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Subject: A Kiss to Build a Dream On - A review of Salvation Road rss

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Scott Sexton
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The Elevator Pitch: Salvation Road (SR) is a bare bones co-op/solo style Ameritrash adventure game that mixes action point/action selection (Eldritch Horror, Defenders of the Realm/Last Stand) with Euro-style resource gathering/management. The game doubles down on a post apocalyptic survival story where players must explore ruins in order to find the supplies necessary to escape to a fabled safe haven down The Salvation Road.

Game play basics: Players control two characters, a Hero and a Survivor. Hero's have powerful special abilities, and Survivors have some kind of negative trait. On their turn, players will take 2 actions (from a list of many actions) with one of their characters. The game board is broken up into the characters' compound and a series of locations the characters can visit (think Dead of Winter). Once each player has taken the actions for both of their characters, players roll custom dice to see if any of the characters outside of the compound take injuries. Finally, an event card is flipped that causes raiders to attack the compound and/or other bad things happen. If the players can gather enough resources, they can try to journey down the Salvation Road, spending supplies as they go. IF they can make it to Salvation (the fabled safe haven) and can pay the toll, the players win the game.

Praise:

1- The art design/layout of the game board is AWESOME. The game board is set up so that it doesn't look like a game board, its supposed to look like maps and junk spread out on your table in front of you. Location cards are supposed to look like Polaroid pictures (which gives the game an AMAZING table presence).

2- The game length fits an interesting niche. It isn't as quick as smaller solo games like Hostage Negotiator, but it isn't as epic as other adventure games like Defenders of the Realm/Last Stand or Eldritch Horror. This is a game I think can clock in at 60 minutes or slightly less without too much trouble.

3- The fun of SR lies in the random set up of locations and character cards. How you use these variable cards is what determines your success more then anything else in SR. Every game should offer you a new randomly set up puzzle to figure out.

4- The game is designed to carefully build the tension to a crescendo. I ADORE it when a game tries to offer me a dramatic arc. SR gives you pressure in the form of the build up of enemies, the attrition of your characters' heath, the balance of gathering vs. using supplies, and the dwindling event deck. There are many ways to lose the game and only one way to win. As the game progresses, players are forced ultimately to make a desperate run down the Salvation Road because the game simply throws too many challenges at you to overcome. The trick of course is that you are almost never in a position to know with 100% certainty that you will be able to survive the journey. The tension grows as you try to decide how important it is to stick around the compound for another turn. If I stay one more turn, I may get a few more supplies that I'll need to win BUT if I do stay, I may either automatically loose, or be forced to spend down more resources then what I would have gained by sticking around. Effectively, players are playing a deadly game of chicken versus the game's AI. When you choose to swerve makes all the difference in your success or failure.

5- I dig the heck out of the idea of having survivor cards with disadvantages instead of good special abilities. This reminds me a lot of the GURPS or SPECIAL RPG systems where players can buy special abilities by building flaws into their characters. In practice, it creates just one more puzzle element that players need to account for when trying to solve the game. Its a cool feature that sets this game apart and I hope we see this used again.

Critique:

1- I think the most likely criticism people will make is this: Salvation Road is a slimmed down version of Dead of Winter that removes the insta-death die roll, the hidden traitor mechanism, the crossroad cards, and replaces the zombies with leather bondage enthusiasts. The less polite way to say this is that SR is Dead of Winter, but with the most frustrating and interesting mechanisms removed. This is unfortunate, because I don't know if people would be as critical of SR if they didn't know what Dead of Winter was. Along these same lines, I do enjoy the art for SR (it is properly somber), however, the only area where SR stands out from an aesthetic stand point is in the design of the game board and location cards. The artwork itself is nowhere near as gorgeous as what Dead of Winter offers. This is a bit of a BS criticism though because what games aside from Ashes really compare to Dead of Winter's art.

