Come on in for this week's Next of Ken, where we're delving straight into the gaming talk with quick impressions of Ascension, a looooong overdue look at Wrath of Ashardalon, and a review of the hot-of-the-presses Revolver: The Wild West Gunfighting Game from Stronghold Games. With a line-up like that, I recommend you step on in, pardner.
Demise, the Sun is Dying in the Sky
I received the Ascension trio from Mssr. Barnes several weeks ago, and we've spent some time playing just the base game so far. Truly, this is deckbuilding stripped to its barest essence.
You have two kinds of currency essentially--Runes and Power. Instead of a pre-selected library of stacks of cards, a central deck reveals six cards at a time that require one of the two currencies to acquire. The gameplay itself is very free-flowing; you aren't limited by actions, if you have cards in your hand you can play them, if you can get multiple cards in one turn you're free to do so.
The end-game condition is that there's a pool of victory point gems based on the number of players, and once that's run dry, the game ends, a la Race for the Galaxy. Okay, so don't hold that particular comparision against it, at least not yet.
It's a game filled with short-term decisions that sometimes converge on a particular strategy. There are different "spheres" of cards, with the spheres having a lot of synergy with each other. Lifebound Heroes getting a benefit from other Lifebound heroes being revealed or played is a common example. But since the cards are coming up randomly, and only six are available at a time, your decisions will often be much more short-term. The clock is ticking, what helps me *right now?*
Funny enough, I shouldn't like Ascension, but I ended up digging it after all. There are times it feels mindless, but it frees you up to shoot the shit with your buddies. Plus, it is fun to find strange combinations of cards that get your deck clicking. And there are just enough cards providing interaction that it doesn't feel too much like a multi-player solitaire race game.
And hey, who doesn't like doing drive-by beatings of Cultists? Yeah, I thought so.
It's not my favorite deckbuilder but be damned if I don't enjoy it and will be glad to bust it out whenever. It has this...charm, this allure, this free-flowing easy-to-grasp gameplay that has proven really popular with gamers. It's also the deckbuilder that's the easiest to play with family and casual gamers (so long as they're not weirded out by the art, which I actually liked.)
I need to get the expansions played, especially with the Fate mechanic spicing up the gameplay. One question, though--you folks who have all three sets, do you just pile 'em in, build your own custom center deck, or what? Inquiring minds want to know.
Ignore the Wrath of Our Dysfunction
It dawned on me that while I reviewed the other two games in Wizards of The Coast's D&D Adventure series (Castle Ravenloft and Legend of Drizzt), beyond talking briefly about Wrath of Ashardalon after Trashfest South last year I never really gave Ashardalon the "full" treatment.
For most of the readers of this site, an introduction to the series is hardly necessary. Co-op dungeon-delving game, just over an hour to play, random dungeon generation, monsters pop out, you try to achieve your goal collectively without getting killed too often. Loaded with beautiful plastic bits, a metric ton of cardboard tokens, and in a doubly-thick imposing box that demands attention.
A lot of folks have taken very well to the series; this was our answer to wanting to knock out a dungeon crawl when you didn't have time for an epic Descent session. It's D&D lite with a randomly generated Dungeon Master who sometimes suffers from ADHD. Detractors have pointed to the game's light gameplay and brevity as weaknesses, so clearly what is appealing to some isn't always appealing to everyone, but overall the series has been a smashing success for Wizards of the Coast.
As a Drizzt fan, the one that I waited the most anxiously for was indeed Legend of Drizzt. These were the characters I wanted to play! But after spending time with all three games, it becomes more and more clear that the "best" of them is in fact Wrath of Ashardalon.
First up, I don't have to cover the bits. If you've seen the contents of any of these games, you know it's a veritable orgy of game components in there. Thick tiles, awesome miniatures abound. But the theme and some of the mechanics are what serve to differentiate the three games.
Take Ravenloft, for example. Ultimately what this still really has going for it is the theme. Fact is, some gamers just prefer killing vampires, and Strahd is one of the most powerful vampires in D&D lore. The system itself though did suffer from a few things it was rightly criticized for--most notably, the "reveal a tile, monster shows up, hits you, you bash monster, continue" style gameplay. There were also a few holes in the rules--where do monsters appear? What if my starting treasure card is a useless "Use Immediately" card?--so on and so forth.
As far as my collection goes, I'm keeping Ravenloft, but it's primarily for the theme. Both of its successors improved on the core mechanics significantly.
