I love board games just as much as I love RPGs, so whenever I’m in a game store or a convention dealers’ room, I have to check out the board game selection and see if anything catches my eye. When we were at MisCon last month, a board game at the table of one of the dealers caught not only my eye, but the eyes of a number of my fellow Sandbaggers club members.
Called Defenders of the Realm, the game was pitched as a cooperative game – along the lines of Pandemic – but in a fantasy setting, with strategy and luck playing equal roles. We were instantly intrigued. The fact that it was visually stunning (one of the designers is Larry Elmore) didn’t hurt either. It didn’t take much discussion for a bunch of us to decide to pool our money (because it wasn’t cheap!) and buy it for the club.
This past weekend we finally had an opportunity to pull out Defenders of the Realm to see if we got our money’s worth.
What’s it about?
The game concept is a traditional good-vs.-evil one. Four evil generals – a demon lord, a master of undead, an orc warrior, and a blue dragon – are marching their armies toward Monarch City, and the king calls for heroes to stop them and save the lands from destruction. The players are those heroes, up to four of the following options: cleric, dwarf, paladin, rogue, eagle scout, ranger, sorceress, and wizard. There’s only one way to win the game – the heroes working together to defeat all four generals. Unfortunately, there are four ways to lose: if a general makes it into Monarch City, if a general gets his entire army of minions in the field (on the board), if five minions get into Monarch City, or if the land becomes so tainted by evil (too many minions of any combination of generals in too many locations) that it cannot be cleansed.
The game starts with the heroes in Monarch City and the generals at their home bases, a few of their minions already infiltrating the lands. One by one the heroes move out to defeat minions, complete quests (which can give them bonuses, such as extra actions each turn, or grant them boons, such as preventing minions or even a general from moving), and march toward the generals to engage them directly. Each player gains hero cards at the end of their turn, which they can use to move more quickly to other locations (by horse, giant eagle, or magical gate) or to attack the generals. The generals and their minions can also move at the end of each player’s turn (though thankfully not all of them each time!).
Something we learned in a hurry: it’s usually futile to attack a general all by yourself. If you engage battle with a general and he’s not defeated, you will suffer greatly (each general takes away a certain number of life points and hero cards) and he’ll begin to heal. So how do you defeat a general? You need to get a number of heroes in the same location. So long as all the players have hero cards matching the general in question, all heroes in that location can attack once another engages in battle.
The game is relatively fast-paced, and there’s a lot of planning between players. Everyone lays their cards out on the table for all to see, so you can decide who has a better chance going after which general. Each hero has their own talents that need to be considered – the cleric, for example, has a bonus to hit undead and demon minions, can chase undead minions away at the end of her turn, and can cleanse taint with far more ease than any of the others. While everyone has their own objectives with quests to complete, in the end everyone wins or everyone loses, so all the heroes must work together to stop the darkness from spreading.
The first game we played, we were all left a little frustrated: the rules were not clearly written, and we lost pretty quickly. But yet we remained intrigued, and all agreed that the game was probably a lot more fun once you got the hang of it. So we set up the board again, selected new heroes, and gave it another try. It went more smoothly, we managed to defeat a general, and even though we still lost, we had a really good time! The third game was better yet, and on the fourth game we nearly won – three generals were defeated, we were moving to attack the already-wounded demon lord, and then the jerk managed to slip into Monarch City at the end of the paladin’s turn. The fact that it was already 1 am was the only thing that kept us from setting up the board one more time.
Overall, we loved the game, and it’s going to enter regular rotation at the club. But nothing is perfect, so keep these few minor hindrances in mind.
The poorly written rules were a bit of a sticking point, as was the lack of clear description of what game pieces were what (a little picture chart would have been great!). It took us a while to set up and figure out that first game, and impatient gamers would likely give up on it before they got to the fun part. This is also a thinking gamer’s game, so it’s not great for the sleepy or tipsy.
Another obstacle? The price. We were lucky enough to buy an already-opened demo copy, and the vendor – Good Turn Games out of Missoula, MT – gave us a great deal on it (even better because we bought an expansion for more players and with all-dragon generals). But the base game is $85. That is a big wad of dough to spend on any game, I know. But considering the many, MANY hours of play you’ll get from it (no two games are even remotely the same), I say it’s worth it, especially if you and a few of your buddies all chip in.
I’m very glad we spotted Defenders of the Realm and decided to give it a chance. If you have the opportunity, give it a try! I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.
Have you played Defenders of the Realm? What other cooperative board games do you like?