Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Obtainers of Rare Antiquities - Assault: 19xx Card Game Review (update 9/15)

Assault: 19xx, including the 2nd volume extras

Assault: 19xx summarizes itself perfectly- a Dieselpunk adventure. It's a fun, casual game that's most suited to a party, and definitely not the sort where you agonize over strategy.

Art Style
As with the webcomic series, the game's aesthetics fit neatly between the more well-known Steampunk genre and modern fantasies in the 20th century, like the Indiana Jones series. Unfortunately, the box art looks slightly blurred, possibly from a resize or something, which is a shame, since the interior art is better. The card art is nice- with the slightly stiff but clearly loved feel of the comic.

In fact, most (all?) of the illustration is lifted from the graphic novel and its companion dossiers. I like the style- it feels open and is easy to read/identify the focal points on a given card. One of the strongest elements of the comic is the design, and the cards are very nicely laid out, too. It's minimal without feeling sparse.

I feel the easiest way to describe gameplay is often to go through the sequence of play.

Starting the Game
You begin by dividing into 2 teams of pretty traditional good and evil (set up in alternating/opposite positions). Each player draws 3 random characters from a set of 12 (or 8 if just using the core set, though the boxed game comes with the expansion built-in) and picks one to be their character.

These characters have 3 basic stats- attack and defense, and luck (with the latter being added to both of the former and determining a couple other things); one ability that usually involves stat modifications or your hand; one once-per-game ability; and usually one piece of signature equipment that your character start with.

While there's some balance here, after playing several games, there are clearly classes of good, average, and poor characters, and some in particular that can dramatically skew the early game (for instance, if they have a really good ability or weapon that deals more than average damage).

You draw a hand from a combination of Item and Luck cards. These represent abundance and theme, more than they represent types: while Items tend to have more weapons and mundane objects and Luck tend to have more esoteric things, Items can include intangible bonuses and Luck can contain very tangible gear, and a few items appear in both decks.

The starting spread, with alternating good/evil players with some variety in starting hand and gear; the central decks (chapters 1-4; luck, items); the score cards. Zoom in for a look at some of the different stats and abilities.

Playing a Turn
There's a very open-ended turn, in that there's no strict sequence. Each turn, you draw a single Item card and can make a single attack (outside of abilities or cards that grant more attacks), and can use any number of items.

Most equipment (guns, armor, relics, etc.) take a turn to attach, meaning there's a delay between grabbing a gat, and gatting fools with it. You also have a fun setup of where gear goes (you can't wear 3 helmets at once- the fashion police will get you!), though some gear doesn't take up any space. My only real complaint about this system is that, the vast majority of the time, single-handed weapons can't be used in pairs and, if you're lucky enough to get a pair, it's only equivalent to a very average 2-handed weapon.

Cards most often up your stats or give you single-use actions (such as dodging, healing, or cursing (that would be the magical variety- the language is PG)), though there are quite a few bits of cooler gear that can change the battlefield (it sucks to attack a team fortified by sandbags) or do weirder things, like summon a bunch of giant birds or somewhat creepily "cure" someone of their weapon.

There's some imbalance in the cards, as there are some just plain awesome ones that stand out head and shoulders above the rest: giving a full team a defensive bonus, or getting an Ally, which grants you a strong ability from another character card (normally compensated for with a lower stat line) can swing the game heavily.

Shining Skull (one of my favorite baddies) with a full array of equipment including his signature gun, and a hand.

That's Just How I Roll: Dice Mechanics
When you attack, you roll a d6, adding it to your collective offensive stats (ex: it could go something like, Attack + Weapon + Luck + special bullets + team modifier), to beat your opponent's collective defensive stats.

This is simultaneously my favorite and least-liked part of the game.

Starting with the bad news: With some luck drawing gear, a defender can get high enough stats that it's actually impossible to hit them with a regular attack. The only way to damage them becomes stuff that doesn't roll to hit. Eventually, you'll find you're actually hoping for crit. fails if you can only attack players who are too dodgy to actually hit. Which brings us to...

The good news: the critical failure system. 1's auto-fail, which is fine, since it's rare that a 1 wouldn't fail anyway. When you roll a 1, though, you also get a Luck card. This is a great consolation prize, as you don't have a ton of ways of acquiring Luck, and they're some of the best cards in the game. It means that when you're having poor rolls, you'll get more resources with which to keep fighting.

Some of the custom assets in the 19xx game, including health trackers and the luck die.

Chapter cards
My other favorite aspect of the game is the scorecard. Each time you do damage, you progress down a score list that occasionally has bonuses or penalties, but, more importantly, has Chapter cards. These are special cards that are almost exclusively drawn when you score points, and give some very cool effects, a few of which are labeled Global, meaning they affect every player. It gives a real sense of flow to the game, and means that there can be phases where, for a few turns an event affects the entire fighting area. It's a very nice way of adding narrative without forcing a rigid structure.

An example of a scorecard and chapter bonus, and one of the snazzy metal score-tracking counters.

The Sum of Its Parts
So, what it amounts to- in any given game, I'll both thoroughly enjoy it and be incredibly frustrated.

Some of the time, you (or your opponents) are accomplishing things and getting cool rewards, or failing but getting a worthwhile consolation prize that helps you kick butt next turn.

Other times, someone gets a few lucky cards and it's impossible to hit them, or someone gets multiple unblockable attacks and just causes havoc, or you just can't roll a 3 to save your life, or you get five weapon cards in a row and everything you trade them in for is redundant or allows you to draw more cards that turn out to be weapons. What results is either the game grinds to a halt or one side takes a serious beating.

What this comes down to is the same thing I feel causes Warhammer 40k to fail to be enjoyable or balanced at a small scale: as the number of instances for randomization decrease, the likelihood that you'll see anomalous luck increases. In other words, five 6's in a row in a large game might be cool and weird, but it's maybe 10% of a turn, while five 6's over the course of 3 rounds as the sum of those attacks can make a game break down quickly.

This is particularly obvious in one-on-one or free-for-all, where those numbers drop even further, and some games end in 10 minutes, while others drag on indefinitely. For this reason alone, the game is only suited to team play.*

There are also a number of ambiguities in the rules that even casual and non-gamer players will find confusing. Assault: 19xx is in the category of games not written for the generation of Warmachine and Dominion, with their lean and sharply defined rules, but that of 40k and fluffy, experiential rules.

*We had reasonable success with 1v1 and each player controlling two allied characters, but this was a house rule.

So, the ultimate yes/no question- do I recommend the game?

UPDATE, September 2015:
No, I can't, really. I originally felt more charitable, but as I've played more games and gotten deeper into board gaming culture, I've realized this is pretty classic Ameritrash.

For those of you who aren't familiar with the rather harsh term, it's applied to games with nice production values but not a lot of actual substance, in that there's no real choice to be made, with an obvious best move from the perspective of any experienced player and/or little to actually choose.

It was a nice attempt at a narrative game, but unfortunately fell short, since the true test of the game style is ultimately replay value, and the lack of choice kills that.