Thursday, March 17, 2016

Warhammer Quest Solo vs Other Solo Games

Editor's Note: This article originally appeared on BoardGameGeek by JYoder. I've reposted it with permission from the author. 

I've played Warhammer Quest: The Adventure Card Game (WHQ) several times and would like to give some thoughts about it, and how it compares to a few established fantasy games. I'm coming from the perspective of someone who has only played it solo, and has played other solo fantasy adventures, including Lord of the Rings: The Living Card Game (LotR), PathFinder Adventure Card Game (PACG), and Mage Knight (MK).

Right off the bat, I'll say MK is very different from the others, and I'm only including it because it also gives a solo fantasy adventure, which is the main thrust of my review. Most of my comparison will be leveled at LotR, as WHQ seems inspired by that game system.
I approached my review in a Q&A format, with questions I had about the game before I purchased it...

What's a general overview of the game?

2 to 4 chars play in a fantasy coop setting. Each char has 4 actions, represented by cards. On your turn, you can use one of those actions by exhausting that card and following the 2-3 steps it gives. One of the cards refreshes itself and the others. During the game, you explore locations, battle enemies, gather loot, and try to defeat a main boss.
That's... pretty much it. Of course, there are more rules and nuances, but it's truly that simple and straightforward, with only 4 phases each round: Heroes, Enemies, Location, and Peril. (Remember the HELP acronym.) The last phase is where a quest timer advances to increase the difficulty.
For solo play, the rules recommend 2 chars, but you could play 3 or 4 if you are up for more juggling, have the table space, and want an easier game. (More on the last part throughout the review.) The base game has a general "delve" quest and a campaign option of several quests chained together. Each lets you improve your base actions cards and carry loot forward. But what's important to note, is much of the success (or failure) of each action relies on rolling custom dice.

Does it play well solo?
This is the only way I've played, and yes, it works well. The game definitely has a feeling of working as a team, especially with one of the 4 actions being "Aid", which gives a boost to other chars on their turns. You learn early on that this is a key element you need to use in order to win.
However, using only 2 chars (as is recommended for solo play) is the game's hardest difficulty setting. (Though that's not really by design, but a result of failure to scale the quests accordingly, which is disappointing.) With fewer chars, you get more hit points, but it's not enough to compensate for other elements. In fact, I've read one char is almost unusable in only a 2 char setting. I've not played her, but if true, it makes you wonder about solo play-testing.

How does it compare to LotR specifically?
Somewhat similar, but quite different. I also play LotR solo as 2 players, which is playing as 6 characters. LotR is a card driven fantasy game where you are progressing through about 3 locations in a game session. The main difference is in LotR, you construct your own player decks prior to playing. In fact, you can build your decks for a given scenario if desired, so it's a major part of the game -- not simply an afterthought. And with LotR, while you can put almost any card in your deck, you need to "earn" the ability to play it during the game, with better cards have a higher cost.
In WHQ, you fight enemies that can engage you, or they can be in a "staging area" (called the shadows), and you progress through locations. In fact, one could say WHQ is a sort of a dumbed down version of LotR, which will be a pro or con to some. WHQ is far more accessible, but at the cost of far less decisions.
Another huge difference is that combat is more deterministic in LotR (though not fully, due to shadow cards). But in WHQ, who knows what'll happen? Rolling dice can tank or do great -- you never know. True, it can be mitigated with the "Aid" action, as it allows another char to guarantee 1-2 "successes" during their action... however, that's assuming the "Aid" action did OK, and was able to even give some guaranteed "successes" to that player.

Also in LotR, you can link scenarios, gathering good and bad cards to use along the way. But that's only via the saga exps. While that can be fun, I find LotR's real strengh is in single scenarios, against which you can throw your pre-made decks. Contrast that with WHQ, where a big focus is gathering items and enhancing your chars as you progress. In that regard, PACG does the same across multiple games, whereas MK does it all in-game, as you would in a "delve" quest of WHQ.

Does it play well in a group?
I've rarely played LotR with a group because I'm not a huge fan of coops. But I've done it, and I'd imagine WHQ is roughly the same. The difference is with LotR you can all play 1 scenario and be done. With WHQ, in campaign mode, there's some motivation to play more than 1 game, though one game can take a while. In contrast, PACG entices you to play multiple games, as they play a bit quicker, and it's after each game you get more loot you want to try. Like PACG, WHQ (in campaign mode) needs you to record what you've earned for future plays. To avoid that, the one-shot "delve" quest, to play anytime, is a nice option in WHQ.

