Thursday, 22 June 2017

Review - Gloom of Kilforth

Designed by Tristan Hall
Published by Hall or Nothing
For 1-4 players, aged 13 to adult

Moody title art from the cover of the Gloom of Kilforth rules book.


Anyone who has visited my blog before probably knows that, if I have a weakness (apart from custard creams), it's thematic, fantasy board games. Dungeon crawlers, card games, miniature skirmish games: I'm not fussy. But I'm particularly partial to overland adventure games. You know, the games like Talisman, where you get to take a hero into a magical land, and then wander around hitting monsters and taking their stuff. Usually for reasons.

I actually own one of the greatest fantasy adventure games ever made: Mage KnightMage Knight is a deep and engaging experience, and over the course of a single gaming session you get to see a world developing across your tabletop. You reveal cities, hire villagers, pillage monasteries, learn spells, slay dragons, and eventually become powerful enough to march on heavily fortified castles and assert your authority.

I love Mage Knight. But it's an incredibly complex game. It takes hours and hours (and hours and hours) to play, and I've never even attempted to introduce it to anybody else. I am resigned to keeping the game a solo experience. A rich, rewarding solo experience, but a solo experience none-the-less.

I actually own another one of the greatest fantasy adventure game ever made: Legends of Andor. It's not as vast as Mage Knight, but it creates wonderful adventure stories with exciting narratives tightly woven to a set of sleek mechanisms, It even forces you to re-evaluate everything you know about defending the world from rampaging beasties by actively discouraging the mass murder of your enemies.

I love Legends of Andor. But it's very much a puzzle. It's a game you solve, rather than a game you win. It doesn't have endless replayability, and the intense time pressure and limited options available to the players means you don't get the chance to create unique heroes that evolve over the course of the game, learning new skills and gaining new powers.

I actually own another fantastic fantasy adventure game (and yes, I could keep doing this all night, but I'll stop at three): World of Warcraft: The Adventure Game. It's more of a race than anything else, encouraging you to charge full tilt into battle to progress through the ranks as quickly as possible so you can accumulate victory points. The problem is you really don't get the time to develop your character, and often the weapons you get are only marginally better than what you start out with. You don't really feel like you are getting any more powerful, even when you level up. Of course, the game also assumes you know the lore of World of Warcraft. I don't, and therefore almost none of the encounters and in-jokes mean anything to me.

Oh, and the artwork on the encounter cards is basically the horrible 3D models from the computer game. Never a good look.

You can see the problem here. For every amazing adventure game, there's always some fault... some omission... some mechanism that prevents it being the perfect adventuring experience. There's always something that makes you think, "Yeah, this is good, but I wish..."

And that, I believe, is why Gloom of Kilforth exists. The designer, Tristan Hall, kept wishing for the adventure game he always wanted, and eventually that wish became a dream. He spent years on a quest of his own, attempting to hunt down the complete fantasy adventure game. When he couldn't find it, he made it.

The result is a game that quite clearly draws on dozens of predecessors. Within minutes of setting up the game you'll start to see the influences. The most obvious is Arkham Horror, which lends a vast number of mechanisms including the test resolution system for defeating encounters, a random "big bad" that doesn't immediately appear on the board but affects gameplay with a series of special rules, a universal event deck that introduces global weather conditions, and location-specific encounter decks filled with enemies, characters, and events that may hurt you, or may gift you powerful spells and weapons. The encounters are broken down into categories similar to Runebound, there's a creeping gloom similar to the sinking mechanism from Forbidden Island that gradually spreads across a board made up of location cards, and there's a quest system that feels like an evolution of the one seen in Return of the Heroes.

You can feel it in every roll of the dice and every flip of the card: This game evolved from countless other games. Tristan has combed through all those other adventure experiences, identifying the parts he loves, and setting them aside. In essence, Gloom of Kilforth is a greatest hits compilation. It's all the great things from good games.

But is it greater than the sum of its parts?

Come with me. We'll go on a little adventure of our own and try to find out...

