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Subject: To Hell And Back: Not As Bad As It Seems rss

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Lacombe
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Suddenly a shot rang out! A door slammed. The maid screamed. Suddenly a pirate ship appeared on the horizon! While millions of people were starving, the king lived in luxury. Meanwhile, on a small farm in Kansas, a boy was growing up.
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Caveat

This game / expansion is only available in a German language edition. However, it's not as bad as it seems (hence the title). I held out on getting it for my wife for a long time partly because of the import price, but largely because of fears that the language barrier would be too thick. Well, my mother took care of the price issue when she purchased the expansion from a German etailer for my wife for Christmas, and the game itself turns out not to be as language-dependent as I thought. If you're familiar with the basic gameplay elements of the base game (including the various color-coding and counter-layout issues, in particular), you won't have much trouble at all figuring this expansion out (the English rules are posted here in the Files section). I was afraid you'd lose some of the theme in the counters, which were often text-heavy (for the quests, at least) in the original game, but this expansion has almost no text on the counters apart from character or enemy names. Instead of saying "Take this white stag to Benida's clearing" or something like that, the few quests that do exist in this expansion actually show a picture of a person or character and simply have an arrow at the bottom pointing to the name of the place the character wants to go. The only real difficulty exists in discerning the player's special abilities and reading the Damned One's "player" card. All this to say, don't hold back for fear of the foreign language.

Overview

In "Helden in der Unterwelt" (i.e. "Heroes in the Underworld"), the second expansion to Return of the Heroes, you will enter the mythical realm of the deceased and battle against the evil forces that control it. You'll receive help from many of the most famous characters of Greek legend, including Hades and Persephone, Minos, Chronos, Hecate, Hermes, and many others. You'll also face many monsters, including the Gorgon and the Titan, who will try to overcome you with their evil wiles. Your final quest will be to defeat the Damned One, who is apparently ruling the underworld in Hades and Persephone's stead. Failing that, you can actually achieve a minor victory if you are the most evil character when the Damned One overpowers you and your opponents.

As you can probably tell from my description so far, this second expansion is much more mythologically oriented than the base game or previous expansion. Although there were a few creatures from myth (Cerberos, most notably, in Under the Shadow of the Dragon) in previous games or expansions, the Underworld brings the fullness of Greek myth to bear upon the basic game system. (As a side note, the third expansion, Die Rückkehr der Helden: Die Gralssuche, is also heavily influenced by myth.) This is a pretty interesting spin on the stereotypical fantasy RPG world, and it shows that the designer did his homework (there are even brief descriptions in the rules of what the various legendary characters are known for) rather than just slapping typical "hordes of undead corpses are rising from their graves!" elements on his Underworld-themed game.

Gameplay

Like the previous expansion, the Underworld can be played as both a stand-alone game and an expansion to the base game. In fact, the Underworld can even be combined with Under The Shadow Of The Dragon alone, Return Of The Heroes alone, or both games together. With the stand-alone option and these three combined games, this expansion gives you not one, but four gameplay options, all with slightly different rules. In the stand-alone Underworld game, your goal is simply to defeat the Damned One or, failing that, to be the most evil when the Damned One defeats you. In the combined game, your heroes will start in the Upper World and must first venture into the Underworld and defeat the Damned One before they can move on to defeat the monsters (Nameless One, Dragon, or both) plaguing the land of the living. A word of caution: The Underworld is huge, at least as big as the combined base game + Shadow Of The Dragon game, and will require a huge amount of table space if you intend to combine it with both previous games, and a similar amount of time, what with two baddies to fight.

So, what's new or different in this expansion?

1) The Damned One. Unlike both previous games / expansions, you will know from the get-go what you'll be up against. Unlike previous games, the big baddie's strength varies throughout the game, depending on the number of evil minions the characters run into while exploring the Underworld. The "main quests" of the Underworld are simpler than those of either the base game or the Dragon expansion, requiring you only to locate one of three character encounters and pass a trial in one of your three skills to obtain the matching special weapon that can be used to vanquish the Damned One. You will need to explore to find these encounters, but you won't be running around completing other tasks once you find them. Like the Dragon, you can only fight the Damned One in the skill for which you have obtained the matching special weapon.

