Thursday, February 24, 2011

Conversation With A Gaming Innovator #3 - David Ausloos

Well, Circus fans, I'm still fighting the good fight here, attempting in some small way to expose the great unwashed masses (which is a particularly appropriate statement given my GenCon experiences) to new, interesting people that are behind the scenes in the gaming world. Call it my personal contribution to gaming journalism.

Anyhow, today's interview is with someone that you may not have heard of, but someone that deserves recognition. David is an incredibly talented graphic artist and game designer who has worked with companies such as Grindhouse Games, Stronghold Games, and White Goblin Games on games such as the prolific 'Incursion', the recently reprinted and updated 'Survive!', and the soon to be released horrorfest, 'Dark Darker Darkest'. So, while he may not be a common name, yet, I feel that based on the body of his work, he sure as hell should be.

Based out of Belgium, he's been in the industry for a great many years, but until I ran into him at Fortress: Ameritrash, I didn't know who he was or what he was about. Now that I do, I'm happy to call him a friend and help you, my readers, get to know the guy. That, my friends, is what Conversation With A Gaming Innovator is about: bringing you face-to-face with people who you really need to know about.

Without further delay, let's get to the interview!

SFC: Hey David, welcome to the Circus! First of all, I went to your website, and I was thoroughly impressed with your is, in a word, outstanding. When did you start doing graphic design and how did you get into the field?

DA: Thanks. Glad to enter the Circus for a brief visit.

Well, after I graduated as a painter at the Royal Art academy in Antwerp, the same art school were Van Gogh once attended classes before cutting off his ear, I started working as a junior graphic designer at a company involved in website production. My boss simply told me I had to learn all the tools for graphic design in a month time in order to stand a chance of becoming a member of the team, so I worked day and night to get a grip on any software package that a respectable designer should know how to use.

I worked in the business for 6 years, before I called it quits. I just simply couldn't bear to do another campaign for soft drinks or worse, online banking. At a family gathering one of the uncles brought a copy of 'Risk'. Yes, I know...the devil for most respectable board gamers, but still...I was hooked and at that point my passion for hobby gaming started.

As a kid I had spent many hours creating my own board games; basic variations on roll & move stuff souped up with my obsession for everything macabre, yes...I was a strange kid way back then. This renewed discovery of board games also soon rekindled my interest in designing my own stuff. I was finally able to use all my gathered knowledge of graphic design for something I was truly passionate about. It was great to experiment with the form/function aspect of board game design. Learning how to design iconography that was crystal clear, how you optimally use the space of a board...all the basics a good graphic designer needs in the world of hobby gaming.

I think it was good to have started doing graphic design in a commercial context. After all, it is important to see a board game as a commercial product, despite its obscure nature. For me it is important when I do graphics I communicate both the theme and functions of the game in a way that is understandable for a wide variety of people, both hardcore hobby gamers and casual gamers, without losing character along the way. It's all about balance. I find it a challenge to even make a niche-product about gritty zombie survival look polished and accessible, despite the graphical nature of the subject.

Furthermore I think my experience as a painter also comes in handy, because painting is above all creating mood, and I find it interesting to give all my board game graphics a painterly quality. For example, look at the cover for Rogue Agent. It has a lot of painterly aspects worked into it. I work these days on a digital painting tablet, and it is absolutely a joy. It feels like actually paining and I can achieve detailed stuff in a reasonable amount of time. These days, graphic designers are spoiled. My father, once a graphic designer himself, had to do everything by hand without any way to correct his mistakes. It was a once-chance-to-succeed situation.

No you add layer upon layer, and with a simple click you can correct ot remove an element that doesn't work/look good enough. It feels almost like playing around for fun. But of course, it's better to keep such a thought for myself. Some people in the graphic design business will want to scalp me for saying this, or at least ban me to Canada.

SFC: Ha! I doubt you'll get banned; there are a lot of companies that could use a guy like you. Before I move onto Rogue Agent, which looks absolutely outstanding, let me ask about Stained Steel. I looked at the graphics on your site and they're bloody brilliant. I mean, that's one of the coolest looking games I've ever seen, at least in the Sci-Fi genre. It's awesome. Can you tell me about that?

DA: Well, this might be my most ambitious project yet. It's my take on an epic empire building game with all the bells & whistles and then some. The idea for this game came when I got this idea for an innovative action selection system that uses rotating discs that interlock to each other, creating an ever-changing turn system that renders a dynamic game world were a sudden sandstorm could completely mutate a safe action you did a turn before, now transformed in a dangerous endeavor. It perfectly simulates the uncertain aspects of resurrecting an empire in difficult circumstances.

But I wanted to do more than that. While I liked FFG's Starcraft, I was missing things in the system that I so much hoped to find: the actual feeling of building your own home base with unique structures. In Stained Steel players actually build a home base from the ground up, and have to dig for resources on mining sites to be able to erect even more sophisticated buildings. The game also creates challenges that await you on every corner, like mutants roaming the surroundings, forcing you to create defense against outside threats. When the game enters the third age (the game has 3 ages with its own specifics) you are able to recruit soldiers to invade the base of your enemies and orchestrate planetary conflict.

In all honesty, I had to take a break from this project, because it was extremely exhausting. I started designing Rogue Agent as a form of design therapy to clear my head so at a later point I could approach Stained Steel fresh and with renewed objectiveness. I think it’s far too easy to develop a blind spot for a design.

But I will eventually return to this project, and I promise it will be breathtaking. It will be everything you can dream off in an empire building/dudes on a map game.

It has several boards: each player has a personal board were he develops his home base, which is almost a game in itself since every placement of a building matters, and there are mining sites in the center of the table were you move diggers in order to gain valuable material. There is also a black market with fluctuating resource prices were you can buy and sell resources. You can even stock resources in your depot in order to influence the market.

Actually, I think it really combines a lot of elements that could easily stand as a game on its own, but when interlocked creates this involving mix of epic scaled building and manipulating that gives you a true feeling of progression. And in the final turns you could see it all turn into ruins, when your enemies stomp all over your hard work!

Where the graphics are concerned, I worked together with a professional 3D model expert. I am no expert at 3D modeling and he did wonders in converting my sketches into 3D version. At a later stage I worked on them further, adding details and light-effects and a gritty look. It was a fantastic experience, and I am confident people will like the end result, which has so much rich detail and therefore creates a believable game world. And I definitely have a weak spot for that "withered" look. SF is often so sterile in look. In order to make things look real you have to simulate what things would look like when they are used. Stained steel is about rough terrain, so all aspects of the game must look rusty and somewhat decayed in a subtle way.