But first, a small confession... When Tristan was running his Kickstarter campaign for Gloom of Kilforth, I wasn't immediately enamoured with the game. The gameplay looked okay, without instantly thrilling me; but I wasn't sure if what I was seeing was enough to make me enjoy the game. But, while I don't know Tristan personally, I know him from Board Game Geek, and I really wanted him to succeed. I also loved the artwork, and the whole idea of the game. Eventually, I felt I had to put my money down.

In Gloom of Kilforth, each night brings new dangers. This is an orc assassin, ready to cause trouble for intrepid heroes.


One of my biggest concerns was the artwork I loved so much, which started to take centre stage. As the campaign progressed, and more wonderful art appeared, I felt like it was overshadowing the gameplay. I was worried it was going to be a game that was all style and no substance. Fortunately, those fears were unfounded. The game has plenty of meat; it just so happens that it's very... attractive... meat.

Bloody hell.

Moving swiftly on...

Actually, on second thoughts, lets not move swiftly on. The artwork has already had a lot of coverage, but I think it bears repeating: This is one of the most attractive games I own. Probably one of the most attractive games anybody owns. Almost every card has a unique piece of artwork. Where artwork has been reused, it's in places where it didn't make much sense to commission extra art. For example, the back side of the forest encounter cards are the same as one of the forest map locations, and the artwork on the hero standees is repeated from the hero character cards. There's never a point where you look at a card and think, "That's a bit lazy."

Furthermore, the artwork goes all the way to the edges of the cards. There are no ugly borders, and the whole graphic design is clear and easy to read. There are fine details incorporated into the layouts that make everything easier to understand at a glance. For example, if a card has a attribute symbol followed by a number and a little dice icon, it means you get to add that many dice to your roll for tests using that attribute. If there's an attribute symbol followed by a number and a lock icon, it means that card is locked until you are able to match that value.

Additionally, the map location cards are oriented in landscape, with the name of the card running along each of the shorter edges. This makes perfect sense, as during the game you are going to lay various encounter cards over those locations perpendicularly, and the design of each card means the location names are never obscured.

So yeah, the artwork and layout are fantastic, and that level of care and attention extends to other aspects of the game. The cardboard tokens are large, thick, and easy to read, and they have a lovely retro art style that reminds very much of Legends of Zagor (a game I keep meaning to review, but never seem to get around to).

Overall, this feels like a premium product, as soon as you open the box. The artwork is magical, and the component quality is excellent.

It's not quite perfect though.

If I was going to be picky... and screw it, I'm going to be picky... there are four small component issues.

First of all, the wooden tokens are chunky and easy to distinguish, but they have a slightly cutesy style that seems at odds with the mythical setting. Big love hearts for hit points work for a game like Super Dungeon Explore, but here they seem out of place. Additionally, the little broccoli pieces for identifying you are hiding and the puffy think bubbles to represent obstacles in your way seem a bit too cartoony.

Charlie Brown think bubbles? Nope. These are obstacle tokens from Gloom of Kilforth.


The second issue involves the location cards. They are double sided, because a core mechanism of the game involves one location falling to gloom at the end of each turn. Locations in gloom don't really do anything different except if you finish your turn on one, you lose a hit point. So, the reverse of each location card shows exactly the same artwork, but in slightly muted colours and with a small -1 symbol to indicate you lose a hit point there. As someone who struggles with colour recognition, there just isn't enough difference between the two sides of the cards to tell at a glance, and you don't always realise a location you are in has become a victim of the gloom.

An arrangement of location tiles from Gloom of Kilforth. Can you spot the location in gloom?


On the subject of colour recognition, the game also includes sets of purple tokens and sets of dark blue tokens with the same imagery. I cannot use those tokens in my games, because I didn't even know they were different until my wife pointed it out.

The four colours (yes, apparently there are four colours) of enemy tokens from Gloom of Kilforth.


The final issue I have relates, somewhat unfortunately, to a move I applaud: Including male and female versions for each hero. In Gloom of Kilforth you get to create your own hero by randomly selecting a race card and a profession card. The race card gives you your base attributes and a race-based skill, and then the profession card boosts certain attributes and may give you an additional skill. I absolutely love this system of character creation, because you get really fun combinations, such as vampire assassins, or half-demon shamans. You're going to play quite a few times before you've seen every possible combination.

