Sometimes it’s not what you know, but who you know. This morning, when Tomb hit the table in front of me for perhaps the fifth time, I had an ace in the hole that virtually none of the rest of you will have – Sippi Steve.
Stephen (who is from Mississippi, hence the nickname) was a game rep for AEG for an extended period of time and may have more practical experience with the final version of the game than just about anyone else on the planet. He demo’d it on convention floors and, in order to make the game really shine for new potential buyers, went out of his way to tailor a particular set of cards that would make the game hum. A few dozen hours working with it has produced a version of the game that is a little more even-keeled and a little more predictable.
Tomb is an AEG game from 2008, back when AEG made games that weren’t just made of cards. Tomb has cards aplenty, but also has boards and character chips and markers and buckets of dice and all the things that you would expect any dungeon crawler to have. And the good news is that Tomb is designed for everyone playing to be in the hunt. There's no need for an 'overlord', as players take turns being the big baddie for the people sitting next to them. That’s a nice feature. Its initial setup is designed to let every player contribute, but Sippi flushed that as well, as he saw that the human nature of the players would result in an unsatisfying board layout that hobbled the play of the game. His alternative is a more random layout that results in no one knowing where anything in the tomb is, so no player can game the system.
A quick look at my choice of party characters should make it pretty obvious what my primary selection criteria is – a diverse mix of capabilities and combat strengths. At the beginning of the game you assemble a party, then select spells, equipment and the like in order to prepare for combat in the tomb; a predictably dangerous place full of treasures and experience points. Time spent preparing takes away from time in the tomb, so there’s a conflict between taking your time to be in a position to proceed safely and being the first into the danger to get first pickings on the loot. You don’t want to be too late to the tomb, because fun awaits.
A party of four characters, well-equipped for the tomb. Making this happen takes time, while your opponents are already finding treasure.
At least when I play, it does. With Sippi working the setup and contents of the game we get a more curated experience, something more dependable than how the game plays out of the box and I can’t help but compare the action at the beginning of the game with the action that apparently played out when Tomb was under development. Do you rush to get the product to market or do you take the time to continue to refine the game? It’s apparent to me that AEG jumped the gun, because Sippi is still in the process of taking cards out of the mix that throw too much imbalance into the gameplay. Our version is already much better, and I enjoy the play very much. But there’s still tailoring going on in the local copy that makes it play a little better everyday. The cards under the box insert are a rogue’s gallery that don’t play nice with others.
Having ten or twenty years of gaming under your belt helps you recognize design shortcomings more quickly. Having forty or fifty years of life under your belt helps you understand that the designers were as human as anyone else, and there’s no reason to not pick up where they left off, by continuing the refinement of the product. With the removal of traps that are simply impossible to defuse by any party and the easing down of power levels on both monsters and magic treasure, Tomb becomes a much more stable game, producing a more engaging play. Sippi hasn’t neutered the game; there’s still plenty of "Oh, shit!" left in his subset of the card decks and that’s a must-have in this kind of game... if you’re not scared the game won’t work. But the play is now more streamlined and you have an opportunity to develop a bit of a bond with your characters, as they’ll likely live (at least one of them) past their first couple of encounters. That is making Tomb jump to life for me personally and I very much enjoy the game.
Tomb did not reprint so this discussion may be a moot point. But it is available in the aftermarket for $50 and up. So although available you’ll have to drop a fair amount of cash to land a copy. And when you do it’s likely you’ll have some work ahead of you to get it into a condition where you really enjoy the play. But heck, some people live for the opportunity to take things apart and rebuild them, and Tomb has plenty of material to work with. It has a small, dedicated following, maybe it’s worth signing up for their monthly newsletter and seeing what you can do playing the role of game developer. That’s a game all its own.