of fact I could only think of three that I would bother playing, but when he asked the question, Lords of Waterdeep was the very first name that came to my lips.