Wednesday, April 18, 2007

A Eurogame Review

Everything on the Internet seems to come in waves. Even before reading Shannon’s recent post about reawakening his interest in role playing games, I had been preparing this post on a game I have that I have become reacquainted with in the past month or two. While it has a lot of American boardgame tendencies, there are a few strong Euro attributes that contribute to making it a gripping title that has eaten into gaming time I might have spent on other boardgames. What game am I referring to? None other than the new edition of that classic Euro-American hybrid game, Dungeons and Dragons (referred to as D&D for the rest of this article.) For those unfamiliar with the game (and there isn’t an entry for it over on BoardGameGeek), it is like a longer, more complex version of Dungeoneer, Return of the Heroes, or Descent. While different than many Eurogames that it predates, there are still a number of mechanics found in popular Euro titles, making it a game that many gamers just might want to check out. If that piques your interest, read on to find a more thorough review.

The Bits
The first thing a boardgamer will see when opening up a new game are all the fun little bits to play with. Unfortunately, this game has none. What, you say? NO BITS? That’s right, no little wooden cubes, no meeples, nothing is included in the basic package, just three thick rulebooks. THREE! And you thought paging through the rules for BattleLore was a bit much – at least in that case it was a rulebook and a scenario booklet. The last game I played with three rulebooks was Avalon Hill’s Horror at House on the Hill. With no bits to play with, one might expect the game to score a nice fat zero for its components. Thankfully, there are options to solve the component problem. There are so many options, that players are typically expected to provide their own components (similar to the pawns and dice in some of the Cheapass Games productions…) For those willing to spend a little bit of money, players can obtain nice plastic figurines, expandable cardboard maps, and even little cubes to roll. I’ve seen photos of players going all out on designing their own game boards, making model terrain to rival the Deluxe Chest Version of Settlers of Catan. So while the lack of components is initially a big strike against the game, players who like to tinker and customize their own gameboard and pieces will find plenty of things to play with. Die hard Eurogamers can even use little colored wooden cubes along with Meeples to represent the various creatures and figures within the game. Some players use hand painted metal figurines – talk about dedicated game component fans! The last game I played with metal playing pieces was an old game of Monopoly. While many Eurogamers eschew dice, this game has plenty of them. Taking a cue from the French Formula De, there are even many nonstandard dice available. However, in this particular game (unlike Formula De) the dice have a different number on each side. This does make the results more random than a typical Formula De game, but it also easier for new players to estimate the expected outcomes since only one series of numbers have to be averaged. In fact, a good portion of the strategy of this game involves making the decisions so that you can modify die rolls in your favor.

Bits Score: 0 out of 10(there aren’t any in the standard game), however, there is a Basic Game available that provides you with several plastic figures, shortened rules, and a set of funny dice like you might find in Formula De. Using these bits (or your own acquired elsewhere) increases the score dramatically.

Gameplay: 7 out of 10 (primarily due to game length)
Even a quick glance through the rules shows how this game is similar to other popular Euro titles. Like many wargames, there are two sides to the game. All but one player create an alternate persona to represent themselves within the game. These alternate personas are called Player Characters (or PCs). There is a lot of flexibility here, but players should take care not to overlap their specialties too much, because the remaining player (referred to as the “Dungeon Master”) gets to control almost everything else within the game. At first glance, this seems very unfair for the PCs. There is very little within the game to make up for the DM’s strong initial starting position. However, after much play testing it seems that the PCs win the game more often than not, so perhaps their superior numbers are enough to win the day. In some respects it is like Shadows over Camelot, where most of the players conspire to defeat the game while one player works against them. However, in D&D, the “traitor” (the DM) is known at the outset, and is given a number of advantages to make up for that fact.