A half-demon assassin from Gloom of Kilforth.


The problem is, the race cards have a male side and a female side. This has no in-game effect, but it gives every player a  chance to more closely associate with a character by choosing the gender they want. My wife always appreciates this sort of thing. Unfortunately, all the character standees in the game are based on the artwork for the character professions, rather than the races; and the professions depict either a male of female character. As a result, if you chose to be the gender that isn't reflected on your profession card, you're going to end up using a standee that doesn't accurately reflect your character. It would have made more sense to include male and female standees with artwork derived from the race cards.

So, okay, I've talked about the great artwork and components. That's done now, so we really can move on...

Gloom of Kilforth is a very traditional sort of adventure game that delves deep into familiar tropes. You're going to feel right at home from the very first dice roll. There's a world in peril from a dark and ancient evil that is creeping out of the shadows and tainting the land. A group of heroes (working together or independently), or even just a single hero, rises to the challenge of protecting the realm. But first, the heroes must go on personal journeys of discovery, completing small quests and minor deeds to gain reputation, useful items, and powerful allies. Of course, time is of the essence. If the heroes dwell to long in the wilderness, they may return to find their civilisation is already at an end, and a new dark power holds sway over the masses.

This simple set up translates into a set of rules that is far from simple, yet seems rather intuitive none-the-less. I found the game easy to learn, with a rules book that covered every major question before I asked it. During my first game, I did have to refer to the rules a few times, and I made a few little errors; but since my second game, the rules book has remained in the box about 95 percent of the time. That's not to say this is a lightweight family game. There is a lot going on... actually, there's a bit too much going on... and non-gamers are going to take a while to get to grips with silly terminology like "veiling" (rotating a card) and "deed" (an action that doesn't require the use of an action point). They're also likely to struggle with the sheer number of options available in each turn; but once they settle into it, they'll realise that on a given turn, very few of those options are actually relevant.

A glance inside the rules book for Gloom of Kilforth.


But perhaps I'm jumping the gun here. Let's look at what you are actually doing in this game.

(And please note, Gloom of Kilforth has a lot of moving parts, so I'm not going to try to cover them all here. I'll give you a good overview of what's going on, but if I miss out a few details, it's only because I want to tell you what I think about the game, not how to play it.)

One to four heroes, in either a competitive or co-operative experience, are moving around a land comprising 25 location cards. Each hero starts with four hit points and four action points, and has a personal agenda driven by a card deck called a saga. Each saga comprises five chapters, and to progress through the chapters, heroes need to acquire certain keywords. For example, the warrior may have a saga that involves storming a fortress to gain the military might necessary to defeat the big bad before it consumes the world, and the first chapter in that saga may require the warrior to get cards with the keywords of "forest," "ally," and "enemy."

The concept of keywords is integral to the design of the game; it's actually the beating heart that drives everything else. You find the keywords by exploring the various locations throughout the land of Kilforth. These locations are divided into forests, mountains, plains, and badlands. When you move to a location, you pull an encounter card from the deck that matches the type of location. These encounters may be quests to complete, places to visit, strangers to talk with, or enemies to beat over the head. And each encounter has a series of keywords. You might find an enemy with the keywords "enemy" and "humanoid," or a quest with the keywords, "quest," "destroy," and "forest." If you confront and successfully defeat the card, you have the option to keep that card in your hand as a rumour, which means you can subsequently cash it in for one of the listed keywords, using it towards completing one of your saga chapters.

Defeating a card is simply a matter of spending an action point to confront it (except in the case of enemies, when you are automatically forced into a confrontation) and then rolling dice equal to your current value in a given attribute. So, in a fight test, you are going to roll dice equal to your fight value. Each five or six you roll is a single success, and you have to match the target number on the encounter card to defeat it. Usually, if you don't succeed, you can accumulate successes by spending more action points to retake the test, or else you can discard a rumour card or fate token you already have to add one additional success.

