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Subject: God save the Queen of Ameritrash! - A Review of Legacy of Dragonholt rss

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Scott Sexton
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I've been keeping a very close eye on designer Nikki Valens' work now since 2013's Eldritch Horror. For those not in the know, Nikki Valens is probably one of the best game designers and developers that everybody forgets when they put together their top lists of designers. This is thanks in no small part to FFG's team approach to development which results in some de-emphasis of the work of individual game designers, much in the same way a video game studio TYPICALLY gives credit to the entire game studio rather than individual team members. The same could be said to a lesser extent of Corey Konieczka, and was certainly true of designers like Kevin Wilson and Eric Lang before they left FFG.

A point of frustration for me is just how little "press" Nikki Valens has received as more and more media content producers have discussed the role of women in gaming and the growing number of women designing game. Most of these discussions begin and end with Inka Brand, however, for 4 years Nikki has quietly become the Queen of Ameritrash thanks to her work on some of the most highly narrative titles of recent years (Eldritch Horror, Mansions of Madness 2.0, and serving as the Story Master for the Arkham Horror Files). With Legacy of Dragonholt, it has become impossible to ignore the fact that she has become one of the most prominent story tellers in modern gaming.

Legacy of Dragonholt is a tricky thing to describe without doing it some sort of disservice, miss-characterizing things, or just plain spoiling the plot. I would begin by saying that if you come in expecting Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective set in the Runebound universe, I think you will be sorely disappointed. In LOD players create their own in game avatar. This process feels like a significantly watered down RPG character creation. You'll pick a race, a job, and a hand full of skills. Nothing too complex, but that is the point. Character in hand, you and your party of up to 6 will work your way through what amounts to a complex decision tree, sort of like what you'd expect in a Telltale Games' style adventure game or a complex Fighting Fantasy book.

Players each have an action marker they flip whenever they get to make a choice in the story. Once flipped, they don't get to make a decision or use their skills until every player flips their markers in turn. Not only does this help keep everybody at the table involved in the decision making, but it makes for some strategic choices about when it is most important for certain characters to act or wait and see what happens. In action this round structure is typical of the rules and design choices found throughout the game. Whenever possible, the game chooses to preserve narrative immersion. Anything that would serve to detract from players enjoying the story has been cut away. The end product is an experience that feels more carefully edited and produced then anything I've ever experienced in a board game or game book.

Like the earlier Fighting Fantasy style books, you do track gold, inventory, and XP. Like some of the more complex Sherlock Holmes modules (and Mythos Tales), the passage of time is tracked and often effects how the story unfolds. Like Mythos Tales and most Telltale Games, you track decisions, events, and knowledge you acquire. This last point is what LOD does particularly deftly and elegantly. Sometimes, when you make a decision the game instructs you to put a check mark on a particular spot on a large grid of events. This track of events is frequently referred to by the game to determine how characters react to you and how events unfold. Unlike Telltale Games, the decisions you make FEEL like there are real consequences to you choices. I can escape encounters in radically different manners based not only on my immediate choices, but also on choices I made much earlier. Better yet, most of the decision points you run into aren't binary. Often times you'll be confronted with 3 or more choices depending on what skills your characters have. If you've been playing western style videogame RPGs in the past 20 years, you will be very familiar with this idea, especially veterans of the Fallout games. The more skills you and your party have, the more choices you get to make during conversations or during action sequences. Just like in the videogames, you will be strongly tempted to pick these special choices whenever they show up, often times to spectacular effect.

That leads me into LOD's strongest point in its favor. The solid and often times cinematic writing throughout LOD is spectacular. The writing exceeds anything I've seen in a board game (save perhaps Mansions of Madness 2.0) when it comes to the action sequences. LOD gives me the same positive feelings I felt the first time I played each of the Uncharted videogames. These moments of action come off as vibrant, thrilling, and unpredictable joy rides. Your choices are rewarded with compelling passages that feel like they are taken from directly from a R. E. Howard pulp novel (minus the overt sexism and exploitation). The dialog sequences come off a bit less captivating and often are forgettable aside from a couple of the more memorable NPCs, but at the very least they offer you a moment to catch your breath.

Something else that LOD tries to add to the choose-your-own-adventure model is the occasional use of puzzles that calls back to something you'd expect to see from an escape room or a Time Stories module. These fun puzzle moments are integrated seamlessly into the narrative and don't feel quite as forced as an escape room. Best of all, unlike Time Stories, you aren't bogged down with those lousy dice based skill checks that are utter tripe.

