Lair of the Lich King is an expansion of Brandon Raasch’s Dubious Alliance tabletop fantasy card game. If you don’t want to read this whole review, here’s my bottom line. I liked – but didn’t love – the original Dubious Alliance game. But Lair of the Lich King improves on Dubious Alliance in almost every way I would want – adding new ways to win, new ways to die and a drafting mechanic that takes what was a social game too long to be a “filler” and moves it into the realm of a “light tactical” game that can still be competently played on your third beer. I think the Lair of the Lich King expansion moves Dubious Alliance from a game that some hobby game enthusiasts might like to one that has something for every hobby gamer. The expansion is Kickstarting on 5/24/15. I consider it a “must own” if you already have the basic game. If Brandon offers a discount package deal for the basic game and the expansion in this second Kickstarter I’ll recommend to a number of friends that they pick up the pair.
Below is my full review of Lair of the Lich King (Below that is a description of Dubious Alliance – read that first if you’re not already familiar with the base game.)
The Lair of the Lich King Expansion
In keeping with his “card game with the flavor of Blue Box D&D:” branding, Brandon calls Lair of the Lich King (hereafter LotLK) a new “adventure path” for Dubious Alliance. In the in-game narrative, the Orcs of the Blood-Stained Axe tribe (who in the basic game were focused on raiding the hoard of Snarl the Colossal Red Dragon) are exploring an ancient catacomb and awaken the Lich King a la Tomb of Horrors. Most of the new cards and one of the new mechanics in the expansion match this theme.
Lair of the Lich King adds three new aspects to the game:
- A new way to die, called Level Drain, and
- A second, secret way for each player to win, called Secret Missions,
- A new way to use strategy to win: an optional drafting mechanic.
Level Drain is an effect found on many of the undead-themed cards in the new set. If a player is subjected to Level Drain, s/he receives a gray three-position rotating card similar to the “Traded-Didn’t Trade-Must Trade” Trade-Tracker card. Each time a player experiences another Level Drain effect after receiving the gray card, it turns one position. On the third Level Drain (including when s/he first received the gray card), the player dies and EVERYONE loses. So in the basic game, Level Drain adds another type of lethality to Health Points that can demand positive intervention by the other players. This is all it does unless you also add…
…Secret Missions. If you play with Secret Mission, each player is dealt a face-down Secret Mission card at the beginning of the game. Secret Missions give each player a second way to win besides achieving his or her prestige goal. Secret Missions include killing another player, dying yourself, visiting a certain number of Locations (by collecting Location cards), acquiring a certain number of magic items, etc. With Secret Missions, there is suddenly two new factors to consider when deciding what cards to keep for yourself and which ones to try to trade away: does the card help you with your mission AND will it help someone else with their mission, which you may be able to deduce both from what they trade away AND what they play on their board. Your ability to achieve your Secret Mission is still highly dependent on the cards you are dealt, unless you also add…
…the new drafting mechanic. With this optional new mechanic, you are dealt a hand of cards, but you only keep one and pass the rest to the players on your left for them to choose from. You receive cards players from the players on your right and pick one in each passing round until you have three. Then you receive your fourth and final card at random from the deck. With this drafting mechanic you can try to tailor your hand to accomplishing your Secret Mission. But remember, you won’t be able to use ALL the cards in your hand because after two times NOT trading you’ll be forced to trade. So you have to stock your hand with SOME cards you want to trade away. Hopefully those cards don’t help someone else accomplish their mission. If you’re really clever, you can trade away a card, watch it get traded to a second player and trade to get it back from that player!
Lair of the Lich King: Grabbing MY Attention with an “Un-Death Grip!”
Dubious Alliance is a good social game. One I was apt to break out with friends, crack open a beer (okay, several) and play while I gabbed and caught up on their lives. But I didn’t care if I won because there didn’t seem to be much strategy to winning. Even the trading, which is the core mechanic of Dubious Alliance, didn’t seem tactical. Most of the time it seemed like people traded because it was boring NOT to trade. With 120+ cards in the base deck, there was so much randomness that people always seemed to have plenty of cards they needed to slough off. 120+ cards also made it likely that no one would have a card needed to save someone who was going to die that turn and cause everyone to lose. No it didn’t pay to get too invested in how you played.