If you defeat the card, you get gold equal to the gold value of the card, or a random draw from a loot token bag; then you get to either take the card as a rumour, or else discard the card and take a rumour for an asset (item, ally, spell, or title), determined by the asset symbol printed on the card you just defeated.

(And if that's starting to sound like there's a lot going on, welcome to Kilforth.)

If you succeed in defeating a card, you're going to end up with a rumour of some kind; which means you have a card with some keywords on it. And I'll admit, it only took a few turns for me to start developing concerns regarding the use of keywords as a driving force for the game's narrative. In fact, I was probably about five turns into my first game, when I stopped what I was doing, studied the board carefully, and then asked my wife, "Can you see any enemy keywords?"

All that artwork, all that flavour text on the cards, all those locations, all my special skills, all my dreams of derring-do in a world of high adventure...

"Can you see any enemy keywords?"

I had hardly started my first game, and all of the juicy theme had started to evaporate. I wasn't looking at the board thinking, "My heroic warrior is going to defeat those slavers in the badlands," or "I better deal with that demonic presence in the mountains."

I was just looking for a keyword I needed.

The first chapter from the "Take Fortress" saga in Gloom of Kilforth.


The sagas are supposed to give you a sense of purpose, but I started to feel like they were robbing me of my agency. I was no longer carving out my own narrative in the world of Kilforth, I was following the saga's script, looking to fight anything... anything at all... that had the next keyword I needed on my list. I was stepping through the motions, ushered along by a time limit imposed by a "night" mechanism that converts one location on the map to gloom each turn, giving you a total of 25 turns to win.

Furthermore, the keywords are so ingrained into the game design, they even restrict how your character evolves. After defeating an encounter, if you decide to discard the encounter to draw an asset rumour, you can subsequently visit the location named on that asset and spend an action point to convert that rumour into an asset in play.

(Welcome to Kilforth!)

These assets then get placed next to your character card, lending characteristic boosts or special skills.

A selection of ally cards from Gloom of Kilforth.


That's okay in practice, but there are limitations. For a start, you can only have six assets. But more importantly, every asset has a unique keyword, such as "weapon," "jewellery," or "pious," and you can only have one of each unique keyword in play at any one time. Want a warrior armed with a shield and helmet? Not gonna happen. Want to rally an army of wizards to your cause? Nope. Want to charge into battle with a sword in one hand and an axe in the other?

Guess what?

It feels overly restrictive, and towards the end of the game, you get to the point where you are drawing multiple assets, only to discover you can't use any of them, which is somewhat disheartening and undermines the sense of character development.

Don't get me wrong. Sometimes, the way assets come together is beautiful. My wife literally squealed with joy when her vampire assassin became a crossbow-armed dragon rider, and I thought it was funny when my half-demon warrior gained the dark arts skill, and a magic necklace infused with demonic power. However, frequently the game actively prevents you from creating the character you want to create.

You start to feel like the game wants you to go on a journey, but it wants you to get there by a preordained path, taking as few diversions along the way as possible.

While we're at it, I'd like to talk about the rumour system a little more.

There are several design decisions in this game where I feel like there's unnecessary complications, and rumours are one of them. Usually, in a game like this, if you defeat an encounter you get a reward. But no, in Gloom of Kilforth, if you defeat an encounter you sometimes get a new asset (if there's a trophy associated with the encounter), but usually you just get a rumour. Once you have that rumour, you have to spend action points moving to a specific location, and then spend an action point to convert the rumour into an asset.

And that just feels like busy work.

If the game had been set up so that when you defeat an encounter, you either take the card as a rumour (for the keywords), or discard it to draw an asset and put it into play on your character, it would feel immediately more rewarding.

A selection of spell cards from Gloom of Kilforth.


Busy work seems to be the order of the day here. Most of the actions you can perform involve you spending an action point, and you start each game round with a number of action points equal to your current health. You get more health (and therefore more action points) as you complete the chapters of your saga, but the game counters this by doing everything possible to eat away at your action point total with a series of speed bumps.