Your time in Dragonholt is well worth the price of admission. I would estimate that a normal group playing at a normal pace is going to spend at LEAST 20 hours, and probably more finding their way through the game, and that doesn't include they time you may spend "cheating" to see alternative results. I have played Dragonholt with my 2 11 year old twins and the game has gone over amazingly well. Both kids have demanded we play the game now every night since I bought our copy. If you have younger gamers, I think this is a no brainer game to try out with them, especially as an introduction to role playing. If you want a collaborative or solo choose-your-own-adventure saga Dragonholt will be a great fit for you to.

Dragonholt is a winner of a gaming experience because it offers a very simple rule set that allows for a very smooth gaming session, while telling a pulpy good adventure yarn. Dragonholt, like Mansions of Madness 2.0, is one of those watershed moments in game design that shows just what possibilities there are in narrative gaming and I hope that we see more games like this in the future. I find myself craving an Arkham Horror setting where I can use the dozens of characters from The Arkham Horror Files. I want a sci-fi epic that evokes Mass Effect. Heck, I'd be interested in seeing a modern crime drama like the game Heavy Rain. If Legacy of Dragonholt can get me excited about a setting I don't really care one bit about, I can barely contain my excitement at the thought of playing in a setting that excites me. I hope that Dragonholt is just the begining, and I can't wait to see what Nikki Valens is working on next!

God save the Queen of Ameritrash! BGG Rating 10.0

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Thank you so much for that nice and complete review. I wanted to play this with my kids and you convinced me. I hope FFG will make a french version of it even if there is obviously a ton of translation to do.
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scottatlaw wrote:
The writing exceeds anything I've seen in a board game (


Awesome. I'm going to go buy this right now...


scottatlaw wrote:
(save perhaps Mansions of Madness 2.0)


Annnnnnnd you lost me.

I like Mansions. I think Mansions is a great way to play an Ameritrashy game with a bunch of dirty casuals. I just got the new expansion. BUT... The writing is terrible. The stories are barely coherent, the dialogue for the NPCS is ludicrious and nothing about the attempts at Lovecraftian style works in two sentences at a time doses.

scottatlaw wrote:
Something else that LOD tries to add to the choose-your-own-adventure model is the occasional use of puzzles that calls back to something you'd expect to see from an escape room or a Time Stories module. These fun puzzle moments are integrated seamlessly into the narrative and don't feel quite as forced as an escape room.


But I'll probably get it anyway. Just probably not at $60.
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scottatlaw wrote:
I find myself craving an Arkham Horror setting where I can use the dozens of characters from The Arkham Horror Files. I want a sci-fi epic that evokes Mass Effect.


Holy crap! I'd be all over that!
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Sp00ns wrote:
scottatlaw wrote:
I find myself craving an Arkham Horror setting where I can use the dozens of characters from The Arkham Horror Files. I want a sci-fi epic that evokes Mass Effect.


Holy crap! I'd be all over that!


+1

Oh and one for the Android: Netrunner setting please FFG!
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mathew rynich
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It's very good. I also am excited to see what other IPs they could leverage for this type of product in the future. I'd be real happy with an Android or L5R version of this game.

I know some people are down on there being no dice or card based randomization in this game, but it really doesn't need it. Die rolls are used to build excitement at the table in traditions RPGs. Here you are making decisions based on a sort of push your luck style consideration with your stamina and puzzling your way through what you think are the decisions you need to reach your desired story outcome. In a game attempting to be this narrative I think to add another random layer of top would just get in the way. I think ultimately mechanics that would be better to slot in (and in fact do already appear) are puzzle solving, deduction, investigation, push your luck, inventory management ... stuff like that which is more about the player getting involved in the story and less about the die rolls dictating the outcome. I think the mystery of not knowing the consequences of your decisions is a random factor enough when pressed to make a decision.

Is it worth the MSRP of $60 USD? I'm not sure. I got mine for $47. I feel okay with that after skimming through the box contents. There are about 400 pages of adventure not counting the handouts and peripheral materials. Each of those pages are in large manual sized books with two columns per page and a lot of sidebars so far. So it's a bit hard to compare this to a traditional novel sized game book like a fighting fantasy, lone wolf novel or other CYOA type experience. Though it I was forced to attempt to I'd say we usually see something like 4 to 6 passages per page and in many of the products I listed it would be one passage per page at most. So that does start to describe a very large amount of products, and when you look at the tracking sheets there are tons of triggers to mark so the amount of decisions you get to make are pretty remarkable. So far the experience has been very tightly edited and extremely well written.