2- None of the random elements offer positive game effects. All random game elements are either bad or neutral. What I mean by this is that there is never anything truly good that happens at random in this game. When you flip event cards, its usually just a different flavor of punishment or attrition, and never really something good. When you roll the dice, you are either hurt, or nothing happens. When you flip resource cards, you usually benefit from any resource that turns up and no single cards are ever mechanically better than others. I firmly believe that games should offer more positive rewards in order to maximize the fun generated by the game. When a game's random elements only serve to punish the players, I firmly believe players tend to have less fun. Players never find cool weapons or special abilities. Players never gain anything from a die roll. The only place where you find "good" game effects is at locations or on certain hero cards (which are fixed for each game, although which heroes and locations are randomly determined), and those features are in play on turn one. I don't have problems with having heavily random features in games. I'm an Ameritrash fan through and through, HOWEVER, I like for my randomness to swing both ways, positive and negative, not just negative or nothing.

3- Is there enough diversity in the base game? I'm not sure. In a solo game you will play 25% of the character cards, and roughly 25% of the location cards. Yeah, you will get very different game when you mix them around, but you'll still be playing with the same 16 characters and 13 locations. I really wish that we had twice as many (or more) character and location cards. Again, part of the fun of Dead of Winter is the sheer variety of player characters you can experience.

4- The game's ending is going to be a point of disagreement. Most players I think will enjoy the ending. I love how thematic and dramatic it can be. Others may argue that the game will always boil down to a few semi random card flips. I happen to think that this is just an extension of the same tired debate people have all the time about "how random is too random" in games. My opinion is that this is such a subjective taste issue, that it ultimately is going to boil down to a question of what any given player likes. If you like Richard Launius style Ameritrash with dice rolling and card flips, I'm sure this won't be an issue. For me, the game's ending feels like a new/fresh way of generating a climatic arc at the game's conclusion. As a fan of cinematic storytelling in my board games, I'm inclined to say I enjoy this element even though I know others will hate it.

5- There can be situations where it is to your tactical advantage to kill off some of your characters, and I find this to be horrifyingly anti-thematic. For example, to take a shot at winning the game, you MUST have all living characters back at the compound, but for any number of reasons you may not want to move your character back to the compound, you could instead do something that will allow your character to take damage, killing them off, so that you can travel the Salvation Road at the end of the round. Yeah, there are some folks that will say it is keeping with the theme (ie heroic sacrifice) but it rubs me the wrong way thematically.

Conclusion: I cannot praise the game board's design/layout enough. This is one of the neatest looking games I've gotten to the table lately. I really hope more designers are able to fully merge the design of the board into the theme. If you've been interested in a Solo version of Dead of Winter, SR is worth checking out. Fans of the theme should also find plenty to enjoy here as well. Solo gamers looking for a good hour long game should definitely give this a look also. For me, I find Salvation Road to be a good change of pace game for my solo gaming, but it just falls short of being as amazing as games like Hostage Negotiator or Eldritch Horror. That is not to say that this game isn't good, but it is one that scratches a very specific itch. I do hope that this game finds an audience and sees more attention in the form of new characters and locations, but time will tell.
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Michael D. Kelley
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Scott, thanks a ton for the early review!

It's funny that you mention similarities to Dead of Winter. The first company we sent Salvation Road to was Plaid Hat, before they had announced Dead of Winter. They told us they already had a post-apocalyptic game in the works, which later was revealed to be DoW. So any similarities are totally coincidental, although not surprising, I guess... what else are you going to do with gasoline besides drive around with it?

I do think that our characters have more diversity than DoW, personally, so think 16 is a good number. But I won't argue with you that I would love to publish more eventually!

As a final note, it's interesting that you don't like killing off a character in the end. We always saw that as a heroic sacrifice, a character throwing the last can of fuel to their partner as they prepare to make a final stand against the marauders. Characters sacrifice themselves all the time in my favorite post-apocalyptic stories so the group can survive.