And you know what? That design works. Tristan obviously playtested the game a lot, because it feels like it's balanced on a knife edge. In every game, I've either won at the last moment (within a few turns of gloom consuming the land), or I have lost at the last moment. That is a testament to the design.

The problem is, I just don't find that design fun.

Spending an action point to remove an obstacle, spending an action point to retrieve a lost life point, spending an action point... spending an action point...

Spending an action point...

The game doesn't really throw challenges at you. Like I said before, they're speed bumps. The problems you face are always easy to get over. They don't require cunning, or skilful play. They just require action points.

It's a design that really does make it feel like this is a game primarily intended for solo play. There are cards that randomly take your assets or rumours, and event after event that fills the board up with obstacles that force you to spend additional action points to achieve anything. It's a classic board game artificial intelligence, designed to eat away at your options, making you less efficient so that the game clock ticks out.

I may be totally wrong here, but I suspect Tristan spent most of his time during the early stages of the game's development playtesting the solo experience. The co-operative experience doesn't really seem to add much, and the competitive mood doesn't offer a great deal of interaction between players. Sure, you can steal encounters that other players need to prevent them from fulfilling keywords, but ultimately everybody is doing their own thing; and if you spend too long screwing other players you aren't going to have the keywords you need to achieve your own goals.

Competitive play actually creates its own issues too. The aim of any game is to kill an ancient evil (or several, in co-operative mood), and over the course of the game, those ancients release plots cards onto the board. Plots represent the ancient creature moving into a position to strike, and if the cards are still in play when a hero confronts the ancient, then the proverbial hits the proverbial and the ancient becomes more powerful.

Really, plots are more of those speed bumps. They sit on the board, not doing anything; and while getting rid of them is easy, it all takes time. You may have to sacrifice a life point, or a couple of action points, or an asset; but that's all there is to it. Move to the location, sacrifice something, and then remove the plot from play. You then get the card as a rumour, and a single loot token as a reward, which is usually going to be a little bit of gold, but may be nothing at all, or may even be a trap that takes away a life point without any chance to avoid it.

I'm calling BS on that last one.

In solo play, the plots are an inconvenience. In competitive play, an irrelevance. While winning the co-operative game means killing the ancient one, in competitive play, if nobody kills the ancient one, the winner is the player with the most victory points. Where do those victory points come from? Your assets and gold (and rumours that you can cash in for gold at the market). Removing plot points from the map costs you time - it costs you victory points - but it makes the ancient one easier for everybody to kill. So, considering that there's no need to kill the ancient one to win, why wouldn't I just run out the clock and aim to have the most victory points, ignoring the plots completely? If someone else removes the plots, I'm in a better position to fight the ancient, because I've been focusing on completing my sagas and amassing assets while they've been making my job easier. If nobody else removes the plots, I'm still in a good position to have the most victory points, because I've been focusing on completing my sagas and amassing assets anyway.

Evil plots are afoot in Gloom of Kilforth.


Ultimately, I think the game is at it's best when you play solo: When you have a chance to immerse yourself in the world, and you can take your time thinking through your options and following the path to your heroic destiny. But that's a problem for me, because I already have Mage Knight as the ultimate solo experience. I wanted Gloom of Kilforth to be the game I rolled out when friends came over.

But honestly, regardless of Mage Knight, I don't think Gloom of Kilforth would become my go-to solo experience. I love what the game's trying to do, I just don't particularly enjoy the way it goes about doing it. It tells a sweeping tale of adventure, with heroes travelling to the four corners of the world to uncover dark secrets, rally armies, find new equipment, and defeat villains; but it tells that tale in painfully small incremental steps. And that makes every speed bump you meet along the way even more obnoxious.

For example, at the start of the game you only have four actions (this can increase to a maximum of eight by the end of the game). Hiding costs you an action point. Whenever you move into a location that doesn't already have an encounter on it (which costs an action point) you draw an encounter. If the encounter you draw is an enemy, and you aren't hidden, the enemy gains surprise, which makes it more powerful. The monster you meet isn't scaled to your current level, so even on your first turn you have a chance of meeting the most powerful enemy in the game; and even the weakest monsters are almost as powerful as a starting hero. To make matters worse, in most situations, you and the monster deal damage simultaneously. So, if you aren't hidden, there's a good chance you're going to die.