Is it hard to learn?
It uses the 2 book format -- one rules and the other glossary. I liked the tutorial, which eases you into the game. There were a couple of misses the rule book could have done better, but nothing major. In contrast, the 1 LotR rule book is sufficient, but the game has more complexity, so it's harder to learn all the nuances, especially given all the different cards across the exps. As for PACG, its rules are a bit of a mess, with you digging all around to find the 1 sentence you need to get something just right.
Regarding MK, while I find its two rule books sufficient, it's simply a lot to take in as your brain implodes between sections. Amazingly, even though MK is a beast, I didn't have to seek/ask as many questions online as you'd expect.
Does it have a lot of errata and require much digging on BGG?
Not really. The system in WHQ is pretty streamlined and elegant. There are some things I've had to look into, but far less than I did (and still do at times) for LotR. However, I'd like to think -- in an effort to make all chars more doable when only playing with 2 of them -- that some errata can be done as all chars are not created equal. Contrast that with LotR, where different heroes have a "price point" based on how good they are, which I like a lot.

Is it hard to teach?
Teaching WHQ is easy, given it only has 4 phases. You could even play a bit as you teach. LotR would be harder, as it has more steps, cards to fully realize, and keywords. Also, you need to make pre-constructed deck for newbies in LotR, or they'll be overwhelmed. PACG is very easy, especially since you don't have to lay out every rule before starting. As for teaching MK... that'd be a whole different kettle of fish; one I doubt I'll ever attempt due to its complexity.

Is it fun?
That's subjective, so I can't answer for you, but I will say my tastes vary between fantasy games. For instance, I really enjoy LotR for its choices, card combos, and pre-game deck construction. In contrast, choices and combos are far less in WHQ (and even less in PACG) yet both these games have leveling and a feeling of ongoing adventure between games.
On the flip side, I dislike X-Wing and Descent 2 due to lack of meaningful choices and reliance on die rolls. Honestly, WHQ kind of falls into that category, given the extreme swings the dice can take and the repetitive action choices. Yet for some reason, WHQ still kind of works for me... so far. I had a bit of that same vibe from PACG, and I eventually sold it, so time will tell.

Do I find MK fun? Yes, but it's a different kind of "fun", which is more akin to the sense of accomplishment after climbing Mt. Everest and cheating death.

Any investment disadvantages to buying WHQ?
There have been no exps announced yet, but it's almost certain there will be. Contrast that to LotR, and anyone just getting into it can feel overwhelmed. Even so, there's no need to gobble up everything -- start with the Core set and first cycle, then move on if you like what you see. PACG also has exps, and will have more. Assuming WHQ will have exps, MK easily trumps all these games. Yes, MK is more expensive, but there's a ton of game in the base and 1 exp, after which it's basically complete.

How does it look?
In short, it looks great with it's custom dice and nice artwork. Though I hate the overly large wound marker, especially since they only go up to 3, and with health > 20, it's rather annoying to tally, so I may borrow wounds from other games.
And while the art looks great, there's just not a lot of it, due to the few cards you actually play with. In contrast, LotR is a visual pleasure, given all the different cards you see in one session. On the flip side, PACG has fine artwork, but it's muted with it's incredibly drab layouts. It's also worth noting that WHQ, PACG, and LotR are all simply card games, with no board. MK is very different in that regard, with a dynamic map that looks gorgeous.
What sets WHQ apart from PACG, LotR, and MK?
In my mind, it's the light to medium game weight it has, while creating more of a dungeon crawl feel, part of which comes from lots of dice rolling. For some, all that will be it's big draw, while to others, the lack of deep game play and fairly high luck variance may be a turn off. However, I like it enough for what it is -- a dice chucker with some thought required. PACG is the only other one that also gives a dice rolling option.

Is the game fiddly and/or hard to manage?
In WHQ, there aren't many special rules, making it very elegant, with only a few counters. I juggle much more in LotR because there are more cards in play (and available to play) at any given time. 

