Sword & Sorcery + Arcane Portal Review

MB Updated January 28, 2019
0.0 (0)
5065   0
Sword and Sorcery review
There Will Be Games

A tale of soul and swords.

Ares Games' Sword & Sorcery caught my eye for two reasons. One is that is a follow-up to Gremlin Project's quite good Galaxy Defenders, which still to my mind offers one of the best sets of automated enemy mechanics in the modern dungeoncrawl genre. The other is that there is a bluntness to calling a game "Sword & Sorcery", an implicit promise of old-school, 1970s - 1980s style fantasy. This game brings forward concepts from Galaxy Defenders and couches them in a rather more complicated, more narrative design and it offers plenty of classic dungeon-plunging, hack and slash action so in some ways I got exactly what I expected out of this game and I have enjoyed- for better or worse- my time with it. It's difficult, quite frankly, to assess a modern dungeoncrawl game without comparing everything to Gloomhaven because it is in my opinion a generation-defining design that will influence and shape the genre for years to come. This doesn't mean that there aren't other good entries in this field of course and Sword & Sorcery is clearly a good one- and it may offer some differentiators that some may find desirable over its esteemed competition.

One of the more interesting concepts, and one that carries through the whole design, is that Sword & Sorcery is attempting to bring a little more RPG into the genre. Characters, who represent heroes recalled from death (hence the subtitle "Immortal Souls") and may reincarnate in either a "light" or "dark" version of the classes. This is roughly analogous to alignment, and it impacts some choices that you may encounter during the stories. Levelling up is based on earning Soul Points, and these increase your Soul Rank- this is all especially important if you play the scenarios as a campaign. As you rank up, more Innate and Standard and Talent Powers become available to you, and these can rank up as well. The game uses a pretty interesting cooldown mechanic, which means that the stronger powers may take longer to recharge- and you can choose to use powers at a lower rank in order to speed up the refresh. There is a strong sense throughout of very unique characters with distinct specializations that develop over the course of a few games or even in just a one-off scenario. It's also pretty cool that when you get killed, you continue on as a ghost until you resurrect at a Shrine- I don't think I've ever seen that in a game like this, and I'm fairly sure that Dark Souls was an influence here.

But in some ways, Sword & Sorcery hews closer to the rather aged Descent model and that may either make you come running or run screaming. I'm somewhat in the middle of that paradigm. The core gameplay is all about spending a budget of actions to move characters and perform various tasks including, of course, bashing monsters with various sharp, rigid, or magical implements. The combat system uses custom D8s that, like Descent, provide multiple pieces of resolution information- there are even surges that can be used to enhance actions. It's also an opposed roll, so defenders get to roll to block. As the game is combat-heavy, much of the rules emphasis is on the tactical possibilities allowed, which include things like immunities, vulnerabilities, and the notion "controlling" or "dominating" a map area by having more figures than the opposition and gaining an advantage. There are also a host of keyword effects and statuses that give the fights plenty of color.

As in Galaxy Defenders, the enemies spawn and are completely automated by event and enemy behavior cards that detail exactly what each baddie does. These cards allow for complex engagements where monsters will act different ways situationally, target specific characters, retreat, and perform a variety of attacks. Monsters can also be modified with enemy power cards, so it's not as much of a bummer that the base game doesn't include a lot of different monsters- sometimes a Gremlin may have an unexpected ability that makes him much more dangerous.

As for the stories, they are pretty typical hack and slash fare but much attention has been given to the narrative components. They take quite a bit to set up (at least as long as Gloomhaven, if we're again comparing notes there) and require a staged Event Deck as well as a separate "Book of Secrets" that is essentially the paragraph parts of the scenario. You go to the Book when you reach story events or waypoints that trigger decisions, surprise events, branching potentials, new objectives, and even new areas to explore that weren't there at the outset of the adventure. As in Galaxy Defenders, you can expect some cheeky and sometimes not very subtle references to fantasy movies and heavy metal. One of the Kickstarter bonuses, which I don't have, is actually a set of weapons from fantasy movies such as the Glaive from Krull (and the film Ready Player One). Cute.

I like the story format, but I'm not entirely sure it's worth the effort. I'd almost rather this game go straight up hack and slash with the storyline being "stab Gremlin/Orc/Raider, take their stuff". The action basics are solid and quite crunchy in terms of decision-making and options, but the addition of all of the story material and the administrative elements that they require almost overload the game. This is a pretty complicated affair overall with lots of components. It's ultimately a worthwhile effort and this is a good choice for a more traditional, old fashioned crawl that is a few tiers above something like the Dungeons & Dragons Adventure System titles in terms of depth and complexity.

As for the content, I think the base game feels thin if only because I'm aware of all of the additional material and options that were available to Kickstarter backers. Make no mistake, there is plenty in this box to get you going and the game. Seven scenarios of this game are going to take a while to get through, and there are plenty of treasures, events, and other elements. But throughout, it feels like there should be more of everything, but maybe that's just me going back to Gloomhaven and considering how that game is like a base game with all of the expansions included up front. Sword & Sorcery is receiving continued retail support from Ares such as the just released Arcane Portal expansion, which was provided to me with the base game.

