Damon Asher
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Jefferson
MA
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A DoA1 fan reviews DoA2 and overcomes his initial reservations in a big way

Prior to game release I wrote a rather downbeat article discussing some of my initial impressions of Duel of Ages II (DoA2) from the rulebook. There were some differences from DoA1 that I wasn’t too crazy about from that readthrough. I am quite attached to DoA1, and I guess I didn’t want to hear about all these newfangled changes. However, I am now here to rebut myself with a much better informed opinion now that I have had the pleasure of playing DoA2. A lot of my former concerns turned out to be more rooted in nostalgia than anything else. Here is my much less ignorant appraisal of the new version from the perspective of a longtime fan of the original.

Character cards
I grew very attached to the icons that represented the characters in DoA1. I liked how they left so much to the imagination, and the ease with which they could be distinguished on the board. DoA2 has moved to full character portraits created by a variety of artists, each with their own style. Some of this art is not great. Renderosity-style 3D characters stopped impressing me about 10 years ago. I greatly prefer nice hand-drawn and painted art. Fortunately, the rest of the character art is very good, and some of it is AMAZING. It truly pained me to punch out the map platters, because the art on the back on some of them is magnificent. I wanted to frame some of them, not punch them out. I guess the biggest knock here is the inconsistency, but the overall package is much more attractive than I first thought from the early previews.

I do like the big cards very much, and the number rather than color based stats system has grown on me. The numbered stats based system, while less unique, really is easier to deal with. Having to convert the colors to numbers in DoA1 was an unnecessary step. There is still some coloring of stats to go along with the numbers– blue for very good, black for average, and red for sucky. You can still tell at a glance if a character is strong or weak in any areas from across the table.

Honor and respect are now more important statistics, and are also represented by a number, and higher is generally better. Respect dictates the order that characters enter at the beginning of the game. Honor controls, among other things, how well rewarded you are when you amaze a labyrinth challenge. It is nice that these stats are now more impactful on gameplay.

The new icon-based system for abilities is very nice. No longer do you need to continually read the text on cards to figure out who gets a bonus with what weapon. If the icon on the character matches the icon on the item card, then you get the bonus. This is so much cleaner and easier to deal with than the old text-based system. The biggest drag on DoA1 was the need to continually read and reread the cards. The new icon-based system improves this greatly.

Finally, the flavor text is now on the back of the card. This was a nice way to further reduce the text density during gameplay, and allows for a lot more story text!

A bunch of large-size reference cards are also included, and these are very appreciated.

Character counters
I had to pimp out my DoA1 set with black and white chips that I would ticky-tack the character counters to so we could tell who was on which team. The DoA2 counters have black borders on one side and white on the other. DoA1 should have had this!

I do really miss the use of character icons for the characters. This is probably only significant for me due to my experience with DoA1, but I really liked that method of representing the dudes on the map. Some of the portraits used for DOA2 are hard to distinguish. I challenge you to easily differentiate Finnabar Taint, Adigan the Rat, and Norz Madfang from across the table. The perfect compromise for me would have been if every character still had an icon up in the corner of their card, and that icon was used on their counter instead of their head. That being said, the new counters work fine, and the utility of the black/white borders outweighs the loss of the icons.

Map platters
One thing that surprised me was that the new map platters are larger. Bigger is better in this case. While I did not suffer from significant warping of my DoA1 maps, it is nice that the DoA2 platters lay super flat and lock together very well.

I do wish that the opportunity had been taken to overhaul the map art. It is still pretty much the same computer-generated terrain as DoA1, and it works for gameplay, but it is not pretty. If these had been redone, perhaps to reflect a bit of the “holographic world” theme and make the transition between tiles less jarring, then the game could have looked amazing on the table. As it stands, the map is still a gaudy assault to the eyes. However, they are nicer to play with thanks to the larger size. Also, the somewhat incongruous ”parking lot” modern age rough terrain of DoA1 has been replaced by something more similar to the rough of the other ages, which makes identification of this terrain easier.