LotR is also a bit fiddlier due to various counters, but it's not extreme. PACG is even less fiddly due to lack of counters. As for MK, yes, quite fiddly, but in a good way that gels better than you'd think.

How does the actual game play feel?
Remember that old video game Rogue? It feels a bit like that, with several different locations, enemies, and swingy outcomes you may have limited control over. (At least with 2 chars.) Also, like Rogue, if you have a string of bad rolls, you can see you're most likely going to fail, making you wonder if you should press the reset button, or press on, knowing the dice can also turn it around.
While decisions are fairly easy, I'm keeping in mind this is only the base set. Will it introduce new rules with exps, like LotR? Well, given simplicity and elegance are its big draws, too many would hurt this game... yet at the same time, it feels like it could use more. That's because this is not a "gamer's game," yet it's a bit more than a gateway game.
In contrast, I love the variability of the LotR quests. Yes, broken down, one could argue they are somewhat the same with progressing and advancing through locations, but the triggers, rule changes, and new cards make each quest feel quite different, with a distinct flavor. Then tackle it with different decks, and it's again different. I love that.

Is the best choice usually pretty obvious?
Fairly obvious, at least with 2 chars. Still, you can't slip into auto-pilot, or you'll fail to maximize chars' actions and anticipate what the game's about to throw at you. Contrast that with PACG, which is almost all auto-pilot, making it a good gateway game. With LotR, I never feel I'm on auto-pilot, as I put thought into each turn, given I have many more choices.
As for MK, if you even glance at the auto-pilot switch, you'll crash into the Himalayas and be forced to melt snow in your frostbitten hands, only to be devoured by wolves anyway.

Are all the characters balanced?
With only 2 chars, not really, but with more, it works. In PACG, they aren't that balanced, but it's acceptable, due to it's extreme simplicity and how it's almost impossible to lose. And in LotR, while the heroes aren't balanced in abilities, yet they kind of are with their varied initial threat cost, which is very clever. As for MK, all the heroes are pretty balanced, regardless that their earned skills are quite varied; it's really quite impressive.
Honestly, how chars are represented is a bit of a concern for me with WHQ. With only 4 actions for each char, and the only change in the number of chars being their health, and a lack of extra player cards (which all 3 of the other games give) I think it'd be rather difficult to create a lot of variety. At least, for all possible numbers of players. Hopefully, I'll be proved wrong, but this is where the simplicity seems to come at a price.

How is player interaction for coop?
For coop, LotR does a fantastic job with various cards and where and when you can play them. WHQ also does it in a good way, but very differently, which is mainly through the "Aid" action I referred to before. Other actions also let you work cooperatively, but "Aid" is the big one, which works well with its simple, streamlined play.
In contrast, the coop aspect in PACG is more about overall strategy (who goes to which location, based on odds of finding X type cards, or do we stick together, etc.) while LotR is more tactical (the game throws things at you and players now need to respond with many choices at their disposal.)
As for MK, it has you dealing all the time with both strategy and tactics. In spades. It's also worth noting that MK offers a competitive way to play, whereas none of these other games do.

How is replayability?
Many on BGG have raved about WHQ's replayability... but honestly, I'm not feeling it to that level. Sure, there are always random items, locations, and enemies. And more exps will give more of the same, along with varied quests. So of course, replayability should be high... right? Right!?
Well, for me, the crux of the game comes down to those same 4 actions used by every char. Sure, each char has their own, and each action can upgrade a bit. But still, for each char, there's only 4 actions. Every turn. 1 of 4 actions. And those lessen at various points, giving you 1 of 3, 1 of 2, or even 1 of 1. And the choices each action gives is quite limited, leaving the dice to do what they do. And many times, the best choice isn't that hard to determine. So for me, in these types of games, the real strength of replayability comes more from who I'm playing as, rather than what I'm playing 
Now, the counter to that (both pro and con) are the dice. They can let you throw a hail mary at the last second, or fail to score on the 1 yard line. If you get your replayability kicks from that, then more power to you, but to me, that's feels a bit artifical.
This is why LotR is far and away more replayable for me with it's pre-game deck building and all the cards in hand that I can use for the 3 heroes I've selected. And I play 2 handed, so I have 2 decks and 6 heroes. That's where my replayability comes from -- those 6 heroes and 100 cards I can draw. By game end, I've played so many cards (and had so many cards played against me by the quest) that it's extremely rare to ever have a game feel the least bit same.
As for MK, it also has lots of replayability. Even more in what comes at you (revealed map tiles, tokens, and card stacks with items, spells, and allies to acquire) but, most importantly, from the cards you draw for your char and how you want to chain them together, along with how you upgrade your char.

