So, there’s me, Mittens the rogue, and Laurak the wizard, right. And we’re in this creepy cemetery, fighting off a swarm of rats, while having a dance-off, but it’s okay, because you know me, I’ve got this unique and distracting odor, plus I’m good with an axe. Before you know it, things have escalated beyond all sense and Mitten’s ex shows up with this arcane riddle she’s got to answer before we can get on with destroying this bone throne.

*swig*

Right, it’s your round pal. When you get back, I’ll tell you about the time we ran into this sarcastic specter while trying to win a talent show.

If you’ve ever wanted to knock out a low-seriousness fantasy roleplaying campaign in under two hours, you could do a lot worse than the rules-light role playing game in a box: The Adventure Zone – Bureau Of Balance.

Loosely based on one of a bajillionty podcasts by the McElroy Brothers. It’s designed for 2-5 people and takes 60-90 minutes to dungeon crawl through. There’s no maps, no hefty tomes full of rules, only one type of die, and very little maths. Setup is pretty simple, players take a character sheet based on class (warrior, rogue, wizard, bard, or priest) and answer a few questions about that character (there’s prompts on the back of the sheet to either steal from or just get ideas about who your character is). There’s also space to name their adventurer and even draw a mugshot for posterity.

That’s it! No rolling stats, no picking up gear, no deciding on which pack is best for your adventure. All the numbers come printed on your sheet and they never change. Warriors are good against monsters. Wizards are good against magical challenges. The point of this game is not to worry about numbers so much as to tell a fun story together.

Now, to the adventure itself. Forgoing the common use of a Game/Dungeon Master player typical of most role playing games (thought there is a team leader who is in charge of gently nudging play forward), BoB sees this role taken by small Challenge Decks. One to represent a villain and their minions, the next a relic of power, and finally a location for it all to take place. The game includes a number of each so you could be after the Lich who wants the Ring and hangs out in the Tomb, or the Cult after an Idol on a Train. All of the decks are playable with each other meaning you can get an awful lot of replayability out of this box. Besides, playing with different groups, who knows how they’ll interpret the story in their own way.

Each deck includes 10 cards, each with a scenario and a few numbers. There’s a big number at the top of the card, this represents the score the players need to beat that round. To the left and right, there may be an arrow, which includes a modifier number for the card in that direction. For example, Reliving Your Biggest Mistake, includes +1 to the left, this could make the Swarm of Crawling Hands (usually only a 7) up to a difficulty of 8 (as I said, it’s very simple stuff).

Below the numbers are the card’s name, and below that there may be symbols, denoting the type of encounter this is (monster, spooky, magic, etc). Next is an all purpose box for prompts, and special rules. Some will include effects that remain as long as the card is on the board, others will grant bonuses if you can explain some story aspect of the card (what does something look/smell/taste/sound like?) during your encounter with it. At the very bottom, there’s a skull with a number, showing how much damage it will do if you fail your encounter, and another showing the value of treasure you get for defeating it.

Which brings us to Fantasy CKostCo (it’s legally distinct for the board game) cards. If you’ve earned three loot, you can grab yourself an item card from the deck. It could be Railsplitter, an axe that gives you an ongoing bonus against monsters and a bonus when you help a friend fight a monster; or some very adorable Slippies of Haste, which give you a bonus against monsters and traps. If you’ve got the deluxe edition of the game, you’ll get an adorable slot-together model of the Fantasy KostCo to hold your cards, but it doesn’t seem to stay together very well (at least ours doesn’t) and you’ll regularly end up with cards flying everywhere (save yourself $20 and get the standard edition).

You’re not allowed to hold more than two item cards, but there’s a really nice mechanic, whereby if you earn enough to get a third item, you can immediately give one to someone else on your team, meaning that even if one player hasn’t managed to get any loot themselves, they won’t be underprepared as you move on through your adventures.

If you’re playing more than two players, the last thing you’ll need to do is add a surprise card to each Challenge Deck, to be uncovered once you’ve got past the first four cards. These surprises are helpful friends who will aid you in your quest. They even get their own little space on the board to hang out in, until the next surprise comes along to take over.

So, the board is set, the quest is planned(ish) and the party introduce themselves (and show off their stick figure art of a wizard gnome), time for adventure. On a turn, players chose one of the three challenges to take on, work out how much strength they have (based on the numbers on their sheet, plus any bonuses from items or surprises), tell the story of how they’re going about this quest, ask for assistance from another player (if they don’t think they can beat the challenge alone), and finally roll their dice.

I forgot to mention the dice in this game. They’re big enough to concuss someone if you are the type to throw things when you fail a roll (please don’t, and maybe get some help for your anger issues). While they look like standard twenty-sided dice, they actually only feature the numbers 1-6 (three times each), as well as a big X for an epic failure, and a Bureau of Balance symbol for a critical success.

Anyway… roll the die, add it to your total strength (including any modifiers for items or help from your party) and if it’s higher than the challenge rating, you win and you get that card.

The story ends once two of the challenge decks are exhausted.

If you’ve got people who are really able to go with the flow and can whip up some silly detail about their challenge, you can get some really fun group storytelling. Even if you’ve got one fairly quiet player, you can still get a fun story together, thanks to the cards themselves and the way the game wants you to interact with it. I’ve had some fairly difficult games with this box (and more than a few adventures that got really horny), but never one that didn’t get at least a few good belly laughs.

The Adventure Zone – Bureau of Balance probably isn’t for hardcore Pathfinder or D&D players, but if you’re looking to experience a rules-light, no-DM, co-operative story you can play in an evening with no prep, you could do a lot worse than this. Perhaps a good introduction for getting friends into the world of role playing, without scaring them away by making them read a 300 page player manual first.

Pros:

  • Easy to pick up
  • Nice artwork
  • Lots of fun

Cons:

  • Can experience difficulty spikes
  • Not very deep
  • Deluxe edition feels unnecessary

Final Score: 6/10

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