I've heard people say on average it takes them about 12 hours to complete 1 walk through, but that seems like it will be a very variable number considering how fast you read, how much time you take to make decisions, what decisions you make, how many players are at the table and how much time are you spending potentially roleplaying your characters all can effect how long it takes you to progress through the campaign. I did see one reviewer say it took him 6 hours to finish. I'm definitely not on pace to beat that persons finish time. I'm several hours in and I only just did the intro quest and a bit of the town.

So I guess at the end of the day I bought it. I am extremely happy so far with he experience. and I'd definitely buy another product of this type of FFG in the future if it's the same or better quality.
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Great review!

I have to disagree with one thing, however: the part about this being a watershed moment in game design. Aside from its somewhat awkward multiplayer mechanism, there's nothing new here. Everything else is decades old.

But perhaps all the interest in this game will revitalize a somewhat dormant genre. That in itself would be a pretty cool Legacy!
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Finally after about 3 hours of intro module and roaming the village, I have found another quest! I really do love this game. The writing sucks me right in. I am not a fan of books so me being so immersed in the story is a pleasant surprise.
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I agree. This game is more an iteration rather than an innovation. That said it is a really nice version of a game in this genre. I think the ease of setup and play will make it a great introductory product. Right now if I wanted anything more from this game it would be more handouts and peripheral material to help with the player emersion. A larger item cards deck would be great too. Also I love red herrings in adventure games so I think it would be fun to have more chaff that might not be really necessary to advance the quest, but helps give more character to the world.

I'm not a fan of the player activation markers. I feel like the two sides could have been more distinct and the art on them is fine but not really exciting. I sometimes really need to look across the table to see if someone's marker is flipped. Maybe more an issue with my old eyes but still I feel like they could have made it more of a contrast.
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Couple of items I want to respond to.

1- I get that MOM 2.0 isn't going to have some of the best writing ever, but it is solid, consistent and on the whole polished. The intros and conclusions especially are evocative and make for nice framing peices for each game. At the very least it gives me good feels.

2- Regarding the play time. 12 hours is utter BS. That is a solo player trying to speed run the game and not reading for effect or comprehension. Of course the early reviews of people who claim to have finished the game are going to show a fast play time. As someone who considers himself a normal player who can churn through a Time Stories module in between 3 and 4 hours, a good play time should run at least 20 hours and more likely upwards toward 30. Solo players are going to go faster too since there is no collaboration, but they aren't going to be enjoying the game as it is truly intended either.

3- Just how innovative is this game? Yeah I get that this is a game building upon 40 years plus of design. I find the game to be a breath of fresh air because it mashes up a lot of games and ideas that are out there into a product that you shouldn't expect in analog form. With this much built into the game you'd think it would either be better suited as a video game or that you'd be burdened with a ton of rules overhead and bookeeping. LOD does none of those things and is arguably one of the smoothest running game book experiences I've ever had. That's what makes this an important game and one that I hope drives designers in the future. Go back and read Sourcery (not the app) or read Destiny Quest and try telling me with a straight face that LOD isn't an important step forward.
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Nice review, and while we can split hairs about whether it's a great iteration or a new epoch of gaming, it's definitely a smooth execution of an underutilized form of game that has elevated this particular medium.

I enjoyed the writing by and large. I thought the writing in mansions was pretty good given that it was basically a deck of cards the game was cycling through. this is a bit better given that it's a narrative flow.

I would estimate I took 12 hours flying solo. I missed two of the quests.

I've noticed Nikki Valens keeps a relatively low profile, but there is an article here with a small interview with her: https://geekandsundry.com/meet-the-women-behind-mansions-of-...

She's 2/2 in my book (this and mansions) so I'm looking forward to what comes next.

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stevelabny wrote:
scottatlaw wrote:
The writing exceeds anything I've seen in a board game (


Awesome. I'm going to go buy this right now...


scottatlaw wrote:
(save perhaps Mansions of Madness 2.0)


Annnnnnnd you lost me.

I like Mansions. I think Mansions is a great way to play an Ameritrashy game with a bunch of dirty casuals. I just got the new expansion. BUT... The writing is terrible. The stories are barely coherent, the dialogue for the NPCS is ludicrious and nothing about the attempts at Lovecraftian style works in two sentences at a time doses.

scottatlaw wrote:
Something else that LOD tries to add to the choose-your-own-adventure model is the occasional use of puzzles that calls back to something you'd expect to see from an escape room or a Time Stories module. These fun puzzle moments are integrated seamlessly into the narrative and don't feel quite as forced as an escape room.