The theme of the game revolves around a fantasy setting (like Lord of the Rings) with the players typically playing the forces of good and the DM playing the bad guys. The DM plays a sort of “defense”, setting up traps and obstacles for the players while the players go on “offense” trying to find and overcome these challenges. Over time, the players get more powerful, providing a nice sense of accomplishment. Unfortunately, so do the obstacles used by the DM player. In fact, in a glaring oversight, not only do the rules fail to provide proper victory conditions, they don’t even provide game-ending conditions! As a result, many games of D&D can drag on and on. Players typically agree to a set time limit and play until it is reached. Often, a group will then meet again a week or two later and pick up where they left off, making sure the game length of D&D easily exceeds even a highly negotiated game of Die Macher. With such a long playing time, the game severely limits other games making it to the table. As a result, it gets a solid couple of strikes against it in the scoring.

To help Eurogamers decide if it might be something they want to try, I thought I’d make a short list of all the pros and cons of the game.

The Bad
The rulebook(s) – when was the last time you had three hardbound rulebooks for a single game? In an interesting twist, only the DM player has to read up on two of them, so gamers who don’t like to read rules should stick to the PC team.
The bits – as mentioned, there are no bits included in the standard game. There isn’t even a game board! The general availability of quality substitutes (even metal bits!) keeps the game from flopping.
No Auctions! – can you even have a boardgame without some form of an auction in it? (There aren’t any trains either, but PCs can simulate them by starting up trading caravans)
Analysis paralysis – typically, each player gets two action points in a turn keeping things very constrained. However, there are a plethora of options to spend your action points on (like moving, fighting, casting spells, etc…), causing some AP prone players to simply shut down.
Unbalanced Teams – Despite the very good record of the PC team, the GM team simply has too many advantages to make a fair game.
The Traitor Factor – In addition to the DM team, sometimes there is a secret traitor within the PC team as well. While that works great in Shadows over Camelot, as there is already an opposing team in D&D, adding in a secret traitor creates a third team in the mix and can quickly complicate the entire situation.

The Good
Expansions – some players love to have options in their games (witness the variety of ways to play Settlers of Catan). There are multiple ways to expand the D&D game including new rulebooks as well as many new game boards. For game tinkerers, it is probably the game best able to handle additional house rules. In fact, most gamers have at least one or two house rules they prefer to play by…
Cooperation – the game screams for good cooperation with the PC team. As the DM team has most of the advantages, the PC team has to work hard together to make sure they survive
Heavy Player InteractionGoa haters take note, there aren’t any auctions and player interaction is high. Despite a high degree of cooperation, players are also competing for limited resources, constantly being forced to find ways to evenly distribute advantages and rewards so that they can improve their teams effectiveness.
Role Selection – As in Cosmic Encounter (or to a lesser extent, Puerto Rico) players each take on a role selection that will tend to dictate their strengths and weaknesses. This makes the game different every time and can often keep players interested as they can all focus on their strengths without getting in each other’s way.
No Player Elimination – While player elimination can occur, the rules have provisions to reverse said elimination, or the player who lost their character can simply take on a new position within the team and keep on playing.
Snowball Effect – as in some of the best Eurogames, D&D has a snowball effect so that players gain more and more power and abilities as the game progresses. Fans of empire building and snowball effect games (like Puerto Rico, Settlers of Catan, Through the Ages, and the like) will find many similarities here.
Multiple Victory Conditions – Actually, there are no set victory conditions, players are free to decide for themselves what victory conditions they want to strive for. Players can try to gain the most influence in the palace (like Succession or El Grande), try to rack up the most money (like Modern Art) or even try their hand at more unique victory conditions like building their own castle (a la Caylus).

Final Analysis:
Overall, I can only recommend the game to fans of more American style boardgames, or at least Euro-American hybrids rather than straight up Eurogamers. With their love of a 90 minute cap on a game, D&D just won’t be brought to the table that often. Sure, there are a lot of popular Euro mechanisms present (money management, role selection, cooperative team play, multiple victory paths, a modified action point system, I’ve even seen goods delivery occur) but those are probably not enough to pull in the Euro-snoot crowd. For those who welcome a little variety in their gaming and are not adverse to trying something a bit more detailed and long-term, the rewards can be great. After all, it is the only kingdom-building game that I’ve seen that starts a player out with a single, unskilled worker.


Yehuda Berlinger said...

Gee. It's like I never left ...

Great post.


Unknown said...

Great post. Makes me want to start up another campaign.