Review: Fallen Lords10 Jun 2014 0
Groundling Games are about as indie as it gets: they advertise that they met in college playing D&D, an endearing background that any nerd can respect. Together they've made a tabletop-replicating experience for iOS and Android called Fallen Lords. It's a natively digital co-operative board game for 1-4 players, heavily inspired by the highly-regarded Ghost Stories. The numerous mechanical differences, including tile-laying dungeon exploration (replacing the defense of a town) and more varied opposition, give Fallen Lords a distinct identity.
While Groundling deserve credit for innovation, especially with respect to the monster abilities which often provide important tactical considerations to balance, Fallen Lords plays very much like the first game of a studio with limited resources.
The four characters are playable by up to four local players on the same iPad, or by a single player who must then read everything oriented toward the spot set aside for that character. As you explore the dungeon, new room tiles with various effects are laid and usually spawn monsters which you can attempt to defeat by rolling dice to match their color. These rolls can be supplemented with tokens, which are the only treasure or progression available, and are usually earned by rolling two matching dice when searching a room. The goal of the game is to explore deeply enough to locate one (or more, on higher difficulty levels) of the titular Fallen Lords and make it fall some more.
The Lords I've seen aren't unusually tough compared to the dungeon's garden-variety monsters, but the real problem is managing risk until you can find them. Monsters don't stop your movement, but you can't just ignore them and press on with the exploration because once there are five monsters of a given color, the matching-color hero starts losing health fast. The monsters also have some kind of neat abilities, several of which have persistent negative effects which further incentivize pest control. Unfortunately, many of the monsters either summon more monsters or reveal more rooms (which summon more monsters), so the risk of a monster population explosion is difficult to control.
The best you can do is spend a lot of time searching for tokens and making sure you kill everything around before you explore a new tile. Preventing the adoption of this strategy is the last major piece of the game: the doom clock. Every third turn (more in some cases), you have to roll a die which may advance the clock. If the clock gets to eight, you lose. Why eight and not, you know, midnight? Because the game would be too easy and nobody wants to correct the horology of whoever makes doom clocks.
Unfortunately, though that's all a solid pitch for a game, it's just riddled with missteps of execution. The palette of the dungeon is typically dark and muddy, making it easy to misread where the walls are, a problem exacerbated by the lack of an undo feature. The rotate-to-read interface is, in practice, absurd, because the game will be far more often played solo and it's fantastically irritating to flip your tablet to read the text that's upside-down, only to have the tablet flip it back to upside-down.
The game also eschews such digital niceties as allowing you to tap the tile to which you wish to move, instead forcing you to pick up your figure and drag it to a neighboring tile, drop it, then pick it up again to move to the next tile. That's foolish, but what makes it maddening is that the tap detection is abysmal, so anything which requires extra taps fills you with more hatred. Finally, while I've never been a fan of an overly literal translation of dice-rolling to digital games, the fact that Fallen Lords relies so heavily on dice and the physics engine for them is so silly makes my aversion all the stronger. Not only will dice often fall through the world and make the roll take more than ten seconds to yield a result, but the dice will inexplicably return to their virtual cup if you let them go anywhere near it.
Perhaps the most unfortunate consequence of interface design that works poorly and displays little regard for users' time and comfort is that it makes the occasional tough luck in the game feel like poor game design. You can sometimes turn over a tile which reveals two monsters rather than one, one of which will spawn a third monster while also protecting all the monsters in its room. The second monster might reveal another room, with another monster or two, while the third monster in the original room turns out to be a wandering monster, revealing additional rooms each round as it wanders about, each time summoning even more monsters. There isn't much you can do to prevent this, but that's common in co-op games: a bad series of draws can put the game out of reach in Pandemic, too. But when the interface makes every game take longer than it should and constantly needles you with little frustrations, it becomes much more difficult to resist feeling aggrieved by a difficult draw, and far easier to see it as simply unfair, poorly balanced game design.
Fallen Lords was played on an iPad Air for this review.