DoA2 maps no longer have the tunnels, and I must say that I miss them. They were very good for helping weaker characters sneak across the map without getting sniped. I am not sure that this bit of streamlining was worth the detraction from gameplay options, especially since one map still does have a tunnel of sorts and the rules burden that comes with that.

Challenge deck
I love dice. I liked the color vs. color resolution chart in DoA1. I was very resistant to the idea of the new numbered stats and card-based system. However, I have to say the challenge deck is much smoother, and I do like the way it allows for added effects. My concern about not being able to intuit the relative odds of success diminished greatly when I discovered the chart in this post by the publisher. The deck yields the same odds as two players rolling a d10 and adding their ratings. Now that I understand that, I can grok the chances for success. To make it even easier, I’ve made a small player aid with the percentages and keep it handy. What can I say, I still loves me some dice, but I am a convert to the challenge deck. You can always use d10s instead of the deck with the included rules if you like, but I don’t think I will. While I will get over not rolling the dice, I WILL forevermore miss proclaiming “8 to squeak!” The tradeoff for speeding through the challenge resolutions is well worth it, though.

Combat
Combat is mostly the same as DoA1, but there have been a few enhancements. Melee combat is no longer simultaneous. The character with the higher "wits" rating now gets first attack. This enables some nice additional differentiation between characters. Your big dumb bruiser may hit hard, but he will strike second.

Power and damage are now separate numbers rather than the somewhat confusing combined penetration/damage rating in DoA1.

Ranged weapons can now take multiple shots in the Fire phase. You may fire any weapon at up to 4 different targets, but suffer a -2 penalty on all shots for each extra shot taken. This results in a bloodier game if you get the right gun into a crackshot’s hands.

However, the Fire phase rules on that are entirely different from the Op Fire rules, which are still the same as DoA1. For OpFire, the number of shots you can take is determined by Op Fire rating of weapon, and there is no penalty for more than 1 shot. Having two separate sets of rules for rate of fire seems unnecessary to me, and I wish the Fire/OpFire rules had somehow been combined.

Encounter Tokens
Upon my first reading of the DoA2 manual, I was afraid that the Encounter Tokens would damage the story arc of the game by equipping characters too easily. However, I now understand that the scenarios that use labyrinths do not use these, so I can just leave them in the box if I like. They are well suited for the types of “Rush” missions for which they are used. I think they might be more fun if you use the number on them as a challenge number than an automatic pass/fail (as a homebrew variant).

Adventure Keys
Some of the DoA1 adventure keys from the small box expansions were somewhat fiddly, and I didn’t use them much. The Field of Honor was especially not worth the trouble. The new keys offer more choices with less rules burden. DoA2 keeps the best ideas from the previous adventure keys and jettisons the rest.

I also really like the way the labyrinth keys are set up now, each with 3 short paths to pursue rather than a single long one. One player can’t get untouchably ahead anymore, and at each attempt you need to choose whether to try to push your marker two steps down one path to get the bonus, or start down another path to help you earn the achievement. The towers are also now more intelligently placed which means more opportunity for strategic use.

Treasure Cards
When you find an item, you get to chose whether you draw from a Common, Secret, or Elite (at 2 for 1) deck, each with its own flavor of items. Thematically speaking, I don’t really get why you get to pick which deck you “find” items from. I mean, you’re finding these things, right? Are your characters just really good at wishing really hard for certain categories of things? However, as thematically wonky as this may be, it does work well as a game mechanism. Given the holographic simulation nature of the game, maybe your characters just find a treasure box and are allowed to select a category before they open it. Yeah, that’s the ticket. In any case, the 3 deck system is really good for gameplay by giving you a little more (but not too much) control over the types of equipment you draw.

There are a couple new types of cards in the Secret deck that give you special missions and surprises. These are very cool. I don’t want to spoil them, so ‘nuff said.

Henchmen
In DoA2, henchmen are not just regular characters used as henchmen, they are their own class of cards. I think this gives them more flavor and makes them easier to handle. In DoA1, it could get out of hand when you acquired a couple henchman because each was a full character. DoA2 henchmen don’t carry equipment or adventure. Because they are their own deck, it’s more special when you get one. I approve of this change!

