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These Three 2017 Tabletop Games Prove The Fantasy Genre is as Magical As Ever
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These Three 2017 Tabletop Games Prove The Fantasy Genre is as Magical As Ever

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“Fantasy” as a genre is pretty broad. It runs the gamut from your standard Elves slaying Orcs and Dragons to seedy underworlds filled with species and magic we’ve never heard of. It’s capable of pushing the envelope and creating new worlds; it can also be a comforting retreat into a world that is no less exciting for being familiar. I don’t normally gravitate towards fantasy games, however, I played three fantasy games in 2017 that stood out to me for different reasons.

Sword & Sorcery

Sword & Sorcery is the fantasy successor to Ares’ Games Galaxy Defenders. It’s a top-down hack and slash dungeon crawler that is at once fresh and nostalgic. You’ll roll up familiar feeling characters — the elf shoots a bow or dual-wields swords — and romp through a familiar feeling world. Goblins are sneaky, bandits steal your stuff and slip a poison dagger betwixt your ribs, and tavern owners aren’t all that they seem. You’ve seen some of this before which makes sliding into Sword & Sorcery‘s game system much easier. This is helpful because there is a lot to learn.

This game sports 3 books: the rules, your campaign book, and a book of secrets that provide narrative and a few branching choices. Everything you’d expect to find in a fantasy world is here; there are rules for poison, leveling up, inventory systems, setting things -and enemies – on fire. You name the fantasy element and this game has got it. That doesn’t mean it’s derivative or bland, however. The story spans multiple chapters and expansions and your character can level up and grow through them. However, what really sets Sword & Sorcery apart is its approach to co-op dungeon crawling.

Your characters are all fallen heroes, returned to the world through magic. This has the handy benefit of meaning you can’t really die. If you lose all your health you move into a spirit form and can still take turns without having to sit out. More importantly, it’s a purely cooperative game. There is no 1-vs-many aspect to this title. Monsters are controlled through a detailed yet easy to follow AI card. There are multiple cards for each monster type. All goblins will play similarly, but each individual model will behave differently based on which card it is assigned. This makes playthroughs feel fresh and the monsters feel reactive. This is the game for all you Diablo fans hankering for a tabletop experience.

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Gloomhaven

Gloomhaven: perhaps 2017’s biggest release is one we love around here, and for good reason. It’s massive – in physical size and in the amount of gameplay it contains. It’s also massive in its undertaking. Where Sword & Sorcery leverages nostalgia, Gloomhaven is something wholly new. For starters, it’s the city of Gloomhaven that is the real star of the show. When you begin your first game you’ll pick some characters that loosely map to familiar fantasy tropes. These characters will eventually level up, retire, and retreat into the city as NPCs. Once your private personal goals are complete you’ll roll a new character, usually a member of the new class you’ve just unlocked. These classes are initially hidden away in boxes, tantalizing mysteries that drive you forward just by existing. The city is always there, however. As you play you level up the city itself. Quests are unlocked – by way of stickers on a gorgeous map of the area – and characters come and go based on your actions in the city.

The play of Gloomhaven is also innovative. When you enter a dungeon or scenario you get your full complement of player cards in your hand. These cards have a number of abilities on them and all are split in half – there is a top ability and a bottom ability. Each round you’ll pick two and do the top of one and bottom of the other. Cards are discarded or burned (depending on the ability) and another card is burned each time you use your full hand. This mimics a characters stamina reserves fading the longer they fight. Like a good fantasy RPG, your heroes emerge from an adventure beaten, bruised, and near exhaustion. Assuming they emerge at all, of course. Gloomhaven’s monsters are varied and deadly, with many a hero falling to the bandits, oozes, and fearsome monsters that inhabit the countryside.

Along the way you’ll uncover a robust campaign that sprawls through over 90 scenarios. Dungeons and adventures will open and close based on the decisions your party makes, and how well you manage the challenges that face you. For those concerned about a legacy element, the permanence in Gloomhaven is light and a set of vinyl stickers is available if you’d rather make non-permanent changes. Gloomhaven is one of the most ambitious games of the last couple of years and it succeeds on every level. The city lives and grows around your characters, and the various character class options give you a number of angles from which to explore.

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Legacy of Dragonholt

Legacy of Dragonholt was released with little fanfare or buzz, but it may be my favorite game on this list. Designed by Nikki Valens of Fantasy Flight Games, Legacy of Dragonholt is an epic RPG tale set in the world of Terrinoth. The story is the type to make the denizens of Bioware’s Dragon Age games jealous. It is a story of murder and mystery, of adventure and romance. Not just NPC romance, but there are romance options for your character if you make the right conversation decisions. See, Legacy of Dragonholt is presented like the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books you grew up on but it evolves the system and lifts it to new heights.

Like the old books I read in the back of my families car, Legacy of Dragonholt is presented in a pure text format. No dice or cards to be seen, just a series of books that weave a story out of ink and paper. Every few paragraphs you’ll be provided with choices. Ignore the bandit or chase her. Climb the tree or stay on the ground. These choices provide you with an entry number that you flip to and keep reading. This part is familiar, but the formula is tweaked a bit. Before you start your adventure you’ll create a character. Skills, species choices and more will not only shape your personal narrative but open up branches when it comes time to embark on your adventure. A character with skills in magic may be able to take an arcane approach to an enemy, where one with Acrobatics may escape having taken less damage. Fights are particularly interesting in this game, as they are still replete with paragraph-based choices. Combat options will mark ‘progress’ boxes based on your abilities in a system that makes fights feel dynamic without needing to roll dice.

Make no mistake, Legacy of Dragonholt is groundbreaking. This system is an exciting evolution of Choose Your Own Adventure books, and achieves the holy grail of tabletop games: this world reacts to you in deep and lasting ways without needing a DM to sculpt the story around you. It’s also refreshingly inclusive in both NPCs and pre-gen character options. You’re of course free to make any character you want, but I’m happy to see a company like Fantasy Flight challenging the norm when it comes to things race, gender, and relationships. This is an exciting game that offers the potential to explore it over and over. Characters will approach challenges differently, and some side quests may never even open to you. I’m excited to see what else is done with this system going forward.

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Ready to explore other worlds?

Image Credits: Raf Cordero

In addition to Geek & Sundry, Raf Cordero writes for Miniature Market’s The Review Corner and co-hosts the gaming podcast Ding & Dent. Chat with him on Twitter @captainraffi.

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