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Bern Harkins
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My first ever review, on the subject of Duel of Ages II, designed by Brett Murrell and published by Worldspanner. Herein I shall attempt to provide such information as is pertinent to deciding whether or nought this Unique Game will fulfill your gaming Desires and Needs.

The Lead Up

I first heard of Duel of Ages several years ago. My Friendly (But Not Very Local) Game Shop had several expansions for the first edition on the shelves. Inquiring, I was told that this was a terrific game, a favorite of the owners… but that the base set was not currently available.



Their enthusiasm for the game was quite evident, and I was regaled with numerous choice anecdotes from past games ("Genghis Kahn on a mountain bike! Could NOT catch the S.O.B.!"), but distance and scheduling led to my never quite putting together a time to play. The store closed, years passed; I had all but forgotten my missed opportunity.

Then, a few months ago, ads for DOA II began to appear on Board Game Geek. I read the description, viewed the gallery, and looked over the small number of reviews.

I mentioned to my friend Bones that I was considering buying a new game. "But," I noted, "the mapboard is butt-ugly." (More on this later.)



Bones gave me a sidelong glance, cocked an eyebrow, and asked, "How is the gameplay?" Bones has a marked talent for focussing on the central aspects of any matter at hand.

"Quite good, by all accounts," I replied… and my course was set.

Once I had decided to take the plunge, I went overboard, as usual, and ordered the Master's Set as well.

I was unprepared to be so thoroughly blown away. The amount of content is almost overwhelming, boding extremely well for replayability. But the quality of that content...



Superb. Just superb.

The Game I Never Knew I Always Wanted to Play

Duel of Ages is an unusual, original design, but with some familiar elements.

Old school hex-and-chit war gamers will recognize many elements of the movement system, which is hex based, with movement-impeding single hex ZOCs, LOS and cover rules, and opportunity fire during the opponent's turn.

DOA is not a war game.

(And don't let the war gamer jargon scare you; DOA's rules explain everything in much clearer language)

RPG'ers will find the number of traits defining the game's characters more than ample (but very easy to master, being set out in a clever and very usable iconography, and organized in an intuitive and helpful format). Each character is distinct from all others, both in feel and in function, and a great deal of personality emerges from the numbers.

DOA is not an RPG.

Adventure gamers will delight in the vast (yes, vast) array of different, interesting and useful items available to outfit their teams… if they have the good fortune to locate them. Who doesn't love booty? Especially booty you can use to "power up" your characters...

DOA is not a "level-up" adventure game.

So what is it?

One thing is certain; DOA is a thematic game, with a theme that is integral to the design, from the bones up. This is perhaps the best place to begin.

Roll Theme

DOA II simulates a virtual world which hosts a popular sporting event, centuries in the future. Under the authority of the supercomputer Lith, Goddess of the Games, teams of characters from history, myth and literature strive to complete varying tasks in pursuit of Achievement Points. Goals can be indirect; you don't get Achievements for gathering equipment, for instance... but you had better have some team members trying, or your opponents will crush you. Napoleon on a pegasus can provide some serious mobility to a team; the other side will want to have a crossbow or L-wave grenade to counter him.

(Remember the old Star Trek episode where mineral creatures resurrected Abraham Lincoln and a Vulcan philosopher, to contend alongside Kirk and Spock against Genghis Khan, a mad scientist, a twenty-first century sociopath and some Klingon dude? Sort of like that, only on a much grander scale...)
Team White
Team Black



Characters are split into two teams, Team White and Team Black, with each player controlling three to twelve characters, depending on the game type.

The two elements of this setting to keep in mind are that it is a Virtual Environment, and a Sporting Event. Both have major impacts on gameplay and strategy.

Because this is a virtual world, things do not operate quite "realistically". You can't ride your horse into a building, but if you need to go into a building, you can turn your horse into a small statuette (sort of a physical icon) and carry it to the other side. Same for your bazooka or motorcycle.

Lith sometimes gives the players "cheat codes" activated by small one-use devices called "cubes". At the push of a button, you may be able to disable terrain features for a turn, or banish opponents' characters, or cause other devilment.

Also, if you fire into a hex containing characters from both teams and you miss your target, you can only hit a member of your own team by accident. Why? Because Lith thinks this is funny, and Lith is in charge of the world, right down to the physics models.

Because DOA simulates a sporting event, you can keep all the statistics you want, but victory depends on the scoreboard at the end. Beating up the other team is like scoring more yardage in football; it will generally help you win the game, but does not determine the winner. This leads to a much more nuanced and strategically rich conflict than a simple "eliminate the opposition" victory condition.

The Play's the Thing

Here's an interesting aspect of the Duel of Ages II game system… there are a very LARGE number of different games that can be played with the set. The size of the mapboard, manner of its construction, specific Achievement objectives, team size, and available use of components can all vary.
As a result, all comments on game play and game experiences are situational.

Prior to the start of any game, teams choose their characters (at random, with some choice, or by drafting) then take turns constructing the board from the available Platters and Keys.

The PAKIT (Platter and Key Interlocking Technology) modular map board is a wonder of game design. Really. Seriously. I am more impressed each time we play with how board construction supports and dictates strategy. You really have to play on it to understand; suffice to say that this is not a jumble of meaningless terrain, but discrete destinations which have to be reached through differing obstacles. (And a flat, unadorned platter may be an obstacle in its own right, if the other side has a lot of guns… cover is an important consideration.)

DOA is played in rounds, usually a set number, during which Team White takes a turn, followed by Team Black. Your opponents' turn is not dead time, however; you may take opportunity fire after their movement phase (in fact, generally, more ranged weapons are used during the opponents' turn than during your own). If characters from both sides are in a single hex, Melee combat (usually) occurs, and both sides get to participate.

Following Melee, characters from the active team who are in a space containing an Adventure opportunity may attempt to Meet or Challenge that Adventure. This is where the true heart of the game lies.



The simplest form of Adventure is the Encounter, used in some of the quicker game types. A character flips over an Encounter token in their hex; this will represent some inhabitants of the virtual arena whom the character must impress. For instance, a Lumber Camp is a Colonial era Encounter with a Strength ranking; if the character's Strength ranking is equal or greater*, they earn the respect of the lumberjacks with their wood chopping prowess, and receive the listed reward (Cards… treasure, booty, weapons, cheats… motorcycles, med-kits, pet leopards, magic mirrors… frog toxin, hunting vests, deflector discs, coffee shops… oh glorious, glorious cards…!)





*If the character is of the same era as the Encounter, they get a +1 to their ranking.

Most other Adventures are Challenges. Challenges take place on Adventure Keys, triangular pieces of map board that connect to the buzz saw shaped Platters. (Other Keys are Dome Keys, used to place characters after an Adventure.)



There are fixed challenges found at the Base Keys (one base for each team, where you can heal, store or obtain cards, interrogate imprisoned members of the other team, or get Tribute items to take to Lith) and at Lith's lair, and Guardian Challenges found at the Labyrinth Keys. The latter are drawn from decks of cards, one for each of the four ages, and are discrete adventures, sort of a simulation within a simulation.

(Remember the old TV show Quantum Leap, where Dr. Sam Beckett "leapt" into another person's life each episode, and seemed to everyone around him to be that person? Kind of like that, only funnier.)


Since the challenge is a simulation, no one thinks it at all odd that an elf is pitching a major league game, or that a unicorn is running for the governorship of the Oregon territories.



Sucessful completion of Guardian Challenges moves a team's marker deeper into the Labyrinth (or the opponent's marker out), contributing towards scoring the Achievement for that Labyrinth at game end. There are often also rewards in the form of card draws; one draw can get you one Common card (a weapon rich deck), or a Secret card (a weapon poor deck). Two draws can get you one Elite card, powerful (but sometimes hard to use) treasures.

Whether successful or not, an Adventure Challenge ends with the character being Banished (the other team places your character on one of the entry domes) or Dismissed (your team places them). It's then time to assess the game state, and decide where your character will travel next.

Play continues until a set number of rounds or a time limit is reached, then Achievements are totaled. There is an Achievement for Combat, but it is only one point, compared to (generally) four for Labyrinths, one for having the less beat up base, and one for the favor of Lith (obtained by sacrificing more cards or Tribute tokens), plus game-type specific Achievements (flags, encounters, etc.) and those awarded for completing the conditions on some Secret cards. It is good to hold the upper hand in combat, but that alone doesn't score many points.

Alea Iacta Non Est

The original Duel of Ages used dice to decide Challenges, including combat hits and damage. DOA II instead uses a system of Challenge cards. (A variant with ten sided dice is also provided.)



When a decision must be made, a card is drawn from the Challenge Deck and the appropriate column is referenced. For instance, in a Melee Hit Challenge, the attacker compares his Melee ranking to the target's React ranking, and checks to see if he has a green sword slash (hit) or a red one (miss). If he hits, he compares his (or his weapon's) Power ranking to the target's Armor ranking, draws, and checks the next column, which will modify his (or his weapon's) Damage ranking.

The 100 cards in the deck correspond to the 100 possible rolls for two ten sided dice.

Online response to this change has been mixed, as was the initial response of my gaming group. My own opinion has progressed from "That's cute…" to "That's brilliant!"

The card system gives the same range of results as die rolls, allowing faint hopes to sometimes succeed and sure things to sometimes fail. However, the variance is significantly lower. In particular, once you have the Master Set and both teams have their own Challenge Deck, luck becomes a manageable resource. An individual draw may be good or bad, but there are no "hot dice" or "cold dice".

There are around a hundred draws per team in an average game (usually a few more). It is true that a team may have the misfortune to blow through their more valuable cards on Dome placement draws or Luck checks, but the total effect of raw luck on the game is greatly reduced.

Also, the cards are much faster. I estimate that just flipping a card saves around 6 seconds per decision... or around 1200 seconds per game. Cutting twenty minutes of down time out of a two to three hour game is fairly significant.

Balancing Act

One of the more common complaints concerning DOA II is that it is (too) random. This is to an extent a matter of taste, but I do feel that people misjudge many games in this regard. (I am a professional card dealer, and am well acquainted with how badly humans, even engineers and accountants, understand randomness.)

A game with a large number of events which depend on fortune is more predictable than one with a small number of such events. (This is why casinos make money.) DOA has a lot of unpredictable individual events; this means that superior decision making will win out over time. There is some uncertainty, however, which to me makes the game more appealing; dealing with unforeseen setbacks is a major fun factor for me.

If you prefer a more deterministic game, something like Power Grid might suit you. Just don't go pretending that your game is somehow purer or more realistic than my choice; negating the unforeseeable is utterly unrealistic, and scrambling to deal with problems is indeed a game skill.

The characters in DOA are very well balanced, as are the maps and the rules.

But they certainly don't seem that way at first…

Until one gets one's head around the fact that this is a game of Achievements, not combat, some characters will seem pitifully weak. One of the most effective characters I have had was Robert Morris, the 18th century financier. He's a terrible fighter, but a great support and adventuring character. The characters are all powerful in their proper context; you have to learn how to balance your team among "beatsticks", gunfighters, runners, adventurers, harassers, and… odd characters who just won't categorize.

In particular, do NOT ignore Honor and Respect. Lith plays favorites in a lot of ways, and your mighty scoundrels will find themselves unsuited to some tasks. You'll see.

There are a number of rules which perplex starting players, but are important to keeping the game's unique feel. Many weapons have the "K" index; this means if you kill (or imprison) another character with them, you lose them.

"What? I lose my Navy Pistol?"

Yes. Lith appears, congratulates you on your kill, and swipes your toy. "Now go impress me some more…"

Items are important in this game, and getting them to the characters who can use them best is a major logistical challenge… but the "K" mechanic keeps any one item from being overpowering.

Similarly, the "Fire into melee, miss, hit your ally" rule bothers some, but it keeps Melee characters slightly more viable in the late game, as guns become more prevalent.

One last example; there is a "mercy rule" called the "Valor Win". If you ever have more than twice as many living, unimprisoned characters as the other team, you immediately win the game.

Now, this creates the possibility for abuse and the creation of an "all fighter" team.

However, there is also a "Glory Win" If the number of your team's Markers placed on the map (usually as a result of adventuring or damaging the enemy base) exceeds those of the other team by a number equal to the beginning team size, you immediately win.

Now in the ordinary course of play there is just NO WAY you are going to open up such a large disparity in team Markers… but if the other team is ONLY fighting, it becomes a very viable option. And so the Valor Win is defanged as an exploitable bug, and instead is a useful check on drawn out losses.

What I am trying to drive home is that there is a lot of subtle thought behind this game's mechanics; before you houserule, stop to consider that you might be missing the reason some "dumb rule" is actually improving the game.

Hardware

The components of DOA are well manufactured from high quality materials. The card cores are top notch, perfect for bridge shuffling, and the finishes are easy to view and seem durable. Text and icons are all perfectly legible to my aging eyes.

The cardboard of the map pieces and counters is thick and solid, showing fine German manufacturing. There is, as noted on the box, an up to 3mm variance in the printing... not enough to affect play, but it may irk some. It's well within my personal tolerance, and I am moderately fussy.

And now about those ugly platters…



When I first saw photos of this game, I was appalled by the pink and green map boards. Together. Could I stare at that all night, I wondered?

I needn't have worried. Once you are immersed in the game, you will find that the terrain is so very vital to your characters' progress that you study it on the small scale. I no longer even notice the color scheme, except as marking the borders of platters; the mapboards have become real places to me, with favored routes across and little hidey-holes and places where well remembered events occurred… funny events, exciting events... horrible, horrible events...

The high functionality of the platters trumps my initial aesthetic reservations.

Containing the Beast

The boxes DOA II comes in do not include a lot of empty air, but even when the game is punched and bagged, they hold it nicely. (You do need both).

There is, however, a small issue with the sorting of the nearly two hundred character counters, plus those for pets, henchmen, monuments, sentinels...

I've found that the suggestion put forth on BGG concerning 63 pocket coin pages (Google it) solves this problem nicely, and saves a lot of time. Six pages hold the present counter mix nicely.




Dramatis Personae




Each character in DOA II is represented by his own card (nicely oversized) and by a counter on the board. The face of the card bears a large portrait and a text box, which will include one or more special powers (negative powers in red) and icons for any equipment expertise, or for card holding benefits or trading restrictions.

At the top will be a circle indicating the character's Age (Ancient, Colonial, Modern or Future) and their Setting. Settings are groupings of Characters within an Age indicating a shared world; for instance, Colonial has Lands West (a Western American 1800's milieu), Folktales (ghouls and ghosts and beasties) and Horizons (straight historical). Characters receive a bonus facing Guardians who share their setting and/or age.

Next is an icon for the social Circle, from Lords and Icons to Outcasts and Commoners. Guardians also have a Circle, and if they match a character's, that character receives a bonus on the challenge. (Even if you are the Lord of an interstellar empire or a barbarian horde, you will have an easier time talking a fifteenth century king into backing your expedition to the new world… you can empathize with how heavy that crown sits 'pon the royal brow…)
Circles also activate some character abilities.

There will be one or more icons for the Nature of the character, be it man, woman, child, fiend, machine… These have no effect until some card refers to them.

The upper right corner lists the character's speed and health. The fourteen rankings used for combats, challenges and using items run down the right hand side; they are logically laid out and easy to use.

The back of the card has a small vignette giving a glimpse of the character's background. These are often very funny, and I envy Mr. Murrell his clear imagery and fluid cadence. Some of the vignettes combine, for characters in the same setting, telling a slightly larger story.