I'm inclined to state that if you think Sword & Sorcery is for you and/or your group (it does play really well solo), that Arcane Portal should be part of your initial buy-in. This box includes four additional side quest-style stories for what is billed as Act I of the S&S saga, and it has an "infernal" theme running through its four new monsters, items, events, and other elements. It's required that your characters be Soulrank II or higher to take on these challenges, which lead up to a confrontation with...wait for it...THE HELLRAISER.

It feels not so much like an expansion as it does a completion of the base game. It makes it all feel broader and more fully realized, expanding the scope of what is on offer. The focus on certain types of enemies also gives the storyline in this section of the game a more concentrated, congruous feel. But with that said, it is worth noting that one of the more appealing differences between Sword & Sorcery versus other games in its relatively expensive genre is that the base game is pretty affordable, usually sold for under $60 at most online retailers. Arcane Portal puts the content on par with other, more expensive games in its class but evens out the price difference.

Sword and Sorcery review
Michael Barnes (He/Him)
Senior Board Game Reviews Editor

Sometime in the early 1980s, MichaelBarnes’ parents thought it would be a good idea to buy him a board game to keep him busy with some friends during one of those high-pressure, “free” timeshare vacations. It turned out to be a terrible idea, because the game was TSR’s Dungeon! - and the rest, as they say, is history. Michael has been involved with writing professionally about games since 2002, when he busked for store credit writing for Boulder Games’ newsletter. He has written for a number of international hobby gaming periodicals and popular Web sites. From 2004-2008, he was the co-owner of Atlanta Game Factory, a brick-and-mortar retail store. He is currently the co-founder of FortressAT.com and Nohighscores.com as well as the Editor-in-Chief of Miniature Market’s Review Corner feature. He is married with two childen and when he’s not playing some kind of game he enjoys stockpiling trivial information about music, comics and film.

Articles by Michael

Sword and Sorcery review
Michael Barnes
Senior Board Game Reviews Editor

Articles by Michael

Editor review

1 reviews

(Updated: August 16, 2018)
Board Game Reviews 


Sword and Sorcery
Top 10 Reviewer 69 reviews

User reviews

There are no user reviews for this listing.
Already have an account? or Create an account
Log in to comment

Josh Look's Avatar
Josh Look replied the topic: #279918 16 Aug 2018 13:31
I like a number of Ares/Nexus games (even the much maligned Age of Conan), but man, I’ve not played one yet that isn’t a mess. I don’t think it’s just the translation from Italian. We played Galaxy Defenders quite a few times and I don’t think we played it correctly once. I’m told it’s great, but I wouldn’t know. My experience with GD aside, I was under the impression that S&S was a campaign game. Is that the case? I’d love to give it a shot if that isn’t the case.
ChristopherMD's Avatar
ChristopherMD replied the topic: #279919 16 Aug 2018 13:49

Josh Look wrote: I like a number of Ares/Nexus games (even the much maligned Age of Conan), but man, I’ve not played one yet that isn’t a mess. I don’t think it’s just the translation from Italian. We played Galaxy Defenders quite a few times and I don’t think we played it correctly once. I’m told it’s great, but I wouldn’t know. My experience with GD aside, I was under the impression that S&S was a campaign game. Is that the case? I’d love to give it a shot if that isn’t the case.

You can play any of the campaign scenarios individually. Each scenario includes rules for how much XP, Gold, etc your characters start with. You still need to read the storybook for stuff that comes up during the scenario.
Frohike's Avatar
Frohike replied the topic: #279921 16 Aug 2018 14:59
This is effectively the "Descent 1st Edition Sans Overlord" game that I was seeking a few years ago when I kicked 2nd edition to the curb, though I'm guessing that I'm in the minority here. I'm not sure many are still looking for this style of game in 2018, tbh.
ChristopherMD's Avatar
ChristopherMD replied the topic: #279924 16 Aug 2018 15:54
If anyone wants to pick up in Boston I'll give a good deal on my KS copy.
Space Ghost's Avatar
Space Ghost replied the topic: #279926 16 Aug 2018 16:37
Rarely am I very curmudgeonly -- but sweet mercy, calling that aberration in Krull a glaive grates on me. A glaive, originally, was a sword. Then, it became basically a polearm with a curved blade. Never was it an over-sized shuriken.


Not a Glaive:

Jexik's Avatar
Jexik replied the topic: #279931 16 Aug 2018 17:00
That bothered me too, more than this from Romeo and Juliet:

hotseatgames's Avatar
hotseatgames replied the topic: #279932 16 Aug 2018 17:01
While Massive Darkness isn't perfect by any stretch, I prefer it to this game. It's less fiddly and also less bogged down in details that really just add overhead.