In Praise of the Adequate

I was pointed to this fun NYT article about personal satisfaction by Sarah Vowell’s Facebook feed:

Not everything has to be great. Maybe it’s a thrill to watch things become great. Maybe it’s healthy to feel that a meal is reasonable, that a performance had its moments, that a trip was fun in parts, that a person is engaging and you look forward to finding out what they’re really like, that last night’s sex was nice. In my slow but persistent bid for the reader’s sanity, I hereby prescribe a period of allowing things to be adequate.
I agree. So, to wit, a few pleasingly adequate games I’ve played in the recent or not-so-recent past and that otherwise I might not bother to write about:
Arctic Scavengers: While deck-building is an inherently engaging design pattern, that doesn’t mean it’s easy to do something interesting and different. I like Arctic Scavengers for its chaos and uncertainty, because it’s designed on a standard deck-building core and yet goes in a completely different direction, and because of its effective communication design. Players are trying to build a tribe in a post-apocolyptic, nuclear-winter scenario, and the tropes of the genre – scavenging for equipment, skirmishes over scarce resources, bringing together scattered specialists – are all authentically there. I also like the new idea it brings to the game genre, that of building buildings which provide a permanent effect that helps you manage the chaos of the card flow. Is it a classic? No. But it pleasingly and effectively does what it sets out to do.
DC Comics Deckbuilding: Another deckbuilder, this is essentially Cryptozoic ripping off and re-theming Ascension (these comments apply more or less equally to the Lord of the Rings Deckbuilders, just choose which franchise you like best). The artistry here is not in the mechanics of the design, but in the application of new paint. It nicely hits all the touchstones of the genre, and all your favorite characters are here in more or less plausible versions of themselves. Also, all the games include many more attack cards (thematically keyed to defeated enemies) and fewer “permanents” (Ascension constructs) which gives them a bit more feeling of fluidity.  It’s certainly not thematically rich, being closer to the Monopoly re-themes than to Lord of the Rings or even Cryptozoic’s own The Hobbit, but when the underlying game is excellent and reasonably appropriate to the genre you could do a lot worse.
Indigo: Classic Knizian elegance, this ones sees us building paths for stones that start on a central tile, trying to guide them to our scoring gates which are spaced out around the outside edge of the hexagonal playing board. The twist is that many gates are controlled by two players, both of whom will score when a stone exits. Natural alliances grow in various areas of the board as turn order and shared gates work for or against different player pairings. Abstract and not that deep, there is still a lot more here than a cursory glance might reveal, and the physical design of the game is very attractive. This is a prototypical nice game.
Infiltration: This brings with it the usual hazards of Fantasy Flight Games: tiny fonts and questionable presentation decisions make it physically hard to play for older gamers. Still, this is a nice, short push-your-luck game with Vaccarinio’s trademark of lots of interacting cards (rooms that you infiltrate through, in this incarnation) with special rules. What makes Infiltration for me is how nicely it pulls in the elements of the heist story: a ticking clock working relentlessly against you while you dodge internal security and deploy your fancy, high-tech equipment. The Android universe is also colorful and nicely-drawn.
Smash-Up: The central idea of this game is to get at the good stuff from deck-building games, while minimizing the risks of degenerate card offerings, runaway leaders, small early misjudgments dooming you, and other hazards of the genre. You “build” your deck out of two halves of flavored cards (Zombies bring cards back out of the discard pile, Dinosaurs have raw combat power, Leprechauns move cards around and change rules in combat, Ninjas sneakily show up right before scoring, and so on) to create Zombie Ninjas, Alien Dinosaurs, and other inherently entertaining combinations. It’s a nice mix of the zany with an interesting tactical/resource management game that gets much of the fun of deckbuilders without some of the downsides. Plus, it has really good art and even uses adequate font sizes! It maybe runs just a touch long and is a little thinky for what it is, but is still a nicely-put-together game.
Star Trek Catan: It’s more or less straight Catan, but the one mechanical addition – crew cards with special powers that you can keep for a short time – accelerate the game slightly, add some nice flexibility with things like relocating ships (roads), flexible bank trading, and add some more ways to help players catch up. The Federation Space expansion map is a nice touch and even includes episode references. The little plastic Enterprises and general presentation is also quite nice, although the fonts on the crew cards are ludicrously small. Catan is almost 20 years old at this point, but it’s still a classic game and fun to play a spruced-up version.
Uchronia: Glory to Rome was a game I think I always wanted to like more than I actually did. Despite the hugely appealing interplay of quirky special powers, it had a problem with punishing luck (you can be out of it in 15 minutes if you fail to draw a decent bootstrap combo early) and very little tolerance for players’ mistakes, with apparently minor errors easily throwing the game. This can lead to a lot of irritation for non-experts. Uchronia files off many of these rough edges and makes for a more streamlined, pleasing experience. It’s lost the quirky insanity of the original, which admittedly was a significant element of the draw; it’s also got a wretched rulebook that seems to uses terminology designed to be obtuse, and the fonts are (again) too small for how they are used in the real world. But get past this, and there is a solid game underneath that takes the well-conceived construction metaphor from Glory to Rome and turns it into a game more people will find engaging.
After a few dry years for new hobby boardgames, for me the last year or so has been great – in no small part due to plenty of solid, decent new games like this. Here’s looking forward to more of them.