SFC: That does sound ambitious! I'd love to see it picked up by someone because from the sound of it, it could be a huge success. I love the dark, decaying look of the art, and now that you've explained the game, it sounds amazing. Now let me move onto another project I noticed on your site. What is Rogue Agent? It looks beautiful, with a dark, "Blade Runner" quality to the art, theme and overall feel of it. What's the story with that?

DA: Rogue Agent started with the idea of working with icon-driven dice manipulation mechanics. Another idea I had was creating a game system that simulated a "living city". Characters moving around, things happening...a dynamic game world instead of the static city often depicted in adventure games. Somehow I started combining both ideas, with a modular board were each location allowed players to control a specific combination of thematic dice. Soon the game however developed into so much more. When you start playtesting you immediately feel if there is more potential present or not. Sometimes you decide to keep the game small, sometimes it grows into something bigger and that is what happened with Rogue Agent?

One of the aspects that jumped more into the foreground during development was the hidden traitor aspect. Just before working on RA I had designed Panic Station, a game all about intense paranoia (due for an Essen release this year by White Goblin Games). I wanted to extend on this idea of unknown identity and the cyberpunk setting of Rogue Agent seemed a perfect marriage. In Rogue Agent you play a bounty hunter, working for a shady government run company called "The Agency" that tries to control the crime rate in Rain city, a futuristic world of neon and gloom. There are rumors that a group of androids is going to start a revolt and you must find out the true identity of your fellow agents, because one or more of them might be androids who will ignite the revolt. Furthermore, without knowing it, you might be an android too.

So basically, the game starts with players trying to gain power in the city by hunting after crime bosses who gradually get more value bounty-wise when the game progresses, confront assassins who roam the streets and neutralizing bombs placed by the crime networks that threaten to blow up districts. Players can also create a network of helpers in locations that protect them and help you gather information. You can even visit the Gambling hall to put money in the slot machines or rob the city bank.

While the game progresses, players will gradually gather more identity cues that can be revealed by others or in true Blade Runner fashion by self-explored. When the endgame triggers a race against the clock starts were one or more androids are up against the human agents, trying to reach enough power to win the game. They will try to destroy several locations in the city holding the android memory banks, while the human players will do anything to stop them.

I'm currently doing some last refinements to the system. I like the fact it always creates a lively experience at the table, creating some storytelling with people getting into character. One of the first sessions I playtested the system was with a group of RPG buffs and it was great to see how they completely jumped into the game world. Right from the start that proved to me this system had potential to be more than just an optimization exercise.

Currently I am developing an optional module that can be added to the basic game, consisting of a small deck of character cards. These are basically tormented Agent bios, with a thematically connected special ability for each of them and a personal mission to score extra power in the game. It gives Rogue Agent that extra bit of RPG feel that is so often overlooked in board games. For me games are all about the creation of stories. I love it when after a session people recall moments in the game that had some momentum. Eurogames just don't seem to be able to generate these.

SFC: Speaking of Panic Station, I've noticed some commentary and interest about that project. It looks amazing, and I love the claustrophobic, tense feel of not knowing whom to trust. What is Panic Station about, in your words?

The idea for Panic Station came after watching a midnight screening of the John Carpenter classic "The Thing". It was my favorite horror film of the past, and despite the fact that some of its visuals are a little outdated, the core of the movie still holds well after all these years: a group of people trapped in a location, confronted with the unknown, with the knowledge you can trust nobody: everyone could be a monster.

I wanted to translate this concept into board game form. A game that creates a high degree of paranoia so that during the final turns nobody trusts anyone, and yet to survive, players need to trust others in order to achieve their mutual goal: destroy the hive that is the root of a parasite infestation that slowly overtakes all characters.

The game uses cards, both for items, character cards and floor plans. As the game progresses the board is formed, a labyrinth of rooms were players can explore, use the terminals to gather information, perform heat-checks of the building to deduct who to trust and who is most possibly infected and gather equipment that will help them to stay alive and destroy the hive.

At the start of the game one player is infected, but he must keep this secret for the rest. This traitor role is subtle and players need to learn the timing to strike at the right time, in order to infect others. The goal with other words of the infected players is to gradually, in an exponential way, infect the rest of the team.

This is done during a blind trade action that always forms a nerve-wrecking moment in the game. Since this is a blind trade (cards face down) only the traders know what is happening. The rest of the players at the table have to carefully watch the behavior of the trading parties in the next turns to partly deduct the presence of the infector.

As if this was not enough challenge-wise, parasites roam the rooms of the base were the game takes place. These are controlled by the game system but if not taken care of could form a serious threat for the players. In order to win, players need to reach the hive room and gather 4 gas refills to load their flamethrower. But these cards are scarce and are also needed to fend off infections during trades, so players need to keep control of their growing paranoia. If they trust nobody, they will fail to keep enough gas refills to destroy the hive.

What I personally love about the game is that it packs a lot of punch and intensity in only a short game time: about 30-40 minutes. Each session is also different, given the modular nature of the board and the fact the core of the game is the psychological warfare between players, rather than the game itself. Each traitor will play the game differently, so more careful, some more reckless, and it will create a different story each time.

I will never forget that first session I did for the game. When you write down rules you are basically writing down something abstract with no certainty it will actually work in practice. But while the first playtest has some small tweaks, it was already apparent from the start the paranoia thing worked as I envisioned it, and possibly even better. By the end of the session everyone was nervously laughing, and the tension was so intense. I almost felt the urge to leave the table to get some relief from it. At that point I knew I was onto something.

I am hoping to also get a small bonus expansion ready for the publisher, possibly to offer as a goodie at Essen. It will add a game system controlled roaming infected guard dog to the base that forms an extra threat for the players.

As if that was needed ;)

SFC: That sounds sinister! I like it! Going back to what you said before, I think that the Eurogame audience isn't looking so much for a story to tell as much as a "Mentat-like" experience where the object is to out-think their opponents where the Ameritrash audience is looking for that storytelling. I play both, and, at least in my experience, the level of interest is far stronger in a game where there are strong characters and a compelling narrative.

I know Panic Station is looking like it’ll be out by Essen 11, but what's going on with the other two? Are we going to see them anytime soon? Is anyone talking to you about publication?

DA: I find it important to take time to let a project mature. It's very tempting to prematurely get it out there and start contacting publishers once you feel the game works, but from experience I learned it’s better to let it rest a few months and give it a fresh look. That way you are able to approach it from a perspective of a gamer, not of a designer, which is a totally different view on things. People often underestimate the time commitment for designing a game.

They write down an idea on a piece of paper during a train ride home, start dabbling with self-cut cardboard tiles and glue spray and they feel they have a game half-ready. The truth is that this first sparkle is only a tiny fraction of the complete process. The real game development starts at the gaming table and will consist of an endless string of revisions and refinements. Sometimes I have to restart from scratch with some mechanics because in practice they just didn't gel with the system, while on paper they look cool.