Let's skip ahead to Legend of Drizzt. This was the first time that players were allowed to play "big name" characters from D&D literature, as Drizzt is arguably one of the most popular creations therein. Wulfgar, Cattie Brie, the true appeal here was playing as fan favorites, playing scenarios against notable foes. Of all three, Drizzt's scenarios are the most story-driven, to the point that they feel like a real narrative.
One thing that they seemingly regressed on is what is ultimately Ashardalon's greatest strength--but I'll get back to that in a minute.
Drizzt's gameplay can at times feel really similar to Ravenloft, just with more polish. More polish on the Events, more polish on the Treasures, more polish on the whole experience. The characters do seem a little powerful though by comparison, so it isn't hard to carve your way through each tile, and that whole "explore, reveal monster, get hit by monster, bash monster" can happen here. It's only when a named villain or one of the nasty Trolls show up that things get *serious*--it's then that the game takes on its most narrative bent. I can still remember my brother and I encountering one of the Feral Trolls for the first time, watched as it bashed one of us down the hallway before turning on the other...shrugging off the first strikes...things went from a cakewalk to deadly dangerous just like that.
So again, I'm keeping Drizzt--mostly for my love of the characters, and the story-driven scenarios.
Now, let's get back to Ashardalon.
Wrath of Ashardalon out of all three games runs the risk of feeling the most "flavorless." After all, this is the most in tune with the 'generic' expectation of fantasy, with Dragons, quests to rob the dragon's lair, enemies that you're more used to seeing in a standard D&D campaign.
The difference to me is the most-missed thing in Legend of Drizzt, and that's the little critters who explore the dungeon and summon more monsters. These guys make the quest feel more *alive*, less like a bunch of monsters standing off-stage awaiting their cue to take their swipes. Even though they're annoying as hell sometimes, you're now faced with a foe that disrupts the whole, "move, reveal, bash" cycle. Now a sniveling monster just out of range can bring help, even wandering down hallways to do it.
The monsters are tougher, too. More of them have 2 HP and are less likely to die as soon as the hero breathes on them. What you end up with are adventures that feel more like frenzied melees rather than monsters lining up in a bashing gallery.
Wrath of Ashardalon was a superior product in so many ways, and showed signs that Wizards was listening to its fans. We also got campaign rules, Treasures were especially tweaked, and for the more epic feel, we got Chambers, special rooms that helped the game move away from that feeling of "disjointed tiles making a dungeon."
I don't know what the future of this series is; by this time in the prior games' releases, we already knew what the next would be. I understand that these sold very well, but with them moving on to Dungeon Command and trying new things with games like Lords of Waterdeep, one starts to wonder if this trifecta of adventure games are all we're going to get for the forseeable future. Whatever the case, I'm glad that we got these elaborately produced dungeon crawlers, bringing back the nostalgia for that type of game served up in a classic, much lighter fare.
So to answer the question--if you only pick up one of these games, unless you're a complete die-hard Drizzt fan, the one to get is Wrath of Ashardalon. I'm keeping this one because it is a crazy kill-fest where it honestly feels my adventurer's life is on the line, and I wouldn't have it any other way.
Pictures of Fields Without Fences, a Spotless Domain
Last but not least this week is the new Stronghold Games offering, the cinematic shootout Revolver: The Wild West Gunfighting Game. When I read it was designed by Mark Chaplin, the name was familiar...and then I realized he designed the PnP The Thing game that I was going on about awhile back.
Mark definitely has a flair for the cinematic, and Revoler is no exception. Taking place over 5 "Acts" or locations cards, the game details the robbery and escape by the Colty Gang as they're pursued by Colonel McReady and his men. If the Colty gang can just hang on and catch the 3:15 express, they'll be home free with their loot. But the long arm of the law has a reach that cannot be denied...
When I first read about Revolver and saw some of the cards, my thoughts immediately turned to Doomtown CCG. I used to dabble with Doomtown and kind of relished the chance to play a fixed set Wild West card-based gunslinging game. While I must report that the game is nowhere near as complex as Doomtown and shares few if any mechanics with it, what we do have is a game about outlaws and lawmen, a running gun battle from location to location, building towards the inevitable climactic scene.
The game begins by placing a marker on the starting location. The McReady side plays like you'd expect, where the good guys use a selection of lawmen, deploying them in pursuit of the bad guys at each cinematic location as the game progresses. The Colty gang is quite different, though--the Colty player starts with all of his outlaws in front of him, always considered to be at the current location. Instead of his outlaw gang deploying to locations, instead you play weapons to do your fighting--the gang is there, and these are the guns they're shootin' with.