Star Wars: Edge of the Empire

Star Wars: Edge of the Empire is Fantasy Flight’s attempt to bring the Star Wars universe to tabletop roleplaying, and by my count this is the third or fourth crack at this general problem. Wizards of the Coast had two iterations using a d20-based system and while they produced some great sourcebooks, the feel of the gameplay was, to me, never right. West End Games’ Star Wars game was old school, and while it had its moments and makes a virtue of elegance, it feels dated today.

Star Wars presents significant obstacles to being adapted as a roleplaying game. I wrote a piece on GUMSHOE a couple years ago, about how classic RPGs built on simple task resolution systems have a hard time evoking the feel of many popular genres, including mysteries, thrillers, and epics. It can be done, but’s down to the players to do all the heavy lifting without any support from the game system itself. GUMSHOE attacks these problems by baking the tropes and conventions of the procedural mystery genre into the game system, giving the players the support they need.

Star Wars is not a mystery, though. It isn’t even obviously procedural, although there are procedural threads in the prequels. For me, Star Wars defies easy categorization. It’s  a romance, it’s an epic, it’s fantasy, it’s drama. In some ways it’s a fairy story, in other ways it’s a nuanced allegory. It resembles a hero’s quest, but like Lord of the Rings it veers off-course in the final act. The narratives are built on timeless structures, yet are also tightly bound to the eras that spawned them (the 60s and 70s for the originals, the 90s and 00s for the prequels).

Adding further complexity, there is the question of what people consider canon. For me, it’s the 6 movies plus the Clone Wars TV show, and I want nothing to do with tie-in books or video games and the Extended Universe in general. But, some people disavow the prequel trilogies, others like the much more pulpy, super-heroic books, and now there are books that run the gamut of genre mash-ups. Some players grew up playing Dark Forces or Knights of the Old Republic or X-Wing and it will please them to see elements of those stories recognized.

These are the core questions that a Star Wars RPG has to wrestle with and find answers to in 2013: what, exactly, is Star Wars? And can we get everyone at the table to more or less agree on an answer?

Edge of the Empire reminds me of The One Ring, which I reviewed last year. Task resolution involves a set of customized dice built into a pool: add positive 8 and 12-siders  for your level of skill, negative 8 and 12-siders for the level of difficulty, throw in some d6s for situational modifiers, gather up all the dice, roll them, and try to keep them all on the table (difficulty level: average, modified by your table’s elasticity). Net out the success and failure symbols to see if you succeeded. The twist, and why rolling all these dice is interesting, is that in addition to success or failure symbols there are also threat and advantage symbols along with their more powerful cousins despair and triumph. They are netted out similarly to successes and failures, and can serve both mechanical and narrative purposes. In combat, threat and advantage tends to be spent in well-specified, crunchy ways to score critical hits, use weapon or character special powers, or create a temporary situational advantage. Outside of combat, they are used as narrative hooks to allow you to succeed at tasks with complications, or to fail but gain some advantage, or some other mix.

A typical test will involve rolling maybe 6 dice. The character will get 3 for a skill he or she is reasonably good at (say two ability dice plus one proficiency die), while a moderately difficult task will add 3 difficulty dice. Perhaps one more will be added as a boost or setback for external circumstances. These are all information-rich dice. The ability (and difficulty) dice have only one blank face, with the rest having 5 distinct mixes of one or two success (failure) and/or advantage (threat) symbols. The proficiency and challenge dice are similarly dense and add triumph and despair symbols. Assembling and rolling a dice pool and figuring out the results is not entirely trivial, much more involved than adding up numbers and looking for Tengwars in The One Ring, or netting out successes on FUDGE dice.