It’s a painstaking process of trial and error, and you need a perfect playtest team to guide you through. This team should consist of the most critical people possible with a good analytical brain. And believe me, this type of people are rare. And don't forget the constant intoxication of glue spray shortens your life span with roughly 15%.

A publisher once told me that only 1 in 5000 game ideas they get submitted makes it to the shelves. Given the fact only 1 in 1000 game ideas get submitted to a publisher it might be a good idea to only start designing if you’re totally obsessed with it. When I'm working on a project, it is constantly haunting my thoughts. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and have to grab a notepad because the solution for a mechanical problem suddenly struck me. I have lost a lot of sweat, blood and tears over the design table during midnight creative sessions. But when you finally sign a contract...that magical moment just makes up for everything.

But to get back to your original question: I have some companies in mind for both games. Rogue Agent is definitely the first that is going to be submitted.

I think it stands a good chance on the market, because the cyberpunk as a thematic backbone is not over-saturated on the marker (unlike the 5678 auction games set in Egypt) and the game uses a modest set of components despite its grand scale game world. I just love there is a lot of game in a small box. I would describe Rogue Agent as a hybrid, combining the rich theme of true Ameritrash with the focus on a more elegant approach of Eurogames. It's definitely no Carcassonne, but the rules can be explained in a fair timeframe and feel intuitive after a round or two.

SFC: Regarding the process, I know exactly what you mean. I've had a post-apocalyptic game on the shelf for months, and was ready to get it to a publisher...I even had a meeting set up. Then, a tragedy happened in my life that required me to spend some time out of town, and when I came back, the game didn't look nearly as "ready" as I thought it was.

Let's talk about one of your first projects: ‘Dark, Darker, Darkest’. I've been following your updates on BGG for a while now, and it seems that it's going to be published sooner rather than later. For those who don't know about it, can you give my readers the story and then let us know when you think it'll be available?

DA: Dark Darker Darkest is my take on a co-operative survival horror-game. It is a mix between an adventure game and a tactical combat game. But it's hard to pin down because it has several aspects that make it hard to describe. Basically, you control a character part of a team of urban survivors, trapped inside the house of Doctor Mortimer, a sinister character who has experimented with a serum that you are hunting after that could save the world from a vicious plague of the undead. The house is full of lethal traps and monsters, generated by the game system. These include a security camera system triggering doom-ridden events on the team, lurking creatures you need to sneak away from before they notice you (stealth element), hordes of undead approaching from all corners and larger beasts that form a serious opposition for the team.

The game uses some fresh mechanics for unit-forming, were every move counts. If you refuse to play in team and carefully plan your actions you will be dead within 2 turns. The reaction system that controls the creatures forces players to carefully plan were they take position. In order to reach their goal players need to gather items and break the security system to open up the hidden lab in the house. The whole game system fires up time triggers like crazy, creating an immersive experience were no turn is without tension, as a fire starts spreading inside the rooms of the house, threatening to block crucial paths towards the exit. Larger creatures use a unique targeting system that creates anatomical points that can specifically be targeted in order to influence the behavior of these critters.

Yes, the game has that degree of detail. Sue me ;) It's an epic game and it lasts about 3 hours, with a climatic end battle were players have to confront either Mortimer himself or one of his family members, ranging from a pyro-kinetic girl to a knife-throwing maniac. While there is an element of luck, it is perfectly countered by the myriad of tactical decisions that need to be made during the game. Even the dice-based combat forces players to make decisions. Above all DDD is also a true horror game.

I don't understand games that allow characters to resurrect. For me the essence of horror is the fear of dying. In Dark Darker Darkest you are constantly confronted with the unknown: a creature jumping out of the darkness, a suddenly appearing horde, an unexpectedly fast spreading fire rendered by a gas explosion...players always need to be ready to adapt to the worst case scenario. It feels a lot like running out of bullets and while you load that last precious bullet in your handgun a zombie dog suddenly runs into the room and targets you, lying on the floor wounded with no ammo to defend yourself. And with your last well placed 2 shots you slow down his movement, hoping a teammate 3 rooms away will save the day.

That is exactly what Dark Darker Darkest is about. At the moment it is in post-development at a German publisher. It's hard to put an estimate on a release date, but I expect October might be reachable. I know, still a long wait, but if you know this game has been 4 years in development that doesn't sound all that bad.

SFC: Well, I officially need a cold shower now! The art looks phenomenal, and your description is amazing. I can't wait! Now that we know what you've been up to, I want to pick the brain of a creative genius for a moment. What is your take on playtesting? I've played many a game that appears that playtesting was not an important part of development, but I think that half of what a game evolves into is directly due to proper playtesting and blind play trials. What's your take?

DA: I think 50% is modest. From experience almost everything a game evolves too is due to playtesting. It of course depends on the complexity of the design. But there is so much detail you simply can’t foresee and have to experience while actually playing the game. And there are also myriad elements that spring to mind while playtesting. Usually the first 5 playtests I don't play myself and just takes notes. Sometimes 5 or 6 pages. This decreases after the first 5 tests, but I'm always surprised there is often still room for a lot of refinements beyond the point the game works in a balances way. The problem for me is finding the right group.

They have to be not too sensitive about criticism. Often there is somewhat a reservation for being very critical. My policy is: bring it on. I don't want to hear what is good about the game; I want to know what people dislike about it. What they find fiddly. The things they don't care about and find superficial. With such feedback I can a better understanding of what people search in games. That said, I don't approach game design from a purely commercial standpoint like many designers do, designing with a specific target audience in mind. Above everything I want to design a game for myself. A game that I want to play and that the groups were I usually play with would enjoy.

I pretty certain you can feel that sort of honesty in design. At least, I feel it in other people's designs. Take "Earth Reborn" as an example. I'm pretty sure that Chris Boelinger above all designed this game for himself. It is his game. Otherwise he would have made it much more commercial...less of a niche-product.

SFC: You're aware of a project I was working on, and in my playtest sessions I found the best refinements came to light. Things that you, as a designer, don't think about but someone else sees that could be better. To me, it's about keeping an open mind. Now I know you did some of the graphic design for Grindhouse Games' Incursion, which is one of my favorites as far as look, but what are your goals? Are you looking to mostly design games, or are you looking for more freelance graphics arts positions? What's the end-game for you, so to speak?

DA: I actually like doing both, and if time permits I want to combine them to create a constant learning-process where I get more and more aware of the market and the connection between form and function. In a way, doing "only" the graphics for a game project is a good break from designing the whole system. But the goal is the same: create a game world were players can believe in and most of all, disappear in. Graphic design for me is creating the ultimate functional illusion. I try to combine an iconography/lay out that feels natural with rich atmosphere. It's a balance thing. Go overboard in one direction and the whole thing falls to pieces or lacks character.