2) New heroes. You get five new heroes, with the expected male and female variations. There is a Centaur, which is fast, hardy, and can carry more items, but has no other special abilities and takes longer to "level up". There is a Bard, which is a "jack of all trades" in its beginning skill levels (something like 6 magic, 4 ranged, 5 melee) and can avoid combat against regular enemies. There is a Gladiator, which can "do over" a failed combat trial. There is a Shaman, which gets various bonuses to certain combat or magic trials. Finally, there is the most interesting new character, the Gnome, which has what appears at first glance to be very weak starting skills (3 magic, 3 ranged, and 1 melee). The twist with the Gnome is that it can combine any two of its skill levels when attempting a trial. If you face a trial with a blue dot, for example, the Gnome can use its magic skill level, and then add the value of either of its other two skills. This potentially makes the Gnome very powerful, but there are some restrictions against certain types of enemies in the Underworld.

3) The dark side. The neatest addition of the Underworld expansion is the possibility for your characters to change their "alignment," so to speak, and begin to give in to the sway of the Damned One. This takes shape as black experience cubes, "shadow cubes", which get placed alongside your regular experience cubes in any of your three experience tracks. You will receive shadow cubes from losing trials or fights to evil minions of the Damned One (yes, you can get experience by losing fights in this expansion; very cool mechanic) or by using accursed weapons (which are very strong, so as to be appropriately tempting). Giving in to your dark side has its perks, in the form of higher experience levels and subsequently boosted skills. There's a catch, though. Once you've placed a shadow cube in any given skill's experience track, you will only receive shadow cubes for that skill as rewards for future successful trials or combats. And, you cannot fight the Damned One in a skill in which you have any shadow cubes, even if you possess the corresponding special weapon. Your "moral" decisions, then, will have a significant impact on the game, strengthening you but also potentially limiting you. Very cool.

4) Exploration. Unlike either previous game or expansion (except for a variant that some use where map tiles start out flipped), you must explore your world before you start adventuring in it. You can feel your heroes moving deeper and deeper into the realms of the dead as you map out the Underworld with each successive turn. The mechanic for exploration is very similar to that used in Drakon (third edition), and feels appropriately "dungeon-crawl"ish, at least to me. You won't know what lies beyond any given door until you actually step through it into the darkness. Amongst the various basic rooms and passageways you will discover are a number of special named rooms or places (Kriterion, Chaos, Tartarus, and others), some of which have special powers or significance. A neat trick are the various "black creatures" you will encounter along the way that once defeated are picked up as quests and must be banished to either Tartarus or Erebos. You only get the reward for defeating the creature after you banish it, which can take many turns depending on whether the appropriate tiles are nearby or even revealed yet.

5) Treasures. Instead of receiving experience cubes for nearly all trials, you will often receive treasures. These effectively take the place of the market or city of mages from the previous games, and allow you to boost your character's skills and abilities with various special items. There are some interesting twists, however. First of all, you will usually only get to flip over one (not six or four!) treasures, and you will either keep the treasure or trade it for gold. You may pay a gold, however, to "wish for luck" and flip over three tiles, giving you better pickings. There's a risk, however, in any treasure draw. Scattered among the treasure items are traps, evil creatures, and cursed weapons. If you flip just one tile (if you flip three, you can choose something else) and flip a trap or evil creature, you must try to escape the trap or defeat the creature, potentially losing turns to the trap or health to the creature. If you flip over a cursed weapon and have any shadow cubes in the corresponding skill, you must pick up the cursed weapon regardless of whether you "wished for luck" and flipped three tiles. You can only get rid of the cursed weapon if you manage to get rid of all the shadow cubes from that skill, which will be difficult since the weapon itself will give you more.

6) Player interaction! That's right, if you've ever wanted to beat up on your fellow heroes, this expansion will allow you to do so through the addition of the "duel" option. Two players can duel when they are standing on the same space and either, or both, of them has an evil bent, represented by the presence of shadow cubes in any of their skill experience tracks. The bad player can choose to "give 'em hell," or the good player can choose to duel the evil player and try to "beat the hell out of him," or two evil players can simply be spiteful and let "all hell break loose" (ok, enough metaphorical puns). Each player will choose a skill to fight in, then the aggressor will make one trial (possibly modified if the two chosen skill levels differ, with a bonus if the aggressor is stronger and a penalty if the defender is stronger) against his unmodifed (by either training or experience) chosen skill to see who won the duel. If the aggressor fails the trial, the defender wins automatically, otherwise the aggressor has taken the day. The winner of the duel will either get to steal gold or items from the loser, take away one of the loser's hit points (never to the death, though), or cause the loser to give up one of their shadow cubes to the Damned One. The "fair fight" rule about no training or experience coming into effect and no death-by-dueling works out alright and has a nice sportsmanlike quality to it.