How hard is it to win?
Again, with only 2 chars, it can be hard, but I don't mind that. However, I also learned the 2 chars I've been using do rather well with only 2 chars. If I used a different one, from what I've read, it sounds like I'd be very hard to win, unless the dice shine, and I really dislike that. So I have no definitive answer here, as the variables in the number of char, heroes you select, and dice really change it.
In contrast, PACG is insanely easy, especially since you can pull out of a quest (but now with better loot) and try again. LotR is hard to say. I probably win about 60% of the time, but that's in part from house rules I use to make the game a bit harder and up the variety. MK... hmm... well... I'm no expert. All I know is there is lots of variety in how you hard you make it, so I feel I'm still on the journey there to say -- that game just gives you so much to play with.

What's the play length?
PACG is quite short. MK is quite long, so I rarely play it, which is its biggest drawback. WHQ and LotR are in the middle, but WHQ plays in less time, yet longer than I'd expect, because for how WHQ feels, I'm sometimes surprised how much time has passed once the game ends.
But that's regarding actual play time, not setup. If you include deck building in LotR, then LotR definitely takes quite a bit longer. Though the plus there, is once you have a deck or 2 ready, you can tackle many scenarios with hardly any setup time at all. And keep in mind that setup time in WHQ is no snap of the fingers, as you need to seed certain cards into some decks and randomize in others. Still, it doesn't take that long.

How good of a story/narrative does it tell?
While some have said WHQ gives a better story/narrative experience than LotR, this truly has me scratching my head. WHQ gives a little blurb at the start and end of each quest, with a couple of minor nuggets via advancing peril. I'm glad they have it as it adds some nice flavor. However...
LotR scenarios may give you half a page of text to set the scene. Then, depending on what decks you bring, the journey is vastly different between sessions, far more than WHQ. And rather than a couple of nuggets in-game, you have far bigger game changes occurring as you advance through quest stages. Then at the end, if you've won, there's another block of text to read, giving you a sense of accomplishment. So I cannot even fathom the argument here for WHQ -- LotR is, far and away, the better narrative.
Compared to PACG, WHQ is definitely better, as every scenario in PACG is basically hide and seek, with the thinnest of story glazed over top... one might say like butter scraped over too much bread. (See what I did there!?)
What's MK like? While it gives a small bit of overall context at the start, the story is really how you play each game, with the char, encounters, map tiles, cards, etc, giving it a more sandbox feel as the game is the story. For instance, do you want to be friendly at the monastery and improve your standing in the land, making it easier to acquire allies? Or do you want to raze the monastery to the ground, thereby soiling your reputation, but gain a very powerful artifact hidden in its walls? It's your choice.

Compared to the other games, is there anything "missing" from WHQ?
The big one for me is not playing a deck. The other 3 all have it, and for me, that gives a personable random element as you see what you draw and can play. This also gives those games more choices. (Except for PACG, where choices are almost non-existent.) I love that tactile element of holding a hand of cards, as it makes my chars feel like their own entity, while increasing that core replayability aspect I wrote about earlier.
However, having no decks is also what makes WHQ far more accessible. So judge for yourself, as newbies only have to worry about 4 hero cards (and a few gear you'll gather) right out in front of them from start to finish, so they can be up and running in no time, with the challenge coming from the timing of when to play, exhaust, and refresh those cards.

