…is a tabletop fantasy card game designed by Brandon Raasch (at left in blue Polo). It is a “cooperative backstabber” in the vein of Cutthroat Caverns with an in-game narrative in which players are war chiefs in a marauding Orc tribe. Brandon has launched a Kickstarter to print it and I was flattered when he asked Steve Bean Games to review the game.
I don”t know Brandon very well – he and some of his gamer friends played in my Desperadoes, Dudes & Deputies event at Kublacon over Memorial Day weekend and since then we”ve chatted on FB and failed a couple of times to game together. So in terms of writing this review, I don”t know him well enough to be biased in favor of his game but I know him enough to wish him and his game success.
So I was a little worried when he came over with a copy to play test with me and my go-to gaming posse, Geo Teach, Krishna and their son. Was I going to have to invent something nice to say about his game?
Getting to the Point
Invent, in-schment. I can honestly say, up front, that Dubious Alliance is a very fun, very well-designed game with the potential to go in MANY great directions after the base deck is published. If you read no further, I strongly recommend you pick up a copy of the first printing for $35 by backing his Kickstarter that runs from now through October 21.
Dubious Alliance is like a cross between Munchkin and Apples-to-Apples with the look of original Dungeons & Dragons – think “Blue Book” D&D. We played Dubious Alliance with a deck containing 121 unique cards.
Each player chooses a character – 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 can see on the card image posted here that Gogog needs 15 prestige points to win (The number in blue). 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 (Stupid Orc, what did you think that 10″ pole is for?)
The Cooperative Part AND the “Backstabber” Part
The hitch is, you have to reach your prestige total without any of the other players” characters dying by having their “hit points” (the red number) reduced to zero. Comprendo? You have to keep yourself alive AND keep your friends alive – if any one of them dies, no one wins. It”s tribal communalism, but it”s an Orc tribe, so while they have to be alive, no one says the other players’ characters have to be healthy.
The Heart and Soul – Trading and Bluffing
So how do you “lay down cards” and make the other players “unhealthy?” That”s the great mechanic in this game. Each player starts out being dealt a hand of five 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 five 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. For example, you CAN”T say: “It”s worth 2 prestige points” but you CAN say something like “It”s worth the trouble.” And, because you”re Orcs, you can LIE. Players do not have to trade during a Trading Phase, but if a player doesn”t trade, his or her trading status changes from “Traded” to “Didn”t Trade.” After two rounds of not trading, a player”s status becomes “Must Trade” and the player CANNOT refuse the first trade offered in that Trading Phase.
The Trading Phase is what makes this game great and it very much supports the in-game narrative. Offering crappy cards, lying about it, or pretending like you”re offering crappy cards when you”re really not gives the game the feel of a betrayal-ridden Orc conclave.
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. (This is what makes the order in which they”re resolved important.) 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).
Rinse and Repeat
After everyone has run through a hand of five cards, the deal moves clockwise and players get another hand of five cards. Moving the deal one player over makes the person who resolved their card first in the previous round of 5 cards resolve last in the new round. In the two games I played we went through something like four deals before someone had won. We had five players, so while not everyone got to go first (or last) it was pretty well distributed. With 121 unique cards in the deck there were cards we didn”t even see in either of the two games we played.
What Did I Think of the Game?
In short: TWO BIG TUSKS UP!!!
For those of you looking for more detail, sections covering “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly” follow below.
(Okay, so I didn”t actual use the Spaghetti Western-derived rating system but since I”m sitting in Carmel, CA writing this I felt like I had to have an Eastwood reference.)
The Trading Round is VERY cool and the focal point of players” strategizing: When considering overall trading strategy, a player has to take into account not only his or her selection of cards and the positions of the other players in the game (eg prestige total, wound levels) but also his or her ability to pitch trades and to bluff. A player must also contend with current trading status and/or plan around future trading status, timing when he or she can cope with being in the “Must Trade” condition. Because interpersonal, open-ended skill sets like making “sales pitches” are not typical of the skills required by most “geek games,” the game has a much richer strategic landscape than other games you would compare it to. At the same time the open-ended nature of trading means that there is no one way to do it successfully. Not good at sales pitches? Might not matter. Sometimes people want mystery. Maybe saying nothing is your best pitch.
This is a fast-playing game with simple rules that is still “tactically rich” – but with the kind of tactics you can manage even after three consecutive beers: Listen, I play Flames of War and Axis & Allies. I like a five-hour game as much as the next person. But I also like a game I can sit down and play in 45 minutes. One I can play with my RPG group while we”re waiting for that one player who is always late. One that those same RPGers – who are also “geek connoisseurs” – will appreciate. This is THAT game.
The humor of the in-game narrative: From the cards’ flavor text to the “tusks up” hand sign to the Old School RPG in-jokes, this game makes you laugh. For those Old School RPG readers, check out Empty Chamber card. Look carefully at the drawing. Get it?
This game is going to get better and better with expansions: The deck we played with had 121 unique cards and there are still SO many obvious cards to add within the existing categories – monsters, weapons, traps, etc. – even just drawing on classic fantasy tropes.
The game play could change a lot with a different set of characters. Orc war chieftains certainly fit with a “cooperative backstabber” but so does a “Five Armies” collection – a dwarf, a human, an elf, a wizard, etc. A “Five Armies” set of characters could have some new rules that don”t change the basic mechanics but demand a different set of victory conditions or create a different dynamic in the Trading Phase.
Well-designed expansions that alter the rules and tweak the dynamics of play can ensure that this “fun little game” has plenty of re-playability. My personal vote is for decks with multiples of specific cards that create “themes.” These themes would present a new, specific sub-narrative at the same time that they put the emphasis on certain strategies. For example, a “Tomb of Horrors” deck would have multiples of several of the same traps requiring that players use certain strategies consistently to work around those Trap cards and win the game. Dubious Alliance might even be transformed into something of a deck building game with each player contributing a fixed number of cards to be combined into the deck that the whole group will play. I can”t wait to see a card that accelerates the change in trade status, forcing players to go directly from “Traded” to “Must Trade.”
The “You Might Love It, You Might Hate It, It Depends…”
The art. Some of the art is fantastic, some of it is pretty disappointing: One caveat here: I believe the deck we played with still had a significant amount of placeholder art in it. The funny thing, literally, is that Brandon has integrated the “crappier” art into the humor of the game. The cards with unexciting results have, ahem, “unexciting” art. The Bag of Copper Pieces card is the prime example. They”re copper pieces, so how pretty should they be, really? IIRC, there”s a joke to this effect printed in the flavor text of the card.
A lot of the art is FANTASTIC – see the image to the left as an example. (Looks like some male Spider God rival of Lolth”s attempting to violently wrest Drow worshipers away from the Demon Queen.) But, even the great art will not appeal to everyone. This is black–and-white, pen-and-ink line art intended to capture the feel of first edition D&D. For us RPGers over 40, it”s delightful. Your 12 year old nephew who grew up on Magic: The Gathering and modern video games will probably not dig it. His loss. (Kids these days.)
The trading: You might be a gamer who doesn”t like to actually have to talk to other players, much less “pitch” to them or bluff. Your loss. Go play Axis & Allies G40.
The fact that the Gore-Stained Axe Tribe is a “Band of Orcs.” No, I mean a thrash-metal band that dresses up as Orcs: Personally, I LOVE it.
Firstly, A Band of Orcs is a metal band who are working with Brandon on the project as a way to cross promote their music with gaming. They have allowed him to portray them as fantasy heroes with very little reference to them being a metal band – they aren”t carrying electric guitars in the card images or anything like that. As a result, they work very well as characters in a fantasy game.
Secondly the musicians in Band of Orcs are gamers, and it shows in the promotions they’ve done for Dubious Alliance – check out this video from their Kublacon 2013 event.
Thirdly, they”re opening for the next GWAR tour. I love GWAR. I’ve seen them four times. All of this may not be your cup of tea. Your loss. Go listen to Jethro Tull… or Rush… under the trees… with… elves.
“Could Use a Little Work”
It needs some kind of point tracker so you don”t have to keep adding up players’ prestige and wound totals: Sure, this prevents players from getting a sneaky win, which is no small sacrifice. My reply to said point is six simple words: Playable… even… after… three… consecutive… beers. And sure, I could make my own system using a 20-sided die or something, but if I gotta make my own game stuff, why should I buy yours?
I think the game is a little TOO random: I say this with a caveat – I am a gamer who wants to play games in which, ABOVE EVERYTHING, my tactical choices – not the proverbial “roll of the dice” – determines whether I win or lose. This is the most important characteristic of a game for me. If I feel like the chance element of a game has the greater part of determining who wins, I lose interest extremely quickly. I”m not saying that Dubious Alliance is that game, but I think it”s closer than I would like given how “genius” the rest of it is. With a deck containing 121 different cards with a fairly large range in the size of card effects on progress towards victory, card draw is a little too strong a factor… FOR ME. If that doesn”t bother you, if you’re say, a Settlers of Catan or Killer Bunnies or Munchkin fan, then this WON”T be a problem for you.
For gamers like me, this is another reason for Brandon to create options for theme decks with multiples of the same card, or deck-building versions of the game. Multiples of the same card increases the probability that each card will appear. This will give players some control over – or at least a better sense of – the extremes of card effects. That, and a deck-building option, will create a variant in which strategy and tactics rule over randomization.
The in-game narrative: sometimes it holds together beautifully, others times it doesn’t: In the Trading Round, the lying and backstabbing feels like what I imagine the conclave of a set of vicious, vulgar Orc war chieftains would act like. The rest of it leaves me scratching my head. The story told by the cards seems to have Brandon”s Orc chieftains mostly dungeon delving rather than doing more “Orcish” things. There are some references to pillaging villages and the antipathies are spot on – for example, the effects of any cards with Elves make you remember you’re Orcs – but overall I felt more like a D&D Half-Orc PC adventurer than a full-blown Orc war chieftain. I mean shouldn’t my tribe be the minions of Snarl the Colossal Dragon, not fighting him for his horde? (That”s a Paladin’s job…*Sneer* )
I think that making some expansions will give Brandon the opportunity to fine-tune the narrative. But you might not care because you have a “fun little game” to play and you’re too caught up in trying to pass off your worst card with a good sales pitch to worry over “in-game narrative.” More power (and prestige) to ya.
Spend the $35, play the game and decide for yourself whether in-game narrative matters to you. For my money, I think if you buy this game now a day will come when you”ll be able to point to your dog-eared first edition deck and say: “I was there when…”
“Tusks up,” human scum!