I have a real soft spot for huge fantasy epic games which work as a solo or a small player count, especially co-op. I think it dates back to a love for tabletop RPGs, which are now only an occasional indulgence. Over the years I have picked up some of the biggest that is on offer – hefty investments in more way than one, but some really satisfying play to be had from all. Here are my big three.
The oldest of the three, designed by the great Vlaada Chvaatl. It is absolutely epic and rather than a dungeon crawler per se, sees your ‘heroes' roaming across a fantasy landscape in search of their quest – in the base box, to besiege a number of hostile cities.
Fundamentally the game is a deck builder: you start with a core deck of 16 cards and as your hero levels, this grows with advanced actions, spells and artefacts being added to increase your power. Each hero’s start deck has 14 common cards and 2 unique to them. Heroes also acquire skills every other level which are particular buffs they can use either every turn or every phase (day and night) and further differentiate them from one another.
Cards give you access to actions: typically variations of movement, attack and block (of different kinds), influence (for buying and recruiting), heal, draw cards or take mana. And mana is particularly interesting because it provides the route to powering up any of your cards: all have a base and a boosted effect. You can always take one mana a turn from a pool of dice, but some cards, successful fights and other events on board may give you access to additional mana crystals/tokens to unleash devastating effects.
Interestingly, cards can also be played sideways, which allows you to use them for any of the base actions, but to a value of one. This is a waste, but it gives flexibility which adds to the puzzle of playing your hand. And so much of the game is about efficient hand management, as you will have a finite number of day and night phases to complete the quest you have chosen and depleting your deck triggers a change of phase.
Combat is a thinky puzzle, normally involving parsing the exact nature of the static creatures and then figuring out how you can use your cards to defeat them without clogging your hand and deck up with too many wounds. Sometimes you will see this before you choose to attack, other times you reveal the creature only after you have taken the plunge. And both challenges are a real pleasure, even if MK combat is less sophisticated than the AI-driven behaviour of the other two.
From Zero To ‘Hero’
The other real draw for me is the well-paced character progression, as you build your hero across the course of the game. At the start, you might struggle with defeating an orc and by the end, you and your followers (also cards) will be assaulting cities full of golems, dragons and mages.
Mage Knight is a rules beast, but heck it is worth it. Its set-up is fairly chunky but not the longest of the three as the modular board emerges across the course of the game. It is best with one or two (three at a push) as downtime can be a drag, but the choice of co-op, semi co-op or competitive is a nice one. Design and production are pretty good – card art is great, though the Wiz Kids pre painted minis are a bit hit and miss.
Each game is a standalone campaign, but if you choose one with a longer duration it can stretch to 3-4 hours. The fact that it is split into a number of day and night phases however means, if you can leave it set up, it is easy to split it over a few sessions and I/we do this a lot.
Mage Knight is the granddaddy of these three games. It has scope, grandeur, complexity and richness. It is ever so satisfying and I will come back to it again and again and again. But is it my favourite? Wait and see…
Number one in BGG surely counts for something – this relatively new kid on the block became the darling of the board game community, but with a good cause? Well, yes – it is quite fantastic. It’s another epic but this time a legacy campaign, dungeon crawler. And it’s another game that I have poured many enjoyable hours into.
Why is it so good? For me the card play and tactical combat that win through above all else. Again, hand management is a big part of the puzzle and the pace with which you work your way through your deck’s multiple but reducing playthroughs. Run out of cards before the dungeon’s objective is completed and that character is exhausted.
Each turn you are picking a pair of cards, thinking about the optimal initiative, a top action from one card and a bottom action from the other. Typically top halves are move related and bottom halves attack related. But there is enormous variety built on that simple base, associated with the particular characters you play. Also, while some card powers place them in the discard other (more powerful) options might put them in the trash.
As you play you develop a sense of what the enemies might do, without know exactly what the well-designed enemy AI is going to throw at you. Enemies are controlled by a deck of cards and some underpinning rules and they always provide an engaging and thinky challenge.
Also, the fact that the random element of combat is determined by an individual’s attack deck and that this is modified more and more as you level is absolute genius. It provides character development and differentiation which can translate to growing luck mitigation.
A Legacy Adventure
Other strengths are character development and legacy elements. These are the myriad treasure to discover and shops contents to unlock; new character cards and attack deck cards to swap in as you progress. Also, a whopping 11 characters to access beyond the initial 6, as existing characters are retired. The campaign story is fine – though I am not the best judge as I am not massively interested in board game plot: if I want a fantasy story I head for literature or RPGs. However, the branching choices of what to do and where to go next are enjoyable, as are the encounters which add flavour and the right amount of risk/reward between dungeon delves.
