Thursday, February 6, 2014

Duel Of Ages II: Sorry Magic Realm, You've Been Fired

Some games are so astonishingly good that despite some blemishes, it's impossible to not love them; you are compelled to look past the small things and truly cherish the game because of the game play experience itself. These games defy traditional design and transcend the frothing seas of mediocrity and set forth to completely change what people think a game can be. Duel of Ages II (DoA2), from Worldspanner, is one of those games. After reading the very fine review series by Fortress: Ameritrash's resident tastemaker, Michael Barnes, I fully understand that the designer, Brett Murell isn't so much trying to buck the system with a game that is completely out of the norm, he simply doesn't recognize the norm as worthy of consideration. The dude's a straight up gaming gangster, and deserves admiration for the balls it took to not only self-publish, but self publish something that is so divergent from an industry that has had the great games diluted in a sea of dross.
Photo: Esoteric Order of Gamers

If you've never played the original Duel of Ages, you really missed out, but you can make up for that lapse by playing this iteration, because while it was a fine game, DoA2 makes it look very weak and unorganized in comparison. So often a 'sequel' is nothing more than a watered down product that found a way to damage the concept of the original, while muddying the things that made people want more of it, but DoA2 hits on all 12 cylinders and literally knocks it out of the park. Duel of Ages was good, but was greatly dragged down by over-complexity presented as a sea of situational rules that just made the game a hair too much work to really enjoy for what it was. Well, several years later, DoA2 fixed everything wrong with the original and added some new spice to create what I can only call a "game for almost everyone". It's not so much a game as an experience, and every time I've played (and it's been a LOT) we've managed to have an incredibly fun time. In fact, I've had this game to the table probably 12 times now and I'm still not sure what's around the corner. 

If you want to talk components, let me tell you, this box ships at eight pounds, and there's more cardboard in this than you can imagine. There's a million cards in the box, all with different purposes, but the immense volume of cards allows that you can literally play the game for a year straight through and you will never actually get to play with every card. If, God forbid, you are the kind of player who has to be a completist, well, you're going to need to get the Collector's Bundle, which brings into play a small stack of terrain platters, and you'll also want the Master Set, which despite its name is not stand-alone, but rather an eight pound supplement that brings a whopping 140+ new characters into play, a metric assload of terrain platters, and a whole lot more of what makes the game so special. In short, this game makes Heroscape green with envy in its scope, and the best part is that you don't have to go out hunting boosters - all of the characters, weapons, treasures, enemies, and terrain you'll ever need are all in the box from the get-go. It's a huge value, to say the least. 

Now, there's a few of the real stand-outs in the crowd regarding the components that are so exceptionally well produced that they need special mention. First, most of the artwork is utterly mind blowing. It's all done by actual artists and must've cost a fortune to commission. Now, not all of it is on the same level like something like Cyclades where the entire production is mind-blowing, but at least 80% of it is as good as you're going to find in any game ever made. What's really funny to me is that the 20% of the stuff that isn't incredible is utter cheeseball; it's completely different in style and presentation. It's not that it's horrible, it's just so different from the really great stuff that it's out of place.

The other thing I want to mention is the modular map design, presented as triangular and hexagonal "platters" that lock together to form the map. Not only are they so copious that you will play dozens of times before exploring it all, they are all designed very well both from a balance and variety standpoints, but also they are really not overloaded with icons like the cards are, so they don't distract from the players' immersion into the game world.

Now, you're asking yourself, what is this magical game that everyone would love? Well, it's essentially a pure Ameritrash feast of death and dismemberment. You control a faction of several heroes and so does everyone else. The idea of the game is that you go around adventuring, killing monsters, gaining treasures, and beating up on your opponents. What makes it even more interesting is that it's really a hex-and-counter style adventure game that actually works but that's blended with a  miniatures game, but without the miniatures. The game simply has no true peer because it's a design that I've never seen before, although it is a lovely blend of some of the mechanics that make games like Heroscape and Axis and Allies so popular. It's simply epic in scope. I hate those shitty little mental boxes that people like to put things in order to define and categorize them, and DoA2 really kind of explodes onto the table and shreds any hope that it can be categorized. It's just a really neat, cool, invigorating design that's as clever and ingenious as it is accessible and fun.