To really enjoy each of these games, how much time do I need to put into them?
This is where WHQ shines. You can be up and running in no time via the tutorial and its ease of play as the rule book takes you by the hand. And this is why WHQ will replace some games for some people -- they just want to play NOW, whether it's a quick gaming itch or the reality of life's constraints. This is one of WHQ's greatest strengths.
As for PACG, once you've got it down, while easier to play than WHQ, the rule book makes it unnecessarily awkward, so it'll take longer to sink in.
For LotR, this is where newbies get hung up. There's now a lot to take in with the game, but I'd strongly discourage anyone from going "all in" with LotR. If intrigued with Tolkien's world and/or a medium weight solo/coop, start with the core, and if it entices you, get the first cycle and wade into the shallows. And although I find LotR truly shines in solo play with 2 decks (6 heroes), some players don't want to go there, because of deck construction and learning all the nuances. Especially since as your card pool grows, it comes with a heftier FAQ. Personally, I find LotR more of a "lifestyle" game, in that you grow with it at your own pace, so it'll take more effort and energy. While I've found the payoff more than worth it, it's not for everyone.
Regarding MK (*insert maniacal laughter*) yeah, you'll need to put in a lot of time and energy into this beast via the rules books and maybe watching tutorials. That said, it's quite the journey of discovery as all these strange pieces -- which from the onset don't seem like they should work together -- start to merge and gel into a wondrous machine that is far greater than the sum of its parts, creating many "ah-hah" moments, and making you wonder how someone could have imagined such a grand design. To the casual gamer, don't even bother putting gas in your car tank -- stick to jogging or whizzing about in your golf cart, while pretending to feel the wind in your hair. To the hardcore gamer, pack a suitcase, hop into the convertible with the top down, and enjoy the roadtrip -- if you can make it past the state line, you're going to see a lot of gorgeous scenery you've never seen before.

How much of WHQ is now hype and hotness?
I'd have to say quite a lot. Don't get me wrong -- it's an ok game and I'm glad to own it as it offers a fairly quick setup and is more than an appetizer. Indeed, for many, it can serve as the main meal.
But let's be honest -- it's rare for any game in the WarHammer universe to not get a lot of hype, due to the history, setting, and artwork. Also, when I read that some players think FFG should apply this system to their other intellectual properties (such as LotR, Netrunner, Star Wars, etc)... well, then you know the hotness is burning really bright. Blindingly and amusingly so.
Still, WHQ is here to stay and it'll get exps. It fits a nice niche. But yes, there is a lot of hype around this game now... just as there used to be for PACG... and LotR... and MK... and Netrunner... you get the idea. While I can see it breaking into the top 200 at BGG (maybe 100 due to its gateway-level ease of play?) I can't help but feel that once the dust settles, people will voice the same complaint that blanketed PACG after its nova burst began to fade -- and that's the feeling of fairly repetitive sameness across sessions.

How thematic and/or immersive is WHQ?
Sadly, I have a fair bit of disconnect with WHQ. Almost everything feels generic, though the boss enemies have names. In this game, I can play an elf and a dwarf. Yippee. Obviously, LotR give me chars I know and love, such as Legolas and Gimli. PACG at least gives names to the heroes, as does MK. No idea why WHQ doesn't have named chars, but rather has a type of char to play with each hero... and every single one of them is still limited to only 4 actions.

What's the level of randomness across these games?
One area I won't budge on is how much more random and/or swingy this game is compared to LotR. Some have claimed LotR is just as much, or even moreso, than WHQ, due to all the cards drawn from your deck and enemy deck. I can only assume they haven't played as many games of both as I have. Consider this...
In the 3rd WHQ quest (I won't say much to avoid spoilers) it's evident you need to attack and explore a lot. With only the 2 chars I'd been using, I was at a loss at what to do, as it didn't seem possible to do both consistently. (A sad reminder the game has not been balanced for 2 chars.) Still, I tried, but by the 3rd turn, the writing was on the wall -- there was nothing I could do and the game was quickly crushing me. I reset and tried again, but this time I only made it to the 2nd turn, as due to some bad dice rolling, the game was over via a quest condition. Being the glutton I am, and hoping it was a challenge I had to figure out, I reset again.
Long story short: I won on my 2nd turn.
Now when you play a scenario that stomps you in 2-3 turns, and next session you defeat it in 2 turns, yet you didn't really change how you played, that's pretty much the epitome of random and swingy. There's NO WAY you'll have a scenario even close to that in LotR, which is usually a gradual buildup in forces for you and the enemy as you press forward. Sure, you can have quests that stomp your decks, or your decks stomp a quest, but in either case, you're NOT going to have a "swing game" with the same matchup that enables the opposite.