The Jump Pad
….does not exist in DoA2. I miss it. It was a fun, albeit risky way, for a weak character to escape a deadly pursuer. However, I see no reason you can’t use the DoA1 Jump Pad in DoA2. The Easter Eggs for their placement are gone, so I will just need to come up with some way to place the pad (dropping it on the platter from a foot up and playing where it lies could be fun!)

Combat Achievement
One thing I love about DoA is that combat is only a means to an end. Killing off any number of enemy characters is by itself generally worth only a single point towards victory. DoA2 adds some interesting choices around this “achievement.” In DoA2, imprisoned enemy characters are worth more to you towards earning this achievement than dead ones, and you can chose to imprison rather than kill any character you reduce to zero health. So now you need to decide whether to go for more points, but risk having to face that character again later (and lose its points) if he/she is freed by your opponent. If you fill up your prison, you are going to need to spend some effort defending your team base, which will slow your progress elsewhere. What is the right balance between eliminating and imprisoning defeated enemies? It’s another interesting decision to wrestle with.

Rulebook
The rulebook is generally a nice improvement over the one that came with DoA1 set 1 as far as clarity. The line of sight rules are especially better explained with good diagrams. This time, the rulebook has taken a tutorial approach, introducing some rules, then describing a mission scenario that practices them. This seems like a good way to introduce new players. However, this rulebook it is not at all convenient when you just need to look something up. There is a Master Compendium set of rules available on the DoA2 website that is a much better reference, and much better for experienced players in general. It is disappointing that a printed version of this Compendium was not included in the Master Set, as the printed rulebook you get is not very useful as a rules reference. Hopefully, once the “living” part of it settles down, a printed version of the Master’s Compendium will be made available. My color printer just isn’t the same as a nice glossy professionally printed book.

Mission Setup
DoA2 details a number of possible setups to play with. The most different from the base game are the “rush” missions where you pick up encounter tokens scattered across the board to gain equipment rather than labyrinths, and you can get points by exiting a character off the end of the map. This is an interesting alternative, especially for a short game. My favorite way to play is still “triad” though – 3 platters and 8 characters for about 3 hours. I do like the new character drafting options, as it gives a nice balance between chance and choice.

Expansion Packaging
To be blunt, all the little DoA1 expansion boxes were a pain in the butt. DoA1 buyers probably fell into one of two categories: purchased only set 1 (and maybe 2) or bought the whole thing. The way DoA2 is packaged is much more gamer friendly as it nicely caters to theses two likeliest categories of players, with the Basic Set at $50 MSRP, and the Master Set at $130.

The Basic Set gives you a lot more than the previous DoA1 starter, as it includes about 1/4 of all the cards, and all the adventure keys. It is roughly the equivalent of DoA1 set 1 + about half of Intensity + the adventure keys from all the small box expansions. The Master Set adds the rest of the maps (like DoA1 Vast Horizons) and the rest of the cards. The Basic Set is a nice package and will get you a long way for a reasonable price. However, the Master Set adds the more interesting characters and cards, and provides the map options you need to complete the experience. It is very nice that you can get the rest of the game with a single additional, but entirely optional, purchase this time around. This was a very smart change. Yes, the game is still pretty expensive, but I never regretted a penny I spent on purchasing DoA1 and then pimping it out despite the lackluster component quality. DoA2 is a much better production, so I think the value is definitely there. The Master Set weighs in at over 10 pounds of cardboard goodness.

It was a nice touch that the Master Set includes a second challenge deck. It was tough when your opponent drew the Auto-Amaze card and you knew you could never get it. This is much better when each team has its own deck. It is also perfect that these two decks have different backs, so you need not worry about getting them mixed up.

The EXPERIENCE
I enjoy the mechanisms of DoA. I like the tactical combat. I especially like that you are fighting not for the sake of killing all the enemies, but to support your strategic objectives. Setting up a strong defense that scares away the enemy so that you can adventure unmolested is much more effective than just going on a killing spree. This feels so much more “real” to me somehow.

