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Subject: Analyzing the Heart of DOA II rss

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Ava Jarvis
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So much has already been said, praising the merits of Duel of Ages II and poking a bit at its critiqueable parts, that I feel humbled. What can I say in a holistic review that hasn't already been said?

Thus in this article I will focus and analyze something near and dear to my heart already in just a few weeks of play and thought, what I feel is at the core of DOA II's soul and, indeed, its growing repetoir of positive reviews.

That something is the heights of the imagination that DOA II sparks. There are numerous session reports composed of thematic, characteristic engagement points between characters and/or their environment. For me at least, DOA II allows me to "play" with the equivalent of action figures once more when, upon growing up, I found myself unable to do so, the sparks of childhood having apparently died out, yet rekindled by DOA II. Just the other day I spent a game with my versions of Batman and Bruce Wayne from Batman Beyond, and to a large extent it felt like an episode of the show.

Indeed, DOA II is the epitome of the thematic game: one that tells a story, as engrossing as the ones generated by paragraph games like Tales of the Arabian Nights, or adventure games like Mice and Mystics, or something more specialized like the Doctor Who Solitaire Storytelling Game. But DOA II manages to do it without invoking book(s) of paragraphs and decision points. Indeed, DOA II is "just" a series of game rules, somewhat fiddly at points.

In fact, the play of DOA II is less structured than most wargames at the thematic end of the spectrum are (which are also responsible for the bulk of session reports on BGG). The most thematic wargames rely on scenarios to evoke historical battles (fictional or otherwise)—nothing to criticize here, but if non-generic scenarios aren't what drive the story-telling engine of DOA II, what does?

Let's return to the paragraph games, adventure games, and the scenario-driven wargames. What do they provide that allows them to tell a story? What is a story (at least in Western terms)? Why, it's a beginning, middle, and end; or, more specifically, it's a journey with at least one goal at the end, whether it's scoring points or achieving some sort of strategic formation. There is a plot, and the players fill in the main characters of that plot: protagonist, or possibly protagonist and antagonist (though which is which obviously depends on who's doing the looking).

But DOA II takes that characteristic, part mechanic and part thematic ideal, and turns it up to 11. You don't play the part of an omniscient narrator, directing troops with only the most generalized definition of "personalities" hither and thither; nor do you play a relatively singular part of the hero of the tale. Instead, you play a team of characters, all with distinct personalities, against another team of likewise distinct characters.

You could compare these characters to those in games like the Castle Ravenloft/Wrath of Ashardalon series, to Lord of the Rings: The Card Game, or even to the new Pathfinder Adventure Card Game. If you wanted to concentrate less on thematic immersion and more on versatile characters, you could compare DOA II characters to those in any number of CCGs, from Magic: the Gathering to Legend of the Five Rings. And yet DOA II characters are more complex than even the most detailed of role-playing boardgame characters while remaining streamlined with regards to DOA II's rules. Indeed, DOA II characters, with their multiple ratings that gradate along a scale from incompetent to middlin' to master, more resemble full-fledged RPG player characters.

So whence the plot? Whence the scenario with a start, middle, and end?

In the writing world, there's a dichotomy (sort of; I'm simplifying here) between what's termed plot-driven stories versus character-driven stories. It is argued by some that there is much more pleasure (from the aspects of both reading and writing) in character-driven stories, the ones where unique characters interact with one another, and their chemistries end up creating plot elements in a seemingly spontaneous manner. It's not for nothing that many authors complain of characters speaking to them in their heads.

And there is the magic of DOA II. It's the characters, against a background of what may be thought of as basic story rules, bouncing off one another. You're not just killing monsters, as in Runebound, Return of the Heroes, or any number of similar adventure games. You are interacting with other characters; and even your own characters interact amongst themselves. It's a dynamic that drives the very heart of the thematic nature of DOA II.

I really like the way that the creaters of DOA II have fostered character creation through their Lost Light program, in which they exposed the very algorithms and experimental data that lead to balanced characters. Just think of how it further fuels the game, allowing you to drop in, with the right touches of DOA II personality, characters from your favorite fictional worlds, from myths and folklore, from history, from people you know, even original characters you create.

The algorithms even allow for the translation of characters from other games, including other boardgames and videogames. At the Lair of Lith, my own vampire pair, the Bludsturms, are in part inspired by the Esenweins, although I soon tuned them to my own liking afterwards; I've created a version of Alan Turning that I'm still tuning but which I feel is growing to capture the personality of the man more and more; and I'm developing a DOA II version of Daigotsu, one of the stars of the long-running storylines for L5R.

