Friday, June 12, 2009

Burning at the stake would be more fun

One of the guys from our gaming group brought Joan of Arc last week, and boy, was that a giant, festering three-hour turd of a game.

Yeah, it's going to be one of those reviews. Buckle up, kids.

I'm not going to waste time giving an overview of the game like I normally would. Just know that it's a medium-weight territory control game, hampered by the worst design decisions, most poorly-written rules, and largest amount of "dumb luck" moments of any game I've played in recent memory. That's all you really need to know to enjoy my review.

Let's start with the rules. The English rulebook is only eight pages, which you'd think would make for a nice, simple, streamlined game. Instead, the game's owner brought pages of printed-out errata from the Internet, and we still had trouble making sense of some of the mechanics. There was a lot of flipping back and forth to find a given rule, and huge amounts of information seem to be almost willfully omitted. Keep in mind my group contains several serious gamers, who have no problem understanding much heavier-weight games.

A lot of the comprehension problems stem from the fact that there is very little text on the game components, presumably in an effort to make it cheaper to publish internationally. The deck of "battle cards" consists of yellow number cards (simple: you add the number to your attack roll) and several different "special" red cards. Each of these red cards has a completely unique (and often complicated) function, yet there is no text at all on the cards themselves -- not even the name of the card. You have to find the picture of your card in the rulebook and figure out what it does. Some cards even have a table or two that you'll have to roll the dice against, but none of this is printed on the card itself.

The game itself seems like a cumbersome mishmash of mechanics pulled from different games. Each turn starts with the players voting on "War" or "Peace", which you'd think would have a pretty big impact on things, but it really just determines the number of attacks you can make and possibly cause an extra Event. Then there are the Events and Foreign Intervention. These are both completely random mechanics and there's usually very little player response that can occur -- it's more a matter of "roll the dice and see who gets screwed".

Then there's the meat of the game: expanding and conquering territories. It's pretty standard: each player can use some Battle cards, then you roll the dice and add the result to your battle cards and any defensive fortifications. The higher number wins.

You may have noticed that I've said "roll the dice" quite a bit. Virtually every element in Joan of Arc is randomized. I'm not opposed to a bit of luck-based play in lighter games, but for a multi-hour game that claims to be strategy-based, the number of random factors is ridiculous.

Here's a list of completely random elements:
  • Turn order (100% random, HUGELY important in this type of game)
  • Events (randomly changes gameplay for a turn)
  • Foreign Intervention (random chance to lose a territory)
  • Battle Cards (random deck, determine your battle strength/abilities)
  • Combat (roll dice, pray)

We played this stupid game for nearly three hours and didn't even get to finish. I think maybe somebody won, but by that point I was happy just being done with it.

If you read my blog regularly, you know that I've never bashed a game so completely (the only other boardgame I've enjoyed less is Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and that's a distant memory that I won't be revisiting with a review). However, Joan of Arc contains exactly zero redeeming factors for me.

To paraphrase Spinal Tap: How much more could this game suck? The answer is none. None more suck.

If you're looking for a light-to-medium weight territory control game, skip this one and pick up Small World (my review) instead. You'll be getting a fun, accessible, streamlined product, rather than a horrible jumble of half-formed game design.


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