A selection of mountain encounters from Gloom of Kilforth, including a vile devil.


Death isn't permanent, but it does wipe out all your remaining actions, all your gold, one of your assets or rumours, teleports you back to the starting city location, and resets you to two hit points for the following round. In a game that boils down to a race, that can be quite a kick in the peculiars.

However, if you're hidden, and your sneak value is higher than the monster's you can automatically avoid the combat and move on to easier pickings, or even discard your hidden token to gain surprise and become stronger in the fight.

It's a pretty cool mechanism. I like it on paper. In practice, it just feels like another thing you have to do that eats an action point. Unless you're moving to a space that already has an encounter, you're probably going to want to hide, and as you lose your hidden status at the end of each round, using an action point to hide becomes a very regular occurrence, so even just moving to an adjacent location is going to cost a minimum of two action points. If you're already wounded, that could be your entire activity for the whole round. It gets worse if the encounter you reveal is a place, quest, or stranger, because you don't get to interact with those cards for free like you do with enemies. It costs you yet another action point.

Everything has too many steps. And there are little side rules and sub-systems that feel like they're only there to flesh out the world-building. For example, when you meet strangers, you can try to influence them. This represents you trying to sway them to your cause. If you fail your very first influence test, generating no successes at all, the stranger takes a disliking to you. At this point, you put an enemy token on the stranger. From then on, that stranger is considered an enemy but only to you. So, other players can continue to interact with the stranger as normal, but if you go back to the stranger you automatically get into a scuffle and things resort to bloodshed.

What a truly wonderful idea. What a beautiful way to make the world feel real and alive. What a clever way to handle non-player characters in a light roleplaying way within the confines of a board game.

What a brilliant little game mechanism that I have never, ever seen happen.

Not once.

Strangers only become enemies if you fail to get any successes in your first test. Combine that with the fact that you probably won't try the test unless you are sure you can succeed, and the fact you have fate tokens that you can use to add an automatic success, and I really don't see how this rule ever comes into effect.

The rumour system for acquiring assets is equally convoluted. Let's say you defeat a card that grants you an item rumour. You draw a single item card and add it to your hand of rumours. That item card lists a specific location you need to travel to, which could be way across the map. If you finally reach that location, you can spend an action point to convert the item rumour into an item asset.

A selection of the beautifully illustrated items from Gloom of Kilforth.


(At this point, I should probably point out that your play area can very quickly start to look like an explosion in a game's factory. Throughout the course of the game you need to keep track of your race card and profession card, your personal saga cards, a hand of up to six rumours, a selection of up to six asset cards in play, wooden tokens for gold, health, action points, and fate, a wooden token for your hidden status, and cardboard tokens for loot.)

If reaching the required location involves more than a turn, it really doesn't feel like a worthwhile idea to make a concerted effort to reach it, so your hand of rumours doesn't fuel your adventure the way it should. Rather than giving you motivation to do something, the rumours instead become something that you'll use if the opportunity arises and you happen to be passing the right location at some point.

Besides, an alternative way to get an asset is to travel to the city in the centre of the map, spend one action to visit the market, draw three cards from any one asset deck, and then pay the asking price to put one card of your choice directly into play as an asset.

Doing it this way, you have to spend gold; but you get better choice, and you're probably more economical with your actions. And it's not like gold is difficult to find, mainly because of the loot system.

The wooden tokens that represent gold in Gloom of Kilforth.


Every time you defeat a card, you have a choice of getting some gold, or drawing a random loot token from the velvet bag.

I tend to recommend the gold.

A good chunk of the loot tokens are gold anyway, while some are blank, and some actually hurt you. If you do find one of the more interesting loot tokens, you'll find that it's got quite limited applications. For example, you might find a loot token that allows you to take one free rest action in your turn, or you might find a map that allows you to move to any mountain region on the map for free.

