The Dresden Files is a series of books about Harry Dresden: A Wizard who is a Private Investigator in Chicago. The series has a Magic meets Noir vibe. I picked up the the first two books sometime ago after hearing a recommendation from the Pulp Gamer PodCast: they really liked the Dresden Series RPG. So, I started reading (well, listening to books on tapes) the first two: Storm Front and Fool Moon. Annnnnnnd … they were okay. Harry was kind of a whiny character in those first two books. I almost stopped reading. But then I picked up a bunch of later books and they were so much better! Seriously, the series really ramped up in later books. It’s more fun, it has better writing, and you really get invested in the characters. I am very glad I kept up with the books because this really has become one of my favorite book series.
The Dresden Files Cooperative Card Game
Fast-forward to April 2016: There was an announcement that the Dresden Files: Cooperative Card Game was on Kickstarter! I love cooperative games! I love Harry Dresden and all the characters. So, this was a natural “buy”. The game includes playable characters for many, many characters in the Book! Harry, Micheal, Thomas, … anyone you could think of!
The Kickstarter had some interesting things going for it: the shipping price got cheaper and cheaper the more people backed it. I also ended up with a few specials: A Mouse character deck, a Hank Walker/Ra (A crossover from Sentinels of the Multiverse!), and a few variant cards. This forum posting on BoardGameGeek covers everything special the Kickstarter got, and points out that people who didn’t kickstart the game can still get the extra content. But, my favorite extra is the Mouse character deck. Who doesn’t love Mouse?
As you can see from the picture of Mouse, the art in the game is very comic-booky (Tyler Walpole I think did the art). I like it! But, I love comic books (pre-2012) so I liked this. There is an interesting mix of art: the backs of the story cards are the covers of the all the Dresden files books. The game is a weird mix of the two art styles: I think it works, but it is a bit jarring. The art on the cover and the back of the story cards is very different than the comic-booky art.
It’s by no means a deal breaker, and, for people who have read the Series and are VERY familiar with the book covers, I think it’s cool to see the book covers as the back of the story cards. It’s just an interesting mix of of art that people would complain about in other games, but I think it worked here. I think the character art is snappy and bright. And the book covers are very evocative of the theme.
The rulebook is pretty good. It explains things pretty well, it’s not too long, it has some sample plays. Three things, thought, came out that worried me:
- You can’t say exactly what a card does! If I have an Investigate Card of 5 clues that cost 5 Fate, I can’t say that, I can only say “I have a high cost, but good Investigate card!” I thought we all agreed we’d stop doing this back in Shadows Over Camelot! I suspect they wanted to avoid Alpha Player Syndrome, and indeed, the rules say they do this to keep the game going so it doesn’t bog down. I feel like we will just ignore this rule, like we do in Shadows Over Camelot. Maybe I’m wrong (that’s why this is a first impression).
- The solo player rules are complicated for a first-time play! The solo player game makes you play three characters. I understand, once you play the game a few times, that this is a very good solo mode (and it is fun), but I feel like there should be a solo mode with only 1 or 2 characters. It’s very daunting, as a first-time player, to keep track of 18 cards to try to figure out what to do. I’d really like a solo mode with 1 or 2 characters (similar to my discussions on a solo mode with Sentinels of The Multiverse here and The Captain is Dead here). I’ll bet that the same ideas I propose for Sentinels could work here. This is by no means a dealbreaker, but it just made the first playthrough more daunting. It might scare other people away.
- Passing using Stunts. There is a LOT of discussion about how you can’t use your stunt (a “one-time” action for each character) to just pass a turn. After playing a bunch, you absolutely don’t want to waste your stunt! It’s very valuable! And using it to pass a turn is a huge waste! But the rules go out of their way to say “You can’t use your stunt if it’s not useful.” This seems … not thematic. I can totally see Harry trying to blast a creature to no effect (with his stunt) as a DISTRACTION so the next character can do what he needs to. And it’s not consistent: For example, Thomas Raith randomly pulls a card for his stunt: if he can’t use the card, he just discards it and wastes his turn. So, I don’t think it’s consistent or thematic. Honestly, it’s such a minor minor corner case, and the rules go on and on and on about how you can’t just use your stunt to pass. I just think it takes away a player choice (more choices means more fun, usually).
So, I was kind of grumpy from those three items when I started the game. But, I got over it. I was able to learn the game from the rulebook. And, there are multiple online resources to help you play the game too.
Components and Getting Started
Solely from the box, the game looks like a deck-builder (It’s not). It’s well designed to hold just the base game (using the foam inserts to block out space for cards that aren’t there). I have all the expansions (as of this date), and it holds the whole game easily. I am glad they thought ahead for space for expansions.
This game board is big and nice, and it’s very clear where to put everything. It seemed like I got two copies of some of the separator cards? For example, for Thomas Raith, there was one in the main game and one in the expansion itself.
One of the things I like about this game is how easy it was to get going and set-up. It was very clear where everything fit on the board, the tokens were easy to distinguish, and the cards were easy to set-up. (The Arkham Horror devotee would have preferred that the clues be little magnifying glasses, but at least they are still green).
And the game was ready to go!
Some Playthroughs and Plans
I opened the game about 3 days ago, even though it came from the Kickstarter a few weeks (months?) ago. I would have opened it sooner, but work and health problems with my mom stopped me from trying this right away.
As of right now, I have played over 15 times. Maybe 20? I love cooperative games. I love the Dresden Files theme. So, I have been playing the heck out of this in solo mode. My plan is to get this to RICHIE CON this weekend and get a bunch of multiplayer plays of this (and also Nemo’s War). For those of you who don’t know, RICHIE CON stands for “Really, I Can’t Heft myself to dIcE tower CON” (because Dice Tower Con is far away and expensive). It’s really just an excuse to play games with friends here in Tucson. It’s also called RICHIE CON because you can only go if you are friends with RICHIE.
