Thursday, July 29, 2010

Review: Defenders of the Realm

My biases first: I am a big fan of theme in games and do not mind reaching through piles of chits if the theme and game play is good enough. While I do favor confrontation, chits, bits and polished pieces of AT games, there are still a large number of Euros that I'll build my farm on or attend auctions at and be quite content at the end of my experience. Also, I'm an old school D&D player, so I'm quite familiar with Larry Elmore's artwork and overly drab beige-brown-yellow maps. Plus, Pandemic is the game of mine that has the most recorded plays (due to my wife's obsession with the game), so I am quite familiar with that game and its mechanics.


The Overview:


Box cover art showing some of Elmore's old classics: Flint Fireforge, Goldmoon, a shaved Tanis and a bearded Raistlin versus the dreaded Comic Sans.



Inside the box, with one note: The Black Dragon figure in the upper left is only available at this time from Origins. It will be available later as a new expansion. 



In the generically titled Defenders of the Realm the players each take control of heroes who are working together to stop the spread of evil as it comes closer to Monarch City. The heroes must protect the land and stop the four Generals from reaching Monarch City, while also stopping their minions from becoming too populous in the lands surrounding the city. The four Generals each march towards Monarch City along their individual paths as their minions arrive spread through the land and if that isn't bad enough, the heroes are also hindered by font choices on dark, cluttered backgrounds.

The game is listed for 1-4 players and play time is about 90 minutes. This can run up to 120 minutes for overly strategic planning groups and less for really nasty draws that lose it for the heroes early. More players does not necessarily add to the game length, but if you have less than 4 heroes, you are likely to lose and the game time will probably be shorter.

The game relies on some of the same mechanics as Pandemic, so if you are familiar with that game, it will help you understand the workings of this game. The board is set up with each of the 4 Generals beginning on their starting space with 3 minions on the same space with them. Think of minions as the disease cubes in Pandemic. Then, 3 Darkness Spreads Cards (think of them as the Infection Cards) are drawn and 2 minions are placed in each of the locations listed on the card (there are 2 locations per card). Then 3 more are drawn and 1 minion is placed in each location on them.

Each player controls a hero, which has its own special abilities, similar to the different Roles in Pandemic. Each hero begins with 2 Hero cards (like Player Cards). The Hero Cards have a location on them, as well as a method of travel listed and a can be used to give a number of dice in combat against one of the Generals (more on that later). There are also a number of special cards in the Hero Cards that are one time use cards that give special effects.

Each Hero has a number of actions that they can perform in a turn. These actions are synonymous with the Hero's health, so as a hero takes wounds, he loses actions that he can perform. On a Hero's turn, he begins by performing his actions. Actions include movement. Moving to an adjacent location on the map costs 1 action. However, a player can discard one of his hero cards to take advantage of the special movement rules listed on the top of each: Discard a Horse and move 2 spaces for 1 action, Discard an Eagle and move 4 spaces for 1 action, Discard a Magic Gate and move either directly to the location listed on the card, or to a location with a Magic Gate built on it. Heroes can build a Magic Gate (think of the Research Stations movement rules from Pandemic) at a location by using an action and discarding a card that matches the location he is in.

Heroes can also use actions to try to gain more cards at one of the three inns on the board, they can spend an action to heal their wounds and reclaim their action tokens that were discarded previously due to injury, and they can use actions to Heal the Land, which removes taint crystals from locations (more on them later).

Actions can also be used to Engage Minions in Combat. However, unlike Pandemic, the minions are not removed by merely spending actions. A Hero rolls a number of six sided dice equal to the number of minions in the location. Each minion type has a target number that needs to be equaled or exceeded on the dice to remove it. For example, the Black minions (Undead) require a roll of 4 or greater to destroy. If a Hero is in a location with 3 Black Minions and spends 1 action to engage them, he rolls 3 dice. If he rolls a 2, 4 and 6, he would have gotten 2 successes and can remove 2 of the minions from the location. This can be done multiple times if the Hero has multiple actions. However, if a Hero ends his actions in a location with any minions on it, he takes 1 point of damage for each minion in his location.