To make learning the game easier, the rule book, not unlike Mage Knight or, more closely, Earth Reborn, walks you in baby steps from never having played to all-out warfare. Conversely, my only complaint is that the game is, very much like Earth Reborn, loaded with icons that require some level of memorization, but as noted above, you are walked through the rules in such a way that it becomes kind of second-nature, although due to the drugs I'm on (prescribed, not recreational...) I have a hell of a time remembering anything so I have to admit that I sometimes have to look back at the rules to refresh myself. Now, what you need to understand is that the game is played out as a series of tests, because whenever your heroes attempt pretty much anything other than moving around, they have to perform a "challenge" which means comparing scores against the appropriate icon, and then rolling to see if they can pass the test. 

All in all, there's an atmosphere of real adventure in the game, and that's what makes it special. There's no telling what you'll find in any given area, and you're just as likely to find a laser rifle as you are to find a cavalry sword. Part of the fun is having these pseudo-historical figures running around, exploring, and having an Annie Oakley style "girl gunfighter" beating a Conan style, naked-torso warrior (or Solomon Kane) to death with a meat cleaver. There's just so damned many characters in the game, from super-heroes to little green men, that you can't help but become breathless with awe or laughter as you are randomly assigned the most improbable groups of warriors to fight on your behalf. Honestly, that might be a good one-third of the fun of the game; the anticipation to see what is on each card is palpable.

If I were pressed to make one complaint about the game, that blemish that I spoke about at the outset of this article, it's the icons. I am unabashedly against games putting massive doses of icons on each card, or worse, on the game board. I can handle icons on the cards, since I know that they have to exist to confer information to the players, but it just bugs me. I'm old-school in the sense that I like to have text, such as "Dexterity: 18", on the card because it means that I don't have to remember that the little black icon of a dude jumping means "Dexterity". It's a mental block for me, and it's my problem, so I hate them. Worse, they're integral into the game itself and are used constantly, so that makes it even more onerous for someone like me. Surprisingly, after the first game, you have them down pat for the most part. The icons are very intuitive and just seem to make sense, although I, personally, would rather see itty-bitty text or something. As you can tell, if that's the biggest bitch I can come up with after playing this game well over a dozen times, that speaks to the quality of the game.

Gameplay, the only thing that really matters, is also very tight and keeps a reasonably brisk pace. The "coin of the realm"  is elicited in the form of "achievements", and the game is very flexible in goals so that you can tailor your experience to suit your needs - you can set the game up to end in a certain amount of time, turns, or when a set amount of achievement points are earned. I prefer the two-hour format because it inhibits the "gang up on the leader" which can happen if people are keeping close tabs on points. We simply prefer to play for ourselves, achieving as much as we can, rather than simply chasing the leader down and racing for points. A race is a race, and an adventure is an adventure, so we choose the latter, and it's one hell of a good time.

Why I'd Duel You For A Platter:
- Great artwork helps immerse you in the game setting
- Brisk and strategically deep play keeps people from sitting around
- The rules are surprisingly easy to learn due to the "baby steps" approach
- Modular design and wealth of unique elements give this mind-boggling replay value
- The value of the package is immense; $45.00 for what you get is a steal

Why I'd Rather Watch The Burr-Hamilton Duel:
- Icons on the cards can be a real pain to decipher, initially
- There's a lot of randomness in the game, which can be a pro or con, depending

There's just nothing like Duel of Ages II on the market; it's part Warhammer Quest, part Mage Knight Board Game, part Runebound, part Magic Realm. It's as if the designer chose the best elements of some of the best "true" adventure games and blended them together to produce what I can only describe as a masterpiece. If you like adventure games, and can handle the utterly nonsensical random pairings of characters, weapons, and abilities, then this game is a no-brainer. The value is immense due to the replayability, and the game can be tuned to your own tastes so easily and intuitively that it really is just a set of rules and some bits that establish your own personal fantasy playground. The long and short is that this is the game that Magic Realm wishes it was: accessible, beautiful, and nothing short of amazing.

4.75/5 Stars

Learn more at the Worldspanner website, here:

There's a great video tutorial out there too, which really puts the nuts to the bolts when it comes to explaining the gameplay itself: