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Re-treading the Trail with a Watership Meltdown


The Hai Mind Ranking: 8.75/10 (with occasional needle jitters)




Run, Rabbit, Run - it's time to chatter about Cross Hares: Testing Ground from designer Jesse Labbe' and 1A Games.

The backstory is simple. There's a Problem. The Problem is a Factory. The Problem is a Factory that is poisoning the Land. A Land now twisted and full of chemicals...and unspeakable Things. Oh and there's a military presence: the Regime. That's another Problem. So there's two Problems. The Regime and the Factory. But there's also...

Hope

A ragtag bunch of furry rebels,insurgents,trouble makers,and fools are bent on stopping the Regime and the Factory. They are the Cross Hares.

And they are racing to see who does it first. That's a third Problem.

Because at the end - there's the Glory...

Maybe.

*** *** ***

This was a Kickstarter project (and what I like about them is you can go digging for designer intents and influences). This is the word from Mr. Jesse Labbe' himself:

Quote:
The “trail” type game is truly a dinosaur. You roll the dice, you move. You roll the dice, you move. I know there can be so much more. More options, more chances for gain and loss, more strategy and more laughs! So I took all the things I loved as a child and updated them for today. Let’s be honest, if I were to play Fireball Island (my favorite game as a child) today, it probably wouldn't be half as much fun as I remembered it. BUT, if I recreate how I remember it…I might have a winner!


The Word from Mr. Box is 'A classic trail-based strategy game with modern-day twists'.

Hmmm...quite a few buzz words a buzzing there. Let's check Hai's 'Dictionary of Game Marketing' on a few of those....

Classic (adj): 1) Brimming with nostalgia and quenching the thirst of by-gone gaming days like orange drink from the ubiquitous yellow cooler of hot Field Days. 2) Descriptor attached to gaming mechanic that should have probably remained buried under the moss covered gravestone it was found under.

Trail-Based Game (noun/mechanic): 1) Roll and move board standard. 'Start' in one corner and 'Finish' in the diagonal opposite with the 'gamiest' path between point A and B being the twistiest spaghetti strand you can wedge in. Think Cranium without stopping every five minutes to try and not mold something suggestive out of play-doh.

Modern-Day (adj): 1) Zazz'd up by the Gaming Renaissance (And yes...it does say 'zazz'd')

So let's see what we have here...and if Cross Hares is a winner.

But first: What exactly is this 'trail gaming' all about?

*** *** ***


The Trail of yester-Tears: A Brief (and Spotty) History of Trail Games

Made Possible Today by a Grant from the Mobil Corporation and My Standard TL;DR Tangentialness


How does one talk about a gaming dinosaur in tabletop history? The best way - through the textual Cardboard Time Machine.

(Just tread lightly for the next few paragraphs. I haven't been born for a bit of this. Step on an errant moth and this review might end abruptly in The Sound of Thunder. )

Welcome to the Card-is! Flipping levers. Twisting knobs. Cue the grindy, wheezy noises and 50 year old theme music...

Destination set for...

The 1980's: The Golden Age of Cardboard. Steve Jackson will begin to slip rules sheets into ziplock baggies and Betamax VCR cases and toss them on the shore to see what starts breathing. Lines between paper and pencil RPG gymnasium of the mind fantasies and cardboard chit war games are going to start to blur. Squad Leader of the 70's Pack Avalon Hill is going to come down off the back end of Little Round Top with Magic Realm, Freedom in the Galaxy, and Dragon Pass. Game companies (and Workshops) are going to start springing up everywhere. Games will be measured in cardboard chit poundage. Important times.

And less important times.

Kiddie Fare. Sick day and Friend-over-Friday grilled cheese gaming.

We don't have to circle round to catch a Jurassic Park glimpse of herds of Trail Games migrating. If you squint your grey matter - you'll see the truth is out there in an evolutionary burst of Von Daniken proportions courtesy of Saturday Morning Cartoons and Movie Franchises.

Oh Parker Brothers and Milton Bradley.

Clever Girls.

The Trail Game is everywhere.

A simple premise. Print some rules on the game box lid. Slap a twisty path liberally sprinkled with 'Move Aheads' and 'Go Backs' on a middle fold board. Toss in a die (or a spinner to avoid 'Choking Hazard' labels). And fill in the blanks of '_______ and the _________ ending with the dramatic tension and gravitas of 'Race or 'Chase'

Strawberry Shortcake and the Berrirrific Race

G.I. Joe and Destro's Island Chase

The Superfriends and the Super-Friendliest Racing Chase!

Form of a... Bucket of Excitement!

And yes - hopped up on Frosted Flakes - they were fun. Many was the time I grabbed one out of the cupboard and dear old Dad had to feign dismay at 'Zoiks! Move Back Three!' while I leapt from Scooby Snack to Scooby Snack in Scooby Doo and the Haunted Mansion Chase.

And as the decade ran on things got a little more sophisticated to keep up with the Indiana Joneses - but never by much.

Although we can stop at three fixed points on The Trail during this decade that will be important later.

1)Early 80's. TSR brings The Red Box to the older Toys R Us kids and Dungeons and Dragons hits the mainstream. Along for the ride is a quasi-trail game that's been out for a bit but gets rebooted into popularity. Dungeon!

2)Later 80's. Games Workshop takes the fantasy trail theme of the above and turns it into a three ring circus of light role-playing grind. Talisman.

3)Jesse Labbe' gets knocked off a 3-D Volcano by a rolling red marble. Fireball Island.

And all this has to do with...

...well let's get back to the review shall we...

...jetting through the late 90's and the Cardboard Ice Age. The Trail Game the first to go extinct. The Pixelated Plague of Video Games nearly wiping stateside boardgames from the table top. The Euro flourishing in a reverse Black Death of Y2K times. I'd stop at the Dawn of the Gaming Renaissance but I can never really pinpoint it. Something about F-to-the-squared. Is it when Fantasy Flight started using fancy boxes? Or when Flying Frog brought a new dawn to Ameritrash with Last Night on Earth? Nevermind. There's the Kickstarter Gateway...

and home...Cross Hares.

Let's begin. Shall we?

*** *** ***

(I will admit there was a method to my madness. I wanted to harken back to yesteryear. I wanted to induce those nostalgic feelings that Cross Hares sets about trying to replicate. I wanted us all to gather in our sleepover cozy flannels and adult-sized Cookie Monster slippers to take a peek in the box. If you skipped that last bit to cut to the chase - grab some animal crackers or a Lunchable and try your best.)

Trail Blazing: Cross Hares in the Crosshairs

Gameplay

The Simple

Simplicity is the heart of Cross Hares. You roll. You move. You roll. You move. Keep pressing forward and don't look back. Well...look back on occasion because someone may be behind you. If they are, push them back. Then keep moving forward. Looking back - yes. Falling back -no.

The board itself is vast and simple. Varied starting zones give you the choice to leap to the front very quickly or linger behind with the chance to pick up a boon or two on the way. There's a bottle neck in the middle bringing the opportunity of chaos and confrontation. A re-coop zone of twisty paths and shortcuts to avoid your fellow bunnies for a bit and then the danger strewn straight (but snakey) path to the end game where your greatest enemy is probably your fellow players.

Along the way you'll land on Testing Ground spaces where a card draw has you facing various enemies and pitfalls that hinder your trek. You might activate ever-cycling global Events that usually cast a shadow over everyone. Or a chance die roll might have you briefly hop 'off board' to a more involved large card Adventure where larger plusses and minuses are to be had.

In the end - the name of the game is Trail and is one of moving ahead and avoiding going back at all costs.

Simple. But that doesn't mean boring...

The Depth

Each of the 'Commandos of NIMH' is a variable player power character. From Tanks that can power through various card types, to more finesse characters with token sets that can lay traps along the way or curse other characters to steal their die rolls.

Each character card also has an inventory grid of Items and Specialties you can power up with boon tokens earned and found along the way. The Item slots are small permanent (until something rips them away of course) boosts you can give your character: a +1 to movement or certain enemy types, an extra card in your hand. The other slots, Specialties, are more akin to stored up super moves you can pull out in a tight situation by discarding the token. How you utilize these sometimes rare and always tenuous boon tokens to 'build' your character along the way is up to you.

Add to that a small hand of Stronghold Cards filled with various Player Boosts and Opponent Screw You's that you can earn and keep on hand for times both opportune and inopportune.

There's plenty of variety and flavor to the game play between these variable characters, boon choices, and game changer cards to keep things interesting, even if the basic game recipe is still one of the 'Ahead 8 Back 3 Tango'.

Components

There is a subdivision of the Cardboard Kingdom who make scrinchy faces at the League of Kickstarter games for various reasons. One of them being that sometimes they can come off as 'on the cheap'. Quite a bit can happen cosmetically between 'pushing' and 'production' for the good and the bad. I've been there on occasion, opening a box to a whimper of an 'oh' rather than a bang. I usually shrug it off to 'limited budgets' and 'first timing'; after all, the game's the thing.

No shrugging here. No whimpers. Only one word:

JAZZHANDS!

(That doesn't look right. That might actually be two words. Sorry.)

Either way I'm tipping a sparkly chorus line hat to both 1A Games and Jesse.

On 1A's part of production, the effort was put forth. Giant poster-sized board to keep the spaces big and clear. No squinting necessary to determine the different keyed spaces over blanks. The graphic design of the key spaces just subtle enough to blend. Standing up you are looking at a map of the Testing Grounds, sitting down you are at a game board. You can slather on extra layers, but the heart of a Trail Game is the board and this is something to hang on your wall if you were so inclined. Tokens are nice and thick. Cards feel good in the hand.

Another factor that is going to bring a Trail Game back from the dead and to the table in this day and age is the art. Game designer Jesse' Labbe, wearing a number of sparkly hats himself, is also writer, artist, and graphic designer for the Cross Hares.

He brought the art.

With Trail Game Heyday rooted in Saturday Morning and Franchise fare, it almost feels like we can slip-slide on footy pajamas into a parallel dimension and watch Cross Hares! over a bowl of Cheerios or pick up a volume 3 graphic novel like The Mice Templar. Sardonic art both pays homage to and parodies yesteryear gaming. These rabid bunnies and the dystopia of the Testing Ground are fully realized in a style of Donny Darko-Bluth. Fievel goes Commando.

This is a game fueled on nostalgia and guilty pleasure that is certainly pretty to own.

That's a crucial idea for the next part.

And so without further ado...

The next part.

The Trail Mix: The Final Word (Finally)

So time to revisit The Word of Mr. Box and the mission statement of Cross Hares.

'A classic trail-based strategy game with modern-day twists'

Yes - this is a game for the sick day kid all grown up. This a game of guilty pleasure that tastes like grilled cheese and Kool Aid. Not a game of 'actually was's', a game of 'remembered likes'.

That's what pure nostalgia is.

It is also a two sided coin and can be a harsh mistress.

For every reason we want to fondly bring something back, there's a reason it died in the first place.

And like a Trail Board, Cross Hares has plenty of 'Move Aheads' and the occasional 'Go Back'.

Who is it for?

Go Back: Serious Hardcore Gamers and Strategists. Step away from the table. There's nothing to see here. Roll Dice. Move. Roll Dice. Move. Draw a card. It is exactly what it is. Complaining about it would be like showing up at a hockey game and being put off that it isn't baseball.

Move Ahead: The Nostalgia Spirited. The Table Looking For a Light Hour Filler. There's about 5 minutes of rules and nothing to get bogged down in. The game pretty much plays on instinct and a whole lot of luck, good and bad. A light no thinker that in the right circle has plenty of potential for shouts, curses, and laughs.

Is it kid friendly?

Well - we have a return to yesteryear fare for adults, but is it the sick day game for the nowadays? The gameplay is simple enough to say so. I have no offspring of my own, but I have The Nieces and that makes me The Crazy Aunt with The Games. I'm corrupting, yet responsible.

Go Back: It's a bit dark albeit cartoony. There are themes of War. Dystopia. These bunnies have guns. This is Watership Meltdown. These are not the rodents pokings spiders with sewing needles you seek.

Move Ahead: It's cartoony albeit a bit dark. The violence is implied. Standing under the shadow of falling boulders and the sooty-faced surprise of nearby explosions. This is a game with potential for those of a certain age. A 6th grader would get enough and miss the parts they should. Teenage Mutant Rebel Rabbits taking the occasional pot shot at each other.

How does it stand on Replayability?

Move Ahead/Go Back: This is one to do the in-place two step on. This is the crux of a Guilty Pleasure Game. Are you going to Binge Play it? No. Is it going to hit the table every week? Most likely not. But like a sick day, the machine gun barrel isn't going to lose its shine every month or so. There's a solid game built on top of the creaky bones of roll and move. The card play and lite rpg builds with variable characters keep things fresh. There's enough drive to push forward and tension about using or losing your collected boons at any given moment to keep things interesting in the hour or so you'll spend racing around the Testing Grounds. It's quick enough and varied enough for sprint running, but would fall behind in the marathon.

In prepping the review, I played over a half dozen games in a week's time, testing the various characters on their rabbit runs. I never got bored, never held back on screams and curses, but I am glad that my Kickstarter pledge garners me mysterious expansions to come in the mail and the potential to breathe a little more variety and gameplay life into my Cross Hares in the year to come.

Now comes the tricky bit. The number. Putting a rating 'price' on not only gaming value, but nostalgia and guilty pleasure.

This is why I pointed Dungeon! and Talisman out on the Card-is scanner. Two pseudo-Trailers that survived the Cardboard Ice Age to this day. They are a lesson in the power of nostalgia. Our house is a House Divided on the two. My partner, referred to as The Boy, loves Dungeon!. Like Heroquest, he, for some reason needs 3 various copies of it. I find it more dry bones than meat, but he'll glaze over with Glassy Stare of the Ghosts of Basements Past. I much prefer Talisman. To him, it's an Evening Killer Grind. To me it's wide-eyed glee of remembering 'that time my friends and I set up all the boards for a week so we could grind through all the decks until we had used up all the stat chips and then had a 3 hour Crown of Command Battle Royale.' I still get a bit of the *squee* thinking about it.

But we both agree that Cross Hares sits somewhere in the middle for each of us. Talisman vs. Dungeon. Dungeon vs. Talisman. We were able to stop our Game Shelf of Thrones and scratch a nostalgic itch with a new contender for a game or two.

So since I can't put a rating price on nostalgia - you can watch as I build it 7-layer nacho style. Hop off the number line when you've made your decision.

4 The Start space. That's about as high as I'll go on the foundation of roll and move trails. Trust me - dig up a copy of Fat Albert and the Great Junkyard Chase from a faux dusty attic. By today's standard 'we're gonna have a good time'. HEY! HEY! HEY!' is not in the picture. Running Tally:4

+3 For design elements: card play, lite RPG boon wrangling, and variable player powers which take it to a playable level. We have a fun factor. Running Tally:7

+1 Slipping a point in for nostalgia factor and delivering on a promise of fuzzy memories. Bringing the concept of what a yesteryear favorite was 'like' to the modern tabletop. Fun factor increase. Running Tally:8

+.5 Throwing a decimal in for the Talisman/Dungeon back scratcher effect. If either of those are cozied up in your heart, the Testing Grounds is worth a visit. Running Tally:8.5

+.24 A little bonus for the Zazz factor. I'm not one for the Game Look, but if it is good it deserves a mention. This is spot on. Points earned. Running Tally:8.74

+.01 The sardonic humor of the game leaks into the rule book. I laughed. Rarely does a rule book make me laugh out loud. Recognize. Running Tally:8.75

So final rating 8.75 since I am permitted to get all decimally. There's a bit of a needle flicker in general as the slight gravitational pull of 'roll and move' tries to tug it down against the very commendable effort of the Cross Hares.

Well, we took a very twisted path and finally made it to the Finish Square.

If you're still here, the Watership Meltdown of Cross Hares: Testing Ground might be your cup of tea.

Or your nostalgic glass of Tang(tm), as the case may be.

Mmmmm........tastes like astronaut.


[*** END TRANSMISSION *** ]

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Simon Barnes
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Hai Kulture
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simon_j_barnes wrote:
wow


Yup - sometimes the words just come out and everything gets a bit face melty ala final reel of Indy Jones
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