The bag of loot tokens from Gloom of Kilforth, with the tokens spilling out onto a table.


Personally, I would have liked to see the loot streamlined to make it more a more appealing option. The blanks and traps need to go. After that, the remaining loot tokens should be a little more versatile. Maps should let you move to any location for free. A free action point should be useable for any type of action. That sort of thing.

At the moment, everything just feels a bit... bitty.

Granular.

Tristan has attempted to breathe life into every corner of his world. The problem is, a world is a big and complicated thing, full of many small and complicated parts.

Some people are going to love the detail and depth the game presents by breaking down actions into smaller activities, and creating sub-systems within those actions. But some people are going to see that as needless complications that prevent the game from being a streamlined and engaging experience. Some people are going to love how the quest for keywords drives the game forwards, and ensures everybody always has a fixed goal in mind. But some people are going to see that as a way to prevent them from enjoying the world the way they want to.

Nobody is right. Nobody is wrong.

Now, I can think of dozens of ways to streamline things. You could remove obstacles for a start. They just force you to spend an action point to remove them, which is annoying without adding anything interesting to your turns. You could make it so that you gain assets as soon as you defeat an encounter, so you don't have to worry about the rumour system. You could remove the plots. You could certainly remove the loot counters.

But if you did, you'd be screwing the game up. This game is finely balanced. It works exactly as intended. Every game is tense, and goes down to the wire, because all of those granular systems work together to create a complete world experience that really does have the potential to take your breath away.

You may be thinking this is a negative review. I promise it's not.

This game really does so much right. It is a world in a box. It does give you a chance to explore a new land, gain magical artefacts, fight monsters, and save the day. It gives you personal quests that gradually evolve so that at the end of the game you have a complete story of your hero's adventure (which is really all anybody can ever ask of a fantasy adventure game). Most importantly, the stories the game tells are coherent. The sagas ensure there's an overarching premise for your ordeals, while encounters keyed to specific location types means spending time in the forest involves encounters with nymphs and outlaws, while time in the mountains involves confrontations with feral beasts and demons.

The game has glorious artwork and high quality components. It's finely balanced so there's no runaway leader, and it's even possible to clamber out of the death spiral associated with losing action points every time you lose health. You can play solo, co-operatively, or competitively. There is a lovely hero generation system that is so simple and elegant, yet produces interesting combinations. It's a game that makes you want to play.

And dammit, I should like it more than I do.

A selection of title cards from Gloom of Kilforth. Will you be a noble knight, or a ruthless executioner?


Reading back through my own words, I realise it seems like I'm just tearing the game to bits; but I'm not. At least, I'm trying not to. I really wanted to love this game, but I don't. I really wanted this to be a massive hit for me; and now I'm trying to explain why it isn't.

I didn't enjoy the game, but I don't just want to say, "I thought this game was bad." I feel like I owe it to the game to explain myself, because a game this thorough in its world building, deserves a review that's just as thorough.

I'll put it another way...

Sometimes you're playing a game, and you can feel it's just a bad game. This isn't one of those times. It's just one of those times when a game isn't the game you want it to be.

But this is, resolutely, the game Tristan wanted it to be. This is a game that packs a world into a box, and breathes life into that world through incredible artwork and some very clever mechanisms. It's an amalgam of things that Tristan loves. Indeed, it's a labour of love. And for that reason, I can't regret backing it on Kickstarter.

And yeah... at the time of writing, I'm considering backing 1066, Tears to Many Mothers, which is the new game Tristan is publishing through Kickstarter. That may seem odd, considering my opinion of Gloom of Kilforth. It may seem odd, considering I don't really get to play many two-player games these days.

But when you put your money behind Tristan, you are supporting someone who cares. Someone who cares about his backers; but also someone who cares about games. Someone who cares about gaming: what it means, and why it matters.

