Saturday, January 29, 2011
Crossroads at Darklion Pass - Magic, Math, and Might, In Technicolor
You all know I have a soft spot for small press publishers, so when I found out about Strategy Rich games, I was all over it. I contacted Steven Schroeder, the owner and chief designer, about his premiere game, Crossroads at Darklion Pass. He was kind enough to send one out, and as we chatted it showed that he not only loves the game, he truly believes in it. I really admire people who not only come up with a game design, but actually have the balls to publish it themselves, on their own dime, and get it to market, so "kudos" to Steven.
Now let's go back to the idea of loving a game, as a designer. It's OK to love your idea, but it's not without its dangers, the greatest of which is that when you fall in love with something, sometimes you get so caught up in the idea of it that you miss some of the flaws. In my estimation, Crossroads is a game full of cool concepts, some of which I haven't seen before, but that just didn't all quite gel together in as a final product. Not only is this game one of the least attractive games I've ever seen, based on its art direction, there are some design elements that sap the game of a lot of the fun that might've been had otherwise.
Some people have called this a "Dungeon Crawl" in the vein of Castle Ravenloft or Descent. First, let me tell you that anyone that thinks that has not a semblance of a clue what they're talking about. This is NOT a dungeon crawl, and it's not even really an adventure game. The fact that it has a fantasy theme makes it seem a lot closer to a Runebound-style adventure game than a dungeon crawl, it's really more of a "race" game with an emphasis on hand management where the players try to get to the finish line before their opponents can outmaneuver them on the paths and out-kill them during quests. The fact that I absolutely adore adventure games, with Runebound likely being my all-time favorite game, made me thrilled as a virgin on his honeymoon to get a copy of this to try it on.
Now that I've played it three times, I have to say that, using the former analogy, it turns out that the new bride misplaced the key to her chastity belt. I sure wish that there were a few things that were different, because a lot of the really interesting aspects of the game were buried by poor artwork, very confusing and scattered game concepts regarding characters, and the fact that in many cases, simply walking around on the map will provide you more benefit than killing a demoniac creature. At no point was I able to suspend my disbelief and "feel" as if I was adventuring, and when you're playing an adventure game, that's the "fix" you're looking to score.
Speaking of that, let's get into what this game is really all about, shall we? The game has a party of two to six adventurers all travelling through the world on a set path, slaying vile creatures and earning experience points to enrich themselves and leave behind a legacy that would make Odysseus jealous. Yes, we all know it's been done before, but I'd argue that it has never been done like this.
In this game, each player actually has the opportunity to bid for each of the character roles in the game each time combat ensues, and there are many levels of depth to selecting which character to choose at which time. Because many of the treasures in the game are only truly effective for certain characters, it's imperative that you make sure to think about what your next move will be on every turn. Again, the object is not to defeat the monsters for the purpose of saving fair maidens and liberating their girlyparts, the object is to hose over your fellow adventurers at every opportunity and claim all the glory for yourself. While the players all travel together toward the end of the path, this is decidedly not a co-operative jaunt In reality, it's actually pretty nasty.
Now that you have an idea of what the game's all about, let's talk about the game "product" itself. The components have been derided as very amateur, but I wholeheartedly disagree. The bits serve their purpose well, and while some might have preferred wooden cubes to tiddlywinks, I don't think that the bits detract from the game one bit. I know some of us are bits whores that require hundreds of small plastic soldiers, fully outfitted for battle, but this game doesn't require that. What makes the game show very poorly is the spotty artwork. All of the art appears to be clip art with the exception of the board, which is the worst of all. To describe it, I will simply pass on a paraphrase of a comment that was issued when I laid the board down: "Sweet Mother of God...what the hell is that?? It looks like Rainbow Brite ate some bad Skittles and shit in the box!" Suffice it to say, it is very, very colorful as you can see, but the "theme" is questionable at best, and the best way I can describe it, in my own words, is that it looks like a video-to-board game port from a shareware, 256-color, VGA computer game.