The last thing you can do with an action is to use it to attack an enemy General. These battles are epic and will usually require the assistance of multiple heroes to take one down. If a Hero is in a location with a General and declares an attack, then any other Heroes in the same location can join the fight. This is why strategic planning is needed to make sure that people end their turns in the right location to join a fight. Each General has a target number to hit it and has a number of health (unlike the minions who die from one hit) and that is the number of successes that are required to take down the General. Each General also has special abilities that affect the combat. Now, to attack the General, each player involved in the fight needs to discard Hero Cards that have the General listed on the bottom. It will also list if the player gets 1 or 2 dice for that card. Each Hero adds up the number of dice they have and roll to fight the General, with each success moving the General's health down one space on the track. If the General is defeated, whichever Hero rolls the "killing blow" success becomes the Slayer of the associated minion. Now, when battling minions of that type, spending 1 action automatically kills all minions of that type in your location without rolling (it's like curing a disease in Pandemic, but instead you are curing Orcs... with your sword). If the players fail to take out the General, they face the penalty listed on the General's card and usually it means the Heroes are set back so far that they will probably lose the game. It is difficult to recover from a loss against a General, so these battles should not be taken lightly.

After a Hero has taken all of his actions, he draws 2 Hero Cards to add to his hand. If he has more than 10, he must discard down. Unlike Pandemic you do not have to worry about Epidemic Cards popping up in these draws. They are all completely safe.

Finally, the player then draws a number of Darkness Falls cards (Infection Cards) based on the phase of the war the game is in (Sort of like how the Infection Rate grows in Pandemic, more Darkness Falls cards are drawn as more Generals are defeated). The cards generally list 2 locations and show how many of which type of minions to place on each location. If adding the minions to that location would make the number of minions there exceed three, only 3 are placed and the minions cause an Overrun (similar to an Outbreak). One minion of the same type that caused the Overrun is placed in each location adjacent to that one. And whenever there is an Overrun, a Taint Crystal is placed on that location as well. Taint Crystals are sort of like the Outbreak Indicator in Pandemic. When the twelfth Taint Crystal is placed on the board, the Heroes lose. However, they can Heal the Land as an action to attempt to remove Taints. At the bottom of each card indicates one of the Generals and a location along its path. If it is the next location on the General's trail, he moves along it, putting him closer to invading Monarch City.

Once this is completed, the player to the left takes their turn, following the same steps unless the Heroes have either won or lost. There is only way that the Heroes can win, by defeating all four Generals. However, there are several ways for the Heroes to lose. They can lose if any of the 4 Generals reach Monarch City, if you need to place minions on the board but do not have any left in the supply, if all 12 Taint Crystals are on the board or if there are 5 or more enemy minions in Monarch City at any time (the only location that can hold more than 3 minions).


The Theme:

Defenders of the Realm is more than just a fantasy retheming of Pandemic. It does expand upon the options and mechanics, making it feel just different enough and at the same time giving it a classic Dungeons and Dragons feel. You are fighting Orcs, Demons, Undead and Dragonkin and the addition of dice into the mix may turn off some players, but it does give it more of the old school hack and slash feel and therefore it is very fitting to the theme.

I'll get a little more into the artwork later, but old school D&D fanboys will recognize Larry Elmore's artwork and that really does help bring in the feel of the theme. The fact that each of the minions have a different target number and each has different effects helps add to the theme. Each disease feels exactly the same in Pandemic, but the different minions have different abilities in Defenders. Orcs (green minions) are taken out on a roll of 3+, but most commonly repopulate from Darkness Falls cards. Dragonkin (blue minions) require a 5+ to hit. Undead (black minions) require a roll of a 4+ and cause 1 extra point of damage to a Hero from their Fear effect. Demons (red minions) require a 4+ to kill, but they add a Taint Crystal to their area whenever 3 are in one location, not just when there is an Overrun (more than 3).

Lastly, there are Quests. I didn't mention them in the game mechanics, but they are a part of the game that aids (and sometimes distracts) the Heroes and helps to give a thematic feel of the game. Quests are a sort of side-game that occur during the main game. Each player is dealt a Quest card at the start of the game. If you complete the Quest, you are given a Reward which are usually very useful. Quests range from basic things such as "Defeat 4 Demons", to traveling quests such as traveling to each of the three inns and spend 1 action in each to convincing the Amazons to help the battle by going, to the Land of Amazons location and spending an action to roll to try to convince them to lend their aid. Rewards range from kind of useful to situationally useful to very nice. It is a nice thematic side-goal to pay attention to, but not so much that it draws you away from the real goal at hand. Once a Quest is completed, a new one is drawn, so the temptation of more Rewards is ever present.


