Letters from Sag -- Tomb at the May Getaway

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tomb board game review

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There Will Be Games

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. 

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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.

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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.

There Will Be Games tomb board game review
tomb board game review
John "Sagrilarus" Edwards (He/Him)
Associate Writer

John aka Sagrilarus is an old boardgame player. He has no qualifications to write on the subject, and will issue a stern denial of his articles' contents on short notice if pressed.

Articles by Sagrilarus

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Forelle's Avatar
Forelle replied the topic: #298223 11 Jun 2019 02:22
I remember the first time I played Tomb. It was the year it came out and I was at a two-player game day for a local gaming group. I was the odd-person out when I arrived and so someone got Tomb out for a three-person game. It was also the last time I played Tomb and the last time, until today, that I've ever seen it played or mentioned. I've occasionally wondered about the game since it seemingly disappeared off the face of the Earth. I recall thinking there was some interesting aspects to it, but ultimately it was a little wonky and nothing to get too excited about. It's unfortunate it takes a diehard to bring an undercooked game to life - congrats to those of you who know those people. Tomb is like a KS game ahead of its time.
mezike's Avatar
mezike replied the topic: #298224 11 Jun 2019 03:02
I really enjoyed reading that, thank you Sag.
WadeMonnig's Avatar
WadeMonnig replied the topic: #298225 11 Jun 2019 07:15
Great insights on a mostly overlooked game.
jason10mm's Avatar
jason10mm replied the topic: #298227 11 Jun 2019 08:25
Oh man, please tell me there is another piece of artwork that reveals Sorscha to be an old man with a van dyke beard :P Or one of those youthful body but old hag face witch chicks from Beastmaster!
Sagrilarus's Avatar
Sagrilarus replied the topic: #298228 11 Jun 2019 08:35

jason10mm wrote: Oh man, please tell me there is another piece of artwork that reveals Sorscha to be an old man with a van dyke beard :P Or one of those youthful body but old hag face witch chicks from Beastmaster!


Yeah, at some point while playing I found myself saying, "I prefer women that have a head" which sounds a little dirty, but actually isn't.
hotseatgames's Avatar
hotseatgames replied the topic: #298232 11 Jun 2019 09:08
Nice read! I'd be interested to see your friend's Tomb card list. At one point I wanted to make a free deck builder out of the cards in the game, and messed with it at one point but dropped it after it seemed like it wasn't going anywhere.

Then I started a "re-make", but ultimately changed it so much that it only resembles Tomb now in its combat structure. I'm pitching THAT game at Origins this week. So who knows, perhaps the bones of Tomb will be re-animated.
RobertB's Avatar
RobertB replied the topic: #298243 11 Jun 2019 13:19
Tomb was really popular at the local game club, for about a month or two. I think people were hoping that it would be 'Descent 1.0 + Runebound*, done right'. That turned out not to be the case.

My experience with it was this: I went into the club, and there was a six-player game going on. I asked a few questions about it, and someone said, "Please take my place." I did. It turns out six players are about two or three too many, and I spent the next couple of hours doing pretty close to nothing.

In the end, I thought there was a good game trying to get out, but due to lack of skill and desire I wasn't going to be the one to fix it.

* My Runebound 1.0 experience was that it would always attract a foursome, and player #4 was hosed.
Sagrilarus's Avatar
Sagrilarus replied the topic: #298245 11 Jun 2019 13:51
My group has figured out that games like Tomb, and Merchant of Venus, and Formula D can be played with dual turns, especially with that many players. You can have the guy across from you taking his turn as you take yours, and the result is that you're pretty much either prepping, turning, or posting for most of the game. There's a knack to making sure you don't get out ahead of someone, but short of two players' positions being on top of each other you can make it work without too much coordination.

This is where I get a little confused over "slow play" comments, because most games with slow play can be parallelized without too much trouble, and because the people complaining about it are usually pretty sharp and pretty experienced at gaming. I can't imagine ours is the only group figuring this out, or the only group capable of making it work.

I think four is plenty for Tomb, an academic argument because I don't think it gets played much anywhere anymore. Apparently it had a solid following, but it's ten years old now.