by Jonathan Franklin
I thought I liked thematic games. Apparently, thematic does not mean what I thought it meant. The term is often used when the theme meshes with the game mechanisms, such as Viticulture, Arnak (sort of), and other games where the theme is not irrelevant to the mechanisms. While I like those, I really meant I like immersive games. Where you feel you are in the game, not a soulless puppet master converting coins to cubes to points.
That said, here are four immersive games I played this past week and what I thought of them. All the usual caveats – one play of each, often intro scenario, got most if not all rules as intended, etc.
Agemonia – Played a non-intro scenario. The map book has pages with lots of zones without a tactical combat grid. It has the story beats built into the map based on where you are and where you move to, but the content is on cards, not a huge book. At the same time, the scale is not immense, so you might be in an abbey and have maybe 30-40 zones including exterior and interior with stairs connecting them and other stuff to discover. The colors are bright and it is not a grimdark environment. The movement and action system is pretty straightforward and the ability to level up is between adventures, so it feels like it is designed to be a campaign, but can be played as a one-off, so long as the character is at a suitable level for the scenario.
As it is a co-op, they have designed it not to have the monsters ever roll dice. They do deterministic targeting and damage and you as the player roll dice to avoid the hit and/or damage. The dice system has exploding dice, some sides that require spending energy, and health is managed with a very clever chip system that captures damage and fatigue. It is sort of fiddly, but also captures the complexity of fatigue and wounds in a holistic manner that is not the Arkham-style sanity and wounds just being different kinds of wounds.
Folklore: the Affliction – Played an intro scenario. Folklore has a two-board system with a world map and then a gridded tactical battlefield for important battles. There is an intermediate battle system, called skirmishes, played on the world map. The overarching story is read from a book or pages and the party moves as a whole on the world map. There are roads and also off-road areas bounded by roads and other borders. One of the important choices is whether to travel on the road or off-road. Randomized adventures are triggered by this choice.
Combat uses 2d10s as percentile dice. While it is exciting, it is pretty swingy and I think I would prefer a 2d6 system with a bell-curve over the percentile system. At the same time, this is a lighter game and the system works well for what it is trying to do. The strength of the game is that there is a narrative arc that is larger than a small scenario on a building-sized map, so it has a nice rpg feel.
Cthulhu: Death May Die – Played the intro scenario. Much like Agemonia, the scale of C:DMD is more like Mansions of Madness in that it takes place in a single building. There is a very specific goal for you to achieve and characters have a mix of unique and shared abilities. This one is more combat oriented than Folklore or Agemonia and is a bit more of a threat-management game, in that you are moving tactically and coordinating with other players, but not so much that it bogs the game down. One wonderful aspect of C:DMD is that when you get an item by being in a safe area, you get two options, so fire equipment could be an ax if slotted one way or a fire extinguisher if slotted the other way. In addition, these items can be traded to the player who can best use them, but once the first person decides what it is, no subsequent player can change to the other side.
The combat is dice-based with a balance of hit/misses and also sanity hits. One cool aspect of the game is as you get closer to death, you become stronger, so sometimes you want to lose sanity to power up even more. There is a reroll system, so you can try to avoid sanity loss or a complete whiff of a roll. I enjoyed this system for the weight of the game that it is, but I admit to liking exploding dice and/or a bit more resource management.
Tales of the Loop: Played the intro scenario. This game has a different feel from the others, but fits in the same spirit. Every day starts at school and ends with you going home. The map is more like a world-map, but instead of roads and zones, movement is point-to-point by car, bus, etc. Each move has a time cost and the pressure is to get home in time for dinner while still exploring and moving the story forward. The locations are either normal spaces and restricted spaces, the latter are harder to get to and take more time to explore. As you uncover parts of the story, the map gets new tiles that add information or tasks that can be done at that location.
Combat is not essential, but instead you are hacking these autonomous bots to either fix them or to untangle a problem. The dice are d6 with a special side and most tasks are resolved by rolling a number of dice based on that skill and possibly asking others at that location for help. The skill system means that most other players can help you, but some cannot depending on the skill you need for that task.Interestingly, the game captures the books in that you are kids with chores that constrain what you can do. Perhaps much like being a kid, those constraints are not always that much fun.
Conclusion: Each of these games has quite a bit to offer and to play them all within a week was great!
My personal tastes let me appreciate aspects of all four games
World Maps: I enjoyed the world maps of Tales of the Loop and Folklore, especially seeing the events change the plans of the group and the individuals.
Some Narrative: I appreciated the narrative being on the cards in Agemonia and Tales of the Loop, but understand that many like more content, as found in books and apps.
Feeling of Choice: The exploration of space was wonderful in Agemonia because it gave you reasons to not take the most efficient path to the big bad, which made it feel like exploration.
Non-Combat Paths (or at least not all-combat-all-the-time): I enjoyed the open-ended exploration facilitated by Tales of the Loop and Agemonia, but understand that a full sandbox game might not have the narrative arc of a more scripted/bounded experience, as offered by Folklore and Cthulhu: DMD.
Lack of Extended Tactical Combat: I liked that all four games permitted combat to be in broad strokes. Folklore was the most tactical, but even then, the system was so simple that it did not feel like a plodding discussion of line-of-sight. Abstracted combat, such as the skirmishes in Folklore worked well with the games structure, whether you like the resolution mechanisms or not.
Exploding Dice: I enjoyed the dice system in Agemonia, as no one has to ‘play the monster’ and seemingly impossible situations can be won due to the dice system and the health tracking chips.
Creative management of life/stamina/sanity/wounds: Both Cthulhu: DMD and Agemonia had fun ways of dealing with damage. Agemonia’s chip system made fatigue bad and wounds much worse, which while intuitive was also handled smoothly. C:DMD has the awesome system where you were happy to get wounded, but not too wounded, as it powered you up to improve your odds of success as a whole. It will be hard to go back to basic health tracking after seeing how these games handle it.
Quirky Setting: I liked the world of Tales of the Loop, in that it was not a trope-laden fantasy romp. I might have liked role-playing adults more than kids with chores, but it knows its time and place.
Thanks for reading and I welcome any suggestions for other games I might like in the comments.
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I used to think thematic games are of the Descent or Nemesis variety. After reading this, I might have to switch to a more proper term of: immersive.