When people pitch me a project the first thing that makes me say yes is the feeling I can relate to the theme. For me it's important I can relate to the genre and that it fuels my creativity. I love doing SF and horror and prefer it over historical stuff. I don't see myself doing a game about ancient Egypt. I rather create something less obvious, were I have some freedom in creating a unique game world. For me the true creativity starts with imagining a certain uniqueness, a "look".

If there are specific set parameters I have to work in that allow no freedom in filling in the blanks it often feels like "work". For me it is important that I do a project as a dreamer, rather than an employee. The difference lies in the amount of freedom I get to give it a specific touch, something that sets it apart from other projects.

Take for example "Incursion". Jim at Grindhouse games gave me a blank board and pretty much said: "Do what you want, as long as it feels like an underground network of corridors". That comes very close to how I like to work. They have to trust me. Give me the freedom to create something from the ground up. That said, I am currently working on an indie-project that has been financed using (much like Alien Frontiers). They contacted me to do the graphic design for the whole project. They already had a series of illustrations but they needed a moody framework and iconography to form the components. I like the fact I can direct such a project and turn it into a coherent whole take makes sense, so that the theme is perfectly communicated to audiences. So in short: feel free to pitch me any project. I am open to a lot of stuff and always willing to take on a challenge.

SFC: David, thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me, and I really wish you all of the success in the world. Keep up the good work, and I look forward to seeing more from you in the future!

You can check out what David’s been working on at his site, here:

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Memoir '44 - The Only Collateral Damage Is Found In Your Wallet

So, I was jonesing to kill something several months ago, and I decided that the best way to do that without the nastiness of prison rape would be to buy another wargame. I've played plenty of wargames but, with the exception of Axis and Allies, I hadn't played any World War II games. I mean, who doesn't like to wage war against Nazi fascist scum, right? So, I went out looking for a WWII wargame that didn't take four weeks and a 50 square foot table to play, and I came upon Memoir '44 from Days of Wonder. $35.00 USD and a week later and I was ready to take on Hitler's bitch ass and stomp his Wehrmacht into tiny little pieces of plastic gore and smoking resin tanks. Oh yes, there would be blood that day.

Unfortunately, the first thing I found was that I couldn't play the game's first scenario because I was missing some river tiles! There's very few things that actually piss me off, and buying something that's missing parts is the tip-top reason to incite my wrath. Luckily, it only took one e-mail to make it right, and I'm pleased to inform you that Days of Wonder may have failed at quality control in this instance, but they have an exceptionally good customer service department that did not. I received my replacement tiles in 3 days, and that's something to be proud of.

Let me tell you a little about what the game's about, though. It's a magical little sandbox loaded with damned near 150 little plastic soldiers, tanks, howitzers, hedgehogs, fortifications, and concertina wire that allows 2 players to wage war upon each other. On top of that, there's a nicely produced board to lay tiles upon to populate the landscape of a battlefield with all manner of feature, such as villages, rivers, bridges, forests and hills, so you can literally recreate historical battles if you so desire. The game is uses the Richard Borg "Commands and Colors" game system, which means that you play a card to do something, then you can potentially attack enemy units by rolling special dice with symbols.

It sounds a bit simple, and it is, but that's what makes it a short-playing, fun, easy to approach game. There's a bunch of built-in scenarios within the rulebook to get you started, but the real draw for me is that you can toss some tiles down, toss some units down, and get right to the wholesale slaughter of the enemy. It's the Patton philosophy when it comes to scenario generation, "A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan executed next week." Suffice it to say that this is not a game of winning hearts and minds; it's about bursting hearts with 7.62 FMJs and emptying minds into a grayish pool of plastic arterial blood and brain.

So, now that you get the idea, let's talk about the quality of the game. First, the art is stylized and really pretty nice throughout, with the rulebook being very nice to look at and full of great play examples, and the cards being clear, nice looking, and easy to read. It's hard to not feel the theme right down to your red, white, and blue stars and stripes, so they've done a good job of capturing the feel of the period. As noted before, the game comes with nearly 150 plastic bits, and relatively few are non-combat parts. I mean, that's a hell of a dollar-to-plastic ratio, and it allows you to create large-scale battles without running out of troops.

Then, there's maybe 50 or 60 terrain tiles, and then, on top of that, there's probably 100 action cards to actually play the game. There's also several cardstock markers which are used to keep track of victory points, specific unit types for Special Forces, and whatnot. Finally, there's a bunch of little, wooden specialty dice to carry out your brutal attacks upon the enemy, and these have nicely drawn icons on them. All in all, I was thoroughly impressed with the sheer volume of stuff in the box and I was quite surprised with the actual value for the dollar I felt I got.

Now, let's get into the plastic bits themselves, since they merit their own paragraph. These bits come in two colors; the green ones represent the honorable and brave soldiers of the Allies, and the grey ones represent the evil imperial forces of the German Nazi scourge. A neat thing is that the units are of unique types, such as the tanks looking like Shermans and Panzers, respectively, so they're not only recognizable by color, but also by form factor. The ancillary plastics are hedgehogs (tank obstacles that look like jacks for the uninitiated), sandbag fortifications, and little bales of concertina wire. Every piece has a specific purpose, and they all meld flawlessly to capture the essence of land warfare during WW2. In short, this box is soaked to the core with theme, and I'm still, three months later, lovin' it big as shit.

You get that there's a bunch of stuff in the box, so let's get on to what the deal really is with the game. To set up a scenario, simply crack the rulebook and pick any of the many scenarios within. Each has objectives listed, board layout, troop numbers, and hand limits that all play into the balance of the game. Some scenarios have the Wehrmacht with more units and less battle choices, some have the Allies with weaker footing. All are reasonably decent historical re-enactments of actual battles waged in Europe, so while the history buffs may think it's a bit weak, tossers such as myself who just want to maim and kill in a reasonably accurate re-enactment of historical battles will be nicely satiated.

Setup isn't terribly long, but there is some effort involved, especially for more complex battlefields. The terrain tiles are all double-sided, so you may end up having to take a minute to locate the proper tiles called for in the scenario in order to place them. Beyond that, you simply place troops as shown and within a couple of minutes you're ready to start playing with war toys. The last bit required is to shuffle the action card deck and take the card allotment specified in the scenario.

Gameplay consists of playing an action card, moving the allotted figures allowed by the card played, and then attacking targets. Now, I should mention that the board itself is divided into three distinct sectors: the center and the left and right flanks. The cards generally only allow you to activate a set amount of units or types of units, and further, the activations can generally only take place in certain sectors. Each unit type has its own rules, but they're very simple to understand, so it's not like trying to memorize a ton of stuff. Also, the terrain tiles themselves have special rules that apply to units entering or within them, and this adds to the overall complexity and strategic options in the game, which is nice. The good news is that there's exceptionally clear reference cards that explain what everything does, and they're really pretty simple, so it's not like attempting to teach Astrophysics to baby seals or something. It's all very, very straightforward and relatively monkeyproof.