I am going to be straight with you though. DoA is clunky as hell. The first time you play, you are going to be completely overwhelmed keeping track of all your character abilities. You will plod through all the various phases and continually forget to do things at the right time. You will have trouble even finding your characters on the map. You will need to round up some components out of your junk drawer, like some dice, and some counters and tokens (I use little post-its) to help you keep track of which character needs to do what, and what effects are in play. You would not expect to need to bring your own components to a game that costs $180, but you really do. Next thing you know, 3 hours will have passed and you’ve only taken a few turns, and nothing really interesting has transpired. This was my first experience with DoA1. My first experience with DoA2 wasn’t much better, despite its similarities to its predecessor.

But trust me, play it again. Once you get the procedures down, things start to smooth out considerably. You and your opponent will get in the groove “Attack 7”, “Defend 4”, “Better by 3….miss!” Once you internalize the game mechanisms, you will discover the GAME. You will gain familiarity with the characters. More than that, you will come to know them, and they will come ALIVE.

You see, the thing that sets DoA apart is that you are drawn into this improbable virtual world, and you come to feel that you are vividly witnessing these adventures as they unfold. Every game generates a crazy, memorable story, like the time like Annie Oakley tooled through the swamps on a skateboard wielding a ray gun. I remember one time playing DoA1, over a year ago, that after much effort, I was finally able to get a grenade into the hands of the Ace Cannon, the Quarterback. His whole gig is he’s good at throwing things, and now he had an exploding football. It was at last his moment to shine, and he was going to wreak some havoc. His sighted his target, drew back his arm, released, and FOPPed hard, sending the grenade God knows where. It was the ultimate choke, and it was completely unexpected, completely hilarious, and totally memorable.

In a recent game of DoA2, I had Paradox on my team. She projects an aura that reverses the stats of all nearby characters. She wandered near Gregory, the peaceful healer on the enemy’s team. He was gingerly carrying a grenade he had found, an item that was previously of no use to him given his nonexistent combat abilities and docile nature. However, when he came under Paradox’s influence, the change apparently broke Gregory’s mind and his personality split. He became a deadly grenade lobbing machine that stalked Paradox relentlessly, alternatively blowing her up, then healing her a bit. Paradox finally managed to escape with just a single health remaining. (I was even inspired to write a session report about this incident)

The narrative experience this game weaves is just unparalleled. I need to discuss the implementation of the characters in more depth, because this is at the heart of what I love about DoA. I also really enjoy Arkham Horror, but in that game and in most others, the characters are mainly just a picture and a collection of stats. This guy has a high health, and that guy has a high sanity, and they come with these equipment cards. The characters add fun variability, but they don’t generally come with any personality that is enforced by the game mechanisms. Sure, the strong guy will fight for you, and the brainy guy will cast your spells, but that’s about as far as it goes.

Compare this to DoA2. Agent 911 is the earnest, but bumbling secret agent. No one wants to come near him, because even though he is completely incompetent, he has potential to wreak havoc on any opponent who tangles with him. All this comes through from just his ratings and a few lines of character ability, because the DoA system is flexible enough that this is all you need to make Agent 911 play just like that character should. Or take the Zoe Burroughs (formerly Amelia Pike), the Mole. Your opponent can’t touch her until she reveals herself, and needs to live in fear of the damage she will inflict when she finally comes out. You may never reveal her, but in the meantime, your opponent may devote considerable resources to keeping an eye on her, because they know there’s a mole SOMEWHERE. Another nice touch is that she can blow her own cover if you get cocky about using her high intellect rating and she FOPPS a challenge, which is particularly dramatic when she does so while trying to steal a deadly weapon from an opponent.

These two characters are just the first to come to mind, and my description really isn’t doing the concept justice. There’re HUNDREDS of these characters. Not all are so interesting, but they each still have their place. This guy is good with swords, and that girl is good with guns. Struggling to get the right equipment to the right hands also generates a lot of exciting moments, like the Quarterback story above. It is always a satisfying moment when you get the right character together with the right bit of equipment, and because there is so much of both, the combinations you get are often ones you’ve never seen before. When Brad, the Slacker, rides his mountain bike across the map haphazardly to deliver Excalibur to William Wallace that’s perfect, but it is even cooler when he finds a plasma sword.

