Thursday, July 27, 2006

Adventure Games, Part Two: In the Cards

Last month I posted an article about Fantasy Flight Games and their recent emphasis on adventure games. However, the adventure gaming genre is a lot bigger than just Fantasy Flight. As I mentioned in that article, the genre has been around for a while, with classics like Milton Bradley's HeroQuest and GW's Talisman. I missed out on Candamir, but it's clearly a German entrant to the genre.

And, the adventure gaming genre is a lot bigger than just board games too. There have been a ton of card games that meet some or all of the criteria of the adventure game genre. This week I'm going to concentrate on a lot of also-rans, or not-quite-adventure card games, that nonetheless meet a lot of the criteria of the genre. Then in a couple of weeks I'm going to return with a third article in this series, covering a card game that's just as much an adventure game as Runebound or Arkham Horror, and that's Atlas Games' Dungeoneer.

Before I get going, I'll offer a reminder of my basic definition of adventure games: they're board and card games built on the same model as roleplaying games. They center on characters, and tend to have two core mechanics: a model for character description and a task resolution system. Inevitably, one of the basic tasks tends to be combat (though that's not a requirement). Most adventure games also have you controlling a single adventurer and completing quests, but that can vary, and some of these near-miss adventure card games clearly show alternatives.

The Near Misses

Following are a set of four card games that almost meet the definition of adventure card games. Though they don't entirely meet my definition, they nonetheless have some interesting characteristics that true adventure games might learn from.

Illuminati (1983). In the last couple of years we've seen products like Candamir and Return of the Heroes, but for the most part, adventure games have been an Anglo-American phenomenon. That's not too much of a surprise, given that they've generally been published by roleplaying publishers, a genre of publishing that blossomed in the US.

Illuminati offers is a fine early example of a near-adventure game by a U.S. RPG publisher (Steve Jackson Games). It shares some a few characteristics with full-fledged adventure games, but deviates pretty widely in the details. Instead of characters you have organizations, but like adventure-game characters, they're entirely unique. Each organization is defined by a few basic characteristics--power and income--and each has a special power too, which is another common element in adventure characters.

There isn't a full-fledged task system, but the game system does include a few different tasks (taking controls of groups and destroying them) which use the same basic mechanisms, and which include various modifiers to a die roll, typically based on characteristics, just like an adventure game does.

So, this is pretty far from an adventure game, but it also is an interesting early ancestor. And, it's been built on itself, with variants including Hacker (1992) and Illuminati: New World Order (1995).

You could find a lot of other early games which include some of these same characteristics, but from here I'm going to jump straight on to some more recent cards games which are much closer to the genre.

Portable Adventures (2002). There's a distinct subset of adventure games where, instead of controlling a singular adventurer, you instead control a whole party of adventurers. This is one of them (along with cousin game, Battle of the Bands). I think controlling a party puts you further from the adventuring ideal, because you don't get the same feeling of personal connection with someone that you're playing, but they still have similar mechanisms.

Conversely, Portable Adventures use an entirely common adventure-game mechanic for victory: you complete quests, and those quests give you victory points, and those victory points eventually give you the game.

However, the Portable Adventures are weak in my core definition of adventure games. The characters aren't well modeled: each just has a value and a special power, nothing complex. Likewise, the task resolution system is very weak. It's only used for completing adventure, and you just add up character values, with a single chance to roll a die and take out some opposing characters.

One of the neat aspects of Portable Adventures is that they're multigenre. There are two of them, Lair of the Rat-King and 8th Grade and they're totally compatible. This points to one of the advantages that adventure card games offer over adventure board games: they're much easier to expand; the Portable Adventures show a really wacky and expansive way to do so.

Camelot Legends (2004). Camelot Legends is another game in the precise same mold as Portable Adventures. You have a group of characters and you send them around trying to complete quests and gain victory points.

The difference is that Camelot Legends has much more thorough modeling. Each character has a full six different attributes, plus a special ability. Now the attributes are functionally identical, they just affect different quests (and potentially different characters). However having those differentiations gives that much more individuality to the characters. (If anything the characters are actually too diffentiated. With each player having a small party of characters it's pretty hard to keep track of who can do what, a danger of the multi-character adventure game.)