Shooting people and blowing things up is also very straightforward. Units roll set amount of dice against other units, and that number of dice decreases the further from a target the attacking unit is. The icons on the dice themselves indicate what units were damaged in the attack, and so it effectively mimics the difference between a tank's Ma Deuce cutting down infantry like wheat with a scythe and an infantry squad attempting to take out a tank with small arms fire and grenades.
Further, some rolls cause enemies to have to retreat, so you can not only destroy enemies, you can also force them to do things that they would otherwise not like to do. Now each unit is made up of several individual elements, and to take damage, you simply remove one of the individual elements. You cannot, unfortunately, combine your troops from several wounded units to create a full-strength one, and once the last element in a unit is killed, that unit is no more.

As I had mentioned, there are victory point (VP) chits that help you keep score, and while I've always felt that the only real victory is total annihilation of the enemy, in this game victory comes when a player completes their objectives, kills the enemy dead, or a combination of both. These objectives can range from controlling bridges, villages, or key strategic points all the way through to killing a certain number of enemy units or destroying a tank battalion. It's scenario-dependent, so it's varied with every game you play, which is nice. Each objective is generally worth a specific VP value, and killing an entire enemy unit down to the last man is also worth a VP. The game ends when a player has the required number of VPs.

As you can tell, because of the dice factor and the randomness of the cards, this game has plenty of randomness, which makes this much like the warfare of the time. The best laid plans can certainly be stifled or delayed by getting shitty rolls or cards, so don't expect that this is some cube-pushing Eurogame. These cubes push back. That being said, the balance is very tight, and if you play a scenario with equal troops and a symmetrical map design, it really is anyone's game.

In closing, you'll note that the article indicates that there will be casualties found in your wallet, but I also said that the game is only $35.00 USD, so I'd bet you're wondering how those two statements equate. Well, allow me to explain in one word: expansions. Memoir '44 has around 20 expansions that range from Campaign Books that are loaded full of scenarios, tile and board expansions that allow you to play in different theaters, a 4-player expansion, and the most important expansions, the troop expansions.

There are Japanese and Russian forces available, complete with weapons systems unique to their armies, but my favorite is the Air Pack. This comes with eight planes of differing design, and they're fully painted so they look sharp as hell. Nothing like calling in a Thunderbolt for close air support to fly in and turn legions of enemy plastic units into wee puddles and pink mists. All things totaled, you can easily spend 400 bones on your newfound plasticrack addiction if you're so inclined or have an OCD completist strain of DNA swimming inside you, and that's the danger to your wallet. Luckily, I'm a broke ass, so I don't have to worry about that problem!

What Makes Memoir '44 A Happy Memory:
- Fast, slick gameplay with short downtime makes this an excellent light wargame
- Oh, the plastics...the Saudis must be so thrilled!
- The theme is super with this game, and you really get into the fun of little plastic tank battles
- The variety and replayability make this one of the nicest modular systems around
- Anyone can learn this game system; it's quite intuitive and simple

What Makes Memoir '44 A Nightmare:
- If you don't like luck, RUN, now
- The soldiers always get bent and tweaked in their holding case
- It may be too much on the light side for some, with little tactical options available to players

While this is a fun, fast, light wargame, it's not the best game ever. It's fun, no doubt, but gameplay can be a little drier than some would like because of the relative few options allotted to a player on their turn, and I always found myself wanting something 'more' at the end of a scenario. That being said, I really can't think of many games that have a higher dollar-to-value ratio, and if you like the idea of culling the Nazi menace in under an hour, this is most certainly an excellent choice. I really like the game quite a bit, and I can't see this going in the trade pile very soon, even after a great many, many plays.

4.25/5 Stars

You can learn about everything Memoir at the Days of Wonder site, but be advised that once you see all the stuff that's available, you may hear your wallet start to weep:

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Contest Winners......REVEALED!

Thanks to everyone who has signed up as a subscriber, and stay tuned for more contests that involve bizarre methods of winner selection. Skip to the last minute if you can't take the are announced there.

And now....the winners!


"Shawn" - Twilight Struggle
"v" - Cutthroat Caverns
"Airdroppers" - Saboteur

Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Mall Fail and the Taternator

Friends, Gamers, Countrymen, lend me your taters!

As it turns out, the Hurricane Machine did not work out as I had hoped. The fan jet is on the top of the machine, and my test run with several scraps of paper proved that you cannot use one of those as one of these...

So, I had to try something else, lest you all be disappointed with me. Noting that I had previously promised that if the Hurricane Machine wouldn't work, explosives would be used, I had to do something explosive.

Enter.....the Taternator.

I have constructed a "totally benign combustion chamber powered root launcher", commonly known as, "The Mighty Spudgun". After assembly, I had to do a test run, and I found that while Glade air freshener spray is not that potent a fuel source, starter fluid most certianly is. My daughter bravely volunteered one of her Polly Pockets as the first plastic chick to be launched into space, or at least the woods behind my house, and I'm both happy and sad to note that while the equipment worked marvelously well, poor Polly was killed in action. She will be remembered.

As a note to all who would try to recreate my amazing spudgun design, note that this is very, very dangerous. I burned off one eye's eyelashes and half an eyebrow in the process of perfecting the cannon, so be advised that a seasoned professional such as myself can even fuck up and injure myself, so I would advise you to proceed with caution.

Tomorrow at noon, the contest winners will be chosen. I plan to load a wad of paper into the barrel, and above that I'll have a parachute-retarded capsule that will, if all goes well, dump roughly 108 scraps of paper down upon the target area, at which point I will snatch three lucky names out of the sky, declaring them the winners. For anyone who HAS NOT signed up as a subscriber, your name will not go into the capsule unless you've signed up by 12PM Eastern USA time tomorrow.

Check back Tuesday to see if you're a winner, or check out the game review I put out earlier today:

Good luck, and Godspeed.

LOTR: The Duel - Balrog and Gandalf Doing The Dew-l

Sometimes things happen to you that you don't expect, and while it's not always a good thing, in my experience the good outweighs the bad. Several months ago I went to Indiana to see a buddy and play some games, and he asked me to borrow Cyclades so he could play it with his extended family who were coming in for a holiday. I, of course, was happy to oblige, as this guy is a very, very good, long-time friend who is more than likely one of the biggest game enthusiasts I know. I figured that in a month or two, he'd send it back or, better yet, come out and hang with me. Just as I used to do during our Attacktix days, I underestimated him.