Learning the Game:

The rulebook is a sixteen page 8.5" x 11" booklet. Understanding Pandemic gives you a great insight on the game mechanics, but there is still a lot to try to absorb as far as the number of options available for a Hero to take on their turn. Smaller player aids listing the available actions and turn breakdown would have been nice, but the game is learned quickly enough that it isn't a huge problem.

I thought the lay out in the rulebook was a little disjointed mostly because there wasn't an overview of what a turn is like before describing everything in detail, but it isn't that bad. Really, what I found most distracting in the rules was the interjection of one of the Generals into the rules. It's not like the rules were written like Space Alert or Dungeon Lords where the rules are being presented as a sort of in-character training. They are just mechanics being laid out with injections like ..."Gonna squash you under my heel as I lay waste to Monarch City." popping up in the middle of technical mechanics description, sometimes even interjecting in the middle of a sentence. It isn't a huge problem, I suppose, but I really did find it distracting. Then again, I suppose that if I'm complaining about something this minor, it must show that there aren't too many huge issues with the rulebook.


The Components:


The very beige-brown map of the very beige-brown land. 



One of the character cards, displaying Elmore's artwork as well as comic sans font and dark text outlined in black over a beige-brown background, making it not reading friendly. 




All of the minis that come in the box. Apparently each of the Generals shop in bulk at Ye Olde Heavy Robes Shoppe for their minions.




Close up of the blue General mini. 



I have mixed feelings about the components of the game. Some of them are very nice. Each of the sculpts for the Generals and each of the Heroes are very nice. But there are 100 minion minis (25 of each color) and each of them is exactly the same, except for the color. I would have liked to see 25 demonic red minions, 25 blue draconians, 25 green orcs and 25 skeletal warriors. Instead, it's just a bunch of robed minis differentiated by their color only. For a game with a price tag as high as this one, I was a little disappointed by the lack of variety. Sure, it's just polish, but for a game with as hefty of a price as it has, I would have expected the polish to be very shiny.

And, yes, they use Comic Sans. That actually bothers me less than the deep colored fonts that someone clicked "black outline" on that bleeds together and then is put on a beige-brown busy background. At least the Comic Sans is readable, or at least it is when it's not red on a brown background.

The board is completely functional, but drab. Very drab. It is depressing to look at. I am an old school D&D player and the map reminds me of the World of Greyhawk maps: beige-brown, drab and depressing. The main reason why I immediately switched my campaigns to the Forgotten Realms when it came out was because I was overjoyed to see a map with lush green forests. This may be my personal preference and maybe I'm going too deep into my geek past, but the map reminds me of any Jeff Easley painting with no vibrant or stand out colors other than a muted earth tones.



Telerie on the left from SnarfQuest. Photo from my gallery (artwork by Larry Elmore)



Telerie eventually changed her name to Tika and entered the Dragonlance world. Photo from my gallery (artwork by Larry Elmore).




 With hair that even more encapsulates the 80's, Tika has decided to just be known as the Barbarian. 



Finally, as an old school D&D fan, I am very familiar with Larry Elmore. When I was twelve and the Dragonlance books came out, I loved seeing his work on them and seeing them pop up on my D&D books and modules. However, I started to notice something as time went by and I got a bit older: Elmore's art is very repetitive. Again, he is a classic and much better than I could ever hope to be at painting, but I could pick out his work not just by a distinctive style, but also because it seemed like the same characters were used again and again in different pictures.


Playing the Game:

Game play is tight and tense. There really is a lot going on and there are many ways for the Heroes to lose and the game is not very forgiving. However, that makes is a good co-op game. Players who want an easy time with their games or a good win percentage should avoid this one. However, players who like to work with other players simply because the game is beating them so hard that they are threatened to be stepped on like roaches if they do not band together and operate as a team satisfy their cardboard masochism here.

Like I said earlier, knowing Pandemic will help you adapt and understand the mechanics and the challenges of this game well. Sometimes being familiar with Pandemic is a little rough with the game since you will start saying things like "See if you can head over there are cure the Orcs near Monarch City" and "Damn! We have a Dragonkin outbreak."

