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Barnes on Games #2: CYOA: House of Danger, Warhammer Champions, Root, Shifting Realms, and More

MB Updated
House of Danger

"You suddenly regret playing the worst game of 2018. THE END."

Choose Your Own Adventure: House of Danger

It seemed like a surefire bet. I love storytelling games, I love gamebooks. My kids do too, and my son even has the House of Danger book. It's also one of Target's curated titles, published by Z-Man games. The production is awesome, with the correct CYOA typesetting and graphic design. The cards even have a yellowed paperback page tone. It looks fantastic, and if you have any nostalgia for these classic interactive fiction books, you'll likely find yourself wanting this.

 

Or, you may wind up like I did realizing that you really didn't have as much nostalgia for the books as you thought. And you may find that the pitiful writing (some will insist that it is "cheesy" and therefore fun- they would be incorrect) insufferable. The disjointed, painfully juvenile story is boring at best, arbitrary at worst. You might push on through the end of the five chapters (which is doable in one session but I certainly don't recommend it) and realize that you've been railroaded all along as successes and failures accrue to steer you to one of the endings...but did you really choose your own adventure? Perhaps choosing to play was the instant fail?

The irony is that this design, executed by "Prospero Hall" (the nom de plume of Forrest-Pruzan Creative), doesn't do anything that the better gamebooks already did before and better. I wasn't particularly impressed by the inclusion of items and the "do you have " branches because that is old fashioned Fighting Fantasy stuff. The basic skill checks are just that, about as basic as it gets and not really all that frequent- at least in my playthroughs. There's a Danger Level mechanic where the challenges get harder if you do things like backtrack or fail key challenges, but I felt more at risk for picking a page that leads me to a land mine and instant death than for failing rolls. There is also a Psychic Level track that serves as kind of an experience system, but it is also a key gameplay element that shifts you toward or away certain resolutions. If you manage to get it up to certain levels you might unlock visions from the deck of clue cards. But you might not. Do you want to replay the game to see what you missed? I sure don't.

I'm not sure how they are getting away with selling this as a multiplayer game. It simply isn't one. It's a solitaire game with a single character. There are no group deduction elements like in Mythos Tales, nor are there personal stories and development like there is in Legacy of Dragonholt. If you insist on playing with a group, it is about like reading a CYOA book and taking turns making the choices. But this time, you occasionally roll dice or triumphantly point out to the group that you do, in fact, have the sandwich. It's worked with my kids where I'm kind of the DM, reading the stupid cards and having them make all of the choices. But then my daughter declared that she "hated" the "stupid" game and checked out. My son's interest has waned as well. Because it's boring.

I get a sense that this is a game coasting on the same kind of grown-ass man-child goodwill that the Big Trouble in Little China, Goonies, and Dark Crystal games enjoy and that the entirety of Ready Player One rests on. However, this game will not recapture the simpler, better times of your youth. It will only remind you that CYOA books actually kind of sucked and that there are much better, more engaging games in this design space. Please, check out Mythos Tales or Legacy of Dragonholt over this game. Or one of the great Fighting Fantasy books you can get on your mobile device. Anything but this game. Don't encourage them to make another.

 

Warhammer Age of Sigmar: Champions

 

Unbidden, I got a box in the mail that had all four of the Campaign decks for this new TCG as well as a booster box. I sort of gave it the side eye, especially since there is all this talk about scanning cards in your phone and using them in an online game and all that. And everybody knows that this format is totally sink or swim. But what a nice surprise this has turned out to be- this is a very cool card game with some interesting gameplay that isn't really like Magic or any of the other tentpole designs in this area. Apparently, it's based on PlayForge's previous game Lightseekers, which I've never played, but I would expect that this is likely a revised and improved version of that game with Warhammer livery.

It's lane based, and you put a Champion on top of a face-down blessing in each lane. Each champ has 4 quests, and every time they complete one you rotate them and the corner shows their new goal. It might be to cast a spell, play an ability card, summon a unit, or whatever. Once they make a full rotation, they unlock the blessing- and these tend to be pretty serious effects. Units do not attack each other- you only damage the other player. And the units and spells do this rotation thing where the cards are either on an effective expiration schedule or a power cycle. Cards may need a couple of turns to charge up, or they may have fluctuating abilties.

