Assault of the Giants: Lost In the Crowd.

Assault of the Giants: Lost In the Crowd.

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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.

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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...

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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.

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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.

Assault of the Giants: Lost In the Crowd. There Will Be Games

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Marc ReichardtFollow Marc Reichardt

Writer

Marc started gaming at the age of 5 by beating everyone at Monopoly, but soon decided that Marxism, science fiction, and wargames were more interesting than money, so he opted for writing (and more games) while building political parties, running a comic studio, and following Liverpool. You can find him on Twitter @Jackwraith and lurking in other corners of the Interwebs.

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Posted: 20 Nov 2018 07:24 by hotseatgames #286519
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Great article, thanks! This one definitely seemed like a try before you buy. I never got to try it.
Posted: 20 Nov 2018 07:33 by Michael Barnes #286523
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It just wasn’t very remarkable. I liked it, I enjoyed it while I had it, but I would have a hard time recommending it over better games in this space. It’s totally solid and even well-made. But is that enough anymore?

I think the Giants thing kind of hurt it. As far as D&D monsters go, they are pretty meh. Imagine if this has been Assault of the Beholders or Assault of the Mind Flayers...
Posted: 20 Nov 2018 07:33 by stoic #286524
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Nice review. I've been on the fence about this one. The price keeps dropping like a rock, even for the premium edition, so it may be worth a play.
Posted: 20 Nov 2018 08:12 by ubarose #286532
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Great article. Loved the analysis of the game and the many questions poised.
Posted: 20 Nov 2018 08:35 by Jackwraith #286536
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Thanks, all.

@hotseat and stoic: I think the price has dropped low enough that it's worth it even if you only get to play it a couple times. The counterpoint is that I think it does actually work best with 6 which, as we all know, isn't an easy number to gather. Plus, if you have six, why aren't you playing TI3/4 or Here I Stand or...

Which leads into MB's point about nothing being particularly remarkable about the game. I think that's fair. It's not a very dense or detailed design. A lot of the joy of owning/playing is the Forgotten Realms nostalgia factor that I alluded to (at least it is for me.) In terms of giants being blasé, I think that's fair, too. Compare this to another D&D game that came out around the same time (Tyrants of the Underdark) and you find a game that's more mechanically interesting and has more visceral thematic elements (drow, the Underdark, etc.), although I admit to thinking upon first seeing the title that Tyrants WAS about beholders. Put "tyrant" and "D&D" together and that's pretty much what will always occur to me ("eye tyrants".)

Now I'm thinking about a game where everyone plays a beholder leading factions of various creatures through the underworld. You can spawn new eyes with variable powers and have to keep your minions under control either via fear or the temptation of loot. Other beholders/players can steal your minions and gain greater reputation. Then, you have the possibility of influencing the surface world to gain more resources/minions; even adventurer-types. There might be a design there...
Posted: 20 Nov 2018 10:24 by Stormcow #286553
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If Assault is merely mediocre, then I'd like to know what's at the top of the heap. Are Root, Cthulu Wars, and Chaos in the Old World best in class?
Posted: 20 Nov 2018 10:34 by charlest #286554
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Stormcow wrote:
If Assault is merely mediocre, then I'd like to know what's at the top of the heap. Are Root, Cthulu Wars, and Chaos in the Old World best in class?

Subjective of course, but I'd place these as best in class:

Root
Cthulhu Wars
Chaos in the Old World
Blood Rage
Nexus Ops
Cyclades
Clockwork Wars
Inis
Rising Sun
Dune
Lords of Hellas

EDIT - If you'd include 4X games, I'd throw TI4 and Eclipse in as well.
Posted: 20 Nov 2018 15:53 by mtagge #286575
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My first (and only) game I played Stone Giants. Wasn't really fun being a punching bag from all three opponents the whole game. I basically turned into a kingmaker deciding whose plans I was going to foil. If I wasn't going to play kingmaker I would have just turtled up and not played the game. That's two strikes off the bat.

I suppose if everyone had played the game a dozen or so times and we knew how the balance worked and interacted with the player special powers it might be alright. But why would we play this again when there are much, much better games than this?
Posted: 20 Nov 2018 16:02 by Jackwraith #286577
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Right. I think the Stone Giants were particularly hard hit by the setup and the general imbalance of the two weaker races. Their quest is also not very easy, given that they're trying to secure a couple areas in an area control game every time. Whereas the Hill Giants can actually execute their quest fairly reliably, since Food is the most common resource, the Stone Giants are almost completely subject to circumstance in completing theirs. In that link I provided to the balance changes (which I haven't had a chance to play with), the designer had pointed out in a connected thread that the Stone Giant leader's special ability (underground travel) can be used early to get around some of the boxing in that frequently happens to them but, again, that subjects them to circumstance more than the others, since they have to play their leader card earlier than anyone else, which then means they can't use it at a more advantageous time until they rest to retrieve it, which leaves them behind.

So, yeah. I think the concept was solid, but it needed more time in the oven; for the smallest two races, at least. I've had good experiences playing Frost, Fire, and Cloud giants.
Posted: 20 Nov 2018 16:31 by mtagge #286578
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Jackwraith wrote:
the designer had pointed out in a connected thread that the Stone Giant leader's special ability (underground travel) can be used early to get around some of the boxing in that frequently happens to them but, again, that subjects them to circumstance more than the others, since they have to play their leader card earlier than anyone else, which then means they can't use it at a more advantageous time until they rest to retrieve it, which leaves them behind.
Like I mentioned, sure if everyone knew which races had the strongest positions and highest probability to win and worked around that and each of the races had read and spent time thinking about some of the advanced strategies it would work. In multiplayer games balance can arise from teaming up on the strongest.

However I shouldn't be expected to play a game and it won't be fun unless everyone went to BGG and read strategy guides and designer suggested balance changes beforehand. It was literally a party at a friends house and someone said "I got this new game, want to try it". As stone giants my mission card was to grab as much territory and raze as many settlements as possible. Unfortunately I didn't read the storm giants cards directing him to a specific location causing him to smash my giants.