But I'll probably get it anyway. Just probably not at $60.


I think the Mansions mention had to do with how the “action” is described through paragraphs whenever you cast a spell or make an attack. In many RPGs, players kind of forget about storytelling when battle breaks out and they just swing their sword over and over until the enemy is dead with no flavor or drama.

Mansions is an improvement in that regard and Legacy is also very good. I was worried the combat would be dull, but it’s actually very exciting. Your typical “encounter” spans multiple paragraphs with decisions to make every time your character faced an imminent threat on the battlefield.

And you rarely come out of battle unscathed, even if you have the right skills.
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Thanks for taking the time to write all this - it's appreciated. My copy just arrived and after pulling all the bits out, I'm really looking forward to jumping in. I'm an "old school" fan of Fighting Fantasy titles, and while I know this isn't a direct Fighting Fantasy experience, I've yet to try something in the board gaming world that comes close to capturing what I remember experiencing as a kid that absolutely devoured those books.
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Nice review - just made me go out and buy a copy!
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Sean D.
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jonboyjon wrote:
Sp00ns wrote:
scottatlaw wrote:
I find myself craving an Arkham Horror setting where I can use the dozens of characters from The Arkham Horror Files. I want a sci-fi epic that evokes Mass Effect.


Holy crap! I'd be all over that!


+1

Oh and one for the Android: Netrunner setting please FFG!


There is a narrative game called Android that already exists. People that play it like an RPG will be rewarded. The stories that evolve are amazing. Its not CYOA style, but framed around a Film-Noir murder mystery. Its kind of a love it or hate it thing, but worht checking out imho.
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mathew rynich
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Me and my play group really loved the Android board game. It was very much an old school FFG design though. A lot of systems to learn, but if you got a group that was all excited about the game it was a lot of fun. It sort of has a CYOA system in the sense that there you character stories that you progressed down with branching resolutions. Though you didn't really have complete control on how you traversed the tree.

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A recent CYOA type of game is Doctor Who: Solitaire Story Game (Second edition).

Anyone tried that?
 
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Great review, thanks. I especially appreciate the focus on Nikki Valens and the thoughtful introduction.

(Pop quiz: where does "affect" belong in the review instead of "effect"? Sorry for bringing it up... I'm a monster.)
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I used to love CYOA type games and the like; I especially enjoyed Fabled Lands and Blood Sword. (Blood Sword is the best game of this type I've played) But there is no way in hell, I'm paying $60+ for a CYOA type of game. The gameplay isn't there.

I think a lot of reviewers are liking it because the writing is really good, but where is the actual game? You can make different choices the next time you play? The choice ( or agency) is mostly illusion in this game.

Which brings me to the random element. The whole point of random elements in an RPG is that the DM doesn't know what will happen next. So you roll dice. Most novice DM's fall into the bad habit of letting the dice run everything in their games. With a good DM you are creating a story as you play; in this game you're just following along.

If they turned this into a novel, I would definitely read it ( it sounds interesting); if they add a random element and actually make it a game I can enjoy, then I'll play it. Until then, I'm content to be patient and wait and see if they add an expansion to spice things up.
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Thanks a lot for the review, I've been interested in this game for a while now and Your (among some others) review has swayed me to take the plunge so I just ordered it.

I've never been much of a solo gamer in the past, but I've picked up the Arkham horror LCG lately and it's got me hooked ever since. I really don't know if I'd want to play this with a group, but if I do, I'm hoping for some strong RP types to enhance the game even further.

Please keep up the good work, I'll be reading more of your reviews as this one was a very pleasant read.

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sjtollie wrote:
Thanks a lot for the review, I've been interested in this game for a while now and Your (among some others) review has swayed me to take the plunge so I just ordered it.

I've never been much of a solo gamer in the past, but I've picked up the Arkham horror LCG lately and it's got me hooked ever since. I really don't know if I'd want to play this with a group, but if I do, I'm hoping for some strong RP types to enhance the game even further.

Please keep up the good work, I'll be reading more of your reviews as this one was a very pleasant read.



This is really great if your the RP type. So many times I wanted to make the choice i thought was best but it wasn't what I thought my character would do. That is what separates this from a typical CYOA. Through the character creation, you can really form an amazing character to RP.
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Blustar wrote:
I used to love CYOA type games and the like; I especially enjoyed Fabled Lands and Blood Sword. (Blood Sword is the best game of this type I've played) But there is no way in hell, I'm paying $60+ for a CYOA type of game. The gameplay isn't there.

