Every Day is a School Day
Apparently, Sword and Sorcery is a whole genre of nerdery. Who knew?! I just thought that it was the name of a board game which looked awesome. Apparently (at least according to Wikipedia) it’s a sub-genre characterised by sword wielding heroes engaged in exciting and violent adventures. That just sounds like a Friday night looking after my children to me…
I happened to stumble upon Sword and Sorcery after my elder son saw a father and son review of one of the versions of Dungeons and Dragons and asked for a dungeon crawler that we could both play, and thus my own personal quest for something suitable to play with a 7 year old began.
I’m going to cut to some spoilers straight away. Sword and Sorcery was not it.
Swords… and Sorcery! (other things too)
Sword and Sorcery is a story based Dungeon Crawler in which you play as one of 5 heroes of all of the archetypes you’d expect in the fantasy universe. You have a knight, a ranger, a cleric, a sneaky sneaky rogue type and a wizard. You play through several missions which are broken up in to chapters in the story book and all characters have some awesome customisation options.
During the course of Sword and Sorcery you will come across enemies of different sorts and depending on some of your choices in the beginning of the game, combat and other checks are resolved by a set amount of blue or red dice and the symbols you collect from your rolls. You can also level up your character from gaining soul points from the corpses of your fallen enemies, thus increasing your base stats and skills.
So far, so generic right? So what does Sword and Sorcery do differently that something like Dungeons and Dragons doesn’t?
Breaking The Mould
First thing to mention is that there are physical representations of your characters’ choices at the beginning. You can choose to be good or bad and your levels are tracked on what Sword and Sorcery calls a Soul Gem. Depending which path you choose will slightly vary the look of your character, but it also changes the skills you can learn and have at the beginning and also how you react with your travelling party, as depending how into your role playing you might be, there are group decision which need to be made and a split party can be a problem. As such, they recommend that you all play as either good or bad people. Well, that or you can play at being indifferent. That’s something I specialise in normally.
Second thing to mention is that in the Dungeons and Dragons board game that I played (Temple of Elemental Evil if you’re interested) you can only level up a character once. But, in Sword and Sorcery you can increase them by up to 7 levels which can make things a heck of a lot more interesting. I think this also would make Sword and Sorcery appeal to those that are more interesting in RPG-ing than board gaming and for those that are this way inclined could be a gentle introduction to this cardboard wonderland that we dwell in if you were trying to sway an RPG lover toward the hobby.
Whilst I’d usually write a fair chunk about how things are done in a game, I’m not going to be able to do that with Sword and Sorcery. As it’s such a narrative driven game, that there’s a tonne of spoilers to be had were I to do that. However, I’m still going to bombard you with hopefully enough information to decide whether you’d like to check it out or not.
Find the King (of Quality)
It’s not something that I tend to carp on about too much when reviewing games, but the component quality of Sword and Sorcery is second to none. All of the miniatures are exceptionally well sculpted and look fantastic. The heroes look a lot like the art that accompanies them (unlike something along the lines of Project Elite) and the enemies look tremendous. I also have to have a small gush about how good the customer service of Ares Games is, because my rogue had clearly been on the sauce in the factory and arrived legless. Not only did they send me a replacement in great time, but they also sent me some free promos for another game of theirs. Completely unnecessary, but a really nice touch I thought.
…I’m not as think as you drunk I am… *hic*
The card for the map tiles and everything, whilst cut into odd shapes here and there for thematic reasons, is made of exceptionally good stock. Oddly, mine got a little warped while travelling to my first gaming experience with Sword and Sorcery but that was nothing a day underneath the box for Gloomhaven couldn’t resolve. The iconography on said tiles is clear once you understand what they mean and actually adds depth to what is basically a two-dimensional piece of card, so some more chops due to the developers for that.
The last thing which definitely deserves a mention is that the box insert is fantastic and it manages to keep everything sensibly together and not too difficult to find for your next game. Again, it’s not something I’d usually mention, but I recently tried Endure the Stars and even in its wrapping, the box didn’t sit flush because there was so much stuff in it and no real organisation. Sword and Sorcery needs a little Kudos for that.
Beasts of Balance
Gameplay wise, the balance of enemy difficulty for the players seemed to be just about right, which is something that can’t be said for all dungeon crawlers. The encounters you have seem to scale really well to your level so that they’re not too easy, but they’re not too difficult either. I got in to RPG video-gaming from the well known and repected Diablo 3, so I was expecting a very steep learning curve until we were all so overpowered that it didn’t matter anymore, but this refreshingly turned out to be the opposite of the case.