The task system is entirely one-dimensional and simple, much like that in Portable Adventures. Each quest has a target number and you have to add up the values of the appropriate attributes for your character to meet it.

One of the other game elements found in Camelot Legends is that it has locations, sort of. There are initially three different places in the game, marked by cardstock sheets, and more can appear. Each character is at one of these locations at any time, and can (abstractly) move between them on his turn.

I'm not certain that locations are entirely necessary for a true adventure game, but they certain add a lot to the experience.

Im Auftrag des Konigs (2004). In recent years there have been some European adventure games, including Candamir and Return of the Heroes, they're just rarer than their Anglo-American brehtren. This German Arthurian card game came out the same year as the American Camelot Legends and is striking for how different it is.

Really, Im Auftrag des Konigs is a role/action system that's somewhat like more recent games such as Antike and Siena where the action roles are located on a roundel that you have to move around. Here, much as in Siena, the roundel represents locations, here 8 total. There's a Camelot location where you can do Camelot actions and a number of wilderness locations where you can take on certain quests.

Each player plays a "knight", but there's actually no difference between them. That's an attribute shared by another German adventure game I mentioned, Candamir. The European adventure games haven't really caught on to the idea of widely differentiated characters. You can train your characters in Auftrag, but it provides cards rather than any actual intrinsic gainm, another difference from more Anglo-American games.

It's mainly the theming that makes me thing of Auftrag as an almost adventure game, but the quest system helps. One of the ways you get victory points is through quests. You satisfy them by going to a certain location and having certain values, but here it's the values of cards rather than the values of characters. And that gives you victory points.

I suppose you could see Auftrag as a hybrid Euro/adventure game.

My Reviews: Camelot Legends (B-), Im Auftrag des Konigs (B), Portable Adventures (B)

Charting It Out

With all that said, what characteristics do these various pseudo-adventure games have, what characteristics do they lack, and what interesting elements do they offer to the genre? I have, of course, created a chart to detail this:

Power (attack).
Resistance (defense).
Character Points.
Abstract network.
Abstract Cards.
Circle of Cards.
Move around circle based on horse card selected.
Create a network.
7 Adventure points from "quests".
Most victory points from quests.
Most points from quests, court, and tournaments.
Unique Systems
Characters are actually organizations.

Core tasks aren't simple combat, but have more nuances.
Multiple genres that can be combined.

Many cards have two values for rightside up and upside down, an easy method for character fatigue.
Characteristics differentiated only by tasks they affect, not what they do.

Characters differentiated by notable, "take-that" type powers.
Very German.

Characters take communal "roles" for actions.

Skills modeled as expendable cards rather than permanent gains.


One of the most interesting reasons to look at not-quite adventure games like this is that they aren't stuck in the standard molds, and thus they show how the adventure game could grow and expand themselves. I'd love to see more full adventure games with German mechanics like those in Im Auftrag des Konigs, for example, or to put more thought into different sorts of tasks, like Illuminati offers.

And that's it for card-based adventure games this week. In two or three weeks I'll be back with Atlas and Dungeoneer. Next week, however, I'm going on vacation (all I ever wanted). I'll see you then.

1 comment:

Jim said...

What about a game like Zombies? It seems sorta like an adventure game with cards (tiles), since you have your own character wandering through the street tiles, shooting zombies and gathering health/ammo. Also its more recent brethren, MidEvil I and II? Or Abduction, where characters wander on spaceship-corridor cards and can find equipment? (although in Abduction there are no hit points, I think.)

Not a card game, there's also the ultimate in board adventure games, Magic Realm, which I actually know little about except that it looks very complex.

I was always curious about why someone would play a board adventure game rather than an RPG-- an RPG is flexible enough to include lots of tactical combat, or not, however you prefer, but is not nearly so limited as the boardgames. I guess the advantage of the boardgames is that they offer self-contained, shorter play times and dont need someone to plan out an adventure in advance, and so are more convenient? Also, maybe the adventure boardgames offer more possibilities for competitive tactics and strategy for players that like that sort of thing, with a fixed goal to aim for. In comparison, an RPG is more open-ended, cooperative, and loose storytelling, which some people may not like.