Some have complained that many of the portraits (by an impressive list of top notch game artists), being computer generated, trigger the "uncanny valley" effect… the tendency to perceive something that is close to human, but not quite there, as disturbing (i.e. scary dolls and creepy clowns). Myself, I find that aesthetic works very well for a game simulating a computer simulation.

Into the Bathos-sphere

Humor is layered into every level of DOA II.

I'll be that sounds like an overstatement. "OK," you may say. "I get that the art may be amusing, the character backgrounds cute, and if you say the Challenge results are laugh-out-loud funny, you may be right… but every level?"

In our first game, one of our players was reading off one of his character's special abilities to the table, and another player burst out, "That is HILARIOUS!"

And it was. A hilarious game mechanic. Now that's good.

And once the humor has worn thin, you are left with an interesting game mechanic, one you have to take into account in your desperate plans.

DOA II has an unusually high degree of personality for a game, and that personality is charming, warm and witty.

And even once you have seen all the Adventure Challenges and read all the item cards (a long time from now), there remains the "Mad-libs" style humor of strange combinations and the mad-cap, surprising events which make up a game.

Immersivosity

When we finished our first game, Dannielle commented, "Well, that didn't take long, it's only… HOLY… WHAT time is it?"

It's not that the game took that long; it's that it seemed much less.

Since this game is played with just two sides, however many players you have, you get to enjoy a competitive and a co-operative game all at once. It is more fun to play four characters, and have someone to scheme with, than it is to play eight by yourself... though both are viable.

The level of immersion in DOA II is a little different than most other games. Since you are playing a number of characters at once, it doesn't have that one-on-one personal feel that many games can boast; your role is closer to "coach".

That said, the game is consuming of attention and flows rapidly. The end game becomes particularly frantic, as you scramble to find some plan to tilt the Achievement balance just a little more your way. The large number of characters means that even if the score is lopsided, the underdogs DO have a chance, if they can "run the table", making for exciting finishes.

Complexification

DOA II is medium to medium-heavy weight. It's less taxing then Mage Knight or most war-games; a little more so than say Arkham Horror (but much clearer than my beloved Arkham).

It is a game of exceptions and that being the case, not every card interaction can be dealt with in the rules. We've had few questions of that type, and none we couldn't parse out on our own. Our fall back is to use the rule from Talisman 3rd edition…. if the players can not agree on a rules interpretation, roll a die and go on playing.

It's worth noting, however, that Mr. Murrell has a strong presence on BGG, and a real-time forum response is not out of the question.

"But what about the children?"

Much of the art of DOA II is very attractive, but it does not stoop to cheesecake (or beefcake). Nothing I have encountered would be inappropriate in a family setting. The game flow should be comprehensible to even young children, though they will probably need help in strategy.

This is one area where the theme can be a real help; if Catspaw, a character who is herself a child, is "killed" by a rocket launcher, you can say, "What a shame! She got knocked out of the video game, and will have to wait to play again!" instead of "Yep, she's just gobbits of flesh, sprayed around the mesa…"

Might help minimize late night crises.

Also, there are many female characters and characters of varying race, and not all are beautiful/handsome specimens.

Gripes and Peeves

Minor, very minor.

The Masters Set is a treasure trove of additional content, and worth every penny of its cost. It is a good heavy box, but some gamers might find the >$100 cost off-putting. Multiple smaller expansions might have been more convenient for students and casual gamers. Me, I'm fine with it, glad I ordered it, would do so again… but I'm afraid it might be too much of a chunk for some to handle.

Also, I didn't care for the fact that the Master's Compendium Rulebook is not included with the Master's Set. It IS available free online, and I understand the advantages of having it be a "living document", but I live in cow country, and when we play over the hill, there is no cell phone reception, and the internet ventures there not. So I had Staples run me up a hardcopy; twenty bucks, not so bad.

Conclusion

I love this funny, hectic, exciting scramble of a game. I can easily see how some might not; you have to be able to embrace chaos, and enjoy struggling with uncertainty. It is far more strategic (and tactical, and logistical) than is may seem at first glance, and quality of decision making does matter in the end.