I like this. Because there is weight associated with die rolls – both mechanically and creatively because you have to be prepared to figure out what to do with threats and advantages – it encourages you to make rolls only when the results are going to be interesting. If after rolling the dice, you’re routinely drawing a blank on what to do with the resulting threats or advantages, you’re doing it wrong and rolling for too many routine tasks. At the same time, building the pool is fairly intuitive, and adding a setback die to a check for, say, being under time pressure is more interesting and generates more tension than just giving you a -2 to your d20 or increasing your success threshold by 1.

This dice pool compares interestingly to Fate, a game system that seems to have influenced Edge of the Empire significantly. In that game, fate point give the players interesting narrative control over a skill check by allowing them to tag their own aspects or things in the environment for bonuses. In combat in Fate, I might spend a Fate point to tag a “venting gas leak” for a +2 bonus to my shot as my character uses it for cover to get into a better firing position. Most of your creative energy goes into the setup of the challenge and ends after the dice are rolled. By contrast, in Edge of the Empire (as in The One Ring), you say what you’re trying to do, roll the dice, look at the pool, and create the outcome out of the mixture of success, advantage, and threat. So if I get a couple of Advantage symbols, maybe a stray shot creates a venting gas leak that another player can use as cover in the future (giving a setback die to shots aimed at her). The rules are mealy-mouthed on how much control players get over their advantage results, especially outside of combat, but I’d suggest that by default if the player has a good idea you should go with it. This has the nice feature that creativity always feels like it’s rewarded. If you spend energy coming up with some creative tagging in Fate you can still blow the check, in which case it’s easy to feel like it was all for naught. Advantage and threat in Edge of the Empire are the result of an interesting die roll.

A vital ancillary system is Destiny points. These are analogous to Fate’s Fate points. At the start of the game, you randomly assemble a pool of Destiny points on their light or dark side, one or two per player. The light points are spent by the players to upgrade characters’ dice for a skill check, the dark points by the GM to improve difficulty dice. Once spent, they flip. Crucially, the can also be used by the players in a free-form way to introduce a true fact about the galaxy in a the same way as making a declaration with a Fate point (and with a similar narrative affect to making a GUMSHOE investigative spend). This covers a lot of ground, from simply declaring you have available the equipment you need even if it’s not on your character sheet, to allowing you to use your skills in unexpected ways or creating NPC relationships. Like Fate, the rule is just that it has to be interesting and meet with the GM’s approval.

The final piece of the puzzle is a character’s Obligation. Recent RPGs have taken to building some sort of genre-appropriate motivation descriptor into character generation, a descriptor that has significant mechanical implications. Whether it’s GUMSHOE’s drives or Fate’s Aspects, they can work as a hammer to make characters do something risky and interesting when a more reasonable response might be to turtle or not act. In a GUMSHOE game, the Drives provided for the setting tell you a lot about what it’s like. The drives in Night’s Black Agents are quite different from the ones in Ashen Stars. A Fate character’s Aspects, although tricky to get right, can provide a useful tool for the GM to propel action.

Obligation is the analog in Edge of the Empire, and here we finally get to the nub of what kind of Star Wars story we’re doing. Each character starts with one, with a rating of maybe between 5 and 20 (starting rating varies with the number of players, and you can add more to get more stuff). The off-the-shelf Obligations are things like Criminal, Debt, Bounty, Blackmail, and Betrayal, although they also include Dutybound, Family, Oath, and Obsession. The rating indicates the likelihood that the Obligation will intrude on whatever the players are doing. The GM makes a percentile roll before each session (not unlike the Icon relationship roll in 13th Age) and if it comes in below the group’s total obligation level, one of the obligations kicks in, adding a complication to the story.

This should tell you who’s stories we’re looking at here: those of Han Solo, Chewbacca, and Lando Calrissian. They’re the only main characters in the movies that have clear obligations (Debt to Jabba the Hutt, an Oath to protect Han, and Responsibility for Cloud City). None of the other characters in the classic trilogy have anything resembling an Obligation. Some of the prequel characters seem like they might – maybe Obsession for Anakin, or Duty for Padmé – but the Obligation mechanics don’t work for their stories. Obligations represent some external force that can benefit the character, but can also have external consequences – again, very similar to 13th Age Icon relationships or a Source of Stability in a pulp Trail of Cthulhu game. Anakin’s Obsession in the prequels is clearly a GUMSHOE Drive, a personal imperative that you violate only at a personal psychological cost, and not the external Edge of the Empire Obligation.

