Sunday, September 18, 2011

Chaostle - One Part Adventure, Two Parts Chaos, And Four Parts Awesome

It's a rarity that a roll and move game is anything but an effort in futility, and even rarer is it fun. Chaostle, the new game from upstart publisher Chivalry Games, has managed to not only create a game that defies the odds, it also defies reason. It's fucking brilliant. It's as if Mark Jacobs, the designer of Chaostle, reached back 20 years and took all that was good about Sorry!, Talisman, and D&D, and threw it in a blender of awesomeness to create something so unique, unexpected, and just plain fun that you're simply not sure how the hell it took so long for something like this to come out. I met the designer at Origins this year, and by GenCon, I had gotten a review copy from him. I'm glad that I did!

The concept of the game is simple in that it's essentially a roll and move with combat, with the object being running around the semi-linear path to get to the castle, designated by a space in the center of the board, in order to destroy its defences and move a set amount of your characters to the sanctuary within. While the concept is simple, the game is actually a fairly deep hack-and-slash light RPG when you boil it down.

There's no exploration, as it were, such as you might find in Prophecy or Talisman, but instead there's totally random events that can help or hurt you, and all of them are highly thematic. It should also be noted that each character is completely unique, with unique weapons and powers, which can be upgraded throughout the game either by events or by battle victories.

To get into the components, it bears stating that the production values are superb, which is truly unexpected from a first-time entrant into the world of board game publishing. There's a bunch of great plastic figures, all of which were designed by top-tier sculptors such as Kevin Contos, but there's also a ton of big plastic castle walls that were designed by one of my personal heroes, Bruce Hirst. The other art is outstanding as well, with it being illustrated by well-known artists such as Tom Sorenson and Paul Abrams. In short, everything looks exactly how it should, and all of the parts are beautifully intertwined to produce one hell of an awesome package.

For the specifics, though, there's a decent amount of stuff in the box, especially by the standards set by the overproduced FFG hundred dollar boxes. There's sixteen unique models in the box complete with character cards, there's the board, there's the twenty or so pop-in style castle wall segments which are numbered to match the numbers on the board for easy identification, and then there's the two fate cards and a castle card. Aside from that, there's a bunch of metallic pegs to use in the cards, which note changes in the characters such as upgrades and life and finally, sixteen colored snap-rings with which to mark your characters' bases for easy identification.

All in all, everything is truly superb, with my favorite aspect being the peg-in-card system that's reminiscent of Formula D or Claustrophobia, which makes tracking your statistics very, very easy and chit-free. The rulebook and fate sheets are also awesome, with great art, an interesting yet clich├ęd back story, and all kinds of illustrations to both explain things and spice up the reading. The flavor text alone with the powers is enough to make it a fun time reading the powers.

If I had to nitpick about one thing, it's the game board itself. While the art on the character cards is exceptional fantasy fare, the board itself is just a hair on the under-illustrated side. It's not that there's not enough on it to spice it up, it's more that it doesn't compare in resolution or color to the magnificent art found virtually everywhere else in the game.

Setting up takes all of about two minutes. You place the castle walls on the board, draft your army of up to four characters, get the cards set in front of you, and that's that. Players need to agree beforehand on how much damage the castle can take before death as well as how many characters need to reach sanctuary to win, and then you're ready to choose a patron, then you're good to go. The choice of patron, King or Queen, makes a difference because if you choose a King, you're going to be headed one direction around the board, and the opposite if you choose a queen, not to mention that the patrons also define which color you choose.

Once you're all set up, the game begins. The game revolves around rolling a die and moving one of your characters that far. But, there's a twist. Many of the die values trigger events, such as when you roll a "lucky three", you get to take another turn. Roll a one or two, and you can put a character into play on your patron's space. Roll a five...and you may be fucked. "Fate Fives", as they're called, cause events to occur. After moving, you roll the red die and two white dice, and check the chart to determine what happened.

There's both "Doom" and "Happiness" fates, and all of them will affect you greatly. You may end up in a shark pit, or you may end up with two of your weapons upgraded. You may end up having all of your rolls count as ones until you roll a six, at which point your rolls revert to normal. Hell, you may even have one of your characters betray you, losing them forever to the player to the left while the player to the right has to give up a character to you. The game was named aptly, because this fate mechanic absolutely is the epitome of chaos. Totally salty, fucked up shit can happen, but on the other hand, you can get totally hooked up; you just never know.

Back to movement, though, for a moment. Moving around the board on the outer track is the longest, yet easiest path to take. There's three levels of the castle, with the board representing level one, and the third being the highest and most difficult to navigate. If you decide to take the high roads, which are shorter, you end up facing jumps which are not always simple feats. You may only jump from one level to another space on the same level, and you have to roll at least as high as the distance between where you are and the nearest space on the same level.