This is a cool game with some very neat gameplay. I'm really looking forward to the mobile game now, especially since I have a mountain of cards I can scan in and play with there. But the physical game has been really good, and I've not even done any deckbuilding yet. I think this game is- this is what you are wondering- completely playable and satisfying with just the challenge decks.

 Root

 

I just got this in courtesy Leder Games, and I've already bought the expansion. Folks, this is the game. Kind of blown away by it. Not just the gameplay, but the concept, setting, and look of it are just amazing. The full review is a couple of weeks away, but rest assured that this is almost certainly one of the top titles of the year. It kind of sits at a triangulation point between those early 2000s "Weuros", COIN, and Dune. It's heady and innovative, artistic and daring...but also hugely accessible. They really pulled out all of the stops to make sure that it's easy to learn. I posted a tweet about the animal meeples being instantly iconic and more charming than a truckload of CMON stretch goal plastic and I think I got more likes than I ever have. This is the game.

 Shifting Realms

 

Charlie mentioned this new Van Ness brothers title in the forums, mentioning that it "wouldn't blow your hair back". That's true. But this is a very neat, very unique eurogame that has a Donald X. kind of setup- you pick three realms and those three realms define what you build, what you gather, what the goals are, and everything. It almost seems like playing three light resource management games that sort of bleed into each other. It's an almost disarmingly humble game- it isn't flashy, ostentatious, or fancy. There's an almost comfort food like quality to it, even while it is doing something pretty unique. I've really been enjoying it- it's pleasant and fun to play. No, it probably won't blow your hair back. But it may ruffle it a bit. Review coming on this one too.

 

Tutankhamen

 

Here's one you don't see folks talking about anymore. My kids have really been into this sort of forgotten Knizia classic. Like most of his top designs, it's extremely focused. You lay out a trail of Egyptian artifacts leading to a fun little plastic pyramid. On your turn, you move your pawn forward to what you want to take, but you can never go back. The goal is to collect sets and gain majorities based on shape/suit and color, with each set having a varying number of pieces. It's super light, but it's one of those that has just enough game to keep it engaging. It's not a top tier Knizia, to be sure, but it's a decent family game that has the Master's touch.

 

Kill Team

 

 

I'm so very close to shifting my 40k gaming strictly to Kill Team. It is not that it is "better", and in fact it is a more limited and restrictive system. Especially if you are like me and like to run the Astra Militarum motorpool or an "all models $50+" Tyranid army. However, it is so much more playable. My son and I will throw out one of the playmats- which fit on any kitchen table- and put a couple of pieces of Mechanicus or Imperialis terrain on it. We pick 5 or 6 pre-filled out unit cards, pick a mission, and just play for 30 minutes or so. It's satisfying, cinematic, and exciting. It's not as deep, detailed, or rich and it can feel even more dicey- especially if you have a bad dice rolling strategy and whiff a couple of decisive throws. But it's all here.

 

I'm really fond of running Orks right now. I love that they have a card that lets them commandeer a Galvanic Servohauler for a joyride- we bust out laughing when that damn thing moves LESS than the Ork's base 5" move on a 2D6 roll. My son is all about AM, but he's struggling with sorting out that you want to have a lot of lasguns pointing at one thing, standing far away. I explained "gunline" to him last night.

I've gotten back into painting my Mechanicus terrain, which I never finished last year after SW:A. I had it all in pieces for maximum modularity, but now I've gone and built large pieces with it. I like it that way much more, the ease of setup is worth not having so much granularity.

And the whole KT collection thing has begun, despite my resistance. I'm doing Thousand Sons.

Next time- three from Tasty Minstrel Games, including Pioneer Days

There Will Be Games

Michael BarnesFollow Michael Barnes Follow Michael Barnes Message Michael Barnes

Editor-in-Chief

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. 