My initial thoughts from my solo plays: It’s a good, puzzly game. It has lots of content (especially with the expansion) because each book is a different scenario, and they are all different. I have played 15-20 times through the first 3 books. And the scenarios are all different enough to make this interesting. So, I think there’s a lot of replayability here.
Figuring out when to OVERCOME Obstacles, when to TAKE ADVANTAGES, when to ATTACK, when to INVESTIGATE is really fun. You also have limited action points (Fate points), and occasionally you have to discard cards to get Fate points BACK. It’s a nice system. You have to figure out when to act (INVESTIGATE, ATTACK, TAKE ADVANTAGE, OVERCOME OBSTACLE) and when to Discard for Fate. To act, your card will cost Fate points. Sometimes you can’t act (because there are no Fate points left) so you have to discard). Sometimes you discard so you can give enough Fate points to the next player (it’s a co-op after all). Very puzzly. Which I really like!
So, to win, you have to have solve more cases (like Who is the ShadowMan? above) than foes (like Bianca above) leftover at the end of the game. You solve cases by INVESTIGATING: an INVESTIGATE gives you a number of clues you can put on a case. You kill foes by ATTACKING: an ATTACK card (like Murphy’s P90 PDW card above) puts a number of hits on a foe. OBSTACLES are nasty ongoing “Bad News” cards (like Three-Eye Drug War above) which you can only get rid of with OVERCOME cards (like Harry’s Hexus! above). Finally, You can help yourself out in the game by using TAKE ADVANTAGE to get Advantage cards (like Beer at Mac’s).
All of this happens at different ranges: you can only do an act if the card is in range. All the Foes, Cases, Obstacles, and Advantages are arranged in a 2 by 6 grid on the board. Any card can be used on any line, as long as it is in range. Below we see all 12 book cards on the game board in a 2×6 arrangement.
Below, we see a mid-game with 2 cases on the top line and 2 foes on the bottom line.
So, part of the puzzle is figuring out when/how to move cards towards, when you can even use certain cards. For example: Bianca is at Range 1 above and a Vampire is at Range 2. You can only use an ATTACK on the Vampire if the attack range if 2 or greater. Murphy’s ATTACK (above) has range 3, so she could ATTTACK either foe on the second line.
After you have “done what you can” to solve the puzzle, you have a Showdown. A typical showdown card looks like this:
Basically, you are trying (at much lesser odds) to solve the cases you didn’t finish investigating and the attacking foes you didn’t defeat, WITH A FINAL DICE ROLL. For example: If I spend 2 fate, I get 2 clues + 5 fate dice rolls). If you aren’t familiar with Fate Dice, they are 6-sided dice with basically 2 +1s, 2 0s, and 2 -1s.
So, with your final leftover Fate points, you roll and see how many foes and cases you can finish. WITH A DICE ROLL.
How do we score? However many foes are left, that’s the game’s score. However many cases are solved is the player’s score. If the players have solved more cases than foes left, the players win. Otherwise, the game wins. In the case of ties, the game wins. Because Harry really can’t catch a break.
I love the first 90% of the game, and I hate the last 10%. Here’s why: in my first 15-20 plays, the game always goes the same. The first 90% of the game, I am playing cards to investigate, discarding to refill fate, really having fun. Then, the last 10% involves rolling some dice during the Showdown to see if I have won. I have established here that I am cursed by the Sea Hag of the Scottish Moors, so when it comes to dice rolls, I always lose.
For every solo game I played (except maybe 1), I had to roll to see if I won the game or not. I always needed to solve one more case or kill one more foe in the final Showdown. If I roll right, I get the case/foe and squeak a win. Otherwise I lose. So, because of the curse of the Sea Hag, I always lose.
As a designer, I admire this. The game is so well-balanced that the game is decided in the Showdown almost every time! That’s very cool! It’s very thematic too! Harry always just barely scrapes out a win at the last minute. So, at one last dice roll, you win or lose!
Here’s the problem: It’s not fun. I worked very hard to get to the Showdown: I solved the puzzle as best I could. And, at the very end, a dice roll decides the game. After all my hard work, it doesn’t matter. It’s debilitating. I just roll some dice and they determine if I win or lose. I might as well just skip the game and roll some dice. “Hey! I rolled +1! I win!”
But I don’t want to skip the game: the first 90% really is fun. I just want a different end-game.
One thing I tried: To mitigate this randomness for a solo game, I used 7 cards per player during solo player set-up (the default is 6). All of a sudden, I had a lot more fun. I just assumed I would roll badly in the Showdown, so I gave myself a chance to win by giving each character more cards. Basically, I downplayed the Showdown (and the randomness therein) by giving myself more resources. Then, if I lose, it’s my fault. The Showdown then becomes more of a denoument then a climax. This made the Showdown much more fun—knowing it might matter, but it wasn’t required.
The Dresden File book series had trouble getting off the ground, but once it did, it was great. The Dresden Files cooperative game has the opposite problem: It starts great, but I hate the ending.
Despite the randomness at the end of the game, I really do like this game. It’s got a good well-designed box with plenty of content and space for future content. It’s thematic (for the most part). The cards are great. The rulebook is good and the game is easy to set-up. The game is, for the most part, very fun.
I am very curious what my opinion will be after I have played multiplayer with a bunch of people. Will we keep the “No Table Talk” rule? Or will we banish that rule to the Shadows of Camelot …