I can’t think of any other game outside of an RPG where the characters just organically generate appropriate narratives thanks to their printed abilities. I’d say Sentinels of the Universe pulls this off in a limited sense, but DoA2 does this to a much higher degree and with more diversity. You don’t need to struggle to imagine or superimpose the narrative in DoA, it just comes flying into your face as plainly as if you were watching a movie. Except you create this story, and it comes effortlessly just by playing the game.

DoA2 does what I would not have considered possible by making the narrative even stronger than in DoA1. The streamlined challenge resolution system helps the rules fade into the background so you can better enjoy the story. Especially nice is the addition of character settings and circles, which better define the scope of each character’s experience and allows characters to shine in situations that play to their natural strengths and makes them struggle in unfamiliar environments. For example, one challenge is “Tinfoil”. Give that foil to a modern conspiracy theorist and he will quickly utilize it to block the influence of the mind-control satellites*, and be handsomely rewarded for doing so. Put that same tinfoil in Genghis Khan’s hairy hands, and his confused grunts will earn him only quick dismissal. Just picturing that as I write it makes me smile. THIS is why I love this game so dearly, and DoA2 creates stories even richer and more entertaining than the original. DoA2 amazes on the most important front, the memorable experience you create as you play.
*I used to be opposed to the mind control satellites.

Conclusion
Overall, DoA2 is a great upgrade of one of my favorite games. My biggest reservations have to do with some of the art and graphic design, but I will forgive that this time, as I did with DoA1. I will miss some of the “charm” of the original, with colors for stats and icons for characters, but overall, DoA2 is bigger yet easier to play and better than ever. If you subtract my nostalgia for DoA1, DoA2 is an improvement in nearly every way. The game has clearly undergone intense, self-critical redevelopment, and the result is impressive.

I have rated DoA1 a 10, and DoA2 is better, so I guess it is an 11. Don’t get me wrong – I loves me some heavy Eurogames. But when it comes to pure fun, excitement, and memorable experiences, nothing beats good Ameritrash, and DoA2 is AT done right. I have long thought that DoA would be my desert island game, and this is now confirmed given that DoA2 would be even easier to teach to fellow castaways. In fact, with DoA2 around I might even delay lighting that signal fire for a bit. If you have enjoyed DoA1, even if you invested in the whole set, do yourself a favor: tell yourself you got 10 good years out of it, then trade up to DoA2.

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Chris May
United States
Fort Worth
Texas
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Fantastic review! I totally agree with what you wrote here. The tinfoil/genghis khan thing is funny. In my mind it reminded me of night at the museum when the cavemen find the fire.

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David Hassell
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I've pondered writing my own review, but your review is almost perfect. You did a fantastic job of describing the organic way that a narrative develops in this game. Most reviews simply describe the Mad Libs aspect of X riding a Y shooting with a Z. You've covered the narrative that emerges from the way the various characters/items interact with one another, as well as from the action that occurs during the course of the game.

The only possible item I would add to your review is the fantastic humor in the game, though I guess you did in a way. Characters do adhere to your typical combatants, but some characters represent archetypes that you normally don't associate with a wargame (I'm looking at you, Mildred!). Items range from the weapons you'd expect to the bizarre, such as a relentless Insurance Salesman who doesn't know the meaning of 'No.'
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brendan b
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I loved this review!
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Shawn Baldwin
United States
Daytona
Florida
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To Do List: 1. Eat 2. Workout 3. Be Amazing
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This is a great review and I agree 100%. I especially agree about the character tokens...the card art is fine but the tokens should have been the icons. Icons are much easier to distinguish from a distance.
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Scott Aikens
United States
Ann Arbor
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drasher25 wrote:





What a fun image.
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David McLeod
Canada
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Ontario
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I never got a chance to play DoA but my DoA2 set has just arrived. Your review has me pumped to play! Tonight I'll get to finally punch everything out and tackle the rules! Can't wait to play out my own stories!
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Bob Wilson
United States
Northampton
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I just pulled the trigger on this game thanks to this review. Thanks man!
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