For some of the missions you’re trying to make it from point A to point B whilst killing people and trying not to be killed on the way, but there are some interesting choices to be made all the way through Sword and Sorcery and I don’t think there’s any secret about Ares Games aiming to expand their universe.
The combat and skill checking in Sword and Sorcery seems pretty smooth and once you have got the hang of it, and it becomes second nature pretty quickly, and running through a game once you have a clear understanding of the base mechanics is smoother than a babies bottom.
Cooldown is a turn off… or on…
One of the things that I thought was a fantastic addition to the gaming genre brought forth by Sword and Sorcery is the spell cooldown mechanic. When you cast a spell, you need to turn the spell card over to its reverse and it will have a number between 1 and 4 on it. The card is then turned to that number and rotated once per turn and will eventually become active again after enough time has elapsed. It’s a mechanic that at the point of playing I had not seen, so I have to give Sword and Sorcery some kudos for innovation. That being said, I have seen it since in a much lighter game called Lightseekers, and that’s a game which may have nailed it that little bit better.
But with all of this being said, Sword and Sorcery does have a very dark side too.
Do or do not, there is no try
If you have read virtually any of my reviews before, then you will know that Rulebooks are my nemeses. But this is exacerbated in games like Sword and Sorcery as the rulebook is awful. There’s no real nice way to go about it, it’s just awful. It seems to have been put together in some kind of “oh yeah, we’d best mention that” kind of fashion which makes it a nightmare to get your head around. In all fairness to the designers, once you have muddled through your first game, if you go back and read the rulebook again then it makes a heck of a lot more sense, but trust me: that first game of Sword and Sorcery will have a learning curve steeper than a set of Dutch stairs on just how to get as far as their first fight. That, and it’s thick enough that you could mug some old ladies with it, which in and of itself wouldn’t be so bad, but you also have the story book, which is two thirds as dense and the book of secrets which reveals in-game points of shock and awe for you, so there’s enough paper to end up responsible for a small rainforest in the box…
My first game of Sword and Sorcery was with 2 other seasoned board gamers and it probably took us 90 minutes to set up and work out enough of the rules that we could get playing – and this was after I had already read the rulebook once to try and get a head start. Then we had the lack of direction into which book we were looking into to try and commence the story… it was really messy. Luckily, it’s not like we were in any kind of hurry but if you get to the point where your nerves are a little frayed before you even start a game then you may not be on a winner.
I also think that one of the other downsides which you really need to be aware of is that Sword and Sorcery is a devourer of table space. I have a 6 person table at home and struggle for space on that. Our first game was on a conference table and we were spread out all over that like someone wanting to be painted like a French Girl. Maybe it’s more that you’ll use the space you have, but things can get a little snug if you’re a bit pushed for space already.
The Heroes Head Home
After my spoiler free breakdown of Sword and Sorcery, it seems all the more important that I give you the breakdown of how I feel about it.
Sword and Sorcery is a fantastic game. I won’t labour the point about what a pain it is to have your first couple of games because that is just the price of entry – if you want to play it, you’re going to have to put up with it. The quality of everything is great and the gameplay is smooth as you’d really hope it to be. It also has more meat than some of its dungeon-dwelling cousins like D&D and Massive Darkness; you feel that you’re achieving something with whichever character you choose, and you have a vested interest in whether they succeed or fail in their quest. It also doesn’t have the same threat of being the same kind of time sink as something like Gloomhaven; Sword and Sorcery sits nicely (and very prettily) in the middle of the road of where it needs to be, and that is something that truly deserves acknowledgement.
Sword and Sorcery will not be staying in my collection.
As I have already implied, Sword and Sorcery is a fantastic game, but I am beginning to realise that these epic games just don’t see enough play in my house. I’m a busy man with a busy wife raising 2 very crazy children and Sword and Sorcery just needs more attention than I can give it.
I am certain that given the right group of players, that Sword and Sorcery would become the centrepiece of someone’s collection… just not mine.
So now to score it…
Well, I’m going to exercise some writers’ freedom.
Sword and Sorcery as a complete package is great. I’ll give it a goblin punching, rough terrain dwelling, soul-gem stealing 9 out of 10.
For me personally, because I can’t give it the attention it deserves, it’ll be finding a new home soon and as such will only get a 6 out of 10 for my household.
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I am just a regular guy that fell into board gaming. That's why I am no longer allowed in my local Toys R Us. I'm a huge fan of deckbuilding games and games with unusual themes or mechanics. OK, maybe I'm not that regular after all.