Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Tale As Old As Time: A Review of Call to Adventure: Epic Origins

Once upon a time, I bought a RPG system from a wargaming company – SPI’s Dragonquest – which I never actually played with any other live human (despite my role as the primary DM for my group of fantasy/sci-fi nerd high school student friends). What I did do with Dragonquest is generate characters – the system made much more sense than early D&D’s “roll 3d6 six times and hope for the best”. So, armed with percentile dice and a pencil, I happily built characters for a game I would never play.

Fast forward almost 40 years and I had the joy of playing Brotherwise Game’s Call to Adventure, which turns my lonely (but enjoyable) RPG character creation pastime into an actual game. It was one of my favorite games of 2019 – and I’ve praised it multiple times for the beautiful illustrations, the quirky but solid rune-throwing randomizer system, and the nice balance between assisting and messing with other players. 

Designers Chris & Johnny O’Neal followed up this success with an expansion based on The Name of the Wind fantasy series (yes, I’m waiting with the rest of you for the author to finally finish the last book) and a stand-alone version of Call to Adventure based in the Stormlight Archive universe (which is on my list of things to read).

If you’d like to know more about how the game system works, Dale Yu wrote a great First Impressions preview on the Opinionated Gamers website that covers all of the basics… which leaves me with more time to tell you about the newest addition to the Call to Adventure family.

Epic Origins: The Changes

Call to Adventure: Epic Origins is a stand-alone game that can be combined with the other boxes in the system for variety… but it succeeds by itself (and, in fact, is my younger son’s favorite version of the game).

There are three major changes in the game from the original – but the structure itself will be very familiar to anyone who has played the earlier games. After choosing their initial character set-up, players take turns drafting Trait cards or attempting Adventures in their quest to create a successful character. (Yes… I know – “to create a character who has the most victory points.”)

The first change is the addition of Heritage cards – this is a fourth set-up card type that in “old skool” fantasy role-playing would have been called “Race”. (This is not the time or the place for me to comment extensively on the cultural forces leading to this change – but I will note that assuming that a particular ethnic or racial background automatically leads to certain disadvantages is something I would never want my sons to inherit, even from a board game.) Each player receives a single Origin card – each of which offers some kind of positive buff or ability to their character.

The second change is the advent of Class cards (played to the middle section of your board during set-up in the same place as Motivation cards from the original game). These cards give you additional powers by feeding them Experience points… and offer an interesting set of decisions as Experience points can also be used to Journey (flip new cards into the tableau), pay for certain Trait and Feat (Hero & Anti-Hero) cards, or saved to the end of the game for victory points.

The third change is the most extensive – it’s a shift of the “main” game from purely competitive to semi-cooperative. The Epic Origins Story decks don’t have any Adversary cards in them – instead, the group of players struggle throughout the game against a single Adversary. After one player places the third card under the class deck, their next turn begins a battle with the Adversary’s “right hand”… some examples from classic sources:
  • Saruman (right hand) – Sauron (Adversary)
  • Grand Moff Tarkin (right hand) – Darth Vader (also, technically, a right hand) – the Emperor (Adversary)
  • Karl (right hand) – Hans Gruber (Adversary)
Each player battles against the “right hand” in turn order before resuming the regular flow of the game. The Adversary card is flipped to the “big bad” side. After one player places the third card under their destiny deck, their next turn begins the final battle. Each player in turn uses this last turn to take on the Adversary for potential glory (aka – “points”).

More importantly, the Adversary must be defeated by the group (by removing all of his health) or no player wins the game… darkness rules the land, the Skynet Funding Bill is passed, unspeakable horrors, blah, blah blah – Game Over. If the Adversary loses all of its health, the game is scored as normal and the player with the most victory points wins.

In addition, there is an Adversary Quest card which has an easy and a less-easy side… this is the rules that govern the basics of Adversary play and is a part of every game.

Epic Origins: Modes of Play

Epic Origins offers three modes of play: semi-cooperative, competitive, and solo play. I’ll deal with each one in turn.

The game is obviously designed with semi-cooperative play (the process I outlined above) as the “main” mode of the game… and it works very well. There have been some debates on BGG about how a particular Adversary will force players to conform their characters to a particular set of attributes – but we haven’t found that to be an issue.

Competitive play works exactly the same – except you remove the Adversary, the Adversary Quest card, and any Feat cards that are Adversary-specific and simply play for the best score.

Solo play is identical to the base game… except you’re trying to defeat the Adversary by yourself. This is a marked improvement over the clunkier solo system from the original base game… and it has led to me playing multiple solo games of Epic Origins in addition to multiplayer games.

Additionally, the game comes with 7 campaign envelopes… making a loosely connected story that adds new Origin & Class cards to their respective decks as well as introducing new Adversaries. It’s not a legacy game – just a nice drip feed of elements for your opening games of Epic Origins.

Epic Origins: Other Stuff You Might Wonder About 

Some of you will complain (as you are wont to do): “Mark, you didn’t mention Roll Player, which is also about RPG character creation and pre-dates Call to Adventure by almost three years.” To which I will reply: “I’m well aware of Roll Player… and prior to Epic Origins, I’d have said it was the hands-down winner in the best RPG character creation board game for solo players. Now, I think it’s got competition.” I’d also likely add that Roll Player desperately needed the Monsters & Minions expansion (or the Fiends & Familiars expansion) to turn it into a really enjoyable multiplayer game… and that I own all of them.

Others of you will wonder why I didn’t tout the ability to convert characters created in Epic Origins into D&D 5e characters… ok, I get that. But my last game of D&D was in 2013 (and I was just “babysitting” a character for a friend who couldn’t attend the group)… and before that, I hadn’t played D&D since the early 1980s. So, while I think it’s cool that Brotherwise Games came up with a way to do this, I don’t have much to say about it. (If you’re interested, here’s the link on their website to the 5e stuff.)

Epic Origins: Final Thoughts

After seven plays of Epic Origins (3 multiplayer, 4 solo), I’m going to divide this into things I like… and things I’m less excited about.

Things I Like:

  • The introduction of Class cards
  • The vastly improved rulebook
  • The much cleaner solo mode
  • The ability to mix the games together (see this link for more information on how this works)
Things I’m Not A Fan Of:
  • Using cardboard chits for Experience points (the little plastic gems from the base game are better)
Yep, that’s it for complaints. Just the cardboard chits.

So, do you need this game if you already have the base game or Stormlight Archive? In my case, I think it’s a great addition to the system and am glad I own it – but it isn’t strictly necessary. I like the variety it adds and the quality of the design that has taken in comments from the gaming community and made the system even better.

OTOH, if you don’t own a copy of any game in this system, I heartily recommend Epic Origins as the perfect starting place. At roughly 15-20 minutes per player, this is an evocative and enjoyable chance to create a character (and their backstory), defeat the Adversary, and play a delightful game.

While my original copy of Call to Adventure was a review copy provided to the Opinionated Gamers, my copies of the Name of the Wind expansion and Call to Adventure: Epic Origins were purchased with money straight from my wallet.

The original version of this review appeared on the Opinionated Gamers website.

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