There is a lot more going on in this game than in Pandemic, however. I would suggest that newer gamers would probably fare better with that unless they are really big fans of the theme. Even then, you may just want to give the players a learning curve and start with Forbidden Island, then move them to Pandemic and finally teach them Defenders of the Realm. But for most of the players here on Boardgamegeek, you'll have no problems with the rules.


Scalability:

This is perhaps the most disappointing part of the game for me. It lists that it plays from 1-4 players, and while it technically does, it is really designed for 4 Heroes. The game does not scale. Everything comes out at the same rate, requires the same number of hits and players have the same number of cards regardless if there are 1, 2, 3 or 4 Heroes. Since it is a fairly difficult game with 4 Heroes, it is almost suicidal with any less. If you are playing a solitaire game, you can play with 4 Heroes. If you are playing a 2 player game, you can play with 2 Heroes each (although I feel much more immersed in games with characters or roles if you only control one) and get by the scalability problem. However, 3 players means that either you are at a HUGE disadvantage or one person is playing 2 Heroes. That just doesn't really work well and neither is a particularly fun option. The game is made for 4 players and plays best with 4. I wish that the game was a little more honest about that; listing 1-4 players on the side of the box is a bit misleading. It's kind of like promoting on the box that Monopoly is playable in under a minute. Sure, technically it is correct, but it's not really the reality of the game.


Does the Wife Like It?:

The most important category. I play games without her, but she's an integral part of my core gaming group and my most frequent game partner. The more she likes a game, the more likely (and often) we will play it. My wife adores Pandemic. I received it before I was officially recording games on BGG and since I've been recording games, it is the game that currently has the most amount of plays (as of this writing 126). I would say that without her, I probably would be at about 20-30 plays. However, she loves the game and feels obligated to play it until we win, so there will be multiple games per evening. Plus, Pandemic was my go to game to build up gaming capital with my wife. I know if I played 4 or 5 games of Pandemic with her on Tuesday night, I've sufficiently built up enough capital to get her to play Twilight Struggle with me on Wednesday night.

I've been burned out on Pandemic and thought that this would be a refreshing change and my wife would like the theme (she's a D&D player as well). I was right. We lost our first game, and she decided that I should immediately set it up again while she took our daughter to bed. We were playing again and it was going to be a late night for us.

This game is a welcomed respite from Pandemic for me. It fits that co-op niche, but it feels different enough that I am not walking into it with a burned out feeling on the mechanics. Because of the longer game play, however, we cannot do as many back-to-back games in an evening.


The Pros:

*An interesting expansion and application of the Pandemic mechanics that do well enough to make the game feel like it is fitting to its theme.
*A great co-operative game.
*Very challenging.
*Good theme that does well to pull you in and make it feel urgent and desperate.
*Lots of pretty plastic minis.
*Some people will love the feel and look of an old school AD&D game.
*The randomness of the cards, quests, etc. doesn't make the game feel random, but rather makes each game feel different.


The Cons:

*Relies a little too much on Pandemic's mechanics to really feel that comfortable as being its own game.
*Minion sculpts could have more variety.
*High price tag.
*Font choices and color schemes make for the game at times hard-to-read, but always drab.
*Despite listing the game being for 1-4 players, there is no mechanic for it to scale at all. This is frustrating, especially since there are official rules posted for 5 & 6 players that do have a scaling mechanic in them and yet there is no such mechanic listed for it in the box for fewer than 4 players.
*While Elmore is a classic and celebrated artist, his work is too populous in fantasy game genres and instead of giving Defenders a unique flair, it actually serves to make it appear more fantasy generic.
*There are no Orcs in Orc Valley.
*If you play the game with a 13 year old, expect a giggle whenever you mention "Taints".


Overall:

Defenders of the Realm is a good, challenging co-op fantasy game. While it relies too heavily on the mechanics of Pandemic to really make it stand out as a unique game, it does fill a niche need for fantasy co-op games. While the game play is good and challenging and that is ultimately what makes a game worthwhile, the high price tag seems a little off for a game whose polish is lacking in some design decisions and generic plastic miniatures. Still, the game is challenging and plays differently every time, meaning that there is no singular route to winning or even getting ahead in the game. Each character plays very differently and it gives a lot of replay ability to the game.


6.5/10

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