So, we’re telling Han Solo’s story. More specifically, we’re telling Han Solo’s story before he links up with Luke and Ben. Although this might sound limiting, creativity requires boundaries, and it’s actually empowering for both players and GMs as long as they take the hint and are not distracted by the fact that the game has unwisely included lightsabers in the equipment list (despite the fact that the game offers no way to gain access to the skill for using them). Star Wars is a big universe, exponentially more so once you throw in the EU, and players can come to the table with a wide range of understandings and expectations. So picking one clear aspect of the universe and developing it is a good way to both make your game robust, set expectations, and get all the players on the same page.

I know Fantasy Flight primarily through their boardgames (I’ve never played Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying 3rd Edition, which Edge of the Empire apparently has some similarities to), and I think of their design sensibilities as fairly retro. By contrast, Edge of the Empire is a contemporary design clearly much more influenced by Fate and GUMSHOE than d20 or GURPS. Still, the dice pool task resolution system is much more concrete, more nuanced, and finicky than anything in a rules-light game, and things like weapon lists and capabilities (different weapons have different powers that can be activated through spending advantage symbols), character abilities, and space combat actions are spelled out in crunchy detail. The game is trying to give at least something to all of Robin’s Laws Power Gamers, Butt-Kickers, Method Actors, and Storytellers.

I really like the total package here. The game that I’ve played that is closest in feel to Edge of the Empire is The One Ring, but I feel like Edge of the Empire’s dice pool is more nuanced which allows it to have a crunchier, more flavorful and interesting combat system, although as a result it has to be used somewhat sparingly. The wide range of dice results combined with character powers and explicit combat options give players who enjoy those elements something to get their teeth into, and the point-purchase system of advancement lets players grow their character sheets. Outside of combat, the Destiny Pool imports some useful ideas from Fate and gives the system a touch of epic-ness while still remaining grounded. The Obligations carve off a nice, constrained element of the Star Wars space and lets you develop ideas there and avoid many of the pitfalls of generic Star Wars gaming.

The key to enjoying Edge of the Empire is embracing these constraints. I played once with a GM who wanted to run a Jedi-centric (of course) post-Order 66 story arc, so home-brewed some force rules and introduced dramatic emotional complications between the pre-generated player characters and generally tried to force the game to be something it isn’t. This is a recipe for pain. While there is no reason why an adventure like this couldn’t work in theory, when confronted with it in practice the players likely won’t have a common touchstone to use to respond to it, and harnessing player creativity is so key to making these games work. The single biggest challenge to roleplaying in the universes of Lucas or Tolkien or Lovecraft – universes that have taken on lives of their own as they have became embedded in the popular culture – is often simply getting everyone at the table to understand and agree on the tone and theme of the game before you start. Edge of the Empire is not a game about dramatic conflict, or epic confrontations, or the hero’s journey, even though those may be elements of Star Wars. It’s about making a living in the grey areas of the galaxy while perhaps brushing up against the epic conflict. Take advantage of this clear direction, and embrace what the game does well.

After having said good things about the Edge of the Empire game system, I have to mention the massive complication that is the actual Edge of the Empire core rulebook. It is dire. While it has a nice layout and the art ranges from passable to excellent, the font sizes – especially on the tables – are small and hard to read. The text is dense and poorly organized. The prose is leaden and the rules are poorly explained. Never, for example, are the actual mechanics of a skill check properly spelled out! The core mechanic of the dice pool – which is straightforward and which I can explain to a player in a couple minutes – takes 10 pages of dense, wordy description with liberal use of copy and paste combined with search and replace. The bane of Fantasy Flight’s boardgame rules is badly-ordered or unstructured  explanations which rarely give you the context to actually understand what you’re reading (I talked about how to do this properly in an old piece on rules), and this is on full display here also. You really get the sense that the writers must have been paid by the pound, given how the rules seem to have been structured to maximize the amount of repetition required and how often they feel the need to brutally over-explain simple concepts.