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Matt Thrower's Avatar
Matt Thrower replied the topic: #279878 16 Aug 2018 05:18
I got House of Danger, and even though I've never played Choose Your Own Adventure (we got Fighting Fantasy this side of the pond), I got totally suckered by the box art.

The first session seemed fun enough. I like the way they used pictorial "visions" to seed clues, and the two-decks playing off each other to provide variety.

But then: pretty much everything MB said. It's obviously a solo game and would be awful multiplayer. But what really sunk it for me was the writing and story which are worst kind of pulp. Tiresome, trite, unimaginative garbage.
stormseeker75's Avatar
stormseeker75 replied the topic: #279879 16 Aug 2018 07:21
Warhammer Champions is legit. I love it. It's so much more about strapping in and riding the engine. There's still room for good plays. I do love that it's completely and totally different from Magic.
Ken B.'s Avatar
Ken B. replied the topic: #279891 16 Aug 2018 10:54
I will offer a counter-review on CYOA: HoL that both agrees and disagrees with Barnes.

First, as we're all aware, the Choose Your Own Adventure books were never brilliant game designs in the classical sense of the word. Essentially they boiled down to firing the imagination of a ten-year old child with an exciting adventure, pulling them in with second-person phrasing. Along the way was a limited set of story branches and an overwhelmingly arbitrary system for living and dying. Often, choices that otherwise seem completely reasonable continue the story as planned, but other times equally reasonable choices would lead you to a sudden and unexpected demise.

Looking at them as an adult, it's quite clear that the mindset was to engage a generation who was beginning to grow up on Atari and Nintendo with the same pulpy crazy adventure serials that had children plop down in front of an old radio and stare wide-eyed as they were taken on voyages with pirates, solved mysteries with other plucky young detectives, or allowed to jetset on global pathways as some hardboiled investigator traveled the world in search of treasure or to apprehend some evildoer.


I will admit that just seeing the package for the game instantly fired my nostalgia. I saw a group with a copy of it at their table during this year's Dice Tower Con. "Is that what I think it is?" I asked, and sure enough, I knew I would probably have to pick up a copy.


For good or ill, it's the same overly cheesy narrative that was present in the old books. To have delivered a more polished writing style would have been a jarring betrayal of what the game seems to want to be. Even so, the game expands on the old system by giving clue decks for each chapter. These clues allow you to have inventory, receive future hints about story branches, and keep weapons to help defeat some of the baddies in the story. There are very simple Psychic and Danger levels which give you some indication at how well you're doing. They're both a touch too limiting because often failing at a task--especially repeatedly--can send you into a downward spiral of future failures until you max your Danger level and it mercifully resets, although this costs you Psychic energy.

Speaking of Psychic energy, one thing I thought was particularly clever in an indirect sense is that when you do inevitably hit a "U R STOOPID, U DIE" card, you read what fate befalls you...but then you spend some Psychic energy and you revert back to your previous decision point. It is implied that essentially you foresaw your own fate at a cost of sapping your Psychic abilities, and were able to shake it off and make a better decision. It mimics how we would all reach an important decision point, stick our finger in between that page, and head off to one of our choices...only to see we'd chosen something that caused us to fall into a bottomless pit because we chose to investigate a weird vase, and we'd quickly go back to our "Finger-Generated Save Point" to get back on track. I will say the deaths are still arbitrary in several spots but there are also several that are just red-alarms that say "DO NOT DO THIS", more or less.


Now, to bookend all of this I have to add that I've been playing with my two twelve-year old twin girls and they have been riveted by the experience. I have essentially served as narrator and occasionally gently offering advice, and as a narrator I've given the characters distinct voices and played up the drama at several turns. I've also had my Amazon Fire cue up some spooky music to give everything a little extra ambiance. To show how excited they were about playing it, last night I had told them we'd play after dinner.
I'd assumed they'd gone upstairs, but when I got down to the rec room they already had the game out, the decks set and our little player board all ready to go. We finished chapter four last night and will complete the game one night this weekend.