You are backing someone who delayed the launch of his game to make sure there was consistent, high quality artwork across every card. Someone who saw an opportunity to improve the size of the cardboard and wooden tokens, and took that opportunity even though it cut into his profits. Someone who threw in a velvet bag for the loot tokens, and then had to suffer a backlash when people complained the bag they didn't even know they were going to get was too small. Someone who included extra gripseal plastic bags in the box, just because he's a gamer and he knows how bloody important they are.

Sure, you may not end up backing a game you enjoy, I am testament to that; but you will end up backing a game that feels like it was created by someone who believes it's the most important game in the world.

Because for Tristan, it is.

I backed Gloom of Kilforth because I wanted it to succeed. And I still want it to succeed. I want this to be a massive hit for Tristan. And I'm proud that my name's printed in the rules as a backer, because in a very small way I chipped in and helped Tristan to create his dream game.

It just turns out it's not my dream game.


Gloom of Kilforth isn't currently mass distributed, but hopefully it will be one day. Until then, many of the other games mentioned in this review are available online and from good games stores. If you enjoyed this review, please consider supporting me on Patreon.

4 comments:

  1. You and I are definitely on the same page with this game, and with the genre in general.

    I thought I was the only one who noticed that every single adventure game seems to be a bit off. They all falter in some way. There's something that seems to chip away at an ideal for an adventure system that I'm not even sure how to articulate, but it's definitely there. It's like all of these designs are iterating on some alchemical formula for an element that we're not quite sure how to identify.

    In any case, GoK takes a noble stab at it, but it also falters in ways that I think are linked to the conceit of abstracting a lot of the adventure game concepts down to action points and card keywords. If you're a solo gamer who is already invested in fleshing out a world as you play and maintaining narrative immersion, it's not as much of an issue. But I personally can't help but come up for air every once in awhile and notice that the framework is very stifling, and that a lot of the decisions in the subsystems are mostly overshadowed by... lots and lots of dice. I'd rather have one or the other: crazy dice chucking, or procedural steps & decisions. When both are in there, they seem to make everything simultaneously very busy and very arbitrary.

    But at the end of each session, after I've packed the whole thing in its small box, I'm actually stunned at how much is crammed into such a physically pared back system. That aspect of it commands respect. The fact that Tristan was able to condense multiple Runebound big boxes into a large deck of cards is a pretty amazing feat of design.

    Now we need to work on some of the underlying assumptions of the adventure genre, and maybe find ways of moving past a few of them.

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    1. Great comment. Maybe it's something to do with the fact these games try to be a whole world. Dungeon crawlers are usually very focused, but in an overland adventure game, you have to zoom out so much farther, and think about whole cities, armies, and different types of quests. It makes it so much easier to miss something, or even necessary to sacrifice something.

      I haven't tried the third edition of Runebound yet, but after playing Gloom of Kilforth, it suddenly came into my mind that I would really like to give Runebound another look. I then discovered that Fantasy Flight is about to release a solo expansion for it, which has pretty much encouraged me to buy the base game and check it out in a bit more detail.

      Thanks for reading and commenting.

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    2. I haven't tried 3rd edition yet either.

      I have most of 2nd edition and enjoy the occasional adventure with it, but it can also become a slog.

      Where GoK uses action points as the implicit speed bump, Runebound (2nd) often uses map traversal (you have to get the right icons on movement rolls to get through certain terrain, and terrain composition itself can shift based on the event deck [aka Night cards in GoK]).

      At first I thought that GoK's abstraction of map traversal would smooth over some of that, but it just substituted the slog of travel with AP management and also lost some of the narrative that can be built into that concept of a map (like, oh crap, my quest is in the middle of that mountain range, that's going to be slow going, and it might snow soon... vs oh crap my keyword is 3 cards away which is 6AP if I decide to hide; and so forth).

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    3. It's interesting that movement seems to be something that is always quite hard to get right (or which ends up quite divisive in its implementation). In Runebound 2nd, the terrain system was often considered a bit of a slog, Kilforth feels like an uphill battle, and in Mage Knight one of the most common complaints is the difficulty in moving between locations. It's like the designs attempt to represent the sheer scale of a world by making it hard to go anywhere in it.

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