About a year ago I acquired the Wave 1 game of the Solomon Kane boardgame Kickstarter. So far I had only painted the mind-bogglingly beautiful miniatures of the game but recently I gathered the courage to study the rules (they looked REALLY intimidating), try out a solo game for testing and finally my wife and I ran the first two 1-Acters (see below; Right Hand of Doom and Rattle Of The Bones) as our first games.
So now was the time to write a review! I already showcased the miniatures here so I will limit myself to the rest of the hardware, the rules and the playing experience.
What is this game about?
I knew Mythic Games from their mythological IGO-UGO football game Mythic Battles: Pantheon that I wasn't very enthusiastic about so my expectations for SK were actually low. However, SK can probably only be compared with this game by its looks (which is a good thing btw) but is a completely different game in all respects.
SK has the Robert E. Howard novel character at its heart and uses Howard's tales to build game scenarios in which Solomon Kane braves the same dangers and challenges he meets in the stories. However, this is not a dungeon crawler in the usual sense of the word. For one, players do not assume the role of Solomon Kane himself. Instead they play SK's Virtues, presented as eternal immortal beings called Justice, Temperance, Prudence and Courage that have chosen SK as their "vessel" to combat evil in the world.
These Virtues influence SK's movements and actions and help him succeed. However, Evil in the form of the immortal being Darkness and its minions the Shadows will try to waylay SK and hinder him in every way possible.
NB: while the game presents the Virtues, Darkness and the Shadows as supernatural beings my wife remarked after our first game that you could easily view the game as actually playing SK's inner life. The Virtues being his moral motivations, drives and associated skills and talents and Darkness and the Shadows representing his fears, doubts and darker sides.
|Prudence and Courage aiding Solomon against The Hand of Doom|
However you look at it, it is a very novel way to construct an Robert E. Howard based action adventure game!
The game looks amazing. The miniatures are of course top notch, but all the game components match them effortlessly. Spiral-bound scenario books, heavy cardboard playing boards and durable cardboard and plastic counters still fit in the boxes after you unpack the game. The game contains hundreds of playing cards (see below) and dashboards for the Virtues and SK's stat track that hold the counters and dice.
The scenarios are based upon orginal SK short tales and ideas. Scenarios are divided into 1 or more Acts which in turn are divided into chapters. There are two kinds of chapters: Stories and Scenes.
Stories are bits of narrative, combined with Discovery cards that either offer SK a choice or challenge the Virtues to Lighten SK's path, which means they play a short cards-and-dice game against Darkness and try to generate as many Light counters (usually created by Virtue Actions) as possible before the game ends.
Scenes are full tabletop board games that employ the board tiles and the fabulous miniatures from the game. Like in the Stories, here too the Virtues need to steer SK towards a victory, although in Stories the conditions to win can be all kinds of things.
In any case, the more the Virtues achieve, the better the following Chapter will be. Because all Chapters come in variations, ranging from advantageous to SK to incredibly difficult. The worse the Virtues play, the harder the next Chapter will be.
Da Rulez: if you're not with me, you're against me!
The rules actually offer three types of games: Cooperative, where the players take the role of the Virtues and pit themselves against the game, Duel, where one player plays the special super-Virtue Providence and his opponent plays the Darkness and solo, where you play Providence against the game. The mechanics are in all cases basically the same.
Each Virtue has three standard actions unique to it, printed on the dashboard, and two variable ones alternately drawn from its also unique Virtue deck. These actions can be "bought" with dice results from the dice throw a Virtue makes every turn. The game's dice don't yield scores but symbols. Combinations of these symbols enable the Virtues to perform specific Actions. Everyhing SK does is through an Action initiated by a Virtue. He is, as in the stories, always driven by Virtue.
SK's Actions include Moving, Talking to people, Fighting people or monsters and Exploring board items and locations. Besides these, the Virtues have all kinds of Actions that create Light, Mercy, Luck or specific scenario driven stuff that appears on Discovery cards.
|The special dice provided by the game|
|A Virtue's dashboard (Providence in this case)|
A Virtue also has an Aura that manifests itself when the Virtue enters the board. As long as SK is within a Virtue's Aura he benefits from it. These are two of the functions Virtues have: having SK performing Actions and giving him bonuses to his stats when doing so.
So it is good to keep Virtues on the board. However, Darkness may try to thwart you.