The box is massive and the contents weighty. There is some controversy about the blend of minis and standees, but that seems fine to me – I wouldn’t have wanted the cost inflation of an all minis game. Production values overall are strong.
This is another hefty game for rules but to my mind, less so than Mage Knight. The area that seems to give the greatest number of people problems is the enemy AI, but the rule book is good and the available online FAQs even better. Once you have learnt it, it’s pretty straightforward.
The potential killer for Gloomhaven is the setup/takedown and the among of in-game accounting. The latter is oh-so-easily eliminated using one or more of the many apps available: the best of these take all the headache away. That doesn’t solve the former problem and this has meant it has got to the table less than it might. But then whenever I bite the bullet I have never regretted it.
Gloomhaven is the biggest of the big. Truly epic in scale and scope. It is rich and expansive in its ambition and the dungeon combat is taught and thrilling. I have hit long runs of wanting to play nothing else, but also bouts of apathy when I can’t face trying to get it on the table. I have enjoyed every game but the campaign is unfinished…does that damn it or is it nonetheless my favourite?
Too Many Bones
The newest of the three both publication and to my collection. It’s swish, stylish but maybe to the point of gaudy and incredibly (over?) produced. It has quirk and charm and a bucket load of dice. And in 10,000 years it will still be on the planet…possibly in the form of millions of microplastic particles gumming up the food chain.
Too Many Bones presents you with a quest to kill a Tyrant – the boss monster who will be your final adversary. Reaching them involves working through an encounter deck of cards which you build at the beginning based on the tyrant's quest length. It comprises a series of randomly selected encounter cards, special encounter cards and tyrant encounter cards. Once shuffled, you draw one per day – usually choosing between two resolution options that often involve combat.
Combat always plays out on the same 4 x 4 battle mat: something which put me off buying for a while, as it is not a patch on Gloomhaven dungeon tiles or Mage Knight’s landscape uber-hexes. But it turns out it doesn’t matter; combat is still a joy. It finds you chucking handfuls of the eponymous bones, choosing how to blend attack and defence dice with the special skill dice unique to each character. You are dancing around the different baddies on the board trying to use position to maximise your impact and mitigate their attacks and their horrifying skills.
A Gnome By Any Other Name?
These choices are exciting because of the character customisation at the core of the game. Progression feels the swiftest of the three games, as each encounter will typically bring one or two upgrades – choosing which dice to unlock and move into the holes in your neoprene playmat is oh so satisfying. It is reminiscent of unlocking a video RPG skill tree but much more tactile. And this is very much part of the replayability: trying out different builds with different character combinations against different tyrants. This keeps it really fresh when the finite number of encounter cards start to feel a bit tired.
The theme of the game is also excellent– the quirky goblin/gnome/pixie Gearlocs are charming and funny as are all their skills and equipment. It’s far more interesting than MK's rather generic fantasy beige or even GH's unique but serious mythos.
My beef with the game is its randomness. But it is a dice game, go figure?! Actually, I have no problem with the bones, but rather the impact of certain combinations of randomly draw baddies on particular party compositions, which can seem nigh on impossible. What do I do? Cheat... there I have said it. And in a way that I don’t with the other two. How? I just reset the encounter like booting a previous Save or sometimes shuffle and redraw the enemies. Feels like a video game so I play it like one – and for me, that solves the problem.
While it is crunchy on rules – less than MK, similar to GH - Too Many Bones is very pick-up-and-put down-able. To the extent that solo I took it out last night mid-adventure at 10 pm, played two encounters and put it to one side on the desk – unthinkable with the other two. But is this enough? Will pace and charm and bold randomness make this the favourite of them all.
The Results – Drum Roll...
Well, they are all great fantasy epic games, honestly. ‘Cop-out!’ I hear you cry. If I had to pick one for a desert island... Gloomhaven; but then that’s in part because I would have all the time in the world and enough space not to have to clear it away. Which is getting the most play right now? Too Many Bones, because it’s the newest and most accessible during the business of term time. But which is my favourite... Mage Knight. Elaborate but coherent. Complex but satisfying. No narrative, but the one you build by starting so humbly and ending the stuff of saga – simply epic.
Best Fantasy Epic Games For…
… tactical combat and endless legacy unlocking – Gloomhaven.
… sass, quirk and charm. A quick hit of dice chucking and character tweaking- Too Many Bones.
… well-paced deck building and interesting hand optimisation; more puzzle less chance – Mage Knight.