Star Wars: Edge of the Empire is not a complicated game. It’s not rules-light, but it compares favorably with Fate-based games or The One Ring in terms of how difficult it is to play. It’s just that the book makes it seem three to four times as complicated as it actually is. Having been spoiled recently by fantastic Pelgrane products, just reading Edge of the Empire was an epic struggle.

The section on GMing the game is also frustratingly useless for anyone reading this blog, as it deals with many peripheral issues (maybe you can find players online! or at your local game store!) without ever seriously tackling anything important: things like adventure themes, structure, and tone. Interestingly, a number of excellent, concrete, and useful tips that are included in the Beginner’s Game box set (fail forward; say “yes, but”; don’t roll the dice if success and failure aren’t both interesting; don’t let forward momentum stop just because of a failed check) are nowhere to be found in the core book.

The rest of the supporting material is OK. The adversaries list is solid. The list of ships is a bit thin, but OK. The Galactic Guide is a nice if somewhat meandering overview of the Star Wars universe which unfortunately does not focus on the actual premise of the game, the Obligated character.

Again, though, the whole thing is compromised by a prose style that I consider basically unreadable. If you’re like me, you’ll read it just enough to figure out the core systems and design intent, get some stats for stormtroopers, and probably never go back to it again except for some tables. You’ve watched the movies. You really don’t need any more background than that – more information may in fact be unhelpful – and adversaries and starships don’t have that many stats to generate.

I liked Edge of the Empire. With the huge caveat of the quality of the writing, I think it’s the best take on Star Wars by far. The dice pool is versatile and provides useful hooks when used efficiently, and helps to narratively empower the players if the GM so desires. Other supporting elements are borrowed from proven systems. Obligations may not seem like a lot, but they are vital in setting the tone and character of the game. While the book doesn’t provide the support that one might hope, the game system itself provides enough structure for an experienced GM to run with and gives players opportunities to both play creatively and trick out their characters with cool powers and gear. While it certainly lacks the elegance and professionalism of a Robin Laws or Kenneth Hite game, there is still a lot to like here.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Knizia)

There has been a recent avalanche of Hobbit games, for some reason. When Knizia designed his classic Lord of the Rings game back in 2000 it didn’t have to worry much about collisions in the namespace. Now, everyone is on the Hobbit bandwagon and nobody knows what I’m talking about when I mention I’d like to play The Hobbit. Knizia himself has done three different Hobbit games. Recently. Plus another in the back catalog. Anyway, this one is published by Cryptozoic and is a cooperative game hearkening back to Lord of the Rings – but this time with dice instead of cards, and working from a different set of thematic ideas as befits the differences in tone between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

Knizia wrote a book called Dice Games Properly Explained in which he described the history and workings of different types of dice games. The Hobbit is identifiably a category dice game, in the same family as Yahtzee. Each turn you roll four custom dice with running, diplomacy, and fighting symbols, trying to match different challenges on the board (Keep the Troll William Talking, for example, requires 5 diplomacy). A set of running challenges make up the throughline of an episode and must be scored in order, while the rest can be done at any time. If you want to save any dice from your first roll, you must assign them to challenges, and then re-roll the rest. Fail to complete at least one challenge on your turn and you pay a penalty.As usual for Knizia, the nuance of the game is then built on top of this clean and straightforward engine. Tasks range in difficulty from easy (3 symbol matches) to formidable (8 symbol matches), the hardest requiring outrageous good fortune to complete without the many special powers the game gives you. The 14 members of the Company (13 Dwarves plus Bilbo) all have cards with one-use powers which will be dealt out to the players (re-rolls, access to the bonus gold die, extra symbols). These abilities can be used to your personal benefit, but also usually to benefit another player, albeit a slightly weaker version. Bifur for example, in addition to playing the clarinet, allows you an additional re-roll, or a re-roll of 2 white dice for someone else. Once used these powers are spent, although the game gives you quite a few opportunities to bring back used Company members for another spotlight moment.These Company powers are useful, but you will often find yourself in need of a bigger hammer. These are available in the form of resources like Gandalf (who doubles all your dice), The Contract (which allows you to recycle many Company members), The Map to Erebor (two extra diplomacy symbols), and, inevitably, Radagast’s “Beasts” (4 extra running). These are powerful one-shots that will fittingly bail you out of trouble when your backs are against the wall, but cost you points to use. Your score at the end will be the sum of all your unused resources.That’s about it. Each turn you face a board full of challenges, and draw an event card which can add additional challenges, make existing challenges harder, or give you an additional obstacle to deal with this turn. You then roll, choose one or more dice to allocate to one or more challenges, and re-roll any unallocated dice. If you haven’t then met at least one challenge, you lose points and a future resource – a fairly harsh penalty, so you have to keep moving.