Now, I have been blessed far beyond that which I deserve in an uncountable variety of ways, the least of which is to have a wide ranging group of amazing friends all over the world. This guy is no exception. I mention this because instead of Tim just returning Cyclades, he put this game in the parcel as well, simply because he's such an amazing friend. So, I felt it my duty to put out a review of the game for all of those who, like Tim, are looking to gift someone to someone when you ask yourself, "What would Tim do?"

When I opened the game's box, I was instantly impressed with the fact that inside the box was a perfectly designed, blow molded insert that all of the bits fit inside with laser precision. The three-page rules were simple, with ample and very useful example illustrations, and the game even came with a do-it-yourself plasticard bridge that was reminiscent of Star Wars Pocketmodel creations. I was stoked, to say the least, that this light, 2-player card game was in my house, ready to be unleashed upon my friends and family.

Before I go too far, let me tell you what the game is actually about. Lord of the Rings: The Duel is, essentially, a re-enactment of the epic battle between Gandalf the Grey and the feared and loathsome Balrog demon which took place in the Mines of Maria. In short, it's a wizard's duel, more or less. The object is to gain the high ground on the bridge, which is done by damaging the opponent during four rounds of dueling. Each round has players drawing nine cards from their deck and taking turns playing a card until up to six of them have been played each or one player is defeated for the round. When each round is over, the players finally pull three cards from their original nine and reserve them for the final duel. Whomever is higher on the bridge is the winner, simple as that.

The components in this game consist of two cubes, two pawns, the aforementioned bridge, the game board itself, and finally, two decks of cards. The board art is outstanding, and the cool little bridge gives the game a really neat 3D look, making it feel even more thematic. Gandalf's cards are all very well illustrated as well, which adds even more theme, but then when you get to the Balrog cards, that's when the disappointment will set in. Nondescript doesn't even begin to state how crappy the art on those cards is. It's not even that the card art is that bad, really, it's that it's mostly unintelligible, and the nature of the game is such that it's important to understand which side of the card is up.

With the cards as they are, it's virtually impossible to easily determine the orientation of the Balrog cards. I even went so far, after my second play, as to put a small mark on the bottom of each of the Balrog cards, on the front side, so that I can easily determine which side is up. No game should ever force a player to mark up their cards, and this is an unforgivable oversight. With the other art being so clean and well-drawn, I simply cannot understand why the hell they did this for the Balrog. Sure, he looks all mystifying and smoky, as a Balrog surely is, but the attempt to obscure the creature in fire and smoke did nothing less than dishonor the game, which otherwise looks superb.

Anyhow, let's talk about setup. Setting up the game is very simple, even the first time when you have to assemble the bridge, which takes all of 2 minutes if you don't glue and 5 minutes if you do. Essentially, you simply lay the board out, put the two little cubes on the energy track, put the bridge in the middle of the board over the chasm art, and then pop your pawns in the obvious location. Beyond that, you just shuffle the decks and you're good to play.

Each player, on every round, draws nine cards from their deck, and those are their hand. Most of the cards simply have a picture on them and two columns of four rows of diamonds, some of which are colored in and some which are empty. These diamonds represent attacks and parries that the players perform against each other, vying to knock their cube down the energy track to the negative side, thereby winning the round. Some cards are special abilities, though, that perform varying effects on the game, such as allowing a player to remove a card from their opponent's hand, regain some energy, or other beneficial actions.

The meat of each round is in playing cards. The first player, on his turn, plays a card to the tableau, with the right side of the card having your attack diamonds represented. The other player then plays a card to counter it to the right of the opponent's card, with the diamonds on the left of the responding card representing the defensive value. Now while I'm calling this the defensive value, all positions on all cards can cause damage to your opponent. To determine where damage was taken, you simply compare the colored positions in on the cards' touching faces, and wherever a colored diamond is met with a blank one, damage is taken by the opponent.

To score damage, you simply move the cube of the damaged player toward the negative side of the energy track, and if at any time a player's cube ends up in the negative area, the round ends. There are some rules for ties which allows the round to continue, but in many cases it's very clear-cut. Alternatively, if each player has played six cards, the round ends and the winner is the one furthest from the negative area.

Once a round ends, you simply measure the distance, in spaces, from the loser to the winner and, using the table in the rulebook, you move your pawn up the bridge steps based on the magnitude of the asswhipping you just laid out. The game can end before the final battle if any player reaches the top of the bridge, but if not, each player will choose three remaining cards in their hand and set them aside for the final duel. If a round ended prematurely, all excess cards remaining in each player's hand is discarded and is lost.

If at the end of three duels no player has reached the top of the bridge, the final duel ensues. Players may only use the nine cards that they had previously held in reserve for this moment, but instead of only being able to play six, they may play all nine, if necessary. Another difference in the final duel is that the cubes start further up on the energy track by about a third, and thus the final battle is, by definition, a longer duel than previous duels. As usual, the end of the game comes when a player has depleted his opponent's energy and the player who, after tallying the space between the winner and loser, is higher on the bridge is the winner.

Gameplay is incredibly simple, and I was surprised that for such simple mechanics, the game has a tremendous amount of important choices to make, with each and every one being critical to success in the end. The game itself is fairly fun, and is a hell of a way to spend thirty minutes or so with a friend or loved one. My only real complaint, again, is that the Balrog cards were so poorly designed that I had to mark their orientation. I should note for you that on the Balrog card backs there is a large diamond with a flame on it that has a slight contrast, which is what helps you identify the orientation, so it is indeed possible, but it's a giant pain in the ass.

What Makes Me Want To Do The Dew-l:
* Mostly great art and theme makes this fun to look at
* Fast, easy gameplay doesn't have you sitting around between turns
* Important decisions and long-term planning make this a thinker's game
* Short playtime make this an excellent filler game for two

Why Balrog's Smoke Is Clearly Meant To Mask The Pooty Smell:
* Why do Gandalf's cards look so good and Balrog's look so uber-craptastic?
* This game may be too simple for some

This game is a moderately fun, thinking person's filler game. While I and my wife liked it, many of my friends were underwhelmed by it, so I think I can fairly say that it's not for everyone. I can see this being a hit with people who have spouses that like to game it up with Eurogames or light card games, but maybe not so much for people that like Ameritrashy dicefests or more complex games. All in all, I think it's a good game that you'll enjoy, and for the cheap price, you really can't miss.

3/5 Stars

You can learn more about this Kosmos line game from their website, albeit not easily:

I'd also note that you can get this game for $4.00 USD from as of this writing, so you really can get this thing cheap!

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The 15th Is Coming!!!

Well, I've decided that rockets will NOT be used to randomly generate winners. Too much damned work. So, I'm heading to Northgate Mall in Cincinnati this weekend, and I'll be taking with me one entry each, in the form of a 1x1 scrap of paper.