Darkness always follows the light
After each Virtue's turn comes Darkness. In the normal cooperative game this is represented by playing a Darkness card. Each Story or Scene specifies the number of randomly drawn Darkness cards involved in it and when all have been played the scenario is over.
Darkness cards cause trouble. In Stories they usually lower SK's stats or remove Light but in Scenes they also cause figures to move and appear on the board and cause all kinds of dangers and troubles for SK.
One of them is the appearance of Shadows, which will always move toward SK. When their Aura hits him his Stats will sink and when they attack him he will not notice, but an Event Card will be played and will have more dark influence on the game. While SK can do nothing to stop the Shadows, Virtues can. They can push them away from their own board space and even expel them by charging them themselves. However, this will also banish the Virtue from the board until it can return. This is the third function of Virtues; protecting SK against Shadows.
Life is a test
As soon as he is able to, SK will have to make Tests so see if he succeeds in getting information, finding a clue or defeating an opponent. His Stats, strengthened by Virtues, lessened by Shadows and augmented by the drawing of an Random Number will yield results that translate into a specific Discovery Card. This "Random Number" btw is a double function of Event Cards as an innovative alternative to a die roll.
SK's stats are registered on his dashboard. Stats rise and fall through the intervention of Virtues and Shadows and may sink because of wounds. Depending on the number, SK gets penalties or bonuses on his result when performing Actions.
If one of SK's stats reaches 0, the game is lost. Also, the Danger stat is kept here, determining how many Shadows may spawn each turn. Danger may rise and fall because of Virtue Actions, Events or Darkness cards. When Danger exceeds 10, the game is lost as well.
|Solomon's Stat board|
Life is Discovery as well
The Discovery cards are the carriers of the narrative. A number of them are read at the start of each Chapter and disclose backgrounds, goals, Victory conditions and sometimes new Discovery cards. Tests too will yield new Discovery Cards that tell the players the results of the Test. Each scenario has its own Discovery Cards.
Through the Discovery cards the players learn of the narrative, what happens and what SK needs to do in order to win the game. Besides the Discovery cards the game offers Nightmare Cards, the XL version of the Darkness cards and the Seven Deadly Sins, that may plague SK when an Event card provides him with temptation.
The game looks amazing. Gameplay is surprisingly straightforward for a game with such an intimidating ruleset, especially after watching some gameplay examples on Youtube. This results in a scenario gradually revealing itself through the Chapters. The scenario books are excellently made, with clear explanations of its contents and even display all the miniatures and board tiles one will need for the entire scenario. So no rummaging through boxes half way the game.
While it seemed to me at first glance that the card-driven narrative would be quite railroading, the tactical options are actually so versatile and the narrative has so many branches that this has so far never occurred to me. Taking a risk and gamble on a good (or at least not very bad...) Darkness card offers just the right amount of stress. 😁
Even if the game strictly is turn-based, the option to give Actions to other Virtues (essential sometimes in order to win a scenario) and the option to switch the turn sequence around every turn keeps everybody engaged all the time.
Even if playing an entire scenario might take hours or even a full day (in case of the longer 2-3 Act scenarios) it doesn't seem like a long game because the Chapters keep alternating Stories, choices and Scenes, splitting each game into a lot of different little games that keep changing in style.
So far if we encountered a Minor or Major Defeat we backtracked to the start of the scenario and tried again.
As far as I know is the fact that you actually play an Action hero through his inner motivations and inhibitions is unique and results in a fascinating game.
What could be better?
Wave 1 has a 12 page Errata for the rules alone and a 90-page Errata list for the Discovery cards. These can be downloaded. I understand Wave 2 and the retail version much improves upon this, but of course Wave 1 could have been better on release. Then again, it is a game of complex construction.
The game includes Player Aid cards that have so far never answered a single question we had during the game. We had to look everything up in the rules.
The ruleset is -I have said it before in this review- a bit intimidating and actually looks bloody complex at first glance. The writers have endeavoured not to make it too long and might have erred on the side of sparseness (a Puritan virtue after all) because the descriptions are sometimes so condensed the reader quickly misses something. The game could have done with some gameplay examples thrown in here and there to clarify things.
Also, in a game where so much may happen for so many reasons a logical sequence in which to present the rules in is hard to find. The rules therefore may (or at least for me) come over as somewhat randomly presented.
I am divided on the replayability of the scenarios. I don't think the 1-Acters we played so far are really replayable, but this might be different with the longer scenarios. We'll see.
An extraordinary game, both visually as in content and game experience. Well worth the investment in time and money in my opinion.