The most problematic thing about the game as a whole, from a visual standpoint, isn't that the art is all bad. It's not. It's that some of the art looks really great while the rest is absolutely terrible. That being said, the actual quality of the board, cards, and bits is excellent. The smaller cards are thick and durable, and come with a great little cardboard tuckbox, while the larger cardboard cards re all thick and very durable as well. Were the art not so bad in spots, especially that board, this game would actually be, from a production quality standpoint, quite good. The final bit in this box is the character sheet tablet. This is actually a neat little concept that I've toyed with implementing in my games, and it works great for the game. There's ample sheets here to play maybe 25 four-player games, and there's no copyrighting on the sheets so you won't have a hassle at the local copy shop if you want to make more copies.
The only true disappointment about the complete package is that the game will require you to have an eraser handy, and the game only comes with one golf pencil, completely devoid of an eraser. This means that you will need to have one to play the game, so I have to point out that the game is not, in my estimation, a completely playable package. I'm sure there's a way to do it, but the nature of the character pads are such that you need to be able to erase by definition, and if I'm going to beat up Munchkin for not having a complete package, then I'm going to have to be consistent and do it here.
Now let's look at the setup, which is a total breeze. There's a bunch of stacks of cards you need to shuffle and sort by color, and then each player takes a predefined allotment of "Play cards" as a starting hand. Further, each player takes a colored chip to denote which dot on the board itself benefits them, as well as one of each of the three colored smaller chips. Finally, they take one character sheet and give themselves a name. In our first game, I chose "Darthak The Dragonraper" as my moniker. Once you're all set up, arbitrarily choose someone to be the first player, then hand over the Travel Leader card to them, which simply identifies their status. Place the party movement pawn on the start space, and you're now ready to slit throats.
The game itself is broken down into what amounts to six rounds, and within these rounds are two distinct phases, travelling and questing. To travel, the first player may discard Play cards, which have a footprint icon on the lower right side, and these feet indicate how many spaces you may move. The idea is to pass over the circles that have your color and gain 100 experience points, which is equivalent to one experience level. Thus, the vast majority of experience points you will earn during the entire game will be through this. Once the Travel Leader has moved the party, each player, in sequence, may do the same.
Landing on a treasure chest icon will allow the controlling player to take a treasure card, which can be a multitude of items or will simply be an experience bonus. When all players have indicated they wish to pass, a new Travel Leader is chosen, and each player takes two Play cards to replenish their deck, to a maximum of seven cards, the hand limit. Note that the only player that is actually mandated to cause movement is the Travel Leader; the other players aren't bound to actually spend cards if they choose not to. The travel phase ends when a Quest space is reached on the track, at which point the quest phase begins.
Questing is really simple, mechanically, at first. Starting with the Travel Leader, each player bids cards in order to become the Quest Leader. The Quest Leader is the player who may attack the monster first, which really doesn't matter much as every player gets a shot at the monster, but being Quest Leader allows you to place the Experience Multiplier tokens as well as be the first to choose which Character card they wish to play for the duration of the battle. There are eight to choose from, two each in four colors/types, and each has its advantages and disadvantages. Each type of character may only play attack cards of certain card colors, and thus it's possible to gang up on the leader and stop them from taking the color choice that he may want in order to cripple his ability to do damage to the monster, thus limiting his ability to earn experience. There's also the Experience Multiplier tokens, which players can place on the monster card itself to provide benefits or liabilities to character types by halving or doubling the experience earned in battle. At the end of the combat, Experience Multiplier tokens are lost forever, and each player only gets one of each color, excluding grey, so it is essential to play these at just the right time.
As noted, the quest begins with the bids and subsequent selection of characters at which point the Creature card is drawn along with a Damage card. Each creature has strengths and weaknesses to specific character types, and thus the draw can really change whether a player can gain a lot of experience or not in battle. That being said, due to the randomness of the card draws, you can be handed a fat lemon and be forced to make do with some very sour lemonade. After the creature has been revealed, the damage card is revealed and each player takes automatic damage based on the type of character selected. Once you've resolved damage, the actual combat begins for the players, and this is the very place where I, and all the players I played this game with, felt that the game really started to fall apart.
Combat starts with each player casting any "start of quest" spells, where players may use specific cards to elicit various effects upon the game. Further, some skills that were bought with experience allow players to effect the game as well, such as drawing free treasure cards or trading away one of your cards for a like card. Once everyone has done so, then combat actually begins.