I think a lot of reviewers are liking it because the writing is really good, but where is the actual game? You can make different choices the next time you play? The choice ( or agency) is mostly illusion in this game.

Which brings me to the random element. The whole point of random elements in an RPG is that the DM doesn't know what will happen next. So you roll dice. Most novice DM's fall into the bad habit of letting the dice run everything in their games. With a good DM you are creating a story as you play; in this game you're just following along.

If they turned this into a novel, I would definitely read it ( it sounds interesting); if they add a random element and actually make it a game I can enjoy, then I'll play it. Until then, I'm content to be patient and wait and see if they add an expansion to spice things up.


When you say the gameplay isn't there are you speaking from some sort of experience or are you just assuming that's true? You can definitely make bad decisions in this game. There are branching outcomes, puzzles, inventory management, HP management... So far I'm not seeing the illusion of choice. I'm seeing real ramifications for my actions. I'd say this game feels more interactive to me than say your typical point and click adventure game. Just look at the tracking sheets to see the large matrix of potential decision points.

It's not just that the writing is good (and it is a well written story). It's that it's a really satisfying experience considering all the pivot points they built into the game. I especially like that time is tracked throughout the game. Not just what day it is, but when in the day it is so you do get a real sense of time passing and that has a tangible effect on both the story and the gameplay. So NCPs are not just reacting to the actions you take in the game, but when you are interacting with them.
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phillosmaster wrote:
Blustar wrote:
I used to love CYOA type games and the like; I especially enjoyed Fabled Lands and Blood Sword. (Blood Sword is the best game of this type I've played) But there is no way in hell, I'm paying $60+ for a CYOA type of game. The gameplay isn't there.

I think a lot of reviewers are liking it because the writing is really good, but where is the actual game? You can make different choices the next time you play? The choice ( or agency) is mostly illusion in this game.

Which brings me to the random element. The whole point of random elements in an RPG is that the DM doesn't know what will happen next. So you roll dice. Most novice DM's fall into the bad habit of letting the dice run everything in their games. With a good DM you are creating a story as you play; in this game you're just following along.

If they turned this into a novel, I would definitely read it ( it sounds interesting); if they add a random element and actually make it a game I can enjoy, then I'll play it. Until then, I'm content to be patient and wait and see if they add an expansion to spice things up.


When you say the gameplay isn't there are you speaking from some sort of experience or are you just assuming that's true? You can definitely make bad decisions in this game. There are branching outcomes, puzzles, inventory management, HP management... So far I'm not seeing the illusion of choice. I'm seeing real ramifications for my actions. I'd say this game feels more interactive to me than say your typical point and click adventure game. Just look at the tracking sheets to see the large matrix of potential decision points.

It's not just that the writing is good (and it is a well written story). It's that it's a really satisfying experience considering all the pivot points they built into the game. I especially like that time is tracked throughout the game. Not just what day it is, but when in the day it is so you do get a real sense of time passing and that has a tangible effect on both the story and the gameplay. So NCPs are not just reacting to your the actions you take in the game, but when you are interacting with them.


Man, right now I am in quite the pickle in my first quest. Looking back, I see some errors in my ways. Bad decisions early in a quest multiplied to chaos. Cant wait to get back into tonight and see how I can get out of this jam, maybe i dont. lol Decisions are definitely there. Also, things would have been different this quest with a few different skills. I kept my skills low to start so my character could grow and I could shape him. Well, 1 or 2 more skills would have been handy. But, it is such a great adventure.
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I have to disagree with anyone talking about the "illusion of choice." I have played through LoD three separate times now, with three separate groups, while playing three separate characters, and choice is absolutely a real thing.

Sure, there are parts of the story everyone is going to experience. The story absolutely does converge at three clean points. How you handle those points, and how well you do, however, will absolutely change in each playthrough. What you do between those points will diverge even more, and I can say with honesty that each of my three playthroughs has had a distinct story, each with a different flavor, different experiences, and ultimately, left me feeling different each time. After 3 playthroughs, there are still things I know I haven't seen or experienced, because there are just that many different possibilities.
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So this female designer was the driving force behind Eldritch Horror, Mansions of Madness2 and now Dragonholt...

No wonder all these games are in the absolute top of my Collection.

About the few negative remarks above of MoM2... That game does story telling through its adventure, it is awesome.
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