But the end itself does not matter; recently, we had a squeaky close game in which it came down to counting up the last Achievement… the result was a tie, and there was a spontaneous cheer and high fives all around.

Win, lose, draw…

This game is fun to play.



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Jude Mapp
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Excellent review. Well written, and enjoyable to read. I have been in the fence about this game for a while but you might just have pushed me over. May just dangle the name in front of my wife coming up to Christmas.
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Denise Lavely
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Brilliant! I'm now going to have to reference Star Trek and Quantum Leap every time I try to explain this game to someone.

And you are absolutely right, this game has more personality than any other game I've ever played. Great way to phrase it!
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Snappy Dan
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Nice review, Bern.

Question: What are the doughnut tokens in the baggie on the right side of the table in the third pic used for? I'm assuming you added those, since I didn't receive any.
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Bern Harkins
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Mysterio wrote:
Question: What are the doughnut tokens in the baggie on the right side of the table in the third pic used for? I'm assuming you added those, since I didn't receive any.


Those are one and a quarter inch flat washers, spray painted white on one side and black on the other. Bones was finding that the character tokens did not stand out from the map well for him, so we placed the tokens on these to provide more visual "pop". They serve quite well, are stackable, and let us mark a dead character's position by moving his washer on top of his token, so they are not confused with active characters.
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Phil W
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Nice, comprehensive review! I need to break down and get the expansion and find more time to play.
 
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Mikey
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Bravo!! Amazing review and agree with everything!
 
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Scott YahNotHappening
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Damn, I think you just made me lose $200..... awesome review.

It's nearly a year later, if you're still around and reading the replies to your review.... any changes? Are you still playing it? Would you buy it again if you lost the game in a fire?
 
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Richard
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Unkynd wrote:
Damn, I think you just made me lose $200..... awesome review.

It's nearly a year later, if you're still around and reading the replies to your review.... any changes? Are you still playing it? Would you buy it again if you lost the game in a fire?


I'm not the reviewer but I would. It's one of the few games I would purchase again and my only 10 so far. It's just fun in a box
 
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David desJardins
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I bought 3 copies just in case it's hard to get later. :-)
 
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Bern Harkins
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I haven't played in a few months, but it's still on my group's short list of favorites; I expect we'll play again soon. It gets mentioned just about every week, but hasn't been our "final decision" in a while. (Too many games...shake)

I would absolutely NEED to replace it if it were lost; it is one of my personal favorites.
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Chris Binkowski
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Radulla wrote:
It gets mentioned just about every week, but hasn't been our "final decision" in a while. (Too many games...shake)


If you aren't playing it, maybe you don't like it as much as you think you do.

I played it for the first time yesterday and thought it was terrible. By 'terrible', I mean there are a lot of things about DoA2 that I found to be poor game design. I know that's a strong opinion that I'm not going to explain in detail, but it's an opinion that I feel is necessary to share for the sake of other gamers that will be disappointed if they invested time and money into the game.

That being said, my friend who brought the game and a fellow first-time player seem to really like DoA2.
 
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Paul Chauvel
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I can't think of a more elegant design than Duel of Ages for a combination tactical and adventure game. It's one of the least 'broken' heavy games I have.

BTW, to necro a two-year old post and contribute little to it is considered poor taste. To have done it twice was probably unwise.
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David desJardins
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Sarxis wrote:
I played it for the first time yesterday and thought it was terrible. By 'terrible', I mean there are a lot of things about DoA2 that I found to be poor game design. I know that's a strong opinion that I'm not going to explain in detail, but it's an opinion that I feel is necessary to share for the sake of other gamers that will be disappointed if they invested time and money into the game.


No one is helped at all if you say, "I didn't like it but I won't tell you why." How is that going to aid anyone's buying decision? Maybe they like the opposite of what you like. How are they supposed to know?

If you are really concerned about those "other gamers", then write a (negative) review explaining what you didn't like.
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