Attacking the monster and resolving the attack amounts to a ton of inappropriate mathematics; you can combine up to three cards in an attack, and then on top of that, you may use the character skills you've purchased based on the color of the character you chose at the beginning of the quest. Early in the game, it's no biggie, but midway through the game it ends up seeming like an algebraic expression that needs solution rather than a game. It's not tough math, don't get me wrong; it's that keeping track of all the bonuses can get a bit overwhelming. Once you've tallied your bonuses, you roll the dice as determined by the attack cards you've played and add any damage bonuses and subtract any creature defensive bonuses to that roll.
Whatever your final number is, you then multiply that by ten, since you earn ten experience points per damage point caused. Then you may multiply that number by one and a half if you're playing a grey-colored character as they carry a multiplier ability, and finally you look to the Experience Multiplier tokens to see if your color matches, multiplying or dividing that number a final time. It is truly complicated, and since there's no chits to help with this, you're scribbling notes like a madman on the back of your character sheet.
I will also note that the Quest Leader is the one who has to track the creature's life, and again, with no chits, they're doing so on the back of the character sheet. If the creature was not killed, which is very unlikely if the players didn't discard all of their cards during travel, the Quest Leader may choose to go for a second round, essentially rinsing and repeating the aforementioned combat steps. If, at the end of the first round the creature is still alive, the Quest Leader may decide to just dip out and effectively retreat from combat with the party, ending combat.
If the creature was killed, all players that weren't killed get a treasure card for their trouble, but in the case of retreat, they get nothing. If any players have more than 100 experience points, they need to then convert them to levels and retain the excess experience as unconverted, denoting it in the provided space on their character sheets.
Rinse and repeat this process five more times, and the game ends. The player with the most experience is the winner, counting both unconverted experience as well as levels, which count for 100 points each. In all three games I've played, those who choose grey characters always seemed to have a distinct advantage in combat because they're immune to the multipliers and always get one and a half times the normal experience allotment. The only detractor from being gray is that it limits your character to only playing grey cards, but even this is muted because the grey character powers are some of the best in the game. That being said, the rest of the game is fairly unbalanced as well as whomever chooses to be the "red player" has a distinct advantage during travel as there are about twice as many red dots on the board than there are any other color, meaning there are more chances to gain massive amounts of experience by default.
The long and short is that although did I not enjoy the actual playing of the game at all, there were some interesting elements that I thought were pretty slick, and the nastiness of the player interaction was really the saving grace. As a hobby gamer's game, I just don't think this passes muster, especially for the USD $35.00 price tag, but I actually thought of how this game would best be implemented. This game would be a great choice for a teacher in a middle school where they were learning about decision making and basic mathematics. I really, really wanted to like the game for a variety of reasons, but I simply found myself unable to do so.
Why I Liked The Road Less Travelled:
* This game is all about player interaction, and it's all of the nasty variety
* I really like the character sheet concept and wish more publishers would do this instead of using billions of chits
Why The Crossroads Should Be Avoided:
* The board art is unforgivably bad when compared to its peers in the fantasy market
* The card art ranges from good to terrible, and that hurts the immersion of players in the game world
* The mathematics and struggle to keep track of bonuses simply sucked the fun out of the game
* It's pretty clear that the red player has a large advantage
* At the end of the day, it's just not much fun to play
This would be great as a teaching tool in a classroom, but when it comes to playing it as a hobby game, it just can't command the interest of the players and is certainly not equivalent to its peers in the marketplace, especially at similar price points. The spotty art and gameplay complexities simply killed this. I just can't recommend this to a hobby gamer, as much as I'd like to in support of a small press publisher, but I'd be lying if I said I had any fun playing it. Honestly, this was the hardest game I've ever forced myself to play thrice, and I can unequivocally guarantee that I will not be playing this game ever again. I am actually going to donate it to the local elementary school to see how they like it there, because that's where I think this game belongs.
To learn more about Strategy Rich games and this game in particular, check out their site here: http://strategyrich.net/
As I said, I think the company has promise because there were a lot of elements that were interesting, so perhaps the next game they make will learn from the lessons of Crossroads and be a whole lot better. There's solid foundations at Strategy Rich, and of that I'm sure.