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Subject: Reign of Kickstartery Chaos rss

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Pete Butler
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My wife and I made a deal: no new games until we play through our existing collection. We failed. So, hell with it, I'mma just go review some stuff as we play through it

Realm of Heroes by Scott DeMers

How'd I Get It?
Our housemate got a copy of this game somehow, possibly as a review copy, then left it behind when he moved out. Seemed a shame to let a potentially good game go to waste.

Have I Played It Before?
Nope. It was still in the shrink wrap.

What's It About?
The realm is in chaos. Warring factions dominate the plague-ravaged land. Build up your forces, send them out on a mission of conquest -- or to suppress the plague. Or just capture some ancient monuments, which I guess are magic or something. Just make sure you don't over-expand your military, or your troops will die horribly.

How's it play?
Clumsily.

The one game my wife and I played, we went with the random setup rather than one of the scenarios described in the back of the book. Once all the tiles forming the board are laid out in a grid, you then randomly populate them with the markers showing which territory you control, along with the monuments that are one of the two win conditions. Oh, and in the two or three player games, some starting plague.

The randomization element is riddled with fringe conditions -- what should you do if some of the land areas are unreachable? What if not all the monuments show up? What if somebody just happens to start with the bulk of the monuments already in their possession? What happens if one player is getting absolutely hammered by the plague while another is relatively plague-free?

(That last one is what decided the game. Jasmine's lands were plague-heavy, mine were not. I won when all her troops died and none could stop me from killing her leader. Yaaaay.)

Players place their starting pieces (a tower and an extremely weak leader piece), and away you go.

On your turn, any plague on your land spreads. Plague is represented by the backs of the unit counters -- which are tightly constrained by what's available in the box. (So, what's to prevent you from being a total cockbag, promoting one of your peasants to a second-tier unit, and then making sure the rest of that particular unit get used as plague tokens, thereby completely shutting down that upgrade path? Nothing but your sense of fair play. This game does not exactly feel thoroughly playtested.)

Then comes the support phase, where you must either feed the troops you have in a region or watch them die. All of them. And once they die, they become plague vectors. This is a brutal, merciless mechanic that was by far the most interesting part of the game to me; had the overall game been better, I would have liked to explore it more. (Though remember, your leader and buildings do not need support. Remember, because there's nothing on the tokens to remind you that either they're free or that your other troops are mouths to feed. "Just memorize that shit" is the game's unofficial motto.) Plague works by severely inhibiting a region's ability to feed troops; this is how my wife lost the game.

Next comes the reinforcement phase, where you either build a new building, place a new peasant, or advance an existing unit. In the base game alone, there are six different branches you can follow when upgrading either units or buildings. The game desperately needs player aids to help remind everybody of what the upgrade paths are, and what special powers every piece has -- all that's printed on the tokens are the unit's name and raw strength, without even a confusing hieroglyph or two to hint at their special abilities. I see the BGG page for this game has such a player aid available for print. If I cared about this game, I'd print it.

Then, finally, you get to move all your pieces. Your pieces can railroad their way all the way across your realm, unless they have to pass through a forest (which will stop them). You will capture enemy terrain if you move onto it. Pieces will guard all the friendly terrain adjacent to them, and you can't enter a guarded space unless the piece guarding it is weaker than you are. If you land on an enemy piece, you kill it. If that piece was their leader, they're out of the game. If the space is afflicted by plague, you murder the shit out of everybody with the plague and cleanse the land. If the space has a monument, you're now 25% closer to your monument-based victory.

Is it fun?
If the game didn't have so bloody many moving parts, or if your options were clearer, or if you could maybe make some more meaningful choices, I could see it being fun. But as it was, no, not really.

The lack of player aids is crippling. Both the reinforcement and movement options desperately need some sort of visual to help remind you of what your options are. Otherwise, you'll be hitting the rulebook a lot.

Particularly to remind yourself when two diagonal squares count as adjacent. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don't.

This is a game where you're perpetually one bad move from extinction. That's fine and actually fun when it's clear what your options are, and how your opponent can bone you. But when the game winds up being this opaque, it feels arbitrary as hell.

You'll have to come up with your own house rules if you wind up with a board that doesn't make sense. You'll also need to come up with your own house rules for determining which units get used as plague markers, as it very definitely can impact the course of the game. Not having a separate sheet of plague markers was an incredible oversight. And the setup can completely screw you before you've made a single decision.

I could see this game becoming more fun with familiarity; there's an appealing simplicity to many of the mechanics, and I could see it being damned interesting if both you and your opponent(s) know it well. But Realm of Heroes doesn't offer enough help scaling its learning curve, setup is long and fiddly, and I'm just not convinced there's a fun enough game waiting for me for it to be worth the time investment. If I met someone enthusiastic about playing it, I guess I'd be willing to try it again.

But between the randomness, the sloppy rules, and uncertainty about just what the hell I'm doing that permeated all my decisions, no, this was not a game I enjoyed playing.

Final Verdict:
Ultimately, it's a Kickstarter cautionary tale. This is why a game should be blind playtested to hell and back before it hits the shelf. With more refinements, I suspect there is indeed a very interesting strategy game lurking inside this one. But that's not the game you'll find in this box.

One of my wife's exes runs a board game cafe. We'll likely send our copy his way. What they hell, maybe one of his customers will recall seeing it on Kickstarter and want to give it a try.
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