Sunday, May 21, 2017

Game Review: The Dresden Files Cooperative Card Game

Tonight my friends introduced me to the Dresden Files cooperative card game from Evil Hat Productions. This is a quick to learn, fast to play card game using the Fate system, which is also used for the Dresden Files tabletop roleplaying game. Players play characters from the Dresden Files series of urban fantasy novels, including protagonist Harry Dresden himself, and try to defeat various enemies and obstacles that Harry and his friends face in the books. For our games tonight we played using the cards for Stormfront, the first Dresden novel. My review is based on my experience playing three games tonight and shouldn't be construed to give a 100% accurate description of the rules.

 The game allows players to choose which character they want to play, but one player must play Harry Dresden. Each player gets a set of Action cards specific to their chosen character to use on their turns. There are four types of actions: Attack, Investigate, Overcome, and Take Advantage. All characters get some cards of each type, but each character gets a different number of cards of each action category. For example, the characters Billy and Georgia the werewolf couple are geared more toward attacking, so they get more Attack cards than they do cards of the other three action types. But because Karrin Murphy is a police detective, she gets more Investigate cards.

Players start play with four Action cards in their hands. Each Action card has two values: Fate cost, which is described below, and Range. Range is the number of spaces the card can reach on the board. A Range of 1 means the card can only be played against cards in position 1 on the board (see more about the board below). Attack and Investigate cards have a third value, which represents either the amount of Attack damage the card does to a Foe, or the number of Clue points the card is worth in an Investigation. Once an Action card has been played, it must be placed on the player's discard pile. Players cannot draw any more Action cards from their deck unless a Stunt, Talent, or Advantage card allows them to do so.

In addition to Action cards, each character also has a Stunt card and a Talent card. A Stunt card can be played once per game instead of an Action card, to allow the character to do something special like make an extra attack, do more damage, or increase the range of an Action card. Talent cards are similar to Stunt cards, but can only be played after a player discards an Action card to regain Fate points.

The game provides a preset pool of Fate points, which are represented by cardboard tokens and are shared by all players. Action cards all have a Fate point cost to play them. Different cards cost a different number of Fate points. Some cards also require a player to roll a dice in addition to expending Fate points. These dice are specific to the game; instead of numbers or pips, the six-sided dice have two plus symbols, two minus symbols, and two blank sides. Some Action cards require a player to roll one or two dice to determine how many Fate points it costs to play that Action card. If the player rolls a minus, then the Fate cost is reduced by one for each minus rolled. If the player rolls a plus, the Fate cost increases by one. If the players run out of Fate tokens, they can't play any more Action cards and will probably lose the game. Fortunately, they can discard Action cards from their hand to regain a number of Fate points equal to the cost of the card. Discarding an Action card in this way also triggers the player's Talent card to be activated.

In addition to the players' cards, there are cards representing what enemies the characters are fighting and what mystery they're trying to solve - after all, besides being a wizard, Harry Dresden is a private detective, and several of his friends work for the police department. There are four types of these cards: Advantage, Foe, Investigation, and Obstacle. Players must play a Take Advantage card against an Advantage, an Attack card against a Foe, an Investigate card against an Investigation, and an Overcome card against an Obstacle.

At the beginning of the game, twelve of these cards are randomly laid out on the board in two rows of six. The six positions are numbered, and cards must be removed from the board beginning with the two cards in position 1, although some Action cards will allow players to take on cards that are in other positions. When the cards in position 1 are removed, all the other cards are shifted one space to the left so that position 1 is never empty until the board is cleared. While the purpose of the game is to remove all the cards, it's most important to solve the Investigations and remove those first. If players run out of Fate points or Action cards while there are still cards on the board, they move to the Showdown phase. Too many Investigation cards still on the board it will make it very unlikely for them to win the Showdown.

The Foe and Investigation cards have a point cost that the players must overcome to remove them from the board. These aren't Fate points, but instead represent Attack and Clue points, which each have their own set of cardboard tokens. If a player plays an Attack card that does 3 points of damage to a Foe card, three Attack tokens are placed on that Foe card. If the Foe card has a point cost of 11, it remains on the board until it takes 11 Attack points. The Investigation cards work the same way using Clue tokens. There are some Foe and Investigation cards that are linked, so that one can't be removed until the other card is off the board. For example, in the Stormfront set there is a Foe card that can't be attacked until one of the Investigations is solved.

The Advantage and Obstacle cards don't have a point cost. If a player plays a Take Advantage card with a range of 1 and there is an Advantage card in position 1, that player can remove the Advantage card from the board and gain the advantage that is described on the card. Some Advantage cards allow players to draw additional Action cards or take a second turn. Obstacle cards can be removed in a similar way, but instead of giving the players advantages, removing an Obstacle card removes a penalty or limitation from the players.

Advantage and Obstacle cards don't count toward winning the game; players need to remove them from the board in order to gain access to the Foe and Investigation cards, especially if those cards are located in positions 4, 5, and 6. Though the cards are laid out randomly on the board, the game rules specify that Advantage and Obstacle cards can't be placed in position 6. Most Action cards only have a Range of 1 or 2 spaces, so the players will have to get rid of Advantage and Obstacle cards to move the Foe and Investigation cards within range of their Actions..

Players can pass on their turn if they can't decide what Action to play or want to wait for the other players to take their turns first, but passing costs one Fate point. A player who runs out of Action cards also has to pay a penalty of one Fate point each time her turn comes and she's unable to play a card. With only four Action cards per player, it becomes quite a challenge to ensure that there are enough Fate tokens left to afford the Action cards while also making sure players don't run out of cards to play. There are some Advantage cards that allow one or more players to draw another card, but these cards don't allow all players to draw a card. It really is a cooperative resource management game. There's no benefit to ignoring the other players or trying to outdo them.

All three of the games we played tonight ended with Foe and Investigation cards still on the board, forcing us to try to win by winning a Showdown. Unfortunately each time we did poorly on the dice rolls required to resolve the Showdown, and we lost to the game board. Despite this, it was a lot of fun to play the game. The rules sound complicated when described as I described them up above, but it's really not a difficult game to learn. Our games took place over a period of about two and a half hours, including time to explain how the game mechanics work.

While a lot of my favorable impression of this game comes from playing it with close friends, I feel that the ease and speed of play would make this a good game for anyone, especially a Dresden Files fan who doesn't have the time to get involved in a more complex roleplaying game. I give this game four stars out of five.

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