In some cases, you need to hit the space exactly, and therefore it's very hard to make the jump. The good news is that with four characters in play, you generally always have a valid move to make, and if you can't or don't want to go forwards, you can always go backwards. With the exception of rolling a four, though, you must always make a valid move if one is available. On top of that, each character has a movement value which can be added, optionally, to your movement, although it doesn't change the roll itself; it's above and beyond the roll. If you get all the way through one section to the next king or queen start space, you get to place a peg on your card indicating you start at a new spot if you go out of play; it acts as a new spawn point so you never have to start all the way back at your original starting space.

Besides moving, there's also killing. After moving, you can choose a character to attack another character or characters, or even sacrifice your own in order to buff your attacking character up. Attacking is random as most things in this game are, because while each character has six weapons available to them, they don't get to choose which to use. Players roll a die, and that determines which weapon was used. If the weapon's range is equal or greater than the distance to the target characters, it's a hit. Simply subtract the damage rating from the attacked character, less any defense rating, and that's that.

If a character's life points drop below zero, the character is killed, although in Chaostle, all that happens is that the character is taken out of play and may re-enter play with a roll of one or two by the owner on his turn. The victor gets to choose an upgrade for themselves, and with all the options here, there's little chance of completely buffing your characters up to the maximum in all categories.

Speaking of the categories, it should be mentioned that each character has three unique skills, both bizarre and powerful, that can be upgraded, with some being active powers that can be used at certain times, such as the Arrow Dynamics skill that allows a free attack at very long range, and others are passive skills that are automatically available under certain circumstances, such as the Protection skill that adds armor points to your character. Those I just mentioned are the simpler, more sane ones, but there's others that are just nuts, such as drinking Dragon Spit to gain some protection in battle or the Time Travel skill that allows you to go back in time and bring a "Glow In The Dark Gamma Melting Pistol" with you to fight with. And those are part of what make the game so awesome.

The end of the game comes when the castle's defenses have been beaten and one player has the predetermined amount of characters in the sanctuary. All in all, the game can last anywhere from an hour to four, depending on how many players you have. There's been talk of shortening the game by neglecting one quadrant's worth of spaces, and I tried it, and it does indeed shorten the game by a good amount. Alternatively, you can play with fewer characters, but in my experience three characters a piece with a goal of two characters in the Sanctuary as a win condition is the perfect balance in a game size between three and five players.

Why I Embrace The Chaos...tle:
- Great art, awesome minis, and Bruce Hirst castle pieces make this glow on the table
- Action RPG elements make each character unique and interesting
- Crazy random events make this a beer-and-pretzels gamer's dream game
- The whimsical theme takes liberties with fantasy stereotypes, big time
- You get a lot of wicked cool plastic for US $60.00

Why The Emperor Of Mankind Wants To Crush Chaos...tle:
- Some random events really crush your hopes and cause serious frustration and angst
- Combat is a little too random for my tastes, I'd have liked to be able to choose weapons
- The length can be a little long for the style of game, but this can be altered to taste
Overall:
I'm the last guy to get into a roll and move game. I'm not a big Talisman fan primarily due to the fact that the movement mechanic is very frustrating. For some reason, though, it's fun in Chaostle. Each die roll counts for something, and since you have so many characters to move you're very rarely stuck in neutral, just waiting for a specific die roll to happen. That, and the stuff that the die roll does, like granting free turns or causing fate to screw or help you, makes it seem so much less futile. If you're looking for a beautiful beer-and-pretzels action RPG style game, this may be a winner for you.

Rating:
4/5 Stars

You can learn more about Chaostle at:
www.chaostle.com

There's a new expansion coming out in November or December, and there's new player reference stickers you can pop on the back of your cards:
http://www.chaostle.com/Resources/ChaostleSpecialSkillsAvery8162.pdf

And for those who were early adopters, the Fates were updated to make it less frustrating to be in the Shark Tank or other traps:
http://www.chaostle.com/Resources/Happiness_Fate_References_Lite.pdf
http://www.chaostle.com/Resources/Doom_Fate_References_Lite.pdf

1 comment:

Rossko said...

Nice review, I've had my eye on this one for a while and was hoping you would have a review up soon. I am still on the fence though. How would you compare the random factor in this game to the random factor in Dungeon Quest?

I enjoy Dungeon Quest because chances are, you are going to die, the random factor only determines how you die and when. I like the many of moments of suspense and tension when your flipping over a card for something and it ends up being a great tale of the one time you made it out alive or died on the second turn. Not nessesarly looking for the same thing in Chaostle, but wondering if the random factor in this game is as much fun as it is in Dungeon Quest.