Review: The Draugr10 Sep 2018 0
Review: The Draugr
Released 04 Aug 2018
As far as solitaire board games go, The Draugr stands out as an example of how the iOS can give a game that could easily vanish in the tide of competition some much needed exposure. In some more nuanced ways, it can also be an example of how removing some of the tactile experiences can change how easy it is to comprehend a game, at first.
The titular draugr are a collective force to be reckoned with. Drawn from a pool at the beginning of the game, six of them descend on the town of Stjordal. Their task is simple and cruel - slowly corrupt the people and places of the region with their undead magic. You, a lone revenant hunter, can’t just stand by and let this happen.
The undead menace plays the long game, only slowly compromising prominent people and places in town until they topple to the darkness. You must run from place to person and back, protecting them from harm, and being persistent in your rebuke of these twisted villains. Your only tools of the trade are iron spikes, holy water, and your wits.
If The Draugr does one thing well above all others, it’s translating a sense of tenacious doom. No matter how hard you work, the end always feels like it’s near. The tokens that mark the spread of corruption multiply quickly. The randomness of where they can be spread is sort of a clever chaos. Even when you can prevent the spread in some way, it’s usually only partially, and often at the opportunity cost of re-upping supplies, or taking the fight to the beasts directly.
The randomness can create some inconsistent experiences, though. A random, unseen roll is made to determine where the corruption spreads during the next 'corruption phase' and which draugr causes it. They each divide the locations among each other, so you can have a top line look at who can hurt whom. But how much corruption can happen from turn to turn feels completely inconsistent. Sometimes, just one point of interest is affected, other times, the whole row feels like it’s under attack. It feels impossible to really counterplay. That seems like the point here, but if someone’s first game is one of these randomly bad ones, then it almost guarantees that it’ll be their last one.
And for as much personality famed Irish artist Harry Clarke adds to the game’s key art and the pictures of the draugr, the creatures are massively bland mechanically. Each are defined by how many units of spikes and holy water it takes to slay them. A handful of them impose a penalty when they strike, taking some of your resources as well as corrupting places or people. But there isn’t much difference between Ivers and Lord Molton save for their names. It almost doesn’t matter whose name is drawn during the corruption phase, because they all do the same thing.
Each have varying amounts of necessary spikes and water necessary to kill them, so over multiple sessions you develop macro-level strategies. That’s where the game’s real commanding charm reveals itself: through repetition. Any given session can take upwards of 20 minutes, which is no time at all in board game minutes. Learning how to react tactically to a board driven completely by chance is engrossing. It does its best to replicate that you-versus-the-cold-machine vibe well executed in games like Arkham Horror. For what it lacks as far as in depth board game mechanics, The Draugr has a speed running sort of appeal to it that you really only find in roguelike video games these days.
The Draugr holds up as a mobile app, but there are things that aren’t translated well to the digital format. Besides the collectors appeal of having the physical cards on a shelf somewhere, some physical cues are missing that helped pass on some simple mechanics. A single die roll tells you which draugr will attack and where, thanks to the combination of numbers and symbols on the die. In the video game, there is no roll, just some border flashing and a tossing of tokens. It leads to the same end, but a bit less elegantly.
On the other side of that token, this would have been a great opportunity to add visual cues that you couldn’t add in the physical version of the game. For example, The Nunnery and The Foundry are locations that you can choose to forgo gaining resources from in order to protect all townspeople or locations from corruption, respectively. Once you choose the option, turns sort of go by unbothered, and maybe you did stop a person or place from being targeted thanks to your sacrifice. Since you aren’t actually rolling dice and passing out physical markers, and there’s no visual signifier that you’re protecting something this turn, you don’t have the same satisfaction in your sacrifice. It’s a ‘gamefeel’ thing that I didn’t expect to see as a problem until several runs deep.
And the app itself suffers from some minor, but annoying, bugs and glitches. More than once has a draugr flashed, notifying me that it will attack, and then never stop flashing. It’s a cosmetic blunder that always seems to translate into a mechanical one, because that draugr now requires multiple taps to register things that previously only took one or two.
All told, The Draugr is a very clever single player card game in a world where they are few and far between. Finding the physical version may be a challenge, and though there are plenty of pluses to pursuing it versus this digitized version, being able to engage with these simple yet shrewd systems on the train or on a lunch break is handy. It’s imperfect in execution, but it delivers the tension and desperation of a lone peace keeper trying to fend of the imminent and inevitable threat with the best of them.