Assault of the Giants is a solid game based on a well-known IP. Why wasn't it more popular?
Assault of the Giants is a relatively recent release (2017) based in D&D's venerable Forgotten Realms setting. That would seem to be a dual draw for most fantasy lovers. Anyone that has played the classic RPG down through the decades would instantly recognize the forms and colors of the giant races included: Hill, Stone, Frost, Fire, Cloud, and Storm. Those same people would likely be familiar with the world of Faerun and its northern reaches around the city of Waterdeep, the Cloud Peaks, Icewind Dale (home of the famous Drizzt Do'Urden), and the great desert of Anauroch. Getting to play a war game of giants competing against each other, with an interesting if not exactly new command card mechanic, a set of spells dripping with nostalgia for D&D players (Color Spray, Power Word: Stun, Legend Lore, Dimension Door), and a scoring system that encourages you to engage at the first opportunity seems like a slam dunk for popularity. But I picked up my copy for less than half the cost of what the game originally sold for. It's essentially a bargain bin game at this point. What happened? Why didn't it have the impact that even many other Dungeons & Dragons-based and -published games have had? There are a few possible factors.
The marketplace is crowded. It used to be the case that a game that emerged with as many huge miniatures as Assault provides would stand out. If you're doing a game about giants striding across the countryside, what better way to represent them than towering plastic monsters? Except that there are a lot of miniatures in games these days. Once games like Cthulhu Wars and Blood Rage arrived, proving that you could produce games with a great deal of high quality plastic, it wasn't as impressive to see a game like Assault. Plus, those games exclusively use minis for game play. The bulk of the playing pieces in Assault are cardboard discs, with the minis representing only the champions of each race. That's something of a letdown when you consider what the initial draw of the game likely was: giants towering over the Savage North. But we've been there before so...
The setting may no longer be a draw. The Forgotten Realms have been around since the mid-80s. A lot of material has flowed through or covered that setting; from games of all types to novels to exhaustive detail on the RPG setting. Some would argue that it's been played out. I'm not one of them, since I loved the setting, but I also haven't been a regular RPGer for the last couple decades, so I haven't been as exposed to as much of it. The success of games like Lords of Waterdeep and Tyrants of the Underdark seems to indicate that it's still a viable IP for board games. But, again, the presence of those could indicate that too much was enough. The booming projects from Kickstarter like Rising Sun seem to indicate that new settings are what really attract the discerning eye these days. Or perhaps it's a question of mechanics...
Cutting edge mechanics may have been lacking. One of the keys to modern minis board games is asymmetric game play. From the different strengths of the clans in Rising Sun, to the unique powers of the gods in Cthulhu Wars, to the totally disparate approaches of the factions in Root, the trend is there. This approach goes all the way back to one of the foundation stones of modern game design in Cosmic Encounter, but finds its most obvious modern beginning in Chaos in the Old World. The most interesting games often have players playing the same game in a different way. Assault's approach to this was to give each giant faction a different quest to pursue and a single different die with which to help pursue it. But the victory condition is still the same and the most obvious way to achieve it isn't through the quests or the leaders' unique abilities, but by beating on other giants. Killing the other guy(s) is the purpose of a wargame, but there are a lot of games in which to do that. There is a relatively uncommon command card mechanic in the game, in which cards have bonus effects based on the number of cards you've played before the current one, but it's not exactly a new thing. Still, that was and is one of the high points of the game for me in terms of weighing out how your turns can proceed until you have to rest and heal up.
But one of the problems that emerged early on was one of balance. The lesser of the giant races, Hill and Stone, are simply too weak and too easily dominated in the early game by their larger brethren. Taking a closer look at basic game play reveals a couple potential problems:
- the Strength (combat power) of the most numerous Hill giants and Stone giants is typically 1 or 2 dice, often half or less of what the other races have by default.
- the Fortitude (hit points) of the smaller giants is either less than others (Hill) or not enough to make up for their lack of offense (Stone) and they invariably suffer nothing but negative effects when wounded (loss of Fortitude), while the others are either more able to take their minor loss of stats, or even gain Strength when wounded.
- Those differentiating dice are less effective for the lesser races. It's only a single die, but Hill and Stone giants have 7 total hits on their special die and the Hill giants can even miss, while Frost, Fire, and Cloud giants have 8 hits and increasing levels of defense and magic, and Storm giants have 9 hits. Those little differences add up.
Furthermore, the largest overall constraint is the total number of dice. It's not really possible to "Zerg" the opponent with your numerous Hill and Stone giants because you can never roll more than 7 dice in any attack. Crowding your opponent with more than 7 Hill giants won't gain you anything, especially when it only takes 2 or 3 of the larger races to match your dice total and use a more effective faction die in the fight. These circumstances and the turn order that makes the smaller races go after the rest makes them feel hemmed in by the bigger guys before the game even starts. Like many wargames, Assault is an area control game- for resources, for quests (race-specific and general), for positioning. If you’re already left behind in the first couple turns, you spend more time catching up than you do advancing your agenda. That becomes even more important when you realize that Assault, despite its sprawling appearance, is actually a very quick game. The game ends when the ordning (victory) points run out, which can happen very quickly when quests begin getting completed and a few fights have happened.
If the basic game rules say, as they do, that someone always has to get stuck with the two weakest races, you can see how the shine might come off the game fairly quickly. In response to the criticism on BGG, the designers posted an official variant that addresses the weakness of the Hill and Stone giants and dispenses with the rule requiring certain races to be played. Those are good changes and the game’s audience on BGG seems to have responded well to them. What possibly lends weight to the argument about game play is that when you look at other recent D&D-produced games, game play response did have an effect. Temple of Elemental Evil is three times as popular on BGG than Tomb of Annihilation and many of the posts talk about mechanical improvements. Or is it just marketing? Temple has the original title. Tomb does not. How many classic D&D fans know that Assault even exists?
Perhaps it was all of these factors or only a couple or one. But, for some reason, a lot of people seemed to have missed the giants in the crowd. Regardless, Assault of the Giants is a solid wargame on the lighter side that will appeal to both D&D and giant monster fans and probably should have gotten more attention than it did.