This, in my opinion, is the soul of DOA II, and why it's so successful at doing what it does: kindling imagination, even when one is past the age when one could do so freely. After all, what is child's play with figures but the interaction of characters with imagined personalities? With DOA II adding a framework for us to hang our adult needs for rational rules, and yet providing one flexible enough to express character, Brett and company have created a gaming masterpiece.
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David desJardins
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Huh. I just try to have the most VPs at the end of the game.
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Robert Davis
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That's a pretty deep analysis, Ava. But it's also very insightful. I do know that at the end of a game, regardless of whether I have been victorious or gone down in defeat, I have had more fun than most any previous gaming experience. I have set out a couple of times to take notes and photos during a game so that I could write a detailed session report only to find that, when the game ended, I had taken no notes; I had taken no photos - because I had become too immersed in the game.
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Denise Lavely
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My thoughts exactly, Ava. No other game I have even comes close to telling this MUCH story. Great analysis.
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David Stahler Jr.
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I've heard this story-telling component of the game praised many times, and I have to be honest, as much as I love the game, I don't quite see this aspect of it being a standout feature, at least compared to many other boardgames.

There are certainly great "moments" throughout--when you get that sniper rifle into your sharpshooter's hands and get him to high ground and take out that pesky opponent--and many wonderful combinations of gear, armor, mounts, etc., but I don't know if, for me personally, that rises to level of telling a story.

Maybe it's because I haven't played enough times or because I'd heard it claimed so much I was expecting more than could be delivered.

Anyway, it's great that many seem to respond to this aspect of the game, but I can't help wonder if it's a bit overstated.
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Ava Jarvis
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DaviddesJ wrote:
Huh. I just try to have the most VPs at the end of the game.


There'd be no game and definitely no story without VPs.

bdavis506 wrote:
That's a pretty deep analysis, Ava. But it's also very insightful. I do know that at the end of a game, regardless of whether I have been victorious or gone down in defeat, I have had more fun than most any previous gaming experience. I have set out a couple of times to take notes and photos during a game so that I could write a detailed session report only to find that, when the game ended, I had taken no notes; I had taken no photos - because I had become too immersed in the game.


Same here! Of late it's gotten quite bad because, even though I start out with notes for each character, by a few turns in I'm so in tune with the game that everything else melts away, and the notes just slow me down.

Denise wrote:
My thoughts exactly, Ava. No other game I have even comes close to telling this MUCH story. Great analysis.


Thanks, Denise!

Wheelockian wrote:
I've heard this story-telling component of the game praised many times, and I have to be honest, as much as I love the game, I don't quite see this aspect of it being a standout feature, at least compared to many other boardgames.

There are certainly great "moments" throughout--when you get that sniper rifle into your sharpshooter's hands and get him to high ground and take out that pesky opponent--and many wonderful combinations of gear, armor, mounts, etc., but I don't know if, for me personally, that rises to level of telling a story.


To me, the game's story is much more than the moments. It's about the struggles of an individual character as they overcome (or don't) obstacles. Sometimes it's their imperfections that really make them characters in my eyes. Marcus Aurus, for instance, has a story about being the loner of the team, forging his own way across the board in defiance of even his teammates, even when it would be really unwise to do so. Zoe Burroughs lives on the edge as she flirts with danger, possibly being called out as a mole, until she has her chance. Darija gathers an army of henchmen as her other team members rally together to get her the Elite cards with which to do so. Kassina is frustrated by attempts to get cards to transform into a dragon, and gets shot up like a Valley Girl in a war zone until she finally gets her cards and takes out a good chunk of the other team with fiery death.

The moments are the icing on the cake, but they are not the cake.

Quote:
Maybe it's because I haven't played enough times or because I'd heard it claimed so much I was expecting more than could be delivered.

Anyway, it's great that many seem to respond to this aspect of the game, but I can't help wonder if it's a bit overstated.


Could be.

This reminds me of a little debate about how thematic Agricola exactly is. Some are enthralled at having their little farm, and go on about how the breeding and sowing mechanics are so thematic to farming. Others wonder why the farmers are so competitive instead of sharing, for instance. But in the end, one side will always see the little farm with its crops, animals, families, and so on; and the other side will always see the game mechanics and the VP-scoring tactics. Some people see both.

Which is truth? Well, neither, really. It's only truth as far as one sees it for oneself.
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Chris Kessel
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DaviddesJ wrote:
Huh. I just try to have the most VPs at the end of the game.

Yea, same here. The story telling aspect really doesn't do anything for me. The theme adds nice flavor for the powers and creates a lot of uniqueness between them, but I never think back and have stories about Genghis Khan with a light sabre or something similar.

I'm not knocking folks that get that aspect from it, that's great, but it's not the heart of DOA for me. For me it's the variety which means no two games are the same, that there's no cookie cutter optimal strategy.
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Bern Harkins
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ckessel wrote:
DaviddesJ wrote:
Huh. I just try to have the most VPs at the end of the game.

Yea, same here. The story telling aspect really doesn't do anything for me. The theme adds nice flavor for the powers and creates a lot of uniqueness between them, but I never think back and have stories about Genghis Khan with a light sabre or something similar.

I'm not knocking folks that get that aspect from it, that's great, but it's not the heart of DOA for me. For me it's the variety which means no two games are the same, that there's no cookie cutter optimal strategy.


I'm more of a story man myself, but I agree with you on the "no optimal strategy" element and appreciate it greatly...

...after all, it means different stories every time, too.
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