Alright, how does the combined game work?

As mentioned above, in the combined game (with either previous game, or with both), you will need to venture into the Underworld and defeat the Damned One before you can vanquish the foes plaguing the Upper World. There is a little bit of interaction that happens between the two worlds, which is nice, but not a lot. When the Damned One gets stronger in the Underworld, his presence will be felt more strongly in the Upper World. A "-1" counter goes on to any Upper World map tile, and any subsequent trials of any type anywhere in that tile will be more difficult until the Damned One is vanquished. This is a cool thought, but we found that it doesn't have much real impact on gameplay, since many of the heroes will already be exploring the Underworld while the Damned One is growing stronger. Still, if some heroes have decided to let others worry about the Damned One and instead carry on with adventures in the Upper World, it will be an appropriate nuisance to them. A couple other interesting interactive elements between the two worlds are that Dragon events, tournaments, or storms in the Upper World do not affect heroes in the Underworld, that heroes in the Underworld cannot leave if they have defeated creatures which need banishing, and that the player who finally defeats the Damned One can select a Jewel or the Trident of Hades as a reward (effectively completing his requisite primary quest for the Upper World, as the Jewel allows you to fight the Nameless One and the Trident can be used as a special weapon against the Dragon).

Conclusion

Heroes In The Underworld adds a lot of interesting and new mechanics to the base game and previous expansion, certainly more than Under The Shadow Of The Dragon added. Whereas Under The Shadow Of The Dragon felt more like a sequel than an expansion, offering very little in the way of new gameplay elements, Heroes In The Underworld feels like a vastly different game experience, either as a stand-alone or as an expansion. There are a number of very clever elements in the Underworld expansion that add a lot of new things to consider when adventuring through the world of the Heroes. The most interesting aspects are the character "alignment" considerations and the new "duel" mechanic. With these two aspects of the Underworld, you can actually start to mess around with the other Heroes and affect their gameplay fairly significantly, which is a nice change of pace from the limited nature of player interaction in the base game. It's also nice that you can "rig the game" by trying to let the Damned One win and hope for the minor victory by being the most evil character at game's end. Suffice to say that there are many more tactical gameplay options, and even paths to victory, than in the original game or first expansion.

I would recommend Heroes In The Underworld to anyone who enjoyed the adventuring and character development aspects of the base game, but was left itching for a little more dynamic interaction in the game, either between players and other players or between players and the game itself. There are a number of added elements here that make the Underworld a richer and more dynamic experience than the base game alone. Don't over-estimate the amount of added interaction, however. The game is still primarily a race game, and characters can still largely ignore each other and focus on their own tasks. What the Underworld adds is simply a layer of interaction on top of that basic framework, where you can subtly shift the balance of the game for other players through your "moral" decisions or occasionally get in their way through duels. If you didn't enjoy Return Of The Heroes at all, it's unlikely you'll enjoy Heroes In The Underworld. However, if you enjoyed the base game but don't feel inclined to play as often as you used to or are looking for some added dynamics, Heroes In The Underworld is a great choice.
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Sam
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Excellent, and thorough review... agree with everything you mentioned

I don't speak German, but the English translations found on BGG are adequate... we played it once and we had a great time, certainly more than the base game or UtSotD... only problem was finding enough table-space, as we combined it with the base game
 
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Mark Jackson
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Am I a man or am I a muppet? If I'm a muppet then I'm a very manly muppet!
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[q="sdafilli"]Excellent, and thorough review... agree with everything you mentioned {/q}

As did I... nice job on the review.

Quote:
I don't speak German, but the English translations found on BGG are adequate... we played it once and we had a great time, certainly more than the base game or UtSotD... only problem was finding enough table-space, as we combined it with the base game


You think that's bad... try combining all three games! (It's long but my son & I had a lot of fun with it.)
 
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Sam
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We're planning on doing so Mark.... I think it'll be the lounge room floor, instead of searching for a table large enough!!
 
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