As is typical for a Knizia design, the game gives you a great deal of flexibility (unlike the superficially similar Elder Sign which offers a much smaller decision space) and then tugs you in many different directions. You want to solve the challenges as quickly as possible, but if you sweep up all the easy ones while leaving all the hard ones on the table, it greatly increases your risk of failed turns. You need to keep your options open, picking off difficult challenges when the dice line up properly and keeping some easy ones in reserve for when you roll poorly – ideally even keeping a balance of fighting, running, and diplomacy challenges open. The big decisions revolve around how much risk to assume with the toughest challenges, when to make the big spend of a resource to finish those off, and when to take the hit or be satisfied with a lesser challenge for the turn – all as modified by turn-to-turn incidental events and the need to complete certain challenges in order.

The acid test of mechanical quality for cooperative games is whether there is enough on the table to engage several different minds in problem solving. Are four players on average going to do better than the one “best” player? The two classics in the genre attack this a little differently. In the case of Pandemic, the role cards give each player a different prism to look at the game through, which leads them to think in different ways which can then be debated and recombined. Knizia’s Lord of the Rings also gives players identities with special powers, but they are less crucial. Lord of the Rings just makes the calculus of risk and reward so resistant to mathematical analysis that it deprives the players of straightforward answers even after many games. Patterns will emerge, but most decisions in the game are judgement calls and so players will often naturally come to different conclusion.

The Hobbit embraces both, although not to the same degree as either. Your role identification is not as strong as it is in Pandemic, and neither is the math as intractable as in Lord of the Rings. However, both still work, and the combination is effective. You’ll usually have a few Dwarves (and maybe a Hobbit) in front of you that only you can use, and that will give you a perspective the other players lack. These powers tend to be moderately strong, and the fact that they are stronger on your turn than they are on other players turns is a nice way to encourage you to try to set yourself up to deal with challenges you are going to have the best shot at, while still giving you tools to help the other players out.

Dice games often fall afoul of relatively easy odds calculation – probably one reason why there are relatively few good ones. Monopoly Express is a classic example of a game where the unambiguously best choice is only some fairly easy math away. Even in Roll Through the Ages, the cost-benefit math of a re-roll is reasonably straightforward. In Elder Sign the math is harder, but the available choices are too few for it to help. The Hobbit does better, and offers players a rich and interesting set of die-rolling choices for a fairly straight-ahead category dice game. Once you’ve committed to a given challenge, the odds of finishing it (without using powers) are usually not too complex, but that is not where the game is – the game is in deciding what tasks to attempt in the first place and when to use those powers, and those decisions are much more resistant to straightforward mathematical analysis given the number of challenges, special powers, and resources usually available. The need to commit dice in order to save them is the key element that drives game tension. By giving you a great deal of flexibility on where to commit after seeing your first roll, but then needing to lock in at least partially before seeing your final roll, the game nicely balances control against the tension of rolling dice for stakes. Sometimes you’ll roll well and the choices will be easy, but usually – especially on higher difficulty levels – you’ll be somewhere in-between and the choices are not obvious.

The difficulty levels were a great and crucial feature of the original Lord of the Rings, and later cooperative games have not always managed this well despite the fact that appropriate difficulty is so key to this genre. The Hobbit does a good job here. If you start at level 0, you’ll get a game that is easy to learn and while it won’t be particularly challenging for cooperative game veterans, it’s a good way to get into the game. Knizia then gives you point thresholds for when you should advance to the next level. Level 2 is still moderately easy, but level 4 starts turning the screws, and level 6 is tough. Level 8 is advertised as exceptionally difficult, and while I haven’t made it there yet, I have no doubt that is true. Anyway, although I started at level 0, hardened gamers should probably consider starting at least at level 2. It should be mentioned though that unlike the life-or-death stakes of The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit has a much more action-adventure feel and the game appropriately is more about scoring than about whether or not the Company is going to survive, at least until you hit the top difficulty tiers.