Why the mall?

I'll tell you why.

This particular mall has one of these...

...and I plan to toss them all in the air at some point near 60 MPH.  I have no idea how this will work out, but essentially there's going to be a lot of grabbing at shit, midair, and the first 3 to be chosen will be the winners.

It should be interesting, and I am really hoping not to be arrested.

If, for some reason this plan doesn't work out, we're going with Contingency Plan Alpha, which involves explosives.

Monday, February 7, 2011

14 or so hours later....Painted Ravenlofties

I've spent the last week or so of nights that I'm not gaming it up sitting with my lovely wife watching Netflix TV shows. We don't watch much TV that doesn't involve cartoons or tweens fawning over each other due to our at night, it's time to catch up on stuff we never got to see the first time. So shows like Lost, The Office, Firefly, and Spartacus: Blood and Sand got burned through and since I am the poster child for ADHD, I can't sit still and watch TV without wanting to spill blood.

Thus, I spent a couple hours a night working on painting the figures for Castle Ravenloft. I'm not what you could call an expert painter, but I can make something that wasn't painted a little more colorful, and that's all I can ask for in this life.

So, here's my final, painted Ravenlofties. All 42 figures, painted in about 14-15 hours, and it doesn't show how quickly I did them, for the most part. Click on the image for a larger one, if you want your eyes to bleed..

Yes, the paint schemes are unlike the D&D miniatures schemes, and I know it. How else would I be able to justify having Zombies sporting leopard print PJs, have the Hulk look like he's been stapled back together at St. Elizabeths, or have a "Cleric" look like a choir singer at a Southern Baptist church?

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Wrath of Ashardalon - Delivering The Maximum Amount Of Kick Ass Allowed By Law

I was not always a Wizards of the Coast fan, oh no, not by a long shot. I despised them for putting the final nail in the coffin of my second true love, Heroscape, and I thought, like a woman scorned, I could never forgive that indiscretion. Then came Castle Ravenloft. I was more than a little skeptical, reading about how it lacked theme and was somehow not up to the lofty standards set by other Dungeon Crawl games. I was one of the last adopters of the first wave of Ravenloft sales, still thinking that it would somehow not meet my expectations. Now I know I was wrong, and I have forgiven Wizards, although I may never forget the death of my beloved Heroscape.

Castle Ravenloft impressed me with not only the incredibly smart rules, excellent components, and fun gameplay, but with its flexibility as a game system. I'm not going to go over that here, because it has been said before with electron-beam precision before (see the link at bottom of page). Suffice to say that I found it quite justifiable to commit some heinous felony in order to fund the purchase of it, if need be. It's an exceptional, refreshing game that I thoroughly enjoy; so much so, in fact, that I just completed my painting project where I've spent the last week's nights enrobing my Ravenlofties with a silky coat of luxurious Apple Barrel paints. The only other game I was compelled to do that to was Space Hulk, just for the record. In short, to quote a friend, "If you don't like Ravenloft, you may be an idiot." I stand by that idiom, even though I, in fact, was an idiot, at least initially.

So, when a magazine I write for was offered up an advance copy of the second in the Dungeons and Dragons Board Game System family, "Wrath of Ashardalon", I jumped on it like a man on fire jumping into a pool. It recently arrived, and not unlike a five year old child on Christmas, I tore that bad boy in a timeframe normally reserved for atomic activity. My immediate disappointment that I would again be spending the next few weeks painting Wrath figures was tempered by the fact that I would be playing Wrath that very evening with my lovely and godesslike wife. Good times, folks. Good times.

While many have complained that Castle Ravenloft lacked theme, where I disagree wholeheartedly, Ashardalon goes further in almost all ways, with the exception of the dungeon tiles. Where in Ravenloft you had many special one-tile rooms, such as the Arcane Circle, in this game there are almost all generic tiles, and some large multi-tile rooms that are combined to make large lairs such as the Horrid Chamber and Dire Chamber. That being said, they've added so many new mechanics to these new tiles, such as the door. These doors have special chits that are laid across the open door image on the tiles to indicate a door that is closed. In gameplay, this makes a tremendous difference in the feel to the game and the thrill of opening a door to find terrible, nightmare creatures that want nothing more than your impending doom and ruination. Then, besides the door, there's some new chits that turn the generic tiles into useful rooms.

For instance, instead of a "Chapel" tile, there's an "Altar" marker you can place on any tile. Same with the Vast Ritual Gate, which can be used as a teleporter of sorts. Then there's the treasure! This game now supports items that can be purchased in between adventures if you so desire. Bought, you ask? I didn't stuttutterrr, boys and girls, I said bought. The game now has gold, jewels, and...a new car! Well, no new car, but now you can not only find useless trinkets, you can also find awesome sauce by the 55-gallon drum, such as the Crossbow of Speed, a +2 Magic Sword, and the Elven Cloak. Each of these new items are cards in the Treasure deck versus the Adventure Treasure deck as they might've been in Ravenloft. Further, each has a gold value listed on the card for purchasing between, or before, adventures. This only builds on the open system that Ravenloft began, and I, for one, welcome my Dragon masters.

Cracking the box open, you'll find five new Heroes to play, a Dragonborn Wizard, a Human Cleric, an Elf Paladin, a Half-Orc Rogue, and a Dwarf fighter. These are actually cooler than the Ravenloft figures, and their Power cards are more clearly written, especially regarding the Cleric. Next, delving further into the box, are 13 sheets of Ashardalony goodness, loaded with new stuff such as new, improved treasure tokens and markers, new traps such as the Poison Dart Trap and Lava Flow Trap, and a great many other markers and chits. There's even new effects, Poisoned and Dazed, which can happen if you ingest some bad mushrooms or if your Hero is hit by certain creature or trap types. There's also a bunch of monster markers, similar to Ravenloft's generic ones, but these all are specific to the kinds of boss monsters that come in this set, so you can literally pre-load rooms with monsters to create theme and narrative whilst crafting your sinister adventures. There's also the new "toolkit" stuff, such as a shield marker, markers that you can place in-game as effects, such as caltrops, walls of blades, and other powers, and then on top of those, there's villager markers, gold/treasure markers, and a variety of other items and bits to implement in your own adventures or to use with the existing 13 adventures in the Adventure book. Finally, there's a crapload of new miniatures that are far more varied than in Ravenloft.

