Thursday, September 17, 2015

My Other Car's a Centaur Demon - Journey: Wrath of Demons Review

Journey, Marrow Production's ode to the classical epic, Journey into the West. A review of their cooperative game through mythical China, including plays of the first three scenarios.

Initial impressions
These are, for the most part, initial impressions. More notes on material and content follow in Play Experience below.

The materials are nice. Really nice. Of the myriad Kickstarters I've funded, this game has some of the most impressive gaming materials, with a hefty book, well above-average plastic, good cardboard, etc. I think this is probably the nicest material for a board game I've ever played, actually.

The game fits very well in its box, and the models are well-protected in their initial packaging which holds them snugly without risk of damage when removing them. They also come in nice mini-boxes. A bag for tokens is the only additional material you'd need for sorting or storage.

The only materials problem I'd state is that the sculpts are all repeats, which is to say, within an enemy type, there's little variation, so you've got a line of clones (some of which are holding different weapons). Same goes for the tiles- they're not all the same, but within a given type they are: For instance, pier/dock tiles below are repeated

An action shot of the game in full swing, late in the 3rd scenario. Those sidelined enemies were all in play and now the heroes are fighting the second miniboss to appear.
Oh, also, there are a ton of pieces in the game. This is kind of a preference thing. As with some of the rules, though, I found it a little more than necessary.

When it comes to shiny, big board games, the staple comparison is 3rd/4th edition Space Hulk. Even with Space Hulk's variety, I'd say that Journey holds up to the comparison admirably, with bonus points for good storage.

The rulebook is a little repetitive and the fluff isn't amazing (though does capture the tone well enough), but I believe it's their second language, so a lot of props still. Either way, neutral and not something I'd count against the game.

More importantly, though, I'll take a kind of boring rulebook over a shoddy one that assumes things any day of the week. We got through the rules and the first scenario without ever having a serious rules question. Having recently felt burnt by Myth, I heartily appreciate a clear rulebook. It was also pretty.

The rules feel a bit more complex than they should be for the content, but that's just the difference between a fine rules set and a great one. You get a lot of options, and there's a nicely comprehensive cheat sheet on the back of the book. While page numbers would have gone the extra mile, just the titles and sequence were enough for us to easily remember what to do by the end of the first scenario. Again, fine, not outstanding.

After playing the first scenario, the biggest complaint we had with the rules is that movement is very finicky. With 3-4 movement a character, only directly forward movement and 90º turns, some restrictions for non-square bases, and not being able to choose activation order, it often felt like we were spending a ton of time (up to half our actions in a turn) shuffling around each other to get where we actually wanted to go.

Even with very few models, it can take several minutes to try
to figure out movement that won't end up wasting movement
this turn or the next. (Scenario 2)
For example: It takes 7 movement for a small model to back up 1 square; 3 for a medium, and it's actually possible for a medium-sized Pilgrim to get trapped against a wall and be unable to act (which would take poor planning, but still shouldn't be a concern).

It's actually very odd how similar the movement is to Space Hulk (which rarely feels anything other than intuitive) yet how cumbersome it felt in this system, despite the boards being more open.

The combat system is pretty intuitive, using the increasingly common "both sides randomize, compare results" structure, with an option each time you defeat an enemy of what amounts to a 2-path experience system, in what is a pretty cool interpretation of Karma. Good Karma is unreliable since you roll to see if you actually remove the defeated enemy, while Bad karma gives weapon buffs but random penalties.

The scenarios are narratively linked, and there's an optional light-weight campaign system that you can use to retain some advances. The campaign looks like it'll really change how you interact with Karma, since the negative outcomes don't cap, while weapon buffs do.

A note on cooperative gaming
So, I find cooperative (vs. AI in its many forms, from a randomizer to pen-and-paper-computer) board games to be extremely hard to do in a way that necessitates they're cooperative, and not just a few players debating over what to do with one player having the final say on a given piece, where the game could realistically be played about the same as a 1-player game (in fact, Journey even specifically allows 1-player).

I want to go into more detail on this phenomenon some other time, but, for now, I'm going to leave it at this: Journey is neither better nor worse than par for full co-op games. If you like or dislike that style of game, this should color your approach to Journey appropriately. (Personally, I'm not a big fan, but it also won't stop me from playing that style of game if its other features are nice.)

A note on AI
Again, something that could use its own article down the line. Journeyman uses an interesting little deck that's a mix of mostly basic spawns, some enemy buffs, and occasional super-spawns. (Spawn points are a fairly major part of the game, with shutting down spawn points being valuable, and sometimes necessary for a scenario.) Once these take place, enemies move in a fairly straightforward and hierarchical pattern.

However, I felt like the movement system worked well: It became pretty hard to predict enemy movement after the first guy or two, since the movement system created a lot of variables, so, unless you wanted to figure out a dozen or so paths and how they'd affect enemy position, there was a little guesswork (but you could still, with skill and effort, predict/control the enemies).

I thought it was a pretty good mix of simplicity and depth, with my only complaint being a slightly too swingy deck for my tastes.

Play Experience
A little of this bled into the above review, but I tried to keep these reactions self-contained, writing each after the scenario.

Scenario 1 (Rescue villagers)
This was a bit boring. To their credit, the game writers very explicitly stated it was easy and a tutorial scenario, but it was still bland. It did teach us that movement was important and that lucky enemy hits could seriously hurt, but there was no real sense of threat or urgency, despite the timer. 3-player is a little awkward, since one player controls 2 Pilgrims while the others control 1 each. Kinda' highlights the earlier problems with a full co-op game.

Scenario 2 (Rescue a fallen ally)
This certainly showed us a more exciting game: We ran across our first of the non-chump Demons, and it took the whole party a lot of effort to bring him down. We also did a lot more with the Karma system, which was definitely fun. New skills and new items are always exciting.

The game already felt a lot more involved, and we had a lot more planning this time. (Also, we figured out that we misread combat so grunts weren't quite the chumps we'd thought.)

However, with more pieces, more action, and more rules, some flaws were revealed:
  • The serifed font they have looks bizarrely Western (as in the Wild West, not western nations), and is very hard to read, which takes you out of the aesthetic a little, and slows down the game since scanning things can be harder.
    Seems like this should have been caught, since it's how the
    models are deployed
    . (Beginning of Scenario 2)
  • The little health chits are extremely loose in the character cards. These look really easy to lose, and are a little hard to keep in place during play. (Note the full scenario shot above, in which we left the health counters above the character sheets.)
  • By far the most frustrating is that the models don't rank up well. The poses are wider than the bases, and there was no attempt to offset the poses, so the basic warriors kept running in to each other, even before combat, when they were just coming at us in a line. Maybe I'm spoiled by infantry blocks, but this really threw me off.

I feel all three of these problems could have been easily avoided, with a better font choice; a better chit shape and/or slot for it to fit; and smaller models, larger tiles, or properly angled models. All three unnecessarily slow down the game and take you out of it, which exaggerates the slowness of the game and hamstrings the game's otherwise immersive feel.

The Meditate action also seems rather strange. It mostly seems to be a way of spending actions if you can't do anything more productive, with a randomizer which then draws from good or bad decks (other randomizers). It feels like a lot of effort for not a great result, and seems weird as representing "meditating".

Scenario 1 & 2, reprise
I played these two again, solo. The first one was extremely easy. The second one was also easier (though good rolls didn't hurt).

I'm glad there are official methods increase the difficulty- I wish they were a little more specific in each scenario (ex: an optional set of additions for each), but it's still a decent-looking system.

The games also went a lot more fluidly, from a combination of no debate and more experience.

The first miniboss, later a regular enemy.
(Marrow stock photo)
Scenario 3 (disable spawn points)
We played this one a bit differently, much more casually, where I was playing the game and others were helping while hanging out.

So, in this one, there's a kind of odd starting tile with a healing point and nothing else, and other than a miniboss that begins in play, nothing spawns until you leave it. This highlighted some good and bad elements.

The good first: late game, it was actually worth it for two of the Pilgrims to heal while the other two guarded (letting demons onto the tile loses you the game), which is one of the only times I've ever had an out-of-the-way healing point actually be useful as a strategic asset, and something you needed to plan around.

Then the bad: having skipped the spawning text, the first time I started this scenario, I got flooded and couldn't get off the bridge. Ever. This was largely because of baddies spawning, but also because your turn order (random and after deployment) means that it's extremely easy to get clogged, when two large models have trouble maneuvering.

The second time, I had the time to maneuver properly, and but quickly gave up, declaring, "I've got an infinite number of turns to get this right: they're in the right spaces now." (This delay also meant I had an infinite amount of time to power up, which I chose not to game.) But, the point is, maneuvering is kind of a bear. Also, this necessary delay meant that one could easily game the system for full chi (a resource some actions require).

This maneuvering problem became something of a focus to the game, later. Cavalry-style long bases, once engaged, can easily be stuck next to what they want to attack without having a clear ability reach it. It took one centaur what resembled a k-turn in the middle of a melee to be able to attack someone adjacent to him.

...And that's kind of the sticking point for me (and my gaming crew). In a game with demons, magic races, dragons, ogres, divine karmic manifestations, mystical weapons, risky fighting choices, teamwork, and a quest to defend the world from a horrible invasion, it felt like trying to maneuver in a magical parking lot.

We stopped after the third scenario.

The four heroes. (Marrow stock photo)
It's not like the game doesn't present tactical challenges, interesting risk assessment, narrative, cool power-ups, or a sense of danger. (It does provide all of those things.) It just never was very exciting. The movement seems like the biggest element to the game, but also felt like a barrier to enjoying the game.

It was really odd to me, because it took a very long time for me to figure out what was wrong with the game- usually if I don't like something, it's because I think some element of it (creative, mechanical, even the designers' attitude) is offensive and/or stupid.

There's nothing specifically wrong with Journey- even the movement that I don't like is mechanically sound. However, what it comes down to is that, for all of its mechanical solidity and pretty components, none of us felt it was very engaging.

So, I'm not really sure how to recommend this game or not, mostly because I can't tell how much of that is a matter of taste vs. poor design. I feel like the game wasn't sold as what it was, and I don't know if this was because the designers thought it was more exciting, or if just selling it as such seemed advantageous, but I bought into what I thought was going to be an adventure game, and that wasn't what I felt I got.

As for my purchase recommendation, I'll need to settle on a hedging, "different strokes." If you want an exciting, fast strategy-adventure game, I don't think this is for you. If you want a gorgeous and thematic puzzle game, you'd probably like this.