The narrative elements of The Hobbit are driven similarly to Lord of the Rings. Each episode or act of the story is represented by a board and a set of events, which the players must work through against a ticking clock. After completing the board, the players get a refresh, collect resources earned, and press on. The multi-act structure is great and avoids death-spiral games – if you’re going to lose (which is pretty unlikely outside of the high difficulty levels), game tension is still maintained almost all of the way. In The Lord of the Rings, the narrative element was somewhat railroaded, which had the downside of predictability but the upside of keeping the narrative “beats” of tension going and avoiding the worst narrative lulls and crushes. The Hobbit is more free-form. The events are unique to each board but come in a random order. While they serve to mix up the game and keep you on your toes, they aren’t as interestingly varied as allowed for by the scripted events in Lord of the Rings and so don’t have as much texture and are not as evocative of the narrative of the movie. A lot of the drama and ebb and flow of the game is in coping with the vagaries of the dice themselves – not a bad way to go, but not as explicit.

While my general impressions of The Hobbit have been very positive, there is also no question that it took a hit when Peter Jackson made his fateful decision to split two movies into 3 late in the game. Players travel through two episodes of adventures, The Shire & Lonelands and Misty Mountains … Gollum, Goblins, and Wargs, after which they are carried off by eagles and the game ends (if they make it). The second board offers nicely increased stakes and tougher challenges, and then an abrupt finish. There obviously should be a third act. There isn’t. This is the game’s biggest problem – one more board would clearly be more satisfying. Since the game is based on the movies rather than the books, we then have to dive into the morass of whether or not Peter Jackson knows what the heck he is doing in turning a nice, tightly-plotted 200-ish-page classic of children’s literature into a bloated, 9 hour cinematic monstrosity. Obviously, my guess would be not, and the boardgame is sadly stuck having to work with the narrative mess of the movies. Knizia is legendary for his design economy, and economical is one descriptor I would not apply to Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit. Thankfully Knizia’s design elegance has done a better job at getting to the essence of film than Peter Jackson did.

Interestingly, though, The Hobbit does channel some of the flavor of the book. The story of the book is basically one of a bunch of not particularly competent dwarves going from adventure to adventure and repeatedly getting into more trouble than they can handle and requiring Gandalf or Bilbo to come along and bail them out. The game has a similar ebb and flow to it. While the Company will be able to handle the mundane tasks of getting from point A to point B, tackling the most difficult challenges will often require calling in bigger guns. The movie dwarves are rather more competent than their cousins in the book, and the game seems to split the difference. The little bits of personality the dwarves in the game have, with their individual special powers, is just about right. Balin and Gloin, the more senior dwarves, have extra die symbols. Fili and Kili, the youngest, have good powers that can’t be shared. Thorin has the unique ability to give anyone a gold die – more leadership than he showed in the book, maybe, but it feels right.

I’ll just say a couple words on the physical design of the game, since in this sort of game art and presentation can make a big difference to the game’s ambiance and ability to evoke its source material. In many cases Cryptozoic has done a good job. The Dwarf cards are well designed, use clear and large iconography  and have a nice heft to them. The resources are similarly clear, although they could benefit from some art. The boards have nice scenic landscape shots on them. Although they compare unfavorably to the much more active Lord of the Rings boards, which show people or creatures doing things, on the other hand much of the board space is going to be covered with challenge cards most of the time so this is arguably better. But – oh dear. The font sizes. The names of the challenges on the board and cards are difficult to read at 2mm high, leaving the overall design with lots of dead space and looking boring. This doesn’t cause a gameplay problem, but it does make it a bit harder to get into the spirit of the game when you can’t really tell whether you are trying to finish “Split the Rock to Let the Light Through” or “Follow Bilbo Baggins to Rescue Him”.

I liked The Hobbit. It’s a classic Knizia design, elegant in gameplay but with subtlety to the strategies. The characterizations and narrative elements are economical but very effective. Decision are fraught with ambiguity and risk. It doesn’t ask the player to make unimportant or uninteresting decisions and doesn’t waste their time. The mechanics of playing the game are kept to a minimum (just two rolls of the dice each turn) so the players can get on with the interesting discussion and decision making. The game has a narrative momentum and pulse, although like Lord of the Rings you’ll need to move up through the difficulty levels to get the full experience. Unfortunately, while it’s reasonably satisfying on its own, it won’t feel complete until the Desolation of Smaug (at least) can be linked up to it. With only two boards, it still works, is short, and has all the elements I want from a medium-weight Knizia. But it feels truncated. I’m really looking forward to getting the full experience.