The Secret Missions and drafting mechanic greatly increase the fundamental drive to win without changing the core mechanics and overall feel of the game. Trading is still central. But now the trading feels like a real resource management strategy. The bluffing is still fun and funny, but with increased investment in the outcome if you’re angling for a win through a Secret Mission or playing out a strategy that you set up in your draft.
The game still needs every player to have a points tracker so all the players around the table can see at-a-glance where everyone is positioned in the game. And it needs to be in large print for member sof the over-45-eyesight crowd like me.
In addition to all this, the art in LotLK is consistently better than the hit-and-miss offerings of the Dubious Alliance basic game. Watch out Brandon, the fans are going to be clamoring for a second edition of Dubious Alliance with new art that raises the overall quality of the base game to the level of the expansion!
For a gamer like me who likes nothing better than a game where my tactical decisions feel like the deciding factor, LotLK changes Dubious Alliance from a filler game to a serious contender for weekly gamer-group night, without taking tactical card playing into the stratosphere of Dominion. LotLK is the one-beer version of Dubious Alliance with the added intoxication of victory realized through strategy.
The Lair of the Lich King Kickstarts on May 24, 2015.
How to Play Dubious Alliance
Dubious Alliance is a “cooperative backstabber” card game in the vein of Cutthroat Caverns with a trading-and-bluffing mechanic driving game play. Its in-game narrative makes players the war chiefs of a marauding Orc tribe who also happen to go on PC-style adventures and run afoul of a dragon named Snarl. like a cross between Munchkin and Apples-to-Apples with the look of “Blue Book” Dungeons & Dragons.
Each player gets a character card of one of the war chiefs of the Gore-Stained Axe tribe of Orcs. Each character has a unique special ability that gives a simple, specific advantage in the game.
You win the game if you are the first player to reach a target number of prestige points. You earn prestige points by laying down cards that have prestige attached to them – these are things like Monsters, Treasure and Magic Items. When you lay down a Monster card it is presumed that you earn the prestige by fighting it, but there’s no actual in-game combat mechanic aside from laying down the card. Playing Monster cards for the prestige usually involves taking wounds as well. Other cards, like Traps, cause wounds, usually without giving you any prestige The hitch is, you have to reach your prestige total without any of the other players” characters dying by having their “health points” reduced to zero. If anyone’s character dies, no one wins.
So how do you “lay down cards?” Each player starts out being dealt a hand of four cards. In addition to Monsters, Traps, Treasure and Magical Items, there are Event, Location and (mundane) Item (eg armor, weapons, adventuring gear) cards. Every round for four rounds, each player has to take one card from his or her hand and put it face down on the table. If you still have this card in the Resolution Phase, this will be the card you lay down on the table and its effects, good or bad, will be applied to you.
However, before cards are turned over and resolved, there is a Trading Phase. You can offer to trade your face-down card for someone else’s face-down card. You can make a sales pitch about your card so long as the pitch doesn’t give any specific information. If a player doesn’t trade, his or her trading status changes from “Traded” to “Didn’t Trade.” After two consecutive rounds of not trading, a player’s status becomes “Must Trade” and the player CANNOT refuse the first trade offered in the next Trading Phase.
Activating Your Card in the Round
Whether the face down card you end up with is your original card or one you traded for, after trading is done everyone flips their card over and the effect of each card is resolved starting with the player to the left of the dealer and moving clockwise. Some cards are resolved by playing them on other players, allowing you to steal their items, lower their prestige, wound them, send them to new locations, etc. Sometimes a player is compelled by circumstances to play the effects of a beneficial card on another player, eg a healing potion to keep that player from dying (Remember, player death ends the game with everyone losing).
Players continue playing rounds of four-card deals until someone wins or everyone loses.