There's a big red Dragon, which was to be expected, but now there's a lot more interesting critters to slay with no regard for their litter of demon spawn, such as the ever-beloved Beholder and the Otyugh, which is the equivalent of how many perceive their Mother-In-Law to be. There's an Orc Shaman, a Drake that gets more powerful as you beat on it, a Kobold Dragonlord, and all kinds of other nasties. All in all I am very impressed with the collection of stuff in the box, and they went above and beyond my expectations with all this new stuff. When you combine all this stuff with the Ravenloft stuff, you're talking about being able to craft amazingly deep, narrative, complex adventures and campaigns that will keep you entertained for years. To top it all off, Wizards just announced a third sister to these tantalizing twins, The Legend of Drizzt, so we're talking about nearly 140 figures, 30+ sheets of tiles, and more cards than a poker room at the Mandalay Bay. I simply could not be more excited about the epic Dungeon Crawling that I will be doing in 2011, and that's a fact.

Now to the really new stuff that makes this so much better than its predecessor: the new decks. Besides the normal Encounters, now you have Hazards, which are persistent effects that, like Traps, cause bad things to happen to you, but can't be disarmed. Then you have Curses, which are semipermanent effects that happen to the player's Hero when pulled and last, generally, until you pass a die roll check or kill something. These are nasty as hell, and are simply no fun when you pull them.

Next, there's the purple-backed Adventure cards, which act as an AI for Non-Player Characters in the game, so you can account for guiding them through a dungeon or out of a dungeon, depending on the scenario. This is the single most awesome thing that has been developed for this system because it allows you to create far more interesting scenarios than you ever could with Ravenloft, and that's saying a lot.

Moving on, there's the Boon cards, which are a neat new type, although there's only six of them. These cards are given at varying times, in a scripted manner, when the players do something amazing, like killing a major menace to society. These allow you to skip pulling certain types of monsters and draw new tiles without monsters. Not a the game, but I can see them being useful to dungeoneers who wish to create a campaign.

Finally, there's the Chamber cards. These cards essentially allow for scripted, interesting adventures because they give specific instructions regarding tiles and monsters to place, and furthermore, give you what I can only describe as objectives. Essentially, when you pull a "Chamber Tile" which is specially marked on the back, you must draw from the Chamber Deck. This then scripts the final showdown's events, how to place the monsters, and what you're looking to do. This new mechanic is a godsend for those who wish to make cool, compelling adventures without having to put in a ton of effort.

Now that you know what kinds of happy stuff is in the box, let's look at how the game plays. I'm into Wrath of Ashardalon 5 adventures deep now, and I've already got the wheels churning on how I'm going to build my next Campaign for this awesome game system. This plays almost identically to Ravenloft, so there's not a lot of new learning you're going to have to do if you want to jump into this, but if you, like me, were a Ravenloft Denier, then you definitely want to get Ravenloft before it goes out of print. Anyhow, enough about my aspirations and onto the game.

The idea of the game is that one to five adventurers has to romp through a dragon-infested cavern system, hunting the King Dragon, Ashardalon, while saving villagers, recovering artifacts, helping a little person find his gear, or my favorite, laying waste to an entire room because it's "mysterious". Essentially, each turn you will be asked to explore a new tile when you're at a tile's edge, which boils down to placing a new tile and drawing a new monster to inhabit that tile, or potentially having an Encounter, which means drawing an Encounter card and resolving the effect. This game is just as nasty as its predecessor, and all manner of bad things will happen to you.

Gameplay is the same in virtually every way to Ravenloft, so I won't belabor the specifics on how to play. I invite you to look at my Castle Ravenloft review, in which I detail how to play, and the link is at the bottom of this page. The long and short is that the monster AI system in this system is so profoundly good that I hope to see it mimicked in the future by all other Dungeon Games. The fact that there is no single person to play against, or to "run" the game, is what I believe makes this an incredibly enjoyable experience. All the players must work together to accomplish the objective-based missions or all players will fail. One of the key aspects to this game is that teamwork is absolutely required since if one Hero falls in battle, all Heroes lose the game.

Combat is both card- and dice- based, with each character having Powers to play, some of which are persistently available and some that are one-time use, and the combat is resolved by a dice roll. If your roll, plus bonuses, are equal or greater than the enemy's armor rating, well, he's going to get smacked. The damage and/or effects caused by the weapons or spells are constant, and are printed on the card, so if you do hit, you're more than likely going to do damage to the monster. Some found or bought items help with either the damage you do, the chance to hit, or both, and these are mountains and oceans better than the Ravenloft items, as I noted before.

Another note about the game is that it has some backward- and future- compatibility built into it. Three of the Power cards for the Heroes are now "Racial Powers", meaning that you can use the Dragonborn's "Hurled Breath" Utility Power on Ravenloft's Dragonborn Fighter, you can use the Dwarf's "Dwarven Resiliance" Utility Power on Ravenloft's Dwarf Cleric, and finally, you can use the Half-Orc's "Furious Assault" Daily Power in any future expansion's Half-Orcs.  This means that the entire game system is now, truly, tied together by racial powers. Very exciting, indeed!

The long and short on Wrath of Ashardalon is that it's everything that I hoped it would be, and more. It fixes all but one of the things that I disliked about Ravenloft, which were the prepainted miniatures, and it absolutely does everything that I loved about Ravenloft better. Standing on its own, I have to say that it is a better buy than Ravenloft, but that being said, once you play this, you're going to want Ravenloft too. I hate to say it, but I even like this better than my Holy Grail Game, Dungeons and Dragons Fantasy Adventure Boardgame, in all aspects other than the fact that game had so many awesome dice to toss. This is just a better game than any other Dungeon Crawl system that I've played, be it Dungeonquest, Warhammer Quest, Clastrophobia, Heroquest, Dragon Strike, Tomb, and especially the expensive and bloated Descent. This does everything I want it to, and nothing I don't. Just a great, wicked great game, guys. What more can I say.

What Makes Ashardalon So Damned Hot:
*Everything about Ravenloft, plus....
*Campaign rules make this an ongoing slaughterfest, not a one-time thrill kill
*The characters and bestiary for Wrath make for a very interesting adventure, every time
*Treasures worth fighting for and items that make a difference are SO awesome

Why Ashardalon Sounds Like "I Shart A Lot":
*Still no painted minis, and now I have to paint these too...
*Items from Ravenloft have no price tag, so there's a small backwards-compatibility issue

If you don't like Ravenloft, you may not like this, because the two games are a lot alike. That being said, it's deeper, both thematically and strategically, and the game is just downright fun to play. Those who found Ravenloft too shallow, I maintain, are not seeing it for what it is: a game system that allows you to not only play what's been printed in the book, but that allows you to create epic adventures on a grand scale if you so desire. If you want a game where you need no thought or creativity, try Container; I hear it's a hoot. If you want to slash and incinerate fiends and fell beasts until your boots are soaked to the knees with blood of differing shades, then Wrath of Ashardalon is what you're looking for.

4.875/5 Stars

For more information on this epic game, try here:

For my review of Castle Ravenloft, and really, the infancy of the D&D Adventure System board game line, try here: