Elementals, by Michael McDowell

At first, it seemed as if written by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Then it slid inexorably into Dan Simmons territory.

It’s not often I feel truly chilled by a novel and frightened for its characters. This one took me there. Definitely recommended.

(And thank you, to the anonymous Amazon ebook reader who chose to share this with a stranger. I’m much obliged.)

Elementals on goodreads

Seventh Son Mini Review

Jennifer & I enjoyed this one a lot. As fantasy films go, this one is near the top.

Don’t let the simplistic blurb fool you, nor the fact that it casts the guys as heroes and the villain as a woman. Though it begins with the standard fantasy trope of young fellow in the boonies who dreams of being something bigger and is destined to become embroiled in a universal battle of good versus evil (you know, like Star Wars), the story grows smoothly into something deeper and more multifaceted. Jeff Bridges and Julianne Moore head a cast that never missteps, the story is solid, and the special effects are unobtrusively excellent, making for an immersive experience.

Sometimes a movie comes along that makes me pine for 1980, when our very first role-play group would be inspired by and chatter about a book or film in the fledgling field of fantasy media. (Back when bookstores stocked fantasy novels at the tail end of the two rows of sci-fi books near the back of the shop.) This is one of those films. Except with 2021 CGI.

It’s also one of the very few movies I’ll definitely watch more than once. Time is precious. This one earns it.

IMDB: Seventh Son

Review – The Road to Ruin – a Zombie Card Game

The Road to Ruin banner image from DriveThruCards

With my study table still cleared off, last night Jennifer sat down with me to play The Road to Ruin, a 1-4 player cooperative scavenger hunt across a zombie-infested cityscape. It’s published by Hero Forge Games.

This little review follows my usual practice of “What’s it about? What’s good about it? What’s bad about it? What’s your recommendation?” learned from Space Gamer magazine in the 80’s.

Overview

We have the DriveThruCards version, which comes as a deck of 122 cards; you supply a pawn or other token for each player, and “dice cards” are included. The Hero Forge website lists that version and a Game Crafter one with tokens and dice.

Game prep consists of laying out the 25 location cards facedown in a grid, with a different layout in each of five scenarios. One location card, the “Safe House,” your starting point, is left face up. Then 18 zombie encounter cards and 6 “Supply Items” are shuffled together, with 1 each dealt to the facedown locations. Each player selects one of the Survivors, a few weapons and items are shared among them, and play begins.

Your goal is to find those Supply Items and return them to the Safe House—the Radio Call scenario being an exception, in which you must find the “Lookout” and “Airport” locations, then find and take the “Radio Transceiver” to the first 5 Supply Items to the second. The rest of the zombies go to a facedown encounter deck.

Play time is listed as 30 minutes, though I think Jenny and I took about twice that.

The Good

The game marvelously captures the theme of things like, “The Walking Dead”: the desperate search for supplies from locale to locale, encountering zombies, while you’re wounded and low on ammunition. This isn’t a game of heroically killing zombies left and right; it’s about desperate survival.

In part, that ambiance is conveyed by the graphic design and mood text, but the mechanics are what seal the deal.

Items are scarce, and when used, many go out of the game permanently. Hand size is limited. The survivors are fragile. And the zombies don’t go away when defeated. Battle at a locale doesn’t discard the zombie card even if you win, it just means you escaped the fight alive. Losing means you escape wounded. Five wounds and you’re dead.

Moving to a locale takes a turn, battling any zombies there. Scavenging the locale takes another turn, battling those zombies again. And the zombie combat levels range from frightening on some cards to truly brutal on others. There are no easy encounters. Combat is a matter of rolling 2d6 and hoping to match the zombie value, with weapons (if you have one) allowing a die to be rerolled. Sometimes weapons break and go out of the game; some weapons require ammunition. Medical supplies are fleeting.

The rules for all of this are simple enough to fit on 7 playing cards, with 4 of those 14 faces devoted to scenario layouts and conditions.

And to top things off, 2 of the cards are deck organizers, making it easy to keep track of which draw and discard decks are which.

The Bad

There’s very little to complain about.

I do wish the rules cards were numbered, to keep them organized and easier to reference.

More importantly, I wish the rules were more careful to use capitalized game terms instead of less specific, lowercase one. The most troublesome example being that the term “supply cards” actually refers to “Supply Item” cards. It wasn’t until after playing a scenario and feeling “That was too easy” that I realized the items even had an identifier in the upper right corner, with most of those being merely descriptive, like the game’s flavor text.

And though the two organizer cards are handy, even handier would have been to label the card backs of each deck with its category.

One weirdness about the game is that while it includes a “dice” deck so you don’t need actual dice, it doesn’t seem aware of the strategic way that can change play, if mostly high numbers have been used so far, making it obvious that combat is about to become deadly, or vice versa. A direction to shuffle those cards after each battle would help.

Finally (though it’s hardly worth noting and has no discernable effect), the threat deck actually consists of 26 cards instead of 25.

The Augury

If you’ve read through this review, it probably means you like zombie games, in which case I predict you’ll enjoy this one a lot.

It’s one of the best I’ve encountered in the genre, fun solo, and even more fun with others.

Highly recommended!

Capsule Review: Deck Box Dungeons

Caveat: I’m a designer and publisher reviewing other people’s games that I admire.

Deck Box Dungeons is a dungeon crawler board game in a card box (about the size of two Bicycle deck boxes back to back). Inside are 44 cards, 5 standard dice, 13 specialty dice representing monsters, 5 small fantasy themed meeples, and a 14-page rules book. A separate app serves as a random dungeon generator. It’s a 1-2 player game (2 characters total); 3-4 players by combining 2 copies.

The Good …

Designing characters is engaging: lay an item card, a character card, and an ability card side by side, with matching edges determining combat and skill scores. Treasure points, health, and ability energy are tracked with cards sliding beneath those.

The combat rules are nicely done, balancing hero choices and special powers against more limited actions for monsters but stronger dice ratings.

Small fantasy meeples represent the heroes, while the specialty dice represent the monsters, some faces identifying a ranged attacker and others a melee attacker, as well as their health. These dice are rolled at the start of each new encounter, to randomize their type and health. Dice color and attack type is keyed to individual monster cards, to determine that monster’s combat abilities.

Combat itself uses standard dice, with each representing a chance to hit, and to defend when hit in turn. The more dice you roll and the higher your combat modifier, the more chances one or more hit.

Like an arcade game, as you hit, your power rises, allowing you to activate special powers on your chosen ability card. Likewise as you kill a monster, you receive its random treasure score immediately, allowing you to buy magic items and potions even in the middle of combat.

The dungeon map tile cards are identified by number and letter, so the app can indicate which to place next for a random dungeon layout. Given the limited number of map cards, and that there’s an encounter or event each card, the map doesn’t wander beyond manageable size.

The app itself is easy to grasp yet flavorful, randomizing the dungeon and encounters, but actual movement and combat remain on the table. And the game is expandable with user-generated missions available online.

The Bad …

The rule book is unclear in places, with wasted space that could have been used for examples. One of the oddest issues is monster dice placement, with no instruction for which die is placed first, but a very specific staggered diagram for which space they go in. On many map tiles that diagram simply doesn’t fit, calling for tedious adjustment.

A few non-combat encounters (traps) allow no roll to avoid, which can kill a wounded character anticlimactically, especially given the overall scarcity of healing options during play. Character skills other than combat abilities seem seldom used.

The fantasy meeples are nearly indecipherable silhouettes, unlike like those pictured on the Kickstarter page.

The deck box itself thin material, easily crushable, not in keeping with the quality of the game components.

& the Augury

I’ve had considerable fun with Deck Box Dungeons, both solo and with my spouse, and I predict it’ll see more play here in the future.

Players coming to it as a dungeon crawl adventure should be aware, however, that it has a solo game’s difficulty. The wrong pair of characters, equipment, and abilities guarantees fatality, and even the best mix has a good chance of death. Strategy is critical: which character spawns the next tile, who follows up, and when to use powered abilities.

(As for monster dice placement, online FAQ says choice of which comes next is left to the player, which makes that detailed diagram for placement even odder. I’d suggest ignoring it. Just put the toughest monster on the center space, place the rest adjacent to it with archers toward the back and melee units up front—which is in keeping with their actions during combat.)

Some people think the game slightly too pricey, though that perception likely involves the box. I think the components and game play well worth the price.