How much of that fun is because we're invested in it, and because I'm interjecting additional theater into the proceedings? I honestly couldn't tell you. But we are definitely having our fun with it.


Of course, many of the criticisms are still spot on. The writing is not fantastic, deliberate or no. You've got one, MAYBE two playthroughs of this where you go back the second time to look for any branches and clues you missed. The game makes no effort to provide actual multiplayer rules, so you are all sitting down to play a game that has no difference to playing it solo. A few bad rolls or choices can send you into a spiral of escalating danger and missed clues that is tough to escape from for a bit. There are reasonable sounding choices that will instantly kill you.

And yet...my girls have had that same excited chatter about the game that I used to have with my friends in elementary school as we'd gobble up these from mail order or book fair and trade dog-eared copies as we finished them. And I have a feeling my young 'uns will remember the fun we've had with this one for quite a while. For a dad, that's $25 well spent.
drewcula's Avatar
drewcula replied the topic: #279899 16 Aug 2018 11:10
I played Root last week. I dubbed it 'Cthulhu Wars meets Redwall.'
It's good and like Cthulhu Wars, it'll reward multiple plays.

While I appreciate the relatively small footprint of Root, I'd rather set up the big ol' CW behemoth instead.
Space Ghost's Avatar
Space Ghost replied the topic: #279922 16 Aug 2018 15:11
I've always been a pretty big fan of game books, even though their writing has much to be desired. As Ken mentioned, it really does fire the imagination of the 8-10 year old. One of the earliest memories of getting in trouble revolves around CYOA books.

When I was young in the mid-80s, it was just me, my brother and my mom. I was in 3rd grade and my mom had saved up $100 and I was supposed to go to school Book Fair and purchase some really fancy hard-covered Rand McNally World Atlas that went into detail about all countries/cultures (something like $75) and also get us a dictionary that was going to be the "family" dictionary (my mom doesn't really have an education, but saw education as the way to provide opportunity for her children). In any event, when I arrived at the Book Fair, the World Atlas was on back order, as was the Dictionary -- and, it was a "traveling" Book Fair that meandered through the Rural Midwest, so if it wasn't in stock, there was no getting it until it was back in stock. Instead, I bought 18 choose your own adventure books (I think they were around $4.95 -- like most paperbacks back then) and was convinced (or at least convinced myself) that the entire family would be excited about my purchase. Needless to say, my mom was not excited. Instead, there was some prolonged grounding from cartoons; however, the cool thing was, she recognized my excitement and didn't make me return them -- I just had to wait about a month before I could read any of them.

To this day, I have a soft spot for the entire CYOA enterprise, poor writing or not. The first book I wrote was my own CYOA adventure in 4th grade. We recently unearthed it, and I realize that in these days and times I would likely be referred to a psychologist as all the endings are fairly gruesome. My CYOA books have long since vanished, but I still have all of the Wizards, Warriors, and You and most (if not all) the Middle-Earth and Fighting Fantasy books. Given Ken's tale on how excited his daughters were, I may bust out a simpler one tonight for my kids (4 and 6)
panzerattack's Avatar
panzerattack replied the topic: #279943 16 Aug 2018 19:17
Have you seen the miniature skirmish game Burrows and Badgers? Every time I see anything about Root it makes me think of it - anthropomorphic woodland animals. Although I've got the rulebook I haven't played it, so I can't comment on the game itself, but the miniature line that goes with it is fantastic.
Deleted's Avatar
Deleted replied the topic: #279944 16 Aug 2018 20:04
I’m glad Patrick Leder is getting the love he deserves. Tom Vasel savaged his game, “Five Fingered Severance” which has been in my collection from the day it was issued and which it will perpetually remain.

He has other pre-Vast titles, the most notable being FFS and a little card game called Trick or Treat which has been played at my home since we got it when it was released. Nobody saw it because it wasn’t hyped by the savants at BGG, but it’s really fun.
drewcula's Avatar
drewcula replied the topic: #279946 16 Aug 2018 20:34