Again, thanks so much for the review!
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Scott Sexton
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GameMasterX0 wrote:
Scott, thanks a ton for the early review!

It's funny that you mention similarities to Dead of Winter. The first company we sent Salvation Road to was Plaid Hat, before they had announced Dead of Winter. They told us they already had a post-apocalyptic game in the works, which later was revealed to be DoW. So any similarities are totally coincidental, although not surprising, I guess... what else are you going to do with gasoline besides drive around with it?

I do think that our characters have more diversity than DoW, personally, so think 16 is a good number. But I won't argue with you that I would love to publish more eventually!

As a final note, it's interesting that you don't like killing off a character in the end. We always saw that as a heroic sacrifice, a character throwing the last can of fuel to their partner as they prepare to make a final stand against the marauders. Heck, something like that happened in AJ's very first play of the game, when he decided to check it out for signing, and he loved it. Characters sacrifice themselves all the time in my favorite post-apocalyptic stories so the group can survive.

Again, thanks so much for the review!

Just to throw it out there, I think Salvation Road is a better game then Dead of Winter. I look forward to seeing what you come up with in the future!
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Michael D. Kelley
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Oh! I didn't get that you preferred SR, although looking back at your first critique you do mention that DOW is "frustrating". Thanks! This is great praise
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Xander Fulton
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scottatlaw wrote:
5- There can be situations where it is to your tactical advantage to kill off some of your characters, and I find this to be horrifyingly anti-thematic. For example, to take a shot at winning the game, you MUST have all living characters back at the compound, but for any number of reasons you may not want to move your character back to the compound, you could instead do something that will allow your character to take damage, killing them off, so that you can travel the Salvation Road at the end of the round. Yeah, there are some folks that will say it is keeping with the theme (ie heroic sacrifice) but it rubs me the wrong way thematically.

I dunno, I kinda feel like this DOES work thematically.

And I suspect in a multiplayer environment (not tried, yet), that will be even moreso - yes, "everyone wins" or "everyone loses" together, but...don't you want to win and be a survivor living in Salvation? Arguing with other players that you'd really like to get back to the truck...guys...can we wait a bit? Guys? WHERE YOU GOING GUYS??

I mean, sure, these are 'heroes', but...the setting IS still post-apocalypse. There is going to be a TOUCH of that 'every man for himself' starting to creep in.

So...heh. Yes. Do like that.
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Peter Gousis
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It's funny, AJs (VanRyder Games) first game he played with Chris (Dice Hate Me). AJ refused to let Chris's survivor stay behind so he spent his whole move and a valuable gas to go get him. The gamble worked and they barely had enough gas to make the trip. You don't have to leave someone behind if you don't want. Be the hero
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A.J. Porfirio
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What Van Ryder Game are YOU playing?
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MonkeyGoose wrote:
It's funny, AJs (VanRyder Games) first game he played with Chris (Dice Hate Me). AJ refused to let Chris's survivor stay behind so he spent his whole move and a valuable gas to go get him. The gamble worked and they barely had enough gas to make the trip. You don't have to leave someone behind if you don't want. Be the hero

That was fun
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Peter Gousis
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Thanks for your honesty Tim. I was watching the Drive Through Review of our other game Dark Dealings and realized something about our designs. Mike and I make games that feel simple on the surface, but have a lot of depth once you dig into them. Yes, Salvation Road is can be played at a very basic level just moving, searching and gathering. But when you dig into the mechanisms you realize how much control you have over the outcome. Every obstacle has a way to overcome it, you just have to learn them. And it will be different from game to game. I know this because Mike is way better at our games than I am (we win almost every game of SR we play together, but I lose almost all the ones I play with others) and he usually destroys me at Dark Dealings. I know our games aren't for everyone, no game is, but I love exploring them and getting better at them. I am glad you are enjoying it even if the rest of your group didn't, and can't wait for you to discover all the control you have the more you get to know the system. And I totally agree about AJ, he is a great publisher that has a great eye for components.
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