Since they're on the run and pinned down, the Colty gang can only have three cards at the current location, and they have to make them count. If McReady's men can bring more firepower to bear at the current location at the end of their turn, then one of the Colty gang is killed. Each have a priority and must be killed from lowest to highest, with Colty being the last. If he dies, the outlaws lose immediately. There's also a character named Cortez, who must live at least until the 3:15 Express scene, or Colty loses.
Each location only lasts for a specific number of turns, with a wooden marker keeping track. Some locations are a protracted battle with four turns spent there, others are much faster with only two turns. In a very cool mechanic, should certain gang members die before a certain point in the game, the bad guys will have to spend longer at a particular location; I'm assuming that these outlaws were critical in making a fast getaway and without them, Colty has to change his plans.
There are also cards that maniuplate the time track, with McReady moving the marker back, and Colty moving it forward. Time is not on the outlaws side, whereas if the Colonel can keep the baddies pinned down longer, he'll have a better chance of getting to Colty in time.
Catching that train is not the only way that Colty can win, though. There's a card called "The Mexican Border" and it represents Colty's gang making a break and crossing into Mexico. It starts with ten cubes on it, and on any turn the Colonel's men can't kill a Colty gang member either through fighting or card play, a cube is removed. There are also cards in each deck that add or remove cubes, so this becomes a little side game that prevents McReady from turtling his men for the final battle; if he does, he risks Colty eluding his grasp across the border.
Colty also has one last trick up his sleeve--if things are going badly at the final scene aboard the 3:15 train, he can derail it, killing everyone on board. Colty must discard a card for every member he wants to save (at least one for himself, or the Colty player has lost!) Colty is just crazy enough to run the train right off the tracks if everything seems hopeless.
Ultimately, it's a game of card management, as deploying some of the cards costs you discards to pay for them. Also, as the battle moves forward, if you overcommit to one particular battlefield you may find yourself unprepared to do well at the next one. It's all about when to hoard weapons or lawmen, when to go "all-in", and how to stem the bleedin' when things are going badly for you.
In our first game, the bank robbery at Repentance Springs didn't go very well. My brother was playing McReady and used his cards to prolong the scene, and with his superior firepower the gang was getting whittled down alarmingly quickly. Thankfully Colty's gang finally made his getaway and sped through the next scene. I was still losing gang members, but was able to put up a solid fight. The game swung when a fortuitous Sandstorm hit during the next-to-last battleground. The Sandstorm limits McReady to having two cards at that battlefield, so I suffered no further casualties.
On board the 3:15, the lawmen brought all his strength to bear, including McReady himself (who deploys for free aboard the 3:15--think the last-minute heroics of most action films.) I had bought myself enough time with the Sandstorm and although bloodied, Colty and one other gang member survived and I declared myself the victor--without having to wreck the train in the process!
Now, you might notice that I've tended to speak of the Colty gang almost as though they are the good guys, and there's a reason for that. When I was reading up on the game and then playing it, I couldn't shake the feeling that it was the "bad guys" who were under constant assault, so much so that you began to look at them as anti-heroes. Then I read up a little further and it all made sense--originally, this game was based on Aliens, with the Colty gang as the Marines and McReady's men as the swarm of Aliens. That's why the Colonel can have as many guys out as he wants, and why it feels like Colty is on the run, being picked off one by one. Ripley was Colty so it makes sense that if she's killed, it's game over; the Cortez connection becomes clear when you realize he was originally Bishop, who had to survive to the last scene in order to crawl back to pilot the ship.
That didn't detract from my enjoyment of the game, but it all made complete sense after realizing that. Would the game have been better if Stronghold had kept the Aliens theme? Maybe. But I can certainly understand them not pursuing the expensive license and instead re-theming the game to the Wild West.
I liked Revolver a lot. The cards have great artwork, good quality cards, and even with the changes it still has a great theme. It gave me some of the fun of the old two-player battle-oriented CCGs, though I wonder about replayability after a certain point. You'll be playing through the same scenes, you'll be thinking about derailing that train, the only difference will be in the order the cards come out. Thankfully the game is tense and thrilling, tells a great story, and hey--expansions are already underway. For $20 at online retailers, if you're a fan of these types of card games, you'll want to give Revolver: The Wild West Gunfighting Game a go. I'm looking forward to seeing where they take the system next.
And that's going to do it...another column in the books! Thanks for reading, and as always, feedback is extremely welcome. Until next time, I'll see ya in fourteen.