In case you're wondering, no, I did not experience a fist pump moment of "I did it! I beat the game!" but was left with, "How did that just happen!?" The answer was a lucky location that helped me by discarding an enemy, a lucky dungeon card draw that damaged the boss, and a lucky high attack roll early on that killed 2 enemies. And even then, I barely beat it, or I'd have lost via quest conditions. Of course, to some players, this uncertainty and high variance may be a plus. But please, do not say LotR is even remotely close to being as random or swingy as WHQ.
Is PACG random or swingy? Certain key rolls can be, I suppose, but the game is easy enough that you can swallow them. What about MK? Not very much. There is certainly the unknown aspect, but usually you can make something work -- you just have to work to find it.

What's my overall take on the game?
I like it OK for what it is. Definitely more than PACG, which I sold. And it's radically different from MK. Yet it's different enough from LotR that I'm happy to keep it.
Do I want a huge immersive experience in one long session and tons of choices? MK. Do I want to include some pre-game deck construction in an attempt to tackle one or more scenarios with many choices? LotR. Do I want fairly quick dungeon crawl feel (possibly with chars that have progressed in past games) and have fewer choices while throwing some caution to the wind? WHQ. Do I want very little setup time, a much quicker game, and do some in-game deck-building? Friday. (You didn't see that one coming, did you?)
As for other dungeon crawls, I'll say WHQ is most definitely better than Castle Ravenloft and games in that series... but honestly, that's not saying a lot. It's also much better than Descent 2 (for me) due to speed of play and ability to solo the game.

So what's the bottom line?
WHQ is different enough that I'm glad I bought it... for now. While I sold PACG after only a few plays, I don't see myself parting with WHQ as it hits a certain niche -- a fairly quick dungeon crawl with some char progression. Sadly, games can feel a bit same-ish with limited choices, but that simplicity is also part of its charm. But if exps basically only add more of the same, I'll probably stop after a couple of them.
Given that WHQ is easy to teach, I see it playing well with those who enjoy fantasy and don't want too many rules. Though on the flip side, LotR and MK have more immersive themes, which has a lot to do with card appearance and more of a story aspect in LotR. Still, WHQ offers a fun romp, when that's all you want, regardless of some repitition. Of course, no game can be everything, so they can all co-exist on my shelf.
However, I will say that after about a dozen plays over the past 2-3 weeks, I've started to catch myself yawning mid-game as I've felt rather bored. Also, of the times I've won or lost a game on a final dice roll, I don't feel elated or frustrated. Instead, I find myself thinking, "Oh. The dice made me win," or "Oh. The dice made me lose." As you can see, having the entire game hinge on a final dice roll gives me a rather lackluster feeling, as there's nothing else I can do by then.
At some point, I'll need to try WHQ with 3 chars, to see if that helps. Though as of now, I recently got the latest LotR exps, and I'm itching to build a Ranger Trap deck, an Ent deck, an Elf deck... hmm, all these delicious choices... though by the time I've made a couple, it'll probably be time for bed.

So which game is my favorite?
I enjoy figuring out card combos and squeezing the most out of my limited resources, which is maybe why Descent 2 and X-Wing feel like bland and mindless dice-fests to me. Knowing that, MK easily has the most "card combo" choices, making your brain ooze out your ears. LotR is more middle ground, with WHQ much further down, and PACG easily having the least.
All that said, I like LotR best. After that, I can't really compare MK and WHQ as they scratch very different itches. After all, there are times you want a long dinner meal with multiple courses and the perfect dessert, while other times, all you want and/or have time for, is a McRib and french fries. (Mmm... McRib...)
WHQ has the leveling up aspect and making me earn a small handful of cards, which is fun, giving it an addictive charm with its simple play. So now if I want a quick solo fantasy game, I have the option, as delving into MK may feel too daunting, or I may not want to juggle lots of cards in LotR. In that regard, WHQ works well, and I'll keep my fingers crossed that exps can deal with hero discrepancies, regarding how many are in play.

So for coop and solo gamers who would enjoy (possibly linked) fantasy games, with only a few rules, few choices, and who want a step up from "casual" (such as PACG), yet want to avoid the metagame deck construction in LotR, WHQ may be a perfect fit, especially for those who enjoy chucking dice. However, don't be surprised if the gameplay starts to feel repetitive, or if the randomness makes or breaks a game, as that's the price for simplicity.