Despite all the talk about Zombies or Cthulhu being overplayed, it’s fantasy that seems to fill the shelves of local board game shops more than anything else. Every year legions of orcs stride forth to do battle with elves and dwarves and the occasional new fantasy race. It’s hard to stand out in this genre. This is especially true in 2017 when Gloomhaven dominated the conversation and Legacy of Dragonholt arrived at the end of the year to knock my socks off. Is there really room for a third 2017 Fantasy release on my shelf? You betcha.
Sword & Sorcery manages the rare feat of feeling fresh and familiar all at once. The characters at first seem generic; there’s an elf who is good with a bow or dual-wielding swords, the tanky guy has a big hammer or a sword and a shield, etc. Enemies feel the same way. Goblins will fall easily but possible steal some gold and the brigands have a good chance at poisoning you. Yet these familiar trappings are only surface deep. A few rounds in and you’re customizing the elvish archer to be yours. The monster AI cards bring the goblins to life and make them feel active.
The engine in this game is similar to Ares’ fantastic Galaxy Defenders. Each player picks a class (again they’re familiar here) and goes off on an adventure. The game is fully cooperative, with enemies control by a relatively complex AI. Each type of enemy as a behavior card that dictates what they do and how they do it based on their distance from the players, and even an individual monster type has a few flavors to mix it up. There are green goblins, blue goblins, and a red leader. The colors share similar behaviors but they’re a little different, and each color type has an A type and a B type to keep things varied.
This leads to the biggest issue I have with Sword & Sorcery and it’s one that threatened to derail the whole experience. Sword & Sorcery’s ruleset is dense. The list of fantasy systems and mechanics reads like a litany of tropes. Skills, summons, fire, poison, a tavern, a forge, chests, it goes on and on. Each of these things have their own rules, and are often inconsistent. Critical hits require the enemy to actually hit you, but that requirement isn’t present for Poison. Not only is it odd to be poisoned by a weapon that doesn’t hit you or that you block, it means having to remember these two different rules during combat.
Getting to a point where you aren’t flicking through the rules on every other turn is an adventure in and of itself. However...HOWEVER...once you get there? Once you climb that mountain and end up on the other side? All these rules and systems melt away and you’re thrust into a hack-and-slash fantasy adventure that dominated my table for weeks as I played through the various included scenarios. The AI system requires you to react on the fly and the various decks and tokens provide mystery and variability. The story book provides you a few opportunities to make moral choices, though these are often constrained by some initial character creation choices.
All this in a fantasy environment that is not generic but classic. It was refreshing to play an adventure that took me on a cardboard romp across the table, rolling custom dice and leveling up. A clever soul-gem system requires you to balance improving yourself vs resurrecting your fallen friends, and the item economy makes it worth chasing down bad guys and not rushing to the end. I especially like how valuable one-shot items and upgrades are. Too often the right choice is to invest in long term upgrades but the Sword & Sorcery potions and scrolls are just powerful enough to be tempting.
I have some reservations regarding the expansion system and how the core box ties in. Characters can only reach Level 4 in the core; you’ll need an expansion to max out your included stats. Reaching the end of Act 1 and not having anything left to play is not the best feeling, but if you’ve made it that far you’ll likely be champing at the bit for more. A variety of characters and story choices give you a reason to play, not to mention the variety of ways the same story can play out based on the way it’s set up.
Sword & Sorcery managed to hack its way onto my shelf in a very crowded a year. Some plastic storage containers have helped organize the myriad cardboard tokens and now that I’ve got the rules down, it’s easy to pick up and get into. There’s even an app you can use to help you manage character progression across a couple of campaigns if you’d like to play with a couple of groups. To quote a favorite song of mine, Sword & Sorcery is “familiar, but not too familiar, but not too not familiar”. The evolution of the Galaxy Defenders system works brilliantly and I’m looking forward to continuing my campaign.
At this stage, I’m used to gigantic rulesets. Fantasy Flight has already accustomed me to this. After reading two books for every game (i.e the Play Now book AND the Rules Reference guide), I’ve usually completed 50 or 60 pages of very dense rules anyways. Sadly, I long for the days of the straight-up rulebooks (with only a few ambiguities here and there.)
So, as long as I don’t have to read the definition of the word “Towards” again, I’ll be fine.
Thanks again. I’m buying S&S right now.
Edit: Just finished the rules. The rules are awesome. There are lots of them, but they all add to the experience. Some (like the “dominated space” rule) create some really cool effects too.
Loved reading them. They were all rules. And there was no second book waiting